Category Archives: North Carolina

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing activists occupying the lobby of Downtown Asheville's AC Hotel - Photo by Elliot Patterson (permission of Asheville Free Press)
Download This Episode

This week on the show, you’ll hear from Doug, Onion and Papi, three folks involved in the Aston Park Build, a daily event to hold space in Aston Park in downtown Asheville, creating art, sharing food and music and a wider part of organizing here to demand safer space & redistribution of wealth to care for houseless folks and relieve the incredible strains on housing affordability in Asheville. We talk about the park actions, the housing crisis and service industry wage woes, local government coddling of business owners and police repression of folks on the margins.

Related links:

Supporting Social Media Accounts:

Announcements

Sean Swain’s Transfer

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

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

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

Biologica Squat in Thessaloniki

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

. … . ..

Featured Track:

. … . ..

Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: We could make plans for it.

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

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

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

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

Papi: It was really nice.

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

TFSR: Like storage containers?

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: If art is controversial…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: They will listen.

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: And it’s boring!

Onion: It’s super bad. Yeah.

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

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

Onion: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug: A loaf of bread is almost five dollars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onion: Something’s got to give.

TFSR: It has to stop being us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug: The Chocolate Shops downtown. I don’t have clothes nice enough to go in that damn shop. Like they must make a million dollars off of chocolate. That’s crazy.

Onion: Yeah, that’s another thing because that place got off to its start by having the community kind of sponsor them. They were like we pay a living wage. We’re community supported business. And what? Two years later? They changed that to where they were not paying a living wage. And they put all the money that they made into capital resources to build a factory so that they can manufacture their own chocolate and they’re paying worse than they used to.

And that’s really familiar in Asheville to have businesses start out as like, “Oh, we’re socially responsible, small businesses” and then they become these engines of pure exploitation. And so everyone that I know that has worked at that place is like “it’s the worst place to work in town. It’s so exploitive, it’s transphobic it’s disrespectful, the clientele is horrible. It’s it’s a terrible work environment.”

Papi: Or stuff like a decade ago was claiming to paying a living wage or whatever. They were claiming that a part of their, they were paying medical to people by giving them kombucha for free. Yeah, their own product.

Onion: Pay a living wage with parking space. They consider that part of the wage.

TFSR: Or like when you consider the tips getting figured into it.

Papi: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s no enforcement. So it’s not really a thing. It’s not a real thing.

Onion: I love riots. I’m tired of being like, palatable. I don’t care to be looking nice, being pretty and telling people like “Oh, can you give us this pretty please?” No, I’m gonna scream. I’m gonna yell until you give me what I want. Like, give me more money, stop having rent like this. Stop killing our friends in the streets. I’m ready. I’m already screaming.

Doug: We’ve ain’t even gotta get more money. We just got to stop your price of things going up.

Onion: I mean, all of it. You know? It’s time for us to call the shots. I remember during the uprising here, when downtown was full of anger and we took downtown and the cops couldn’t handle. You were there? Well, there’s a lot of video. And so it was pretty amazing. Because downtown, which is always full of tourists, like completely dominated. Like 95% of people from South Carolina or Atlanta or Knoxville or some shit. Well they were gone. It was just us. And you would never see the surface of the… what’s that hotel called the IRIS? It’s a big fancy new hotel in the center of downtown that spared no expense. That shit was covered. It was covered in tags and people were having a time of their lives. Windows did get broken.

TFSR: So much anti ICE graffiti.

Onion: It was a happy group of people until we got tear gassed.

Doug: I would have been helping y’all smash things and loot and carry stuff out. (laughing)

TFSR: in Minecraft.

Doug: Our buddy got caught in that riot and he ended up dying in Buncombe County Jail. Yeah, shout out to Jacob Biggs. He was a good guy. He just gets lost like most of us. We fall. Some of us stumble and we get back up. Some of us fall and we’re like, “I’m still falling. I can’t get up.” And we don’t need much. Just like hope, like a job, paycheck or something to look forward to. Like the promising of a house. I finally maced somebody at AHOPE because he was threatening me, he attacked me. And that same day is when they told me I had an apartment.

Because if you go through floating like regular “Hey everything is cool” you’re not in danger, your life is not at risk. But if you go in there stressed out every day, and you’re suicidal, and you want to kill the dog you want to kill and you start being irate they will move you up faster. And I don’t see how one person’s life is more or less than another one’s. Some people just lose their minds in the streets because they’re waiting for housing.

Papi: For housing. Yeah. For years.

Doug: I just want a roof over my head.

Onion: That’s the thing at this point. The city doesn’t understand where we’re coming from, which is that we’re not leaving the park. We’re not stopping. You’re not going to push us out. We’re not budging. So, you know, they’re going to have to find some way to compensate and open up their wallets and deal with us because we are here to stay. We have nowhere else to go.

TFSR: Yeah. And the “not in my backyard” approach doesn’t work anymore when people won’t stop being pushed away. Yeah. So y’all are holding space, you’re doing direct action by holding space publicly. You’re inviting families. You’re making art, taking the opportunity to make public art and make statements about it. We’ve already talked about how city council and county commissioners will do their best. People are trying to engage it, but they’ll do their best at silencing people actually making any changes and the city manager calls the shots anyways who is an unelected official. Do you want more people to show up at the park? What do you want people to bring? How long do we expect y’all are going to be out there? What’s the next stepping stone that y’all are reaching for?

Onion: We’re out here, you know. So by the time this airs, Friday will probably be over but it’ll be after Christmas. We’re going to have a big Christmas party and with lots of music and stuff like that. So this is ongoing. And yeah, I think that by the time people hear this on the air, they can just come on out at any time. We’re oftentimes picking up the festivities around four o’clock.

Doug: Yeah, if they don’t have anything… They can come with nothing. They can come with themselves or something, but just as support. They don’t have to bring sodas. A lot of people bring donations. Great. Because we can use them, but if you don’t have anything still show up. A big crowd is better than a little one.

Papi: It’s a nice big park. So there’s space for really a lot of people.

Doug: You play pickle-ball and tennis. They took the tables out. So we need a picnic table.

Papi: We got to bring tables in. But yeah, like anybody’s Welcome. Come over. You don’t have to bring anything. Everyone brings a little bit something. If you have the means and the money, yes, bring something, bring furniture. We people like to sit. We like to be cozy. Bring that. Drinks are always appreciated. Hot warm food. Very appreciated. Of different varieties, please, not all of us can eat everything.

Doug: Bring your Christmas tree.

Onion: Yeah, we like to like build things too, we get really crafty. And so we usually build structures every day. Engineering and stuff like that. And so we go high up in the trees, and we make our art and it’s really a cool scene.

Doug: Yeah, we want to make a birdhouse.

Papi/Onion: Ladders, you want to donate a ladder? Give us a ladder.

Papi: Bring a ladder, bring your client climbing gear!

Doug: We can go get a ladder tonight. I got a big one. Well, I think it stretches. Tools! Bring ingenuity. Bring a good attitude. Just be genuine and sincere to be there helping some people that need housing. Don’t just come for the show. Cuz you’re gonna love that.

TFSR: Musicians bring their instruments DJs bring their setups. It seems like a lot of the more inspiring things that I’ve seen in town around housing… I feel excited having conversations like this with people, because it’s just real that living in the city is much more difficult than it needs to be. And there’s people on the top that are skimming off. And then there’s tons of bureaucrats and cops and whatever and middle management in the middle that make their money off of keeping us out of empty buildings and keeping us from getting the food that we deserve.

And not only that, but also because this city sometimes feels like it doesn’t have actual community. It’s got the drum circle on Fridays, maybe. Especially during pandemic, the uprising felt to me, like the first time for a bit in that year that I felt a real sense of community and inviting people out to a space to share music to share food to be inspired by each other. That’s amazing. Personally, I feed off of that.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not just in Asheville, it’s a lot of cities. A lot of big cities, small cities, it’s happening everywhere. People need to pull together and get it right. And because if we don’t, then not just us, we’re all gonna be a load of crap. I don’t know how people don’t see it. It’s totally gotta be flipped. Put us in power and power underneath us. I love people that want to challenge people to come out here with us for an undisclosed amount of time. Depending on their attitude they can leave tomorrow go home, are they can leave in 30 days.

You have an undisclosed amount of time of how long you are going to be in the streets like we are. You’re stripped of your whole life and put on the streets and you’re homeless. And then what? Anybody can survive if they know they are going home within a week. Like I can last all week. But if there’s no hope for tomorrow, no, stale sandwiches or nothing. You really get down and hate life. And I would challenge them to come see how we do it. We don’t want to live like this. To see how hard it is to survive some situations.

It’s cold. I don’t know if any of y’all have been outside all day in the winter, but I hated it. I was warming my tent. Because I don’t like the cold. I moved from New England, because I thought it was cheaper here. And when I came from Connecticut here, the only thing that was cheaper was cigarettes. Meat was the same price. It was terrible. I had $1,000 month rent up there, it was a two bedroom. Everything was $1000 month, pay utilities, all your bills to come here and be homeless.

Onion: We also want to make the explicit invitation of people that have nowhere to go to come and visit if they can and see if there’s anything there for them that they want to build with us. So it’s hopefully a space that welcomes people that really don’t have anywhere else to go right now.

Doug: You see our community. See how we shoot, we love each other. How we try to look out for each other. I’ve given people the shirt off my back out here. The food off my plate.

TFSR: Well, I guess if you’re new to town and having difficulty keeping up on stuff. It’s a good place to come and meet people and also to find out about resources that are available. And Doug mentioned ASP before, that seems like a cool place to interface with that with the street side of ASP or the Free-store.

Doug: They talk to us with sincerity, not condescending. I love this group. Like, I’ve never met anybody like that, the people from ASP. I guess that would be me too, I volunteer to help. They’ve taught me a lot. I learned a lot. They keep me in check. I’m grateful for them. Grateful for everything that we do,

TFSR: Where can people keep up on this if they’re not in the area and they want to apply pressure. Or if they want to get involved, but maybe don’t want to show up immediately? I know there’s some Instagram accounts that have been broadcasting news about when police have been coming in or the really cute flyers that have been being made. Yeah, how can people find out more?

Papi: It’s kind of an autonomous group that is forming this project, but it’s being supported by a coalition of collectives and groups. And so you could go to any of those pages to find out about what’s going on. Those could be Asheville Solidarity Network that has a Facebook and an Instagram. There’s Asheville Survival Program. Same thing Asheville For Justice. DefundAVLPD – the movement to defend the police here. So yeah, check those out. And that’s a really good way to get in touch and plug in and find out what we’re doing.

TFSR: Cool. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to bring up and mention?

Papi: I do have something. I remember asking some folk because I’m pretty new to just a lot of stuff. So I was like, anybody want anything to be said, and someone brought up about just what happens when when sweeps happen, and friends and family are displaced Is that you no longer know where your friends are. You no longer know where your family’s at. And it just makes it a shit ton harder to get yourself okay. And shit around you okay. If you’re constantly being removed from your area, and you can no longer make appointments, and you can no longer take care of your dog or go to doctor’s appointments, or go to school or anything like that. And the main thing that someone had told me that they were really thinking about was how you can no longer find your friends and family. And that’s very scary. Fuck sweeps. Fuck DOT.

Onion: I think I wanted to say Fuck them all. Yeah, definitely echoing that. I wanted to say that, to city council, we see you. We see what you say and how what you do doesn’t match up with it. And so we’re coming for you. There is not anybody that’s safe sitting on the city council, because the furthest left member of city council on the first day of Code Purple, when there was no shelter, put up a Facebook post saying “it’s my birthday. Oh, it happens to be Code Purple. What you can do is donate to this tiny nonprofit who doesn’t even do emergency housing support. Give them money, because the city can’t handle our shit.”

And basically, that’s the furthest left that it gets in Asheville is like passing the buck. And so we see you passing the buck. Kim Roney. We’re here watching what you do every day. And you haven’t shown up at Aston Park yet. And we see you. So there’s an invitation for city council to open up your wallet of the city coffers, and give us what we need. Or we will come for you.

Papi: For city council to come down and to shut up and not say anything and hear houses folks and hear them at every single thing they have to fucking say. Everything.

Doug: We want your routing numbers! To your bank accounts,

TFSR: And do a damn thing about it, not just show up and listen and go back to their heated offices, right?

Doug: No, I want them to just come and listen. They’ll hear something but they just come and they’re not listening.

Onion: They hate having to listen to us. They hate it.

Doug: When you’re able to put up a tent and be homeless. That means you’re comfortable there, it’s feel like a safe spot. And then when the police come and sweep it or tell you to move, it’s like you’re being evicted from your home back to first time being homeless. Every single time. I went through 18 tents in two years. That’s ridiculous. You know, police take them down or weather. it just sucked. Fuck the police.

Onion: Yeah, and how many campsites have been burned down in the past couple of years. People need a safe place to go where we have folks watching out. There’s just been a lot of danger for people living outside in every every kind of way.

Doug: Unfortunately when there happens to be like an OD or something. And they shut it down. Like take the OD and deal with it, and not police it but support. Not just beat us down and make us want to go get high. Iv’e been clean for a couple weeks now. It’s a struggle. When they get on me and bad days, I’m gonna want to go out there and you know, do that bad thing. Stay warm.

When I was homeless, I ain’t gonna lie I got high everyday. Because I needed that to get through to get up and get my food for the day, my clothes, my shelter for the night. Take care of my girlfriend’s dog. God they don’t understand. Sometimes you wait 4 hours for a shower at AHOPE. And for lunch, more time. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing with our time, twiddling our thumbs. So this is the south and we are in the Bible Belt, right? This is the holiday season. We need some love like Jesus from these people. I hate to bring religion into it, but show us where your hearts are.

TFSR: Congratulations on keeping sober.

Doug: It’s a little easier with an apartment I can just stay in there and eat and not have to go outside. But I hate it for people who don’t have housing. I was just there not too long ago. And I could be there again. If things were bad, but I’m gonna do my best not too.

TFSR: I guess any of us could. It’s kind of the point, right?

Doug: Most of us are one paycheck away from it. me. Me and my ex-wife we we’re doing fine, two jobs, kids in schools, both the cars, and then both cars died. We were off the bus ramp. But then, here we are. Yeah. Well, she’s not here anymore. She’s here but not here.

Papi: Yeah, I was living outside to after leaving an unsafe relationship. And I had an infant. And so I was in a really precarious situation. And so I was living in a vehicle for a while and you know, it can happen to any of us.

Doug: People lived in a tent with their children. It was okay.

TFSR: Yeah, thank you all for the work that you’re doing and for being willing to come on this and talk about it. And I really hope that it it gets more folks out there. And yeah, thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Papi: Thanks for having us.

Doug: Yeah. Thanks, man.

Onion: Thank you.

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
Download This Episode

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.

. … . ..

Featured Track:

. … . ..

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.

Asheville Survival Program

Asheville Survival Program

"Asheville Survival Program" in a circle, around dandelions and the word "donate"
Download This Episode

Asheville Survival Program is an autonomous mutual aid network formed in early 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in so-called Asheville, NC. They are building mutual aid with oppressed communities, promoting solidarity and sharing outside the bounds of State structure through their streetside camping gear, food and solidarity distro and their “Until We’re All Free” Store, holding a distribution space open a few days a week walk-up visits and delivering groceries through a network of drivers.

For the hour, I spoke with Fern and Ducky, two members of ASP affiliated with the Free Store, about the history of the group, challenges its faced, challenging charity dynamics and working to reach outside of subculture and across racial and cultural lines. You can reach ASP on Instagram at @AvlSurvival, on fedbook via @ASPDonate, find more links, including how to donate, at https://linktr.ee/avlsurvival. You can also reach them at their email if you have further questions at ashevillesurvivalprogram@gmail.com.

And here’s the segment that Sean Swain references the FBI emailing VADOC about from April 11th, 2021

Announcements

KPCA-LP Now Broadcasting TFSR!

We’re excited to say that starting on the evening of Halloween, Sunday October 31st 2021 we’ll be airing on KPCA-LP, community access radio in Petaluma, CA! If you’re on occupied Coastal Miwok and Pomo territories of southern Sonoma County and looking for a 10pm political radio show, tune in to 103.3 FM!

Check out https://TFSR.WTF/Radio to see our other radio broadcasts around the so-called US as well as ways to get us on your local airwaves and spread the anarchy!

BRABC Prisoner Letter Writing for November

"Political Prisoner Letter Writing" flyer from BRABC with details over an autumnal Appalachian landscapeIf you’re in the Asheville area, check out the Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross letter writing night on Sunday, November 7th from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park at 198 Vermont Ave. More details on the BRABC instagram, fedbook or their website at BRABC.BlackBlogs.Org. No letter writing experience required, they provide stationary, names and addresses of prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression.

New Website to Support 2020 Uprising Prisoners

Comrades have started up UprisingSupport.Org to help track prisoners who went in last year after the murder by police of George Floyd and other instances of racist, police violence in the so-called US. If you’re involved in supporting someone facing charges or in prison, get in touch with the site to get your friend listed. If you and your crew want to support folks, check it out and get involved!

And now a couple of prisoner-related updates:

Bo Brown, Presente!

Revolutionary anarcho-communist, urban guerrilla member of the George Jackson Brigade, white working class butch dyke lesbian anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist, ex-political prisoner passed recently after a long battle with Lewd Body Dementia. She will be remembered by her many comrades, including in the prison abolitionist communities of Oakland, CA, where she was active in her later life. To see a beautiful poster designed by Josh MacPhee of Just Seeds collective, downloadable and printable for free: https://justseeds.org/graphic/bo-brown-rest-in-power/

Bo’s loved ones are raising funds to help cover her funeral expenses via a Go Fund Me entitled “Show Up For Bo Brown”: https://www.gofundme.com/f/pfspu-show-up-for-bo-brown

Russell Maroon Shoatz Is Out!

Dedicated community activist, founding member of the Black Unity Council, former member of the Black Panther Party and soldier in the Black Liberation Army and now-former political prisoner, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz has been given “compassionate release” after years of medical neglect in the Pennsylvania prison system. Maroon has been released to an outside hospital to coordinate palliative and likely hospice care as he’s in stage 4 of colorectal cancer. While it’s great that Maroon gets to be near his family, this is 49 years too late and the victory rings a bit hollow to receive this fighter back into our midst after such mistreatment. There is a fundraiser at Go Fund Me entitled “homegoing Service For Richard Shoates”: https://www.gofundme.com/f/homegoing-service-for-richard-shoates

And you can learn more about Maroon at https://russellmaroonshoats.wordpress.com/

David Gilbert Paroled!

Finally, some really good news. After decades of pressure, notably by Releasing Aging People in Prison (RAPP), former Weather Underground & May 19th Communist Organization political prisoner David Gilbert is expected to be released in November of 2021. He was granted partial communtation by outgoing NY Governor Cuomo, and the parole board announced that it was granting him parole. David was arrested after the Brinks armored car robbery in 1981, led by a Black Liberation Army unit. Free Them All!

. … . ..

Featured Track:

. … . ..

Transcription

Fern: Hi, my name is Fern. I use they/them pronouns and I’m part of Asheville Survival Program.

Ducky: And I’m Ducky. I use they/them pronouns, also part of Asheville Survival Program.

TFSR: So, I’m very excited to talk to y’all about ASP, or Asheville Survival Program, being that y’all are longtime participants in it. I was involved in ASP for about five months at the beginning with my participation tapering off after a while, so I’m excited to hear about what’s been going on. Thanks for finding the time to chat! Would folks mind giving an overview of ASP, how the project developed, where the name comes from, and how you’ve seen its scope change as time has passed?

Ducky: I’ll start and then Fern, you tag in if I forget something or if I say something incorrectly. So Asheville Survival Program was co-created at the beginning of the pandemic, like April 2020, primarily by a group of self identified anarchists who were hoping to start a mutual aid project and do disaster relief in the wake of social services shutting down at the onset of the pandemic. The name Asheville Survival Program takes its inspiration from the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, which were one of the arms of the Black Panther Party’s project, basically, helping people meet survival needs as part of the political goals of that project.

Interestingly enough, I think both Fern and I got involved right as folks that had kind of bottom-lined the creation of the project were stepping back because of burnout. So, we entered the project at this unusual transition time. But at this point, the shape of the project has remained fairly consistent for the past eight months or so at least, where we have a group that does a streetside distro, which Fern and I are not super directly involved with. But then there’s also a location called the Free Store, it’s full name as the Until We’re All Free Store where we distro free groceries. We’ll do free grocery deliveries and kind of just exist as an aid space in opposition to State power in Asheville.

Fern: One thing I’ll add is that there are a number of kind of auxiliary working groups that feed into supporting these two central projects. So, for example, we have a working group of folks who drive the grocery deliveries that we have. We have a working group that cooks big, hot meals for our street side food distribution every week. And so there’s a lot of overlap between all the different groups and subgroups.

TFSR: That’s really awesome.

What does the ASP operation look like a year and a half after its inception? You mentioned that you both kind of came in at a time when people who had initiated it were stepping back due to burnout or having to take on other stuff going on in their lives. But are there any folks that are still around who have been there since the beginning? And who is involved? Like is it folks from political subcultures, faith inspired folks, or folks from the community that you mostly operate the Until We’re All Free Store In?

Ducky: Okay, I’ll go again, Fern nodded at me and I was like “okay”. So I guess, in terms of the way the day to day operations of the project have shifted is kind of operating around this idea of trying to do smaller things really well. This idea of under promising and over delivering. When the store itself initially opened, it was closed to the public, but staffed seven days a week. We are now only staffed like three days a week and only open to the public two of those days. And that just reflects the our capacity to staff the store and the physical resources we can actually fit in the space. It’s not a huge space. It gets real full by the time we have enough stuff to distro for a weekend. We’re here now and there is just mountains of boxes all around us.

Fern: We’re literally just sitting under a stack of cornflake boxes 8 high, that’s just tipping precariously over us. Yeah, which you know, great! Happy to have all those cornflakes, but…. (laughs)

TFSR: Make sure the Fire Marshal isn’t hearing this right now.

Ducky: They’re six inches off the ground, so it’s fine (laughs). That’s all that matters.

So there’s that component of it. So, day to day operations, we are distro-ing resources, talking to people, building relationships, cultivating connection. In terms of who’s actually involved in decision making of the project? It’s a pretty small group of people that are consistently involved in that. There are a lot of different factors at play there. I would say ultimately, the vast majority of people involved are just folks coming from political subcultures, namely, the leftist, anarchist scene in Asheville. Which also means that ultimately, 90% of the people involved are white folks as well, which is just like also the reality of being in Asheville… which is just like such an aggressively white place. Did I answer that whole question? I got a little lost in the sauce.

TFSR: Yeah, I kind of extended out the the question a bit. Yeah, no, that makes sense. Like the majority of people, at least where the Free Store is situated, there’s a large Black community in the area, there’s also public housing in the area. Is there anything you can share about how it’s felt? Has the project tried inviting folks? And how has that looked? Or has it just been an instance where folks who are working there have just been building relationships with the folks that come up and get the resources and you all also take the resources?

Fern: I guess, I want to think that we are trending toward greater involvement from the community that we are situated in. And since I’ve been involved with the project, which is coming up on just about a year now, I have definitely seen a small but measurable change in the level of participation. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are, like Ducky said, a predominantly white group coming into an area that is predominantly people of color. There is just inherently a lot of distrust, and especially coming in to a space where none of us actually live, you know, for the most part, it just takes time to start building those relationships. At the end of the day, something that we’ve been talking about a lot is we can try as hard as we want to as a collective to build trust… but in reality, it comes down to individuals showing up enough to build actual relationships with actual people, and not our community building relationships with another community, or the community that we are, occupying space in.

TFSR: How does ASP relate to NGOs or nonprofits or charities? If ASP is not incorporated and doesn’t have an official status are there challenges of getting access to resources from those sectors that do? Or have relationships been built that allow y’all to work together with those sorts of groups? Are there tensions there? I know y’all we’re sharing space with Steady Collective a harm reduction collective, which is really awesome. And we’ve had on the show a couple times.

Fern: Yeah, I can speak a little bit that, because it has been a process of procuring all of the resources that we are able to distribute in the Free Store and through other aspects of the project. For quite some time we have been receiving a lot of the food that we distribute through one of the larger food banks in the Asheville area. They explicitly only partner with nonprofits and we are not in any way a nonprofit. So we started out with having a very under-the-table relationship with a nonprofit that other members of the organization of our collective were involved with, and then sort of using that as a way to start getting some of those resources. But it was all very, you know… no paper trail to the best of our abilities. But over time, I don’t know if it’s necessarily trust rather than… for example, this food bank has realized what is happening and has decided that they’re okay with it.

Now we are coming to them as Asheville Survival Program and not this other nonprofit that we were working through. There are elements where we do have to sort of comply to these standards that nonprofits have, for a variety of reasons. For example, we have to store all of our food properly, and there is some degree of keeping up on that. And that’s all well and good, I would hope that we will be storing our food in a way that is safe for people. But there is this sort of fear of nonprofit creep into our non-nonprofit organization.

Ducky: I can say more. So as a collective that has a strong commitment to organizing against the State, outside of the bounds of the State, the idea of incorporating as a nonprofit is pretty controversial within the collective, especially for the idea of incorporating the collective as a whole. I think when we’ve seriously talked about trying to incorporate it has been less because of a need to gain access to material resources, because we found ways to build relationships with either nonprofits or people in nonprofits more often that allow us to gain access to resources that normally we would not be available to us as a loose collective of individuals.

The conversation around becoming a nonprofit has come up multiple times and we still have settled on not doing for managing our finances. Just because trying to figure out how to manage finances as this non legal entity using the currency of the State has felt complicated at times. At this point in time, I don’t think we’re seriously considering incorporating. But when it has come up in a real way, it’s actually been like “how do we cover each other’s butts when handling money? Is incorporating as a nonprofit the best way to do that?” And so far the answer has been “No.”

TFSR: There was a discussion when I was engaging with the collective… There were these unwieldy meetings of like 40 people on signal, it was just everyone talking over each other’s I don’t know how decisions got made. But there was discussion and there was pushback from a couple different sides about the idea of using the space and using the service as an opportunity to share political content. When I would package up food boxes, frequently I would put in copies of “Know Your Rights” information or harm reduction pamphlets, or sometimes “fuck the Cops” type things, nothing that was too political, necessarily, a lot of it was just about critically starting conversations around “civil liberties issues”. But there was a big push against us having a political education component to the food distribution, which was the thing that the original Black Panther Party had done with their breakfast programs and with their clinics and other outreach, survival programs that they had done.

Does ASP or does the Free Store actually engage with any sort of this? Or is there much discourse or comfort or discomfort levels? It could be creepy if it feels like you have to listen to our screed in order to get the food or you have to believe what we believe in order to get your Pine Glow or whatever?

Ducky: Yeah, this is something that, especially this current iteration of the Free Store’s working group is really in dialogue around a lot. Fern and I talk about this all the time. Ultimately, I think, because we’re named after the Black Panther survival programs, if we’re going to honor that tradition and acknowledge it in a real way, some aspect of the work we need to be doing is having an explicit political agenda to the work we’re doing. And that doesn’t mean being like the only way people can access resources is by listening to our spiel.

But something that we’ve run into consistently… And this is something I thought to mention earlier in the interview, but many of the folks involved in running the store at this point, perhaps all of us have not actually been radicalized for that long, have only been involved in this kind of organizing, more or less, since the pandemic began. And so many of us just don’t have a lot of experience articulating our beliefs to other people. So when people ask us why we’re here, because people are genuinely curious… They’re like “Wow, these dirty punk kids are kind of always here giving up Pine Glow and shit… I hope I can say that?

TFSR: Yeah, I’m gonna edit it. Yeah.

Ducky: Great. When a lot of us speak to this experience when we’re asked that question, and just like “Oh, you know, we’re here, because we care about people” and giving false answers, essentially, because we don’t have comfort around talking about the ideology that drives this work, which is primarily that we believe that the State and those in power actively benefit from the oppression of everyone who doesn’t have that level of power and access to resources. And so by distro-ing resources, we are committing to these values of challenging State oppression and the hoarding of resources by those in power.

Fern: Yeah. And something that I have only recently been able to really put into words for myself, but it speaks to kind of that discomfort of this sort of basic unwillingness to discuss the politics that are determining whether or not we’re showing up or not, is that, I think it’s in many ways, pretty detrimental to the work that we’re trying to do to keep these political conversations separate. Because it’s not genuine, and I think many of the people that we’re interacting with in the community where the Free Store physically is, have great familiarity with the lack of support they received from the State and are mad about it, and have reactions to it and have lots of much more lived experience than many of the folks who are involved in ASP as a collective. Us just beating around the bush and trying to be wary of folks in a sense… Because we don’t want to start anything. There’s always a chance that you might say the wrong thing to the wrong person and they disagree with you for whatever reason.

But in general, we’re all on the same page about a lot of this stuff, and it really is just a matter of what language we’re using to talk about it and what kind of framework we’re using to approach it. I am definitely in the camp that thinks that we should be doing more explicitly political stuff, not even necessarily political education, because as Ducky said, so many of us are still in relatively early stages of our own political education that it doesn’t really feel fair to be like, “Yeah, this is what you should think, person.” But there’s so much to be learned just by having these conversations over and over again, with as many people as possible. And so I think as a collective, there is starting to be a shift toward being more comfortable being more explicitly political.

Ducky: I think also that, once again, there’s this reality too, that Fern was already speaking to that many of the people that are collaborating with us to get their survival needs met by coming to the store to just get some stuff that they need agree with many of the values that we already hold is like an anti-authoritarian, anti-State, blah, blah, blah, anti-capitalist collective, abolitionists collective. But the words we use to describe our values are just basically jargon. And so I think that ultimately is where we also have to do work as a collective. One people can understand ideas. Not to be like, “Oh, if we use this jargon, people won’t get it.” But to be like “we kind of already agree. You probably have already heard this phrase before, too. But this is what we mean when we say it.”

