Category Archives: General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Music for this episode is an edited version of:

  • Eyeliner by American Hairlines off of the Free Music

Archive on archive.org, editing by Amar.

Prisoner Solidarity, COVID, and Carcerality with IWOC

Prisoner Solidarity, COVID, and Carcerality with IWOC

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

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

Announcements

Eric King Call-In Continues

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

Transcripts & Zines

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

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Not the TERFy stuff.

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

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

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

TFSR: Hell yeah, I will do my best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Is it SNY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Xeno, do you have anything to add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C: Thank you so much.

X: Yeah, thanks for doing this

Earthbound Farmers Almanac and Food Autonomy in Bulbancha

Earthbound Farmers Almanac and Food Autonomy in Bulbancha

Earthbound Farmers Almanac
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We’re joined this week by some of the folks behind the Earthbound Farmer’s Almanac, a self-published annual collection of art, comics, facts, articles and incitements to challenge us to thicken our relationship to the land and grow autonomy against state, colonialism and capitalism. You are welcome to  read the almanac for free in portions on the Lobelia Commons social media (fedbook or instascam). We also talk about spreading food forests and building neighborly food resilience with Lobelia Commons and a little about Ndn Bayou Food Forest (formerly the L’eau Et La Vie anti-pipeline camp) which can be found on fedbook or instascam.

A few acronyms come up in the chat, and here’s a breakdown: MADR is the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network; Zeta & Ida were hurricanes that damaged the south east of Turtle Island, landfalling near to so-called New Orleans; NOMAG is the New Orleans Mutual Aid Group.

You can hear a 2018 interview from L’eau Et La Vie against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/2018/01/14/no-bayou-bridge-pipeline-an-interview-from-leu-est-la-vie-camp/

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Featured Track:

  • Instrumental #2 (waltz) by Elliott Smith from Grand Mal: Studio Rarities disc 8

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you all please introduce yourselves with any relevant information that you’d like to share: who you are or where you are, preferred pronouns, etc.?

M: I am M., I use he/him, and I am in southwestern Mississippi at the moment, but I bounced between southwest Mississippi and New Orleans, aka Bulbancha.

B: I am B., they/them are my pronouns. I’m also bouncing back and forth between Mississippi and New Orleans.

Hadley: And I’m Hadley and I use they/them pronouns. I’m also bouncing in and out of New Orleans. But I’m located west of New Orleans, I live in a project called the Ndn Bayou Food Forest. That is a propagation and free plant nursery.

TFSR: Cool. Do you mind if I ask a couple of clarifying questions? Can you talk about that food propagation project a little bit, Hadley, anything you’d want to share, any way that people can learn more about that? Sounds pretty cool.

H: Yeah, totally. It actually grew out of the campaign against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. And folks may be familiar with its earlier incarnation, the L’eau Est La Vie camp. In that same location, basically, after the pipeline was finished, which was rerouted around the camp to avoid the conflict, but currently runs next door to the Food Forest. This is the fourth year of it as a farm project, basically, and the goal was to take this land that had started as a point of conflict against petrochemical infrastructure in the Gulf South and then pivot from that point to looking towards some regenerative future. We found that the strategy that we could do with this place was to just use it as a little base to propagate as many fruit trees to give away as possible. So a lot of the trees that Lobelia Commons, which we’ll also be talking about, plants in New Orleans, are propagated here, or another rural space that we’ll probably talk about also.

TFSR: There’s obviously, depending on how close you are, blowouts from pipelines are a danger that’s one of the things that has brought people into the streets or into the swamps, in this case, to block the construction of these large pipelines. And also, they tend to leak. Are there any fears of that? Or have you been trying to work around that in terms of propagating food plants in that area?

H: Oh, yeah, it’s definitely a concern. Thankfully, we aren’t particularly near to a valve station, or a pump station, which is where the majority of smaller pipeline leaks happen. If there were to be a major blowout all we can do is hope that it’s not in the little section of the 165-mile pipeline that we’re at. But we do also understand that we’re surrounded by a lot of other pipelines too that definitely are a lot older, and probably are leaking a little bit in different places. But that’s the nice thing about having a propagation nursery, too, is we’re sending out trees, and then hopefully, I think we do have good soil, but even if we sent out a tree that had grown up with a little bit of oil on its soil, it’s gonna get hopefully put into a healthier habitat later.

TFSR: Cool. And for listeners who maybe aren’t familiar with the geography of the Gulf Southeast, can you all who are traveling back and forth between Mississippi and New Orleans say a little bit about— Is there much distance between those two places? Are they pretty similar biomes?

M: Part of the reason why we’re there is the geographic proximity, but the difference in terms of drainage and elevation. And especially just generally in the Gulf South, any amount of elevation really matters in terms of the type of storms that you experience, what flooding looks like, just the general potential inclement scenarios you could find yourself in.

Where we are is about an hour and a half north of New Orleans, and New Orleans is between 10 feet above sea level and 10 feet below sea level, and where we are is around 300 to 400 depending on where you are. So it’s a pretty, pretty dramatic shift even though 300 feet about sea level is not really obvious that much, but ecologically, it’s quite different. And that’s largely because of that elevation. So the forest types is, like, pine, oak, hickory/piney woods area. We’re in the very southern and what’s called the Pineville, historically was like long-leaf, pine forests, pitch pine. So harvesting turpentine and growing pine for lumber and that continues on today. So historically, it is quite poor soil, very acidic, as opposed to New Orleans being a lot more flat, not having a ton of agricultural space in the area immediately surrounding it. And largely because of the logistics that go into literally just reclaiming that space for development.

TFSR: Yeah, we’re here, among other things, to talk about the Earthbound Farmers Almanac. Can you talk a bit about the project, and how it got started? And what people can find in it?

M: The Farmers Almanac started a little over two years ago, I think, this is our second printing. And we finally started as a little bit of a haha joke, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we type thing”, but then we liked the idea. A lot of the projects that we’d come up with in Lobelia Commons have been experimental “what if” ideas that then we took seriously and saw what we could do with them. That’s the story of the almanac at least for me. What I’ve been inspired by is just how it’s grown and other people have taken to it and it’s an open-ended thing that people can obviously submit to, but also has been a way of meeting people through— We put out on social media that if people want to distribute it, they can and just basically pay at cost, sometimes we just give them away, and they pay shipping. Then they can use it as a fundraiser if they have some food sovereignty project or local neighborhood initiative like that. Sometimes there’s a rural garden center, book club thing, or just giving out to a bunch of rural friends or what have you. So we’ve made a lot of connections, and I think other people have made connections through distributing it, which is definitely something— I think that we thought there was potential for that but I don’t think that we expected to have the impact that it has.

TFSR: How has it grown from issue to issue? You can only see that scale, I guess, because you said it’s a second issue. How has it changed? And can you talk a bit about the content of it?

M: I would say it’s more robust this time around, I think there are so many things that you can put into an almanac. If you look at the ones you would find at a grocery store, there’s everything from like horoscope to recipes to the moon calendar, maybe growing tips, and some weird Christian stuff, and some weird funny stuff. It’s all over the board. So, as a project, the possibility sometimes can be very overwhelming. I think the first issue, we did a good job of trying a bunch of stuff and trying to be like “Oh, we should do this, we should do this, we should do this.” But we’re all doing this as volunteers and definitely not making any money off this. So we were stretched pretty thin. But what’s nice about this most recent issue, the second issue is that I think other people took to that and started submitting things that are elaborating on that idea of what reference material can you include, what’s like a comic that can be done for it, different ways of writing for it. I think it’s more filled out. It’s maybe even a little bit longer, maybe 15-20 pages longer than the last one, but less in terms of that — It feels denser or richer. And we also printed a lot more of them and are hoping to distribute them more widely, both regionally — regionally, we distribute in garden centers and some friendly nurseries, various local businesses throughout the Gulf South, — and to friends around the country and actually even outside of the country.

H: Just to add on to that a little bit. I think one of the things that are really clearly grown in to the second issue and I’m excited to see how it develops into later issues is that the reference section is just getting more and more filled out. And we’re reprinting things from the previous year, there was a really nice comic strip from last year that explains fruit tree propagation with nice little diagrams of how to cut the branches and everything like that. And we reprinted that and a comic on banana propagation and also have a lot of just new resources like maps that show some of the shifting hardiness zones are growing zones throughout the US of where the coldest minimum temperature is and how climate changes change that and things like that. For me, doing stuff around the garden, I’m actually starting to have the Almanac around to reach for it because it’s like “Oh, the seed germination temperature chart is going to be really useful for this, the soil chart is going to be really useful for that.” Another thing that we filled out a lot more this year was historic dates and things like that, and the calendar section to add more reference points of a global radical history of struggle around food and land and stuff, which is obviously an incredibly huge topic that covers struggles literally all over the world, but we tried to at least have more little entry points or just citations of things for people to get excited about and then do more research.

TFSR: It says in the editorial statement that not all the contributors and editors are a part of Lobelia Commons. But for those who are involved with that project, can you tell us a bit about that collective and its relationship to the so-called New Orleans? And could you repeat the indigenous name for the territory that somebody referenced, I think it was M.?

M: Bulbancha. Lobelia started pretty much right when the pandemic hit. It came out of the swelling of interest and mutual aid. A number of us had started in the New Orleans mutual aid group. And that grew out of this pre-existing food share. Basically, there wasn’t food coming in from the port that was providing the excess with which that food share existed. Then the project basically was buying bulk from Costco as many mutual aid projects around the country were doing. NOMAG, as it became known, really just got a ton of volunteers, so many people lined up for that. A number of us who were involved in starting also, we’re gardening and doing weird stuff with mushrooms and whatever, just nerding out about plants and the logistics of what allows New Orleans to exist in its contemporary state. So we just started like “Oh, let’s just do our own thing about focusing on food autonomy.” Because we’re clearly missing something,

if a pandemic hits or if some severe crisis hits, the experience of New Orleans tells us a lot about FEMA and that the state is really not coming. If the state does come it looks like huge lines, like a food bank like that, or just these poultry things. So how can we start to chip away? What does experimentation look like in terms of really fundamentally relating to food and place differently than we are raised or taught to? We’ve done a number of projects, and a lot of things have just not stayed the test of time’s had failed. But we started with a plant delivery service, basically. So, when people were delivering groceries, we were delivering plant starts, then when we no longer felt as necessary to do the delivery thing — also, that was a ton of labor for no real reason — we basically just started promoting what we call the decentralized nursery, which is a newfangled name for something that people already do throughout the world. Basically, if you’re starting some plants for your garden, just start a few extra and put them out in front of your house and give them out for free to your neighbors. So we tried to encourage people to do that a lot. A lot of people started meeting their neighbors and maybe a punk house, living in a Black neighborhood, some white punks who had never had good relationships with their neighbors for a number of reasons suddenly are talking to their neighbors. And there’s starting to be this breaking down of a colonial line over this meeting point of plants.

And we went on to start a number of other projects, maybe one of which that’s still going on is this mycology club which started as we call it the Mushroom Collaborative, but upcoming this week we’re doing an inoculation. But the idea is basically just to learn with each other about how to produce mushrooms, learn how to identify mushrooms, and just do foraging walks. We meet every now and then and we’re open to people joining. It’s a very caring space, people bring coffee and doughnuts. Usually, someone brings some critical reading about mushrooms, or fungi generally. It’s been a great space and the project I’m most excited about within that group is to form what we’re calling a mushroom commons and to basically inoculate logs with shiitake, or lion’s mane or reishi, and basically hide them around some of the parks in the city, and that people could then start to forage in the urban setting. Hadley, maybe you want to take it on?

H: Yeah. There are definitely a bunch of other little projects or initiatives that I could speak to that are more of the things I’ve been involved in. Because one of the things that are really nice about Lobelia is we always intended it to be a very decentralized thing that doesn’t feel tied to one particular space within the city, it’s not tied to one particular activity or even gardening, specifically. We want to imagine it being a much larger range of whatever people are excited about doing. For example, I haven’t participated in as much as I’d because I’m out of the city. I missed their public days sometimes, the Herb Commons group has been really cool, where it’s a bunch of people with a lot of skills around herbalism, who gather different things, or they’ll put the call to the larger group, and those of us who are growing herbs can contribute some of what we have or some of what we’re harvesting wild and send it to the folks working on the Herb Commons stuff. And then they go and do a pop-up tent in a public park or along a walking path, and have informational materials and lots of different herbs for people to try and take home and learn about, including fun activities. I went one day, and they were teaching people how to dye clothes with mulberry dye, and also just giving away all these herbs and everything. And that one’s really cool, because it’s also a nice way, if people don’t want to go do the public herb commons thing, they can engage with it more on the level of being a gardener who grows many herbs and sends it to the Herb Commons. Or they can have that more active communal interaction with them.

The one that I put a lot of my time into maybe, as I already mentioned, is called the Front Yard Orchard Initiative. That is basically just the goal to propagate and, if we can fundraise, to buy cheaply as many fruit trees as possible and give them away to people, and help people plant them if they want that help. Ideally in the front yard, but we aren’t actually strict about that, if people have a better spot for the tree in their backyard and we know that they’re going to share it with their family and their neighbors. It’s still a contribution to the overall food commons that we’re trying to create. Through that, we’ve been propagating and giving away and planting well over 100 fig and mulberry trees. And then lots and lots of other trees that are a little easier to come by — banana, moringa, things like that. And also trees that we have to fundraise and buy, we’ve also been giving away a bunch of citrus and pecans. What’s been also really nice about that has been just getting connected with other young farmers in the city who were excited to also help give stuff away. Because it’s one thing to grow 200 trees, but then try to go out and find spots for them all— We’ve just been handing them off to people and they’ve planted well over 50 in neutral grounds. For folks who aren’t familiar with New Orleans, the neutral ground is what you refer to as the green, grassy strip between two one-way streets, which are really common, they’re all over the city. People are walking along them and a lot of time it’s where you park your car if the water is going to be high. We’ve just been planting a lot of fruit trees through that project.

The last one I’ll mention right now is just a little informal, harvest crew or a harvest group where we just let each other know and keep track of different things that are just already growing in the city that don’t get utilized. There are just so many fruit trees that are sometimes in wild and cramped spaces, or sometimes they are in front of businesses and they don’t get utilized. So we just go out and pick a lot of figs and loquats, and mulberries and try to have some collective processing of those things, to save them or give them away in some way. That one has also just been really great to get people noticing the place that they’re living in a little bit more and developing a relationship with the place.

There’s this one particular park near the place I stay at in New Orleans that they just recently clear-cut all these beautiful elderberries and mulberries that we used to go harvest from. Now we’re starting to think whether or not we need to start paying a little bit more attention to the local neighborhood association politics over other terrible stuff that is happening in that realm.

B: I wanted to bring up a project that we’ve been involved in, which is working with our friend who is a neighbor and a Black elder community member, she’s a Black mama, her name’s Miss Althea. Her roof and her house got very damaged in [Hurricane] Zeta and then continued to get pretty severely damaged during [Hurricane] Ida. We’ve just been working with her and MADR and NOMAG to get a roof on her house and to try to eventually get solar panels and just see how far we can go with getting her set up so that she continues to be able to support her community in the ways that she has been for many, many years. We’ve just been talking about the cyclical nature of disaster relief, and how short-term it can be and spring up immediately after a disaster, but the longevity of that is just pretty short-lived. We are trying to sustain that because we’re living in a disaster, and we’re going to be constantly coming up against these things. So, creating situations and supporting people who are already doing the thing to be able to continue that so that we’re not constantly one foot in one foot out, we’re firmly facing each thing as it comes along. And we’re prepared for it.

TFSR: Concerning that work that you’re mentioning and also the example earlier that was given of the white punk house that started relating better to Black neighbors by sharing plants and having a thing in common and literally sharing the means of survival in a lot of ways… New Orleans, like a lot of other places around the country that particularly have large populations of color, have a lot of history of gentrification. And I’ve heard lots of stories of white punks, for instance, moving into— I grew up in the outer Bay Area, a lot of my friends decided to move to Oakland because housing costs were inexpensive. While they were not personally responsible, they definitely contributed to the displacement of Black and brown populations that have been living there generationally. Building those sorts of connections sounds really important. It’s awesome that you all are working with that elder. And I guess another part of that, too. These are thoughts that will lead into a question…

I’ve seen and talked to people who have done mutual aid projects. And I don’t know the ethnic and racial makeup of your group. But in a lot of instances, it’s a lot of white folks who have some extra time and maybe a few resources and can do mutual aid, often distributing stuff into Black and brown communities and poor communities. And while it’s a cool project that sustains people and takes off some of the pressure of racialized capitalism from folks, it isn’t necessarily able to bridge the gap between charity and mutual aid. It doesn’t bring folks in and also allows itself to be shaped by the people who these folks are living beside, and who are taking advantage of the project.

You’ve already given one good example right now with your neighbor who you’re helping with her roof, which is great. But I wonder how Lobelia deal with, for instance… Is it mostly white people that are coming and picking up the plants, are they putting them in their yards and increasing the property value of their neighborhood? And I don’t know if y’all are from New Orleans, even. Have you had any insights or experience of making that branch between moving from charity into a mutual aid project that can not only help sustain people but also contribute to an oppositional force, strengthening the communities against capitalism and gentrification?

M: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of obviously really good stuff there. Lobelia itself was definitely started by people who fit that description, largely white, younger, mostly transplant and have a little bit of extra time because almost all the projects were funded basically with unemployment and stuff. So that definitely fits that bill. And I think that where we’ve put our focus is moving away from that charity thing. A lot of people say this and don’t actually mean it. Probably everyone who’s been in Lobelia, it’s a “funny thing” because people come and go all the time, so there’s not really a membership per se. But the people who do stuff that gets called Lobelia, we’ve all probably done mutual aid that is effectively charity. And we all know that that feels terrible. It’s super draining. Honestly, most people that are involved with doing Lobelia activities are pretty generally over activism, or at least critical of activism in some way.

So most of our energy is localized, it’s where we are pretty much. The decentralized nursery is an example, that’s something that just relates to your neighbors, we’re not meeting up and being like “Okay, where’s the most marginalized group that we can go support?”. If there’s a group that reaches out to us that’s maybe doing that work and wants a bunch of plants for whatever reason, wants a garden — that has happened in the past, and the Louisiana Seafood Worker Alliance, the past two years, we’ve given them between 50 and 200 Roselle hibiscus plants, but we’re not like organizing in that way. We need to eat and our neighbors need to eat. And we want to talk to our neighbors and have strong connections with our neighbors. That comes from not this idealistic or selfless thing. In some ways, it’s “I want to have fun when I’m doing this.” And oftentimes, it’s very joyless to just seek out how we can do the most good. That’s largely why we’ve been rooted in specifically where we are. The relationship with Althea is probably the greatest articulation. Some of us have known Althea for seven or eight years. Some of us were eventually pushed out of that neighborhood. But they still keep up very strong relationships with a lot of people that continue to live there, or were forced out of that neighborhood as well.

TFSR: This isn’t so much meaning to be directed at you all individually. Because I know there’s a decolonial lens that shows up frequently in the book. And I think that it’s important to talk about that and the difficulty of navigating being a part of a settler-colonial society and that settler colonialism is an ongoing project and not one that’s passed, which is the thing that the book points to. So I am wondering when people talk about infrastructure projects, if you have thoughts about how that relates to settler-colonial society?

H: Yeah, I might have a rambly answer to it.

TFSR: It’ll match my rambly questions.

H: I think there are a lot of different aspects to how to approach it. A big part of it just has to do with history and getting acquainted with the history of the places that we’re in and making sure we keep those things present in a way. Here at Ndn Bayou, we grow some sugarcane. And I feel like there’s no way to grow sugarcane and have people here and give them the tour here and talk to them about the sugar cane that we grow, we have it as a visual barrier. But you can’t grow sugarcane without talking about the history of slavery and the way that plant was so integral to the whole colonial project in so many ways in this region, and sometimes people talk about New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city. We’re very close to all of that history. So when I talk about growing sugarcane, I try to teach people, if they don’t know about it already, people who are visiting the farm, talk about the Haitian Revolution and talk about CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, which I try to recommend to people, we have it in the library here. And I tried to get people to read from it or talk about the history of the way James describes the enslaved people in the northern plains of Haiti at that time, who were, in some sense, one of the earliest industrial proletariats in the world, because they lived in these huge camps with hundreds of people working these huge body-destroying mills. As soon as they had the opportunity, they chased all the slave owners into the cane fields and lit the cane fields alight, and burned them alive there. I think we need to come at it from a sense of we are coming from a settler-colonial society, some of us, but we just need to be clear about which side we’re on to some extent, and in this space, in particular, because of our having been rooted in this struggle against this pipeline that was led by indigenous people, we have a bunch of very direct relationships. So we can actually very easily be sending stuff here to our friends on the rez in the southwest, not to be specific about that place.

There are various forms of support that we can give having this place, and just as a refuge for people to come through lots of different things like that. It’s definitely not that easy for people who are just trying to have a relationship to land and a land project or inside a city like that. They don’t already have those connections. It can feel weird to be “Okay, well, I don’t want to be a settler here doing my garden project. So I need to go out and find the most public-facing, Indigenous organization to go meet those people.” It just has a top-down looking at the world, like a map colonial viewpoint almost even to just approaching things from that way sometimes. So I don’t have clear answers for people in other contexts.

M: I think that’s why our focus on the connection between these rural farms in the city is so important, because, aside from obviously just doing an isolated thing, having that connection is what literally makes, say, a farm in the rural south or anywhere, for that matter. That’s what makes it having that connection is what makes it actually become counter-infrastructure, something that can be used more widely and for partisan ends. So, having those places and the connections and having it be social is what allows for establishing these flows. I think it’s important to encourage familiarity with the place as people come and visit these various farm or rural spaces from the city and vice versa, to encourage familiarity while maintaining an openness to potential discomfort that could come there.

And there’s actually a piece in the Almanac called “Beyond the Levee”. It talks a lot about this historical counter infrastructure or maybe infrastructure against the state in the colony. That obviously took place in the form of maroons most famously, but also in other forms of desertion and fugitive city and at times insurrection. The piece ends with this imagining of a not-so-distant future where state infrastructure has collapsed to a further degree than we already currently experience and how those histories can be honored and lived as a means of survival and preserving dignity. I think it’s important to consider the potentials that developing these types of counter-infrastructure and the social world that they create and are a part of can aid and abet some future fugitivity and other types of movement that might become necessary as the state infrastructure continues to literally collapse, especially in the form of levees and floodgates. So, I think with respect to food autonomy and its relationship with those infrastructural projects, it’s just completely necessary. It’s absolutely critical to the functioning of those projects, to the point that it’s no longer an activisty activity. It’s the lifeblood and provides many avenues for imagination and experimentation inside those projects.

B: I feel like, in some ways, it relates to your question about “mutual aid” or what is often charity in certain capacities, but I guess, for someone who’s a white settler to know the answer to that question, I feel like is problematic. For myself, in these projects, there needs to be an acknowledgment of not knowing and not decide that this is like the way it needs to be. Or in this position where we’re isolated and we’re going out into these areas, and we know what’s best, and this is how we’re going to plug in, but being in community, I think, is one of the best ways to dissolve that, or to challenge that and to challenge oneself. Because you’re opening yourself up to asking people “What is it? What is it the community needs? Are the ways that we’re able to plug in?” Based on, for example, asking Miss Althea what she needs or what she wants, rather than deciding for her. That extends itself to like indigenous communities where it’s like “okay, there’s no way that I could know if I’m not in a community with indigenous comrades.” I think the first step is to be connected and also to be receptive to criticism and change. Being open to that, I think, is the biggest part of that.

M: Yeah. I’d add a little bit that being guided by humbleness and willingness to learn is critical, because a lot of the stuff that we’re doing, say, here in southwestern Mississippi, we’re largely producing mushrooms, raising tree crops, and have a prep plant nursery. And these aren’t novel ideas by any means. We’re just doing the means of both subsistence and survival for countless people for basically since humanity has been around, in all sorts of different forms. To pretend like we have some excellent idea that you see in some more permaculture circles, for example, that we need to proselytize or bring to the poor people who can’t figure it out. It’s just a totally backward way of thinking. Just being innocuous in a way, or doing your thing quietly. And then when it’s time to show up and support, if you’re a settler, Indigenous comrades, or Black comrades or worker comrades, or just your neighbors or your friends, show up with the capacities that you’ve built. Because there’s nothing that you can do that will make you not a settler, but your relationship with the land can change based on how you choose to live in relation to it.

H: Also, just while we’re on this topic, I wanted to clarify that our collective at Indian Bayou includes several Indigenous people, it’s a combination of Black and Indigenous and white folks here.

TFSR: Cool. Those are all really good answers. I appreciate you responding.

Living in Asheville, as I do, over the years I’ve seen a lot of like little shops pop up that are homestead-themed, they play with this settler concept of going back to the land— I am wondering if you have any ideas about how projects like yours can contribute to a countering to things like cottage core, or another niche, capitalist re-visioning of what it means to live in relation to the land?

H: We are definitely very anti-cottagecore. There’s a lot there. I’m not sure quite where to start.

M: We were just laughing about it a second ago, because I feel like we go back into the city and we’re constantly labeled cottagecore.

B: Like bringing baskets of mushrooms into the city people are like “Yeah, that’s what you are.”

M: I guess we can address the question with respect to some back-to-the-land thing. I actually also don’t exactly know what #cottagecore is.

B: Yeah.

TFSR: Me neither. I was hoping that someone else could describe it… [laughs]

Do you think that your project or that it’s an interesting thing for your project to engage with the idea of going back to the land in the American imaginary of homesteading and independence and individuality, that gets reproduced in things that I’ve experienced as being part of cottagecore? If I look at the hashtag on twitter.com, mostly, there are a lot of images there, and there’s a lot of focus on aesthetics. And, again, aesthetics are not bad. But when people prioritize aesthetics over actual engagement and the relationship between themselves and the land, or their health, or their autonomy, or their neighbors, that falls into a trap that capitalism provides. How do you think food autonomy projects can sharpen their teeth? Because I think that food autonomy is a really important challenge to capitalism, as well as to the individualized alienation of capitalist existence.

H: Well, I do think that the aesthetic of cottagecore is definitely something that needs to be attacked. I have been thinking about it a lot recently, about the ways that this really polished, “everything must look beautiful,” everything is presented for Instagram? It does tie into this weird obsession with purity and cleanliness, and this traditional whatever the fuck. I feel like there has always been this undercurrent and a lot of hippie counter-culture. But since the pandemic, I feel like its potentially fascist qualities of that obsession with purity are really becoming clear or clarified to me in a way.

I don’t want to veer too much into talking about the pandemic instead of talking about food. But I’m hearing the same sorts of people talk about how they’re not going to get the vaccine, not that I would tell anybody to trust the vaccine or the pharmaceutical companies in particular, but saying they’re not going to get the vaccine because it’s going to make them sterile, and it’s going to make their body impure. You hear that from a lot of the same hippie types, who would also say things like “Oh, we can’t grow a garden in the city, the city is dirty, the city is contaminated. There’s lead and all these toxins everywhere.” It’s true, there are a lot of toxins in the city. There are also a lot of toxins in rural areas, and people end up turning it into this moralizing thing, which is also obviously coming from a completely inaccurate place, whether you’re talking about the vaccine, the soil, or anything, everything is contaminated. We are contaminated. Contamination is a good part of our lives, we’re full of bacteria that are not ourselves, or they are ourselves.

So obviously, the purity thing is a fantasy, but it is just scary, honestly, the way it’s coming up to the surface in some ways now. I don’t have a clear answer of how to address it but I do think that in some ways, the Almanac is intended as something that somebody who’s in that mindset can pick up and not be immediately turned off to, but that can start to complicate and challenge some of those views.

M: I think being on the mushroom farm, I think we probably have lots of thoughts about contamination. And a lot of the gourmet and medicinal mushrooms that you would buy at a grocery store or farmers’ market are produced in these super sterile environments indoors. And definitely not going to knock them that since some people were involved in our project who grow like that, but there’s this constant policing of the space and disciplining of the space that is absolutely related to aesthetic. Any disturbance is really noticed, there’s a conflict anytime anything is entering that space, and our attitude here is quite a bit different because we produce mushrooms outdoors on logs. There are molds everywhere, sometimes there are molds on our mushroom logs that we want in the soil, and the trees are growing. It’s always contradictory. And the way out of that is through it, you need to promote diversity from the perspective of someone who is a fungal partisan is to, in some ways, increase contamination, different kinds of contamination, and create more fungal competition and more fungal communion. Again, not to come at these indoor mushroom facilities, we hope to one day also be able to have those kinds of facilities, because they definitely have their place. But there’s a definite distinction between the laboratory and the home space, and the laboratory and the school and any other public space, and a lot of that policing have been gendered labor. That comes through with a lot of stuff that Hadley was talking about, in respect to that being very appealing towards a politics of purity or white supremacy, fascism, hetero-misogyny, and, on forth.

B: Yeah, I used to go back to some of what you’re saying about the commodification of the image of nature. As it relates to back-to-the-land mentality, or cottagecore, whatever, homesteading aesthetic, and I guess something I’m noticing in this conversation is just the constant thread of connection and trying to break down the severing that happens when a commodity is created or is maintained in the public eye, through social media, as a representation of what it’s supposed to be based on what is the most marketable.

It’s difficult, right? Because if you’re trying to run a mushroom farm as a way to sustain yourself, there isn’t a certain element of having to play into that, where you still have to sell the mushrooms at the end of the day. So I think that we all have to still participate in these systems that exist. I’m new to Lobelia as a project, but I feel like part of what I’m seeing in Lobelia, and part of what I want to continue to see is a continued connection between the city and rural areas. That’s what Lobelia seeks to do in a lot of ways, I guess, maybe that’s one of the main pitfalls of the idea of back to the land is that it feels very isolating, and it also feels in line with prepping or individualistic or the new version of having a nuclear family and moving to the suburbs where it’s severed. So trying to reverse that severing, to continue those connections.

H: Yeah. Just to piggyback on that idea is that a distinction between food autonomy and isolated food production. And I think food autonomy is inherently a very social thing and something that’s directed towards a communing or commenting or sharing that a lot of the back-to-the-land thing or this macho “I’m going to move to this cabin and produce everything that I need to sustain”, which is just totally ahistorical, sounds extremely lonely and not at all what should be considered food autonomy. That’s as a solo project.

TFSR: Yeah. And I think it would probably have less inherent adherents, or followers online if it looked a little less like Tom of Finland a little more like Ted Kaczynski because that’s probably what you’d look like if you were sitting in a cabin by yourself for 20 years.

M: Exactly.

H: When we’re talking about the pitfalls of the homesteader mentality or the back-to-the-land movement, I think what M said about self-sufficiency being this ahistorical myth that never existed on the household or family level, in any agrarian land-based society, I think that’s a good place to start. And obviously, also, there are a lot of things that need to be addressed with settler nostalgia or the nostalgia for American settler culture that seems to be a part of the homesteading that some people are trying to do. Those things are very present and are a huge problem that needs to be addressed in the larger movement or the larger wave of new interest in growing food and getting more connected to the land.

But at the same time, I don’t think that they’re really new or surprising concerns for anarchists or people who listen to this show. We aren’t trying to have just a bunch of self-sufficient nuclear families. We don’t have any reverence for settler culture. In fact, for those of us who are white, if we find any inspiration or affinity with white people in early colonial history, it is only those people who were fully defecting from settler society and were welcomed into Native society or who were otherwise complicit in the struggle of Native people against colonization and were assisting that in really material ways.

And similarly, I don’t think that we really suffer from the same strategic delusions or missteps of the back-to-the-land movement in the 60’s and 70’s, in which case, a lot of people were trying to just drop out, and their projects became isolated and weird in different ways. There is a general understanding now, certainly, among anarchists that our projects need to be conflictual, they need to be part of these larger struggles, we can’t escape climate change, it’s coming for us wherever we are.

So there’s like a lot of really material things I think people should be thinking about to try to avoid that isolation. Because it can happen even with the best of intentions if you get just too involved in projects that keep you facing inward and you’re just biting off more than you can chew with the land itself, or what you’re trying to do with it. Distance and gas prices and the jobs being nearby or not — all of these things are factors that matter when we’re trying to figure out and cultivate the flows in and out of these spaces. The flows of people and resources that are needed to sustain a project and the people involved emotionally, physically, financially, socially, etc.

That’s going to look really different in every context. But just a general framework or an idea that I found useful is this concept of the “captured garden.” The standard example of a captured garden is from the height of the coal era in Appalachia when people are living in company towns, where the coal company controls everything. In a lot of cases, people were actually required to have a garden so that the mine owners didn’t have to pay people as much because they knew they were growing their own food. This stands in sharp contrast to just a generation or two before that, when growing food was something that gave people more freedom and autonomy and bargaining power when it came to dealing with the coal companies. If the wages were too low, you could just go back to the holler and grow food on your little plot of land and also have this large ecological base to draw from around, this forest and hills that everyone was using as a commons to graze their animals and hunt and things like that. And by the time of the company towns and the captured garden, a lot of that had been destroyed and taken from people. And so the captured garden is this example in which growing our own food has become this thing that is no longer contributing to our autonomy, but it’s contributing to our subjugation.

I find that to be a really useful framework, if we try to transpose it a little bit onto the modern era, just ask ourselves: “Is my community garden contributing to autonomy and giving people more ability to live their lives and have successful struggles against their bosses and the state? Or is it a captured garden?” With a rural land project, if an uprising comes along, and you’re too tied down, taking care of the chickens every day to be able to go into the city, maybe in some ways that is functioning as a captured garden for you. Obviously, there are lots of other ways that a well-positioned project could have really useful interactions with those conflicts.

TFSR: Thank you. Those are really insightful answers to a totally convoluted question, but you got what I was trying to communicate.

How can people get a hold of the Earthbound Farmers Almanac? How can they learn more about Lobelia Commons and maybe get involved or contribute to either the projects?

M: The 2022 Almanac is finally out, it was late three months because of a paper shortage. People can get it, if they’re trying to buy an individual copy, or a couple of copies, they can support the project. All the money goes back into the printing of the Almanac, which we’re still very far in the red, it all just gets paid out of pocket and we owe a bunch of people a bunch of money. So they can buy that at emergentgoods.com. They can also find us at @LobeliaCommons, on both Twitter and Instagram. There we have more information about stuff we’re up to. We’re also posting the Almanac, pretty much the entire thing, in like social media posts over the course of the year. And if anyone is interested in distributing it, or starting a book club, or maybe selling it at wholesale, or sticking it in the free little libraries, coming up with some way to use it or use it as a fundraiser, they can contact us on social media or lobeliacommons@protonmail.com. And we’re definitely looking for folks to contribute to next year’s issue, we are going to have the deadline for that is July 31 of this year. Feel free to reach out, and send us pitches, you don’t need to come up with a whole piece, you can send us an idea, and we will answer as soon as we get it. You can just put the “2023 Almanac” in the subject.

TFSR: Thanks again for having this chat. I look forward to putting in an order myself for a physical copy of it. I’m sure that Firestorm will carry it. So I will just grab one from over there.

M: Yeah, we actually had to send some, I don’t know if we did last year,

B: To FireStorm.

M: Oh, wait, you probably dropped it off.

B: No, I just put it in the Tranzmission Prison Project book stack. So it went out to folks at TPP but not Firestorm.

TFSR: I bet people’d really appreciate receiving some of that stuff on the inside. That’s awesome.

B: It was so cute. Because immediately after I dropped them off, someone texted me and was like “I was just reading a letter that had a request for an Almanac.” It was like perfect timing. Super cute.

M: Yeah. I have many pen pals in Angola in Louisiana. And we sent them to a few buddies in there. There’s this crew of guys who meet now and then and they talk about gardening and stuff and apparently, they’re super hype on it. That made my year last year.

B: That’s the best.

Eric King Speaks | 2 Radical Ukrainian Voices

Eric King Speaks | 2 Radical Ukrainian Voices

This week, we’re sharing 3 audio segments on this episode.

Eric King Transferred To High Security Prison in VA

[00:04:08 – 00:23:50]

Info on Eric King + an image of Operation Solidarity in Ukraine
Download This Episode

First up, you’ll hear Eric King, anarchist prisoner whose recent legal victory against the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the US was featured on our episodes from the week of March 27th, 2022. Last week, Eric was suddenly transferred out of Colorado toward United States Penitentiary Lee in the southwest portion of Virginia near Johnson City, TN. This is in spite of the fact that Eric should be held at a medium security facility according to BOP standards, unlike the high security and max prisoners at USP Lee. We caught up with him mid-transfer while at Grady County Jail in Oklahoma where many Federal prisoners stop during cross-country transfers. Eric and his supporters are afraid that he’ll be facing time in the SHU, or Secure Housing Unit at USP Lee for no reason other than punishment for his legal case and his supporters are putting together a call-in campaign to raise Eric’s visibility to keep him safe. There is information about this in our show notes at TheFinalStrawRadio.NoBlogs.Org and hopefully soon at https://SupportEricKing.Org .

This is followed by Sean Swain’s segment [00:23:53 – 00:32:42]

Maria of Anarchist Black Cross Kyiv

[00:33:06 – 01:07:52]

Then, you’ll hear Maria, a member of Anarchist Black Cross Kyiv, just returned from Ukraine and currently in Warsaw, Poland. We talk about ABC Kyiv, mutual aid and refugee support, border crossing, some information about anarchists participating in the territorial defense, NATO, non-violent as well as armed resistance to the Russian invasion, Russian forcibly moving Ukrainians from Mariupol into territories they control and other recent news stories. You can find more on how to support Operation Solidarity at linktr.ee/OperationSolidarity and the Resistance Committee of anarchists participating in armed resistance to the invasion at linktr.ee/TheBlackHeadquarter. You can also find a benefit for ABC resistance to the invasion at ABCMusicalSolidarity.Bandcamp.Com, written up at North Shore Counter-Info.

Mira, leftist punk from Kharkiv

[01:09:06 – 01:41:14]

Finally, you’ll hear a conversation recorded on Sunday, April 3rd with Mira, a member of the street punk band Bezlad and a show booker in the hardcore scene of Kharkiv near the Russian Border. Mira talks about his leaving of Kharkiv to L’viv to aid leftist and punk territorial defense fighters getting protective gear, his experience of the devastation of war on the city he loves and the breakdown of solidarity with antifascist and punk communities across the border between Russia & Ukraine since the war in the Donbass and intensifying today. We’ll play a song by Bezlad after this interview and will link them in the shownotes.

Announcements

Libre Flot’s Hunger Strike Continues

As a continuation of our recent announcement of the former YPG volunteer on hunger strike against unending detention by the French government, there is a call for a day of solidarity for Libre Flot for what is both his 36th day of hunger strike and his birthday. Libre Flot was hospitalized in relation to the hunger strike on March 24th but has continued due to his more than 15 months of pre-trail detention. On April 4th, 2022, the supporters are asked to make some noise at French embassies, consulates and other institutions to raise awareness of his plight. More info at SolidarityToDecember8.wordpress.com

Eric King Call-In

Alongside a recent post showing photos of the scene of Eric’s assault in the broom closet, there will be a post with phone numbers and talking points  up at SupportEricKing.Org by Monday. Below are some contacts you are suggested to reach out to to check in on Eric’s condition and talking points to help ask why he’s being treated this way despite his noted security level leading into the embarrassing trial loss by BOP:

  1. Why is Eric King, who is at a medium level according to the BOP, being moved to a high security facility across the country?;         
  1. Why is this move coming so quickly after Eric successfully won a lawsuit showing that the BOP was closing ranks to set Eric up for 20 years of additional prison as he approaches his out time?;         
  1. What will you, as a public official, do to challenge the impunity of the federal prisons to persecute prisoners and violate their human rights?;
DRAFT MESSAGES / TEMPLATES

 

Hello Senator _____,

I am writing about my friend who is a prisoner in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His name is Eric King, inmate number 27090-045. He was recently found not guilty on all counts at a trial in the U.S. District of Colorado. Eric was moved from FCI Englewood and is currently being held in a private facility, Grady County Jail in Oklahoma. He has been told he is en route to USP Lee, a maximum security prison in Virginia.

I am writing because I believe Eric should not be sent to USP Lee, and would be in danger if he were sent there. He is scheduled to be released from prison in December 2023, and wants to avoid anything that would infringe on this release date.

There is an active threat against his life. A few years ago, before being sent to Colorado, Eric was held in the Segregation Unit at USP Lee for approximately two weeks. Before that, at USP Atlanta, a white supremacist gang member told him he would be killed at USP Lee if he was released into general population. This was documented at USP Lee.

It is imperative that Eric not be put in harm’s way. I am asking that you not send him into a situation that is so dangerous. The Bureau of Prisons knows this and there is established case law regarding the BOP sending someone into dangerous and life threatening scenarios. See Fitzharris v. Wolf, 702 F.2d 836, 839 (9th Cir. 1983); Gullatte v. Potts, 654 F.2d 1007, 1012-13 (5th Cir. 1981); Roba v. U.S., 604 F.2d 215, 218-19 (2d Cir. 1979).

Additionally, Eric is in this situation because of a bogus maximum management variable on his security profile. This has him erroneously being sent to a facility beyond his actual security level. He has no pending charges and no incident reports. He intends to be released to Colorado to live with his wife and his two children in just over a year. I ask that this management variable be removed so that he can be sent to a medium- or low-custody prison close to home and begin preparing for release.

I am afraid for my friend Eric’s life if he is sent to USP Lee and I am asking that you intervene with the Bureau of Prisons and ask them not to send Eric King into harm’s way by sending him to USP Lee.

His lawyer is Lauren Regan and can be reached at 541-687-9180 or lregan@cldc.org. Please help my friend.

Sincerely,

_____

CONTACT INFORMATION
DSCC Office Designation & Sentence Computation Center U.S. Armed Forces Reserve Complex

346 Marine Forces Dr.
Grand Prairie, TX 75051

Mid-Atlantic BOP Regional Office

302 Sentinel Dr,
Annapolis Junction, MD  20701

BOP National Office

320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC  20534

Virginia Senators to Contact

231 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

703 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

. … . ..

Featured tracks:

. … . ..

Transcription (Maria)

TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time and the space to have this conversation with me. First off, would you please introduce yourself to the audience with a name, even if it’s a pseudonym, any gender pronouns, where you’re from, or where you’re at now?

Maria: I’m Maria, from ABC Kyiv, and I’m staying in Warsaw right now, just coming from Lviv where I visited comrades and had some meetings.

TFSR: Can you tell a little bit about ABC Kyiv and the history of the group? What work you’ve done before? What does it look like now? How the invasion has changed it?

Maria: We are a relatively old collective, 10+ years old. We used to mostly help political refugees from neighboring countries who escaped from Russia and Belarus. It’s not that many of them were in jail, but we were helping them with the refugee-seeking procedure and getting into politics in Ukraine. Now we changed because I expected they will go to Warsaw or whatever. But they mostly joined the territorial defense units in Kyiv. So we don’t have clients anymore, you know?

TFSR: Yeah. The history of the Anarchist Red Cross at one point included militant support of combatants too during the Russian revolutions. Right?

Maria: Actually, in the Makhno army, I think it appeared first.

For now, we are trying to do several types of work. First of all, we work with another collective that provides the same kind of help to people who decided to join the resistance, take up arms, and to fight for people and freedom at home. It’s different kinds of support. One is that we need to collect money, we need to buy things, humanitarian aid, medical aid, and different stuff that people who fight need. Another part is taking care of comrades who are relocating or choose not to because not a lot of people lost their jobs in Ukraine. And help with relocating people to other countries, they also may need help with a place to stay, money to live, possibilities to find a job. That’s a lot of work. For sure, we are taking part in it. We are not doing it as a separate collective, but rather with other ABC collectives, and with the group called Operation Solidarity from Ukraine.

TFSR:Awesome. I know that ABC Dresden in Germany has been one group that’s been able to funnel money towards mutual aid and defense funds, which is pretty cool. It’s amazing to see ABC groups – just from the outside, I’m involved with an ABC group here, but we’re still pretty focused on prisoners in the United States – to see the work that groups are doing in Europe is pretty impressive.

What’s the situation getting back and forth with Poland if you can talk about it? Has it been difficult because there is a long wait at the border? How have you been received in Poland at least with the government?

Maria: Surprisingly, with Poland, I crossed already twice, it was no problem at all, both times. In Ukraine, it was much more problematic months ago, but at the moment, it’s quite slow. Transport is late, but it’s not super difficult. I think it is difficult only for male assigned people. In Lviv, it’s also relatively calm, which is the new calm – they have 3-4 air raid alerts per day, which means that they expect air attacks. Sometimes there are air attacks but the air defense systems work well. I’m actually not an expert in weapons because I hate it. But the situation is like it is.

TFSR: Some of the questions that I’m going to be asking are related to either the war or the armed groups because that’s an area I think that a lot of anarchists elsewhere are interested in. But if you can’t answer them and don’t have an answer, I understand totally.

One thing that I’ve been seeing in the news here is that Russia may be pulling back, withdrawing troops, at least in the areas near Kyiv, back across the border to Belarus. Is that a thing that you’ve heard about or do you have an understanding of what’s happening with that?

Maria: I also read today that pulled back some troops, but not all of them. Actually, they say on the news that we expect more intense fights in the next few days. I hope that’s not true. But it can be. Also, they still attack Kyiv and other cities from the sky. With the army, they at least stay somewhere. But with these air attacks, it’s not clear where it will hit next time. Withdrawing troops doesn’t mean that they will stop bombing us.

TFSR: Sure, pulling back the army could actually mean more bombing, hypothetically.

What’s your impression, having been back to Lviv, of what it’s like to try to organize there or to be an anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist group that’s trying to do organizing in the midst of an invasion and a time that almost necessarily leads to heightened levels of nationalism?

Maria: I didn’t see that much nationalism. I was there just for a couple of days meeting with comrades. I was not really in the streets. I know that the Operation Solidarity group there is very well-organized.

There was one stupid small attack by young Nazis on our comrades near a shop, where they were waiting in line to buy stuff for guys from the territorial defense. It was shocking, but they were some small idiots. It’s not that they really hunt there or whatever. I think Nazis are busy, the same as leftist people. We are not very much interested in each other, at this point, at least.

TFSR: What I’m seeing from the Telegram channel from Operation solidarity is that the attacker was from Misanthropic Division, and the comrade had a broken finger out of it.

Maria: He had a broken finger on his hand was wish he was packing medical supplies and other things for the army. It seems very unpatriotic to do it. It’s sabotage, in my opinion. I’m very surprised. I already started thinking about some conspiracy. Maybe they’re paid by Putin because it seems stupid to do it.

TFSR: Well, Nazis are stupid.

In your experience, how is the support from abroad into Operation Solidarity been going? There’s still a need, but they’ve been listing on their social media that they’ve been receiving– They went out and bought helmets, they went out and bought various forms of armor. Is the fundraising still going on? Has that been successful so far?

Maria: I would say it’s quite successful. But it always can be that if we have more money, we will buy better stuff for people, if we have more people, will still need to buy new things for them. Also, most people cannot work, renting rooms in Western Ukraine is very difficult, it is crazy expensive. Because so many people came there. Prices went high. There are still people there, their families and in the worst situation, you can expect that most of the people will lose their jobs. We also help with this part.

With medical things, you need to buy new ones from time to time, and we hope to have much more people. We have more people now compared to two months ago. I hope it will be much more, that is why for sure they still do fundraising and we still do fundraising for them. Other groups also do fundraising. I’m very satisfied with working together with them.

TFSR: I want to talk again about the armed organizing that people are doing, but there have been stories of lots of examples in this conflict of people taking unarmed actions against the war effort, for instance, the mutual aid and the medical support that you’re talking about, or blockades to slow the advance of tanks outside of major cities, massive street protests, including those that have been fired upon by Russian troops, the Belarusian anti-war sabotage on train infrastructure that’s been supplying Russian troops. Are there other examples or any that stand out to you of the unarmed mutual aid that you’ve been impressed with, that people should know about?

Maria: I’m not sure I understood all the points you mentioned. Because if your English is too perfect for me.

With the sabotage in Belarus, it is not militant, but for Belarus, it’s already a lot. For us, I think that we are not concentrated on these points. For me, it’s literally like fascists in the 30’s and 40’s are coming. People want to have arms and to fight back. I would not say that we are working on any anti-militant or whatever actions. We have a consensus that we need to fight with arms.

I know that there are protests in occupied cities. I don’t think that they decided to be very anti-militant, they just don’t have a choice. But the Russian army may actually shoot this protest. It’s only peaceful from one side.

TFSR: One of the groups, to my understanding, that’s been organizing in Ukraine for the armed self-defense is Black Flag (Chernyi Prapor)? Can you talk a little bit about the organizing and training that they’ve been doing that you know of, and as an anarchist grouping, how they’ve been relating to the territorial defense of the Ukrainian military?

Maria: I’m not that much in contact with them, it is a group from Lviv, as far as I know, a relatively small one. I’m not in personal contact with these people. That’s why I don’t really know how they do it.

I think one of the biggest collectives is the Resistance Committee. They’re also groups of people here and there in different territorial defense units trying to organize together, like three-five people. I know this better.

I also know about people from Kharkiv, I knew them before, but I’m not in contact at the moment. I know that there is a group in Kharkiv that is fighting in the territorial defense unit in Kharkiv, which is a hot spot. I also know anarchists who individually went to the army, for example, my friend, who is actually also one of these refugees, a non-Ukrainian citizen, went to fight the first morning, and he is stationed separately from us, but we still support him.

TFSR: Do you have a sense of how it is for them to relate to the fact that the territorial defense has a relationship with the Ukrainian military? How much autonomy they’re able to keep in that or any lessons that you’ve heard about how they’ve been able to try to keep that autonomy?

Maria: From talking to people, it seems it works quite well. They are not pressuring much and it feels like for other people there is a possibility for some autonomy. They are much less hierarchically structured. The army might pay less attention to this. But officially, they are part of the army. But there is actually no other way to organize because if you just take a gun and go to the street, they will think you are a subversive and kill you. Even historically, with the partisan movement, they’re actually always connected to the army to some extent. I don’t think it’s possible to really do it in parallel without any agreements.

TFSR: A few weeks ago, I was seeing stories online about foreigners coming to Ukraine to try to fight and defend it, getting shuffled into the military, or being pressured to sign contracts of service similar to conscription. Have you heard about this being the case for folks that have tried to join anarchist formations? Are they able to get in? Or do they just get funneled into the general military or territorial defense of Ukraine?

Maria: I think the problem you’re talking about is more about people who are going to the International Legion. I heard that people went to join a Belarusian unit, but I was not following the topic. Because I’m trying to concentrate on people I know, comrades, and things I can influence. I came across something like this in the media, but I haven’t heard any people I know who complained about it. But for people from the International Legion, which I think is separate, maybe it’s a problem for them.

TFSR: Another thing that I wanted to ask about, and it’s okay if you don’t have a comment on it or an understanding, but there was a video released recently that appeared to show the Ukrainian military shooting Russian prisoners in the legs extra-judicially. Have you heard about this or heard sentiments from other Ukrainians or people in the region about captured soldiers getting shot in that way?

Maria: I even didn’t hear about it, to be honest. I can imagine it can happen. For example, a friend of mine was telling me that when he was taking part in the evacuation of the occupied and besieged cities around Kyiv. It was the third week of war already and before he was rather in a better mood. But at that moment, he was really like “They are murdering kids. They’re raping women.” He saw the bodies of women on the streets. They [Russian troops] don’t want to fight with the army, they want to fight civilians. My friend was angry and didn’t feel mercy for them anymore. But then you just go out from there thinking and feel that you are a human and you should follow the humane way of thinking and acting. But I can imagine that after everything people saw. But I didn’t hear about what you mentioned.

I’m sad, I don’t want that to happen. But it’s very complicated. When you talk about these things theoretically from somewhere abroad, it’s one thing, but when the war is coming to your place, it’s totally another thing.

TFSR: That makes sense.

You mentioned children being killed. Some stories were circulating, I think they were sourced from the Ukrainian government about Russia importing thousands of civilians and children from occupied territories within Ukraine into Russia. Have you heard of this?

Maria: Yes. Many people from Kherson, which is the biggest occupied city, and Mariupol which is besieged. My friend’s parents were sent from Mariupol to Donetsk or Russia, she lost contact with them. It’s been five days now. They just put them on the bus. The besieged Mariupol and people couldn’t have access to drinking water and food. I think they demoralize them, but the people still didn’t want to go. They just take them to the bus, some of them could call and say, “Your parents were forcefully put on this bus, they will get in touch when they can.” But no one is reaching out these days. Then they’re sending a message that they’re in Russia. Today at the train station, I talked to people from Kherson, they’re telling the same, the few people who managed to escape.

TFSR: You can’t really guess about the strategy or the reasoning behind that, whether it’s to just depopulate areas, to make them easier to occupy, or if it’s about trying to forcibly settle people to new areas.

Maria: They’re not deporting all the people. For me, making the city empty is not the reason. As for Bucha and Hostomel, I heard the opposite – they don’t let people out. They make them too afraid to try to go out by bombing the humanitarian corridor, for example, because they actually want them to stay. Then it is difficult for the Ukrainian army to shoot because they’re inside together with civilians. Maybe there are other reasons, but they also try to use them for propaganda. They are filming people, they’re giving them a text to read. A woman was complaining about Azov and Medusa published several videos, and you see that she’s actually telling the story they forced her to tell because they didn’t do it in one shot.

TFSR: Forcing some of the people that they’re holding to act in front of the camera to say, “Oh, yes, I’m so happy that the Russians are here”, something that the Russian government can show back in the media.

Maria: Mostly they want their people to see that look, here are refugees from bad Ukraine coming to good Russia. Today I heard several stories from people who were going to stay with families in Belarus. If they did it the same day, I think it was something on the media in Belarus, that you should care about your Ukrainian relatives. Relatives from Belarus are calling to say that they should come over. “Here you at least will speak your language, blah, blah, blah.” And people are coming because it’s their families, not because they want to move to Belarus.

Today I met a woman, she said, “My daughter and grandchildren are there. It’s my chance to see my two-year-old grandson.” On the one hand, she is going to this place from which we are bombed, on the other hand, we all mixed, for the older people, it looks fine. And then in the media, they create 100 people from 10 people saying that thousands of refugees from Ukraine are coming from Ukraine to Russia and Belarus.

TFSR: A lot of people in the last six weeks have left Ukraine, and have withdrawn to find other safer places to go to. But I’ve also heard reports that people are coming back to Ukraine for defending it from the invasion or fighting back or trying to collect what they left behind. Is this a thing that you’ve heard about too?

Maria: I know several people who went back because, when they came here, they put them to live in a stadium, and then you leave with 500 people after being shocked and bombed. I think your psychological condition is not very stable. There is already a lack of places. I know that Germany and Poland and today I asked a person who stayed in the Netherlands, she said the same that they actually stayed in barracks or whatever. Volunteers do care about them and give them food, but they cannot live there forever. And they read the same news as me and you.

I know a person who wants to go back to Kyiv to my district and I know that it’s been very loud there the last few weeks. But she has animals, she cannot let them out and she lives in a barrack. She has them in transporter cages. I think it’s very different for different people. But some people just cannot live like this. For some people, it’s better to go with the risk to die rather than stay in a camp.

TFSR: Switching topics a bit, they’re far-right elements, since the Maidan, have been coalescing and doing arm training and participating on both sides in the war in the Donbas. As we’ve talked about, there are armed formations that are anti-fascist and anarchist, and that have been trying to hold that space separate from the far right, and I guess push back against that being normalized and also make safer spaces. But one thing that was happening at the start of the war that I read about was that supporters of the Arsenal Kyiv football club, the Hoods Hoods Clan were starting to support armed resistance. They were known by some as being a more anti-fascist football club. But as I understand, they’ve begun working more with right-wing nationalist formations. I’ve seen pictures of members throwing up the Svoboda three-finger salute. Are you aware of this? Can you talk about what your understanding is among the folks that are staying back and doing armed defense? How difficult it is to hold your ethics in this situation when you’re being shot at?

Maria: I’m not in direct contact with those people, because my comrades are mostly anarchists. There are some anarchists among them, but it’s not an anarchist group. I hope that it is some individuals who are doing it, I don’t think it can be the whole group, but I should check. The group is quite big, and from time to time, new people join. I don’t think they can control people that much. I would ask today, that’s interesting. As I was on the way, and I was in the Lviv without Internet, I don’t know all the news. But it sounds problematic for me is if it’s true, I would not be happy.

TFSR: It’s pretty clear to me that the aggressive invasion of territory and bombing of cities by the Russian military is a terrible thing that should be fought against. I totally respect people defending their territory and defending the spaces they live in, their families, the people around them, and their communities. In the West, it’s difficult for people in countries that are NATO countries to figure out how to relate to this in a way that puts us aside from supporting NATO intervention. I know the weapons that are getting sent in are helping territorial defense fight back the invasion. But do you have any thoughts about how people in countries that are NATO nation-states, besides sending funding, should be helping to resist the invasion without simultaneously working in a way that justifies imperialist Western militaries?

Maria: Sending money is nice. People can go to fight against fascists themselves. It’s an individual decision, but it’s always possible. With this NATO question, I’m very surprised how often I hear it because do you really think that all these leftists have an influence on these decisions?

TFSR: As far as influencing the way that NATO operates? No, but also, in the United States, the position that the US takes is that the Ukrainian government should be supported. It’s not about creating space for an anarchistic society there but those two things overlap in terms of stopping people from dying. The US for instance, where I’m living, and where I’m from uses humanitarian intervention regularly to justify the continued growth of the US military. It’s not just about necessarily helping people defend themselves from an invasion or from a terrorist group or from whatever. But it becomes a part of a larger plan that fuels the big industries of war in this country. That’s what I’m getting at in wondering if you have any views about it.