So like an example of one idea that we’ve had about trying to make the space more political, and also, at the same time, make it look nicer, because being able to shop someplace for groceries that you need at a grocery store that looks nice is also a really nice thing. Putting big posters up in the windows with different statements on them. One idea that we’ve been circulating right now is trying to find a really good compact definition of what abolitionism is and just put that in huge letters on one of our big storefront windows. Because abolition is the crux of why we’re doing this work. Because if you abolish prisons, you abolish police. Part of that work also involves dismantling the whole system of oppression. And so that’s why we’re here is because we want the systems of oppression to come to an end.

TFSR: Well, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it feels like to not engage with folks politically as if people don’t have opinions and as if their lived experiences and opinions aren’t worth hearing, or as if y’all’s perspectives wouldn’t withstand healthy trustful dialogue… As was stated early on, building trust with the community, building these relationships and it’s based on people showing up and being real. If you’re just like “oh, I don’t know, I’m just here, because, you know, it feels nice.” Just kind of avoiding using words that might touch someone off, or challenge them, or playing kid gloves with grown people, instead of engaging them in mutual political organizing, that seems like kind of the difference there.

I feel like I participated in stifling the conversation a bit at the time, when we were discussing it earlier on. But I think a part of my initial response was that I don’t want this to feel like a church kitchen where you have to hear a sermon in order to get food.

Fern: I mean, there is a balance. And to me, I think that be being political, and especially being politically anti-statist is really a huge part of the difference between mutual aid and charity models. And because charity has so much of that baggage of denying access based on certain factors, based on sobriety, based on whether or not you’re willing to be proselytize to, and so many other things. In the way that we’re trying to distribute things and in the way that we’re trying to approach this project as a whole. We really want to say no to people as little as we physically can. When we’re out of something. It’s like, “yeah, we don’t have any more of that. But let me put an order in and you can get it next week.” Not asking any questions, not assuming that people don’t know what they need or what they want.

I don’t think that adding on a component of like, “Hey, we’re gonna put some stuff up in our windows, we’re gonna hands and stuff out.” That doesn’t stop people. They can still get everything that they were getting. And maybe we can start sparking more of those conversations in both directions. Maybe we’ll find more common ground with people. Maybe we’ll get a ton of pushback and that will also be equally as informative and equally as worthwhile, in my opinion. Mutual Aid is about relationship building and relationship building is arguing with your family arguing with your friends and growing through that.

TFSR: So the next question that I had in here was: Have you been able to develop relationships for sourcing the distributable goods that don’t rely on commerce, like local farmers giving up surplus because they want the food to end up in good hands?

Ducky: I think, ultimately, most of our sourcing, and why again, part of why we haven’t had to incorporate to collect resources, is we have relationships with people that work for nonprofits in town that end up with surplus. We end up distro-ing that surplus. Folks will be like, “We actually can’t distro this. Can y’all distro because we know that you are in a location where it’ll get to people who need it.”

Inconsistently we’ll have folks in the community provide resources to us and share them like clothes or something that we often have and those are all just like things that people drop off. And I would say that’s the most consistent resource that we’re able to redistribute that is coming from totally autonomous, non-NGO nonprofit locations.

Fern: Although, the one one thing I’ll tack on to that is perhaps Asheville as a whole has sort of a willingness to share information about windfalls. And I think there is an especially a lot of motivation and energy devoted within the collective to taking advantage of those windfalls. For example, a certain food producer that was formerly based out of Asheville, but as leaving due to some….

TFSR: Because they are shitty bosses?! I’m just guessing…

Fern: Because they are shitty bosses!!! You know, someone who knows, someone who works at the Free Store was like, “Hey, I’m clearing out their entire production space. Do you want a ton of industrial cookware? and hotel service ware?” and I was like, “Oh, I’m already out running errands in North Asheville, I can show up there in half an hour!” And we just got hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of equipment for nothing! Just because we know someone who knows someone, which is just a testament to the power of community and the power of having the mindset of “I have all this stuff sitting here laying around, that’s just going to either get donated to a nonprofit or get thrown away… maybe I should try to have something else happened to it.”

I think that is a sort of a cultural shift. So many random people just show up at the Free Store, like, “Hey, uhh, I like saw an Instagram post about you. Here’s all this random stuff I have. I’m moving and I didn’t want to bring it to Habitat for Humanity or whoever.” Great, it’s gonna go out the door today, instead of getting shipped around the country and you know, then half of that will end up in the landfill anyway.

TFSR: So, circling back to the the mutual aid versus charity thing. Can you talk about your concept of mutual aid? I’m sure everyone’s got a slightly different answer and in the collective and in all the groups. But just how you feel your work is different from charity? How has it been to try to challenge the dynamic of charity? And how do you think that you all have done?

Ducky: I’ll start with an answer on that one. I wanted to reiterate this at the beginning and I forgot to. We’re all such baby radicals in this working group at this point. All these ideas that we have are just coming from this huge tradition of primarily BIPOC folks that have built these ideas up. So, I’m just gonna say a bunch of stuff. But at some point in this interview, wanted to say that. That all of these things are just straight up, stolen, stole them all.

But anyway, I think for me, there are two primary aspects that define or rather differentiate mutual aid from charity. One of those is something that Fern already spoke to, which is tearing down this barrier of separation between people who seek aid and give aid. Getting to a point where there is no tangible difference in the way we’re working and organizing and being in community with each other that creates a hierarchy on the basis of need. In terms of like, “these are the people that help people and these are the people that get helped.” Getting to a point where resources and care… because we have real authentic, caring relationships with each other are distributed in a way that doesn’t have this weird dichotomy to it. So that’s one part of it.

And then the other part for me is this idea that mutual aid should be doing work that challenges the systems of oppression that create the need for that work. We mostly do survival work as a collective collaborating with people to support their survival needs. If we want to continue to call ourself a mutual aid project and be honest when we say it, I think the next step in this collective development is thinking about ways that we can be explicit in challenging the systems of oppression that create the need for the project in the first place. We’re working on that first thing for sure.

I think we are doing good work and building relationships with who people trust us, because we’ve been around for almost two full years. And we still show up, and I think folks are used to people showing up for a couple months and then disappearing. But that second part where we actually challenge the systems that create the need for the work we do. I don’t see us doing that very much as a collective, at least not yet.

Fern: Yeah, I feel like I have something to add to that.

Um, maybe just that I think calling ourselves a survival program is accurate bearing in mind that the sort of theory behind the survival program model, as perpetuated by the Black Panther Party. Which was like… it is impossible for people to engage in political work if their basic needs are not met. And we’re still in a time of active crisis. And there’s still an immense amount, working against anyone finding any sort of stability during this, in general, and also with these compounded crises that we’re experiencing. And we’ve got to get to a place where we have real trusting relationships with people and those people that we are in relationship with are not struggling to survive. We can start having those conversations about the more political aspect of the project. But in terms of the energy that we’re expending on the work that we’re doing, I think, ultimately, like Ducky said, we’re still in kind of stage one. Because there’s a lot of needs that aren’t getting that in our community.

Ducky: There’s another member of our collective who says this a lot. I’m not sure where this phrase originates from that maybe it’s an original of theirs. But it’s “all the work we do has to move at the speed of trust.” I really like when this person says that because it’s a good reminder that while it can be frustrating to be like, “Man, we’re just doing charity work. Dang!” But also, recognizing that moment that the reason why we’re in this model, where we are essentially doing charity work with some anarchist slogans plastered over it is because it takes time to build the kind of connection and trust in a community such that we as individuals are also part of that community before we can do the real work of mutual aid, which is changing things in a real way.

TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s important, bringing it back to the Panther naming of it, “Survival programs Pending Revolution.” That’s the full name of it. And it sounds like the work that you’re doing right now is trying to lay the groundwork for being able to have capacity for revolutionary relationships with other folks.

Ducky: And with each other! I think something that I’ve been learning by being part of this collective is the necessity of relying on your friends and comrades to support you and give care when you need it. White supremacy teaches us that that’s not the case. We live in a highly individualistic society that teaches you to not reach out to others when you need help, stigmatizes it.

TFSR: So there’s one of the oft-pointed-to anarchist adjacent or anarchist projects of support that echoes the work that ASP does. I guess both between street side and and the Free Store to some degree is Food Not Bombs and Food Not Bombs has gotten a very bad rap over the years for doing what some people have said… doing charity, but without the resources of what other institutions do. Like there’s a soup kitchen down the street that maybe can more efficiently produce meals for people and fill that gap that the system is leaving. But the saving grace of the Food Not Bombs model is that it is a DIY self organized attempt, that is inherently politicized by its name, attempt at providing meals building companionship and and collaboration between folks as well as filling a need that people have. Oftentimes there’s that political component, like when I used to participate with a Food Not Bombs on the West Coast I’d bring a stack of zines and a table and have them there for people to pick up if they wanted to or if they wanted to have a chat about the content.

But a critique of not doing the thing well is.. is heard in some times. People throw together stuff that they’re willing to eat maybe tastes good for them, but maybe isn’t that enticing for other folks who are coming to it. And it sounds like some of the work that you all have been doing in the space has been trying to make it more appealing to folks. The Bread and Roses idea. Like, if we’re going to provide a thing for people, providing beautiful things that are healthy and that are enjoyable, as a sign of mutual respect, as opposed to the often dark and dank ways that folks have to navigate the charity system in a way that demeans them and makes them feel small and makes them feel like they’re getting a handout.

I guess it’s not really so much of a question. But I wonder if you could talk about the importance of mutual aid work, taking care that the food that’s on the shelf is not over date, taking care that it’s the kind of stuff that you would want to eat? That you’re actually showing love by providing this stuff. Sorry, that was rambley, but it was kind of off the cuff. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or should we just skip?

Fern: Yeah, I think I do have some thoughts about that. That is something that we definitely have talked about at various times there. What I’m thinking of when you ask that is… right when I first started getting involved in the Free Store, specifically around this time last year it was this period of transition that Ducky talked about. I think a lot of that knowledge got lost in transmission somewhere. That was something that as we started opening up the store a little bit more and having folks come up to the window and be able to place orders or just tell us what they would like to have. I think there was sort of a period of unconsciousness where we’re like, “Oh, we have all this stuff that we need a distro and people don’t necessarily know what’s here, let’s just put it outside!” And boxes of food were going on the ground.

There was this conversation that we had that really stands out to me. Basically, to your point. What the hell! It’s already so difficult to get food when you don’t have money. Don’t make people stooped over for it! Put it on a table, make it look presentable, go through and it take out anything that looks even a little bit off. Even though I come from, in my college years doing a lot of dumpster diving and not really caring, like “This food is fine! Like, it looks weird, but it’s fine!” And me as someone with a lot of class and race privilege… that was my reaction to my upbringing. “Oh, we’re so wasteful as a society.” But that’s not going to be other people’s reactions who come from different backgrounds than I do. Because they would much rather just have food that is tasty and fresh, and looks as good as it would if they were getting it from a grocery store.

Definitely coming into this project I wouldn’t have really thought of it. And it wasn’t until we started having those very explicit conversations about this sort of presentation aspect. It says a lot about what we’re trying to do. Are we throwing shit in boxes outside on the sidewalk? Or are we placing it and like taking care to make sure it’s actually high quality stuff. We throw away more stuff than, I would if it was just going to my house for me to eat because I’m like, “Whatever, it’s just food!” but there’s so much societal baggage about who gets to eat what. And I think it’s very important to keep in mind because it’s so easy just to want to distro everything because it’s all technically good. But it comes comes with a lot of other stuff attached.

Ducky: I think another part to that too, over time, because Fern myself and some other people that are pretty involved in the store at various points have been here every day that the stores opened at various times and just been here talking to people. So, over time I think we do a good job of eventually shifting to getting more of the things that people specifically request. Like an example is there is this sweet guy who comes by all the time was always like, “do y’all have ramen?” and we never stopped ramen, but we were able to start spending more money on food so now I always buy ramen. People love ramen! Another thing that people often would ask for is juice packets, flavor packets, or Kool Aid. And so now we buy Kool Aid, because we don’t ever get it for free. So we can give that out to folks as well.

And the way we have cleaning supplies because no one can buy cleaning supplies with their fucking EBT. So people are like “I need bleach. I need pine Glow. I need dish soap. I need trash bags. I need toilet tissue.” And folks also always ask for paper towels, which we don’t have, but I think we’re gonna start buying them because everybody always wants paper towels and folks really appreciate it when they know that if they give us feedback, we eventually are like, “Okay, we’re going to make it happen.” So that this thing that everyone is requesting we can get so that it can be distro-ed out.

Fern: Yeah. And kind of related to that, this thought came up for me when you were asking the initial question, in terms of thinking about what the difference between mutual aid and charity is. I think, it’s that factor of immediacy. I think about if ASP had tried to start itself as a nonprofit at the beginning of the pandemic, we still wouldn’t be a nonprofit, we wouldn’t be here doing anything. And it’s only because there was obviously this conscious decision to pursue a mutual aid model, a survival program model of just getting up and making it happen. And that also allows us so much more flexibility, like Ducky was saying. We can much more easily respond to people’s needs when it’s just like, “Okay, there’s lots of people asking for this one thing. Let’s just have a brief chat in our group text.” And then it just happens, as opposed to having to get approval from your boss, or the board of a nonprofit. It’s just you can just actually respond to people’s needs in an efficient manner.

TFSR: So the food deliveries are still happening. That all gets processed based on orders in the space, right?

Fern and Ducky: Yes. yeah.

TFSR: And who are you trying to serve with that part? Roughly how many people participate in that element of ASP? And how many boxes of food? and these like big boxes generally, but how many boxes of food do you all distribute?

Ducky: I’m gonna answer the first part of that first, which is how does the delivery packing boxes even work? How did how do we self organize to do that. For a long time what we were doing is we would be taking orders of the door, we were taking orders via this hotline, we were compiling all this information digitally. And then while we had the door open, so that people could also shop at the window, we were also trying to pack all these orders. It was always total chaos being on shift it was too much work.

TFSR: Yes!

Ducky: We recently shifted in the past month which I think has been a super big and important shift. What we actually did is we closed our hotline, because we weren’t able to keep it consistently staffed. So when people would call, it would be a month before they would get an order back to them. So now we just take orders of the door, but the way we pack orders is we have a shift that is closed. The doors are closed. We got curtains drawn. So it’s hard to tell whether or not we’re here and we just pack all the orders for the week on that day. And then on Saturday and Sunday, when we’re open to the public, all we have to do is hang out at the door grab things for people, and coordinate with the delivery drivers who are coming by to pick up these orders that are already packed. So, it creates space on our shifts to actually just hang out and spend time with people instead of frantically trying to complete all these contradictory tasks all at once. Do you want to speak to numbers? Or if you have more to say about that?

Fern: Yeah, totally, that is such a huge shift. I took a few months off during the summer for a job I was working. And up until that point, I had been working probably two shifts a week for several months. And I love doing it and it felt important and rewarding, but also just so exhausting. And I never felt like I had as much time as I wanted to actually just chat with people and be outside the space. For now, because of COVID, the space is very small with poor ventilation. We’re not for the most part, letting folks in unless they’re helping out in some capacity or another. So it can be this very transactional, “here I am behind this little counter, I’m taking your order” customer service mode all the time.

Which obviously has to happen. We still want to get stuff out to people in an organized fashion. If you had a lull in the folks coming to the door, it was like, “Okay, now I have to like pack orders!” And you couldn’t ever find a moment to just go chill with the people who are hanging out outside. We’re in a little strip mall with a couple of other businesses that are very busy. And so there’s always people around and always people to talk to you who want to talk to you.

It definitely has been really nice. In terms of numbers, I would say it varies anywhere between like 30 to like 7 boxes a week. And a lot of stuff, people are just coming to the door and getting a box when they’re standing there… but in terms of orders that are placed ahead of time. It does vary but it is consistently maybe 20 households a week.

Ducky: I think it might be more than that. I think on a busy day anywhere between 30 and 50 people will come to the store.

Fern: Yeah, coming to get smaller amounts of stuff.

Ducky: In terms of boxes. I think like 20 households a week is about right. And then adding that to the number of people that just come by and shop, it ends up being a much larger number of people that is harder to quantify. We can count the number of deliveries we do. But there’s no real way to keep track, at least, that we’ve tried of how many people come by the door and get stuff.

TFSR: Initially when ASP started up, there were a lot of misunderstandings about virus transmission. Also ROAR in Madison County as another mutual aid community organizing project, Rural Organizing and Resilience, sort of copied off of the ASP model. They were doing the deliveries for people that thought that they might be have a higher possibility of transmission of the disease. And so we would let a food box sit on the shelf with the packaged goods for three days and go through a quarantine period, and sort of get moved from one part of the space into the other wrapped up in two plastic bags.

On delivery, we could rip open the outer bag, and they could come and grab the inner bag and take that inside. It was pretty well thought out for what we thought was going on. But who gets the food deliveries these days? Is there any presumption about transmission? Or is it just kind of anyone that asks? Like they might have mobility issues, they might have health concerns, or they just might not have enough time in their day and this will really help them out?

Ducky: Yeah, I mean, the double bag method of deliveries… I started in ASP as a delivery driver right as right as we transitioned out of that. And I think ultimately, we just gave up on even asking people if they wanted us to decontaminate their food. Because people would be like, “do you want us to deliver it soon or in three days to a week?” And people were like, “Right now, please.” What’s interesting is I don’t actually really think that since we dropped the hotline, the people that we were delivering to haven’t shifted that much. Almost all of our deliveries anyway were just going up to people who mostly live at the public housing complex right up the hill from where the store is.

But for me, at this point, I think the focus of this aspect of the project, the Free Store, is just becoming a more real part of the community of this neighborhood. And so for me, when we take orders at the door for folks that live around here, that’s for folks that can’t carry like a 40 pound box to their house, don’t want to carry a 40 pound box to their house, or are placing orders for their neighbors who are not able to leave the house right now. And for me that just reflects less of being able to actually offer realistically prioritizing people that can’t leave the house because of the pandemic because we don’t have a good way to stay in touch with those folks. So we can’t really say we’re offering that but just prioritizing folks that we have relationship with who state needs, and we’re like, “Let’s collaborate to get those needs met.” Does that feel accurate Fern?

TFSR: How has the project fared in terms of resisting burnout, having an ongoing institutional memory and challenging informal hierarchies within ASP that sort of naturally develop in scenes and in communities?

Fern: Yeah, I mean, burnout is definitely something we talk about a lot. I don’t know whether talking about how burnout is real, helps us avoid burnout in any tangible way. But you know, there is something to be said for just at least having it sort of constantly on the table. I think we are as a whole, really good at filling in for folks when they feel the need to take a step back for whatever reason. And speaking to the sort of immediacy of mutual aid, nothing that we’re doing is so complicated or so specialized that somebody else with very little introduction to it can’t just step in and start doing it.

Like when we don’t have enough drivers we just put out a post on Instagram saying, “Hey, do you want to drive grocery deliveries?” and get a whole influx of new people. Which is great. I think having a willingness to reach out, as long as the the people that are coming in are agreeing to our points of unity. That is a good way to do it in some ways and not in others. Like you mentioned in the question of institutional memory, there’s not a lot of good resources for having that body of information be available. Right when I started with the Free Store, we were still calling ourselves DECON, because we were decontaminating people’s groceries. It was this very hilarious shift where we hadn’t really been doing that for months, but we were still called DECON. I guess that’s an example of institutional memory.

I’m not sure if anyone who has joined the Free Store since we started calling ourselves the Until We’re All Free Store, have that understanding of where we started. But one thing that maybe will help this effort of having some continuity is we have started creating much more intentional space for having monthly collective wide meetings, which we’ve only just begun. Hopefully, they will continue in perpetuity where people who have been involved for many different lengths of time in the project can all come together and share experiences and talk about issues that we’re facing now and hopefully also talk about the history of the project. But I do think that institutional memory is something that needs to be built because it is really important to understand why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them now.

Ducky: Yeah, I can talk about hierarchy, I guess.

Fern: Yeah, you should talk about hierarchy. [laughs]

Ducky: I’m gonna try not to be too controversial, because I know others from the collective are gonna listen to this. I think, as a product of a desire to keep each other safe, in realm of organizing that has primarily been digital. And in fact, at one point, what Fern said about meetings is really interesting, because for a while we just stopped having meetings that were like open to anyone. Shit was just getting decided in signal loops. So, I think a big a big part of trying to challenge hierarchy has been creating more meetings, essentially, where it’s really clear that anyone who wants to participate in those meetings is welcome to. So that’s a part of it.

But I think something that exists within the collective is just trying to figure out how to include people in decision making without just excluding them. I think something that ends up happening is folks that bottom line a lot of different parts of the project end up accruing a lot of social capital. I say this as someone that has, at various points accrued a lot of social capital. Which just creates this weird hierarchy of people that feel empowered to make decisions autonomously and just do shit. And then a bunch of people who are like, “this person just is making decisions all the time. but I don’t understand how they’re making decisions. Who they’re consulting with about them? How this even works?”

I think something that is important for us to be working on as a collective is making it really clear that once you kind of get the sense of what we’re doing, you’re really empowered to make a lot of autonomous decisions, and check in with other people about the stuff you want to do especially if it’s going to affect a lot of people. But if you’re just going to create work for yourself, but it doesn’t create work for anyone else, you go ahead and do it. I think that’s where we are successful in our informal way of making decisions. That was kind of an inarticulate mumbly….

Fern: No, I think it made sense. One thing that I’ll add to that is, from my own thinking about this issue, is I think that a lot of people who are coming to this project, maybe also similarly, like myself, and like Ducky, are “baby radicals” is we’ve had a lot of experience maybe volunteering or otherwise being involved but it’s with nonprofits. And usually working with a nonprofit there are very explicit roles and expectations that you have to meet. And that’s just not something that we have other than follow through on the things that you volunteer yourself to do. And to not make life harder for anyone else.

It can be hard to sort of make the shift to make people feel empowered. Because A Yeah, like Ducky mentioned, the social dynamics of the collective are such that not everyone feels like they’re quite in-group enough to feel like they have the right or the authority to make decisions. And also that I think people are not used to being empowered to make those decisions…. we’re used to bosses.

Ducky: What’s interesting about that and something I’ve been thinking about a lot is, I think Fern and I definitively are somewhere in this in-group crowd. And a big part of that is because when we got involved in the Free Store, it was in this transition period, where the people that have been bottom-lining it for months, at various points kind of all had to step back really quickly. And so those of us who got involved all of a sudden had to learn how to do this thing and there was no one left to tell us how to do it, because everyone had left. And there was no documentation anywhere. So I think some of us have come into this project and have strong opinions about how it runs now. Like I’m very opinionated. But we have this empowerment to just make autonomous decisions because we had this experience being involved in the collective when it was like low key in shambles and there was no one left to tell us how to do anything. So we just had to figure it out.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really important approach. And that’s cool if that’s a continuing dynamic that the new folks are being introduced to. Yeah, “just don’t create more work for other people. But if you want to do this thing, go for it.” That’s pretty cool.

Fern: Can I add one more thing about informal hierarchies while we’re on the topic. I would say a huge disadvantage for us in doing the kind of work that we’re trying to do is that we operate very, very dependent on technology. Having access to a smartphone, having access to internet, having access to a computer, are all things that if you are going to be reliably involved in decision making in the project, just because of how it has sort of happened, and combined with starting this project, in the space of the pandemic, where it was very hard to be around other people in any capacity for quite a long time. We defaulted to these online, extremely online modes of communication that are just bottom-line, not accessible to a lot of the people that we’re trying to build community with.

I’m personally of the opinion that if we are actually going to be doing what could be called mutual aid in the future, we will have to go virtually offline. I don’t think any of our…. I don’t want to sound like an an-prim or something. But, just the reality of a person who doesn’t have a smartphone or reliable access to the internet… “How you sign up for shifts at the Free Store is by going on to this Google Doc and coordinating via signal loop with these other random people.” It’s just not gonna work. And so I think something that I really want for the collective is to take a really critical look at how we came to have the systems that we have, and how can we radically undermine them in order to make ourselves accessible in a meaningful

Ducky: THAT!

TFSR: There’s another element, in some activist communities, how some people accrue social capital, which relates to access to resources. Sometimes. You’ll see this kind of thing in school board meetings, the people that have the time and can get their kids childcare or whatever, in some cases, can show up to these things and get hyper-involved. And sometimes in activist scenes, the people who show up most consistently, and for meetings to make decisions are people who have the ability to not work a wage job and don’t have to worry about rent so much, too.

That’s not me saying anything about ASP in particular, but something that I’ve noticed. Like of my own privilege, I can get by working a job four days a week, and I’ll make rent and I have some extra spending money and some food and whatever. But I also don’t have kids, I don’t have any relatives that I’m taking care of that would require medical bills getting covered, I don’t have medical bills that need to get covered…

Ducky: That reflects the reality at the very least of the way the hierarchy that is present in the Free Store working group exists. I mean, because I worked at a lotion factory four days a week for a while and was here the three other days of the week. And then I quit that job at the beginning of the summer, because I’d saved some money while working and got my last stimulus check. And I’ve just now started thinking about going back to work, like I’m starting November 2nd. But because of that, it means I have a ton of time. So I’m at all these meetings. I’m in all the signal loops. I’m at the store all the time, but it’s because I have this additional resource and privilege privilege around time that I can choose to do with what I want. I think that’s the reality of the situation as well.

TFSR: Well, so are y’all looking for ASP to grow? And if so how? How can folks just show up and find where the store is? We haven’t talked about the location very specifically. And find out when a meeting is and show up to meeting? What you seeing in the future of the project?

Ducky: I think what I’m looking for and looking towards is continuing to do the work. I don’t imagine us trying to expand the work we’re doing and doing more work. I just imagined us trying to do the work we already do as a collective and doing it better, while making it more political. Getting really good at running this Free Store, continuing to cultivate these real relationships that I have now with folks in the neighborhood. But in terms of getting involved, the basic prerequisite for being involved, and being able to come to like these ASP collective-wide meetings is we have this document, which just our Points Of Unity document that we have new folks read through. And we’re like, “Do you agree to abide by these while doing the work of ASP?” And people were like, “Yeah” usually.

I’ve not ever had anyone be like “I’m not gonna abide by these.” But basically, just reading through these, and these are… I’m pretty sure these points of unity are basically just lifted from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR). They just got incorporated into our project at the beginning of the pandemic. If you want, I can send you a link and you can hyperlink the points of unity in this episode’s notes too.

TFSR: For folks who are going to be listening, though, could you kind of go over the general values of them? Or it’s okay if you don’t want to, if you don’t have it memorized…

Fern: We have a very abbreviated version, a concise version.

Ducky: I’m not gonna rattle them off. But I think the ones that are really important are ones that have already come up in this conversation. There are more of them, obviously. And it’s super complicated, or nuanced rather. But one of our points of unity is that we, as a collective, strive to dismantle the barriers between people who give and receive aid. Another point of unity is that we do our work with the end goal of ending all systems of oppression. One of our points of unity is that we’re opposed to all forms of bigotry. One of them is that we don’t work with the State or call the cops.

What Fern was alluding to is, so when folks just stopped by the store casually and don’t want to read like a full page long document, we have like three bullet point version, and it’s pretty straightforward.

Fern: Yeah, “No bigotry of any kind.” “Fuck 12” or for radio friendly “Don’t call the cops. Screw the cops.”

Ducky: And what is our third one?

Fern: You gonna go look, it’s on the board. We’re in the store. We just heard the chair sound.

TFSR: It’s FUCK 12 again! (Laughs)

Fern: We love drug users. “We do not shame drug users for using drugs.” That’s the other one.

Ducky: So at the store when folks just want to stop by and drop in. We’re like, “Yeah, you’re welcome to drop drop in, do you care to agree to these three things when you’re working with us in the store?” I don’t know the best way for folks that are just listening in to be in touch with us. You could DM us on Instagram?

Fern: That’s kind of true, because you’ll get somebody who could have a phone conversation with you about our points of unity and about the project as a whole.

Ducky: It probably be me.

Fern: It would probably be Ducky…

Ducky: Or like one of the two other people that do that.

Fern: Yeah. That’s another talk about burnout. That’s something that we’re looking to expand… the number of people doing the on-boarding.

TFSR: I mean, that seems like an awesome thing that someone could do if they weren’t able to share space with people or had mobility issues or that’s their jam!

Ducky: I mean, we have someone that doesn’t live in town now. Who lives in Philadelphia but is really committed to the project. I miss them a lot.

TFSR: I miss that person. I hope they’re listening.

Ducky: Yeah, we miss you. Come back! Well, don’t, you like being in Philly more! But keep onboarding people. Thanks. But yeah, I mean, that person doesn’t live here anymore, but really cares about this project. And so one of the ways that they contribute, one of many ways that they contribute still is by being one of the people that will introduce people to the project and help them get connected to different parts of it.

TFSR: The Instagram is basically the public face besides the store. If people are on that app they can reach out.

Ducky: We also have an email address. People can email the email address if they’re interested and involved or have questions, or if they want to troll us? I’ll talk to you after this call and maybe check in with other members of the collective and maybe we can give folks that option to contact us that way as well. So that if they don’t have Instagram, they can still get in touch with us. It’s AshevilleSurvivalProgram@gmail.com

TFSR: Is there any thing that I didn’t ask about that y’all wanted to share about?

Ducky: I mean, I will say, we always need more people. So if you’re listening and you’re in the Greater Western North Carolina area, and you’re interested in this kind of work, come check it out. We’re all learning. None of us know how to do this. We all figuring it out as we go. So having more people that are excited and aren’t super flaky, love everybody, but half of us are total flakes myself included half the time. Maybe cut that out. It’s fine. If you’re flaky. You do what you need. It’s up to your spoons and capacity. Flake as much as you want, Dandruff is cool! We just always need more people.