Maria: Russia openly says on the propagandist TV that they should bomb Washington. I’m not sure that the US TV says something like this, that they should throw somewhere a nuclear bomb. I think was these two, one went much more aggressive, at least with the rhetoric. I think that thinking about geopolitical is just practically totally not useful. Because that’s actually the context they’re given to people to distract their attention. For example, I hear the question about NATO much more often than the question if all the comrades are alive. Maybe it’s because I’m not that good with the theories. But for me, it’s a very strange situation, when people want to talk about this NATO thing that much in a situation where they can actually not really influence it. I think that as anti-authoritarian leftists and anarchists, we should be much more focused on the things we can influence in our lives, and less on the topics given to us from the top, on TV. It is just my opinion, but I feel like this.

TFSR: Super helpful. Do you think it’s useful for people who can take off and maybe a train or whatever to come to join territorial defense and try to support anarchist groups?

Maria: Yes. You can contact all the groups we discussed online, they have websites, Telegram channels, etc. You should ask them, not me. But I think there is a possibility, people who are looking for it can find it without my help.

TFSR: Maria, also would it be helpful to share any information further about how to contact ABC Kyiv, or you’ve mentioned operation solidarity, I can put more information in the show notes and announce that.

Maria: The Operation Solidarity has a chatbot if you need to contact them.

TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to say right now?

Maria: I think we all start to think about how this happened. With Russia, with what is going on? How we have new fascism, because all my life I was asking questions about what happened to Germans in the previous century? I’m asking myself what happened, and how we didn’t see it before they attacked so many countries. Now they also attacked my city, because the country was attacked already eight years ago. I think we should really work somehow that it will never happen a third time, or whatever time is next time?

I hope we will win. I hope my comrades in Russia and Belarus will be released from jails. I do hope we will find a way to stop these things from happening. Because for me, one of the most problematic parts is that actually, the Russian society supports what is going on.

TFSR: I hope for those things, too. Again, thank you very much for taking the time to have this conversation.

Maria: Thank you for asking.

. … . ..

Transcription (Mira)

Mira: Some people know me by the name Mira. I’m from Kharkiv city, which is in the east of Ukraine. Right now, I’m in Lviv.

TFSR: You’ve been in Lviv for a little bit now, like a month or so, right?

Mira: Yes. For the first 11 days of the war, we stayed in Kharkiv. Then we moved to Dnipro using suburban trains with transfers and spent some time in Dnipro and then went to Lviv using an evacuation train. It took like 21 hours to get here. Some of our friends were just staying in the vestibule of the train without a seat because was all crowded. It was a long, long way. We made it to Lviv. Lviv is a much better place to stay because we could do something here. It feels more like a regular peaceful place. We have some air raid alerts from time to time, and sometimes missiles get here too. But for the most part, it feels like a regular peaceful time. From here, it’s easier to coordinate the different types of work, volunteer work, and mutual aid work. It’s more productive and successful to be here, to get stuff, to meet people, and to send all the stuff further to other parts of Ukraine.

TFSR: Kharkiv, where you’re from and where you left is just right across the border from Russia. I know it’s been the center of a lot of really intense battles between the Ukrainian military and lots of shelling and cluster munitions from the Russian military. Is that right?

Mira: Absolutely. Honestly, when a few years ago, in Kharkiv, I and my friends did lots of punk and hardcore shows, including one of the biggest events in our country, Kharkiv Hardcore Fest, which is a few days event, and some bands from abroad that would come to play in Kharkiv were asking, “Aren’t you afraid that you are really close to Russia?” While we already had the military invasion in the eastern part of Ukraine, part of Donbas, it was already occupied, but we still were sure that it won’t go deeper into the country. When people from Finland, and Poland asked us that, we said, “Yes, we are okay.” We didn’t believe that Putin and the Russian military government would really be so crazy to start a full-scale war. Actually, we were surprised to witness what started on February 24.

TFSR: I’m glad that you and your friends were able to make it out. That sounds really, really scary.

Mira: Actually, I just want to add a few words, that since the beginning of the war, the police and army were trying to keep some order at the railway station, because so many people come in, they panic, and the place is too crowded and too many people stayed at the railway station. There were a lot of police and army to make things go smooth and try to keep some order.

That’s why we tried to use suburban train stations because we didn’t want to spend and unbelievable amount of time in the line. Because children, women, and elderly people, go first. If you are military age between 18 and 60, you are the last one to get on the train. We decided not to even try to go to the main station. We preferred to walk with our backpacks and stuff to the nearest suburban train station and get on the suburban trains. One day, we just went to see how it goes, if the trains actually pass by. Just to check it without backpacks, how it goes. When you’re staying on the platform and it’s a pretty open space and you can hear the air raid alerts and the sounds of explosions. It’s not comfortable to stay there, because you never know where the next missiles going to drop.

We made it there, we took one train, we made it to Krasnohrad and spent four or five hours there waiting for another train, and then go to Dnipro right before the curfew time. My friend from Dnipro met us with the car and brought us to the apartments just five minutes before the curfew time. That’s how we made it to Dnipro. Then we took the evacuation train from there for Lviv, 10 days later.

TFSR: You were there after the war started in Kharkiv. And you’ve been to some of these cities before, I would imagine, as a traveling musician, among other things. Can you talk about what it’s been like to see places that you’re familiar with suddenly devastated in these ways?

Mira: That’s really hard to express the feelings, which you get when you see the city you love, the city that you have lots of stuff in common, which you associate with yourself, and you see that everything around is being ruined by the air raids, by multiple launcher systems. To see the historical city center being ruined, and to see regular residential neighborhoods being ruined. You can’t look at it without tears. That’s really tough. Every day, we hoped this will be the last day when they do the bombing and shelling and dropping air bombs. But the following day, it was just getting worse and worse. When we were thinking about how long it could take to rebuild everything which was destroyed, hoping that will end soon, the next day is coming and we see even more destruction. That’s really painful and tearful to see.

Honestly, the first two days we were scared, then the fear changed for hate and anger toward the people who are doing this. We tried to find the ingredients to do Molotov cocktails and stuff like that because we thought they would be in the city soon and we might need that stuff. But actually, the armed forces you’re doing a pretty good job defending the city on the ground. Even those groups of Russian troops who managed to get into the city were eliminated. The main threat was coming not from the troops on the ground, but from the launchers that launched rockets and from the air bombing. The Molotov cocktails wouldn’t really help. We were sitting without any possibility of resistance, because in my group, we have five people, and none of us has military experience. The territorial defense was accepting volunteers only with military experience, so you’d be more useful for the defense. Since none of us had that, we were not accepted. Actually, the territorial defense was pretty full of people, and they didn’t even need more, because a lot of people were willing to defend their city, their land, and their country against the aggressor. That’s why the territorial defense pretty much all over Ukraine is packed with volunteers. They’re not really accepting new applicants for that.

So we were just sitting without really any use. Since every day it was getting tougher and tougher, we decided to go somewhere else, to leave the city until it gets a bit better because the missiles started getting all around the city, not just the suburbs, not just the neighborhoods closer to Russia, to the ring road, but also in the center, all the neighborhoods, including mine, which is close to the city center. There was already some destruction in my neighborhood as well. That’s why we decided to move to be useful in something else, not just sitting in the basement and listening to the sounds of the explosions.

TFSR: What activities have you been up to since you’ve been in Lviv? Is that at all connected to the work that you were doing before the war started in your community? I know some people start off doing, before the pandemic, for instance, were doing mutual aid work of one sort, like feeding people. Then after, in the US at least, have changed. They’ve just modified what they’re doing. Was there any connection between what you’re doing now and what was going on before?

Mira: We are doing totally different things now, because being a booker for shows is not something we would do here, and I had some small business rental for live events, I had my equipment in several clubs, and that is what I was doing besides booking my shows. Definitely, that’s absolutely not timely, nobody needs that. We just do what people actually need. While organizing the shows and the festival in Kharkiv, we have pretty much a big following on our facebook page and Instagram. I know that some people we met in shows, now are in territorial defense or in the armed forces, and I know that some people are lacking protective gear and lots of other items, not just knee/elbow protectors and bulletproof vests, but a lot of other stuff needed to be alive and to be productive in their defensive activity. Right now, the only thing that we are doing is trying to find the stuff our friends need and buy it and send it to them. It is just volunteer work, and it’s definitely not anything close to what we did before the war started.

TFSR: Especially in a war zone, I’m sure it’s really difficult. Here, it’s difficult to find some of that stuff at reasonable and affordable prices. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to source night vision gear or thermal imaging stuff in the middle of a war. From what you can talk about with it, is it just the prices that are really difficult? Or is it getting it off of captured or fallen Russian troops? What does it look like?

Mira: Most all the Russian troops that I’ve seen online don’t have that stuff, either. Since I toured with my bands a lot, I met people in Europe, with whom we stayed in touch till now. After the war started, some people started sending me messages, asking what was going on, and offering some help. That really saves lives now. With these contacts, we managed to work on the logistics of buying stuff, collecting money, and sending that to people who can buy that. Some of the volunteers are coming from Germany, and Poland to Lviv where we meet and get the stuff and send it further. The personal contacts, which I got in peaceful life before the war now really help to get what we need.

TFSR: So you’re mentioning booking gigs and shows and playing shows in the punk and hardcore scene in Kharkiv. Touring. Just looking back to what that scene in that community has been like for you – it’d be interesting to hear what the music scene was like?

Mira: Well, it’s pretty much a copy of a Western scene just on a smaller scale. Since the scene was born here much later than in the US or Europe, it’s younger but it shares the same ideals. I know that in the United States, some micro scenes just don’t care about anything. Some are really political, pay attention to political issues, and some are there just for music. When in Ukraine, they started to develop, it was very political starting in 2005 to 2015. Now, it was getting less, but we always were paying attention to who is in our shows, because we were always against any discrimination practices. We were not happy to see anyone with any Nazi symbols, in 90% of our shows, we specifically mentioned that Nazis are not welcome. Such people even don’t come because in most cases, they understand what views we have, so to avoid conflict, they just don’t come to our shows. There was a lot of physical confrontation in Kharkiv as well, years before, after the Maidan in 2014, actually, the number of confrontations got smaller and since 2014, it’s just calmed down. We didn’t really have big problems. There were some people wearing Nazi streetwear brands and stuff like that, trying to come to shows. They were just turned off at the entrance and didn’t get in. Years before, we had big fights in 2009-12. Sometimes we had fights with 40 people on one side and 50 people on the other side. But it’s calmed down with time.

Actually, at this moment, Nazis have their own hardcore scene developing. The fun fact is that they listen to a lot of good bands, but they do shows and they play and they support ideas, which those bands actually absolutely don’t support. I know some Nazis from Dnipro were traveling to Poland to see the band Backtrack and Agnostic Front, Madball, and stuff like that. When they go to Europe to see these bands, they shut the fuck up and don’t even show that they are right-wing sympathizers. But when they are back in Ukraine, in Dnipro, they have such symbols and T-shirts at their shows. But that’s an absolutely different scene and we don’t cross our paths. They don’t come to our shows. We don’t come to their shows.

TFSR: I saw Stiff Little Fingers once perform. They stopped the performance partway through and just started railing against Nazis and saying that “If any racists are here, you need to understand that you don’t understand the lyrics that we’re singing. Because we hate you. You need to go. You’re not welcome here.” I’ve seen like recordings a few times of Dropkick Murphys in the US also making that statement or going down and beating up Nazis that are in the crowd. I think it’s really important and really impressive when people use that platform to be very clear that that is not what they’re about.

Mira: At our shows frontmen of some bands clearly talk about that. Even if there is some person in the audience who also goes to some Nazi shows. That happens, we don’t know everyone. They just stay in there listening and don’t show who they are. But maybe that will help them realize someday what real punk and hardcore are about and what it is against. Maybe when some people accidentally get to the show with some friends, big shows where you can’t recognize everyone. Maybe these people see how hardcore punk bands play and what they are saying, and what are their views on racism, homophobia, and stuff like that. Maybe they change their minds. The time will show, you never know.

TFSR: Do people at your shows or at the shows in the Kharkiv hardcore scene table literature and stickers and stuff like that?

Mira: We don’t have sticker culture, we don’t have our clubs or something. It could be five shows in five different locations. It’s not really popular to put a lot of stickers around, because people in the clubs don’t like any political stickers, just to avoid losing clients. There is one club that we boycott, and we don’t do shows there. We don’t come there, because they allow right-wing bands to play there. It’s conveniently located. It’s a pretty good sound. But the owner is weird and we had conversations before. He was saying that he’s against any politics and that fascists will never have an event at his club. Then later, we have videos of people doing Nazi salutes there. It is just one instance, he says it is just business, he is doing business and doesn’t care about anything else.

TFSR: That sounds like stuff here.

Mira: I believe that happens, often, everywhere.

TFSR: If people here want to support– In the other segment that we’re airing from Maria, who’s currently in Warsaw, we mentioned Operation Solidarity, and also the Resistance Committee. A lot of their work is based out of Kyiv. Are there any other groups that you would suggest people send money to distribute, to get defensive implements, like helmets and vests out to the Lviv? Or do those groups work with you all in Lviv?

Mira: Yes, Operation Solidarity works in Kyiv and Lviv. We cooperate on some issues. We know each other, but they have a bigger following and more people. They are concentrated mainly on helping left-wing people in the scene whom they know. At Kharkiv Hardcore, we don’t check how left you are, if you call yourself an anarchist, or just if we know the person and if you know this person was at our shows, and you know the person is fighting or is going to fight soon, we help this person. That’s the difference. But we share the same values, we share the same views. We cooperate also on some issues. I think we’ll just develop this cooperation further.

TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to talk about?

Mira: Maybe just the thing that I need to mention is that 10 years ago, I would say before the Maidan 2014, before the Russian invasion, the first Russian invasion started in 2014 when they occupied the Crimea and part of Donetsk and Luhansk Region. Before that, we considered our scene – of Ukraine and Russia – as one scene. I mean the scene in music and ideological terms, the antifascist scene, and the music punk hardcore scene. But after that, our paths started to go in different directions. We have fewer connections and less and less understanding of what’s going on in Ukraine. I had lots of contacts in Russia. After this full-scale war started, I got messages just from a few people from Russia. I understand that they now have a dictatorship, and they’re not allowed to say anything publicly and to voice their opinion if it’s against the official line of the government. But anyway, still, some people have a really weird position. Some people don’t say anything, some people say something that demonstrates they don’t understand at all what is going on in Ukraine, but they still keep trying to hold some position.

I don’t want to name the bands we have some questions to. But the main thing is that, unfortunately, after this conflict, the relations, and the attitudes to the Russian people would not be the same, because officially, 70% of the population of Russia supports their president. I understand they eat a lot of propaganda and are pretty fooled by it. But anyway, the result of it is the real war which we have right now. Unfortunately, all big bands, even in the punk and hardcore scene of Russia, didn’t show any position. They don’t call the aggressor aggressor. That’s really disappointing. I don’t know if we are able to communicate after this war is over.

TFSR: That makes a lot of sense. I guess it’ll take a lot of work on the Russian side, the Russian hardcore and anti-fascist scene to try to– It seems really complicated over there. But that’s not to make any apologies. As you said, they live under a dictator. That’s hard, but I hope that they do the work to recognize and listen to your voices.

Mira: I just want to add that there are bands in Russia, that tour in Europe, and they try to sit on two stools at the same time. They don’t want to call the aggressor the aggressor. They also try to show that they are for peace, but they’re not saying who is ruining the peace. That’s a problem.

When these bands announced European tours, I am afraid that the agenda wouldn’t be correct. Because some people in Europe hate the United States so much that they refuse the right of Ukraine to subjectivity. They call it the concept of the United States and Russia, two empires, and they don’t care about Ukraine. They hate the United States so much that they don’t give a fuck about Ukraine at all. That’s why some people in Europe are supporting and eating it and spreading Kremlin’s propaganda. They’re so anti-imperialist, that they are okay with Ukraine being destroyed.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s a funny way to identify an empire, not as someone going in and invading another place because they say that they have a historical relationship and that that other place actually belongs to them, which Putin has done by saying, “Lenin was wrong. The Tsar was right. Stalin was right. Ukraine is a place for us to make decisions about.”

Mira: Yes.

TFSR: Mira, thank you so much for this conversation and I am excited to share it. Are there any other links, do you want to mention your band name? It’s okay if you don’t. Or anything that listeners might follow.

Mira: Well, if you’re into punk rock, if you like street punk and oi, you should check out the band I am in right now. It’s called the Bezlad. While in Lviv, three of us are here out of five people, and we’ll try to make some new songs about current events. With the help of local folks who will fill in, we will try to record something. Also, we have a plan to play at a bomb shelter. That’s something new that we never experienced. Hope that will work. If you’re interested in punk, check it out, and stay in touch if you feel like it.

TFSR: We’ll be featuring a song at the end of this interview so folks can listen in to one track by that band. All right. Well, thanks a lot. I hope you keep safe and good luck to you and yours. I hope the war ends soon.

Mira: Thank you so much. Thank you for your attention. Thank you for speaking out about this. For spending your time to let people know what’s going on and let them hear Ukrainian voices on what’s going on here.

Merced Prisoner Hunger Strikes | Eric King Trial Ends

Merced Prisoner Hunger Strikes | Eric King Trial Ends

This week’s episode has two audio segments…

Download Episode Here!

Merced County Prisoner Hunger Strikes

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

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

Eric King Trial Ends

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

Eric King links:

CLDC links:

Certain Days interviews:

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Featured Tracks:

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Transcription (Merced County Hunger Strike)

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

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

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

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

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

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

VS: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcription (Eric King Trial)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Yeah, believe so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Absolutely.

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

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

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

Josh: Thank you Bursts, it was a pleasure.

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

Josh: Yes, thank you.

Transcription (Eric King Transfer)

TFSR: Eric, where are you at right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Yeah, that’s real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EK: Do they have to word it that way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: For sure. That’s true.

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

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

TFSR: I will.

EK: Please give yourself a big hug for me.

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

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

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

EK: Oh, IPA is gross.

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

EK: Oh my gosh, don’t…

A Russian Anarchist Against The Ukraine War

A Russian Anarchist on the Ukraine War

Antiwar protestor in Russia being arrested
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This week, we spoke with Petr, a Russian anarchist member of the group Autonomous Action, who is living in Europe right now. For the hour we speak about the invasion of Ukraine, a bit about the resistance inside of Russia to the war drums and the Putin regime, the dangers of a nuclear conflict, the impacts of increased sanctions and anarchists organizing across the borders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus against the war and against tyranny. You can learn more about what’s going on by visiting Avtonom.org and finding the English tab, or using tools like google translate to read articles from the Russian there.

If you’d like to support anarchist organizing against Putin and the war in Russia, below you’ll find links to some crypto-currency wallets:

  • Ethereum 0x5DF79A64A9CE5B630B50E490F586716522B746d9
  • Bitcoin bc1qpr0dcvhar5fmysqkg4wuk8p6h0hl7ln20dmjwc
  • Zcache t1SqHUbGW8KDRp1hddNAYoVvYHBZoAfG3oc
  • Monero 49eZzSF4uhni3DYnVPCeBPGFZ7cXrbPnWBJuQVYKUNNg7aDxRz6L87fbh9ZQtVNUn87kpSgNgHadAjKthZWmor7yHq9SkTP

Also, a reminder that you can find links to anarchist solidarity and defense organizing and fundraising as well.

To hear our past interviews, including histories of Antifascist organizing in Russia, queer organizing, state repression, ecological resistance and other topics, we’re linking them here as well: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/russia/

Announcement

Ex-YPG French Anarchist Prisoner Hunger Strike

On Tuesday, December 8, 2020, 9 comrades were arrested by the DGSI, the French anti-terrorist police unit, across France. In Toulouse, in Dordogne, in the Paris region, in Brittany, and in Rennes. Anarchists are accused of being “the criminal association planning a terrorist attack”. All but one comrade were released, some after months in pre-trial detention. They are awaiting trial and are placed under the judicial control. The defendants, not all of whom know each other, have been under surveillance for a long period of time, including digital surveillance such as planting recording devices in vehicles as well as physical surveillance.

On March 4th, 2022 it was announced that it was six days since our comrades started the hunger strike. He did so at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine knowing very well that this information would drown in the news about the war. That all efforts would be focused on supporting the resistance in Ukraine and the people fleeing from there. It’s amazing what support for Ukraine has gathered, even thought it also came with shortcomings and contradiction; racist sentiment and nationalist visions for the future to name but two of them. Our comrade would in the same way support people fight for freedom. He is in isolation, the method the state use to deprive us of connection and communication with others. He needs us in the same way we need each other, we can never win alone. A person with their body can resist the repression of the state, but without the access we have on the outside his voice will not be heard.

There are suggestions of steps to support the comrade and more information at the blog, https://solidaritytodecember8.wordpress.com/category/english/

Statement from Sanctuary Camp Defendants

retrieved from BRABC.BlackBlogs.Org:

The following is an update from the now 15 defendants facing charges in Asheville, NC as a part of the city government’s attempt to repress food sharing and mutual aid organizing.

“Since our last statement at the beginning of February, the state has targeted 8 more community members in connection with the December demonstration in Aston Park criticizing the City government’s inhumane treatment of homeless folks. We are now a group of 15 locals facing multiple felony charges for participating in mutual aid efforts in our community.

The city government claims we are each responsible for leaving behind more than 500 lbs of trash following a peaceful protest. APD claims this resulted in a 100 hours of “clean-up efforts”, the use of heavy machinery, and a cost of $2,680.

Over the past three months, the taxpayer dollars and time expended surveilling, harassing, arresting, and now prosecuting the defendants vastly exceeds the damages claimed by APD. How many of the same resources and heavy machinery have been employed by the city and county government to remove and destroy homeless camps in the last year alone?

These actions are not an effort to make our city safer, they are an attack on mutual aid. We remain committed to ensuring all members of our community have a safe place to live, a community around them, and agency over their own lives.

We still need your help as we face state repression and attempts to shut down our networks of care.

“Keep sharing food and care and solidarity with one another. Keep delivering groceries, cooking meals, sharing funds, and showing up in the parks. Keep standing with your community. Keep building this beautiful, transformative mutual aid movement. Keep sharing our story. In solidarity and community, the Sanctuary Camp Defendants”

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, location, preferred gender pronouns, or affiliations that you can give us?

Petr: My name is Petr. I’m located in Europe, I would prefer not to disclose the particular location. I associate myself with he/him.

TFSR: Cool. Are there any projects that you’re involved with for the sake of this conversation?

Petr: I guess, the most important for this conversation is that I participate quite heavily in what the Autonomous Action is doing. This is one of the largest or maybe even the largest organizations of anarchist, libertarian communists in the ex-USSR countries. I’ve been involved in Autonomous Action quite a lot before I moved to Europe. I am still involved while being here. There are lots of projects going on. But mostly, spreading information, organizing more or less a stream of anarchist views, anarchist analysis of the current events for as wide an audience in Russia and neighboring countries as possible.

TFSR: I’m familiar with avtonom.org as a website where I can occasionally find English translations, updates of stuff, and ideas going on in the Russian language sphere. Would you share a little bit about the history of that group Autonomous Action more widely, the shared values and beliefs, like you said, that most people identify as anarchist or libertarian communists? Where the members are? What stuff do the projects do?

Petr: The Autonomous Action was established quite a long time ago, 20 years ago, in fact, in 2002-2003. It used to be an organization with quite solid, libertarian communist and anarcho-communist platform, based essentially on Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Bookchin. But it was not very picky, meaning that we cooperated with all sorts of the progressive left, but still, our opposition towards the state and towards the statist left was quite pronounced always, all the time. During the first 15 years of its existence, Autonomous Action was quite active on the streets. We really organized hundreds of various street actions. We also were quite integrated with the Antifa movement in Russia, I think the Autonomous Action was a major player in the anti-fascist movement on the streets. But then in recent years, since the state repression is constantly increasing, it becomes more and more difficult to actually organize something on the streets openly by anarchists, which means that we are increasingly trying to become a stream of information. That’s why we nowadays don’t call ourselves an organization anymore, but a media project. We’re on our website. We’re on all sorts of social media networks. Those members of Autonomous Action who are still in Russia — and most of them are — participate in street protests and grassroots initiatives, from environmental to political stuff, like the current anti-war protests.

TFSR: You’ve mentioned that you’re in Europe right now. But I wonder if you have a sense, at least among Russian anarchists and Russian-speaking anarchists that you’re in contact with, what are the reactions to the escalation that the Russian government’s been building, but in particular, the invasion of Ukraine, and the justifications behind it? We’ve heard of several marches around Russia with many arrests and beatings, as well.

Petr: It probably will come as no surprise that all the anarchist organizations or movements or projects that I know about in Russia pronounced quite explicitly their position against this war and against Putin’s regime which started this war, and I guess for us as anarchists, it didn’t come as much as a surprise as, for example, for liberals. We were not surprised that Putin will start another war. Wars accompany capitalism, always. Even more, they accompany capitalism in this flavor, which we observe in Russia, this strange mix of neoliberalism, authoritarian regime, and patriarchal propaganda for the crowds. We were not much surprised. But we were a bit surprised by the scale of it. Nobody seriously believed that Putin would really decide to occupy or at least try to occupy the whole of Ukraine. Our guess was that only the Eastern and maybe some southern parts will be under attack. The scale was surprising, but not the war itself.

There were lots of protests around the country. The protests are still ongoing. People still go out in the streets every day. Anarchists, participated quite a lot in these protests. But the protest is quite disorganized. Because, as I’ve said, it’s really difficult to really organize a real demo in Russia, because, it’s just those who will call people to come to some particular place and time will be probably arrested long before it started. It’s really just the spontaneous organization of people via social media, etc. But still, indeed, in the first days of the war, some groups of anarchists in Moscow, for example, and then in St. Petersburg as well, did manage to gather in crowds with banners and with anarchist slogans, etc. But most of the times anarchists were just part of the crowd without any banners or flags because if you have a banner, or if you have a flag, you will be just the first one to be arrested, of course. But the attitude of all anarchists in Russia is anti-war and anti-Putin.

TFSR: From what I hear in the Western media, the Russian government has criminalized media outlets and organizations that call this an invasion or a war. Do you have the impression of if the population in Russia knows what’s going on with the battles, with the shelling of cities, and the refugee crisis that’s building? Do you get the impression that this will be the new Chechnya to bring the country together into Putin’s arms?

Petr: That’s true. Indeed, in the best spirit of George Orwell, the Russian government criminalized calling this war a war. Officially, it is a special military operation. Indeed, even for carrying, for example, a sheet of paper with the words ‘NO WAR’ in it, you can get a fine, you will be penalized. If you do it for the second time, at least in theory, you can get a prison sentence, which is a significant step towards— Putin’s regime was being harder on anyone who has been protesting all the recent years. But this is a really strong step, even for Putin’s regime. Because it’s especially ironic, given that the state propaganda all these years was based essentially on this memory of World War II, and on declarations that “we are peaceful people, and we don’t want war”, etc. This is the reason why Putin and the authorities decided to ban the word “war” because otherwise, it would sound too crazy for the majority of the Russian population.

The question about whether the population knows what’s going on. It is a difficult question. It’s a difficult issue. The urbanized population, which was critical towards Putin even before the war, more or less have the means of accessing Western media, accessing some remaining independent Russian media, they know how to use TOR, VPNs to access blocked websites, so they definitely know what’s going on. About the rest of the population, I’d say that the majority understands what’s going on because nobody really believes the authorities that bombings are aimed only at military facilities, etc because nobody believes Russian authorities in anything. The trust in the government is really low. But it’s just the case that it’s difficult to leave with a feeling that you are a citizen of an aggressor country because the historical memory of people in Russia is that the Soviet Union was under an attack by Nazi Germany. There is this whole myth about a brave country defending itself from the aggressors, and now Russia is this aggressor. I guess many people just try to close their eyes and forget about this. They happily catch on any piece of propaganda on the TV or the Internet, which says “It’s the Ukrainians who are bombing themselves, or we are freeing Ukraine from the Nazis” or that Ukraine was developing biological weapons to destroy all Russians. This is a real claim by the Russian military. It becomes crazier. I think still, people often try to believe that, just because it’s difficult to see the reality often, unfortunately. I think that the role of anarchists and other progressive political movements is to try to open people’s eyes.

The next question of yours, whether this will be the new Chechnya, the idea of Putin definitely was that it will be a quick victory, which would improve the political situation inside the country because people when the wars are won by an authoritarian leader. But now that there is no quick victory — two weeks have passed, and no significant military success up to now — unfortunately, it seems that it could be the new Chechnya in the meaning that it will be just senseless bloodshed for many months or years, which will be horrible. This is definitely a very grim perspective and future. We should do everything that we can to avoid this. We probably can talk later about what we are doing for this and what anarchists and other progressive left can do for this.

TFSR: Thank you.

The claim about the chemical weapons development is kind of a newer one that I’ve just seen popping up over the last few days. Can you describe what that claim is that’s being made by the Russian military?

Petr: Essentially, they invent a new reason to invade Ukraine every day. And at some point, they claimed that they found some documents with the names of some chemical substances, somewhere in Ukraine, in the conquered cities, and based on this, they stated that Ukraine, with the help of the US and NATO, was developing biological weapons to target Russian people. They even claimed something that this weapon will be specifically aimed at the Russian DNA, which is absolute nonsense from the scientific point of view. But it’s just the case that we’ve observed this for many years that Putin and Kremlin propaganda, just their strategy was always just “say as many crazy things as possible so that the truth is just drowning in the sea of shit essentially”. They don’t care about whether what they claim is consistent because one day they say that we invaded Ukraine because we want to defend the people of the East of Ukraine. The next day they say that we invaded Ukraine because it wanted to become a member of NATO, the next day, they say that it was because of nuclear weapon which was being developed there. It’s just a constant stream of nonsense, which nobody actually believes in Russia, except maybe some hardcore patriots, which are definitely the minority of the population.

TFSR: I also wonder, since we’re going back into reasons for the invasion that have been given… The de-nazification makes sense with what you said about the Russian government playing off— The massive amount of people that died during World War II fighting the Nazis, but talking about this as an extension of the Patriotic War for the Fatherland. The de-nazification — and we know that there are militias that are connected to or integrated into the Ukrainian military that have white supremacist connections or have indeed Nazis within their ranks — I’ve been hearing some other anarchist sources talk about okay, “ there’s Nazis involved in the military of Ukraine. There are Nazis involved in the military of the US. There are Nazis involved in the military alongside Russian troops.” One group, for instance, that’s been mentioned, is the Wagner group? Can you talk a little bit about it, just to even the playing field and to point out that states are bad and Nazis using state militaries? Can you talk a little bit about some of the Nazi groups that are involved in the Russian military?

Petr: Well, the whole business of this de-nazification is of course total bullshit. It doesn’t have anything to do with reality. Of course, there are Nazis in Ukraine, and of course, they are some militias that are somehow associated with the Ukrainian army. But it’s definitely not the real aim of invading Ukraine. Putin doesn’t care at all about Nazis, what he cares about is whether he can order these people or not. Definitely, Nazi mercenaries are fighting on the side of the Russian Army. They were involved in armed conflicts in the east of Ukraine, they were involved in Syria, in many other regions of the world. But actually, it doesn’t matter much that they’re Nazis. They’re much more just soldiers of Putin than Nazis. Because the Nazi groups in Russia have been mostly eliminated or totally subjected to the state about 8-10 years ago. Nowadays, there are no independent Nazi parties or groups that are active on the streets. They are either dead or in prison, or they are part of more or less pro-Putin, pro-regime movements. Nazis are not political players anymore in Russia at all. It doesn’t make sense to even to talk about them. Maybe if you have some, specific questions, I probably can give some answers, but they do not play any significant part in what’s happening in Russia now.

TFSR: Okay, that makes sense. I’ve heard Russian people describe that Nazis aren’t fighting you on the streets. But when you get pulled into a police station, there’s going to be a Nazi with a boot to beat you. It seems like one thing about the way that Putin’s regime operates is to destroy autonomous power that could exist, anything that could destabilize and integrate it into their own power base, which is why it’s hard for Western people sometimes to take a read on Putin’s politics, because they presume it’s left or it’s right or something like that when actually it’s just neoliberal authoritarian.

Petr: I agree. Putin doesn’t care about whether this particular group is left or right, Nazi or Antifa. He cares about whether they pose a threat to him or not, that’s what matters. That was the reason behind crushing the Nazi movement about 10 years ago, and actually, about the same time they started crushing the Antifa movement. Then it was more or less finished by 2014 when it was split along this conflict in the Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine because some part, some members of the Russian Antifa movement went to fight on the Ukrainian side, and others went to fight on the side of this newly-established so-called republics. Both sides considered themselves to be anti-fascists. That was sad to observe. But I guess that’s what you expect more or less in such political conditions.

TFSR: Yeah.

Putin has made the argument that Ukraine is a part of Russia, we’ve talked about the claims of genocide and Russian speakers and Donbas. Just as a note, war times are a time of increased nationalism. Have you seen the idea of who is Russian changed shape recently within Russia or to your experience? Where does this leave people of Chechen or Uzbek or other backgrounds or African backgrounds who may or may not be considered as Russian as others right now? How does the race work inside of Russia, basically? Do you get the impression that this has changed around the time of the war drums beating?

Petr: This, I should admit, is a very complicated issue. It probably would require a separate interview or a separate podcast to talk about this in-depth. But in general, on the one hand, Putin and his elite would probably want to establish some ethnic Russian domination or something similar to that. But on the other hand, they understand that they rule a country, which is really multinational and multiracial and multi-ethnic, and pronouncing one ethnic group as a dominant one has its dangers. On the other hand, another thing that stops them from going full Nazi or fully nationalistic is that, I already mentioned, this myths of The Great World War and the fighting against German Nazis, and these myths, these sorts of archetype supports Putin because he and the regime as a whole always claim themselves to be the descendants of these brave Soviet warriors who fought Nazis. That’s why they avoid directly discriminating against ethnic groups, or at least stating this explicitly, although, probably personally, they would these to happen. But politically, they are trying to avoid this. We have no evidence that the situation of ethnic minorities in Russia changed a lot since the war started.

There are problems, but it’s not that there is any apartheid or something like that. We know that the Ukrainian citizens in Russia are now often subjected to questioning. They have visits from the police, because citizens of the country with which Russia is at war right now, even when Russia itself doesn’t mean that it is in a war, up to now at least, it was just questioning. Essentially, the police come to a Ukrainian family and ask them: “Are you going to commit any terrorist acts? Do you have relatives in Ukraine?” It’s relatively soft, up to now, but we closely monitor the situation. We don’t know what might happen next.

TFSR: Because we’ve talked about the censorship that’s occurring around the information getting to parts of the Russian population, do you have a sense of what the morale might be inside of the military? Can you talk a little bit about the universal military obligation or draft in Russia and who gets out of it and how they can do that?

Petr: There is a draft in Russia. Every male after turning 18 has to serve for one year in the army, except when he starts studying at the university and it’s a long and venerable Russian tradition to avoid the draft. It’s been like that in the Russian Empire, in the Soviet Union, and it’s still like this in the Russian Federation. No one or almost no one wants to serve in the army. That’s almost universal. That’s why people try to avoid the army, by all means possible, even before the war, by paying money to the officials, by entering the University, even if they didn’t want actually to study, etc. Of course, now, when there is a real danger of being sent to a real war, even fewer people actually want to serve. Since currently, Russia seems to be losing this war, and there are rumors of actually announcing this total mobilization and sending all the conscripts to the war to Ukraine, we expect that there certainly will be protests or at least conflicts concerning this. We are trying to observe this and once we noticed that anything is happening try to help the protesters, help those who are trying to organize against this conscription, etc.

About the morale inside the military. It’s difficult to say because we don’t have any spies in the Russian army. Judging by the news, I guess, you more or less read the same news as us, it seems that the morale is not that high. Also, because as I’ve said, it’s some a mind-blowing fact to any Russian soldier that he is now serving the role of an invader. Because all his life he was taught that his role is to defend his country against invaders. Now he’s the invader. Also because no one actually wanted to really play a part in the war. All these soldiers didn’t want to really risk their lives in real battle. I’d say that the morale is low. There were some rumors about soldiers rioting somewhere near the border against sending them to Ukraine. But there were no independent confirmations about this. It’s still just some rumors. We definitely expect that there will be some riots, some soldiers rejecting the orders, etc.

TFSR: I guess on Telegram loops and on social media I have seen a video of captured Russian soldiers explaining why they’re there. That sounds also like a terrible situation to be in. But I can’t blame someone for capturing an invading soldier. Or a video of older women confronting soldiers and saying, “You should really put some sunflower seeds in your pockets so that when we kill you, at least something good will grow”. I’m sure the vitriol that they’re facing has done quite a deal on them when they’re being told that if anything they’re going to liberate people or to defend people. It makes me wonder if they’re not doing so well in this facet of the war — this is speculation, but if the Russian government might decide to focus more on the aerial bombardment because it’s easier to push a button and kill a bunch of people than it is to go in and face snipers who know the territory.

Petr: I guess that’s more or less what everyone now agrees on. That it seems that indeed, this is the tactics that the Russian army or the Russian government has chosen now. If we can’t win by conventional weapons, then let’s just bomb them. Because I guess they use more or less the same tactics in Syria and Chechnya. It seems to them that it brings them victory. Why shouldn’t it be used here in Ukraine? Of course, Ukraine is a bit different, because it still has its military, more or less, well, not intact, but still in an operational state. Also, unfortunately, the world didn’t pay so much attention to cities being bombed in Syria, the world does pay a lot of attention to cities being bombed in Ukraine. From this point of view, I’m not sure that these tactics will be actually profitable for the Russian army. But they certainly starting to do something that, they’re bombing more and more civilian buildings, residential buildings, etc. Unfortunately, that’s definitely the case.

TFSR: The last few decades, since the end of the Cold War, and since the end of the Soviet Union have brought a few shifts and changes in international arms treaties. I know, in the last six years, the US has stepped aside from anti-nuclear proliferation treaties that included Russia, as a signatory, and now there’s a lot of concerns that if NATO or US (as a more active element within NATO) decided to escalate participation, or actually start participating on the ground that it could spark a nuclear war. Do you have a sense of people seeing that in Russia as a possibility? How do you feel about that?

Petr: People in Russia definitely do see this as a possibility, especially because Putin himself mentioned that in his speech, when he actually announced the start of the war, he mentioned that we have nuclear power, etc. Also, many people, especially those who are older still remember the Soviet times when the expectation of nuclear war was more or less permanent. It’s not something entirely new.

I’d say that many people that I know at least, definitely are afraid of this. Also, there is a lot of evidence that Putin is not entirely in his mind. He definitely has some mental problems, which means that probably there is not much to prevent him from starting a nuclear war if a demon in his head tells him to do so. Or angels? I don’t know what he has in his head. People are definitely afraid of this, they hope that these are still just hollow threats. But you might never know. I personally think that we should be afraid of this, that, indeed, the Russian nuclear power is now in the hands of, first of all, a person who is definitely a bit mentally unhealthy, second of all, his state apparatus, which is fine-tuned to obey its head and to essentially just tell its head, which is Putin, whatever Putin wants. In this configuration, there is not much resistance to possibly pressing this nuclear button. I think that the danger is real, unfortunately.

TFSR: There’s been a lot of talks of NATO states avoiding sending troops so as not to escalate in that way, but sending weapons instead and imposing further sanctions on the Russian economy, including the ending of purchases of oil, or the capping or slowing of those purchases, which is a major part of the Russian economy, the exporting of petroleum products. How does this affect regular people inside of Russia? How much do you think that it actually affects the rich and the bureaucrats directly?

Petr: It definitely affects regular people. Exchange rates just increased twice or three times over a couple of days, which means that essentially people lost half of their salaries. There are already lots of problems with the goods in the shops, with logistic chains, etc. It’s really a large, profound systemic effect on the Russian economy, even if some people do not yet see it immediately, but it’s definitely there. It definitely will affect regular people a lot. They will become much poorer than they were before that.

How does it affect the rich and the elite class? That’s a good question. It definitely affects them to some extent. We see all these boats being captured all around the world, and we see assets, frozen, etc. The businesses that they own also suffer because of all these sanctions. It’s difficult to estimate whom it affects more, the regular people or the rich. I don’t even know how it can be measured. All I can say is that it definitely influences people.

Some of the sanctions, I guess, make sense in terms of stopping this Putinist military machine and essentially, just slowing down the military part of the economy. But other sanctions, for example, this Visa and MasterCard payment systems blocking transactions of Russians abroad, essentially prohibiting them to use payment cards issued by Russian banks abroad. This makes sense maybe from the pure ethical point of view, but from the point of view of at least allowing people to flee the country and then use their money abroad, this is not that good. I know many people who fled the country because they were some anti-Putin activists, but then their payment cards were blocked, and they essentially were left abroad without any money at all. There are very contradictory opinions about sanctions. I don’t have any clear answer, whether they’re beneficial or not, but definitely, people will suffer. They’re suffering already.

TFSR: Do you think that anti-state, anti-capitalist, libertarian leftists, and anarchists are poised to make good use of the momentum against the war and the increased pressure within Russia to bring about some change? Even if it starts from a small place, including the anti-militarist, anti-draft sentiments?

Petr: The short answer is that I would like to believe it. The long answer is that, as I’ve said, there were literally two decades of destroying the protest landscape, including anarchists. There are very few anarchist or libertarian left organizations that are still capable of actually organizing something massive or mobilizing significant numbers of people.

Having said that I still think that the current situation is somewhat promising as well. It’s bad, but it’s there is some silver lining in this cloud. Because lots of people, including those from the anarchist movement, actually think that based on what we see now, the Russian Federation, as we know it, probably will not survive in the next several months or several years. Because, indeed, the economic situation is quite tough now and it’s really catastrophic, because of the sanctions. And because of the war, war is an expensive business as well. also because of purely political things, because, as I’ve said, Putin probably planned to finish this war very quickly, in a couple of days. But he failed in this. And within the circles of his friends and henchmen and military generals, top hats, etc… they do not do it very much when someone fails. It’s not something tolerated. We expect definitely that the power struggles at the top of the Kremlin chair will intensify. Probably, the regime will somehow collapse in this or that way, comparatively soon, we cannot announce any particular date, but there is this feeling.

In this situation, we probably have good chances to establish or at least help to establish something more decentralized and more libertarian on the ruins of this collapsed regime. It’s still a good question to what extent we’ll be able to do anything meaningful. But at least nowadays, we’re trying to spread the word, spread the libertarian and anarchist ideas, and trying to push gently these anti-war vibes, anti-war protests into a more anti-authoritarian channel. To explain to people that to stop the war, it’s not enough to simply get the troops back, you also have to remove Putin from the Kremlin. We also need to make sure that no second Putin arrives there. I’d say that we can make good use of this moment, we have to try.

TFSR: How have Russians and anarchists in particular reacted to the recent military interventions in Kazakhstan and the backing of the Belarus dictatorship?

Petr: Here the answer is simple, we definitely stood in solidarity with the Belarusian protests. Lots of our comrades, anarchists from Belarus participated in these protests, lots of them are jailed for this, some of them for really long sentences. We supported them and lots of Russian anarchists actually went to Belarus to participate in these protests. The events in Kazakhstan are more complicated, meaning that there is still some fog of war there, it’s still not entirely clear what happened in Kazakhstan. Was it a military coup d’etat or was it a folk revolution? Was it something else? I guess we’re still trying to find out. But we definitely supported the protests in the western parts of the country against gas prices increasing. We definitely tried to resist, to protest against sending Russian troops to Kazakhstan. Because this is all parts of the same chain, sending troops to Ukraine, sending troops to Kazakhstan is part of this empire politics by Putin, by the Russian state. It looks at Kazakhstan and Ukraine and Belarus as its sphere of influence, which they should rule. We as anarchists may surely oppose this way of thinking, in general. We do not think that any empire has the right to tell the people what to do.

TFSR: Do you get much of a sense of Russian sentiments from the wider population about those two interventions or are they kind of hard to gauge?

Petr: In Belarus, there was no military intervention. Russian troops did not enter Belarus, or at least officially didn’t enter. Russia helped the Belarusian dictatorship only with money, lots of money. They also sent some TV propagandists, media managers to help the Belarusian propaganda. There was no clear military intervention, although, Russian troops, are now in Belarus, and they actually attacked Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. But that’s just because they signed lots of agreements. Putin and Lukashenko are best friends now. That’s happening all the time, but there was no intervention.

The general opinion of the Russian public about Kazakhstan, people just didn’t have enough time to actually understand what’s happening. It happened in 10 days, or even less. I don’t think that there is any sentiment, which is shared by a large part of the Russian population about this. Most Russians just don’t care a lot about Kazakhstan in general. It’s difficult for me to give any clear estimate about this.

About Belarus, the Russian society was polarized by the riots and protests in Belarus. Those who were more conservative have this nostalgic feeling about Belarus reminding them about Soviet times. They believed that these were protests inspired by the West, which is poised to destroy this island of the Soviet Union. They definitely were against the protests and they supported Lukashenko. Other parts of the society, more liberal, were unilaterally against Lukashenko and they supported the protests by whatever means possible. It’s very polarized.

TFSR: Do you have any words for comrades internationally or who are in Ukraine, who might hear this? How can anarchists abroad support the efforts of dissidents within Russia, and everyone living under the Putin regime who are resisting?

Petr: We are in contact with our comrades in Ukraine. It’s not like we are disconnected, there is a constant flow of information from here to there, and from there to here.

But anyway, the main words that we can send them is that they are fighting not just for themselves, or for Ukraine, they are fighting for Russia as well, because we really believe that, as it happened a lot in historical times, a lost war often meant the fall of the regime in Russia. We definitely believe this will be another case of that. Stay strong. Defeat Putin. We in Russia, or internationally, will help you to do this as much as possible.

About the question how can anarchists abroad support the efforts of dissidents in Russia? The best way to do this is to spread the information, spread the word that it’s not the case that the entire Russian population supports this war, there are dozens of thousands of people on the streets, thousands of those who are arrested. There are political organizations or groups, even if not that large, but still dozens of people who are actively working against war and organizing protests, meaning designing leaflets, printing leaflets, starting websites or groups in social media, etc. All of this is extremely important. If you want to support people with something else, not just with the word, we have several cryptocurrency wallets, I can send you privately the numbers. If someone wants to give money to printing leaflets, paying for websites, paying for the fees which our comrades have after being arrested in the street protests, please do. We will be grateful for that.

TFSR: Yeah. Is there anything that I failed to ask about that you want to talk about?

Petr: I guess we covered all the important topics. The only thing is probably that in the current situation, it’s quite important not to fall victim to propaganda from both sides. Both from the Russian side, and from the Ukrainian and broadly, the general Western side. Unfortunately, we sometimes see in the Western media some anti-Russian vibe, which is probably understandable in times of war. But at the same time, it’s quite dangerous, I think. As I’ve said, it’s really important to always separate the actions of the Russian government, which Russian people didn’t elect, to begin with, and the actions or the opinions of those who actually live in Russia, and who suffer from the actions of the Russian government. The Kremlin does not occupy just Ukraine, it actually occupies Russia as well. I think that is an important thing to remind people about.

TFSR: Absolutely. Petr, how can people follow your work and the work of Autonomous Action?

Petr: We have a website avtonom.org and it has an English section. We don’t have enough resources to translate all the materials into English but we try to translate at least the most important ones. You can also find the links to our social media there. We have all sorts of channels that you can expect, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, even Instagram. You can follow us on whatever channel you prefer.

TFSR: VK?

Petr: VK, you mean this Russian social network VKontakte? Yes, we have a page there. But we do not recommend using it. It’s owned by the Russian state. Don’t use VK.

TFSR: If listeners do speak Russian, or besides the written content on the website and on social media, you’ve also got a podcast on Sound Cloud, right? But it’s in Russian.

Petr: Yes, it’s in Russian, it’s weekly. People definitely can subscribe to it on YouTube, Sound Cloud, or whatever, or just listen to it from our website. We are trying to give a weekly anarchist analysis of what is happening. We see that many people actually subscribe. It seems that the format is convenient for the audience. We’re quite proud of it actually.

TFSR: I see that some of the notes from those are getting translated. I imagine if someone does have those language skills also and wants to contribute offering to do translations of some of the stuff published on the site might be helpful?

Petr: That would be great. CrimethInc. actually, did some translation on their own initiative. But we definitely need translators, so if someone feels they have these skills, they’re definitely welcome to contact us by any means possible.

TFSR: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and thank you again for taking the time and for all the work that you’re doing.

Petr: Thanks for having me and hope that the war will be stopped.

TFSR: And then the states.

Cory Doctorow on “Walkaway” and Post-Scarcity (rebroadcast)

Cory Doctorow on “Walkaway” and Post-Scarcity (rebroadcast)

Book cover of "Walkaway" by Cory Doctorow featuring a house on fire in black, mirrored below by someoen walking away from the house
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This week, we are re-broadcasting an inteview with the sci-fi and picture book author, technologist and social critic Cory DoctorowCory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the book we spoke of on this episode was Walkaway (you get a 10% discount and support for us when you order from the above link from Firestorm Books in Asheville), out from Head of Zeus and TOR books.  The novel plays with themes of open source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, drop-out culture and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago in paperback, along with matching re-issues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we spoke about themes from the book, sharing, trans-humanism, imagination and monsters.  To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com.  You can also find him on twitter, free writings on Project Gutenberg, his content on archive.org, or his podcast. In 2019 he released Radicalized, a collection of four novellas, and in 2020 he released Attack Surface, a novel in the universe of his prior works, Little Brother and it’s sequel, Homeland.

We hope you enjoy!

Upcoming Anti-Repression Workshops

This week, the second free, online workshop in the Anti-Repression series hosted by Firestorm Books is happening. You can find out more (plus supplemental info) at the Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross website, and sign up for the zoom event on Digital Security coming up at 7pm on Tuesday, February 15th at 7pm EST (UTC – 5) here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN__ACzJRGGSpKS3rDeQnJ9ZQ!

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Transcription

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

TFSR: This week we’re presenting an interview that I conducted with sci-fi and picture book author, technologist, and social critic Cory Doctorow. Cory is an editor of the blog BoingBoing.net, a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and his most recent book is entitled Walkaway, and it’s out from Head of Zeus and Tor Books. The novel plays with themes of open-source technologies, class society, post-scarcity economics, ecological remediation, dropout culture, and liberatory social models. It was released a few days ago also in paperback, along with matching reissues of his other adult sci-fi novels.

For the hour, we chat about themes from the book, about sharing, imagination, privilege, and monsters. To find more work by Cory, check out his blog craphound.com. You can also find him on Twitter. You can find free versions of his writing at Project Gutenberg, as well as interviews and recordings that he’s done at archive.org or his podcast. Links will be found in the show notes for this episode.

Cory, thank you very much for taking the time to chat.

Cory Doctorow: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your interest in the book.

TFSR: It was a really pleasurable read. One thing I love about speculative fiction is finding the roots in the current world looking at the divergences between the story and the IRL and playing with those imaginary threads, tying them together. Walkaway mentions Idle No More, the Arab Spring, it alludes to Occupy and even old back-to-the-landers in Vermont. From this history-of-the-future view, what agency is given to resistance movements of today or just yesterday?

Cory: That’s a really good question. My theory of change is that we get to a better place not by laying out a plan that takes us from A to Z, but by taking immediate steps that in some way materially improve the circumstances for resistance or change, that then creates a more favorable landscape from which the next volley can be launched. So it’s a lot more like a software hill-climbing algorithm, where you don’t know the terrain and but all you do is you always try to move up to more favorable terrain, rather than this idea of a knowable world. Maybe this is where I break with Marxism and its so-called scientific theory of history that has this deceptive and seductive inevitability about how we can chart a course. And instead of charting a course, I advocate for a unified heuristic. We all use the same rule of thumb to try to make things better. And the material improvements that we make just in some way benefit the people that come in the future, in some unknowable and unguessable situation. So rather than try to lay in the material needed for a battle whose contours we can’t predict, we just try to make things as versatile and usable as possible for whoever comes next. And so in this future, I think the people who are on the vanguard, are people who are picking up the stuff that we left lying around, without knowing exactly how it would be used. And some of it turns out to be useful in unexpected ways. And some of the stuff that maybe we predicted would be most useful turns out to have no earthly use.

TFSR: That’s really well-said. Actually, that reminds me— I had mentioned in one of the emails that I was interested in and had been looking into Cooperation Jackson recently as a project happening in the deep south of the US. It’s an initiative to grow a tech industry and manufacturing and fabricating belt, employing the mostly black and working-class populations in a democratic, almost permacultural approach. It doesn’t seem perfect, obviously. But they’ve really laid out their plan, really open-source style in this book called Jackson Rising. They’re influenced by Rojava, by the Mondragon cooperative, by Black Liberation struggles, by the Zapatistas, and many other diverse movements. Are there any current anti-capitalist projects or movements around the world that are hacking and making that inspire you or that you’re keeping close tabs on?

Cory: It’s a really good question. Again, I know I keep saying that, but these are good thought-provoking meaty questions.

I’m sure that there are explicitly anti-capitalist projects. I mean, Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunisten in Berlin sprang to mind. But I’m interested in the way that projects that don’t have an explicitly anti-capitalist agenda, nevertheless can serve the cause of a post-capitalist or even a mixed-market technological future. So things free and open-source software, the movement for net neutrality, cognitive radio technologies, things like end-to-end encrypted messenger clients. And also, not incidentally, that the tools for evaluating all of these that— We’re getting into better trainer training tools and better critical frameworks for understanding them. So EFF, with whom I work, sometimes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has historically published scorecards of different kinds of security tools. And they’ve stopped doing it for end-to-end encrypted messengers because they realize that there isn’t a dimension on which an encrypted messaging tool is best. Instead, there are different kinds of threat models for different kinds of users. Now they’re publishing plain-language, easy-to-understand models, or frameworks for evaluating what encrypted messenger you should use and understanding whether any given encrypted messenger is one that you should trust and that you would find useful.

And to me, in terms of aiding insurgency, which I guess is what all these things have in common, they don’t have an explicit political valence, but they have an anti-authoritarian valence, that these tools are really useful. And I think that the place where, again, if I break with the Marxist left on the inevitability of history, maybe the place where I break with the intersectional left, is on whether a tool can be made to benefit insurgents that doesn’t benefit insurgents, we don’t like. The alt-right is an insurgent movement as well. And when I look at movements to throttle the alt-right, I always concern myself with the extent to which that will also throttle anti-authoritarian left-wing movements. For example, any framework in which it becomes easier to remove content from the web-based on the politics of its speech, I think, has to be viewed with extreme caution, not because there isn’t a speech that is bad speech, or that the world would be better without, but because the ease with which speech can be removed based on its content is a threat to anyone who wants to say anything unpopular.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s funny, now becoming personally old enough, I’m almost 40 to have seen this trajectory a couple of times. For instance, I’m in the US, seeing Democrats be in office and then seeing Democrats allowed to push certain boundaries or increase incarceration rates, or deport more people, or do drone strikes without any sort of repercussions to the executive branch. And then a Republican administration follows directly after, it’s terrible when it’s happening when the Democrats are doing it, but there seems to be a lack of understanding to some people that the tool is going to be wielded by someone and you don’t get to choose necessarily who wields that tool. Whether or not it’s positive or “positive” for your goal.

Cory: Yeah, I think that’s right. American liberals were pretty sanguine about the extension of really extreme executive power to Obama when he was using it to fight the hardline TGOP Republican Congress. And now they’re about to have their past sins visited upon them, not least because there’s now the power of the president to create secret assassination lists that a certain liberal defended in the last administration. But also, as you say, mass incarceration, the failure to close Gitmo, and so on. A lot of that triangulation Clintonian political stuff is how they went from convenient instrumental doctrines into pluripotent immortal weapons that now get to be wielded by whoever sits in the President’s chair. And we have a maniac with a lot less discretion sitting in the President’s chair. I’m not going to stick up for Obama, but I do think that if nothing else, he was circumspect and premeditated in a way that Trump isn’t capable of, which at least allowed us to have a threat model. I always like to distinguish, when I think about threat models, between the cat burglar who plans a robbery of your house because they know what jewels you have hidden in your wall safe. And that time I parked my car in Gastown in Vancouver, which is the principal part of heroin ingress into the Americas. I left a quarter sitting on the dashboard and someone broke into the rental car to steal a quarter. It’s possible to think about that jewel thief in a way that rationally defends against it. Like if the jewel thief’s expected return on selling your jewels is less than the cost of breaking into your house, you can secure your house from the jewel thief because they don’t want to waste money. Whereas the junkie is acting without any premeditation, and it’s very hard to defend against. And when we think about political threat models, Obama at least was predictable. We knew where he would squander capital and where he wouldn’t in the political sense. Whereas Trump picks dumb fights. And a loose cannon on deck is much scarier when it’s a really big scary cannon than when it’s a small constrained cannon. And Obama made the president into a much bigger cannon.

TFSR: Yeah. With the aid of the American people.

You mentioned that you’re a fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of your writing focuses on tech tools, for more secure organizing and knowledge sharing, and resisting tyranny. For instance, Little Brother, as a novel focused largely on ubiquitous surveillance and the socialization of resistance via, for instance, parties where people shared encryption face-to-face. The book was both the commentary as well as a spur to get folks thinking about resistance with actual models of going about it. Can you talk about your views of the cultural and activist interventions that you engage with? How do they overlap?