It’s a lot of hard work. But ultimately, I would say that ASP is a huge part of my life at this point because it really is meaningful work that is important. And I have built really profound relationships that have further radicalized me and helped clarify my vision and my politic in ways that have been kind of incredible. So, the last thing is come check us out. Get involved, if you want.

Fern: Yeah, doing mutual aid is better than staring into the void.

Ducky: True that.

TFSR: That’s what’s going up on the window.

Ducky: I mean, it’s basically our mirror in the bathroom. I think our mirror in the bathroom has “You look so good doing mutual aid. You look great doing mutual aid.”

TFSR: I would imagine that if someone’s in another city, and they’re listening to this, and they’ve been thinking about starting a mutual aid project, or they work with one. And they wanted to get a hold of y’all to swap stories or talk about ways of doing stuff that the Instagram and possibly email would be a pretty good way to do that, too, huh?

Ducky: Yeah, there’s not really a phone number that we can call. I’m going to try really hard to get consent.

Fern: Let’s have audio of us saying, Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Ducky: Please contact us so we can swap ideas. Cool.

TFSR: If you get consent, then I’ll put the email in the show notes and announce it also. And if you don’t, then I will cut all the references to it.

Thank you so much, Fern and Ducky for having this conversation and again, making the time to chat for the work that y’all do.

Ducky: Yeah, thank you Bursts really appreciate it.

Stop The Mountain Valley Pipeline

Stop The Mountain Valley Pipeline

Banners left on pipeline construction equipment, reading "Where Will You Go When The Waters Rise?" and "The Fight Continues"
Download This Episode

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP is planned to be a 300 + mile pipeline 42 inches in diameter being built to transport compressed so-called Natural Gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian Basin, from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia for export. The pipeline started being built in 2018 and is slated to cross over 1,000 waterways, posing a danger to countless human and non-human animals and plants along the way as well as being responsible for 19 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 19 million passenger cars or 23 average U.S. coal fired power plants each year. It’s being built by a number of corporations involved in other fossil fuel infrastructure like ConEd & EQT. As of November 2020, the project was 3 years behind schedule and over $3 billion over budget because of a coalition of on-the-ground grassroots direct action and resistance, geographically dispersed solidarity actions and court challenges determined to keep this Marcellus Shale gas in the ground.

This week, we’ll speak with Toby and Emily, two longtime activists resisting the MVP’s construction about the pipeline, some of the resistance history, MVP’s attempt in federal court to intimidate and identify folks who run the social media accounts called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” and how to get involved in the struggle to fight climate change. You can find thorough coverage of the topic, and piss off the extraction industry, by following @AppalachiansAgainstPipelines on fedbook and instagram and the @StopTheMVP on twitter. You can support the ongoing resistance by throwing money at the effort’s fundraising page: bit.ly/supportmvpresistance.

You can find our past interviews about the MVP, including with folks actively in tree-sits and mono-pods at our website (by searching Mountain Valley Pipeline), and as well as our interviews about the water crisis in West Virginia generally and in WV prisons (by searching “Elk River”).

To learn more about the struggle at Line 3 and folks who are doing anti-repression work around it, check it this link and the related site: https://www.planline3.com/support-the-resistance

In about a week, you can a transcribed and easily printable version of this conversation for free at https://TFSR.WTF/Zines. You can follow us on social media and find our streaming platforms at TFSR.WTF/Links. You can support our transcription and publishing efforts monetarily, if you appreciate our work, by visiting patreon.com/TFSR or checking out other methods at TFSR.WTF/Support. And you can find more about our radio broadcasts, including how to get our free, weekly, hour-long broadcast up on a community station near you, by visiting TFSR.WTF/Radio.

Announcement

Eric King Trial Support

Antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King will be heading to trial soon and his support is inviting folks to show up at the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse in so-called Denver, CO, October 12-15th to support him. You can find filings on his behalf and background on the case at the Civil Liberties Defense Center at CLDC.org, and find updates on the case at SupportEricKing.Org, and the support Twitter and Instagram.

. … . ..

Featured Track:

. … . ..

Transcription

TFSR: So if y’all would please introduce yourselves with whatever names, pronouns, location or why we are talking and what you’re involved in for the audience, that would be super helpful.

Emily: Cool. Yeah. My name is Emily, I’m joining us from so-called Virginia, in New River Valley area, pretty close to where the pipelines currently being built.

Toby: I’m Toby, my pronouns are they/them. I am also in so-called Virginia, pretty close to the New River Valley, and also very close to where the pipeline is currently being built.

TFSR: This pipeline that we’re talking about is the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). And I’m wondering if you all could maybe tell us a bit about the plan of the MVP, what’s been built so far, the path that it is planned to take, what it will be carrying… just all the like logistical stuff about that, as it is up to this point. Maybe what the investment company behind it is called.

Toby: Yeah, totally. So Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP that we usually just call it is a 300-ish mile pipeline. It’s 42 inches in diameter, which is like a giant pipeline. That’s one of the biggest pipelines. It’s gonna transport compressed natural gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian basin. And it’s gonna connect to an existing pipeline: The Transco pipeline. It runs from Northern West Virginia, all the way down through to Southwest Virginia. Then it’s gonna go 75 miles into North Carolina through its South Gate extension, which is still being decided in court. So, that’s going to go through like Rockingham County and Alamance County in North Carolina. When it is built, if it’s ever built (hopefully it’s never built), It would emit the 89.5 million metric tons of carbon. So that’s like 26 coal plants or 19 million passenger cars. It is right now being built by a company called Precision Pipeline, which is the same company that is building Line 3. The project itself is owned by EQT EQN Midstream who is based in Pittsburgh. And it’s like funded by like major banks who fund EQT EQN like JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, all the big name banks, and a lot of other banks. Emily, would you like to talk about maybe what they’ve built what they haven’t built?

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. They claim that they built a lot more, but it’s really only, like maybe 51% built. Some outside sources say, essentially, a ton of what they’re claiming to have built is not actually like completed to the point where gas could flow through it. But they have done a lot of work in pretty much most of Northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Franklin County in Virginia. But the vast majority of the pipeline’s water crossings are not done. And they have over 1000 water crossings that they will do over the course of the pipeline. Yeah, a lot of the work that’s going on is currently happening in Monroe County in West Virginia, and then Montgomery county and Giles County, in Virginia, and also in Roanoke County.

Toby: I think like they are claiming that like 92% of their work is done. But really what that means is they have done some work on 92% of the pipeline. But it’s really important to say that the work that they have yet to do is going to be some of their most difficult work. It’s going to be going over some of their steepest sections. It’s kind of hard to describe to people who aren’t from around here or who haven’t done a lot of hiking or spend a lot of time in these mountains. But when we say the steepest sections, we’re not talking about like “Oh, it’s a steep hill.” It’s like very few degrees off from a literal cliff that they’re going to try and build a pipeline through. And that includes trenching and grading and daisy chaining equipment down the hill so that they can actually do their work. Which is incredibly dangerous for themselves and for the environment around them.

Emily: Yeah, and they have already flipped excavators. I believe that one Precision Pipeline employee has already died because of their complete disregard for safety precautions or common sense perhaps.

Toby: Yeah, like they are building through karst terrain, which is really prone to landslides and sinkholes. And that mixed with the incredible steepness of the land around them and also the work that they’re doing producing lots of erosion. They are facing a lot of difficulties with their construction. They are three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget. Some of that is $2.5 million in fines that they have occurred through over 250 water quality violations.

TFSR: So is that like they’ve caused erosion through their construction that’s leaked into water supplies to rivers outside of the scope of…. Is it called an ERC?

Toby: Yeah, those are what most of those violations are from. And a lot of that $3 billion over budget is the amount of work that you’ve had to do. That’s just sediment and erosion control. And they spend millions of dollars doing sediment and erosion control where if they were not building this pipeline, they would have not had to spend all that money.

Emily: It’s also important to note that most of those violations were recorded and tracked and submitted by a citizen watch group here. So that is this community being like “You are destroying our water, you are destroying our communities. We now have to go out every day and watch you do this destruction and take photographs of it, every time it rains.” There’s teams of people that go out along the path and observe and record what’s going on so that they can then submit that to the DEQ and try and get some sort of consequences for all this destruction. I think it’s really important to note that it’s not because the company is like doing anything. The company is leaving this all on the people who live in the path. All on the people who are fighting it. And the DEQ is also leaving that burden on us here

TFSR: Yeah, there’s not like Department of Environmental Quality workers out there, like you say, going up and down the path of the pipeline of what’s been built so far and testing.

Emily: They come out when they’re caught, right? And then they need proof, oftentimes, to be convinced.

TFSR: When it was quoted “19 million passenger cars” would be the footprint, is that like the the estimated amount of carbon produced by the lifespan of the pipeline and all that it’s like slated to carry through it? Or is that like a yearly thing? Or what? How is that figured?

Toby: Yeah, so that’s what they are predicting is going to be the annual emissions. So that’s like emissions from the combustion of the gas the pipeline would carry. That also comes from a predicted methane leaks across the gas supply chain, and emissions from the actual compression. Then also like the emissions from the gas extraction and processing that’s happening up in Northern West Virginia. So that’s not including the emissions that are currently happening from all the construction that’s going on. But the majority of that is the actual gas combustion. And then also 45% of that number is from the amount that this pipeline is going to leak. And just the standard leaking that all pipelines do.

I think because of the terrain that we’re in, and the amount of like ups and downs and also the fact that this pipeline has gone on for over three years that they scheduled for their construction, it means that it’s going to be way more susceptible to leaking, to explosions. Because if you think about it, the pipe in themselves, they are not rated to sit out in a field being exposed to the elements for three plus years. And that’s what certain sections of this pipeline have don. You drive by in this area, and you go by their pipe yards, and that pipe has been sitting there for years. It’s not rated to do that. The coating on it that’s supposed to protect it is not rated to withstand that amount of exposure. And they still are saying that it’s perfectly safe to put in the ground and to pressurize and put compressed natural gas through. They claim that they rotate every section of pipe that’s laying out every day. That’s what they claim. They don’t do that at all. But that’s what they claim that they’re doing to their shareholders and all the regulatory agencies.

TFSR: So besides the the weight of the methane leaks… All those other elements that you described along the 300 mile path, there’s also the what is the imminent threats to the viability of streams and waterways and aquifers that it’s traveling through. That would seem like that would also require constant vigilance of people in the communities along that 300 miles to be watching for breaks or for spills or for leaks just so that they’re not drinking poisoned water.

Toby: Totally. As Emily was saying there’s like over 1000 water crossings that they are going to do and that does not begin to describe the aquifers that it passes through and how many people along the route that get their drinking water from wells that would be impacted by spills and leaks. Karst terrain is a natural filter and a lot of people do have wells to those aquifers. If anything were to happen. If there was a break in the line or a leak then you are looking at people losing access to clean drinking water. And we’re in Appalachia, that’s not a new thing for people around here. That’s not a new occurrence. This region has a long history of being a sacrifice zone for the fossil fuel extractive industries and those industries poisoning their drinking water and their well water. So that’s not new. But that still doesn’t make it right.

Emily: Yeah. And I think something, also on that, is that it’s already happening, right? We’re talking about leaks and that’s totally a huge risk of this project. But just the construction itself, because of the geology of the area, because of the karst terrain, people have already lost water just from the construction. We know people whose wells have dried up and that can’t be undone. They just recently pierced a pretty big aquifer that feeds all of the families that live on an entire mountain. And they denied that they hit that aquifer. But because the water tables here are so complex… which is what leads to those sinkholes… Because it’s so complex if you hit the ground water there’s no way to know how far that impact will extend into the mountains.

TFSR: There was a couple of times back in…. I want to say 2012 and 2013… [correction, 2014] this show did interviews with folks that were doing water distribution around West Virginia, and around Virginia because there were two coal related spills. There was the Freedom Industries spill, where floodwaters had washed uncontained coal cleaning chemicals that were a private industry recipe. The company wouldn’t release what the actual chemicals that were involved in it to the state EPA in West Virginia but it was released into the water supply. And folks from around the region were going up and driving huge water buffaloes, huge tanks, driving pallets of water bottles down and up into hollers and into rural communities. Because if people are relying on these water supplies that are naturally occurring and they don’t have the infrastructure where they’ve got a local county or city government that’s actually filtering the water…. even if it could filter for some of these chemicals, and some of these toxins…

The phrase used, “sacrifice zone”, in Appalachia… this is a clear example in the last decade of when industry destroys people’s ability to drink water. I mean, people and that’s excluding all the other living beings that live off of these water supplies. I can’t imagine watching 300 miles worth of one of these pipelines and all the impacted communities who are going to be left. Not not only where poverty in some cases is endemic, but also the poverty is where people are lacking easy access to transportation, let alone going and finding another source of water. Poverty aside, that’s just going to be a huge problem for anyone, whatever their level of wealth is. With how isolated people live up in these mountains, it just seems like a really huge weight to put on. Just so that some corporations can extract the stuff that we already know is destroying the ability of humans to live comfortably on this planet.

Toby: Yeah, exactly. And again, I was making the point that the burden of finding out whether or not your water is contaminated rests solely on you, as a person who lives in this region. There’s no responsibility of the company after they built this pipeline. There’s no responsibility of any of the shareholders. None of those people are going to care about the folks who are left after this project is completed. If it’s ever completed. And no one is going to be there to support those communities or to support the people living up in the hills who lose access to their drinking water. There’s only going to be us who are left. And we have to like, not only find out while it’s happening, but also be aware after it’s happening that we have to continue to support these communities.

Emily: Yeah, I remember back when the pipeline was first announced and there were a ton of community hearings that people were showing up to just in droves to be like “We do not want this. Let’s make this very clear from the beginning, we do not want this pipeline. We think it is a bad idea. We think we will be put in harm’s way because of it.” They were absolutely right about all of that. And I remember, one of the ones in the Montgomery county area, folks were talking about some some people in the Brush Mountain area who were on well water. And the question put to, I believe it was county officials was essentially like “If our wells are destroyed, how soon can we get connected to the county water system?” And these were people who were maybe a five minute drive outside of town limits. They were five minutes from their neighbors who were on County water. Because it is a really difficult area to traverse and to build in safely. And because these areas don’t have a lot of disposable income for that kind of infrastructure investment. They were like “Three years. If it becomes a top priority for us from the minute that we decide “Yes, we’re gonna get you on to County Water. Three years.” So that’s obviously a long time to go without water. Yeah, and that’s already what’s happening as a result.

TFSR: I don’t know if you know the answer to this? But when people are resisting pipelines being built, and they go over schedule, and they go over budget by years and billions of dollars, if they’re just figuring that that’s like a normal part of the loss of the possible profits that they’re gonna be making, or if they’re contractually obliged to continue building it? Because projects do stop because of resistance. For instance, the ACP [Atlantic Coast Pipeline], right? As far as I know it went just so far over budget, and there was so much resistance at so many points that they just scrapped it. Which is an amazing story of success. But is there government subsidization? Like with the federal government stepping in and saying “We need energy independence, and so we’re going to fund projects like the MVP that’s keeping it afloat.” Or the hedge funds just so awash in money that this is an acceptable loss for them?

Emily: It’s a tough question. I studied economics, actually, in college and I still don’t understand how all of this really works. But I do remember talking to someone who was an expert in this. And essentially, because of the way that a lot of these companies are structured, they break the individual corporate entities down into being ‘midstream’, or ‘extraction’, or ‘processing’. They break it down into those separate categories. But they’re often owned by the same parent companies, or they have the same investors backing them. It’s this interesting sort of shell game where you really can’t follow the money very well. And of course, they also do really shady things like just straight up not pay some of their contracts and not pay some of their workers. That’ll happen to along the way.

But what I remember from that conversation with her and we were heading into a meeting with the governor or something, and she was explaining to me essentially, that you don’t actually have to have any gas flow through a pipeline for midstream partners and shareholders to make money off of that pipeline. It is such a bizarrely built industry and such an absolutely shady thing through and through. I do not understand where the money comes from most of the time and it seems to be a real confidence game where people invest in this. Then because people are investing other people see as a good investment and invest. It’s got the smell of a Ponzi scheme but I can’t get any more specific than that. But she really was like “No gas has to flow through pipeline for the people building it to make money off of it.” And that took my breath away. I still think about that conversation all the time. I wish I could find her and have her really spend a couple hours explaining it to me. But the industry is so craftily constructed. This has always been true of these industries. I mean, Enron was doing a lot of pipeline work and we know just how ethical their business practices were. It has always been this sort of like mystery fog that surrounds pipelines and fossil fuel industries. So that’s the best answer that I can probably give you. I don’t know if Toby can say a little more.

Toby: I mean, you’re the one that studied economics, apparently.

Emily: I try not to tell people that, honestly, most of the time.

Toby: I mean, it’s coming in handy right now. So I appreciate it.

TFSR: At least you’re on our side. So yeah.

Toby: I think we we don’t necessarily have a lot of economists who are giving us a lot of advice on how this system works, apparently. I feel like, I know that MVP is… if you listen to their shareholder meetings which are public, interestingly enough, you can tell that shareholders are not exactly happy with them. Which like, why would you be happy if you invested in a company that’s $3 billion over budget. They’ve definitely lost shareholders, but they apparently have not lost enough shareholders to say that it’s not worth it financially for them to complete this project. Even though we’ve also seen all of the economic trends that have been happening. Natural gas is not actually that good of a financial incentive. It’s not actually worth that much on the markets right now. And they’re trying to frame this pipeline as critical infrastructure. But in the end, it’s not going to be critical infrastructure, economic wise. It’s not going to be worth money. Dominion saw that. And that’s why they were like “We’re not going to do the ACP.” But the folks behind MVP have not yet made that decision.

Emily: Yeah, they haven’t wised up.

We have enough infrastructure actually to meet and exceed all of the natural gas demand in this area. So we do not need this pipeline for local gas demand. And we know that that’s true, because it won’t be going to locals. They they say that it’s going to be heating homes in the area, but it’s not. I mean, they signed contracts that have literally the bare legal minimum going into local consumption. It is entirely for export, entirely for that profit.

Toby: Yeah. And I think this is a trend. It’s not just this region where pipelines aren’t a financially good idea. Part of what happened with the Jordan Coe fight out in Oregon is that FERC [Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission] declined they’re eminent domain, because they’re like “There’s no financial incentive to grant the Jordan CoVe eminent domain. Natural gas is not enough of a financial incentive for us to deal with eminent domain of all of these landowner’s properties.” So like, like this trend of like it not being a good financial move is happening. But also at the same time it doesn’t benefit the company’s. The companies are like “No, we have to keep making money.” And, as Emily said, they don’t need to actually put natural gas in this pipeline to make money. And they’re going to continue being hell bent on this process, even though it’s at the expense of us living on this earth. And other creatures living on this earth.

TFSR: It’s obvious that they’re fleecing the shareholders. And that’s why they’re losing some of them, but some of them are just too dumb to realize. But it also just kind of smells to me, like the infrastructure plans that were over the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Where you just had like large infrastructure or private security companies or whatever taking public funds and building bridges to nowhere, as they say. Or just walking away with money. I don’t know if those are the same companies or if it’s public money going into it, but it just seems just ERRRRRRR.

Toby: Yeah, it does seem like that. It does feel like that, It is really hard to be like “Oh, this pipeline makes sense when you go around these mountains.” And you look at like their construction methods and the absurd amount of dangerous stuff they have to do to build this pipeline. In no way shape or form does this pipeline make sense. You just being here and hiking around… you’re like “Oh, this makes even less sense than I thought it would from an outside perspective, because of the terrain and where it’s going through.” You’re just like “How did any engineer think this project made sense?” I don’t know. As Emily said before, already, one worker has died. There have been multiple equipment accidents, where excavators have flipped over, other super dangerous stuff has happened on this pipeline route. So, you’re just like “Oh, it has to be something going on where people are ‘yeah, we’re gonna keep just drowning this projects with more money and even though it doesn’t make any sense.'”

TFSR: West Virginia is one of the states in the US that has a very long history of official acquiescence to extractive industries with, among other things, the promise of employment opportunities. There was already discussed the argument that it’s going to be fulfilling local supply needs for natural gas, which has been blown out of the water. But is this providing any reasonable amount of jobs for people in local communities? And is that is that one of the selling points that they’re trying to make for it?

Toby: They definitely make that point. It’s definitely wrong. You drive around and you look at where all the Man Camps are, where all of their work yards are, where their workers park, and all of those trucks are from out of state. Most of the pipeline workers are from other states where there are other pipelines being built. They get brought in. They come and they stay in Man Camps. They come in and stay at all the hotels. They’re from mostly out of state. I think the one exception to that is that some of their security they hire is local. But none of the bosses of the security folks are local. They all get brought in too. There’s a story that by where the Yellow Finch trees sits used to be, there was a logging project that was just coincidentally right next to it. And the loggers got into disagreements with all of the MVP workers because MVP had not hired local loggers to do the tree clearing, or the tree felling. So, they’re not hiring locals, they’re bringing people in.

Emily: Yeah, and I remember back in the beginning, again. They would waltz into these meetings being like “1000’s of jobs. We are bringing 1000’s of jobs to this area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” And they would be like “Oh, we ran the numbers again, and we’re bringing hundreds of jobs! hundreds of jobs to the area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” and then did their own research and they were like, “What you’re talking about in your own documents is less than two dozen permanent jobs, like less than a dozen permanent, jobs.” from what I remember from one of those conversations. Considering the amount of farms that I know that have shuttered in the construction process that has already out numbered. That’s already out numbered.

Toby: Even the jobs they’re providing to locals, the security jobs, as Emily was saying, they’re not continuous jobs. In fact, a lot of the security workers were pretty happy when a lot of folks started doing blockades again this year after the tree sits were extracted. Because it meant they were gonna get laid off, but now they’re no longer gonna get what laid off. That’s the thing is that they lay off a lot of workers. And even the workers that they bring in, they have large parts of the year where they can’t work, or there are stopped work orders and so they lay everyone off. So they’re not even providing jobs that are that good to all the folks who are being brought in.

TFSR: And just to keep on that topic around the Man Camps. I know when we’ve spoken to folks involved in resistance against pipelines, whether it be in so-called Canada or in the US. This can have different impacts in different places. Obviously, in in the parts of Canada where a lot of those pipelines are being built there’s large concentrations of indigenous folks living on their land, and being under threat of displacement or poisoning from this. And the Man Camps have a racialized element to them as a colonial force of displacement, as well as assault and murder against Indigenous women in particular.

But, I wonder if there’s some commonalities of experience around the Man Camps, as they’re called, along the MVP? I would imagine, and I’ve heard this sort of thing before that there’s at least higher like incidences of people transiting COVID because people are traveling back and forth over such wide distances and maybe don’t give a fuck about infecting locals at the hotel they’re staying at or the restaurant they’re eating at. But are there higher concentrations of assault around those spaces, or other concerns outside of the job site?

Emily: I mean, I’ll speak for myself here. I don’t really have a way of knowing and I’ve thought about this, and I don’t really know how to find out. A lot of those things probably wouldn’t go reported. We know for a fact that a lot of the man camps up north at Line 3 have recently been caught in sex trafficking, have recently been revealed as being sex trafficking rings. And again, They use Precision Pipeline. We use Precision Pipeline. There’s no way that it’s not happening, I guess, is what I’m saying. But I can’t necessarily speak to specifics of sexual violence around here. I will say that you’re absolutely right about the COVID transmission. I mean, they don’t wear masks. But also the cops don’t wear masks. Every every part of the construction process is putting… You know, the security workers don’t masks. A lot of the people who are out there are able to observe the people in their backyards doing the work every day. A lot of people that go out and do that observing are often older are often retired, because that’s who can show up when the people are working in their backyards. And so it’s a lot of older folks who are in close contact with these people who have no regard for their safety. None whatsoever. So yeah, you’re absolutely right about that.

TFSR: I guess getting back to the scripted questions. Thanks for going off so much with me. Can y’all talk a little bit about some of the history of resistance to the MVP? And what those old folks whose backyards are being despoiled by this… Who are some of the folks or communities that are resisting the pipeline?

Toby: Emily, would you like to start? You mentioned earlier that you have been doing this for seven years?

Emily: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, from the beginning it’s always been a really cross-demographic group I suppose. It’s actually, to me, been really beautiful being part of this community of resistance. Because I don’t think I’ve been in a lot of other spaces that are so multi-generational, across many different faith backgrounds, and geographically widespread. People really come together to show up for each other in this resistance. So that that’s been true since the beginning. I guess, when we talk about the people who’ve put their bodies in the path of the pipeline, it’s a lot of young people, it’s a lot of old people. It’s students. It’s grandparents. It’s people from far away that know that this pipeline is going to impact their futures and their loved ones futures. It’s people close by who have already lost their water or who also recognize that it’s such an incredibly urgent and far reaching crisis, that everyone is touched by it. And I think because of that, everyone really turns out for it. Yeah, that’d be my short answer. Toby?

Toby: Yeah. I think that what we see is there’s been years of resistance, since this project has been proposed, people like fought it through the regulatory process for years. It’s been opposed since the beginning. And while the regulatory fight has continued, there’s also been for over three years, a lot of direct action that has been used to resist the pipeline, and to stop construction that began in 2018, with the sits on Peters Mountain, in the Jefferson National Forests, where we had folks on top of the mountain in tree sits right next to where the pipeline would be bored underneath the top of Peters Mountain, which is where the Appalachian trail goes. And that’s the border between West Virginia and Virginia. One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. I love that mountain. A lot of people here love that mountain. And it’s also an incredibly essential place for this region. It is a giant aquifer. It’s a place where there’s lots of different animals and species of trees, and all types of living things that are living there.

And then also, in the same National Forest a little bit later, there was the monopod that blocked construction for 57 days. That blocked one of their access roads that they use to get to their construction sites on Peter’s. So, I think there’s been not just an effort to fight them in court and to oppose them with regulatory process. But there’s been three and a half years of dedicated people putting their bodies on the line and risking their freedom to stop this project. We can keep talking about… We’re trying not to do the “And then this person did this!” I think the things that we were trying to think about this question and trying to be like “what are some of the major moments.” A lot of the major moments are where there has been a combination of local support and community support for these actions and for this type of resistance. As well as people coming to this region from all over to fight this pipeline. There’s been such a building of community that just transcends location and identity. It’s been like really incredible to see. Obviously, the best example, which is the Yellow Finch tree sit. They lasted for 932 days. And most of that was with the support camp. You met so many different types of people from all over who came to support the tree sits that way. And, obviously, that was just a space that a lot of people considered their home. But also was just a space to just build lots of resistance and capacity to fight this pipeline.

Emily: Yeah, being in that space was really special. Because you would see all these people coming from all over. You would build these amazing friendships. And obviously because people were coming from far away, there’d be a lot of coming and going, and a lot of coming back too. But then there were also the local people who I have memories of eating my friends banana bread in like week two, around the sits or something, and then memories of eating that same friends banana bread again, just a couple months before the support camp got evicted. That continuous local support that literally kept people fed and kept people safe and supported throughout is what has carried us through. There were tree sits that went up in Rocky Mount, they went by Little Teel Crossing. They were the Bent Mountain sits that lasted for five weeks. The monopod held for 57 days which was really incredible. That was the monopod on Peters Mountain.

All of that together, all of those tree sits and large actions, and our recent mass action were 100 people walked on to a site and 10 people locked down to equipment, plus all those smaller actions that still had huge impact, where people lock themselves to excavators or just put their bodies on the line. Locked themselves into cars on the on the path of the pipeline. In total, there have been 74 arrests in direct actions against the pipeline across 40 actions, and summing up to 1039 days stopped over the years of resistance.

Toby: To be fair, that 1039 number is in large part due to the Yellow Finch tree sits, which lasted for 932 days. The distribution across that… the average is a lot different of blockade length. Some of the actions that have been done like the monopods and the tree sits and all of the different aerial actions have been some of the longest lasting active blockades. Not necessarily the longest, but has been some of the longest lasting blockades in the history of this country, or this land. And yeah, that combination of these long term blockades and also smaller, shorter-term actions, where people go and put themselves in the direct path, or locked to equipment or somehow interfere with construction is mostly because of folks who are willing to risk arrests and their freedoms. Also a lot of people from across the country seeing this as a fight that is really essential and connects us all. It’s the same with any fight that is against petrochemical infrastructure or extraction.

TFSR: So a lot of that resistance that you’ve been describing is on the ground. It’s people directly observing or directly standing in the path. And that’s great when people can do that. That’s part of the skill set that they can bring to resistance. I’ve sort of gotten a big appreciation over the years of talking to folks that are involved in the sort of work that you all are doing for the combination of the on the ground stuff, and also tying up the legal side of things. I’m wondering, are there any ongoing legal challenges around eminent domain or around FERC filings or anything like that, and any groups that are participating in resisting on that landscape?

Toby: Totally, there are. It’s also important to say that MVP right now is kind of tied up with their own permitting process. Right now the West Virginia DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] just submitted a draft approval for their water quality permits. They also need all of their water quality permits that they would get through the West Virginia DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. So those are for all their water crossings that they have not gotten variances for and done. I think they still need to do about 500 of their water crossings out of about 1000+. Some of those water crossings are major water crossings. The Elk River, the Gauley River, the Greenbrier River all in West Virginia or the Roanoke River in Virginia. They also have to cross under some major highway. And a lot of that will be done through boring which they also don’t have their approval to bore. That could get conditionally approved pending the approval of their Army Corps water crossing permits and their DEQ & DEP water quality permits.