Cory: Culturally, there is an anti-authoritarian streak that is built into the internet. It’s not determinative, it’s not like using the internet makes you anti-authoritarian. But if you have anti-authoritarian tendencies, there’s a lot that the internet has to offer you. And much of what gave us the internet, as we understand it today, was anti-authoritarian. It may have had its roots and things BBN and the RAND Corporation, building command and control networks for the US military. But its early users and the people who sketched out its contours and built a lot of its infrastructure and a lot of its norms and embedded technological assumptions did so out of a posture of anti-authoritarianism. And so culturally, anti-authoritarianism is not an end in itself. Because anti-authoritarianism can lead to like, “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say racist things and rape people. You’re not the boss of me!” But anti-authoritarianism is an axis on which to plot other politics, I think good politics are better when they’re anti-authoritarian. That the people who are suspicious of their ability to tell other people what to do, and the likelihood that they’ll get it right produce better outcomes than people who are convinced of their infallibility and the right to dictate to other people.

One of the places where the politics and the culture of the internet overlap, is in that anti-authoritarianism. Going back to Marxism, Marx had this idea that being alienated from your labor made you susceptible to being talked to about the problems of labor alienation. And I think making your friends and enjoying the world through systems that are intrinsically anti-authoritarian, or that have anti-authoritarian roots, makes you a good candidate to talk to about anti-authoritarianism.

You know “there are no atheists in a foxhole”?, it’s harder to be an authoritarian on the internet. It’s not impossible, clearly, but as compared to other systems, the internet, because there’s the coercion on the internet is hard. And not only that, but people who have benefited from the inability of others to coerce them, have then gone on to build other systems on the internet that make coercion hard. Again, it’s not impossible, I’m not pretending that shitty Twitter mobs aren’t coercive. I’m just saying that the shitty Twitter mobs are an aberration, as compared to many other systems that exist to evade coercion. One of the things that I concern myself with a lot is what I think of it as historic revisionism in which we say that early internet optimists were naive about the power of the Internet to be a force for bad, and I happened to know those people really personally and I’m extremely I’m aware of what they had in mind. I was there when they were doing that, I was talking to them about what are we trying to do here, I was working for them and drawing a paycheck from them. And their view was not “the internet is automatically going to be great”. It’s raining soup, let’s fill up our boots. Their view was that the internet could be unbelievably terrible. let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, when John Gilmore said the internet interprets censorship and rights around it, he specifically meant that people who operate the most anti-authoritarian parts of the internet, which at the time were old Usenet feeds, whenever someone tries to censor Usenet, do these specific things with the protocols that underpin it, and with their own human effort to make it harder to censor, and those tools might have been developed to ride around damage, to ride around drop nodes and an unreliable network. But they work extremely well to fight censorship. And the people who develop them are ready and willing to do so because they view censorship as illegitimate.

That’s a powerful force. And it’s one that the story of the internet’s early proponents being naive fools. One of the things we have on our side, as we work to make the internet safe for human habitation, a force for good and human thriving is the ethos that the internet should be that, and when you turn your firing squad in a circle and say that the people who fought all along for a free, fair and open Internet just didn’t understand how the internet would go wrong and shouldn’t be listened to, then you make it harder to achieve the free, fair and open Internet that we want. And you do so out of petty personal satisfaction that you get from telling other people that they’re idiots.

TFSR: This reminds me of a part of the book that I keep thinking about, and that keeps resonating with me as a very interesting way of engaging with some of these ideas. So just to bring up a couple of characters. There was Limpopo and Jimmy. Limpopo had put in a hell of a lot of work, designing and building and doing upkeep on a way station and home for people who had started walking away for what was called Default or mainstream society in this dystopia. And people collaborated there to create a new life with others. Jimmy comes in as an intelligent, brash, proud young man who believes in meritocracy and wants to leverage a position of power at the compound called the B&B for himself by riding the coattails of Limpopo. There are also some gender norm dynamics that one could unpack from the way that it goes down in the story.

Can you talk about what inspired you to write this out? And what do you hope readers will get from the debates and battles like these that happen in Walkaway?

Cory: In some respects, that is me correcting a sin of my own, which was that I wrote this novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom about the ambiguous utopia of meritocracy that like reputation economies, where I posed reputation economies as a not unalloyed good, but as something that can be actually pretty terrible. And people took it as a manual for how to build the future, not as a cautionary tale about how things could go wrong if you use that as your starting point. I wanted to make it less ambiguous, the ambiguous utopia of a reputation economy, I wanted to make it more explicitly dystopic to heighten that, make it visible, make it harder to miss. I think I did that. I hope I did. And I also want people to think a little bit about this starting-life-on-third-base business that when you say someone has done very well objectively, and that something that you’ve measured is bigger for one person than it is for another, that there’s a false quantitativeness that misses out on some qualitative elements, which are all the social stuff that goes into that person’s life, all the reasons that they’re over-performing relative to their peers.

TFSR: Can you break that down a little bit? I saw you had responded to a Q&A from a big bookstore in Portland naming your memoirs, something about like, “I’m a privileged white dude, who’s-” I’m misstating that… Can you unpack that a little bit more about where people start from? Why do they perform in certain ways and the invisibility of privilege?

Cory: Yeah, I mean, I expected anyone listening to this to be familiar with the story, but I’ll tell you, from my perspective.

My grandparents did not come from a place where they had a lot of privilege or power. My grandfather was raised on a farm in a part of Belarus that later became Poland. My grandmother was raised in Leningrad, and my grandmother was a child soldier who was inducted into the Civil Defense Corps during the siege of Leningrad at the age of 12. And she served for nearly three years, and then they evacuated the women and children over the winter ice. And she met my grandfather in Siberia when she was inducted into the Red Army. And then the two of them deserted and went to a displaced persons’ camp in Azerbaijan. And that’s where my dad was born. And they came to Canada as displaced people. But Canada had, at the time, a pretty well-developed social welfare network. And it made sure that my dad got a first-class education. There were also relatively few large businesses that dominated the sectors that they operated in. And so my grandmother’s second husband was able to start and operate a successful scrapyard, that gave him the power to go to university, which was also publicly underwritten. And as a result, even though both of my dad’s parents were functionally illiterate, he has a Ph.D. in Education. And that’s why I grew up in a household where in 1979, we got an Apple 2+, because, by that point, he was head of computer science for a large high school. And Apple came along and gave all those heads of computer sciences Apple computers to take home for the summer, to convince them to not have mainframes, to not do time-sharing on mainframes and their computer science courses. My dad had been teaching with PDPs that they time-shared on and punch cards. And as a result, I had a modem in 1980, I was active on bulletin board systems, I was on the ground floor when the internet came along, I was able to drop out of university and walk straight into a job in a new tech sector, I did very well by it. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was earning as much as my unionized parents were, without a university degree. All of that arises out of privilege.

I got incredibly lucky by being born when I was born, I got incredibly lucky by being born to who I was born. And some of that luck was not just about the great forces of society, but about explicit redistributive practices that were intended to ensure not just equality of opportunity, but to a certain extent, equality of outcome. That was enormously beneficial to me. And so here, I sit in Southern California, having previously emigrated to the United Kingdom and attained citizenship, and then moving to the US and getting a Green Card through a relatively simple process, because I qualified for an alien of extraordinary ability visa that transitions very easily to a Green Card, and we’ve just bought a house and we can afford that house. And we’ve spent a bunch of money on a remodel and all of that. And some of that is because I write good books and work hard. But the reason I got to write good books and work hard and earn enough money to do all those things is that a bunch of forces that are way beyond my control, and that are not well-distributed bored down on my progenitors.

And this is how we went from my grandfather whose mother was kicked to death by a cow on a dirt farm, to me living in a renovated mid-century modern bungalow in Burbank, California in two generations. It wasn’t by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was because I got to start life on second base. When I look around at other people who are trying to do what I did, who are trying to become successful writers, who want to become activists, who want to get involved in other activities that require a relatively high degree of technical specialized knowledge, as well as the comfort from which to take risks. The reason those people don’t have that is not because of an innate failing of theirs. It’s because I am a privileged white dude who got incredibly lucky to be born who I was, and they weren’t.

TFSR: Do you read a lot of sci-fi yourself?

Cory: I do. Although, I think a lot of people who read a lot for pleasure in their 20s, by the time I got to my 30s and 40s and became a dad and had a career and so on, my reading for pleasure, or even reading for professional purposes, plummeted. I do a lot less reading now than I used to. But I have a chronic back pain problem. And so I swim for an hour every day, and I have an underwater mp3 player. So I listened to about two novels a month through my swimming. And then I probably read two more a month, or two more books a month. Sometimes novels, sometimes not. If they’re novels, they’re usually science fiction, as well as a few graphic novels. And I get sent a lot because I write young adult novels and also I’ve got a picture book coming out, I get sent a lot of kids’ books for review or quotes. And I have a 10-year-old, so I just throw them in her room. And if she reads them, then I read them and review them. She’s my first approximation sorting function. I read reasonably broadly, but when I worked in a science fiction bookstore, I read a lot. And I know exactly how much I’m not reading because I know how much I read back then.

TFSR: Does your daughter ever contribute to the quotes that go on the covers of books?

Cory: Yeah, funnily enough, one time, I got asked to write a quote for the sequel to a book that she liked a lot called Giants Beware! The sequel’s called Dragons Beware! And they sent it to me as a PDF, so we read it together off my screen. And I told her I’m going to make a quote for this. And they’re going to put it on the cover of the book. And she said, “I want to send one in too”. So just for yucks, I sent it to the editor, and the editor cut my quote in half to make room for hers.

TFSR: It sounds she has a feature in writing or at least reviewing. I really like political sci-fi, I’m a one-trick pony. I just gravitate towards reading about ideas around politics and around social engagement and social organizing. But a novel that I was reminded of at some point with Walkaway was March Pierce’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Have you read that before?

Cory: Sure.

TFSR: Especially for its [27:28] of a utopia and a dystopia in a struggle with each other, although her vision definitely had tech serving a visibly more ecologically healing role, rather than what I saw in Walkaway as a sort of mitigating during this hardcore struggle between default and walkaway worlds. I saw more people creating livable structures and the tools that they needed for immediate survival, as opposed to in Pierce’s book, maybe it would have been a little bit further on where people were trying to heal landscapes, for instance. Also, it contained more non-human animals than I found in Walkaway. Maybe I missed it, but was there an ecological bent in Walkaway? Or was it more focused on just this is the destruction, this is us needing to survive and create something new?

Cory: If we’ve been warned about disaster capitalism by the likes of Naomi Klein, Walkaway is, in some ways, a pain to the possibilities of disaster communism. One of the things that walkaways are doing is they’re using the catastrophic remnants of environmental collapse as the raw material for a better world. One of the great challenges to a transitional program towards a more broadly distributed future is property relations and the difficulties of expropriation.

I was just on a panel in Australia at a literary festival with an African woman, a white African journalist who had risked her life to report on authoritarianism in Zimbabwe and had been exiled. I think she was actually born there. Maybe it was another regional country. I think it was Zimbabwe. And she was talking about the ANC’s proposal to expropriate white farmers and redistribute their lands and about how that had been a real disaster in Zimbabwe for lots of reasons, partly because sophisticated agricultural knowledge wasn’t widely distributed, and partly because of the lingering resentments and the difficulty for reconciliation and so on.

And so we talked about it, and I said, “Let’s talk about some other decolonization efforts that had land reform in them. You have the Cubans who after the revolution bought land at market rates. And it’s not like the exiled elites of Cuba in Miami therefore forgave them and didn’t harbor inter-generational grudges against the Cuban Republic for having taken away the family farm. You have American whites in the South who still nurse these horrible grievances about the antebellum period and land changes after that and so on. Or the post-war period and land changes after that. It’s very hard to get people to feel okay about these changes in land ownership. Moreover, it’s very easy to activate grievances. So even if people seem to have forgotten about them for a generation, they can be reactivated by reactionary political actors who want to use those grievances to raise a political movement to pursue some reactionary program. Think about the Balcans, where by exploiting these old grievances, it was possible to create a civil war that still has a reactionary neofascist, nationalist element, who never fully lost the power that they gained by exploiting those old divisions.

I think that one of the things that the book proposes is that when life gives you SARS, you might try and make Sarsaparilla. The fact that environmental catastrophe has basically rendered a bunch of land to be uninhabitable and undesired by anyone means that walkaways can, with relatively low risk, just show up there and take this blighted no man’s land and turn it back into something worthwhile. But of course, the thing that they discover is that as soon as you rehabilitate something that no one wants, all of a sudden they rediscover their property interest in it. But the thing that they exploited in it is that there’s so much blighted land, and remediating it is so easy if you don’t care about profits, that as soon as they build something viable on some blighted land, and some oligarch comes along and says, “Hey, that’s my patch of blighted dirt and I want it back now that you made it attractive again,” they just move on to another patch of blighted dirt and do it all over again. And in fact, each one of these is an opportunity to overcome their previous mistakes and do more ambitious things and just refactor things. They’re in some way benefiting from not having that status quo bias that normally happens in things like free software projects where no one wants to start over and refactor things from go because it’s just so much work. And you’ve got so much sunk cost in the status quo. But if someone comes along and just wipes out all your source code every six months, provided that you really still need the thing, shelter is not optional. So they have to go build shelter somewhere. And they just make a virtue out of that vice.

TFSR: It’s a pretty awesome set up in the novel, and it’s really inspirational, the scope of the book and all the different social conundrums that you’re trying to at least touch on and play with how different elements of, for instance, the Free University that’s developed, that is escalating people’s knowledge and technologies and trying to improve on things all the time. Because you’ve got people that are disenfranchised from mainstream society, and they choose to leave, but they bring this knowledge and this ability with them and put it towards a collective good. There are just so many examples in the novel. I can’t I can’t stop gushing about it.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you. Science fiction does have this tradition of stories about someone wielding an enormous technological power because of their special knowledge, who nevertheless doesn’t have political power, and how the people with political power coerce the people with the technical knowledge into working for them. After civilization collapses, how does Master Blaster and Thunderdome get the mining engineers who actually know how to convert methane to useful source of power to work for them, or how does the technical staff of Immortan Joe get incentivized to work for Immortan Joe, instead of just walking over to the next Arroyo and living without this tyrant?

Telling it from the perspective of people who did have this rare, not widely distributed, extremely powerful technical knowledge, finding solidarity with the people rather than the oligarchs, and taking that technical knowledge and spreading it around, that’s actually a thing that happens. That’s the story of CryptoParty and it’s the story of lots of people who can just work for big tech companies, and instead, or in addition, devote their lives to social justice causes and to widely distributing their specialized knowledge. In this case, you have this scientist class that reaches a breaking point with their paymasters, where they realize that the practical immortality technology they’re developing has the potential to speciate the human race and make their bosses not just powerful, but immortal, and to deprive everyone else of immortality, and that once everyone else is immortal, once everyone else can’t be killed, then the ability of the wealthy and powerful 1% to coerce them becomes significantly reduced, because how do you coerce someone who’s not afraid to die? As these people start to defect to the side of the 99%, it becomes more and more obvious to the ones who remained, that what they’re engaged in is something morally indefensible and that not only is it morally indefensible, it’s morally indefensible and there’s an alternative.

TFSR: That’s a thing in the book that I found really interesting, too, is that I don’t hear many people talk about post-scarcity economics. And I’d to talk about the technologies of immortality that are talked about in the book. Hierarchies are based on the withholding of something from people. People build hierarchies, but social hierarchies that exist in society, whether it be the class-based ones, or the way that gender power is appropriated throughout society, or racial castes, or whatever, is about privileges being withheld from other people, people being disprivileged. And one of the very basic and from time immemorial ways that happens is the withholding of the means towards one’s own ability to have shelter, ability to have food, ability to take care of one’s loved ones. Can you talk about what made you start thinking about post-scarcity economics and maybe some influences on your thinking around it?

Cory: Well, going back to this idea about the cultural and political nexus on the internet, one of the things that the internet does is challenge — at the same time it supercharges it — it challenges rentierism, because the ultimate in rentierism is the idea of so-called intellectual property, which is the idea that you have a thing that has no tangible existence, and that, through its creation, generates passive income. And all you have to do is just sit there and wait for it to roll in. This is one of the ways that this fight that I’m engaged in on the policy side about DRM, I think has this wider significance. When you go back to the early literature of intellectual property in the Chicago school, you find this metastatic choice theory where this idea that someone who owns a piece of intellectual property could use some magic technology dust to infinitely divide that intellectual property into a series of products that are ever more tailored to different audiences.

So like, maybe you don’t want to spend the full freight to read a book anytime you want. Maybe you just want the right to read the book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, and the market can produce this standing on one leg Wednesday price through some price discovery mechanism. And then the technology somehow sees to it, that having acquired the book you can only read it on Wednesdays while you’re standing on one leg. And it’s one of those things where, in a lot of technology policy fights, the answer is in part wanting it badly is not enough. So we don’t know how to make the technology that only lets you read a book on Wednesdays while standing on one leg, even if we stipulate that that’s a good idea. But once you swallow a spider to catch the fly, you have to swallow a bird to catch the spider.

So once we accepted that that would be this market in the future, and that the way that we would have these passive incomes in a post-manufacturing society where the WTO allowed all the manufacturing jobs to be offshore to China, and the West would remain wealthy through exporting the intellectual property to China that would then be turned into physical objects and then brought back into the West, and that it would be rent-seeking on the people making the things by owning the rights to the plans to make the things, or the images that are embodied by the things or whatever that the West would remain economically dominant, it became politically impossible to say, “We don’t know how to make a technology that stops you from reading books, unless it’s Wednesday, and you’re standing on one leg.” And so instead, we started trying to approximate it. And the way that we ended up approximating it is with technology that just spies on you all the time. Computers that are designed to not take orders from their owners, but instead to take orders from third parties without even informing the owner what the order is, or allowing them to rescind it or terminate it.

This has wider implications for information security, which is, in some ways, the single most important technological question we have to answer: how do we make computers more secure, as we start putting our bodies inside of them and start putting them inside of our bodies? There’s arguably nothing more important for us to answer authoritatively than that question. But the elevation to virtue of it being hard to make as many copies as you want of something is the outcome of this policy, consensus that emerged that we would just someday have this rentier economy. In that rentier economy, the fact that you can take something valuable and make as many copies as you need, without any incremental cost becomes a problem. Historically, that would have been a utopian scenario.

There’s a thing that everyone needs, and we can make as much of it as anyone needs for free? That’s not a problem historically. But we elevated scarcity to a virtue. And so thinking about post-scarcity is in that regard, a subversive act, because it challenges the whole consensus about what a neoliberal future looks like, a rentier future looks like. The first time I really encountered post-scarcity, I’d encountered it in dribs and drabs in the fights about software piracy in the 80s. There was some ambiguity there and there were still a lot of small independent software companies that made this reasonably convincing case that like, “I’m just some dude who made some accounting software, please don’t make me go broke by refusing to pay for it.” But as this turned into the music question, and as Napster came along and became the fastest adopted technology in the history of the world, and as it took the 80% of commercial music that wasn’t available for sale anywhere, at any price, and put it in the hands of everyone who wanted it at any time, night or day, and also automatically started to create communities of interest around music that were not in the mainstream because you would find someone’s collection that you thought was interesting, and you’d open a chat window to them, and you plunder their collection for things that you’d never heard of, but based on them having things that you liked that few other people you could assume that that the rest of it would be interesting to listen to. This thing that was so clearly just good was turned into a vise and became further the rubric for mass internet surveillance and takedown regime where material could remove from the internet without any checks or balances. It became really clear to me that the people who viewed scarcity as a virtue were an existential threat to a free, fair, and open Internet. For whatever reason that that scarcity had become a virtue to them. And so post-scarcity and thinking about it and singing its praises and describing ways in which it could be great, became a cultural project in the service of economic and political projects.

TFSR: I was wondering about this actually because you bring up Napster. And that’s about the time when I was graduating from high school and started paying attention to— I’d been playing on computers for a few years at that point. The things that Gnutella and Napster were providing, the connectivity, the ways of exploring other people’s knowledge and art were just fascinating. And those seem to go away in the early 2000s, because of all this pressure from industries and the FCC, and what have you. Soulseek is still around, but I don’t think people really use it, I mess with it from time to time, and it’s got the same abilities. Do you think it’s just not used as much or talked about because it’s a snake eating its tail, people don’t talk about it, so it doesn’t get used as much. And because people aren’t using it, people don’t talk about it, or just because technologies have maybe the social acceptability of sharing music or sharing art in that way, has now just developed onto a different platform?

Cory: It’s definitely on different platforms. It’s streaming now. Ironically, we lost a bunch of things that would have been very helpful to the industry. We lost a lot of the social elements. It’s much harder to have a community where you post links to music that you might like, that is infringing. You can still point to YouTube, but increasingly, there are risks of communities facing legal sanctions, being shut down because of the preponderance of links to stuff. And so what that means is that the recommendation and the concentration of people who might be interested in your music as a product in one easy-to-advertise-to place, that has been very eroded through these anti-infringement anti-piracy programs, but the infringement hasn’t been eroded. The people who will tell you that there’s more infringement than ever are the people who claimed that this would be what they needed to stop infringement. The record industry, their own stats show that their efforts were worse than useless, that they ended up with more infringement, not less. But of course, their argument is, “well, it would be even more if we hadn’t done all of this.” We swallow the spider to catch the fly, now give us some birds to catch the spider. Once we accepted that any cost is bearable in the service of defending music from copyright infringement, then the sky’s the limit. It turns out that shutting down services didn’t do it, disconnecting people from the Internet didn’t do it, all these other things didn’t do it. So just give us more extreme measures, just keep ramping up our power to be judge, jury, and executioner of people on the internet and the things that they say, and eventually, we’ll be able to get rid of copyright infringement.

The other thing that forcing this decentralization did was it made it harder to charge rent. Napster had a business model that was “we will go to the record labels, we’ll get a license from them, and we’ll charge five bucks a month to be a Napster customer. And then we’ll measure what people are downloading and we will pay out the money in that, according to who downloaded what, whose stuff got downloaded.” It was literally a model where the more people pirated, the more money you got paid. And now what we have is this fragmented underground system that, because of court decisions like Grokster, that said that companies have liability if they know and can measure what’s going on, the systems are deliberately designed so that no one can audit them and figure out which musicians to pay. So they just really shot themselves in the head. They still make tons of money from things like streaming services, the legit streaming services like Spotify. Musicians don’t make any money from them, but the labels make gobs of money from them. And that’s because they have these super abusive contracts. And those contracts have become more common, not less, because there are fewer alternative places to bandy your music about because the copyright enforcement has basically made it very expensive top-rate alternatives to the traditional music industry. And so now we’re down to four giant record labels that all have the same shitty contracts. And they all have the same abusive terms for any musician who signs with them. Even though Spotify is throwing billions of dollars at the labels, the labels contractually have to give only infinitesimal fractions of a penny to musicians out of those billions. You’ve just ended up with a system where it’s hard for them to harness real growth, the anemic growth that there is, they get the windfall from, and musicians are trapped in a sharecropping model.

TFSR: You mentioned that you had a children’s book coming out soon.

Cory: Yeah, I have a picture book. It’s called Poesy the Monster Slayer. And it’s about a little girl who’s obsessed with monsters. And one night when the monsters break into her bedroom, she tears apart all the girly toys in her bedroom and repurposed them as field-expedient monster-killing weapons. When the beholder leaps off of her bookcase and hovers in front of her with its millions of riding eyes, she takes her Barbie bubblegum-scented perfume and mace it. After each monster battle, her parents come in and put her back to bed and say “I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow morning if you don’t let me get a good night’s sleep and stop horsing around in your room.” And then the punchline is that they turn into zombies that she can’t defeat, but the zombie that they can’t defeat just tucks her into bed. Its attack mode is that tucks her into bed and doesn’t let her get out again. And the penultimate monster that she fights is Frankenstein’s monster. And she topples it over and then uses her sewing kit seam ripper to take its head off. And they tuck its head into bed with her and the two of them share a wry glance, the Frankenstein’s head, and the little girl as her parents tuck them in and turn the lights out. That’s the cute little story. Yeah, spoiler. It’s only about 100 words long, so it wouldn’t take you long to get to that spoiler. Just don’t tell your little children before you read it to them and you’ll be fine.

TFSR: That sounds like a story that only a parent could write.

Cory: Yeah, certainly. And the part of the running joke is the name of the kid is very long, and it’s my daughter’s name. So my daughter has a crazy long name. She’s Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow. That’s the name of this character. And every time the parents come in, they call her by more of her name. So like, “Poesy has to go back to bed. Poesy Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed. Poesy Emmeline Taylor Doctorow, go back to bed.” And eventually, it turns into the whole name. It’s fun in a kid’s book where there’s a cumulative call and response.

TFSR: That’s funny, too, that reminds me of Etc from Walkaway. What inspired that? Your daughter?

Cory: Well, one of the things about the immigrant experience I come from — it’s different for different people — is that we have a lot of names. My grandfathers had their birth names, which were usually Russian or Eastern European names. And then they had a Hebrew name. And then they had a Yiddish nickname. And then they had an anglicized name, and sometimes more than one anglicized name. And they used different names depending on who they talked to. And I played with this before. I wrote a novel called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town where the characters have a different name every time they are referred to. It has a specific salience in this technological moment, because of the name wars, where Google Plus and Facebook had this insistence on everyone having one canonical name that they use to face the world, which produced all kinds of shitty problems. But it also sparked a bunch of really good arguments about names. And there’s a beautiful essay called “False things programmers believe about names.” It includes things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone has a name that can be written down. Everyone has a unique name. Everyone has a name that’s unique when you factor in their date of birth, and so on and so on. This is actually also become the subject of a Supreme Court case over voter suppression because one of the heuristics that the voter-roll-purging software used was that it assumed that it was very unlikely that two people would share the same name and the same birthday. And it turns out that for a lot of reasons, that’s not true. Among them is the fact that a lot of databases, when they don’t have a birthday, default to January 1. There are tons of people who share that birthday. But also guess what month people named June tend to be born in *laughs*. Or people named Carol, guess what day of the year they tend to be born — December 25. There are a lot more collisions than you’d expect. I wanted to play with this idea that you could have a character that had lots and lots of names that would break a database.

There’s a joke that got picked up in XKCD about a kid named Timmy Drop Tables, that is whose name is a MySQL code injection attack, that if you try to enter the kid into the school rolls, the school rolls fall apart. That database-breaking function of names is a really interesting thing. And names, of course, have this resonance in storytelling, where if you know Rumplestiltskin’s name, you can make him do your bidding. If you know the Demon’s name, you can conjure him or banish him, and so on. So the true names of things have always held power. And one of the things that the internet has been really good for, and that has made the name wars so important, is that the internet has always been a place where people could have a new name. And it’s enabled people, because of those new names, to experiment with new identities. And those new identities are part of why we have things like gender fluidity, as a thing that has always existed but has come into prominence, because it gives people a space in which they can be fluid in their identity, without exposing themselves to risk, by budding off a new identity to play with. And then when they feel comfortable about reintegrating it into the main branch of their identity if they ever do. And that has created a real social revolution that’s playing out all over the world.

It’s also a force for evil, the Twitter is full of Nazis who don’t use their real names to avoid reprisals. We now live in an age in which one of the great sins that you can commit that violates the terms of service of almost everything is disclosing the real name of someone, we call it doxxing. Disclosure of someone’s real name, when they operate under a pseudonym has become grounds for online execution, which I’m not saying that’s wrong and I’m not saying it’s right either. I’m saying that it just tells a lot about the right to the name. Giving a character a lot of names, I thought had a currency to it, a Zeitgeist-iness.

TFSR: You could almost write a whole novel, just probably telling the stories behind each of those names.

Cory: Sure. Well, in his case, they’re the 20 most popular names from the 1890 census in order. One of my writing techniques is that when I want to name a character I use, at least as a placeholder, I often use the census. I go like “I want a name that’s really common.” Because the census produces popularity-ranked names. So I pick a first name and a surname from the top of the census, or I want a very uncommon name, so I pick it from the bottom. It’s a cheap and easy way to do it.

TFSR: I’m personally a little uncomfortable with transhumanism as an idea because I fear that— because the people who tend to wield technology, tend to be the powerful people and that sort of scenario that you were breaking down and Walkaway around the elite class becoming gods and then denying everyone else the ability to reach that point seemed like what my cynical mind would actually see happening in the world. But can you talk a little bit about immortality, about technology as a means of escaping the mortal coil, and maybe what values you see in the mortal coil that got troubled by some of the different characters like Tam, for instance?