Right now they were granted a new right of way permit to go through the Jefferson National Forest. But they can’t work there until they get the rest of their water permits. So they’re part of the legal system is that they didn’t wait to start construction until they had gotten all their permits. So they are trying to get their permits as they go. Which a lot of people say is that they’ve kind of like shot themselves in the foot. They’ve definitely limited their success by not doing what companies normally do, which is get all their permits before and then start. So that’s why they’re involved in a legal mess of their own making with all their permitting. Yeah, there’s also a lot of nonprofits in the area. Appalachian voices, the Sierra Club, and Wild Virginia, they are also in court challenging a lot of decisions made by regulatory bodies with regards to MVP. Do you want to talk more about that, Emily?

Emily: Sure. Yeah, again, from the beginning, everyone was all the local experts. Scientists were really clear that building this pipeline was going to further endanger already endangered species. A really good example of that is like the Kenny Darter, which is a really beautiful and colorful fish. The Log Perch… a lot of these species can only be found in Appalachia. And Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It’s really, really special in that way. There’s like a lot of limitations on when they can build, because there are endangered bats and birds that need to have their habitats protected. Which, to me is insane, that they should be able to build at any time of the year at all, if we know that those are their habitats.

But yeah, that decision made by Fish and Wildlife, that decision that MVP wouldn’t impact those species has been challenged in court, and it’s actually gone really far. And I believe they’re going to be hearing some oral arguments for that in the next few months, which is exciting. But I mean, that case was filed so early on. And I think something really important to note is that that case wouldn’t have made it this far, the pipeline would have been built if it wasn’t for on the ground resistance. Also on the ground resistance would have been a lot harder if they’d been able to build across all parts of the pipeline at once. So things like the endangered species case, things like the Jefferson National Forest case, challenging the Forest Service decision to let MVP cross the Jefferson National Forest, Those oral arguments are also coming up.

Those cases have made it so that their construction is slowed down. The direct actions have made it so that their construction is slowed down and those two different arms of of the resistance against the pipeline really support each other. They’re very deeply intertwined. Which I think is something that people don’t often think about. A lot of the times when people lock down in the path of the pipeline, you see this in resistance all over the place, people will be like “Oh, well, you know, why don’t you go through the proper legal channels?” And it’s like “Not only did we from the beginning, but we still are!” It’s really necessary to use these outside of the legal system paths in order to actually make it through the legal system because it is so rigged in industry’s favor.

The last one South Gate, the South Gate Extension, so that was a permit that they were looking for to be able to like build really the entire South Gate extension and the North Carolina DEQ denied their water quality permits. They came back saying “Oh, you can’t deny it for this reason.” They denied it again. They denied it a third time. Toby’s absolutely right. This process has been so messy and it is because of their incompetence as well as the fact that this project just like shouldn’t be built. There’s no standard in which this pipeline should be built. And then on top of that, there’s also still a lot of people fighting the eminent domain claims, where they live and some of those eminent domain claims have actually been pushed to 2022. And yet, MVP is constructing in their backyards right now. Which I think is just wild that they do not have the regulatory or legal standing to be doing so much of what they do every day.

Toby: Yeah, I think that Emily was talking about eminent domain a couple of weeks ago, and that mountain MVP was starting to work and that’s a place where there’s a lot of resistance to the eminent domain of the pipeline going through people’s land. And people came out every day through the night to be close enough to work where they [pipeline workers] couldn’t work for days, while there was stuff happening in the courts trying to get an injunction to stop MVP. Eventually, I don’t think that the courts granted that injunction, but it was a time where people like got together. And as simple as “Hey, we’re gonna be here, as a group of people, as a community and just watch what they’re doing, but also be close enough so that MVP can’t do the work they’re trying to do.”

Emily: That community, actually, some of the folks were out there every day, every night trying to prevent blasting from happening in their backyards. And eventually MVP and security got together with the homeowner there and gave this essentially verbal agreement that they would not blast until the case had been heard in court. The case was scheduled for later that week, and then in the middle of the night, without doing any of the safety precautions, which they’re legally required to do, they blasted anyways. So yeah, not only is the system rigged in favor of them legally in the courts in the regulatory systems, but they disregarded anyways. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, you can cut this out later, but they shit on it anyway.

TFSR: Yeah, Go ahead and say that.

Toby: Yeah, I like the point that Emily made earlier that people who are taking MVP to court or who are challenging decisions that the regulatory bodies are making in court, all of that builds time and space and delays in the construction that allows more resistance to happen. So whether that’s more resistance, like monitoring, or more legal challenges, or the direct action element, this fight would have looked a lot different for the past three and a half years if they were allowed to work on every segment of their pipeline at once. And it would have meant a much different image of what resistance looks like against the MVP.

Emily: Very succinctly put.

Toby: It also has meant that folks have had this challenge of sustaining resistance. I think there’s an extra challenge in that too. It not only creates space for more resistance to happen, but it also creates a challenge to sustain the energy and the resistance. And a lot of that energy comes from local support for the fight against MVP. These people are not leaving, they’re not moving, they are still fighting this in their communities in this region. And so a lot of the ability to sustain direct action over three and a half years and a legal fight over seven years, is the dedication and energy of the folks who live here. And it’s been pretty cool to see that be sustained. I feel like a lot of times with direct action, it’s very urgent, it’s very fast. How do you make sure that we still have support, and we still have there is still people who are like willing to put their bodies on the line when it has lasted over multiple years.

TFSR: It’s really inspiring. There’s been this group that’s at least has a social media presence, called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” that’s been doing a very good job for a very long time of bringing up news about the resistance that’s been going on against the MVP. And just making space for criticisms, and for news of resistance, and for ways for people to get involved and for fundraisers, and all sorts of different stuff. And it’s come up I guess, in federal court, where Facebook is being pressured by MVP, as I understand by the Mountain Valley Pipeline economic project, and construction project, to try to get information about the people that are behind AAP’s social media presence, or whatever other presence. I don’t know if that’s for the purpose of a SLAP suit or what. But can you all talk a little bit about this circumstance where social media is a very useful tool for sharing information and for rallying people but it’s also potentially being weaponized against folks who are speaking out against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project?

Toby: Yeah. Appalachians Against Pipelines just describes grassroots resistance to Mountain Valley Pipeline. As like a Facebook presence or social media presence it exists to help the fight gain visibility and educate people. It published news about the regulatory process in the legal fights, as well as news about different direct actions that people take. And it’s also to act in solidarity with other resistance struggles. That is the purpose of that Facebook page. And as of now, no admin for that page has been contacted by Facebook about the subpoena. So, there’s been no communication with Facebook as of right now that I’m aware of.

I think it’s pretty important to note that this is not the first time that MVP has used this type of intimidation to try and stop resistance. It’s a harassment tactic right now that they’re doing. And it’s just trying to seek out personal information, not just as like “Oh, we want to know who is behind this Facebook page.” But it’s also a scare tactic to discourage people from joining resistance but it’s also a scare tactic to try and get people to stop. Because it is terrifying to have a company know your personal information and your name and your address and whatever else the subpoena is asking for. It is terrifying to know that with the reality of SLAP suits and injunctions, and also police investigations and other law enforcement investigations. It is scary to have that like be a tactic that is being used against people fighting MVP.

TFSR: Or private security companies like Tigerswan that were conducting surveillance and counter intelligence work up at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Toby: Yeah, it’s harassment, and it’s intimidation. And I think folks who are resisting that Mountain Valley Pipeline, this is not the first time that this scare tactic has been used. This is not the first time that MVP has harassed people and intimidate people. And so I think that as before people are going to continue to resist this pipeline and refuse to be intimidated by Mountain Valley Pipeline and their subpoena.

Emily: Yeah, and I would add that, you know, this is just kind of my personal perspective, but it seems like a very desperate and cowardly tactic. I think all intimidation harassment tactics are. It has this very cowardly and disingenuous ring to it. I’ve seen people very courageously… the risk is real, the threat is real. And also, it’s disingenuous because people have been standing up vocally with their faces and their names out in public ready to take on those consequences from the start. And so to act now, like “Oh, there’s this shady group behind it all” is absolutely trying to disempower people in this area, and everywhere who have been vocally and boldly from the beginning been saying that this is wrong and been saying it in the face of a behemoth of a corporate behemoth and in the face of the state.

Toby: I think like in general, you see, other fights have similar social media presences. And we’re now the age where social media is used as a way of not only getting the word out about different actions and different fights and informing people but it’s also an incredible tool to get inspired by other fights across the world. It is how people like learn about different people resisting and different struggles. It just emboldens everyone. It emboldens people around here to see other campaigns or other fights going on and what those people up at Line 3 are doing putting their bodies in line. Like how they’re doing that. Or seeing the fights going on at Fairy Creek or against Trans Mountain or Coastal Gas. Learning about what other folks are doing is incredibly important to sustaining the fight here. So that’s kind of the benefit I see a social media presences of these types of resistances of course, also more it does open people up to more risk. It does. This is not the first time this has happened against a pipeline fight.

TFSR: It’s so inspiring to me the the correlation between the hyper-localized, like “this is what this landscape is, these are the animals that are impacted, these are the people who are being impacted, this is the landscape.” And then seeing the map dotted with projects that are similar where local people or people locally are resisting or coming from other places to go resist And looking at the fact that there’s this web of solidarity between the groups. The scope of damage and threat is not just local, but it is local, and that can’t be diminished. But it’s also global because of fucking climate change. It ties these struggles together and co-inspires them. My mind just reels at the thought. It’s so inspiring.

So, since President Biden has come into office have y’all seen any changes in the pushing through this pipeline, any differences from the way that the administration’s of Trump or Obama interacted with the project?

Emily: So there was a FERC nominee put up by Biden. A lot of people say that this nominee is also a fossil fuel crony, which, of course, is like nothing new for the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. I’m sure there’s a lot of specific policy details that people could debate back and forth. But the reality is just “NO!” when you’re putting your body in the path of a pipeline, and the cops come to arrest you, it does not matter who the President is. The history of this country is a history of extraction, it is a history of exploitation. That has been consistent from day one. And this mega project, this massive project, this historic project really does just slot into a long line of similar devastating, high risk, destructive projects. That history, you know, it’s not like it has four years on four years off, it is a consistent history throughout.

Toby: Yeah, and I think Biden has paid a lot of lip service to wanting to fight climate change. But as we’ve seen with pretty much every single politician ever, it’s just lip service. No on is willing to take the actions that are needed to stop the impending climate crisis. No one is willing to take the strong enough action to actually limit emissions. It’s one thing to say what you’re trying to get elected, “Oh, I want to fight climate change.” But when you are actually elected, and you do nothing to stop the projects that are going to drastically impact our world by releasing so many emissions and are so far out of the realm of what you should be doing to actually stop climate change. And you’re like, “Okay, well, great. Another politician saying the thing doing nothing. No shocker. No surprise.”

TFSR: So, for folks in the southeast of Turtle Island, like in this region, how can they get involved? Or how can we get involved with a the anti MVP struggle in our own backyard? Who do you want to show up? And what sort of stuff can folks do remotely to support it also in case they can’t show up on the ground?

Emily: So yeah, there’s a lot of different ways to plug in. I mean, we so appreciate all the people everywhere who have donated. Who have started their own fundraising methods. Who have done solidarity actions at banks, demanding divestment or cutting ties. But also, if you want to come all the way to the mountains and join us, then come! You know, we want people who are dedicated to stopping the pipeline. We would love to have you. But also if you’re not near us and there’s a fight near you join that. Contribute to that. All land and water defense is really connected. And if there’s any abolition work, or any other kind of liberation work where you are, do that. Plug into that and that would make us really, really happy.

Toby: Yeah, as you said earlier, we like thrive off of that web of solidarity. We thrive off of seeing other folks in their communities fighting for liberation, fighting for native sovereignty for land, for landback, against extraction, against petrochemical infrastructure. We thrive off of that. And so if you can’t come out to the mountains join whatever fight is closest to you.

TFSR: 1492 Land Back Lane is an ongoing struggle in so-called Canada that is really inspiring. Line 3 has been in the media a lot as a place where tons of people, both indigenous folks and co-conspirators have shown up to put their bodies on the line to try to stop that construction. And I wonder, can you say anything about that struggle and if there are other… You mentioned the struggle On Fairy Creek for instance. Can you talk about any other struggles that are that you’re taking inspiration from that are land and water defense or land back struggles that you want to shout out or inform people about.

Toby: I personally, I’m pretty excited to see all the stuff that’s happening in Atlanta against Cop City. And I am excited to see the beginnings of the organizing that’s happening there. And I’m excited about that. Inspired by that.

TFSR: Can you describe what that is?

Toby: Yeah. So in Atlanta… I’m not definitely not the expert on this. Atlanta has a lot of parks, lots of forest in and around it. And there is like a massive project that is being proposed to deforest some of the land around it where the product of that would be half of that land would go towards the movie industry and then half of that would go towards building a cop training facility that I think people are calling Cop City. And that definitely is a struggle that is at the intersection of abolition and fighting resource extraction and deforestation. But also intersects a lot with the struggles against gentrification that are happening in Atlanta, and pushing people of color, Black communities out of Atlanta. It just seemed like the intersection of all of these different fights coming together in one is pretty inspiring to me. And that being so close to us as well is nice to see that blooming and coming up.

Emily: Yeah, first of all, I fully agree with everything that you just said Toby. And to jump off of what you were saying earlier about Line 3. I think staying up to date on that fight is huge, It’s really coming to the point where Enbridge is absolutely racing to finish. I mean, they are being reckless and just railroading over. But the resistance is still ongoing, which is incredible considering the real intense ramps up that law enforcement have been using, the violence that they’ve been using against water protectors there has been oftentimes hard to look at. But we can’t look away right now. And with the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are now fighting their arrests and charges in court, ongoing court support for that fight is gonna increasingly become something that I think people from far away, can plug into. And so that’s something that I’m trying to learn a lot more about right now. And I’d encourage people to keep their eyes out for that.

TFSR: How can people keep up on the struggle against the MVP? And what are some good sites or sources or fundraising pages or whatever that they should check out?

Toby: To revisit this, check out Appalachians Against Pipelines? That’s a very good source for information and updates and also the donation link to support resistance. We also have a podcast coming out.

TFSR: Hell yeah.

Toby: We also have a podcast. Emily do you want to talk more about the podcast?

Emily: The first episode will be out soon on In This Climate which is a really great podcast. And then the following episodes that we’re hoping to put into production soon will definitely be shared on the Appalachians Against Pipelines social media, which is Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So you can find them there.

Toby: That podcast is gonna focus a lot on people’s stories, and listening to the people who’ve been involved in this fight. So it’s a lot about people’s personal experiences and reasons why they have joined in.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Yeah. I get a surprise too! Cool. When is that first episode gonna be out?

Emily: Good question. We don’t have a date yet.

TFSR: If it was by the end of the week or something like that, then I would totally drop a link in the show notes.

Emily: It will certainly not be by the end of the week. But hopefully within the next three weeks, maybe?

Toby: That’ll definitely go out on social media. So people should follow Appalachians Against Pipelines to get notified about when there is a podcast coming out.

TFSR: Absolutely. Toby and Emily, thank you so much for this conversation. Thanks for all the work that y’all are doing. And yeah, solidarity.

Toby: Thank you so much for having us.

Emily: It’s been so great talking with you.

Asheville’s Policing Crisis with Ursula Wren of Asheville Free Press

Asheville’s Policing Crisis with Ursula Wren of Asheville Free Press

"Defund APD" sticker on a water bottle, depicting an asheville police officer stabbing and crushing water bottles after raiding a medic table during George Floyd protests in 2020. Based on a photo by Angie Wilhelm
Download This Episode

The city of Asheville likes to make headlines. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, or TDA, has been working alongside other tourism industry groups, to make an impression in the minds of people worldwide and entice you to visit this little mountain city with it’s big fuck-off estate, the Biltmore, the beautiful mountains for hiking, waterfalls for swimming, artsy and craftsy culture for consuming and rivers of beers for tourists to tube down. But in the last year, Asheville has, once again, let its “crisis in policing” also reach national and international audiences with two New York Times stories (1, 2, which are pay-walled fyi), one reaching the front page, which spoke about a 34% attrition rate of the Asheville Police Department since the George Floyd Uprising and renewed, local efforts to defund or decrease the police in Asheville in favor of social and restorative infrastructure. The article spoke mostly from official viewpoints. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, to deal with the bad press, the APD hired a public relations firm called ColePro Media for $5,000 a month to shift narratives and bring the veneer of progressive policing back to our fair, “land of the sky.”

This week, we spoke with local journalist, activist, abolitionist and anarchist, Ursula Wren of the AvlFree.Press about Asheville’s “crisis in policing”, a brief blooper roll of Asheville police foibles over the last decade, homeless camp evictions, prior and current efforts to restructure public safety, the reactionary business effort to bolster the police with blue ribbons of support, housing issues and other fare.

Here are a few links to sites and events mentioned:

To hear our conversations on struggle against the opioid crisis and overdoses in Western NC, check out our interviews with members of the Steady Collective (2018 & 2020)

You can find a transcription of this interview as well as an imposed pamphlet for easy printing in about a week on the blog post for this chat or alongside many of our past episodes at the link TFSR.WTF/zines . You can find ways to stream the lengthier podcast of this and all of our episodes or follow us on social media by visiting TFSR.WTF/links.

You can support our ongoing transcription efforts, which get topical and timely anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and all the other good anti’s texts into a format for easier digestion for folks with hearing difficulties, easier mailing into prisons, easier translation as well as searching by search engines by checking becoming a patron at patreon.com/tfsr or making a one time donation or purchasing tshirts, stickers or other merch. More info on that at TFSR.WTF/support. And if you want to hear us up on your local community or college radio station, more info is up at TFSR.WTF/radio.

. … . ..

Featured Tracks:

  • The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Burl Ives from The Big Rock Candy Mountain
  • USA by Reagan Youth from A Collection Of Pop Classics

. … . ..

Transcription

TFSR: So could you introduce yourself for the audience with any name, pronouns, location or other info that could be useful to the listeners?

Ursula Wren: Yeah, so my name is Ursula Wren. I live in Asheville, North Carolina. I use she and her or they and them pronouns, I kind of alternate between the two. I’m a police and prison abolitionist. I consider myself an anarchist. I’m a writer. I do web programming work, I design. I try to be creative in service of liberation, like a lot of people that you have on this podcast, and I’m really excited to be here.

TFSR: Yeah, thanks so much for being here. We don’t talk about Asheville very much here, but I think that a lot of the discussions and a lot of the work that people are doing around here is interestingmaybe not more interesting and stuff that’s happening elsewhere — but I’m glad this is gonna air on national FM at some point. So random listeners get to hear it.

UW: Very cool.

TFSR: So Asheville has been in the media spotlight for a bit in the past year or so because of the crisis in policing. The uprising from last year seemed to be a major shifting and breaking point for policing here in Asheville, despite obviously, years of the police being a problem, including the reemergence of widespread discussion of the APD murder of Jai Jerry Williams, and the beating of Johnnie Rush a few years back. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about if you see that being a major focal pointlike definitely there was a lot more discussion about police abolition coming about and defunding the police — but if you could sort of like set the stage with what you’re aware of, of what’s been happening in the last year to year and a half around policing here.

UW: Yeah, so it definitely seems like Asheville has been in the spotlight quite a bit. You know, we had that front page New York Times article about us, about a month or two months back, something like that. I see that as mostly a reactionary effort, that has been sort of a concerted effort to try to undermine some of the gains that have been made last year, I’m not the only person to make this observation. There’s been a media blitz of pro-police propaganda, and almost exactly one year after the largest civil rights uprising in recorded history, as far as I’m aware. And you know, it’s hard to ignore the implications of that happening almost on a year to date.

I would want to say one thing that comes to mind is sort of why this has been happening, not just Asheville, but everywhere, is that the FBI puts out a quarterly crime reportI think it’s called like the Uniform Crime reporting, UCR, something like that — and in the wake of that report, there’s just been a ton of crime wave propaganda, based on misinterpretation of the data. I mean, even on the FBI website, if you go look at that data, they recommend not trying to look at trends and stuff it, because the way the reporting works changes and all that other stuff.

So I would love to just sort of give a little bit of a brief history timeline of some of the things that have happened with Asheville police in particular, and why we might be more of a hot spot than other places. We’re a bit of a microcosm because we’ve lost something like 30% of our police through resignation and retirement. And just to put that in context, for people who are not around here, Asheville is about a sixth of the size of Portland, about a fifth of the size of Atlanta in terms of population in the city proper. That’s not even including their metro areas, which are way, way larger. So it’s only been about 80 cops who’ve left our force, but that is about 30% of our force. And as you sort of mentioned, the crisis in policing isn’t new here. We’ve actually had five new police chiefs since 2005 and several of them have resigned amid controversy of various kinds. One of the earlier ones was named Bill Hogan, and he actually resigned amid some controversy about missing evidence, including drugs and money that they couldn’t account for. And then you mentioned Johnnie Rush, and Tammy Hooper was the police chief during that incident, it actually came out that the police department was conducting surveillance on several racial justice organizing groups here in Asheville, and she lied about it publicly and then had to backtrack.

TFSR: That was during the Jerry Williams incidents right. Or, or was that Johnnie Rush?

UW: You know, both of them were pretty close together. I actually have a breakdown timeline here we can go through.

TFSR: Cool.

UW:
So yeah, I’ll just start with that. So there were three Black men killed in one week in 2016, and that’s where I’ll start. Jerry Williams was killed on July 2, 2016. He was shot seven times by a cop who’s still in the forest named Tyler Radford. Alton Sterling was killed on July 5, so three days later, by the Baton Rouge police, Louisiana. And Philando Castile was killed July 6, so the very next day, near Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed in 2020.

So I’d say that the 2020 organizing efforts were an outgrowth of the organizing to happen here in Asheville, back then. In 2016, there were marches, there was even a group that like occupied the police station for something like 36 hours. I don’t know if you remember that. They had some demands, one of the bigger demands that they put forth was something called “Million Dollars for the People, which sort of like, is echoed in defunding the police. But basically, the actual police were expected to get a million dollar increase to their budget. And there was a community effort basically in response to these killings, that demanded that that money be put towards community stuff, community programs for safety. Like I said, very echoed in the defund the police movement several years later. Ultimately, unfortunately, that failed. Then the million dollars went to the police sort of as a nod to racial justice organizers. The city implemented this thing called the equity department, and they put body cams on the cops.

So February 2017, was sort of the crescendo of the Million Dollars for the People thing. In August 2017 Johnnie Rush was beaten and tasered for jaywalking. And for folks who aren’t familiar with that story, I’d recommend looking into it, there’s a lot of details. But basically, it was at night, there was no traffic or anything. This Black man named Johnnie Rush was trying to cross the street and a cop, I mean, just kind of wailed on him and beat him within inches of his life. And this is all caught on body cam. But that didn’t come out until way late. So that happened in August of 2017. It didn’t come out until March of 2018. Tammy Hooper had a meeting with the public. And during that meeting, because of the Johnnie Rush situation, she was accused of surveillance and she denied it publicly. So that was in March and then in May, it actually came out that she was lying, and that she had been surveilling a couple of groups, one group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, and the local BLM group.

So then she has announced to resign in 2018, but she doesn’t actually, it’s not effective until 2019. Then we had another chief for 45 dayswhich is wild to mewho quit for personal reasons. And then in March 2020, we got our current chief. So May 31 of 2020, our brand new chief was giving orders to tear gas children and babies and people in Asheville for demonstrating in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. So that sort of brings us up to the Defund movement.

TFSR: The funny thing about chief Hogan, to break down the evidence from scandal: so at the time, the Asheville 11 conspiracy case was going on people who were arrested, accused to be an anarchist riot, on May Day of 2010the lawyer for a couple of the defendants asked to see evidence in their case. And the evidence room was unable to come up with this bag of broken glass, this broken phone and a hammer that were allegedly in there, tied to the case. And so the lawyers called for a survey of the evidence room and came back with of the 10% of the evidence room that they had surveyed to see what was there something like 20% of it was missing, including 1000s of dollars in money, a whole bunch of weapons, a whole bunch of guns, apparently tools like hammers and stuff. And the civilian who is in charge of the evidence room resigned to just sort of like skip town. We lost the chief and I think there was another cop that quit over that. And I think with that 45daycop, I may be wrong, but it seems like if he came from Greensboro that he was the one whose son had gotten a DUI hitting a pole on Merriman Avenue. And when the cops showed up, they found an unregistered gun in the car. But the charges just sort of seemed to go away for the son of the chief. And so there was sort of a question about them covering up investigations internally.

So we’ve got a great history of good-old-person policing in North Carolina. But yeah, thanks for that breakdown. That’s really… that’s memory lane for me *laughs*. So can you talk a little more about the more recent iteration of the movement to call and pressure the city to defund the Asheville police department? As you said, there were echoes between what happened in 2016 with the Millions for the People and what happened in 2020, and what’s continuing I guess. What sort of tensions exist between like the city’s politicians, the bureaucrats and the police department, and what’s the deal with the monuments and the manure coffin that I keep hearing about?

UW: The manure coffin. Okay, yeah. So had or has depending some aspects of it have died downbut there were a few aspects to it. It was people calling into City Council, like every single meeting and demanding the defunding of the police. There’s some problems with this strategy, namely that the City Council they own that process and they moved very quickly to sort of shut downI mean they were being barraged with calls, every single meeting — so they put in a bunch of restrictive stuff to just tamp that down. And it has largely worked.

TFSR: Which is basically shutting down public comment on a public meeting, right?

UW: Yeah.

TFSR: So the public good and make comments on a lot of different stuff.

UW: Right. And just to be clear, legally speaking, they didn’t shut anything down. They just added a whole bunch of new hoops, you had to jump through, like you had to register in this like, you know, certain window of time, you had to provide personal details about where you live, and your name and your phone number. And basically, they were asking you to give all of the information necessary for them to make a list of dissenters, which is maybe not what they would have done, but it certainly doesn’t feel good to activists to give them that information and so readily. And yeah, they had like names and phone numbers attached to the calls that they were playing publicly. So yeah, unfortunately, that was pretty effective.

There were some other aspects of the defund movement. There were some really good, like militant street actions and shutting down streets and highways that went on for a couple of months, you know. Like, every couple of weeks, there would be a big street action, and I mean, they would do a pretty good job of totally shutting down streets, which was great. There were some theatrical aspects. Like at one point, there was a giant check floating around. Like people had made a giant check for 50% of the police budget. And they taped it to the library door or something like that, to sort of demonstrate where that money could go, I guess.

There was this one demonstration where people made pink slips for the cops, like firing slips, and were handing them out to cops on the street. And like repossession tickets, and putting them on cop cars. Asheville has a bit of a reputation for being like an artsy city or whatever. And I thought that was an interesting waythat stuff got on the news, more, you know, made its way through the public conscious through social media and stuff more than the more militant actions did. So I thought that it was a good way to lift up the rhetoric.

So yeah, there was a decentralized day of action, which was where this like anonymous activist group put out a call for people to go do things like that. And folks, you know, did some, some tagging of buildings and did, like a, there was a bigI’m not sure what the word is, but it was made of cloth — not really a banner because it was attached to the wall of art that you see all over the internet, of a cop under a Klansmen robe, like with the Marilyn Monroe picture with the skirt blowing up. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all *laughs*.

TFSR: Yeah, yeah.

UW:
So things like that, you know. But I would say that overall, the defund movement was largely rhetorical. It was effective in terms of shifting narratives. And if the cops are to be believed, then the shifting narrative has a lot to do with why we lost 30% of our cops. So I chalked that up as a win even if we didn’t get abolition, we managed to get 30% of the cops to quit just by being mean to them. Which I think is a win.

So yeah, that’s sort of the defund movement. I would say the only material gain that we got was council agreeing to remove some monuments. Like you mentioned, they have not really followed through super well. So they removed one monument that was to a Confederate general or somethingI’m not even actually sure what it was for — but it was definitely Confederacy related near the courthouse. They removed that sort of quietly one night without much fanfare. But there is a giant, I mean, I don’t know…do you know how tall the Vance monument is?

TFSR: No idea.

UW:
It’s huge.

TFSR: It’s not very tall right now, which is great.

UW: Yeah, it’s it’s significantly shorter, but it was, you know, like super tall obelisk in downtown, dedicated to this man whose last name is Vance. And he was a slave owner.

TFSR: And a governor. And in the Confederate military, too.

UW: Yeah. All around racist guy. For sure. Yeah, giant obelisk downtown, the community had been trying to get that removed for years and Asheville, after a lot of kicking and screaming, did decide to take it down. It has not come all the way down yet, because it keeps getting ensnared in legal battles with these, like Confederate, you know, historical society groups.

TFSR: Yeah, I think the upkeep was the Sons of Confederate Veterans, like they were the ones who would remove paint and who were, quote unquote, responsible for the upkeep, which sounds like an ability to funnel money to this group of good old boys. But as I understand, like the latestthere was a question along the way in the past when it had been discussed of who had the authority to remove the monuments and this is not dissimilar to the silent Sam question at UNC Chapel Hill, where the University would say we have authority, the county would say we have authority or we don’t have, everyone would say we don’t have authority. The state would be a part of it. And in this case, as I understand the state has put an injunction on removing the base of the monument saying that the city doesn’t have the jurisdiction to remove it under some historical monuments laws on the books. I don’t know if that’s is that sound about right?

UW: That’s not what I have heard. But, you know, I, to be honest I gloss over when I start trying to read about legal proceedings

TFSR: Yeah.

UW:
so I’m not sure exactly who it is I thought that it was a confederate preservationist group that was suing them, but definitely somebody is suing them right now.

TFSR: That could just be the state of North Carolina.

UW: *laughs* I mean, they are kind of a confederate preservationist group. So yeah, somebody’s suing the city right now to get them to stop removing it. Unfortunately, for those folks, they have already removed almost all of the obelisk, all that’s left is the base that says ”Vance. So that’s sort of dragging out. I, you know, I read an article about it every, like couple of weeks where they’re like “oh, and here’s some more nothing that happened in court, and nothing has moved forward with this.

So yeah, in addition to those things, folks asked for them to change the names of a bunch of streets, because we have a ton of streets that are named after slave owners as well. It seems like, at present, they’re not going to proceed with that, because business owners don’t want to change their marketing materials. Just such a perfect demonstration of capitalism and white supremacy coming together against community demands, because it’s just a street name, but people don’t want to change what’s they’d rather have the name of a slave owner on their window than pay somebody to come change the vinyl.

So last thing from what you just said, was the manure coffin, which I’m excited to talk about. It wasn’t really theatrical. It wasn’t meant to be fun. The coffin was part of a protest that happened on the day that some Kentucky grand jury released indictment information in the case of Briana Taylor. And from what I can tell, from what I saw, it was mostly younger Black folks trying to demonstrate their grief and their, you know, they wanted to symbolically bury some of the folks who have been killed by police. So what they did is they took a coffin that appeared to be constructed out of something like plywood, and they dropped it at the front door of APD’s headquarters, and they poured dirt over it.

The cops took that gesture, despite the fact that these folks were standing outside chanting “Say her name, Breonna Taylor!. I mean, the flyer that went out in preparation of this event had Breonna Taylor’s name really big on it, despite all of that the cops turned it into a victim narrative for themselves. And they said that it was a threat against their lives. And they also made the false claim that it was full of manure, which is just such a wild thing to lie about. Because it was, yeah, it was a closed coffin that they poured mostly what looks like regular dirt, and maybe a little bit of potting soil, over the top off. I would say this type of we’re actually the victim here, twist is a big part of their overall media strategy and narratives that they’ve been putting out over the past year. But yeah, it definitely wasn’t not a threat to them at all.

TFSR: Yeah, and there’s like, it’s a pretty terrible PR move also to try to symbolically shift the significance of the soil inside of the box to being animal feces, when it’s about laying to rest people that were victims of state violence or like anyone, but yeah. It’s a grasping at straws type thing.

But to just sort of step back — and thank you, thank you for that breakdown — to sort of step back to the question of because I packed that, that with a lot of different elementsthere is a tension that that has sort of come to the fore visibly between city politicians. Like the pressure, according to City Council, activists had left signs requesting that City Council members vote to decrease police funding at the residences of some of the City Council members, and that was considered to be a threat by the city council members, or was presented as such during one of the one of the meetings that happens every other week.

But during the pressure campaign that folks were trying to call in and apply pressure, it wasn’t just that people were calling into City Council — obviously, this is during COVID and so people couldn’t show up and stand at a podium and talk because these events were close to the public, which creates a huge amount of obscurity to the process and difficulty to like participating in this quote unquote, representative democracy system we have. But also, I think it came to light at some point to a lot of people that actually City Council isn’t directly responsible for the hiring, directly responsible for the budgeting choices for the police, that it comes down to the bureaucratically appointed city manager. Which kind of while people were attempting toI don’t fault people at all for taking the approach of attempting to use the rules in place to shift agency and apply pressure and make the changes happen that they want to see happen — but it seems like the power, the existing power structure for the city already had the barricade set up and ready for people to come up against. Can you talk a little bit about those tensions between the elected city officials who maybe did want to make changes, maybe didn’t, and the police department and the city bureaucracy?

UW: Yeah. So you know, you said something earlier about how they were basically trying to pass the buck on the monuments, right? There’s always mechanisms in place with these systems where everybody can just shrug and say, oh, not my department, you know, it’s sort of they like, they diffuse responsibility in such a way that there are these failure points that are designed to I mean, City Council’s job is basically to be yelled at, and not do anything about it, right? They can pass things…but for the most part, when it comes to actual change, the mayor loves talking about the weak mayor system we have here in North Carolina. I’m not clear on all the details but basically what it boils down to is what you just said, which is: the mayor is an elected person who doesn’t actually have the power to do all the things that she claimed she wants to do, and has to instead defer to the city manager, which is an unelected position, appointed position, and the city manager is actually the person who, in this case, is responsible for the police department for all of city staff.

So a big rhetorical strategy that you see out of city council is basically being like, oh, we’d love to help you with this stuff, but you see, city staff has told us we can’t, and we don’t have the power to override them. So I mean, I’m a cynic. So of course, I see this as a ploy. If they really wanted to, they could find some way…they find ways to make things happen that they want to make happen. In my experience. This sort of diffusion of responsibility is just, is very clever. And there have been a couple of folks, never at the same time, on City Council who we had a council member who did actually support, vocally supported cutting the police budget in half. Which was the demand by a group called Black AVL Demands, which was like a multi generational Black organizing group. And their number one demand was cut the police force budget in half. And we had one council member named Brian Haynes, who actually was in support of that. He’s no longer on Council, we actually had an election in the middle of all of this. So, you know, we lost a potential ally in Brian Haynes during all that. He was planning to retire anyway.

And now we have a new, more progressive council member named Kim Roney, who has not been vocally in support of defunding the police, but has sort of always voted no on anything that gives them more resources or money, things like that. But again, the power is diffused in such a way that she doesn’t really have any power as far as I can tell. It’s more of a symbolic thing, that there’s always one “noon the record.

I’d say there was some other sort of tensions, especially among the leadership because of Chief Zack being brand new, having just started in March of 2020, which is basically right before COVID kicked off here. And I mean, obviously, COVID was already happening across in other places in the world, but typical American fashion, we weren’t really concerned about it until it started affecting us. And that’s started happening in April, late March, early April, so Chief Zack had not been in place very long. And then, of course, the George Floyd Uprising started happening in early summer.

TFSR: So you had mentioned a little while ago about the attrition rate of the police department and the city losing about a third of its police force due to retirements or cops quitting. Can you talk about why this is a crisis? It’s not like the police actually get trained for a long period of time before coming on to the job, right? It’s not like they have to go through a four year degree program or something like that. Why are they so concerned? How abnormal is this? Like, how long does it take for a city to replace a cop? Where are they going and what what are they doing as far as we know,

UW: According to the police department, it’ll take a long time, several years at least, to get the police numbers back to where they were from this attrition. They say it takes as much as a year to get someone from the point of I want to be a cop to actually being able to do that job on a daily basis without being at a training capacity. And this could have something to do with the fact that Asheville is a nominally progressive city and we put our police through more training than the average police does. I’m not actually sure. But I know we do like Verbal Judo training and things like that.

So I know in 2020, for example, they graduated six cadets, and five of them have already quit. So the point in that that I’m making is that they put quite a bit of money, time and resources into training these cops and it does not guarantee the cops will actually stay cops. According to the chief, a lot of the people who are quitting are younger, newer recruits, who basically just feel hated immediately upon becoming cops and decide to change career paths. According to the chief it’s about a 50/50 split between people who are like, Wow, I didn’t realize that I would be this hated, I’m gonna go do something else. Like, I’m gonna go be a refrigerator repairman or something like that.

TFSR: Awesome.

UW:
Yeah, which is great. And people who just moved to Asheville is considered, you know, a blue dot in a red sea because we’re in North Carolina — so a lot of the cops just move to the county or move to a surrounding city where it’s more friendly to police and they continue being. But I think a 50/50 split is pretty good. If we can get 50% of people who quit to stop being cops altogether. That seems like a good number to me.

TFSR: There’s a billboard in the city on Patton Avenue that’s, you know, pretty prominent as you’re driving from West Asheville down towards downtown that’s just like four, I think, four very diverse ethnically and gender police officers in uniform and then an empty spot in the middle with like a frame and it says “This could be you! or whatever. It’s like an advertising campaign from the Greensboro [correction, Winston-Salem -Editor] police department, which like for folks who don’t know, is a much larger city. It’s what? Like two and a half hours to the east of here. And they’re, I guess they’re, they’re being like, “Nobody likes you in Asheville? Come on down to Greensboro. We love cops, we’ll hire you. But I was surprised to hear that that wasn’t where, that wasn’t necessarily what was happening with the police that were leaving, they were probably just like, well, if they’ve already got the training, and that’s paid for, we can just scoop them up.

UW: Right. Yeah, I mean, and again, like I said, we have to trust what the chief is saying. And he has political reasons why he would fudge these numbers. But according to the chief, it’s been about half and half in terms of people who have just totally quit the job, and who have moved to other departments. They also tend to cite low pay, which, without getting too much into the weeds on this, Asheville in general is an extremely expensive place to live, pretty much everybody here is underpaid. It’s the tourists with money who come and drive up costs.

So yeah, the police force despite claiming that they’re underpaid, they start higher than the median salary here in Asheville. Maybe some of them are going to get better pay elsewhere, maybe some of them are going to find a more friendly area to police. And apparently half of them are quitting altogether.

TFSR: Because of paywall *laughs* I didn’t actually read the New York Times article that came out, but I do know, I’m familiar enough with one of the cops that featured prominently in there, is a white officer, is queerLindsay Rose is the name that I saw in the New York Times — it sounded like they had said that they had quit because they had felt people were being mean to them. But I had also heard that they had been rehired. So maybe some of that saved budget from the cop attrition has gone towards upping their pay. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that.

UW: I actually do know for a fact that just a couple of weeks ago, City Council voted for a budget that does increase police pay, they’re all getting raises. And they are actively using the attrition. So they fully funded the police force again, despite this attrition. So they gave them the same amount of funding as they had before with the larger number of cops. And they’re using that extra money to try to refill those positions, but they realize they know that they can’t do all of that in one year. So the extra money is going towards giving all of the cops a raise and more training and technology, of course. So I have more to say about Lindsay Rose, about the media angle, but we can come back to that when you get to that question.

TFSR: Can you talk about what sort of material changes have happened with police in town in terms of patrol areas and frequency of patrols and response times? And has that affected crime rates? Like one thing I’ve seen [that] is good [is] the cops saying that they are not wanting to show up to certain kinds of calls or I guess be doing the foot patrols that they were doing before? Is that, do you have any insights on that?

UW: Yeah, I’ve said it a few times, but just to reiterate: it’s been about 35% attrition, they have refilled some of those roles, but not nearly all of them. So there are substantially less cops. That’s definitely the biggest material impact of the last year. As a result of that they have, as you said, they released a statement saying that they would not always respond to certain kinds of infractions crimes. To me it read as a piece of political theater, because the things that they list are things like a simple assault that is reported after it occurred, or a theft under $1,000 when there’s no suspect, which like, I don’t know, I’ve never been one to call the cops much, but from what I understand, they don’t really help or do anything about in those situations anyway. Like, what? What is the cop going to do if they show up after an assault has occurred, a simple assault has occurred. Which, simple assault, just to be clear to anybody who might not know is something like being punched. It’s not, you know, it’s nothing super violent. It’ssimple.

So yeah, to me, it read as political theater. Of course, the chief has come out and publicly sort of lambasted anybody who says that it’s political theater, but I remained steadfast in my conviction that it is political theater. There have been a few more, in terms of crime rates, as I mentioned, at the top, there was this FBI Uniform Crime reporting standard, they released these reports every quarter. Notably, the reports don’t include a lot of, like, major cities and things like thatI think it’s something like 3040% of police forces around the country are actually involved in this most recent report. And that’s been used to sort of foster this narrative of a crime wave. In terms of our local crime statistics that I’ve looked at, there has been a few more gun related crimes, and things of that nature. It’s also worth mentioning that gun sales skyrocketed in 2020. I don’t know the exact numbers, but it was huge. Like a huge increase in the amount of guns that were sold. And I’m not anti-gun or anything, I just, I think it’s important to point out that if there are more guns, it follows that there would be more crimes committed with guns, because there are more guns.

So in terms of our local crime statistics, it looks, to me, mostly like everything is remaining flat overall. The overall crime rates are people will say this all the time — are way down from like, the 90s. And there are a multitude of reasons that I don’t want to super speculate on as to why that is. But this fear mongering about there being this big spike in crime just doesn’t bear out in the data that we have. And the data is notoriously manipulative, and things of that nature. But you know, if you accept their framing of looking at the numbers, even that doesn’t bear out. The increase in gun crime is offset by decreases in other types of violent crime. So even violent crime rates are not trending upwards right now. They’re pretty much flat.

TFSR: Yeah and I guess a pointa point of mostly white supremacists fear mongering around violent crime and the othering of folks and just, whether it be racially or poor folks or whatever, will tend to focus on gun crime, rhetorically as a thing that is coming from those populations — but so this is-this is like a third hand thing. I was at the grocery store, I was listening to two people talk about a shooting recently that happened at a bar in West Asheville, where somebody drove up and like shot into the place. Which is scary. It’s definitely scary. Yeah, the cops are not going to stop that. Well, super gun advocates say the cops are not going to stop that and that’s why people need more guns. Which is not, I‘m not making the argument that people need to bring guns into bars. But that’s the argument finally that law enforcement makes is we will track down and trace the person that was in traffic that got out and shot into the bar”. Which, possibly from security cameras they might be able to do that sort of thing. But like honestly, it’s pretty, it’s pretty unlikely. And more cops in this situation does not mean less of this sort of incidents. Like there’s a lot of things that can sort of like lead into that situation, including the fact that we’re in the middle of a year and a half long pandemic. There’s relatively high unemployment. People are on the verge to eviction. People are continuing to try not to get sick or care for people that might get sick from this increasingly dangerous pandemic but

UW: — largest wealth transfer in, I mean, I don’t want to, I don’t want to make a false statement, but from what I understand, one of the largest wealth transfers ever occurred during this pandemic. The poor got significantly poorer. And the rich got significantly richer throughout this global crisis. And that has to do with the crime data, stuff too. Like what you just said, speaks to something about the crime data. Which is, there’s so many levels on which we have to sort of combat their narratives, while also combating their framing, right? You have to either accept some of their framing stuff, like that the gun crime thing that you brought up. It’s like, why are we even discussing that in relation to their being police attrition? Because they don’t really have anything to do with one another? More cops does not make there be less gun crime. There’s conflicting evidence on whether or not that is even the case.

TFSR: Yeah. So thanks for running down that engine with me. So can we talk a little bit about what you’ve learned about the media angles on this? Like, whatwhat is mainstream media saying about this? And what is the APDPublic Relations connection? When did that start, and do you have any details on that?

UW: Yeah. So and this goes back to officer Rose, you mentioned earlier. She’s an interesting character in this aspect, in particular. During the protests last summer, to sort of take it back, there was, after the first few days of tear gassing and stuff like that, the community support kind of swelled. One of the ways in which this manifested was people started showing up to protests prepared to take care of folks who were tear gassed. And they actually set up a medical it had medical stuff and snacks and water and things of that nature in an alleyway near where the protests sort of coalesce downtown. Right after, I think it was actually like five minutes before curfewbecause you know, last summer, all these cities were putting out these curfews which drew ACLU ire — but right near the curfew, the cops, according to the folks who work there, without warning, sort of stormed this medical tent. And not only did they like, you know, throw the folks who were working the table to the wall and stuff like that. They started actually destroying the medical supplies. So there’s this photo, that goes around that’s been going around by a local reporter named Angie Wilhelm, of a APD officer stabbing a water bottle. So they were stomping and stabbing water bottles

TFSR: — in full riot gear.

UW: In full riot gear, yeah. And that photo went national, right? It got a lot of attention and went viral on Twitter. Folks who are listening to this might have even seen it, maybe not realized it was Asheville. So that was obviously a horrible PR moment for Asheville, which is a tourist town that tries to market itself as progressive and liberal and stuff like that. Directly after that incident the Asheville Police Department hired this company called Cole Pro Media, which is a PR firm. Interestingly, the PR firm, if you go to their website right now, it’ll have a bunch of talk about how they never spin anything or anything like that. They’re just trying to help police be more transparent and accountable, is their line. But the local paper, Citizen-Times, did a little bit more investigating and found an earlier iteration of Cole Pro Media’s web presence in which they advertised that they would help cops outsmart journalists. Like openly stated that that was one of their goals.

So this transparency and accountability language reappears in that New York Times article. The New York Times sent this guy here to interview the chief of police, the mayor, of a handful of locals and they ran it on the front page. And one of the cops that they interviewed was officer Rose, who you mentioned earlier. Officer Rose quit the force pretty spectacularly. Because as a queer person, they didn’t feel like the queer community was being accepting of them being a cop. And according to the New York Times article they went back to retrieve their badge to give it to their mother or something like that, and

TFSR: *mockingly* Awww.

UW: Right, so sweet. And Chief Zack talked them into rejoining the force as a, I can’t remember the exact term, like community liaison or something like that, right? And in the New York Times article, it’s notable that they use the same language, accountability and transparency”, like it’s almost word for word for their justifications that they gave for hiring this PR firm. Was we want to be more accountable and transparent. So then, you see that she came back to do that job and then is on the front page of the New York Times, like posed up in this very dramatic photograph of her, like, looking sad out a window. And it’s hard not to tie all that together in my mind: the water bottle incident, the PR company, the victim narrative of the coffin and all of the stuff that’s been happening very recently with the, you know, we’re losing cops and we can’t keep up”, the accountability and transparency language, officer Rose going into the New York Times, they started a community engagement division of the police force, which officer Rose is also on whose job is again, using that accountability and transparency language.

TFSR: What do cops in Asheville actually do? It seems like the evictions of houseless folks that happened over the summer this year from public parks put a lot of stress on the APD’s morale. Can you talk about that, and what you see is the relationship between homelessness, nonprofits or what some might call poverty pimpsand harm reduction efforts with the police in Asheville?

UW: You can’t really understand the function of Asheville Police Department without understanding that we are primarily a resort town. We make the majority… I say “we, the people who actually have money and capital in the city… make the majority of their money from tourism. We’re known as beer city, we have a ton of breweries and bars. In fact, it’s been suggested to me very recently that we might have one of the highest numbers of breweries and bars per capita from just about any city nearby or anything like that. We have a ton of breweries, and the craft beer scene is really big, the music scene. We’re also nestled in southern Appalachia, it’s a very lovely environment. All of that to say that those are used as justifications for why we need to focus the lion’s share of our resources, as both a city and a county, on appeasing tourists.

So one function of that, one aspect of that, is that we have the most bloated police force per capita of any North Carolina city. To my knowledge. And the reason for that is because police in the city function to use their fascistic language, in my opinion, keep the streets clean, right? And what they mean by that, of course, is not, you know, like public service of picking up trash. They mean by keeping the streets clean that they want to keep folks who tourists might not like to see, such as unhoused folks, out of line of sight.

So to me, that’s just so remarkably fascistic, the idea that human beings are trash to be cleaned up. But that is one of the major functions of the police. And there are several, you know, reactionary, right wing business groups who are super focused on that tourist money who make this argument themselves all the time. I don’t have to put words in their mouth at all, they will straight up say, why can’t we use more tourist money to keep the streets clean of unhoused individuals? I mean, they’ll call them homeless folks.

So it’s really important to understand that’s one of the major functions of Asheville police, is keeping the town free of things that might remind folks who are coming here to have a cozy vacation. They don’t want anything reminding them of capitalism, the failures of capitalism. You know, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the folks who work in Asheville can’t actually afford to live here. I think it’s the most expensive city in North Carolina, from what I understand, to live in. So keeping unhoused individuals out of sight is one of the biggest functions of the police. We’ve long had an affordable housing crisis in the city. And it’s just getting worse recently with all of the recent buyouts and stuff that these investment firms are making.

TFSR: And Airbnb’s.

UW:
Oh, yeah, Airbnb, that’s a big one, huge one. A lot of them are not even, like, legally allowed to exist. But of course they do because folks can just list their house on a website. That’s about to get a whole lot worse, because, I mean, we’re recording this today on Saturday [August] the 31st and as of today, the eviction moratorium, federal eviction moratorium has expired. There might be something in place at the state level, but in any case, that’s signaling the end of protections for renters, who are behind due to the pandemic. So that’s sort of a high level. What the police do in Asheville has a lot to do with basically keeping it a comfortable place for rich tourists.

In terms of the like, day to day what they actually do— somebody put out a really cool zine last summer, that’s sort of where they like, actually sat and listened to police calls, or on the scanner or something like that — I’m not actually sure how they did their researchbut documented a lot of calls. There’s also this group called AVL Watchdog that got ahold of call center data and like actually broke it all down. So basically mostly what Asheville actually does, according to this, is traffic stuff. Assist motorists, deal with improper parking and things like that. That’s 23% of their time. According to this. To be more clear, it’s 23% of the calls that they get. How they actually spend their time can look a lot different from the percentage of calls that they get for sure.

What’s notable on this is that when you’re talking about things that a lot of people consider harmful, such as theft or violent crime or anything like that, you’re down in the like, I mean 5% were reports of theft, including shoplifting. 3% of their calls had something to do with mental health, people having issues publicly. So the point being that it’s such a small amount of what they actually do on a day to day basis, they mostly just exist to keep unhoused individuals out of sight. And one part of that is, they have been evicting folks from these public parks. There was a big one, there were two that really drew a lot of attention very recently. One was on literally the coldest day of the year of 2021, so far. And the police decided to evict a camp of folks who were camping under a bridge. And the reason that they did this is notable, it’s because they got a report from this thing called the Asheville App, which is tourists using it as a direct line of communication with police and city council and stuff. And you know, the officials of various capacities. So there was a report made, and then within a few hours, they went out there and evicted this camp that was under a bridge.

And then there were folks camping at a couple of different parks, public parks. Which as I understand it was where they were told to move, to the public parks from more public spaces where they had been under bridges and things like that. I’m not sure of the details of that, but from what I understand they were directed to go there [by the city]. And somewhat recently, they decided that they weren’t allowed to be there either, and sent out notices that everybody had to get out. And they gave them like a week or something like that to get out. Most of the folks not really wanting more trouble for themselves and more legal trouble, did decide to just move on, find somewhere else to be. One camp in particular had some folks who were like, no, we’re not going to move. And they ended up sending out something like 30 cops, which of our police force again, just a reminder, we lost 35%. That’s a big proportion of our police, 30 cops is a lot of our police.

So yeah, they sent out a huge proportion of our police to evict this camp, they made several arrests of folks that they claim are activists. But again, there’sit’s not like those are two distinct categories of unhoused folks and activists. So yeah, that’s what police do in Asheville. They function as an apparatus to basically hide the effects of the policies that they want to uphold, the policies of never ending growth and tourism.

TFSR: So I did kind of bring up harm reduction efforts in that question, and maybe that wasn’t the best place to bring it up. But this next one, I think is. So there was recently a push by a small section of right leaning business owners in the city to put up a very ugly-ass, boot-licky billboard in support of the police, and to get local businesses that specifically support the police to put little blue ribbons in their windows. You know, because the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] stickers that a bunch of diners have in their windows aren’t enough, or whatever. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the billboard effort and any of the characters or group names that are affiliated with the push against public visibility of homelessness, or of safer alternative harm reduction opportunities for intravenous needle users or other folks that are using illegal or concentrated substances in our community. Like I know Steady Collective and Firestorm and we talked about this a couple of years agowe’re getting a lot of pressure from the West Asheville Neighborhood Alliance. Which sounds like a very legit group but in fact is is spearheaded by some some people that are pretty far to the right and involved in some of the counter-protests to BLM stuff last year. Yeah, wondering if there’s anything you can say about WANA or the billboard or the blue ribbons or that sort of thing?

UW: Yes. So I have not gone down the West Asheville Neighborhood rabbit hole just yet. I only know what I’ve heard from other folks. And like you said, you guys probably have some great information in your archive about the situation with Firestorm collective, which is a local bookstore and coffee shop run by anarchists and in a collective fashion, and the Steady Collective, which is a harm reduction program here in Asheville. Not necessarily run by anarchists from what I understand, but just yeah, harm reduction, syringe exchange program and outreach program that works with drug users to mitigate some of the effects that they face, not only as a result of using drugs, but uhhh being in a society that criminalizes people for things that other folks can do in their homes without facing persecution to the same extent, at least.

I can say that the billboard is part of a very concerted effort for this group that’s calling themselves AVL Business Owners. They actually had a private meeting with the mayor about a month ago. I say private, it was at a place called the ISIS Music Hall, which is a concert venue in West Asheville. And they only invited business owners, that’s why I say it was private. They sent it out via email to local business owners and invited them to come. And we’re very upfront about the fact that they were not going to talk about defunding the police or anything like that. They asked for people to submit questions in advance. And then they were going to have a moderator who basically spoke on behalf of all these folks.

So over the course of this meeting, they brought up a lot of issues, mostly anecdotal issues around folks using drugs and sleeping and sort of just existing in their line of sight. And their solution to that is to crack down on them, to have more police and more punishment for these folks who are already being displaced by the systems by these very business owners and their insistence on profits, through the means of tourism. So, that business owners group is called Asheville Business Owners and they are responsible for both of things that you mentioned. The big ugly billboardthat’s, I think, at the intersection of patented Haywood, in West Ashevilleit just says, Thank you, Asheville police department. We support you or something like that, and has their email address avlbusinessowners@gmail.com, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if folks drop them a quick line to let them know how much they appreciate that billboard.

That same group is also responsible for the Blue Ribbon campaignwhich is kicking off on August 1, which is tomorrow as of the recordingwhere folks are going to be putting blue ribbons up on their business fronts to signal their support for police. So these folks are all very concerned about unhoused individuals in particular. In the invitation email, to their meeting, they were very much like we are not going to be discussing homelessness, the majority of the meeting was about homelessness. Without even meaning to they make these connections for us. At one point, one of the folks who were in the meeting asked why can’t we use the money that’s generated from tourism to do something like build a facility to send homeless folks to? So yeah, the connections between drug users and unhoused folks, and these right wing businesses is super thick, there’s a lot of stuff there. To bring the harm reduction efforts into it, they are all of course, very against harm reduction, because they see it as you know, through that sort of outdated lens of enabling, as opposed to you know, helping people stay alive. And they want instead there to be further criminalization, further punishment of these folks.

TFSR: I know, it’s it’s impossible to speak on everyone’s behalf, but if you could talk a little bit about some of the alternatives that people are proposing to police here in Asheville or have been or were last summer. If your impression is that people from overpoliced communities are participating in creating those demands, or if it’s like… I know sometimes it gets proposed that it’s a bunch of white middle class activists that are presenting these things when really they don’t have a sense of the problem. Outside agitators, I think they call them.

UW: So yeah, I’ll start off by saying that I think that the idea of alternatives is sometimes the wrong framing for what a lot of folks actually say in this space. From what I understand from reading abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and folks like that, in many cases, they say the best alternative to the things that police do is simply nothing at all. And that sometimes trips up well meaning progressive liberals who do think we need to one to one alternatives. But in reality, the alternatives I hear from a lot of abolitionists are focused on background needs, and giving resources to people in ways that don’t have a one to one relationship with crime” but instead, they’re more focused on building healthy communities.

And again, I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I can tell you that, from what I’ve observed, there was a group that formed very early on last summer during the protest movement called Black AVL Demands. It was, according to them, a multi-generational Black organizing group. They put forward the demand that sort of overtook the public discourse locally of defunding the police by 50%. To my knowledge, they didn’t really put forward any direct alternatives.

There is another group, totally anonymous group, that has identified themselves as multiracial, including Black folks, just to be clear, and they’re called the Defund AVL PD Instagram account. They actually put forward some more concrete ideas. I actually have a little list of those here. They suggested that the police funding could go towards jobs programs, restorative justice programs, affordable housingwhich as we’ve talked about is a huge issue in Ashevillepublic education, mental health service, evidence based substance use treatment and harm reduction services, rent subsidies and eviction diversion, and free public transportation, which we do not have here.

In addition to the Defund AVL PD group, there’s another group called the Racial Justice Coalition. They have a community liaison named Rob Thomas, who is a Black man who is from Asheville, has a deep ties to the community here, the Black community and has some personal experience with the justice system in particular. I just want to quote him, because I think it’s really important that we hear from somebody who’s not me, who’s not a white person on this issue. So this is Rob Thomas talking about defunding the police:

I want to be totally transparent about my stance on defunding the police departments. I don’t think that the call to defund the police is going to solve all of the issues within law enforcement. What it does do is free up funding so that we can start up alternatives while keeping law enforcement active. We can create structures that can replace some of their duties as has been has been shown in other cities. The culture of policing is directly reflective of the culture of America. Structural and institutional racism is embedded in the DNA of America. And the only way to change disparities in policing, disparities in school systems, disparities in government, and disparities in the criminal justice system, is to completely dismantle the systems as they currently stand and restructure them completely. This may sound drastic, but if you look at where we are now in racial equity, and where we were 100 years ago, you will see that many systems have been completely overhauled. I’m looking at where we need to be measuring against where we are right now.

So that’s to offer some outside perspectives. You know, folks have offered everything from we need these specific things that will help folks have the resources that they need to prevent crimes in general. And then we have, yeah, spoke to people saying we need to completely tear down the system and then restructure it from the ground up. There’s also been talk of Reparations in Asheville. The City Council passed a resolution for reparations. And for folks who aren’t familiar with some of the sort of city government jargon, a resolution is really just them all agreeing to read something out loud that they agree with. It’s not really an actionable plan. So they basically apologized for racism and said that they would do better. Part of that was they’ve been attempting to institute a reparations program, which does not provide any cash payments, it sort of uses market mechanisms and city contracts to attempt to transfer some wealth towards Black folks. But even that program has not been going well.

TFSR: Yeah, for folks in town, there’s actually a really nice mural about reparations and the demand for the city to actually cut a check on it on the side of the El Dorado building on Haywood Road in West Asheville by the artist Destro. Shout out to Destro.

UW: I mentioned way earlier that they created the Office of Equity in response to some of the protests a few years back. That office is currently sitting with zero, not a single person who is a full time employee of that office. They had an interim director that they just appointed, like the day before yesterday, after two directors have quit. The first director who quit very publicly said that they were not getting support from the city, from the city manager in particular and that’s why they were quitting. And there is no other staff in that department at all. So they had made a promise to have this Reparation, I’m not sure the exact word, but this “Reparations Coalition or something like that, up and running one year from the day that they declared it. And that deadline passed kind of without fanfare, I think like a week or so ago.