Cory: There’s a really good book about this, and I nod to it in the book [Walkaway] called Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes, who’s a humanist transhumanist. He has a humanist transhuman program. And he argues that the problem with this kind of tanshumanism is fairly-distributed access to the technologies, not the technologies themselves. So I’m of the view that science-fiction rarely predicts specific technological innovation well, but what it does predict with incredible accuracy is our widespread social fears and aspirations for technology. I think the science fiction stories that we tell that are very current, that are very resonant are a diagnostic tool for what it is we worry about and what it is we hope for, not for what’s actually going to happen, except to the extent that, of course, the things that you hope for me may happen because you might work towards them. But it’s not like it’s got a predictive value. We’re not fortune-tellers.

And I think that the idea that technology will change what it means to be human has a pretty obvious corollary in what’s going on in our world. A lot of the institutions that we define our humanity by, be it family or names or, or nationality, or what have you, are challenged by network communications. And I think the fear of a transhuman rift between the wealthy and the rest of us feel like there might be a rift between the life circumstances of the wealthy and the rest of us, that would make it impossible for the wealthy to understand or empathize or even really be said properly to be in the same species or circumstances the rest of us. If the rich never see the poor, if mating means that the rich never marry the poor, if the rich live a life circumstance that is completely different from the poor, then they are in some way speciating, even if it’s not biological, even if transhumanism isn’t doing it for them. Moreover, if we live in a world in which market logic dictates healthcare, and so poor people die of preventable diseases and rich people get to live very long lives, then that transhumanist idea of some of us being medically privileged and the rest of us being medically deprived is, again, not a difficult thing to understand. But it doesn’t require that we be literally headed into transhumanism for it to be relevant. And I think that’s good because transhumanism is a great science fiction MacGuffin, it has very little connection with technological reality in the biotech realm.

TFSR: Okay. Cory, thank you so much for having this chat. I’ve really enjoyed it. And I think listeners are going to get a real kick out of it. You said some really awesome things.

Cory: Oh, well, thank you.

TFSR: Where can people in the audience find your writing and keep up on the books that you’re publishing?

Cory: I’m pretty easy to find. Let me check if I am still the top query in Google today. I usually am. I’m the sixth Cory on Google this morning. So I’m pretty easy to find, Cory Doctorow. I am one of the editors of a website called BoingBoing at boingboing.net. Craphound.com — it’s my personal site. You can get on my mailing list and get on my podcast, I podcast short stories and articles there. And I have a Twitter feed @Doctorow. My books are available wherever fine books are sold. I should mention that if you want a Fairtrade ebook or audiobook, I actually retail my ebooks and audiobooks, even though they’re published by traditional publishers, I’ve convinced them to let me set up a store. So I sell them at the same price as Amazon, but I get the cut that Amazon would normally take and then I send the rest back to my publisher, and then they give me my royalties. So it’s a way of effectively doubling my royalties. So if you want to indulge in some electronic media purchasing, that’s a way to do it. One of the things that are out there right now is the audiobook of Walkaway, which I self-produced, and which has some really astoundingly good readers. Amber Benson from Buffy and Wil Wheaton from Star Trek and Amanda Palmer, who was in the Dresden Dolls, all read on it, along with several other very talented ebook readers. So I’m extremely happy with how that worked out. I should mention it’s all DRM-free, and there’s no license agreement. You don’t need to give up any rights to buy those books.

TFSR: So thanks for sharing, Cory.

Cory: Well, thank you. Thanks for your interest.

Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Exile, World Systems Analysis and Anarchism with Andrej Grubačić

Professor Andrej Grubačić
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Andrej Grubačić is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, founding Chair of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, author of books such as Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!, co-authored Wobblies and Zapatistas with Staughton Lynd and most recently the co-author of Living At The Edges of Capitalism: Adventures In Exile and Mutual Aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research as well as the Kairos imprint at PM Press. For the hour we speak about anarchism, the Yugoslav experiment, exile, World-Systems Analysis, Rojava, his friend David Graeber and other topics.

A couple of Grubačić pieces referenced, found online:

Some further reading suggestions include (more references in upcoming transcript):

Announcement

Anti-Repression in Asheville

As a follow up to the episode we did about protests against the homeless sweeps by the city of Asheville, the Asheville Police appears to be serving arrest warrants to people for charges like felony dumping and aiding & abetting felony dumping in relation to the Aston Park protests on Christmas, when the Asheville police arrested multiple journalists from the Asheville Blade as well as others present in the park prior to cufew. If you think this is bullshit and want to help, consider a donation to the Blue Ridge ABC bail & legal defense fund via their venmo, @BlueRidgeABC. You can also send funds to any of The Final Straw’s accounts, found at TFSR.WTF/Support, and mention ABC Bail in the comments.

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Featured Track:

  • Clock Strikes (Instrumental Remix) by Timbaland and Magoo

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Transcription

TFSR: I’m very pleased to welcome Andrej Grubačić onto the show. Andrej is a former teacher at the University of Rojava, a Founding Chair of anthropology and social change at the California Institute of integral studies. Author of books such as don’t mourn balkanize, and most recently co author of living at the edges of capitalism adventures in exile in mutual aid with Dennis O’Hearn. Andrej is also the editor of the Journal of world systems research. Thank you so much for coming on to The Final Straw.

Andrej Grubačić: Ah, my pleasure, good to be here.

TFSR: Do you want to introduce yourself any further? I don’t know. Say a few words about yourself your preferred gender pronouns any anything else?

AG: Oh, nothing really? No, I usually just say that I’m from Yugoslavia. That’s fine.

TFSR: Well, first up, I wondered if you could say some words about your identity as a Yugoslav a nation that one cannot any longer find on a modern map? And if you could you talk a little bit about the Yugoslav experiment and how you became an anarchist.

AG: This is why I don’t like modern maps. And you are quite right. Unfortunately, the countries no longer in terms of the states, but Yugoslavia, I was always a little bit more than just a country a little bit more than just a state. And I think you’re quite right to say that it is an identity and identity that is in a certain sense, also, a way of rejection, or opposition to identities that were imposed onto us after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And the breakup of Yugoslavia, as many of your listeners probably know, was extremely violent and it happened in the 90s. All of us who were who grew up in Yugoslavia, and who were actually Yugoslavs, who were identified as Yugoslavs and who identify as Yugoslavia, we have found ourselves in what I call my first exile, which was the loss of a country that I loved. I still remember the moment, when I was in Belgrade at the time, my entire family’s from Serajevo from what today is Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgrade is now capital of Serbia. It was the capital back then of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia established in the end of the forest… But the problem, of course, was I remember watching that, that footage of shadow ever being besieged and the civil war breaking in Serajevo, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. And that’s the moment when I realized in tears through tears, that I have lost something that was precious to me, and something that was extremely important.

It was something that informed again… I said, I am thinking about this as my first exile, second example would be coming to United States also not my choice, not my first choice, certainly, and not something that I did quite willingly. But let me answer your question, I think in a way that is probably more informative for the listeners who are not familiar with Yugoslavia, or maybe even not familiar with anarchism. So, I blame anarchism on my grandmothers, two grandmothers and both of them were communists.

When I say communists, that for us meant people who believed either in Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia, and who was the founder of what we might call Tito-ism or Titoist communism, which was a dominant form of communism in Yugoslavia. It was considered to be socialist self-management plus, Non-Aligned movement as a political orientation, external political orientation. And there was of course Stalinism, which was the opposition to Titoism in my family was split sharp half of my family were teachers communists, the other half were closer to standing back in the days before 1948 which was a very important moment in Yugoslavia history because that’s the moment when the Yugoslav Communist Party split. The majority of Yugoslav communist and basically saying no to Stalin, the famous historical “No”. Yugoslavia was choosing its own way, its own path to socialism, which involved again, socialist self-management. It was proclaimed in 1950 by a man named Edvard Kardelj, who wrote the first draft of what was to become “Socialist Self Management”, in which included many anarchist, guild socialist and even Trotskyist components.

And then, of course, Non-Aligned movement, which part of my family was very involved with, and they were building together which anti-colonial movements and states like Nasser’s Egypt, a new internationalist perspective and new anti-colonial perspective that Yugoslavia was actually the founding state of the Non-Aligned movement. And the first conference was in Belgrade, 1961. So all of this is to say, it was a fascinating country in which, to which one family had two different shades of communism. And the grandmother who was, shall we say, closer to the Stalinists side, but of course, lost the faith in that form of bureaucratic socialism, suffered a lot because of her choices. I asked her at some point, what does she think and how did she feel about communism right now? And that was a long time ago, I think I was 13 years old. And she told me “Listen, I believe in communism, I will always believe in communism, I think the problem is that my generation has chosen the wrong path to communism. And the responsibility of your generation is to find the new one not to give up on communism, but to find a new path to communism.” And that, you know, left me scratching my head and thinking what this different path can be.

Again, I was 13. So I was still pretty innocent in the ways of the world and political ideology. So this is where my other grandmother came to help. And she gave me her favorite book, which was soon to become my favorite book, which was Alexander Ivanovich Herzen’s My Past And Thoughts, it’s called in English. And My Past And Thoughts is Herzen’s memoir, in which he delineate and describes the fascinating history of the romantic exiles of 19th century, which included Bakunin. There was my favorite anecdote of Bakunin in being chained to a wall somewhere in the Russia, having to repent in front of the Tzar, but somehow escaping. He swam across the frozen Volga, jumped on a ship, ended up in United States and Caribbean and finally in London, where Hertzen was waiting for him. And Herzen said, “Well, welcome, what are we going to do first?” and Bakunin responded “Do they have oysters in this place, or do I need to go back to Siberia?”

I loved that response. There was, you know, everything I was looking for was there. You know, you’re 13 years old and you read something like this, and it’s absolutely amazing. And I said, “Well, okay, this man was an anarchist. So let me explore anarchism and let me see if this could be that other path to communism that my grandmother was actually referring to.” And ever since then, I started reading things about anarchism and reading Noam Chomsky was very important. Noam Chomsky was extremely popular in Yugoslavia for different reasons, he was somebody who gave a qualified support to Yugoslav self-management as somebody who was translated. I also started translating Noam Chomsky’s books into Serbo-Croatian, because then the name of the language. And through Chomsky, through Daniel Guérin, and through my first anarchist mentor, who’s name was Trivo Inđić (who recently passed at the beginning of COVID) I learned most important things about anarchism. Trivo used to say that anarchism is this noble attempt of trying to approximate or achieve freedom using the means of freedom itself. That was one of the ways that he was describing anarchism. And perhaps the most important thing that I learned from all three of them, my early introduction into anarchism, my early mentors Chomsky, Trivo and Danielle Guérin, was an actual distaste for any kind of political sectarianism. I have no patience for anarchist sectarians and I have no patience for sectarianism to begin with of any kind.

And I have even less patience for nationalism. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, we were sort of forced to choose and people have their own identities, nation state identities that they have chosen. Identified with Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrans, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians… believe it or not, these are all now independent states out of one. Seven, we now have Kosovo as well. Basically, I refuse to identify with any of those and I became an anarchist (so, a man without a state) but also Yugoslav (which means man without a nation). And Yugoslavia for me became a sort of identity that I claimed with great pride for two reasons. One, because I was raised a Yugoslav. So the fact that Yugoslavia as a state doesn’t exist anymore, it doesn’t really concern me. But also Yugoslav in a sense of a political project.

Yugoslavia was always a sort of a truncated version of something that in the region was known as Balkan Federalism, and Balkan Federalism, which was inspired by the ideas of Serbian socialist, Svetozar Marković, a number of Greek and Romanian and Bulgarian friends of his in 1871 and after that, was this idea of not a federation of states, but a regional federation that was horizontal, that was state-less and it was built on agricultural and working units of working people, most notably on something that was called Zadruga, which was the village commune and of Obscina, which will be short of village administrative unit. Similar to Chernyshevsky in Russia, similar to Russian populists, and also later anarchists, we were there, we were talking about things and we were thinking about things that were not related to capitalist forms of organization of life. But we were actually referring to something that predates, negates and to certain extent, escapes relationships of capital and the state. Which led me to my preoccupation with what, in time, I started up to call it “exilic spaces” spaces of escape from capitalist modernity, spaces that escape a concentrated spatial forms of mutual aid. That was a nod to Pietr Kropotkin, famous anarcho communist. Spaces that escape at least to an extent, relationship of capital, capitalist law of value, and also of regulations and regulatory pressures of the state, especially of the modern capitalist nation states.

This led me eventually to embrace World-Systems Analysis, and different other ways of looking to avoid methodological nationalism, and state-fixation in social sciences and conventional social science. So at the point when I actually had to leave, what at that time was, I believe, Serbian-Montenegro (the name of the country kept trained during is the counter revolution was progressing after the war, neoliberal right wing counter revolution), I think was the country that I had to leave and I was forced to leave because I couldn’t find any employment. I was a young historian who was perhaps a little bit too outspoken, politically. So, Chomsky brought me to United States, he became my PhD supervisor, and he introduced me to a man whose name is Immanuel Wallerstein. And I’m forever grateful to two of them because they brought me to a place called the Fernand Braudel Center, which was in upstate New York and was a place where I was allowed to participate in research working groups. And in something that was an extraordinary experience of collective work, and thinking politically about limits and limitations of social science, and the ideas of social science that would be completely different than whatever it is that we have right now. I don’t know how much you want me to go into that or if you would like me to talk about something else.

But that is, again back to 13 years ago, when I was 13 years old, that was the beginning of my love affair with anarchism, which is still ongoing. And with my absolute dedication to the anarchist cause, which identified with democracy, very early on and this idea of prefigurative attempts and notion of prefiguration or anticipation, anticipatory politics, which for me was very important and to try was able to find already in Chernyshevsky, in which you have to enact in the present the kind of the future you would like to see. And you have to I think this is a quote from Rudolph rocker and other important and anarcho-syndicalist “You have to build the facts of the future in the present.” That is what I think the most important thing about anarchism is your theory and practice of self-management, which was another way that I would refer or maybe even define anarchism. As a theory of organization, more than just an attitude, an anti -authoritarian perspective on things.

TFSR: Thank you. That was a great answer.

I do want to talk more about what values you found and give an explanation to the audience, and me, of what world systems analysis is as a framework, but I had a couple of questions about your experience at the time in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia and former Yugoslavia. I’d love to hear if you had difficulty as you were coming up finding material about anarchism, there was a place in the sort of genealogy of the development of the socialism that the government imposed, or that was provided around you to say “Oh, yeah, people like Kropotkin were deeply influential, but they were idealists, but you know, here, we follow the materialist trend…”

And also a guest that we had on the show a few weeks back, who lives in Belgrade, spoke very briefly about sort of difficulties of organizing now, in the Balkans, in former Yugoslavia, because of the rise of ethnic nationalisms, that the imposition of those sorts of thing. But also, that any sort of like leftist philosophy can be looked at by many people as polluted. And today, currently, being a leftist and trying to organize around labor or around Mutual Aid, or these sorts of things, has sort of sharpness to it, that a lot of people, you know, refuse upon sight. I wonder if the NATO contribution to the war that was in the Balkans at the time, the neoliberal approach has been to claim that forces like the United States government are bringing democracy when they’re dropping bombs. And what they bring is is a neoliberal model of capitalist management as opposed to democracy. So I wonder also, if the term democracy you found is a bit like tainted or polluted, or they have to fight for a meaning of it?

AG: Oh, it’s an interesting question. A man asked who was the guest from Belgrade

TFSR: The name that he used on the show was Marco. And he’s currently involved in the anarcho syndicalist initiative of the IWA-AIT in Belgrade. But he didn’t give a last name.

AG: Yes, sure. I think your questions are really interesting. And they do make me think.

Back in Yugoslavia, this is a very important thing to mention, it was a very different world than the one of the Soviet communism. Soviet communism was in say, Romania, Bulgaria… It was different in Romania, and it was different in Bulgaria and different than in Russia and other parts of the Soviet communist universe. But basically, these countries were called the Second World countries. I don’t know if you remember that. First World countries were countries your freedom and as you say, democracy of a particular kind. The Second World was the name given to those countries that were part of the immediate Soviet sphere of influence. And then the Third World (which funnily that for European country, or at least geographically European country, like Yugoslavia was a part of), the Third World was the world of Non-Aligned countries, countries that were neither West in terms of liberal democracy, nor East in terms, or the Second World I guess, in terms of what was known to be communism, mistakenly, of course, but countries of “real socialism.” Now, Yugoslavia was different, and Yugoslavia had much more space for liberal, for dissidence, for all sorts of activities that were not completely or not at all in accord with the State, were dictats of the states, but more tolerated for many different reasons.

In Yugoslavia, there was always a coexistence of bureaucracy, we used to call it Red Bureaucracy, and the New Bureaucratic class a term popularized by Milovan Djilas, one of the Yugoslav early dissidents, not my favorite figure by any means. But it’s a useful way of thinking about a new, Red Bureaucracy and an emerging clash that assumed power in Yugoslavia, including, of course, members in higher ups of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia or the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. That was the name that was used after the reconstruction of the party after 1948. But there was a significant space outside and counterbalance of dissidents.

One of the most important parts, and I don’t know if Marko spoke about this, of that dissidency was a group called Praxis Network. And Praxis was a Humanist-Marxist, or one might say Marxist-Humanist, or I would say Libertarian Marxist group, that organized cultural a school Korčula, after the island in Croatia, and Praxis journal published all the important names of what is what became known as the Western Marxism. The term Western Marxism was popularized in Germany in the 70’s, it builds upon the idea of the school known as the New Reading of Marx. These are Adorno students, but also Eastern Europeans like one, especially one who was very important for me, Karel Kosík. Some people who are in the United States like Karl Korsch that you probably know is Libertarian Marxist, or Council Communists. And many of the people who became known important names of the New Left, like Herbert Marcuse, who was coming fairly often and many others.

So, all of them participate in Praxis, and Praxis was a fantastic critique of Yugoslav bureaucracy, providing space for all sorts of possible reinventions and reinterpretation of Marxism of that we that was practiced and that was cherished and imposed, implemented in many ways in socialist Yugoslavia. They were all insisting on the partial success and partial failure of the Yugoslav self-management system. They were all in favor of self-management, but they provided very important and very nuanced, intelligent critique. People like who are today famous like Slavoj Žižek, for example, who was never a part of Praxis, but he gravitated around it. He was in Slovenia, and he was latching on to the Lacanian interpretation of socialism, show he was looking more into French. Many people in Croatia were looking to Germany and German interpretations for the Marxism and other things are plenty of space for ideological and very creative ideological engagement. It ended in 1968, when eight of these professors including my friend, Trivo Inđić, my first mentor, were fired from the University of Belgrade and punished, rather severely for disagreeing with the Titoist, the official bureaucratic party line. And that in many ways, was the beginning of the decline of Yugoslavia.

Now, many of the people who participated in Praxis were also favorable to anarchism because they were looking for different ways to reinvent, reinvigorate Yugoslav self-management, which was an alliance of selfmanagee economy and state. It was something that anarchists, who were the pioneers of thinking about self-management… Proudhon was probably the first person who wrote cogently and coherently about self-management known also as “the father of selfmanagement”… He never imagined it it coexisting with the political states, let alone been run by people who were Bolshevik, or Titoists. So, this was an uncomfortable marriage, shall we say, or alliance. And in that particular political space interventions were made to introduce anarchism, left libertarian thought, libertarian socialist thought. As you probably know, in most of the world, we use the term “libertarian” to talk about anarchism. There is no idea of right wing libertarianism, it doesn’t exist. So when we say libertarian, we actually mean anarchists. And one of the groups that I was a member of was called Belgrade Libertarian Group. And these were mostly people who are the left wing of Praxis. And these were the people who were interested in this libertarian reinterpretation, not only of Marxism, but promoting anarchism as a possible way of solving some of those deficiencies. So, out of this group, out of this milieu, out to this political space came many translations of Pietr Kropotkin such as Mutual Aid, Memoirs Of A Revolutionary and other books were translated. And this now sounds a little bit ridiculous, but by a man who is the former neoliberal minister or prime minister of Yugoslavia, Zoran Đinđić. There was a time in the life of Zoran Đinđić, himself assassinated by mafia by different other elements of the, we used to call them dual power… The dual power in Serbia after 2002, 2001 was really mafia and organized crime. They assassinated a prime minister who was in his youthful days and anarchists who translated parts of Kropotkin, and even entire books by Kropotkin. So, we have a number of younger people who identified with the libertarian tendency within socialism. And some of them, again, will later come to power and both become very important much of the establishment. Even my mentor, Trivo Inđić, became the ambassador. He was an anarchist Ambassador, an anarchist who was an ambassador in Spain.

TFSR: That must have been a very difficult thing to deal with the Francoist regime, or was this post-Franco?

AG: Oh, this was post Franco. The reason he was given Spain was not only because he spoke Spanish but because he was somebody who was developing within Praxis network and within this libertarian space political space relationships with Spanish anarchists and relationship also with Latin American libertarian movements. So, Trivo was the first one who actually told me about Edvard Kardelj, while composing this new program that became known as “Yugoslav Self Management”, was consulting anarcho-syndicalist texts and reading Diego Abad de Santillán and many other people who were anarcho-syndicalists. And who were thinking about shelf management, including Proudhon. So, it was an uncomfortable task for the father of Yugoslav Self Management to have to relate to the father of anarchist self management and tried to call him a Leninist, or a Marxist, or just trying to somehow reinterpret this in a Leninist key.

In any case, these were the strange spaces and strange times of Yugoslavia, which was very different had very different political culture and much less suffocating, more open then the culture of other socialist states. We were watching American movies and Soviet movies. We were delighting in Czechoslovakian cinematography and beautiful movies that they had. And film culture, there was a whole thing called Prague school and many Yugoslav directors in those days went there and learn their craft in Prague. This includes Emir Kusturica, Goran Marković and many others. And Living Theater, I remember, used to come quite often to Yugoslavia. An anarchist theater from New York who had actually much more popularity in Yugoslavia than United States. Yugoslavia was a very interesting, open political space, of course contradictory because of the presence of the Communist Party, because of the elements of state violence, which we cannot ignore.

But they were many interesting elements there that allowed for the development of that political space that Marko was referring to these we bought your original question was about anarchist literature, which we could find without problems. I remember absolutely being delighted reading can be Albert Camus and his book, The Rebel, which was also very important in those formative days. And of course, other anarchist literature, which existed. Some of this most Marxist takes like biographies of Bakunin, but you know, you could read against the grain and you could read in a certain sense and discover many different things about the anarchist tradition by reading the Marxist critique. And again, there were books by actual anarchists published and translated. So, Yugoslavia in that sense was unusual difference and for me the space where you could actually learn a lot about Marxism. Marxism was something that I had in my elementary school matches and was a class that I had to take in elementary school and I had Marxism in high school. And then I had Marxism at the university. And now of course, that particular kind of Marxism that we had to learn was what I came to call in time “right wing Marxism,” that was the Marxism that begins with the Second International in Germany, developed further by the another right wing deviation in the history of Marxism, which is Lenin and Bolshevism. And then goes to Tito, Mao and other people who in the third world, mostly, who developed it further, and that was an interesting experience.

Of course, it made me this stage, you know, it made me dislike Marxism a great deal. But I was able to find books and especially because I was, you know, trained as a historian I was able to discover the wonderful world of British Marxism a British Marxist historians. So I was able to read EP Thompson, who was translated of course and Eric Hobbeswan, and but more than Eric Hobbeswan, whom I will not call the historian from below, he was a British Marxist historian but not exactly a historian from below. EP Thompson and Christopher Hill were really important. And when I was reading the two of them I, this is all that I wanted to do back in those days, I was thinking about writing a history from below.

My first published academic work was actually related to the history from below of the Anabaptists, the first communist right people who said “Omnia Sunt Comunia” or “Everything Belongs to Everyone” and created this beautiful communist experiment in Münster for which they were punished severly, tortued and caged. The city of Münster still has cages of macabre monuments to the killed, assassinated, tortured Anabaptist. So I was trying to trace the movement of Anabaptists from Germany, to the Balkans, and to see whether they left because they were fleeing the oppression. And it was a fascinating thing. And in those days, I was very skeptical of the Fernand Braudel, who was the historian famous for historical structuralist approach or maybe…

TFSR: The Annales School?

AG: The actual Yes, he was the third grade and Annaliste. The first was Lucien Favre and Marc Bloch and then the third one that the editor of the Annales was Fernand Braudel. They created something called “Total History”, which was a perspective that was relatively popular in Yugoslavia in those days, but I just wanted to study pirates, Anabaptists and runaway slaves. And, you know, I was interested in innate agency and resistance and all of that. And only later, I discovered Fernand Braudel, after moving to the Fernand Braudel Center in upstate New York in Binghamton University. State University of New York at Binghamton, I think is the full name and this is where Immanuel Wallerstein was a director. And through Immanuel Wallerstein, but especially through the very first recruit of the Fernand Braudel Center. Immanuel used to recruit people, both historians, sociologists, social scientists, and students. So, both professors and students were recruited by him in a certain sense. I was probably his last recruit. I don’t think that anybody came after me. I think the Center is now closed. But I met Dale Tomich, who was the first person that Immanuel recruited. And through my relationship with Dale even more than with Immanuel, I learned how to appreciate Braudel, and I moved away from EP Thompson and Christopher Hill and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and all of those historians of resistance, historians from below. I started to develop my own Braudalian history and my own broad area and approach to history.

Now, your question had another part, which was about the difficulties of organizing the former Yugoslavia, or what now I still insist on calling the Yugoslav political space, because of the NATO bombing. NATO bombing concerns two countries, one was Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs were bombed, the other place was Serbia where I myself was bombed by the American NATO forces in 1999. It wasn’t pleasant. And it definitely left an extremely difficult wound, not only in terms of psychology and trauma and all of that, that definitely was the case for those of us who had to suffer through that. But in terms of how do you organize in the midst of all of this. The nationalism in Serbia is not something, ethnic nationalism, is not something that begins with NATO bombing. I think the “great counter revolution”, as I call it started really in the 80’s, and especially the end of the 80’s. And then with the Yugoslav civil war in the 90’s. Serbian nationalism, which was important because in those days, I was in Serbia and I assume so was Marco, created important limitations in being able to actually speak about any kind of leftist politics. So speaking about leftist politics, in face of either neoliberal capitalism or neoliberal modernization, or Serbian ethnic nationalism which was it’s alternative, oppositional and I would say symbiotic political option. They will complementary in many ways, although challenge counterintuitive, these were the, you know, huge conceptual blocks blocking the horizon of possibility of creating a new politics of emancipation.

And anarchism, which again, it has each moment and there was a possibility for actually articulating the new perspective that would be libertarian, and that would be anarchist. It was really hard. And I think that many of us made the mistake of not doing more to push for the anti-authoritarian socialist option in those days. However, it was really hard. I mean, you have to think about should be a nationalist paramilitaries, the war is over. There are people coming back from the war is a lot of street fighting, there’s our of violence everywhere. Mafia / organized crime is basically running the country. In relationship, a very intimate relationship, not only with political structures, but also with the ever powerful secret police in Serbia. And the countries, other countries or former Yugoslavia suffered a very similar fate. So it was really hard to fight for anarchism or any other kind of genuine leftist idea back in those days, and then referring to the end of the 90’s, beginning of 2000’s.

TFSR: So switching gears a little bit, you’re currently the editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. We haven’t talked about World Systems Analysis on the show before so I wonder if you could give us an introduction to the framework of what it is how its approached relates to internationalists or inter-communalist, anti-capitalist struggle in and beyond academia?

AG: Well, that’s an interesting question in terms of relationship, and I think under explored why the relationship between anarchism and World-Systems Analysis. You know, there is the new issue of the journal for systems research will feature a special issue dedicated to non-state, anti-statist and anarchist movements in the capitalist world economy in the modern world system, but let me, let me try to explain what was so useful, for me at least in terms of thinking about political ideology and ideas within that framework. Immanuel was, and you can see this in the four volumes of his book Modern World-Systems, but also in many other books where he was popularizing or making more accessible all the historical arguments, that are very dense that he made in those main books, four volumes… Now, the important thing for me was that Immanuel was talking about 500 years of capitalism, 500 years of what he called “Capitalist World Economy”, “Capitalist World System, a historical social system that had its own, and this is an important term,Geoculture”. And that the geoculture, meaning a dominant, hegemonic idea of constellation of ideas. He called it “Centrist Liberalism”.

And it basically all of it begins with the end of the French Revolution, which introduced something completely new in the world and that novelty was called “social change”. Namely, before the French Revolution, the idea that change is possible, change is normal, change is even something that is good, has been universally rejected by traditional monarchistic ways of thinking about the way that the world works and the way that history moves. So, with the “dangerous classes” as Immanuel called them, or the French Revolution, this is the first moment when really the ruling classes people in power had to deal with the dangerous classes. And they had to somehow respond to this great pressure coming from below that was felt all the way to Haiti. And the Haitian Revolution was very much part of the French Revolutionary experience. Usually you don’t learn about the Haitian Revolution in American universities or high schools which I had to learn when I moved here. But the thing about this is that geoculture means that people in power had to figure out a way of how to respond to this pressure, also intellectually and this is where intellectuals come in handy and this is the birth of modern intellectuals, but also of modern ideologists. And of course of social sciences.