So yeah, the only material thing that I’ve seen and heard in terms of alternatives to policing is: there is talks the city is looking into a CAHOOTS model crisis intervention team. Which, again, for folks who aren’t super familiar with that, CAHOOTS is a program that I believe was started in Oregon… Eugene! Yeah, there we go. And the point of that group is basically if someone’s having a mental health crisis or something like that, you can call these folks and they’ll come and they’re not police. And they will help defuse the situation and de-escalate and that sort of thing without getting cops involved. So that’s the only like, straight up alternative that I’ve heard really being floated.

TFSR: I understand that you did not just do all this preparation for this conversation. I’m wondering if you could talk about projects that you’re involved in, any sort of support that they need, or how people could learn more?

UW: Yeah, so I try to do as much as I can in service to liberation. I do design work and things like that, for anybody who needs it. One of the things that I like to do, or spend a lot of time doing at least, is researching the police and the media narratives, as I mentioned earlier. One of the group projects that I’m working on as an outgrowth of that is we’re trying to launch a new locally focused news blog. We’re calling it the Asheville Free Press. By the time this airs, it will have launched if everything goes according to plan. So if folks want to find me on Twitter, it’s just my name, Ursula Wren and the Asheville Free Press is just going to be a website http://avlfree.press. And yeah, we’re gonna do, we actually have a couple of pieces lined up about things that we’ve talked about in this this interview. I have a more in depth reporting of what all was said at that Asheville Business Owners meeting with the mayor, and a more thorough debunking of the manure coffin victimization narrative that cops have talked about. Both of those should be out by the time that this airs. So yeah, that’s, that’s what I’ve been working on. Asheville is home to lots of great media projects and my goal is to just sort of do what I can to help contribute to that in any way I can. I’m so glad that I got to be on here and talk to you about this. That’s definitely part of that for me.

TFSR: Aww, that’s, it’s my pleasure. I’m glad to have you on.

UW: In addition to the media project that I just mentioned, I am 1/4 of a screen printing collective called Syndicate Press. We do, like, live events where we print propaganda t-shirts, for lack of a better term. There’s a shirt that you’ll see all around Asheville that says “Fund communities, not cops, and that was something that we put together. So, those are the projects that I’m involved in.

TFSR: Well, Ursula, thank you so much for taking the time to have this chat and all the work that you do. *trying to keep a straight face* We’ll see you at the barricades, comrade.

UW:
*laughs* Alright. Thank you so much Bursts.

Dixie Be Damned: a regional history of the South East through an Insurrectional Anarchist lens (rebroadcast)

Dixie Be Damned (rebroadcast)

Book cover of "Dixie Be Damned", featuring African-American folks in the 1960's holding the streets at a march
Download This Episode

This week, we’re excited to (re-)present a 2015 conversation with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, editors and authors of their book out from AK Press entitled “Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South”. The book is a study of Maroon, Indigenous, White, Black, worker, farmer, slave, indentured, women and men wrestling against institutions of power for autonomy and self-determination. All of this in a region stereotyped to be backwards, slow, lazy, victimized and brutal. The editors do a smash-bang job of re-framing narratives of revolt by drawing on complex and erased examples of cross-subjectivity struggles and what they can teach us today about current uprisings in which we participate.

Throughout the hour we explore some of the examples that became chapters in the book, critiques of narrative histories and academia and what new ways forward might be towards an anarchist historiography.

Announcements

Benefit for Pepe from DIY-Bandits

Asheville-based punk collective called Bandits Never Die, in conjunction with the DIY-Bandits label, is doing an online fundraiser for Pepe, the founder of DIY-Bandits who is doing time in Federal prison. We interviewed Pepe before he went in in 2019, you can find a link in the show notes about his reflections of preparing for prison and what he’d learned about the realities of families of people serving time in the BOP. The benefit is a limited time print of a t-shirt and or poster and 100% of proceeds will go to support Pepe while he’s in prison (https://banditsneverdie.bandcamp.com/merch/i-want-to-believe-t-shirt-poster-combo). You can also see Q&A’s and some videos of Pepe before he went inside at his blog, https://preparingforfreedom.org

Giannis Dimitrakis

Anarchist bank robber and prison rebel in Greece is still healing from the attack he suffered at Domokos prison at the hands of guards under the New Democracy administration. G. Dimitrakis was held for a period in solitary confinement after the attack rather than be transported to a hospital to help treat his serious wounds, likely as an attempt to inflict permanent damage or kill the rebel. There is a new letter from Mr Dimitrakis that was kindly translated into English by comrades in Thessaloniki available on June11.org that we invite listeners to check out and will link in our show notes, alongside the original Greek. You can also find his firefund to raise court costs to argue for a quick release for Giannis Dimitrakis at firefund.net/giannis. Our Passion for Freedom is Stronger Than Their Prisons!

TFSR Housekeeping

As a quick reminder, you can find transcripts of each weekly episode of our show at our website by clicking the Zines tab, as well as on each episode’s page. We also have choice past episodes transcribed and available for easier reading, translation, printing and mailing.

If you want to support TFSR’s transcription work, you can visit TFSR.WTF/support and find a few ways to donate to us, one time or recurring, or by buying stickers or shirts as merch. If you sign up to support us via patreon.com/tfsr you can find thank you gifts as well. Thanks to our transcribers, zinesters and those who support us by sharing us with their communities and on social media. We also air on a dozen or so radio stations around the country, more on how to tune in or how to help us get on more airwaves at TFSR.WTF/radio.

. … . ..

Transcription

TFSR: We’re speaking to the editors of a new history book out from AK Press “Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South” – Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley come on down. Thank you so much for your time.

Saralee: Thanks for having us.

Neal: No problem.

TFSR: So considering the relative popularity of regional histories and what this book is actually about, what brought you to write this book? And how does it diverge from what one might expect from a Southern history?

Neal: Yeah, there’s a lot of regional histories out there, and Southern history is sort of its own genre that draws up, perhaps a niche, but highly, highly fanatical crowds. So, that is something we encountered when we first started talking about writing the book. You know, our take on it, first and foremost was that we’ve read a lot of those histories, but always found them really unsatisfactory in either even remotely dealing with these kinds of rebellious moments and social movements and whatnot that we deal with in our book. But when they do deal with them, there’s these sort of very highly-scripted narratives, choreographed almost, if you will, that seek to explain the kinds of tension, social tension and social war that you see in the South. You know, just the short answer to your question, I think, is just that we found those explanations, highly unsatisfactory, in actually explaining, the roots of those tensions, and the kinds of conflict that happened in those rebellious moments and how those moments speak to today. Right? How they speak to the present. You know, we’re anarchists, we sought to write a book about Southern conflict and social conflict and social war in the South that speaks to those politics, but also just that actually speaks to the present in general.

Saralee: And I think that while there is volumes and volumes of regional history, specifically about the South written. There’s not much to speak of regional history written by anarchists right now. And we hope that in doing this, also, it inspires others to kind of take on regions that they live in and look at inspiring histories of revolt from around different regions in the South, and not just the South, but the country. And I think, furthermore, this problem that we have a lot as anarchists, especially Southern anarchist, is that we are constantly looking at history that’s in one sense, not our own, for inspiration. Whether it’s to the big cities in the US or Europe. And I think for us, it was about trying to find things that resonated. Because in order to have the history be relevant in your present, it is important to know about what revolt has looked like in your own region.

TFSR: To be a little more direct, Neal, when you were talking about tensions that get danced around? Can you talk more explicitly about what kind of tensions you’re talking about, in terms of histories written of the South?

Neal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we deal head-on with in the book, and that have this hypothesis as we’re doing the research and from our own politics and experiences. But that became more and more frustrating and explicit, as we learn more, and as we talked as collaborators and thought more was specifically like the way the progressive narrative has shaped the South. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible. I don’t mean, like left Democrat. I mean any narrative that seeks a sort of progressive version of history. And so with that the specific examples like you’re asking, could be the the way that people who do history with that narrative, gloss over social conflicts that are inconvenient to this idea that progress with a capital P is something that happens gradually over time and inevitably that it happens through modernity, industrialization, citizenship, the granting of rights from the State, etc.

And so there’s these pockets of conflict that we probably disproportionately focus on in the book. For example, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, pockets of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, that breakout of both rights and Black Power, organizing models, labor conflict that breaks out of the workplace, only model. So these are kinds of examples that we focus a lot on in the book. To give a very specific example for Reconstruction, a lot of the major social conflicts that emerged post-Civil War involve various populations of dispossessed either, you know, for example, all Black communities or former slaves or mixed race communities of Indians and former slaves and poor whites in other areas of the South, challenging not just the former Southern regime, the former Confederate regime, but also simultaneously challenging Northern models of redevelopment that bring in waged work that bring in contracted labor that bring in certain industry. And so they’re fighting sort of a war on two fronts: one against this “capital S South” and one against “capital N North”.

That war, the fact that dispossessed people would actually burn down plantation property in rejection of the idea of labor contracts. And the rejection of paid labor doesn’t match with the traditional historical notion that slaves were trying to transition from slave labor to wage labor. So that breaks with both the traditional kind of lefty progressive vision, also the Marxist vision that people like W.E.B. Du Bois would would espouse.

Saralee: Also, in a lot of these registries, even Leftist academic ones, you have the problem that was that Reconstruction failed, right? That it was the Southern backwardsness, and there was this failure to instill this Northern project. So what we’re looking at is not that it was a failure, but that it was also rejected, actively rejected from the beginning.

Neal: That’s maybe a more specific example of what we’re trying to dig into real deep and get at this idea that the alternative to the traditional notions of like the conservative South that’s posed by most folks as like rights, citizenship, democracy… it’s not a real alternative in that actually those things existed and came about as ways to contain social conflict. And that’s a larger truth that’s sort of taken for granted and anarchist discourse, but we wanted to dig really deep into Southern history and figure out how that’s played out here. And we wrote this book for an audience at large, not just for Southerners. Because a lot of the major conflicts in the United States that have determined where political economy has gone, where social movements have gone, have all honed in on the South. So the major wars fought on this country’s soil: Revolutionary War, the Civil War, really primarily deal with the question of what to do with labor and political economy in the South, what to do with potentially rebellious people in the South, specifically what to do with people of color, specifically, African folks. And so this history becomes meant to anyone interested in questions of social movements or recuperation, or how social conflict is happening today.

TFSR: When y’all talk about the American South, what are you pointing to? What does that signify geographically, historically, and culturally?

Saralee: Yeah, this is a… this is one that we wrestled with a lot at the start of the of this project, one, because, of course, we wanted to include so much, you know, we wanted to think as broadly as we could about the South and include as much interesting conflict as possible. But obviously, that wasn’t… it’s not possible. And we are already kind of recovering in working with a lot in the 200 some pages that exist now. But I think one of the ways is to look at where, in kind of a pre-Civil War idea and definition of the South in terms of how specifically slavery played out in the Southeast, was an important marker.

What were the slave states? What were the states that did withdraw from the Union and engage that conflict. Because we knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of Civil War and post-Civil War land struggle. And so that was really relevant. I think, also, a lot of it had to do with what we found and what we had access to, and narratives that kind of found us in the process of writing the book. Neal and I have spent most of our lives in North Carolina. I spent a lot of my life in Georgia. You see a lot of Appalachian struggle show up because those are histories that are really palpable when you’re trying to look at these things like autonomy and less politically motivated struggle. Appalachia always comes up. So, I don’t know… How else would you characterize?

TFSR: First off, what do you mean by less politically motivated forms of struggle?

Saralee: Well, what I mean by that is in the way that people defined how they were in conflict and what they were rebelling against and what they were working towards. And so we definitely were trying to find periods, you know, in areas of rebellion that were not kind of self organized as Marxist as socialists, even as anarchists, but were more organized through kinship, through through ideas in connection to land, through ideas and connection to various forms of dispossession. Does that make sense? Rather than for a specific Political agenda, party, organization, platform.

Neal: Yeah. So, I think that sort of anti-political bent, if you will, and I realized that’s not a conventional use of the word. But I think Saralee summed it up pretty well. But that anti-political bent becomes important for two reasons. One, is that it speaks to our current political moment in the 21st century, where, you know, increasingly, you’re seeing riots erupt all over the country all over the world that don’t betray in immediate politicality in the sense that you can’t point to it and label it very easily. You can’t identify clear demands, clear representatives, clear negotiators, until those people try and emerge from outside kind of like the the ambulance chasers of whatever riot you’re talking about. And so, because so much defines our current political moment and the moment that anarchists seek to intervene in and engage in, that makes the history in which social struggles will also look like that back in the day, really important because it speaks to the present.

The other reason I think that anti-political bent is very important is because without it, you can’t actually digest social conflict in the South, because the South hasn’t had a lot of the same degree of politicization of social movements that have happened in the northeast, for example, or the Midwest areas like Chicago or the west coast, where you have, for example, large immigrant communities bringing very established philosophical ‘isms’ like anarchism, socialism, communism into social movements, and really giving a very clear political trajectory to those movements. That happened a lot less in the South for a huge array of reasons. And that’s not to say, when we say that a social struggle isn’t political, we’re not saying that it doesn’t involve visions of new ways of living, new forms of life, that it doesn’t involve questions of decision making, or egalitarianism, or questions of power dynamics, or ethics of care, strategy. What we’re saying is that it doesn’t involve an institutionalization of narrative of structure, if that makes sense. And I realized that’s a little vague, but I think that becomes particularly important in the South because of how the South developed differently.

TFSR: What stories do you focus on in your seven chapters? Why did you choose those? And what are you hoping that the reader will derive from them?

Saralee: I guess, just to give an overview… the book starts in early 1700s, and runs along the colonial territories of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking at a kind of evolution from the Indian Wars against colonial settlements into maroonage as a form of both escape from plantations and slavery into a form of attack. So the Great Dismal Swamp was an area that was deeply feared and hated by colonial Europeans. They didn’t understand that kind of geography, they didn’t like the animals in it, and then quickly became associated with territories that were controlled by escaped slaves. And so that area is… it’s important. Not only because of how long of a period of revolt that went for well into the 1800s. But also, just from the beginning of the book, setting up the importance of the figure of the maroon, and the social position of the maroon as not something that was just an identity formed out of escape or running away from these systems, but directly engaged in attacking and trying to end slavery.

So I think that creates like a strong basis for some of the kind of subjects that we look at throughout the rest of the book. And then we move on into the Civil War period, specifically in the Ogeechee area between the Ogeechee rivers and Coastal Georgia. Where we are looking at the kind of struggle for land and autonomy and for life without labor contracts that Ogeechee people were engaged in, in that area. So from like, 1868, to 1869, but definitely starting from the onset of the Civil War to well into like the early 1900s. Along all those tracts of land that Sherman initially had kind of gifted back over to former slaves, and then that was immediately rescinded by Johnson.

So looking at that, and then into another period of really interesting Reconstruction Era revolt called the Lowry Wars. Which was in coastal, eastern North Carolina. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the Ogeechee struggle because while the Ogeechee insurrection was pretty much entirely Black former rice workers, were rice slaves, the Lowry Wars focuses on a multiracial banditry of Lumbee Indians, poor Scots-Irish whites, who had kind of integrated into the Lumbee ethnic and cultural world, and also former slaves who had escaped and joined the Lumbee tribe. And their attacks on Reconstruction plantation society similar to Ogeechee in that planters were returning to lands trying to trying to kind of reassert their power that well at the same time Northern labor institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau were trying to get people to go back to work through introducing of the wage contract to the labor contract. And so we see a lot of different forms of resistance in the Lowry’s there. And then there’s a little bit of a leap into the coalfields and Tennessee and I’ll let Neal talk about a couple of chapters there.

Neal: Yeah, so from there the book sort of takes a bent towards focusing on what at first glance might be a more sort of traditional radical or lefty history in the sense of focusing on labor and labor battles. But the labor battles we choose to focus on are pretty specifically chosen to highlight a struggle that challenges that model. So, the next chapter that comes to pass is called the Stockade Wars, which refers to a heightened period of conflict in the early 90s in eastern and central Tennessee, between Black and white free coal miners, as well as almost entirely Black prisoners in conflict with various mostly Northern owned coal companies and railroad companies as well as the actual state of Tennessee and the National Guard. And they’re they’re basically fighting against the convict lease, which is what a lot of listeners will be pretty familiar with, probably, but was a system of re-enslavement by which almost entirely poor Black folks were imprisoned for small offenses, and then they’re physically leased out to private companies to do their labor, especially in mining and in railroad, also often timber as well in the deep South.

They’re fighting that system, which was a way to undermine the power of waged workers as well as exploit the dispossessed generally. So that resulted in a pretty unusual alliance of people fighting out of their own interests and social networks against those companies in the state of Tennessee. You know, what comes to pass is that laborers and prisoners end up burning down company property, looting company property, and then setting prisoners free, giving them clothes and food and helping them get out of the State. So you have a situation where Southern white folks are actually freeing Black prisoners and helping them get out of the state. And so some pretty unusual alliances develop in that context that we don’t often read about or think about. It’s not a typical workplace struggle, if you will.

And then, with some interludes, we skip on to a Wildcat struggle led by women also in eastern Tennessee, in the mills, in 1929 in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It’s a bit of a leap, but it involves similar issues that are at the fore. But we focus also to a large degree on some of the gendered constructs that break down in the heat of a wildcat struggle at primarily to mills and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929. And the dynamics of conflict internal to that movement. The ways that the union sort of helicopters in at the last moment to try and sort of negotiate the struggle and how that dynamic plays out and how that prophecies what’s going to happen in central North Carolina with the much larger mill strike activity starting in 1930.

From there, the book goes on to focus on a period of Civil Rights as well as Black Power and urban riots that happens in the late 60s, sort of dealing with like, digesting how the New Deal and how other government programs managed to kind of subsume and contain that period of radical labor conflict. And so what you see decades later is a lot of really heightened social conflict that deals directly with the identities around which some of those new deal concessions, avoid or sell out, right? So Black folks, women, queer folks, things like that, movements like that.

And so we deal next with urban riots that erupt beyond the boundaries of both Civil Rights and Black Power as narratives. And we try and deal with some of the urban riots that are have often been ignored in the South as emblematic of a kind of social struggle that can’t be contained by the Political narrative with a capital P. And so it exposes some of the limitations of Black Power and identity, as well as the rights framework that the Civil Rights movement is basing itself around.

And then to sort of close out the book. The last chapter deals with a large women’s prison rebellion in 1975, in Raleigh, North Carolina. We chose that because we wanted to focus on a prison struggle that hadn’t been talked about much we also chose it because we wanted to focus on something dealing with prisons, just because of how that’s emblematic of where political economy and institutions of control and exploitation are headed. But in that time period in the early and mid-70’s, it prophecizes against sort of the world we live in today. And so we focus on a five day uprising at a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sort of internal dynamics of that revolt and how activists sort of negotiated for it and within it, how the administration’s dealt with containing it, etc, etc. And then we close out the book with a concluding sort of a more meta chapter that basically is our own notes for historiography that might break beyond some of these leftist narratives of Southern history that we’ve been attempting to challenge throughout the book as a whole.

TFSR: So the 40th anniversary of that struggle in the Raleigh women’s prison is coming up in June. Is there anything going on? Do you know?

Neal: There should be! It would be a great June 11 thing for people who celebrate June 11. I guess, for listeners who don’t know that is, but it’s the remembering and celebrating long term anarchist and eco prisoners struggles. But yeah, no, I mean, there absolutely should be.

Saralee: Every Mother’s Day there’s a big demo, which was just last Sunday, at the… what’s kind of closest to what was the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. So it’s basically the same facility in the same neighborhood. And I think maybe because of that, it’s hard to turn around and do a June event, but there definitely should be.

TFSR: I’m not trying to interrupt the flow of questions. But since you’re gonna be doing a book opening right around that time… the event will be spoken about in a public setting again, which is pretty damn cool.

Saralee: Definitely. That’s a really good point. We should we should bring that up.

Neal: You should just show up. And, you know, yeah, go ham with that.

TFSR: Throw bananas from the crowd.

Neal: Why aren’t we doing anything for the 40th anniversary? But I don’t know sir!. Who’s that crazy man with a banana?!

TFSR: And I warned you!!! Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating and writing this book, like do the chapters come out in each of your voices? Or do you find a different, not third position, but like fourth or fifth?

Saralee: Whoah, that’s deep.

Collaborating has been for both of us one of the most frustrating and surprising and just kind of alchemical experiences of the last few years of my life, I think. Neal and I came into this project with a lot of affinity and I think a lot of seeing a lot of each other in each other. That makes sense? And being like, “Oh, we can work together!” And then, you know, obviously, through any kind of deep collaborating like writing a book together, I think we just were able to strike this balance where my writing background is deeply abstract and theoretical, and I had never written anything this kind of concrete and material before. And I think it was really helpful to have Neal’s writing background which is really different than mine. To be able to force deadlines, and also to just kind of know. He’s had five more years on me of writing. So I think we kind of ended up playing this dance between deadlines and having to just like force stuff out and just get it done. And then also, having a really good editing process between the two of us. We both catch different things and see different things. I don’t know, it’s been really interesting.

Neal: Yeah, I feel like if two or three years ago, somebody’s been like “you’re gonna collaborate with one person on a writing project for two and a half years.” Or two years, or however long it’s been? Maybe three at this point? I would call them crazy, and never want to do that. But I think, because it emerged gradually, we learned how to do it sort of over time in a way that was… you know, it wasn’t like we were writing for a university that gave us a deadline. This is our own project that we’re passionate about. And that we have written in… basically in the cracks of the things we actually do with our lives, which are a lot of wage work, and then a lot of actual political activity in the streets and projects that are our primary priority, I think.

And so, you know, and all the friendships and ethics of care that have to come along with those things. Those always take priority. And so this is a project that emerged in the cracks of those, and I feel like at least for me, I got a lot better at collaborating without an appropriate amount of space for it to take up and ways to communicate about it. But it’s an intense thing. I think for anybody who’s listening… everybody knows if you ever tried to just write text for a flyer with another person, it can be really hard. You know, you can kind of be like two bulls with horns slamming into each other about it. But try doing that for three years! You know?

It’s been a joy. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve become a much better writer and a better thinker, and I think a better person through it. Hopefully a better communicator too. In terms of your question of voice. I think that’s up to the readers to tell us what they think, that we did a good job with the voice. But I think at least what we were going for was the same voice in all of the chapters. Our vision for the project at the beginning was not to have the book be read and experienced like an anthology by different authors but by one voice and one political vision and set of ideas and interpretations. Which is not to say me and Saralee probably agree in terms of interpretation about everything, but for the most part the book is a singular shared set of narratives around what we’re researching. And I think we did a pretty good job with it. I feel pretty good about it, having read it more times than I care to ever again, through the editing process.

TFSR: So would you say it’s the kind of book that someone could just pick up and delve in anywhere? Or does it serve the reader more to start from, you know, introduction and go through the whole thing?

Saralee: Well, I think if you start from the introduction you get more of a… I mean, definitely, we wrote in the introduction to be read, not as some kind of like aside. We spent a lot of time collaborating on the introduction and conclusion and was most fun, I think, for both of us to write those. But no, the thing I love about this book is that you can just pick it up, start in a section that you already have interest in, or maybe something’s inspiring you to read that. And then if you like it you can read the rest. So I do think that’s helpful. Especially in dealing with such a big book. I don’t want the size and like the scope of the narratives to be intimidating, or to feel like, “Ugh, I have to read all of this?!” So yeah, people should read it however they want, really.

Neal: I’m gonna add one thing on there. I do think, you could pick it up. You could be in a bathroom and pick up one chapter and just read the chapter by itself and get something out of it. But the chapters are inter-referential both directly in the sense that you’ll see a sentence that’s like “just like in Ogeechee blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s the next chapter, whatever. But they’re also inter-referential in terms of the ideas. Just to give an example, the kinds of interpretation we have over conflicts around citizenship and assimilation that occurred during Reconstruction period speak directly and immediately to the kinds of internal conflict and recuperation and containment strategies that the state uses during the Civil Rights period.

Specifically those two moments Reconstruction and Civil Rights 60’s / 70’s era. They speak to each other in history, so they speak to each other in the book. You’re going to get a lot more out of reading about those urban riots in the way that the state contains them if you read about the way the State sought to contain conflicts post-Civil War. Because the strategies are very much related and the way they manipulate and exploit and contain Black rage, specifically Black rage are highly connected. And so actually, the book is very much a unified whole, in that sense. And I do hope that people read all of it.

TFSR: Through a few sections of the book you talk about the creation of whiteness, can you talk about race and how y’all tried to handle it in this book?

Saralee: I think that any book or text that is grappling with the history of the American South, but also the history of this continent has to directly deal with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, of the genocide of the people that were here before colonizers showed up. And also, through that the creation of whiteness as something separate in a privileged kind of non identity, then the marked identities of people of color that were created through these violent colonial regimes. So it’s not a separate topic, you know what I mean? It’s just how we have to look at this history. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, right?

So I guess, I don’t want to treat race as like a separate topic. It’s part of the narrative and kind of spirit of every single chapter throughout. In terms of specifically the creation of whiteness, one of the reasons that the Great Dismal Swamp was really important for us, just looking at the struggle on the dividing line of North Carolina & Virginia, is that some of those very first distinctions between the indentured Anglo servant and the enslaved African happened in these territories and in these struggles. So what happened when an indentured white and an enslaved Black… Well, those terms weren’t even used yet but an indentured Anglo and enslaved African ran away together. What happens when they’re both caught, right? And so, the history of how those two subjects are created differently is the creation of Whiteness in that early period. And then you see it evolve throughout the book. You want to talk about the evolution of it?

Neal: Yeah. I mean, so I really like what Saralee said. We are not interested in talking about race as like this separate thing, or even as a separate product of identity. But part of this larger whole of development and resistance that are always happening, you know, in tandem with each other and against each other. We talk a lot especially in the earlier chapters about primitive accumulation as this sort of… it’s a classically Marxian concept but we take a pretty different take on it. And we’ve been influenced by people’s like Sylvia Federici’s understanding of that, whereby primitive accumulation is not a one time event, but something that continues to happen over and over and over again. It’s sort of capitalism, or what the State or various structures sort of constantly weeding the field, if you will, to renew their own projects.

In much the way that Sylvia Federici highlights a focus on the witch hunts and women’s reproductive power and women’s bodies in Europe as an often overlooked aspect of primitive accumulation for capital in Europe, the creation of Whiteness as a concept as something which previously sort of disparate groups could could gather around. And likewise, the creation of different ethnic groups and identities and Blackness becomes a part of that process, it’s part of primitive accumulation in the United States. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about, perhaps as much as it should be as a way that Capital made its own development possible on this continent. It couldn’t have happened without it.

And so on the one hand that’s where you find the origins of Whiteness. It’s also where you find the origins of Black identity, not just as a victim of these forces, like democracy or divisions of labor, but also in the process of resisting those forces. So, Blackness emerges in places like the Great Dismal Swamp where people, on the one hand, are victimized by Capital and plantation life and the State, but they’re also coming together and forming a sort of pan-African identity vis-à-vis their resistance, so they have direct agency. And that’s also something the Marxian narrative of primitive accumulation never takes into account is the actual agency of the dispossessed. They tends to view them as sort of passive pawns. And we see this process of primitive accumulation also as one in which resistance takes place. And that’s the source of a lot of these identities. And so when we talk about race, we’re trying to take that larger picture into account and you know, whether or not we succeed in that is up to the reader, but that’s what we’re going for.

TFSR: And I like the way that you see on page 268, where you address this. Like where you suggested, for example, that race and its inherent violence could be re-framed from question of identity and belonging to a method of government. And where you go on from there, I thought was also another interesting way of posing it, not only in direct relation to that ongoing process of primitive accumulation.

So you get a bit heady and introspective with your views on history, historiography and storytelling. So, what were some of the things you were wrestling with in writing and editing this book concerning… I guess, in particular, what I was getting at with that question is…

Saralee: Well, I think an interesting thing that happened in writing this book is that… There’s a theorist, Walter Benjamin. He was an antifascist, and I don’t want to call him a communist because he would have hated that. But he lived in in the early 20th century in Europe, and he killed himself at the at the border between France and Spain when he thought he wasn’t able to escape the Nazis. He wrote these really beautiful, right before he died, these really beautiful theses on the philosophy of history. It’s a text that I discovered when I was really young and probably really misunderstood it. It didn’t really actually come to make any sense until I was engaged in this writing project. And Neal had also been reading Benjamin and been playing with that as well. And, honestly, I think to give a shout out to the work done by folks in the West Coast who wrote that and I think they they brought Benjamin into the anarchist context in a really fierce and relevant and beautiful way that made me realize it was okay to read non-anarchist theorists and use them when trying to write a book like this.

But yeah, I think basically, the work by Benjamin by Federici by Foucault, you know, all those kind of European all-stars. We don’t use them to to try to sound important or to try to like obscure our own ideas, but I think we tried to pull out threads of their concepts of history that just felt really relevant in our context and more specifically for Benjamin. So, our goal in working with such a large amount of material and definitely having to… we had to order the book in somewhat progressive fashion just in the sense of dates. But we wanted the actual work to speak beyond that. And so, for us getting away from the linear progressive narrative that Neal was talking about earlier is looking towards a version of writing and doing history where capitalist time, colonial time, all these different structures of time, that are that linear progressive narrative break down in these in these moments of rebellion.

And that’s the word rupture that we use a lot, right? Is to kind of mark where the time of work, or the time of imprisonment, or the time of enslavement is destroyed, even if just momentarily by those actors, by those subjects. The difference between something like a rupture, or what we would say, and what we’re referencing a lot in the insurrectionary time and historical materialism an introduction, And then something like a progressive version of revolt is that at the end of a progressive revolt, the idea is that the subjects are reinstated and are just in a better position than they were before. Right? Those are things like rights and things like getting your demands met, right? And then what we’re looking at that breaks with that concept of time, is the time of the rupture, where you don’t return to the same subject position afterwards with just better conditions, right? Life kind of halts for a while, and new life forms and new forms of activity are created. And obviously, we know these are temporal. These are temporal junctures, they don’t last. But they’re important for us to to seize on and to hold up. And it’s those memories that get washed under, and get erased, and get ignored in progressive histories. Is that helpful?

TFSR: Yeah, definitely. It seems like, and I hope I’m not just reiterating, but in those moments, if you ever experience those moments of rupture, when the world stops, it’s like you can see the potential for a line of flight out of it at that point. It’s like you can see that utopia or not…you know, whatever, whatever Uopia. You know?

Neal: Yeah, I think for us, that’s where for, well I should say for me, but I think for us? Where, for example, a lot of these writers, these theorists, but especially Benjamin, becomes really exciting because he had a lot of courage to basically break with the Marxism of his day which was saying that communism is a product of these inevitable but gradual historical forces. And, you know what that does is it takes agency away from us as actual people acting on the world. And it also means that to a large extent it’s this inevitable, despairing version of history. There’s not really… for example, I remember Marxists, orthodox Marxists responding to the Zapatista rebellion when that broke out and was big in the late 90’s. They would be like, “well, it’s really inspiring, but doesn’t really matter because they haven’t become proletarians yet, so they can actually progress”

Saralee: Or Du Bois says says the same thing about the Maroons In the South.

Neal: Right, Du Bois sort of writes off the Maroon rebellions as this thing where like, well, they haven’t become wage workers yet. So it’s like, they wouldn’t know how to make communism yet. It’s kind of arrogant. And it’s also just writing off this period of really important history. And so in our historiography, and you in the conclusion we sort of… it is a bit heady, I suppose. But also we try and get into a lot of concrete examples as to how that progressive version of history causes historians to ignore really important stuff. Because they don’t find it interesting, because it doesn’t present any possibility to them of the gradualism they’re looking for.

And to your point, the important things in those insurrectionary moments… One thing that’s important is that sometimes a riot leads to an insurrection, which leads to a social revolution. So, it’s not just a visionary, imaginary exercise, they do actually lead to real ruptures that can be permanent. Right? But also, even when they don’t do that, like what you just said, Bursts, that I really like is that they are these lines of flight. You’re in this moment, behind a barricade and you suddenly realize life doesn’t have to go back to normal. The line of flight can go towards any of these things that we have words for like the commune or anarchy or the wild or whatever.

And so doing history differently allows us to see, I think with more clarity hopefully, those moments that provide a line of flight. Whereas, for example, doing history of vis-à-vis, the traditional labor history model, just to give an example tends to not give you a line of flight so much as a way to see how to press for individual workplace demands. And that doesn’t actually provide you with the same kind of line of flight, as might a Wildcat strike in eastern Tennessee whereby they burned down all the city infrastructure and steal from the rich. And so it’s not just a matter of they’re more militant, it actually is that the content and substance is different.

Saralee: And how people are transformed in those moments are different.

Neal: Yeah, that is another aspect of this messianic quality that Benjamin talks about is that it changes the actors themselves. And that becomes really important when you talk about all the ways that race and Capital and gender and the State have made us who we are. We need those moments of transformation. We need Fanon’s psychoeffective violence to change ourselves. We have to go through that violent process or otherwise we can’t change ourselves either. So, there’s an individualist component just as much as a collective one. Yeah.

Saralee: Yeah, like that.

TFSR: Yeah.

Saralee: Yeeeeeah. Psychoeffective Violence.

Neal: That’s, by the way, my DJ name.

TFSR: I was about to say that! I was about to say that needs to get looped, and just like… a good beat underneath it. Anyway, this brings me to the question about what is an anarchist historiography? And are you attempting to frame one out at the end of the book in the conclusion? Or is it more of a challenge and a call?

Saralee: I think we attempt to frame it out, but it’s definitely through the context of the narratives in our book. And so, we don’t kind of transpose an idea of our historiography onto just a blanket future concept, if that makes sense. I think it is a call for sure. For me, this whole book is a call. I want to see more anarchist in this work and doing history. And I hope that it’s a provocative call in the sense of it creates dialogue and creates more discourse around what an anarchist historiography could be, because I think we’re definitely also looking for that in comrades and looking to push these ideas and make them better, make them more present to our times constantly as well. But what would you say Neal?

Neal: Um, yeah, I mean, in its best moments I think it could be interpreted as a call to new kinds of historiography. Speaking personally, I mean, I am an anarchist. But I’m not really highly invested in that word as an identity. And I’m not particularly interested in things like historiographies, or critiques or things like that being connected to that word. I question how useful it is. I think, for me, I want historiographies that are negative and critical of the things that exists now. I’m sort of less interested in them affirming a singular narrative and then calling that anarchist. I think it would be a step backwards. Anything that presents itself as singular or universal. I mean, I don’t think we could substitute an anarchist narrative for a progressive one, or for a Leftist one. I think that would be futile and bad. You know, a step backwards.

So I’m interested in people writing history and interpreting and taking on that task, seriously, as it informs the conflicts we’re living in now. Because it does. And I’m interested in people doing so in ways that are just as critical and combative as like all the sort of fiery polemical communique type things that we read now on the internet in utter abundance. You know, I think people should fight over and delve into these ideas that are historical with that same degree of passion. I guess I would be interested in seeing that. I would never expect a singular anarchist historiography to emerge from that. I would expect a diverse and contradictory array of historiographies to emerge that have certain sort of principles in common, like a rejection of Leftism, like a rejection of the progressive narratives that we were confronted with now.

And also a rejection of the way that the Academy owns history. That’s something we don’t have in the interview, but it’s something we’ve talked about in public discussions and talks that we’re hosting with this book. Pretty much I think anytime when we go and talk at university, we’re probably going to be basically presenting front and center a critique of how the academy owns this material. Because we’ve had to confront that in our own research as non-academics doing a somewhat academic kind of project in all the degrees of the real things like money and time and professionalism and salary and tenure that invoke privilege around who gets to own and do history are something that anarchist should also deal head on with. Anarchists already have been dealing head on with as well as a lot of non-anarchists. But in terms of the historiography, I’m probably a little skeptical. I am less interested in it being anarchist, but I’m definitely interested in more critical historiography is emerging. And, and having a deeply sort of negative and critical take on how things have developed with history. Is that vague? I don’t know.

TFSR: No.

Neal: Okay, good.

TFSR: Where can people expect to run into y’all on this series of speaking engagements? Do you have a schedule slated?

Saralee: Yeah, we have the beginnings of a schedule. We’re having an actual release party like a bacchanal celebration, no formal speaking, you have to dress up.

TFSR: Like what? Like Bacchus.

Saralee: Yeah

TFSR: Toga party.

Saralee: We’re hoping that people actually bring their formal attire. We don’t get to see each other in formal attire enough because we’re poor. But I think that’s May 31, in Durham at the Pinhook. So that’s kicking off a couple of weeks of local events. So then we’ll be Greensboro, June 1 at Scuppernong Books. We will be in Durham, June 3 at the Regulator. We will be at the International, which is an anarchist run space in Carrboro, on June 8. June 14th will be in Atlanta at the Hammonds Museum with some people who have been involved in struggles in Atlanta that were actually written about in the book and mentioned in the book. So it’ll be really exciting. June 14. That’s a daytime event. And then June 20, in Raleigh, at So and So Books. We’re hoping to be in Asheville in July whenever Firestorm opens and invites us. And then in the fall, we’ll be doing some stuff on the west coast. And then we’ll also be doing a big Southeast Midwest tour. Then eventually in the Fall also in Northeast tour.

Neal: We took joy in making the Northeast have to be last. Sorry!

Saralee: Yeah, if you want to see us soon, you’ve got to come to us in North Carolina or Georgia, but we’ll come to you at later.

Neal: Yeah, and you can get the book off of probably AK Press’s website. You can also get it from us. I hope you can get their website. You can get it from us as well if you come to our events. I want to, if it’s okay to do a totally disgusting plug, we also have a poster series that we’ve put together that deals with like four or five of the themes of different chapters. And they’re really big, beautiful, like three foot tall, full color original watercolor art themed around like protagonists in different chapters with text that was written by us and Phil. And they’re really big and beautiful and wonderful. And they’re going to be sold with the book at different events and stuff pretty cheap. So thanks to P&L Printing for helping us with those because it gave us a really, really good deal.

TFSR: Thank you, Denver.

Saralee: Yeah, what’s up?

TFSR: Oh, cool. Thanks so much for chatting. And is there any other disgusting plugs you want to make before we stop recording?

Neal: Yeah, go crazy on June 11th. Get real. Get hard. Go hard.

TFSR: Stay hard.

Neal: I want to send some shout outs anybody listening to this who helped us with this project. Or was a patient ear or who gave critique, because there’s a lot of those people out there and we owe so much of this work to them. So, thank you to all those people.

Saralee: Thank you to all the rebels in the last two years that have given us inspiration as well.

TFSR: Yeah. And go hard, stay hard.

Neal: Yeah, that’s good. Why don’t you make that a T shirt.

TFSR: Hey, I’d actually be stealing it from Ida.

Saralee: And Atlanta…

TFSR: Yeah, they won’t mind. We’ve been speaking with Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford about their new book “Dixie Be Damned. 300 years of Insurrection in the American South” published by AK Press. More about the book can be found at AKPress.org

Queer Activist Perspectives from Southern Appalachia

Queer Activist Perspectives from Southern Appalachia

QTBIPOC flag with text from panel, "Fittin In, Sticking Out: Queer (In)Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusino
Download This Episode

This week on the show, we bring you the audio of an activist panel from the recent Queer Conference held online by University of North Carolina, Asheville, in March of 2021.

The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:

This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:

  • Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
  • Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
  • Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
  • Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here

Announcements:

Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site

From Florida Prisoner Solidarity on Twitter and Instagram:

Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.

Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.

Sheriff Rick Wells
941-747-3011 ext. 2222
rick.wells@manateesheriff.com
Twitter- @ManateeSheriff

Central jail information
941-723-3011 Ext. 2915

County Commission
941-745-3700
EMAIL FOR ENTIRE COMMISSION: tinyurl.com/EmailAllCommissioners

Emergency Management
941-749-3500
emergency.management@mymanatee.org
Twitter- @MCGPublicSafety

. … . ..

Featured tracks:

. … . ..

Transcription

Scott: Okay, so welcome everyone. This is our the final event of the first day of the 2021 Queer Studies conference. So happy to see you all here, we made it through the day. This is a really special panel because we’ve invited representatives of local organizations and groups that do work in the community in the region to help queer community – and we’ll hear more about the work that they do specifically – but this is in the spirit of the conference, which is going back to its founding, conceived as a way of like having academics and organizers and activists meet to talk about queer issues. So this is special to highlight the work that queer folks are doing on the ground. So I’m gonna be moderating, my name is Scott. And I’m going to now turn it over to each of our panelists to introduce themselves, the group that they represent, and give a brief overview of the work that the group does in the community and beyond, and then we’ll get into more involved discussion from there. I can name y’all, or if someone just wants to go, go ahead. If the spirit is calling you…

Leroy: Alright, I will jump in here so that then I can sit back and listen to all the rest of you. Hello, I’m glad y’all are all here. My name is Leroy Kite, I use they/them pronouns. I’m here with Tranzmission Prison Project, we are a queer and trans powered abolitionist books -to-prisoners group that serves the entire country…with a few exceptions of states that have banned us. And we are a sister organization, a sibling organization with Asheville Prison Books, which just serves general population prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina. For those of you that are Asheville specific, we are located out of the back of Downtown Books and News, you can drop by and see us.

And, yeah, we’ve been around for like a little over 20 years somehow? So a very long time. It’s kind of a mystery to me, how that has really sustained this long. I’ve been involved for about seven years, and there is some historical memory losses, there’s just been a lot of turnover over those two decades. Basically, we are still in the process of reconnecting with the origins of how this group began and trying to call up those long lost elders of this project so that we can kind of seam some of the pieces together of what has changed from then and now.

But that pretty much gets up to date. The arc of our work is we receive requests from prisoners around the country, across the LGBTQIA and two spirit spectrum, and mail them back books that they are asking for whether that is romance, thriller, sci-fi, erotica. You know, we try to highlight getting people materials that a lot of other organizations are either unwilling or under-equipped to send to those populations, particularly when it comes to things that regard people’s sexual and gender autonomy. That’s a area that it can be very, very hard to find free resources from organizations that are willing to send that to people. So that’s kind of one gap that we see ourselves filling that’s kind of unique. And with that, I’ll pass it off to whoever wants it. Thanks.

Adrian: I can pop in. So my name is Adrian, I use they/she and he pronouns. I’m the executive director of Youth OUTright WNC. We are a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA young folks between the ages of 11 and 20, which kind of led up to 24 during COVID. Thanks for dropping our link, Shawn. So our programs focus in on racial justice, gender justice, and sex and relationship education. So right now we’re running programs Tuesday through Thursday, we have chat rooms on Tuesday and Thursdays that are held on Discord. And we have a video call on Wednesdays that run 6 to 8pm. And that’s those programs are run by Brian Thompson, our youth programs manager, and they’ve been doing a great job there.

We also do some work supporting the GSA clubs across the state of North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with GSA’s, those are “Gender and Sexuality Alliances”, formerly known as “Gay Straight Alliances”, and those clubs really vary between social support and activist groups. But we support them wherever they’re at and with whatever they have self determined to be their goals, right? So if they’re focused on building community with each other, that’s awesome, we’ll talk to them about that if they’re looking at changing policy at their school, also awesome. And we’ll talk about that we try to meet them with wherever they’re at and with what their goals are.

Self determination is really important to our work. Over the past few years, we’ve been really incorporating youth leadership, all the way up through the board level. And so that’s been really important to us as we progress. We like to create professional opportunities for young people as well. We had some part time staff positions last year as educators and facilitators, there’ll be more opportunities for that later this year. And we’ve provided stipends for peer education around sex ed, or mental health, different things like that. In 2019, we held a GSA summit, we hope to do that again. We were a little shaken by the by the pandemic, as most folks were, so we’ve had to postpone that but we’re looking at a virtual version soon. Keep an eye out for that.

And beyond the direct Youth Services, the GSA work, we also do advocacy around policy. So we’ve been working with Campaign for Southern Equality around the Department of Public Instruction’s name policy within the virtual learning system. We were seeing last year that a lot of trans young people were being outed just by the virtual learning system, and so we now do have a preferred name field that will be integrated into Buncombe County and implementation is happening now.

We work with Equality North Carolina on things like non-discrimination ordinances here in Asheville and surrounding counties. And we’re also working right now to put together a storytelling campaign around the anti-trans sports bill that just hit earlier this week. So we’re working with some trans athletes at a couple different high schools to uplift their stories, and really raise awareness to that.

One last little plug I’ll make is for our racial justice and gender justice panels, which happened once a month on our Instagram Live, and that Space A Digital Place to Talk About Race, and TYME (Trans Youth Movement and Education). Those panels are led by young college and high school trans folks digging in deeper to racial and gender justice. And I’ll stop taking up space.

Monse: I’m happy to go next. Hi, everyone, my name is Monse, I use they or she pronouns, and I’m here at repping SONG, or Southerners On New Ground. We are a 28 year old LGBTQ base-building membership organization. We are definitely unapologetically abolitionists, Black and Brown, and all things queer and magic. So we have chapters all across the Southeast. We have chapters in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, in Louisiana. We currently don’t have an Asheville chapter but we have lots of Asheville members who, in the past couple of years, have been engaged in our bailout action that we have done for Mother’s Day where we have raised money to pay the bails of Black mothers and caregivers who are in jail due to bail. And this was definitely to bring awareness to the issue of money bail used as a racist, classist practice in not only Buncombe County, but all across the south, where folks are held pretrial. So before their conviction, and if they don’t have the money to pay to get out, they have to stay in jail and await their court date when people who do have access to wealth or money can wait for their court date from the comfort of their own home. So further criminalizing folks who are already targets of the state.

So SONG was founded in 1993 by three Black lesbians and three white lesbians, and was definitely founded as a way to kind of infiltrate into the queer and gay movement in the moment, and really saying that money bail, that criminalization, that all these things are people facing oppression, like, is the gay issue. So we definitely wanted to make space for folks who are Black and Brown, who are facing oppression and criminalization every day, to be able to be in these spaces and organize and bring their full selves and not having to be closeted.

So SONG is an LGBTQ feminist organization, with core Black leadership. And we believe that until all of us are free, none of us are free. So that’s why we’re really wanting to move this work. Currently, we have campaigns to end money bail, so really connecting to our direct action to bail Black mamas and caregivers out of jail, and bring more awareness to the issue to end money bail and pretrial detention.

We also have been doing research around campaigns to end the collaboration with local law enforcement and ICE – so Immigration and Customs Enforcement – because we know that police and ICE are the same beast under the prison industrial complex. But we do a lot of training, a lot of just skilling-up and building community across the South because we know that the South is where all the shit goes down, and where all our people are. Where we have roots, where we have community, and we want to be able to grow and build and organize in the South. So that’s a little bit about SONG. And hopefully, you’ll get to hear more about the work that we do. But thank you all so much for having us.

Beck: Thanks Monse. I’m Beck, I used they/them pronouns and I’m here as the representative of Pansy Collective. And so Pansy Collective is a DIY decentralized queer LGBTQIA arts and music collective. Our biggest thing that we do is Pansy Fest, and it kind of started out as like, a queer visibility type of thing. Like the punk scene in the South and in neighboring regions around Asheville has been pretty bro heavy, pretty homophobic, racist, and we’re trying to make space that was an anti-racist, anti-homophobic space in the punk community. And then from that, it kind of started to build into more like Southern and rural coalition building and then specifically around moving from like, visibility to BIPOC reparations. So the first fest we actually worked with SONG’s Black Mama Bailout, and that was like the first beneficiary we had, and TPP was another one! But it’s like, it’s so cool that we’re all here right now.

But yeah, it was kind of a way to engage like queer folks into to put a public space that wasn’t some liberal kind of, I don’t know, upitty Asheville…you know? [laughs] People who are living here, you know. But yeah, so it was it was cool to like, create a space where we felt okay around each other, where we can have hard conversations. And also like, where we could bring some of the anarchist principles and things like that, in kind of a more tangible way into the punk scene. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got all these lyrics that are like, ‘fuck this, like, hate cops’”, follow that. But also, do you know about prison books? Do you want to sign up? You know about Black Mama Bailout? So you know, having people tabeling there at all of our shows and events was really big. Making sure we have Narcan, you know, bringing in harm reduction into the scene…just kind of trying to, like, the spaces that we have idealistically in our head as like “a queer scene”, just trying to make it happen to the best of our ability.

And so we’ve been around since 2016? 2017! And it was such a bummer last year: we were like getting ready for a really cool event with HOT BITS. It was going to be like a really cool coalition building, with sex workers rights, and having a really cool, I don’t know, sex positive space, which was like something new for Pansy. And it kind of went all down because of COVID, of course. But we’re still meeting together! We’re still organizing, we, you know, try to coalition build where we can. It’s not looking like events around music and art right now. It’s more like, “Okay, let’s do a noise demo at the jail with Charlotte Uprising.” How can we be outside and distance and really do the work that we believe in, which is like mutual aid, it’s love, it’s like anti-prison, you know, it’s not queer assimilationist, right? So it hasn’t been so much “festy”, like punk stuff going on, but we’re still here doing it. And yeah, super stoked to be here. Thanks for having us.

Scott: Thanks, everyone, for introducing yourselves and the groups and giving an overview. It’s really interesting too, to see where these local regional groups have intersected and work together. My first question beyond the introduction is specifically linking to Asheville, Western North Carolina, a larger region, the South, what do you think Southern queers need? And how does your work try to meet those needs? And you can, you know, get as specific to our town as you want, or think more regionally.

Beck: I’ll go ahead. I think one of the things pre-pandemic, when events were happening, was just having a queer focused event that you didn’t have to pay for. That it was like, sliding scale and all of the money, it wasn’t, you know, going to this model of building up, it was just going to go into the hands of folks who need it. The fact that you didn’t have to show up and pay. I feel like everything else in this area in those spaces, too, it’s like “pay to play” situation. And it’s not really inviting, you know, from a class perspective, but also just like…those spaces aren’t necessarily where, like, I want to be anyways, right? Like I want to be in a space where it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, how I look, if I can afford it. So just creating those spaces, I think.

And something that I just think of, like, resources and education and coalition building is something…there’s like, there’s a lot going on in the South, trying to make it happen, but it’s much more of an uphill battle, I think, compared to West Coast, East Coast, right? And so, you know, tabling events and stuff like that, but also like teachings, where we learn how to do jail support, or, you know, like fun stuff too! Like, do you wanna learn how to screenprint? Just having this open space, you don’t have to pay to get in. And you don’t have to know everybody, you can just come in, and people are gonna be like, “Hey, what’s up? Welcome to the teach-in.” And you’re like, already welcome at the door. And a place where people can share ideas, and it’s not coming from this hierarchical like, “I’m going to educate everybody in this space.” It’s “everybody has something they can bring to it.” So I think that’s one part that Pansy Collective comes from, for sure.

Scott: Adrian, that made me think, like, what Beck was saying about kind of the educational aspect and like, maybe that fits in the mission of Youth OUTright, connecting to young people?

Adrian: Yeah, a couple of things were coming up for me when Beck was sharing. The first thing that came up for me around education and teach-ins’s is: I feel like young people really need us adults to step up and educate ourselves. Frankly. You know, I think that our young people are often in the position either at school or with their families, where they have to educate adults around them about sex and gender, or racial justice, or any number of social movements that are happening in our intersectional community, right? And so something that breaks my heart, but also makes me really proud is watching these young people really articulately say what they need to say, to these adults, right? It’s impressive, it’s great. And also, come on adults, what are we doing? And so you know, where that brings in Youth OUTright is we’re in the process of developing relationships with Buncombe County schools to provide training to all of their counselors and social workers, right? From the adults, providing them training about how to support young people, and we may compensate young people to record their experiences or, you know, provide some amount of input in there. But we don’t want them to have to expend that emotional labor and potentially re-traumatize themselves in entering a space where they have to teach their teacher, right?

And so I think that there’s a big need for adult allies to step up into this place of peer educator for, you know, the people in their community and having these conversations. Of the folks who do want to engage in those conversations, we’re hosting every third Monday, a space called Continuum, which is an intergenerational conversation for supporting specifically gender and sexual minority young people. And so that’s a space where people can engage in conversation with the community there. But you know, we obviously have a little bit more of a focus on young people, right?

So part of our work last summer, we did a direct action training at Carrier Park. And so we brought together a small cohort of young people. And we were socially distanced and talked about what power mapping looks like, talked about some of the changes they want to see in the community, and they identified the Trans Panic Defense, right? They said “the Trans Panic Defense is something that we think is abhorrent and needs to go away”. And that’s super valid. They also picked a hard one. But you know, I think that having spaces like that, centering the young people’s vision, is really what they’re asking for. And again, I’ll go back to self determination, right? And I think that when we allow young people to set the waypoint, we realize that a lot more as possible, right? As adults, I think we get a little bit salty, we get a little bit jaded and cynical, “we’ll never get there”, right? So I think young people need us to tap into that imagination, and tap into that vision and support that, right? As well as stepping up to educate ourselves and understand that like, I’m still learning new pronouns, y’all! Like I’m still…there’s a lot going on, and culture is always changing. So I think they need humility from us, right? They need us to recognize that, to disrupt that adultism in ourselves, right? There’s always this dominant cultural belief that adults know what’s best for young people. They might know what’s best for us! Let’s look at our planet and what the young environmental activists are saying, right? There’s so many ways to look at this and where young people really have the answers. So I think we need to take a seat and listen, and then start making some moves from there.

Scott: Thinking of like, you know, identify problems that they want to attack made me think also about the kind of particular terrain that we have in the South. Given the kind of like, Republican legislative power and the way that they can kind of steamroll anti-trans, anti-gay policies, and I don’t know if maybe that’s something that Monse, you could talk about, in terms of the work that SONG is doing? Because it’s like SONG is as a Southern thing and there’s like, simultaneously kind of invisiblization of queerness in the South, but also this huge social war being waged by the state against queer people in the South. So yeah, that was a way to start to throw it to you. If you have some ideas.

Monse: For sure, I can definitely speak on that a little bit. Yeah, and I would say, like, the South is a region of both great despair and historical trauma, but also great organized resistance and resilience and magic. Like, we really organized in this region because we want to build up. And because we are a part of a long legacy of organizers and cultural workers, freedom fighters who have been committed to the South, and this is a place where folks live, where folks build their lives, where they love, where they organize, and continue to build their families, regardless of all the things and history that has. And I really would want to highlight that resistance piece, because there has been so much resistance that has happened in the South. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that folks, we’re naming, like, we organize in the South, and we have that kind of like a southern hospitality where we can find our people, where we can create the potlucks and invite folks in and like, making sure that our neighbors have what they need, that our community is good. And we are doing mutual aid, and we are doing those things. And there’s also like all those things against us, too.

But I think that organizing in the South, to me, is about kind of like that resilience that you’re like, “I’m not leaving this place, because this is where my legacy is, my history is.” And a lot of the times that negative and racist rhetoric is highlighted in the South, but I think, like, right alongside with it is where we grow, like where we are making everything out of nothing. And we are doing that pushback, and we are seeing some wins. And I think we have been able to see some wins, like even specifically throughout this year. Like folks organizing and doing the uprisings. Like we saw so many wins from that, like, where folks, like we are literally, everyone was talking about “what does it mean to defund the police? Like, what does it mean to believe in a world where we don’t have policing, where we don’t have jails and prisons?” And I think that that is because of years and years worth of organizing. It didn’t happen just out of nothing, and like folks rioted and stood up for what they believed in, just like, overnight. I think it has been years of oppression and resilience that ignited folks to continue that conversation. I think that the work is not by any means done yet. But definitely we’re making, we’re seeing the fruits of those commitments and those sacrifices happen. I think it’s up to us here in the South to continue to say like, “Fuck that” – [smiles] I’m gunna cuss on here – but like, “Fuck that, like, we’re gonna keep fighting and we’re gonna keep doing what our ancestors wanted us to do and what rightfully we have to do”.

So yeah, and I think in Asheville there are so many nonprofits, and like so many folks already organizing, and there is a great need for folks to organize. And we definitely saw that even locally in Asheville, when, like, we need to hold local and county government accountable. Like we saw that in the summer, we saw demands of Black and Brown organizers being ignored. We saw that there is a big need, like, we can’t, in Asheville at least, we can’t hide behind liberal organizing and expect things to to move. I think that we have to continue to push and continue to make space for Black and Brown organizers and for demands to to move, so that we can organize and build the world we want to live in, even here, on a local level. And I think that what SONG has to offer, at least here in Asheville, is like training, skill-up opportunities. Like, this 28 year old legacy of folks who have been fighting and organizing in the South because the South is their home, and definitely connection to those folks all across the south, and years of like trans and queer abolitionist organizing. So that’s what I have to say,

Scott: Thanks. And then, you know, building on that idea of like, how the queer communities in the South can get invisiblized in the racist and bigoted ideas of the South, I was gonna use that to sort of transition to the work that you’re doing Leroy with Tranzmission Prison Project, because also a community that gets invisiblized, is the people who are incarcerated, and specifically people like trans and queer people who are incarcerated. And I don’t know if you have something to say about that in terms of like, the way that you’re working with them to get their voices out or get their needs met. Because that’s also a site of like, tremendous resistance, building off what Monse was saying.

Leroy: Yeah, I think that there’s both so much potential here, and in full transparency, so much room for TPP to continue growing in ways that move beyond where the reality of, you know, most of our work to date has, even as an abolitionist group, typically shown up as service provision. Where we’re not as involved on the policy end of things, or able to keep up with all of the specifics of what is happening in this state in the South that specifically targeting these queer and trans prisoners. We, you know, have occasionally popped in to, like, offer a statement here or there about things that have happened on the federal level. Like in 2018 there was this change to the Transgender Offender Manual from the Bureau of Prisons, that really fucked over, altered, the safety of trans folks in prison across the country.

But as far as specific to the South, I personally don’t feel like I am informed enough to be able to say where, you know, we have as a project not yet had the capacity to orient towards how can we show up more and do more coalition building and outreach beyond our little silo of what this project has been maintaining over the years. But I think that that’s the real growth edge for us right now. And where the conversation has really been building over the last several years as we’ve gone from, basically like myself, and like one other person, when I first joined this organization, we sort of went through a period of so much burnout, and turnover seven years ago that the last seven years have been really just building back up our own base and trying to just keep up with the mail. We have, like, 100 to 150 pieces of mail on average that we get a month.

And so we’ve sort of been stretching to make space to have conversations within our group that are more than just “how do we sustain our own morale in this work?” And how do we actually network with some of these bigger, juicy or more challenging questions of “what does it mean to be abolitionists doing books to prisoners work”, and I think that networking with other folks in the south like SONG, like Pansy Collective, like Youth OUTright, is really where the work is headed for us. So that we can kind of use the best of what everyone else is already tapped into, on sometimes more of the policy end of things, sometimes more the grassroots end of things, but just where people have their ear to the ground in places that we don’t always.

I will say, as I kind of alluded to, I think in my first answer – and maybe this is foreshadowing for like another question that I don’t know, it still coming up – about like challenges of working in the South. But I think that the irony is that for longer than I have been involved with this project, North Carolina specifically has been one of the states that has banned us, Tranzmission Prison Project specifically, from sending mail in. And we have – for the cop who may be sitting in this room right now, this is the time where I’m gonna say “Fuck you, and you can leave this call” – but, you know, we we have done what we’ve needed to do to get folks books that they’ve requested. Like, we still get requests all the time from prisoners in North Carolina, and we’ve basically just found some ways to fly a little lower on the radar when mailing those books back to people. But things like we can’t use our letterhead, we don’t use our mailing address when we return those. And so there’s room for us to potentially challenge that.