So the greatest novelty according to manual of French Revolution was that it created the idea that social change is normal, social change is desirable, but social change needs to be somehow managed and controlled. And the forum through which social change can be enacted and experimented with is the State. So, what capitalist modernity means, basically, is the organization of the world in which centrist liberalism occupies a central and most dominant place. However, the part of the whole world of capitalist modernity is not only occupied by the dominant real culture of centrist liberalism, but also by other modernist ideologies that are also part of capitalism. And these are, of course, modern conservativism, but also the dominant, mainstream forms of Marxism. They all deployed and accepted the liberal notion of Time, which was the linear notion of time, a progressivist notion of time. Unquestion belief in the idea of progress, linear temporality and organization of space through Nation States and through a political system of representative democracy, identified again with the space geographic space of the states, with a dominant nationality and ethnic group and dominant language. Now, many of us began to call this a Jacobin solution and Daniel Guérin has this famous and beautiful essay, De-Jacobinized Revolution, perhaps would be translation from French. I’m not entirely sure if this has been published in English (It is, it’s linked in the show-notes, -TFSR).

And the idea, basically, is that the Jacobin Revolution and temporality and Jacobin idea of the state and Jacobin idea of modernity has only one enemy: and that enemy was anarchism. And it gives the most anti-foundation of which, in a sense that it refused to accept all the foundational elements of capitalist modernity: Authority of the state; authority of the modern nation; authority of liberalism; and authority of the intellectual. So, what people in power did in order to manage social change, they invented the university. The university was a moribund institution, medieval University, of course, before the 18th century, when it was reinvented very carefully. And eventually in the 19th century, the disciplines were created. And all of this was a political enterprise. This was an attempt to again manage and explain social change. So your head all of a sudden social sciences, created with a particular political task. The first one that was transformed into science was actually history. And the reason why history was created was basically respond to the challenges of the Paris Commune of 1871. And then history, especially with Leopold von Ranke who said famously that “we have to study the history, the past, as it really happened,” became really a form of change that legitimizes the state and legitimizes the nation. And when I say legitimizes it also mean to a certain extent, creates the state and creates the nation. Historians, the new historians, professional historians, Ranke and others, were actually given a task to create states and nationas. States were already brought into life, now we had to invent… As the famous saying goes, “we have France, now we have to invent French people.” And for this, we needed history. So history was given that particular task.

Liberal ideology is organized around a trinity of concepts. It’s organized around very violent abstractions: one is called the state; another is called economy or the markets; and the last one is society. Society was left to the sociologists. Sociologists were there to study the society. Economists were invented in order to study the market. And finally political science and political scientists were created in order to study the state. Those people who were left behind the liberal political universe were known as Primitives, you know people who don’t really have the state. So, the stateless population of savages, barbarians, primitives were a domain of a new social science discipline known as anthropology. And finally, we have people who, once upon a time, used to have great empires, great cultures and great civilizations. And like people in Persia, like people in China, and they became the domain the field of study of Orientalists. People who were mostly philologists, but who were using all ways of studying different cultures that are supposedly frozen in time, meaning that they do not belong to the goals of Eurocentric liberal modernity.

And again, most of the ideas, most of the ideologies against centrist liberalism, what Immanuel Wallerstein calls “antisystemic movements”, movements against the system,, were very much embedded in that system because they accepted the same premise of progress of certain unqualified celebration of the enlightenment, or certain ideas of the Enlightenment, codefied by the State. And there was only one that was misfitting and that was anarchism. So what World-Systems does for me in terms of understanding anarchism, it opens up a space to speak about two periods in the history of anarchism. The first one is what I call the “First Anarchist Century”. And that is, I would say, roughly between the 1870’s and either 1917 or 1936, the Spanish revolution. Depending on when you want to think about the ends of the first anarchist century, which was the period and this is the reason why I’m calling it the anarchist century, is the period when anarchism was the dominant perspective in the Global South, and in basically all the countries except Western Europe.

In Western Europe, you had the absolute triumph, absolute predominance of hegemonic Marxism, which was the Marxism of the Second International, the Marxism of the steam engine and Marxism of the guillotine. Which was developed by people in German Social Democracy and later on improved upon, in a certain sense, by Lenin and his comrades. You had a few dissonant voices like Rosa Luxemburg, and like people who became known as Council Communists, Libertarian Marxist, but they were a minority. In most of the world, the dominant anti-capitalist tradition, was the tradition of anarchism. And you can read Benedict Anderson’s wonderful book called Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (later republished as The Age of Globalization, now out of print, but a pdf linked in the episode notes -TFSR), Sho Konishi’s masterful work, Anarchist Modernity, and of course Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, who is from Lebanon, and her work The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. And in all of these books, and many others, which are treating anarchism from this perspective, you could see that this period (1870’s to Russian Revolution, or perhaps the Spanish revolution), was a period where anarchism was really the only game in town in terms of an anti-capitalist politics. It served as a sort of gravitational force between revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles on different sides of the Atlantic. So, you had thes incredible situations in which Filipino nationalist (meaning anti-colonial fighters) would meet anarchists. and exchange ideas, would borrow from anarchist repertoire of anarchist ideas, which was very flexible because anarchism always gave more primacy to life than to the text. So this anti-authoritarian eclecticism of anarchists was something that the anticolonial revolutionaries in India, the Philippines, in Japan in China were all using for different purposes.

There were a series of communication network, which involved in many, many different journals from Belgrade to New Jersey, the most important one was you Paris, Les Temps Nouveaux. And all of these journals were sort of communications network of that anarchist century, but there were also other spaces. Anarchists were absolutely brilliant in using the new public spaces like taverns, cafes, but also theatres, to propagate anarchism. And of course schools. This is the beginning of Modern School Movement with Francisco Ferrer. But anarchism, actually, in terms of education begins with Paul Robin, who was an anarchist who created the first educational program for the Paris Commune, the only one, known as Integral Education. So, integral education and you will notice that the police were it to school California Institute of Integral Studies, integral education for a long time was the anarchist perspective on education. Tolstoy was very close to anarchism was very close to all of these, they were known as Model Schools. They were created all over not only Europe, but the entire world because anarchist organized through networks.

And networks were a preferred model of anarchist organizing, you know, in those days. So, Pietro Gori, Errico Malatesta, the fabled names of European anarchism, were all of a sudden in Paraguay and Argentina. And there’s a reason why… There was a very intimate connection between Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean networks, where anarchists were circulating their ideas. We know of translations of Malatesta in Cuba. We know of Malatesta, for example, trying to come to my part of the world, the Balkans to fight against the Ottomans. In in the late 19th century. We know that he was with Sergius Stepniak, who was a famous Russian populist. After that they went and they plundered the countryside of Italy, repurposing, or I guess the term would be expropriating many of the village properties there. Stepniak, then goes to Russia, assassinates the minister of the police, comes back to England. He is killed ,unfortunately, in Chiswick of all places in train accident. So, this is a time where anarchism is traveling everywhere. Francisco Ferrer was a famous anarchist educator was murdered by the states in 1908. His project which was known as Modern Schools, and the modern school movement becomes extremely popular. In the United States, you had modern school movement and many modern schools. But the Fransisco Ferrer Affair, as it was known, became a play, they used to be known as Martyr Plays. And this theater play, I think, premiered in Alexandria, or in Beirut, I can’t remember, and then later in Buenos Aires.

And then of course, you had the Mayday. Immigrants, anarchists who created the May Day and who, I guess to those two events are really kind of the connective tissue or the most celebrated events of the anarchist century. Marx was important. And I will say that anarchists in many ways were more faithful to Marx then majority of the so called hegemonic Marxism or the mainstream or right wing Marxism as they call it. Bakunin famously translated, in prison Marx’s capital. But anarchists were always skeptical of Marxism, because Marxism was a modernist ideology. The majority of Marx’s in those days were people who were tinkering with engineering, and the idea of creating the great locomotives of the future, fascinated with tractors and modernist progress. Anarchists were always skeptical, anarchists thinking about Russia Mir and the different, other forms of organization, self-organization of people in Russia. Not as pre-capitalist, in terms of a relic of the past, but as non-capitalist, in terms of traditional forms that, again to some extent, deform and avoid capitalist relations. And I believe very firmly that Marx at the end of his life, the most libertarian Marx, was the Marx who wrote to Vera Zasulich actually, the famous Russian populist, and who basically agreed that there is nothing inevitable about capitalism. However, Marx was not always read by the Marxists. And again, I think that anarchists and, later, feminists develop some of the most important and libertarian insights of Marx, and understood that Marx is far more complicated than it is presented by the Orthodox Marxist doctrine.

So, all of this is possible to understand if you think about World-Systems. You think about the first anarchist century which ends with a triumph of state socialism. And it basically ends with, and this is how Immanuel Wallerstein explains it he says… Well, during the anarchist century, he doesn’t use those terms, I do, but during the time of anarchist dominance in the capitalist world-system as an anti-systemic configuration of ideas there was a two step strategy that people accepted. Which is, first you change the society, you create new possibilities, you create new social relations, you create a new civilization basically, outside and against capitalist modernity. And then you destroy, or you replace, or you dissolve the states in those relationships. The two step strategy became reversed with the Russian Revolution, and it was: first, take the power of the state; then, create a new socialist humanity. And that two step strategy was felt all over the world. Dominance and overwhelming acceptance by the radicals of the two step strategy is part of what we can call the “Marxist century”, which in my analysis leads to 1968, the time that world-systems theorists called the “world revolution of 1968” that simultaneous exploded in many different places. And it basically questions, that fundamental premise of anti-systemic movements, which was that you have to first conquer the state, take the power, and then create a new society. And what was created instead was basically a validation of the anarchist insight, that you have to do it exactly the other way around. This was formulated in sort of clumsy way with a New Left movements and New Left political culture following the 1968 Revolutions during the 70’s. But finally, after the 1989, 1990’s, the end of Soviet Union, I think, the you can recognize the first symptoms of the triumph of all of those ideas that anarchists traditionally champion. And David Graeber and myself wrote an essay, I believe, sometime in the 90’s, Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-First Century, I think it was the name of that essay. That had an interesting career, and it’s still being read and widely disputed, and you know. But the basic idea that we had is that after this period after the Marxist century, the new anarchist century, the second anarchy century, is coming. In a sense of the anarchism, which was insurgent common sense, as we defined it in in the article, insisting on the ideas of self-organization, self-management, direct democracy, libertarian socialism, all of these ideas were becoming dominant. And again, a sense of a sort of a common sense in politics that we could see Mexico in other parts of Latin America, Europe, in the United States. The antiglobalization movement was profound, the I think, influenced by this libertarian impulse, as well as the Occupy movements.

So, right now I think we have this uncomfortable situation in which I can see the pernicious and short of frightening resurgence of statist, bureaucratic socialist ideas, and people who should be truly a shame for peddling this nonsense. Who are again, once again, trying to bring the state in and are trying to reinvent this cadaver of bureaucratic socialism, in this necrophiliac maneuver, to make us again, read all the people who we should really not read anymore. Is it Bernstein, or is it Kautsky? Is it Lenin or is it Trotsky? Or is it, God forbid, Stalin? All of these ghosts, demons from the past, are being summoned in order to make an argument that we need to be realistic, and we need to demand the possible. And the possible seems to be, again and this is such a colossal failure of imagination, but also any kind of historical nerve, is a resurrection of state bureaucratic socialism because we supposedly have no choice but to again commit a suicide in terms of radical politics. So, I think the great challenge for the new generation of radicals is to refuse any, and I mean any idea, political idea associated with the State. And to say farewell to the ideas and traditions of capitalist modernity, and to look at places like Rojava, and places like Chiapas, but also so many other places where libertarian ideas have been practiced and have been improved upon improvised and so forth. And there is a reason why ideas of World-Systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, and many others actually read in Rojava. If you read Rajala, the Kurdish part of Syria, which is the part of experiencing libertarian social revolution, well, the most important people are Murray Bookchin, an anarchist from United States. And the other most important reference is Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel. Same with Chiapas. When you go to Chiapas, you will be escorted to the Immanuel Wallerstein library. So there is a reason why these theories actually being recognized as people who have something interesting to say, to the movements that are, perhaps, the most significant movements of our time.

So, all of this is a very long answer to your question that world-systems analysis, in my view, offers to people who identify with anarchism and libertarian Marxism, what we can call libertarian socialism or libertarian communism, a lot of space to rework politics in a way of understanding the world that is not the world of nation states. And the main premise of world-systems is that we live in a singular historical system, organized by an actual division of labor, there is a periphery there is a core there is perhaps something called semi-periphery. The way that this the world is organized through the division of labor, through the world markets, and through the interstate system. And in a certain sense, it is a direct assault against the usual nationalism, of conventional social science, that fetishizing the nation state is the main unit of analysis. In Worldsystems, it’s exactly the opposite. The main unit of analysis is capitalist modernity, capitalist worldeconomy, modern worldsystem, or now there is a new interpretation, Capitalist World-Ecology, associated with the work of Jason Moore and his school. Meaning, there is a historical system in which states are nothing but instances of political organization and we should study the way that different instances are being produced within historical space that we call capitalist world-system or capitalist world-ecology. And we should not fetishize the state as a unit of analysis, we should try to study them and understand them, but they should not be our unit of analysis.

TFSR: I think it’s really interesting that the two examples that you brought up of some of the revolutions that are currently going on, both sprung out of, to some degree, an initial Marxist impulse. Whether it be the, I think Stalinist at the time, PKK that went through the changes after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, and as he said, like, you know, brought in ideas from Brunel, and from book gin from Wallerstein for many other people, as well as studying what was happening in Chiapas. And then what was happening in Chiapas: Marxist guerrillas going into the jungle and intermeshing and building something new with Mayan people. And the synthesis that comes out, the unorthodox, largely indigenous answer to neoliberal capitalism that has been created in both those instances while distinctive of each other, there’s a lot of resonance between them. And I think that the fact that the impulse was directed by indigenous folks (not to say that indigenous folks aren’t a lot of different things, not to say it’s a monolithic thing)… But the fact that it’s such a break with this, modernist progressive worldview, that these other systems that, you know, academia has been pushing in that the states have been pushing. It provides an example that says, “it’s not like it moves from this state, and stage of development into this stage, and those people are back here. It’s, you know, it, it is what people make it.” Does that make sense? Sorry, that was going rambly…

AG: No, not at all, I think absolutely makes a lot of sense. And, you know, I’m right now writing an introduction to Öcalan’s book called Beyond Power, State and Violence, which is going to be published very soon. And it’s a huge book, which has 700 pages, I think, and the book was fascinating because he has all of these… It follows him changing from a person who might be called an old leftist, a Maoist, probably closest to Maoism. And you know, a person who believes in Statism and national liberation. And he does this thing that Maoists often call Critique/Self-Critique. And he does this in such a way that you see that he responding to the analysis made by Wallerstein and others, Bookchin, of course. But also responding to his own experience. He now imprisoned in the prison on the island of İmralı in Turkey, he is able to completely reinvent and creating a completely different system that is profoundly libertarian. You know, and I’m reading this book, and it’s an fascinating book. He speaks about his “curious marriages”, as she calls them, about his relationship with his brother, his love of the mountains. And at the same time he speaks, he criticizes analytical intelligence, and lack of dialectical method employed by many Marxists and gives this masterful overview of Kurdish and Ottoman and Turkish history. It’s just an incredible book. But you can see how incredibly difficult it must be for somebody to change. And then to enact a change, or to participate in the enactment of change in the entire movement, which is huge. I mean, the Kurdish Freedom Movement is probably the most numerous leftist in terms of numbers, at least leftist force that I can think of right now. And all of these people are now identified with a form of libertarian thinking, inspire may be formulated by Öcalan, in prison. So, it’s a mind boggling experience just observing this.

And David Graeber and myself had become acquainted with this experience in 2012, not without some initial skepticism. We were at the beginning, as two anarchists, very confused by the strange and somewhat skeptical. And it took us several trips to Rojava to actually be able to see that this is real, that this is not for show that this. And then of course, delving into all of this literature and reading, Öcalan‘s books, and even more importantly, meeting Kurdish activists, internationally, but also in Rojava and other places, in the Middle East was actually a profoundly enlightening experience. This was the first time, and I think I told you again, my grandparents have witnessed a revolution, they believed in revolution, that revolution was possible, that social change is possible. And I came of age at the time when people, mostly young intellectuals, were saying that no such thing is possible anymore. We have to have to stop having these great dreams, Imperial Napoleonic dreams of great change. And we need to think about whatever, lifestyles and different other kinds of impossibility of thinking and about revolution. It became codified in certain forms of post-structuralism and other intellectual interventions that were, you know, very popular that all discounted generosity, altruism, mutual aid, and revolution. And then coming to Rojava and seeing what’s happening there, I actually experienced firsthand what it means to be a part of a Social Revolution, of a revolutionary transformation of the entire society on the basis of a non-state democracy Democracy, that is, as any democracy, democracy cannot be compatible with the state, you either have the state representative government, or you have a democracy. You can’t have both at the same time. So we are seeing a non-state space and emerging there in the middle of a very complicated, confusing, contradictory social revolution, in which revolution once again becomes possible.

And I think this is very important. And I think that we should think about this and think about this incredible strength and courage that it took the Kurdish revolutionary movement to transform from a sclerotic, statist organization, to respond tp challenges and promises and perspectives of the new moment, of the new anarchist century and to reinvented themselves. And give us what is now probably the most impressive example of revolutionary uprising or revolutionary restructuring of a society that refuses to become a state anywhere.

So, I think that also confirms certain insights of worldsystems tradition, and I don’t know how interested you are in in my own way of dealing with it. You know, I told you that when I went to the Fernand Braudel Center, I was not exactly friendly disposed to Fernand Braudel, which was somewhat uncomfortable, as you can imagine. I was looking into histories from below and then, you know, through my exchanges with specially with the Dale Tomich, I understood that world-systems is by no means a coherent set of things. World-systems can be understood as a theory, which some people unfortunately do, which I think is a big mistake, or as a method, which is far more interesting way to think about world-systems. And it also led me to understand Marx in a different way. And it took me back to Marx, but not the Marx from my high school or my college, my university, different kinds of Max. A Marx, who actually, let’s say, a kind of unusual… And I mentioned at the beginning Karel Kosík and his book The Dialectics of the Concrete which influenced me deeply. A Marx, who actually opens up space for thinking, together with Braudel, about history in a much more layered and complex ways, opening up space for new temporalities that difference, antagonistic temporalities, to the dominant temporality, sense of time, of liberal modernity and capitalist modernity. It allowed me to grasp the Zapatistas and the courage, not as some kind of a precapitalist relic, again, not as people who belong in some kind of non-modern past, who need to be modernized, but to a group of people to two examples of this distinct, antagonistic temporality that Kurds had a term for. This inhabits democratic modernity, a different kind of modernity, a different kind of temporality that can only be understood if we employ a very non-conventional social science. And that led me to this interesting, I think, or weird perhaps, way of combining Hegelian Marxism, anarchist anthropology, and Braudelian history as a way of understanding what world-systems is and world-systems analysis could be.

And, to conclude with this, in response to this question of yours: I think this is also something that has very significant political consequences, including for the country or to the region that I come from, I introduced myself as somebody who is not only a Yugoslav but a Balkan Federalist. And when you think about the notions of federalism and regional organization, the principles of non-statist federalism… Well, that’s exactly what is coming out of Kurdistan right now is the idea of Democratic Confederalism. And I think that people in the Balkans should be in dialogue with these ideas. And I think this is definitely where my politics and political energy goes these days. To create these possibilities of political translation, in which the ideas of federalism that of course, will be different in Kurdistan and in the Balkans, and the possibilities of these Federalist ideas in other parts of the world, can be somehow placed in a dialogue. And we can actually learn from all of these experiences and struggle for what was, for a long time, a signature accomplishment of anarchism, which is the anti-authoritarian, federalist political idea, and self-management as a way of organizing society.

TFSR: I’ve had you on for a long time, and I would love to continue talking. I think I just have time for one more question if that if you don’t mind, but I’d love to talk again sometime in the future.

So, you’ve brought up David Graeber a couple times and anarchist anthropology. 2020 saw the passage of your friend and colleague anarchist anthropologist activist, author and professor David Graeber. I feel like a lot of the impacts that he had on liberatory movements haven’t yet been measured. And I wonder if you’d say some words about your relationship, and what of his works left their mark on you most. And if you have any suggested starting places for people that aren’t familiar with his writings and contributions…

AG: Yes, David was my best friend since the end of the 90’s until his passion in September last year and something ago, show it was probably the greatest loss of my life, and somebody who I profoundly mourn and miss every day. And David was not just a best friends… just… Not only a best friend, but also a political companion. And I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea that I did not run by him first. We used to talk on the phone every day, we used to meet to discuss these things, and it’s hard for me to talk about David. But it’s also important, I think, to talk about David, because David should be celebrated as, to my mind, the most original anarchist thinker of the contemporary period. And also a brilliant anthropologist.

What has he distinguished? Well, he’s distinguished by his… First of all, his contribution to anthropology has been immense. And I think people are going to spend a lot of time assessing he his contribution to anthropology and other historical social sciences. He was not troubled by trends in anthropology, he was actually quite traditional in his taste, in terms of anthropology. And he wanted anthropology to go back, not to its colonial roots of course, but what made anthropology so rich.

And that is the idea that anthropology could be understood as a catalog of political possibilities. Possibility was a key word for David and perhaps the first book that I would recommend to people to read collection called Possibilities published by aka presh, sometime around 2008. That book contains all the germs of the ideas that David would continue to explore. And that coalesced around the idea of a dialogue. David believed in dialogue, something that he called dialogical relativism or dialogical anthropology and also dialogical politics. He believed, for example, that anarchism is, more than anything else, premised are made possible by the idea of dialogue. Anarchism is profoundly dialogical. We come together, because we want to solve a particular problem and then we talk about it. We don’t first define social reality and then we have all to agree about what social reality and political reality and so forth is, devise a correct line, and then proceed from there. That is the political horizon of Orthodox Marxism. His idea was anarchism was a situation in which we have a particular problem that we have to solve and people who might have completely different views of what the world is like, come together to figure out how to solve that problem. Out of which he developed something that he calls “low theory”, which is different than “high theory.” Low theory is the way of grappling with all of these consequences of practical, political projects.

Anarchism, in that sense, is profoundly dialogical, and anarchist anthropology, which is the term that David has been associated with, which is elucidated in his pamphlet, Fragments of An Anarchist Anthroopology, published in 2001. A brilliant piece of work, that pamphlet. Something that I have tried, and I think this is my way of honoring David, was to build it intp my department. I was invited to California Institute of Integral Studies in 2012, to build the department, and they asked me what kind of department you would like to build. I said, “Well, I would like to create a department of Anarchist Anthropology,” and I really thought that I was going to throw me out of the room or maybe through the window. But they actually said “Yes, ok”. And one of the reasons was that David made anarchist anthropology something that people were able to refer to and understand that something that is actually valuable.

One of the ways that he spoke about anarchist anthropology was suspended dialogue or an active dialogue between ethnographic research and possible utopias or utopian possibilities. So, ethnographic research into utopian possibilities, places, experiences, cracks that are created in the here and now and that already exist. And then using all the gifts and possibilities of offered by the technique of ethnography to actually study those people those practices and those spaces, is what makes anthropology anarchists. This is what we do at the department of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies, we try to use ethnography and by ethnography, I mean militant ethnography, militant research activist ethnography in order to study these utopian possibilities. And again, for David’s anthropology was study of human possibilities, showing people, showing the audience, showing his readers that humanity and the possibilities are always much larger than we are led to believe. And discovering them, and bringing them to light, emphasizing them, preventing them from rescuing them, as EP Thompson said, from the condescension of posterity. It’s something that anthropologists should be doing and anthropology should be doing. At its best, it’s all about enlarging the sense of political possibility.

David, as a political theorist, I hesitate to call him that… as a political… David as an anarchist intellectual, is somebody who has inspired anarchism by pushing us to think about anarchism as a not as a dead set of ideas, as something that sclerotic and belongs to the 19th or early 20th century, but something that continues to develop. And he recognized social sciences, anthropology in particular, but social sciences more generally, as an important vehicle in expressing anarchist ideas, and developing anarchist insights. David as an anthropologist and David as a political anarchist, usually people talk about them in separation. I think that’s a mistake. I think that David was one of the most serious and dedicated anarchists I have ever met. And he is definitely the most brilliant social scientists that I was likely to meet, a privilege to meet and call the a friend. And he is someone who was able to show us a way that social science need not to be neutral, or anarchist have nothing to be ashamed of. There is no intellectual deficient, inherent in the tradition of anarchism. Quite on the contrary, anarchism can be used in a way that is profoundly intellectual. And he defied those foundational principles of capitalst modernity, talked about in such a vigorous intelligence, and creative way that is hard for me to find words. The loss is immeasurable but the books that he left us, including The Dawn of Everything, which we co-authored with his friend, David Wengrow, are absolutely breathtaking in the ambition, scope, and consequences for thinking about world history. And David used to say that he thinks about the past and writes about the past because people who write history, write about the past in a way that hides, obscures the possibilities. In a way that it prevents it to be written in a way that prevents us to think about the future. So he was very interested in finding a way of writing about the past, so that a new kind of future and possibilities would be revealed. And I think that in doing this, he was remarkably successful.

So you’re quite right, his political legacy and intellectual legacy, the two of which cannot be separated, is something that’s going to be rediscovered and celebrated, I’m sure many, many decades from now. And perhaps to end with this, he was just one of the most joyful, one of the most generous and one of most dedicated people I’ve ever met in my wife.

TFSR: Thank you very much for sharing that, Andrej. Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learned a lot. I’m very excited to share this with the audience.

In closing, I guess we mentioned And the Journal of world systems research where people can find your editorial work. Where else can listeners find some of your books, or if you have a blog or anything like that, aside from the Journal?

AG: Well, one thing that I do is I am one of the people involved with PM Press publishing. And it’s a project that I care a lot about. And it is thanks to another brilliant and exceptional person whose name is Ramsey Kanaan and the group of people that he brought together, we have a publisher that exemplifies I think, all that it’s best in thinking about anarchism and radical politics today. And with PM Press, I am an editor of an imprint, or series editor I guess, called Kairos. The term mistaken from Immanuel Wallerstein and the way that he uses the term Kairos, which means the right moment, the idea that this being: now is the right moment to think about social change. Right? So Kairos is an imprint of PM Press. And people can go to PM Press website, and see Kairos. And see the books that we publish with Kairos. And of course there is a blog or there is a page that they have there. That is part of the PM Press website. And of course, California Institute of Integral Studies, Department of Anthropology and Social Change. We also publish things there

TFSR: Is Kairos where people can hope to see the translation of Öcalan’s work that you’re doing the introduction for?

AG: Yes, so kind of is where we have published so far, I think, four books by Öcalan. And at least two or three books about the Kurdish freedom movement and the Rojava revolution. I edited all of them and I think these are really important documents for understanding what is happening with the Kurdish freedom movements and struggles in Rojava in particularly,

TFSR: Again, thank you so much for taking the time and for all the work that you that you do. I really appreciate it.

AG: Thank you for having me.

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

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

Illustration by Marne Grahlman

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

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

Good sites:

Citations for two shared documents co/authored by Bay:

Another document we can’t easily share:

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

Announcements

Anti-Abortion & Fascist Over in DC

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

Sean Swain Support

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

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

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Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
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Leigh Lassiter from prison books collective in Durham, North Carolina, a nonprofit project that sends zines and books to prisoners in Alabama in North Carolina prisons and jails comes on this week to tell us about recent changes by the NCDPS to use the private company TextBehind to scan all incoming and outgoing mail track, their contents surveil the outside users and mailers, and to make a profit on an already indigent population. We also talk about the work of sending literature, to incarcerated folks privatization and digitization of other services, and what literature gets rejected. More about the press books collective at PrisonBooks.Info or check out their linktr.ee

You can also check out local books to prisoners projects in your area that you could get involved with by visiting PrisonBooks.Org/PrisonBooksNetwork. There’re also a couple of really good articles from The Intercept about this and related surveillance services topics within you as prisons and jails.

Or check out the following resources:

Zine Updates

Just a reminder, a comrade’s been compiling our zines into a catalog, for easy mailing into prisons. You can check out the latest, December 2021 list at the top of https://TFSR.WTF/Zines as a pdf.

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself with whatever name, pronoun, and affiliations you want to share?

Leigh Lassiter: Yeah, my name is Leigh Lassiter. I am fine with any pronouns. I work with Prison Books Collective publishing distribution, based out of Durham and North Carolina. However, I speak on my own behalf as an activist and an individual rather than a representative of Prison Books.

TFSR: Cool. And could you talk a little bit about Prison Books? How long has it been around and what y’all do?

LL: Yeah, we started in 2006. I was not there then. But we have gotten in touch with some of the people who were involved in the original starting of it. It started in someone’s garage. And it has grown, although we’re kind of in the equivalent of a garage still. But as I said, in 2006, it wasn’t recognized as a nonprofit until about a decade later. But we have been able to keep it going. We’ve just been sending books to North Carolina and Alabama, and zines across the country for all that time. We meet every week to answer the letter requests and send packages out to people and talk to each other. It’s not as anarchist as it once was at its roots, more service-based space now, there is a variety of political opinions. But as a group, we still share the vision of alleviating the tremendous cruel pressures of the prison industrial complex on the incarcerated people that we serve, and generally feel that incarceration in this country is done poorly and has overkill. If we weren’t needed, if our mission was served either by prisons or there weren’t prisons to incarcerate people, we would prefer that. But while people are locked up, we get them all the books that we can.

TFSR: And what kind of requests do you get? Is it for technical manuals, dictionaries, religious texts? There’s a lot of religious groups, for instance, that do outreach into prisons and send in materials that tend to have their specific religious bent and view on the world, because they’re missionizing? What does the normal packaging party or packaging event look like for Prison Books?

LL: In regards to what the event looks like, we just pick up the individual letters and start reading for what they request. Sometimes we do get requests for specific books and specific authors that we have in donated stocks. So it’s rare that we can answer someone’s specific request with the exact book that they want. Sometimes it happens, though. We just look around to find something usually, under 2 pounds, two books that we send, print off some zines and staple them. Fill in an invoice, send our information, write a little note, and pack it up neatly and tape it up to be taken to the post office later on.

People request all sorts of books. The most common being a dictionary or legal dictionary, and DIY sort of things and career books are often very frequently requested. A lot of people want to start food trucks or build their own houses, or learn to weld or repair cars, do plumbing and carpentry, that sort of thing. Which is extremely understandable for both jobs inside of prison and outside for whenever they get out. Those, of course, are very hard to find. We often get a lot of requests for coloring books and drawing books, lots of thrillers, biographies, and autobiographies of, particularly, African-American activists. We have everything. So we try to send everything from classics, to how to start your own business, or histories about things, rock stars’ biographies. It’s whatever we can get. As I said, this specificity of requests can vary from “please send me some books” or people misunderstanding our mission and just saying, “I’d like to sign up for your book club, just send me books every month”. Then we have to say, “Oh, you have to write it every time, we have a limit of how many books we can send, but you can request them”. We have some publishers that we dealt with who would occasionally give us a whole box of books that they want to donate for a cause. Usually, because the subject matter has to do with prison or social justice. We’ll try to send those to the people who seem interested. But a lot of it is volunteers trying to read what fits their needs most. Because we can only send so many so quickly to people. And of course, usually prisons only allow them to have so many at a time. So there’s a little bit of art to figuring out how to get them what they want. I believe in the questions you sent over, you also asked what wasn’t allowed, if you want me to talk about that?

TFSR: Yeah, that’d be super helpful.

LL: We mostly send to North Carolina state prisons. And this is true for Alabama prisons, too. However, for the state prisons, anything that can do with tattooing is not allowed. Nudity is not allowed. They say “artful” nudity like Michelangelo or something would be allowed in, but in my experience, any nudity is not allowed, because that line is gray enough that they just err on the side of “No, we’re not going to let that in”. Things that are gang-related or could enable crime in whatever way they interpret are not allowed in. Hardcovers are occasionally allowed in, but it depends on the prison, so we just don’t carry them because trying to keep track of where we can send certain books is just a real time-drain. Spiral-bound books usually aren’t because they could take the spirals out and use them for whatever. Those are the main restrictions, but we still get occasionally weird bannings and rejections very often from jails more so than state prisons. Federal prisons are at the level of state prisons in terms of what they allow. Jails have the worst policies, generally speaking, it’s just sort of determined by the warden in charge there. If you want to talk later about some of the rejections that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I can speak to that, because I usually handle the appeals process as it exists.

TFSR: Yeah, I would like to hear about that.

I’d also like to hear though, you’re filling a need. I get a picture that at a certain point, maybe in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, that prisons maybe didn’t always have – it is dependent on the prison – but prisons had a more robust legal library for people to research their cases, or for writing appeals, or more literature, that at some point, education as a part of the “rehabilitation” part of prisons was a bit more funded and a bit more focused. And so a project like yours may be – unless a group had a specific ideological mission of like, “we want to get more Muslim books in the prison, or we don’t want to get more pagan books in the prison” – maybe there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. But that’s changed. And I wonder if you could give a sense, as you understand it, of what prisons libraries look like, and what prisoners’ access to educational resources or reading for pleasure looks like in North Carolina prisons.

LL: I will try to the best of my abilities. I have not seen a prison library, but we hear about them pretty frequently. I should mention that doing the COVID pandemic, which is still ongoing, libraries have often been shut down. We’ve heard that across the state many state prisons have shut down their libraries, or that sometimes they shut down visiting the libraries and then had a cart they took around, but maybe the person who took the cart around died of COVID. And then no one is there to take the cart around. So some people told us we are the only access point for getting new literature right now. So right now it is in a particularly dire state in North Carolina.

However, in general prison libraries, I can’t speak to the 1950s. But given the boom of the incarcerated population, I’m not surprised by the amount of need that is not being addressed by libraries in prisons, particularly legal needs. We get a lot of requests where people are either suing the state or trying to appeal their own case or going through other cases, and they have access to almost no legal help. They can’t communicate effectively or to their satisfaction with their attorneys, if they even have one yet, they don’t understand all the terminology or what they have to do. We have an extremely limited stock, as you might imagine, and paperback up-to-date specific accessible law books are not widely provided and easily accessible by us. We try our best and the number one thing on our wish list is always the intro to criminal law and defending yourself. If anyone looks at the Prison Books wishlist that we have up, but we go through those extremely quickly. People are very poorly informed by the system about their rights and the ways that they can appeal or sue and try to protect themselves. So that’s, unfortunately, something we see a lot of, but that we, as just a small group of volunteers sending books for education, entertainment don’t really have to resources for, and there’s a huge need for legal help within the prisons.

It’s something that you mentioned before that I had forgotten, the religious outreach. I’ll say that we do get not a huge amount of requests for spiritual and religious literature. As you said, there are lots of organizations willing to provide that, and no other kinds of books but literature about that. We do get requests often for religions that do not have as many groups, who are less represented inside of prison, like Rastafarianism, paganism, satanism, that sort of thing. There’s often a pastor inside of a jail or prison, and you’re not going to have that for Rastafarianism or something.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the stuff that that gets rejected? I’ve spoken with other folks that do books to prisoners and hear about books by Franz Fanon, or George Jackson, or Angela Davis getting denied because the content relates to prison and is critical of prisons. What stuff gets kicked back to you and why?

LL: I wanted to add a little bit of perspective on rejections that we had gotten. Firstly, zines, because we send zines all across the country, just as a glimpse into the reasons that institutions all over the country might reject things. One of the most recent rejections that we got was of a literary magazine Words of Fire which has publications of art and literature from incarcerated people across the country. And therefore, we think it’s very important that they also have access to read it all across the country, whether they are authors or might want to be authors. We had a rejection in Connecticut of it, because it was on printed paper and was not considered a real publication. And we’ve been doing several weeks of phone calls and some letter-writing to try to appeal this. Because they are worried that “having anything beyond what looks to be easily printed or copied paper will have inmates calling their families to send them copied paper, or printed paper, straight out of books”. And the mail then will be flooded, and they won’t be able to deal with all of the rejections and appeals of rejections. We’ve had it also rejected before, from Florida when I was trying to get it to an author we’d published because it supposedly contained commercial content, which is incorrect. Because we don’t get paid for any of our services. And they also supposedly continue to quote “disallowed content” with no description of what that would mean. That was in 2019.

Some of the other things that we’ve gotten rejected across the country include the GURPS, the General Universal Role Playing System, which we sent out, it was rejected from Texas for having fighting styles in it, which, by the pages given, was referring to rolling dice for hitting another character or doing damage or having a bomb go off as an example for this role-playing system’s damage. We’ve also had rejections for supposedly promoting insurrection or posing a threat to safety and security for things like The Lectures On Liberation by Angela Davis. Florida is definitely one state where it’s very bad to try to get things in. And we’ve had things like Tai Chi being lumped into martial arts, for example, over this. Some of the other bannings: The Art of War has been consistently requested and consistently banned in North Carolina. It’s not currently on the banned list, but we’ve still had so much trouble sending in the past that we haven’t challenged it this year, because of the number of rejections we’ve gotten over the years in the past. The New Jim Crow was banned but that was overturned in 2018 because it was a national outcry about it. And that being overturned actually got them to redo their system of how they banned books. So they looked at that list again every year, and it actually overturned, a lot of other things being banned. Although you can tell from the banned list, including Twelve Years of Slave and Malcolm X books and things like that, that they have not fully fixed the system, which some might argue shouldn’t exist.

A lot of our rejections, as I said, aren’t bannings, they are actually just blanket blocks that do not care about the content that you are trying to send. For example, we had a jail recently write that we do not accept books on a package, despite having talked to them within a month about them accepting our books, and having word given to us that they did still. Sometimes it just depends on who’s in the mailroom. There was a federal institution in the state that just rejected something and then I called them, I was just told that was probably the other post and “I understand what your packages are, we’ll take them in”. One instance, in particular, it’s really been an odyssey over something like three or four months this summer and the fall was that there was a state institution that was allegedly having issues with drugs being smuggled in in packages. So they cut off all outside packages and then re-approved vendors and distributors like ourselves on a case by case basis. And we had not yet been re-approved, so I called the captain and we had a few discussions. And he said, he went up the chain and got us re-approved after a little less than a month. And then when we sent books to the people who had written to us from there, half of them were rejected, because those inmates, in particular, hadn’t filled out a form and been approved to receive books. So we had to set up a system where every time we got a request, I called them after that person was approved to receive books or not, and sent them. Except for the two packages that we initially got in to people, every time I called the person was not on the approved list. And I asked whether maybe, since they heard from us that we have requested them and they want to receive books, maybe they could get that form to the people that I was calling about, but they told me that’s their initiative and they should know.

So that’s been a pretty frustrating time. I’ve just had a lot of detention centers and jails in particular not consider us to be legitimate or not know what zines are, or give us differing statements about whether we can get things in or not. As I mentioned, Durham jail hasn’t given us issues about us as a publisher but was just blocking books for several months because of the amount of, apparently, extra material that was built up and was a fire hazard in the cell. So there’s a lot of obstacles to face in bannings and rejections that can’t really be predicted and can apparently only be solved by weeks of phone calls. I hope this helps. Thank you.

TFSR: Do facilities ever have an approved book list that’s the inversion of the banned list?

LL: No, I have not seen an approved books list except in the case of one jail that went back and forth on a policy where I was initially told that they were going to have reading tablets and not allowing any books, any books besides the Bible or Quran, but then they said that was incorrect. And they would be allowing in certain books, but only new books, no used books, and also have e-readers. The E-Reader thing is a thing that we are extremely worried about, I say we, in this case, for all Books to Prisons groups across the country, because that is an approved list of books, that is what that is functionally because they have a catalog of books that they said, “No, these are okay for them to read. And they will pay per minute to use these expensive, breakable e-readers and not have access to any other literature”. So you can imagine people looking for specific legal help or niche interests, for example, someone looking for Rastafarianism, there’s probably not going to be a book about that listed inside of this e-tablet that they also have to pay to use.

So that’s very concerning to us because usually, in the case of prisons, digitization and technological advancements, which can look like progress in the outside world, is not progress inside of the prison. For example, changing from having in-person visitation to having a digital video visitation is not an improvement. Changing from having books sent in for free, that you can request on any topic, and having that be disallowed in favor of e-readers, is not an improvement. Or as we’ll talk about in a second, having your letters be scanned and reprinted is not an improvement of what we’re seeing with the letter. So a lot of times people will think, “Oh, things are going more digital, they’re going more virtual and online, this is advancement, this is progress.” And in the case of prisons, it isn’t.

TFSR: Yeah, and each of these steps basically shifts the whatever it be: the medical treatment, or the books, or the mail, or the phone calls, or the commissary, it shifts them into monopolies by specific corporations, that are prison industry corporations, that not only are they siphoning money out of the prisoners and of whatever supporters they have on the outside… In North Carolina, they changed the law about three years ago where people can only get money added, at least on their Jpay accounts, for spending inside of prison, they can only have people on their visiting list. Therefore people who have not, for instance, been convicted in some cases of felonies in the past. A bunch of limitations. Anyway, back on topic, as you say, you and I got in touch to talk about the changes to the North Carolina prison system that we’re snuck in a couple of months ago, we got a letter from a prisoner in the middle of the state, just sort of being like “Heads up. I can’t hear your radio but I have heard of your project and this change is coming”. Can you talk a little bit more about the privatization and digitization of prison mail in North Carolina and how it’ll affect prisoners’ communication with loved ones on the outside?

LL: Yes. On October 18, North Carolina state prisons switched for all personal mail – that’s letters, photos, and art and cards – they switched to having those be sent to the people who intended for incarcerated in state prisons, to having to send them to Maryland to be scanned by a company called TextBehind and then have copies reprinted by the prisons and redelivered. The announcement of this was subtle, I only found it because that was on the state prisons homepage looking for something else and notice the little pop-up that said: “Mail policy changing on October 18” and I happened to click on it. Otherwise, we would not have known. I should admit this doesn’t affect prison books operations so far. Although we are worried about the possible ban on physical books being sent in. Now it affects the loved ones of incarcerated people who are trying to communicate to them.

TextBehind is not alone in this. There are a couple of companies who are trying to exploit this very captive market of people who are trying to sustain relationships across the miles and across the bars and charging their money to either get their physical letters back if they send physical mail hundreds of miles away because otherwise, they’ll just be shredded. So you have to pay to get that back. Or if you want to do it easier, of course, they have an app. For using their app on TextBehind, letters are 99 cents, you can add photos to 25 cents each, greeting cards are 99 cents, and Doodle for kids. So you can draw on your computer and send that at 99 cents. And that’s only for partner facilities, it’s more expensive if the facility is not partnered with them. And you may not think that sounds like a lot but if you are trying to keep up a relationship with someone or start a relationship with someone inside, then 99 cents a letter, 99 cents a card, 25 cents for a photo – that’s very expensive. If you are sending physical mail, it’s a flat rate to get it back, I believe at around $3 or higher to get that sent back to you. So this could add up really quickly, even if you just sent one letter a week or a couple of letters a month or something like that. People don’t really have a choice in the matter if they want something that feels personal to be sent behind bars. And we just find this immensely worrying and honestly also unjustified. Because there’s really almost no data provided for why this switch is being made. But we can talk about that in a second with drug policies.

As a prison book volunteer, I have received countless letters telling us how important it is to have a lifeline to the outside where they can hold on to that letter that someone else wrote and see the signature and look at this and say it someone out there wrote this for me and intended it for me. Not to mention if it’s a kid’s drawing or something like that, it’s going to mean so much more if you’re holding the crayon drawing that your son or your daughter, your child drew for you. And it’s one of the things that sort of keep them sane in there. If correctional facilities, as they’re titled, were truly invested in making people more connected to humanity, kinder and more willing to invest in society, they would absolutely not be supporting this cut off from the people who are trying to keep relationships going across the bars, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Not to mention probably riddled with errors. Wisconsin also just announced that they are using TextBehind as of December 1. They put in their announcement that they’ve experimented a lot with TextBehind and there have been errors, they admitted cut-off letters where you can’t read the whole thing.

I know from my own experience of keeping records in prison books, that a lot of things don’t scan so great if someone wrote in blue pen, or on white paper with pencil, it just doesn’t scan correctly. The number of letters that TextBehind must be handling, I don’t think that it’s going to be 100% accuracy rate, which looks fine on their numbers, but for the person who gets a messed up, cut off or barely scanned letter or drawing, it’s going to be devastating because that matters so much. The people who wait for the mail, there’s a huge emotional investment in it. And it’s just really saddening to think about that being taken away from them. Not surprising, but extremely saddening. And unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina is going to be continuing that policy for the foreseeable future, despite so many people protesting it.

TFSR: TextBehind is a new project to me, but for the last few years, I’ve noticed that Pennsylvania prisons use a company in Florida called Smart Communications to scan and email their letters to print on-site at the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to an article recently by Lauren Gill of The Intercept, appears to be moving forward from just scanning mail in-house to having a company called Mailed Guard do the same service for them. We’ve already mentioned this trend generally in the proliferation of private companies that are profiting from incarceration. This seems to be a rather frightening and growing pattern to capture that data and increase the costs.

LL: Smart communications is another one. And I just want to mention that the Pennsylvania ban initially also banned physical books, but there were enough protests that they changed that. So it’s only mail right now. And so there was some worry from Books to Prisoners groups that the ban on mail is going to continue to try to ban books as well.

TFSR: That’s quite frightening. I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about drugs in prisons. I’ve heard that you can get many things if you have money and resources inside of prisons, especially depending on what state you’re in. But most ellicit items I’ve heard about prisoners getting a hold of have come through corrupt guards and other staff as they shore up their personal accounts because they don’t get as much scrutiny as generally incoming mail or visitors and loved ones who are coming in. When PA started using Smart Communications, it was after mail staff, screws on the inside, basically, were supposedly dosed by letters containing the drug K2 in the paper. But then again, this other Intercept article about the privatization of prison mail references talking to a director of toxicology at a major medical institution in Pennsylvania. And that person saying basically, you can’t get high off of that, it’s not like Angel Dust where it’s going to just go into your skin by touching it, you have to increase the temperature, and you have to inhale smoke, basically, for that K2 to get into your system. So it seems like an unrealistic expectation that was a major source of drugs coming in.

LL: Yes. North Carolina, in their announcement about TextBehind included a couple of sentences saying “the new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in Fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs, these are harmful to breathe or even touch. This is something you would expect to have a citation. It doesn’t. The only spot of data that is mentioned in the announcement of this switch to TextBehind is the sentence “In the year following use of TextBehind in North Carolina’s four women’s facilities infractions for drug use, and possession dropped by 50%. Now, 50% is a pretty round and impressive number but there’s a lot of missing context here. They say the number of infractions for drug use and possession dropped. They don’t mention actual numbers, for example. This was also taking place during the pandemic for most of that year. Because most of that was 2020, so the number of people in prisons across North Carolina went down by a lot, you might think that would potentially affect the numbers of infractions, not to mention the staff being able to investigate that sort of thing. And they also did not provide any numbers for cases of drugs causing any hazards to the people inspecting the mail. There was no citation for that. And as you said, there’s been medical pushback from people saying that K2 and Fentanyl don’t come into the skin. I looked this up a little before the interview, and the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology agreed in a 2017 statement that you can’t inhale and get high from Fentanyl without really high, really long exposure to it, and that you can’t just absorb it through small unintentional skin exposure, it would not affect people. So I am almost impressed by the boldness of NCDPS just stating that flat out as a reason without citations in the announcement.

We have a Freedom of Information request that is making its way through the bureaucracy right now in trying to get any information about the hazards to people in the mail-room and how many drugs have come in through the mail. But, like you, I am skeptical about that being the way that most drugs make their way in. Texas saw a ban on mail for the same reasons, but their drug infractions didn’t go down because, as it turned out, they were mostly coming in through guards still. Some people say there’s a connection between that and guards having lower pay and they can make a lot on the side by carrying in drugs. When I went to a prison in person and got the tour when I was in college, I was told by a Captain that they mostly have to be careful about the guards bringing in contraband, that was just stated outright to the group. So this policy seems to be not only dehumanizing, but also not based on fact, and to make this huge of a change, there’s a burden of proof that they should make. But this wasn’t a law. This was simply a new departmental policy. People started commenting on our social media posts, when they put this out, like let’s call the lawmakers or something, but this was just something that was handed down and decided. The fact that privatizing prisons and prison services is just getting more and more popular, is very concerning to me. Because they can’t negotiate. And also the poverty of incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside is statistically much higher than the general population. So they don’t really have alternatives other than to go to these services.

That’s my thoughts on that, but there are plenty of things to read about, particularly, the drug claims, investigating whether Fentanyl can actually give you an overdose just from touching it, or where drugs come through. There are lots you can read online, I suggest at least starting with the Prison Policy Initiative because they’re a good resource to keep track of the different policies going on around the country and their factual bases.

TFSR: That’s super helpful. Thank you. I do have another question about the implications of the privatization and tracking of mail coming in and out. But you did mention that when people started commenting on your social media page saying, “Hey, call politicians chant, challenge it,” the NCDPS is a part of the executive branch. So I guess you could put pressure on the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but how do you suggest that people try to apply pressure, whether they’re in North Carolina or in any of these other states that are being affected by similar policies and some of the same corporations across the country?

LL: Well, we haven’t had success yet, it is my addendum. But I would find at least one phone number, one email, and one physical address to call or to write to to express your opinion, I’ve usually heard that phone calls are the best political weapon out of those three. But I know from personal experience that trying to get through the phone trees and the various extensions you have to press and voicemails you have to leave can be extremely confusing. So an email or a letter could also work.

Prison Books is not as an organization calling for people to do this push because we have to keep our services separate from this. However, I can say as an activist, that I would love it if people started writing to, for example, the Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, who is quoted in a lot of articles about the digitization policy change, to express your opinion, or writing to the general NCDPS mailbox, the address of which is at the bottom of every page of the NCDPS website, in Raleigh. What you basically want to do is make it obvious that it’s a lie to say people don’t care about this or that this is fine, this doesn’t affect people. You want to get the voices that are shouting out individually to be able to unify and be heard together. And we’re still working on that. But anyone who wants to be involved in the Free the Mail movement that has started forming between Wisconsin and North Carolina activists, because we’re both being affected by TextBehind in these most recent months, then they should, first of all, start looking through the hashtag of #FreeTheMail, and second of all, potentially email just to get the information where to go prisonbooks@gmail.com. Prison Books is not organizing this, but has information of people that you can get connected with to try to organize something against this,

TFSR: I have to say that a hashtag is confusing and also very catchy, since a lot of us use the #FreeThemAll. And those two look very similar.

LL: Yeah, I would suggest even for screen readers, you should be capitalizing letters for hashtags because otherwise, it’s gonna be a jumble of letters. It does look like that, but I looked it up on Twitter to do a little research about it, it was used for the Pennsylvania issue as well. There were some ideas thrown around of “don’t jail the mail”, but it’s prisons, not jails, that’s incorrect. Hashtags are going to leave some meanings out, unfortunately.

TFSR: We’ve been talking about the limitations that people on the inside experience with their mail getting scanned and sent to them and not being able to physically touch a picture that your child or that your sibling or whatever drew, getting an actual picture, these sorts of things, very sentimental, very charged with emotional energy and feeling, smelling a piece of paper that someone else has touched… Prisons are all about cutting people off from the outside and making money off of them.

The other side of this, as you say, the majority of people that are inside of prisons, or that are inside of a part of the carceral system, tend to be poor. And whether that’s because of survival crime, or because people have less access to lawyers or bail to be able to get themselves out, to be able to make a better argument to avoid charges, or because police tend to hang out in poor people’s neighborhoods – all sorts of reasons. And these industries, like Smart Communications or TextBehind are literally siphoning money out of poor people’s families when they’re trying to keep those connections.

And surveillance inside of prison, the panopticon idea, that’s a pretty common idea. But when you download an app on your phone that you’re paying for, and there’s the chance in this Lauren Gill article on the Federal Bureau of Prisons talking about them switching over to this privatized scanning and emailing of letters, talks about the amount of metadata that gets also put into the database of that private corporations so that they can market more stuff or sell that information if they want to to another third party that provides other “services to prisoners”, or that information is also available to the BOP or to whatever prison administration there is for tracking and surveilling the person on the outside that’s keeping track. Suddenly, there’s a permanent digital copy of this letter that somebody wrote to someone that could be used in some case in the future or to build a case or something like that. Can you talk a bit about the concerns of surveillance when people aren’t even necessarily committing crimes, but just trying to stay in communication with friends behind bars?

LL: Well, I think the article writers are probably more informed about that than I am, but I do know that TextBehind on their Services page does advertise a variety of their investigative tools and that includes communications, monitoring and looking for gang connections, and they keep the records. Not just the pictures, but the scanned text and the addresses and names of those who sent mail in their system for years, to possibly give away to other prison systems, the federal system, things like that. Yeah, they are using the people that they already have under their thumb and can watch with this panopticon set up to extend surveillance outside and try to make connections and look for patterns in a way that they probably think is very efficient, but which is frightening to any of us who are concerned about our right to privacy. But because it’s a human connection to people who are incarcerated being held hostage, people are going to have to make the choice about do I want to be able to talk to this person or do I not want to be put on a list of possible contacts to a third or fourth party to something that they think exists within the prison system. Having to choose between those two, that’s our choice that should exist, that should not be something that writing a letter to someone starts for you. That’s very concerning.

I’m always concerned about the privacy of people incarcerated as well. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t aware of this extension of surveillance to those who were just in contact with and care about the people who are incarcerated. As you mentioned, Jpay’s changes, now you can’t send money unless you’re in the visitation approval. That requires getting approved, but also giving them information about you. This data harvesting and surveillance is really getting hooked on people on the outside as well.

TFSR: Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention, or that you want to broach as a subject, Leigh?

LL: I would like to mention, for people who are looking for what they can do, that jails are often where a lot of bad policies will be implemented first because they have far less oversight. They are county institutions, so they don’t even have the state looking out at them. So if you’re concerned about privacy, education, cruel and unusual punishment, pay attention to a local jail, the sheriff, the warden, their policies, and if they make changes like “no one can send books here anymore,” or a lot of jails in North Carolina now have to send your letters to Texas to get scanned, call them, and deluge them because they have even fewer resources to dedicate to supporting what I suspect to be a lie of the danger that letters and books pose. In your elections, vote for a sheriff who has concern to incarcerated people, if that’s possible. And keep an eye on your local jail. And then also keep an eye on state policies. But if you want to start somewhere local, that’s where to start.

TFSR: And if you’re not much of a voter, you can still apply pressure during the period when there’s more scrutiny on what sheriff is running for office. Or if they’re working with ICE are just a couple of the potential…

LL: Yeah, that’s a big one. Everyone who’s closer is easier to reach. Make some noise when you can, when these policies get implemented near you.

TFSR: In my understanding, a lot of the Books to Prisoners projects are pretty independent and they keep in touch with each other and share news and resources from time to time. The project that you’re involved with covers North Carolina and Alabama, the prison books here actually, I can’t even speak to what APBP covers… But for the most part, don’t cover national stuff. And they pass off things in other states to people that are closer to them. Tranzmission Prison Project covers a lot of the US but mostly is in the southeast, as I understand. How can people find a prison books project where they’re at if they want to start getting involved in this sort of way?

LL: People can find local Books to Prisoners groups by looking at https://prisonbookprogram.org/prisonbooknetwork/ and searching for their state. If there isn’t one serving their state, then perhaps they can start their own. It’s not that difficult. Contacting really any of those listed on the directory will get you some advice on how to start up. Luckily, books are something that a lot of people want to donate. It takes not as much effort as you might think, I would say particularly X Books in Georgia started up about a year ago and have been doing very well and probably have a lot of advice for newcomers. For supporting us and particularly for Prison Books Collective, I have to say probably what a lot of nonprofits say, which is that money is our first need. Postage, in particular, is what costs us money, sending those packages out and every year the rate goes up. So if you have money to donate, donate it. If you don’t have money, then give us your time, if you can. We just started accepting volunteers again, as long as everyone is vaccinated and masked and we are still limiting the number of people that can come in.

And if you can’t do either of those, there’s probably online work that you could do if you got involved, whether it’s social media, applying for grants, reaching out to bookstores for partnership, helping with email. There is a lot of activism that you can do remotely, that isn’t just discourse on Twitter, necessarily, but actively working behind an organization to help them enhance their capabilities and do reaching out and things like that for them. Of course, we also take books for Prison Books Collective. You can email us if you have books to donate. However, I have to say we’re doing pretty well in terms of books right now. And we have most genres pretty well stocked. But as usual, law and DIY stuff is always in demand. If you have any books on homesteading, farming, fishing, or trying to appeal your case in court, then send them our way. We have a PO Box:

Prison Books
PO Box 625
Carrboro, NC 27510

You’re welcome to reach out to us on our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or through our email prisonbooks@gmail.com to ask us for more things you can do. A lot of people have come in with new ideas that have been very exciting to us. We hope that people can engage remotely or in person again, because we are an organization that works as a collective and we’re only as strong as the collective is. So we’re excited to have new people join us. And of course, I personally would advocate for everyone to just keep their ears and eyes to the news and look for a variety of news sources, not just the mainstream news sources about what’s going on, and to advocate for the destruction of the prison industrial complex as we know it. Thank you.