I mean, in the last seven years, again, as a group we have not had the capacity to necessarily even investigate, like, is this really still a thing? Like, could we run a campaign to get this overturned? And so that’s where having a real upsurge of interest in prison abolition in the last year has been starting to put some more wheels under what feels possible for us, in terms of maybe doing some bigger work, then has really just been on the table for us. Just trying to like keep up with the need that has been there, you know, not not to fall into like, capitalist supply demand lingo, but I mean the reality is like, the prison system is a part of capitalism and we are often in our own constraints that are placed upon us by it by the nature of the prison industrial complex.

So there’s this real tension between like, “how do we ensure that our baseline commitment to just getting people the books that they are asking for is being met”, while also being like “is that in and of itself, abolitionist”. We really situate what we’re doing as centering people’s humanity, and really just restoring that sense of dignity and autonomy to people, that having information is something that we believe everyone should have. Having access to pleasure is something that everyone should have a way to expand their own minds beyond, you know, what’s often a cell smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms. How do we, again, just connect the dots of the bigger constellation of “how do we keep these prisons from becoming kinder and friendlier to trans people” – whether that’s in the South or around the whole rest of the country – towards “how do we really shrink the system into nonexistence”?

Scott: Yeah, so jumping off of the obstacle point, that was a question that I had prepared. And I’m thinking also of just specifying a little bit because it’s come up – and this is the place we’re in, like, you know, post or not post pandemic, but in the middle of the pandemic – the pandemic hit, right, and like changed the terrain for organizing for everyone. So that, obviously, is an obstacle. I’d be interested to hear how a little more about how have you dealt with that. And also, potentially, on the plus side, the way the uprisings, rebellions last year affected the kind of energy and work that you’re doing, because that’s also something you’ve all been mentioning, in terms of the hearing more about abolition. So obstacles and but also like the recent sort of things that have occurred that have changed the nature of organizing.

Monse: I’m happy to kick it off. I think that yeah, definitely, what has been shared is definitely what we’ve been experiencing too, within SONG. I think even the election was a huge obstacle. I think that that brought up so, so many conversations, but also like, we were able to run a Free the Vote program within SONG in particular parts of the South, where we were doing voter registration and in the jails, for folks who are incarcerated, trying to get absentee ballots. And then we also face that same like, trying to mail stuff in trying to get to talk to people, it was those same things. So I definitely resonate with that, like trying to navigate and even just reach our people who are inside, making sure that they know that we’re out here and just trying to communicate with them has been a barrier put up by the state. And I think it’s very intentional, you know, they don’t want us to talk to them, they don’t want them to talk to us. So I would say I definitely resonated with that.

And I think even, yeah COVID in itself changed so many of the conditions which our folks were living in, and organizing in too. And we as SONG were definitely trying to figure out like, “is this the moment like to free them all? Like, are we trying to push for that, like, get everyone out of jail?” Like, of course they’re not following the CDC guidelines. Of course, they don’t care about the people who are in there. And really trying to see like, what ways that we could turn up on the state, and also keep our people safe from from COVID. We definitely started to do car caravan actions, like honk-ins at the jails all across the South, making sure like, hey, like we haven’t forgotten about y’all out here. And trying to do that. Folks in Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter were definitely turning up and putting pressure so folks could be released. Like, if they didn’t have to be there – of course, nobody has to be there – but like, if they were their pretrial, that they should be free.

So definitely trying to push on the campaign’s that we were already moving, in relationships to like, we need everyone out of that jail because it’s just COVID in there. So yeah, I think that even our tactics of organizing changed so much, and finding our people, and being able to do direct actions…we were thinking, a lot of like, “what does it mean to continue to turn up on the state and keep our people safe from getting sick?” Because we know that historically, our people don’t have access to health care, like our people don’t trust the health care systems, at all, and in fact, have been victims of violence by the healthcare system. So all the things, all the things. And I think, even just locally, some obstacles that have been coming up is also the fast-paced gentrification here in Asheville. Black and Brown folks, especially queer trans folks, are being pushed out of Asheville, so, so quickly, so so rapidly. And I think that that’s also something that my brain goes to is like, how are we like turning up against all these developers who are trying to take our towns, trying to take our people’s homes? And how are we creating space for folks to continue to live here, and work here and organize here in Asheville? It’s something that I would love to get into with any of y’all. But yeah, some of the obstacles.

Adrian: Thanks for sharing all of that Monse, a lot of that really resonates. And I think that, you know, with what’s coming up for me and the young folks that I work with, is I think that we’ve really shifted into more of a survival mode, right? You know, sex ed, and sexual violence prevention work was really integral to our programs before the pandemic, like every single meeting we’d talk about consent. Once we hit quarantine the kids were like, “We just need to hang out with each other, like, we need a little bit less educational stuff.” And we stepped back a little bit because they didn’t have the capacity to keep learning and keep learning. And they were also doing virtual school, right? I think the capacity for everybody, not just young people, just really got lowered.

And, you know, I have been fielding a lot more crisis calls over the past year. We have young people who are stuck at home in transphobic families, right, abusive families. And so, you know, we move from potentially thinking about targeting a trans inclusive policy at school to, oh, I might get kicked out of my home, right? And so I think that’s one of the challenges for us, is that while we try to build power within the youth community, so many of our young folks are just dealing with a different level of marginalization, by the pandemic, right?

One thing I’d point to is our GSA clubs, right? Like we before the pandemic, there were upwards of 35 clubs across North Carolina. Now we’re under 25. And a lot of those 25 are folks who have registered, but like, their club isn’t really meeting right now, or maybe they don’t have the tools to meet digitally, or, you know, they’re running their meeting but they’re only getting 5 of the 20 and 30 people that used to be coming to their meeting, right? So there’s this really big challenge in reconnecting with all of our young folks that have been a part of this network, and making sure they’re alright.

We launched a mutual aid fund over the past year, to support young folks 24 and under who were economically impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve distributed about $14,000 now, mostly to young folks who are housing insecure, and a good number of them are already homeless. And so, you know, in my conversations with the McKinney Vento liaisons who work within the Buncombe County school district and support the homeless youth there, they told me that they expected to see the homeless youth population balloon, maybe even double, over the course of the pandemic due to just the economic impacts, right. And the family impacts again, putting, you know, trans people back at home in spaces that aren’t safe for them.

So, all of those things are hard, but I do want to add a silver lining that has come out of some of these pivots. You know, we moved to digital programming pretty much within a week, right? It was pretty quick. But what was really awesome about it was a lot of our young people took a lot of initiative, right? They’re like, “Oh, discord, yeah, I can make a server, I can make you a robot. I can make you all these things.” And It was incredible and inspiring to see these young people step up to the plate…wow, a sports metaphor, how butch? Okay, that was weird. That doesn’t happen a lot. So, you know, these young people really stepped up to support each other and advocate for themselves, right? That’s been really incredible. And the other thing that comes from that, in the beginning of the pandemic our groups were smaller, but they were rural people, they were POC folks, and so we were actually getting to these young people who really need our services a little bit more. Not to say that young folks don’t need our services – we’re here for them as well – but there tend to be more GSAs within Buncombe County, there tend to be more supportive adults within Buncombe County. And so to see young people from Candler, Lake Lure, Cherokee, these other places, checking into our call, that’s a huge impact for me and for I think the folks in the community.

I think that moving out of the pandemic, as we slowly start to, we’re going to be keeping a lot of these digital organizing strategies that we’ve developed, and need to find this balance between, “okay, we’ve created access to our world programs, and there’s this thing that’s lacking from our in person programs that we need to bring back”. But I tell you, I’m not going to remove all the digital programs, because I’m like having those rural kids around.

Leroy: I can jump back in. Yeah, I’m really feeling the themes of COVID challenges plus, like weird COVID boons that no one necessarily saw coming. Yeah, at the very start of the pandemic, we definitely went into rapid response mode in a way that like, isn’t very typical for us. And again, wasn’t necessarily sustainable for us, but I think, as Monse already touched on – everyone’s familiar with this, I think, on the global level, but for those of us, especially with our finger on the pulse of what life inside of prisons is like, it was just like watching the storm rolling in times 1000 – it was just like the contagion of this is going to kill so many people so rapidly. And there was also this potential, like no one had really ever seen before, for these mass releases.

And so again, even though that’s not something that we, as a group, necessarily had a lot of power to help push for – I mean, I think individuals within our group are kind of like tapped into other campaigns outside of the work of TPP – but what we did do was reformatted a pamphlet that was a collaboration between Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross and Asheville Prison Books, which was basically just an informational two to four pager about what is COVID, and how can you keep yourself safe? And obviously, there were ways we were like ”We don’t know if people are going to be able to apply this.” I mean, obviously, there’s no PPE, there certainly was no PPE inside of prisons at the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried if people were even going to have soap. Hand sanitizer was like, not allowed for a lot of folks because of alcohol. But we were like, “We don’t even know what people are being told at this point, so it seems like the least we could do to just share what we were hearing, as we were hearing it on the outside, with those that we love on the inside,” to just say like, “this is what we know so far about this virus. And this is what we are hearing about what you can do to keep yourself safe as much as possible. And we realized that a lot of this may not be possible for y’all.”

The flip side of what those pamphlets offered was a sliver of hope, for those that were able to receive them, about some of what was happening in terms of folks being released in the South, actually, as well as around the country. And while that did not happen, I think as much as a lot of us in the abolition movement hoped that it could have gone further, there were also some prison breaks. And they were also just stories of people freeing themselves from the cages that they were in. And so there were some little blurbs about that. We also had some of those pamphlets bounce back, and we assumed that that was for that reason. There was like one or two that came back to us that something on the return to sender said something along the lines of like “this is a threat to our security and that’s why this wasn’t let in.” And so you know, it’s not really surprising because we know that knowledge is a threat and prisons don’t want prisoners to even think about the fact that they might one day have the power to liberate themselves, let alone be granted clemency. So, you know, the vast majority of them we think reached the folks that we intended them to get.

But we also weren’t sure for a while when we were going to have access to our office because as the original shutdowns were going on – like I said, we’re out of the back of Downtown Books and News – we lost access to our space for the first like, three, four months that things were going on. So part of those pamphlets, too, was this very kind of frightening disclosure that we were like, “Hey, we don’t know when we are going to be able to send you books, because there’s just a freeze on our ability to maintain this right now, but we want you to know that you are in our hearts and we are thinking of you.” And even just being able to send that little bit of personal love to folks, that in and of itself, I think, was where we were able to put our hearts forward at the start of this pandemic and let people know, like Monse, you were saying, again, like, “you are not forgotten even in this, and we’ll be back with you as soon as we can be”. And so yeah, it took some time for everybody to kind of get their feet back under them again, but by the summer last year we were starting to socially distance gather ourselves in the park to just like, reorganize our core group.

And then as we started to launch our packaging parties back up, which is how we kind of make room for more community engagement than just our regular core folks who come and pick out the books – in the pre-pandemic times used to do this out of Firestorm Books and Coffee, where we would take the books that were ready to be wrapped up and we would just do like a big almost holiday style wrapping where we just brown paper bag everything and address stuff and tape it up, and then it’s ready to go to the post office – we started to do that outside, also in Carrier Park, so that we could continue to do the work. And really, I think this is where this work gets really intersectional. I think that with everything that happened, with the uprisings of the summer and abolition starting to be talked about more and more, we started to see more people show up at those outdoor packaging parties than we had ever seen before. And we have been continuing to get new interests through our Instagram, through our email inbox. And yeah, I think that that’s where the last year has presented some really unusual, but exciting opportunities for where we’re now positioned, just with more folks plugging in all the time than we previously had. So that’s the upside of things. Beck, you want to get in on this?

Beck: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty quick and easy. COVID really threw a wrench in like everything we do. [starts laughing] We created physical spaces for queer community to come together and learn in sheer joy and you know, art, music. So, yeah, we really were at a loss for how to adapt, and none of us were in a place where we were like, willing to switch to digital. So we’re like, “Okay, what can we do right now”, we had applied for a mini grant from the Trans Justice Project. And we got it! And we’re like,” oh, dope, but there’s not a fest going on. So what are we going to do?” And so we decided to do a kind of like reparations drive project, community reach, outreach type thing, where we used all those funds from that grant, to BIPOC artists who are now like, without work. So focusing on Black and Indigenous queer and trans artists, and making sure they’re getting their needs, uplifting the work that they’re doing, you know, from a distance, and also just like, literally just fundraising for them and having our own reparations pool every month. So that kind of shifted that way.

I think a lot of it though, like Pansy Collective as individuals, was just like showing up in the summer, showing up in the street, showing up for aftercare type stuff, showing up where we could, as individuals, for our friends in our community. And so yeah, I think, you know, as things start kind of shifting and maybe outdoor meetups and stuff is possible, it’ll kind of start to go back to what Pansy is used to doing. But really, it’s just been, I mean, as a collective, just kind of being there for each other, and for the folks in town, showing up just as people has been the work, just giving love in a really isolated time.

Scott: Thanks everyone for going into that. I want to ask maybe a final question that would have two parts and then leave room for anyone here who wants to directly ask you individually or collectively questions, but so I’m going to put a couple of things together and hopefully this will work. So on the one hand we see queerness kind of getting more visibility and inclusion and representation, and I’m wondering – because all the work that y’all are doing is still on the terrain that is disruptive for, you know, systems of power, state control – so I’m sort of just interested in what you think queerness still holds that’s disruptive or liberatory, and then kind of putting that into like, what sort of coalitional projects you envision your groups doing in the future?

Adrian: Right now the one sentence that’s coming to my head is like “pink capitalism sucks” right? And I don’t have a whole lot more beyond that right now, in this moment. No, I think that, you know, the sort of acceptability politics that’s happening in like the big LGB sometimes T circles is rather sex negative. So I think there’s growth we could do there together in coalition building. You know, I think that this is probably because of the particular lens that I approach this work, but I see a lot of ageism and adultism generationally, right? I see a lot of skepticism from my elders on the vision that my young folks have, and sometimes I look to my elders to say, like, “Look, I don’t quite see how all the dots connect, but can you help me connect the dots for these young people?” And I need that support from our trancestors. And so I think that’s part of the coalition building that can happen. You know, I think that also we see a lot of white LGBTQ representation, right? So I think there’s a lot of work that we can do around, you know, centering BIPOC experience and what they need, right? So I would really love to see more inter-generational coalition’s between the different LGBT and racial justice serving organizations, I think that could be really, really fruitful. And I’m just kind of curious what other folks are thinking to?

Monse: Yeah, I think you hit it spot on for me Adrian. And yeah, I think that there are a lot of visible spaces and like, spaces made for queer and trans folks here in Asheville at least, but they’re mostly white spaces. And I think that just making spaces for Black and Brown folks to lead the work, for Black and Brown folks to just even come together and organize is necessary. And I would love to collaborate with folks, and just like creating those spaces, like finding the folks that are looking for the spaces and being able to support and find joy to bring our beautiful queer selves and organize together. So I think that that’s where we have a lot of room to grow, where I could see SONG collaborating with folks.

And I think even just like, also language, I’m very passionate about language justice, and that we need to be organizing not only in English because queer and trans folks aren’t only white, don’t only speak English. And I think that these identities can be very intersectional and like, folks are trying to do all the things. And yeah, so I think creating more spaces that are language accessible, that are culturally accessible, and that folks want to come to, because I think that there are so many white, queer, trans spaces in Asheville that a lot of times my folks don’t want to be in, that I don’t want to be in. And I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of space for collaboration, where we can make these spaces together.

Beck: I’ll go ahead. Yeah, thank you Monse, Adrian. I think all of y’alls responses…what I’m thinking of, how Asheville in particular, and a lot of liberal Southern cities, loves to show it’s pride in like, “we just hired a lesbian cop! Look at this girl boss who just joined the local government!”. When we look at our roots, when we look at queer oppression as a timeline, we have all of the same evils, all of the same oppressive entities are still the same, and no matter how pink or queer, whatever we make them appear, they’re still creating the same evils and the same oppressions.

There was a TikTok of a local lesbian police officer that got really big, and I was just like, “I know her. I’ve seen you arrest some queer folks before. And your TikTok famous, cute.” So yeah, just when we really look at all of these intersections, we can’t be pro gay cops, while gay cops are arresting Black queer people, Brown queer people, are incarcerating and deporting Brown queer people, Black people, Indigenous queer people, all of these evils are still there. If we put queer in front of it, it does not change that. And that’s the same for pink capitalism, like you talked about Adrian. Like, sure, I can go to Target in July and expect to find some rainbow t-shirts, right? But they’re still made in fucking sweatshops. Just because we put a coat of pink on it doesn’t change the system of oppression and the same status quo that we’re really trying to fight against.

And when we think of like, STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolution, and like that awesome organizing that was happening, it was focusing on people who were incarcerated, was focusing on trans Black and Brown people, it was led by trans Black and Brown people, like that is what, to me, that is where revolution is heading and has always been from. It’s not going to be from the lesbian white cop on TikTok who Asheville loves and had a meet and greet with a rainbow flag behind her, you know? Like, no, that’s not going to be it.

And thinking of, yeah, like Monse, you talked about earlier, there’s a gentrification that’s rapidly pushing Black and Brown folks out of Asheville. Like, that’s another thread that I don’t see a lot of queer organizing, like, really looking at, is that class piece, that racism and class piece, right? Yeah, like there’s a Save Charlotte Street going on in town – which is like important, right? This is a whole community – but it’s white folks that are affluent. And there’s a lot of build up and organizing around that, and like, what about all the Brown folks that were pushed out? What about all the Black folks that were pushed out during the 90’s?

So starting to bring all of that in together and look at that same root that is there, instead of just trying to, like, paint it pink and call it cute. Yeah, that’s the direction I would love for us to be heading in.

Leroy: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, “paint it pink and call it cute”, there is slogan to be dissected. Yeah, I feel like that was kind of where my brain was going as far as “where’s the liberatory potential of queerness still?” Is that actually still a thing, or is social capital and social hierarchy kind of just subverting this work into something really superficial? And where I see popularity as the potential thing that’s like drawing people into this, and social cred, more than what this work is actually about? I think that’s something that has been a really disturbing trend to try and assess.

Where it’s like, we have a very trendy logo, some might say, that was designed for us in the last few years, and to see our social media suddenly popping off has been really exciting. And it’s like, at the same time that we want people to come towards us and enter into this work, in the time that I have been involved with TPP, this has been primarily white led organization, and it has primarily been white folks involved. We have not had a lot of people of color come to us and say that they want to be involved in our work. And that isn’t to say, none, but I think that there are uncomfortable questions that I’m okay with being uncomfortable about that, for me, when I think about these things, I’m like, I just continue to sit with more questions than I have answers for. What does it mean for us to just continue to listen to other folks in the community, to continue to show up for other POC and Black led organizations in Asheville, so that we’re not just perpetuating part of the problem?

I’ve sat with this question of “if at some point this work needed to completely dissolve in order for something new to take form that was not the folks who have been leading this project for the time that I’ve been here to occur”…I think that’s part of what change is. It’s like death and rebirth and not being so attached to what we have carved out, what we have created, that we can’t still be humble and know that we, again, don’t have all the answers. So I’m excited for where we continue to get to connect, as you know, these four groups that are in this panel.

I’ll say as far as networking goes, TPP actually just got an email from Georgia chapter of SONG like last night about them wanting to start some books to prisoners work for LGBTQ folks in Georgia. And so we basically just send them like everything that we know about how to do this work, cause that was what they were asking us. And we are really like, “Yes, please. There need to be more groups that are specifically serving LGBTQIA folks that are incarcerated”. Because, again, whether it’s in the South or anywhere in the country that remains one of the most marginalized groups in prison, and we know that so many of those folks are Black and Brown and Indigenous.

And yeah, I think that more and more youth are starting to come to us. We have our first ever high school intern right now and she’s getting ready to plug us to the Racial Justice Coalition at her high school. So I feel like a lot of what’s being names as far as intersectionality in this conversation is really like coming to the surface. And it’s an exciting time for, you know what’s possible right now.

But there is a lot of cooptation at the same time. And so yeah, I really hesitate to say with great confidence like…yeah, there is some, I don’t know…the language might have to change. And I think that that’s actually the place where I want to insert this quote that I pulled from – for the old heads who still know who Critical Resistance is – this anthology Abolition Now from 2008, which at the time was the 10 year anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organizing group. I mean, at this point, it’s been more than 10 years since this book came out, but this is a quote from Alexander Lee, the founder and director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, or TGI Justice Project, of California. Alexander Lee says:

“As we go forward, we should expect to be forced to discard language that limits this movements to prison and the prison industrial complex, in favor of descriptors that foster prickly coalitions with others who don’t see themselves as anti-prison, but who do believe in the sacred nature of human dignity, however imperfectly expressed in practice. The prison abolition movement must expand its arms to envelop the same people who fight for housing but demonized prisoners, who protest war but love to watch CSI, people who marched for civil rights but yell trans slur at trans women, and queers who demand the death penalty when yet another one of us is murdered. We should move into these other sectors and act as the lodestar, pulling everyone towards the ultimate goal of building a world where liberation is the status quo. When we achieve these goals, the abolition of prisons will just be the icing on the cake.”

Scott: Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. And yeah, I guess maybe if we can just transition. I mean, I’m really grateful for all of you kind of speaking out of your experience and knowledge of doing this movement work. That’s so important. All right well thank you everyone.

ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation

ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation

A ballooon with 'Betray Whiteness" written on it, the 'a' in a circle, and a Black Widow spider hanging from below. Created by JustSeeds
Download This Episode

The following is a conversation with ShineWhite. ShineWhite is the former spokesperson for the National White Panther Organization, a part of the United Panther Movement. There was quite recently a split in the UPM and ShineWhite is now affiliated with the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party.

In this conversation, ShineWhite talks about the White Panther Organization that he was representing at the time of this chat, how he became politicized in North Carolina Prisons, the terrible conditions amidst the covid pandemic and beyond, anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing in the NCDPS system, the use of the Security Threat Group status in NC prisons and reprisals he’s faced for his call out in 2018 for NC prisoners to participate in a Prison Strike which dovetailed well with the Nationwide Prison Strike of that year as well as other organizing.

You can write ShineWhite at the time of this publication at the following address, using ShineWhite only on the inside of the letter:
Joseph Stewart #0802041
Alexander CI
633 Old Landfill Rd,
Taylorsville, NC 28681

And you can check out more of his writings at ShineWhite.Home.Blog and you can contact his comrades at pantherlove@protonmail.com

You can hear the Sean Swain segment, read with the help of Nichole of Pynk Spots podcast (member of the Channel Zero Network) starting at [00:45:43]. More info on the subject can be found at KilledByPolice.Net

Social Media & Transcription

Just a brief announcement. TFSR is continuing it’s Patreon push to pay for transcription work of our episodes to allow our guests voices to get further. If you want to help in the process and have some extra moneys, for every recurring donation of over $10 we get we are closer to paying for another week a month of transcription. You can learn more at our Patreon. For people that donate at that level and above, we’ll be sending a zine a month, plus other thank-yous.

We are also going to experiment with a couple of new social media platforms. While we don’t suggest people join the Telegram Platform for organizing on, if you’re already on there you can find our telegram channel to find our episodes, found at T.Me/TFSRadio. Soon, we will be starting to post to Kolektiva video platform, similar to our youtube account.

. … . ..

Featured track:

The Rosenbergs by the RJ Phillips Band [00:58:39]

William’s commentary starts at [00:52:02]

. … . ..

TFSR: For the listening audience, would you please introduce yourself with your name, location and how you came to be there?

ShineWhite: Foremost, All Power To The People! My name is Joseph Stewart, but I am known by my komrades and others as Komrade ShineWhite. I am the national spokesperson for the White Panther Organization.

I am currently being held at Alexander Correctional, one of North Carolina’s worst prisons due to the racist and prejudiced beliefs that are espoused by the Administration all the way down to the slave patrol guards who patrol the concrete fields of this razor-wire plantation. Alexander Correctional is located in a rural area of North Carolina, the radio of whites to people of color who are employed here is 8 to 1. The environment is very hostile.

I was emergency transferred here a couple of months ago during this pandemic despite the courts ordering prison officials to halt all transfers to prevent the spread of the corona virus. I was transferred from Central Prison due to my political organizing there. Within the past four years I have been transferred from facility to facility, which is a tactic used by prison officials to stifle my advocacy efforts, to impede me from organizing prisoners, which is vital if we intend to redress and ameliorate the living conditions within these prisons

TFSR: How did you come to be politicized and what is the nature of your current endeavor?

ShineWhite: I am a firm believer that poverty and repression compels one to become politicized. But there was an incident that occurred while I was in the county jail awaiting trial for the charges I am currently incarcerated for that was the catalyst of my politicization.

It was in 2012. I had assaulted a guard that was employed at the county jail that had been antagonizing me for several months. It wasn’t an average assault, I had taken it to the extreme. For this I wasn’t placed in a Regulatory Solitary Confinement cell, I was placed behind the wall which is a cell that’s secluded from everything and everyone.

Placed in the cell with nothing but the jail uniform I had on there was nothing to do but reflect on life and what the future would look like if I continued living the way I was, engaged in lumpen activities failing to realize that imposing the oppression I was subjected to on others made me a proxy of those I claimed I hated…

As the days passed, boredom began to set in. I decided to get down and do some push ups. As I was on the ground I happened to look under the bed and noticed a book in the far corner. Crawling under the bed, retrieving the book I noticed the words “Blood In My Eye.” Assuming that it was an urban fiction book that was based on the Street Formation I was representing I quickly got back on the bed and attempted to read the book.

I say attempted because at the time I was unable to read or write past the 6th grade level. I spent most of my adolescent years in and out of state-institutions. An education wasn’t the primary focus of those who ran these reform schools, group homes, etc…

Unable to read or comprehend the book, I became frustrated and threw it to the side. By this time I had been told by the guards who would bring me my three meals a day that I wasn’t leaving that cell unless I made bond or was sent to prison.

My days were spent trying to read George’s book. Weeks had passed and I was still unable to read the majority of the book. I began to write all the words I could not pronounce or understand on the walls of the cell. This went on for two months before anyone noticed. One morning a Sergeant of the jail who I have known my entire life brought me my breakfast tray, noticed the walls covered in writing, questioned what I had going on. I explained that the words on the wall were out of a book I was trying to read, I wrote the words on the walls to memorize them so once I had access to a dictionary I would look them up. He asked me what I was reading, I showed him the book that had been thrown across my cell many times, bent up and been cursed by me out of frustration stemming from my inability to read it.

Weeks had passed before this same Sergeant came back to visit with me. Bringing me my breakfast he had two books in his hand and a note pad. He said if I agree to stop writing on the walls and clean off what I had written, he would give me the books and the notepad. Quickly agreeing, I was handed over a Websters dictionary, “Soledad Brother” and a notepad.

Neglecting to eat my tray there was a word that I was dying to look up the meaning of.

“Revolutionary: one engaged in a Revolution”

Quickly moving on to search for the word Revolution.

“Revolution: a sudden, radical or complete change”

I asked myself “Am I a Revolutionary? What am I changing?” Not fully comprehending what revolution was at the time, I moved on to other words, but the question “Am I a Revolutionary?” continued to enter my mind. I wanted to make a change, I wanted to be a Revolutionary because George had been a Revolutionary and he spoke highly of other Revolutionaries. A Revolutionary is smart, I wanted to be smart. Revolutionaries fought, I wanted to fight. I had to become a Revolutionary. I didn’t fully understand what a Revolutionary was, but yet I knew to become one I had to become smart. The dictionary became my best friend, reading George’s books were painstaking in the beginning. I had to stop every other word to look up its meaning.

Komrade George changed me, he Revolutionized me in a small cell secluded from everyone for 9 months. I had become politicized! Sentenced close to twenty years, I’ve been feeding my consciousness ever since. I don’t tell a lot of people but I have a learning disability that becomes discouraging at times. It’s difficult for me to grasp what I’m reading the frist time, I have to read it over and over before I am fully able to comprehend it. I am self-educated, the past four years of my life was spent in solitary confinement. I have recently been released to general population thanks to the support of my outside network coordinating a national campaign to have me released.

Solitary confinement compels me to either grow or die mentally. I used my time to further my education in areas that would benefit the movement. Being that I am incarcerated and will remain incarcerated for at least the next seven years, my primary focus is to build up the White Panther Organization within prisons nationwide. For a Revolutionary or liberator of the people who is incarcerated, our primary focus should be to transform these razor-wire plantations into schools of liberation. Thus, upon their release, prisoners can return to their communities armed with an education that would enable them to transform their communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. This is the necessary first stage of the Revolutionary war.

TFSR: Would you tell us in some detail about the White Panther Organization, it’s philosophy and it’s activities as you can?

ShineWhite: The WPO serves as an arm to the peoples vanguard, the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP) whose primary purpose is to lead the fight against national oppression and link this to the international proletarian revolution. Our ideological and political line is Pantherism. The politics of Pantherism is Revolutionary nationalism and internationalism illuminated by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Our strategy for Revolution is a national and international United Front Against Imperialism.

Our job as White Panthers is to put in work among the white masses and poor white communities, winning them over to support the Panther 10-point program. The 10-point programs of both the NABPP and the WPO. Both can be read at ShineWhite.Home.Blog or email pantherlove@protonmail.com and request a copy of each.

As White Panthers, we are more than a white support group of the NABPP. History has shown that white support groups advance the Revolution. We as White Panthers recognize that we must be all-the-way Revolutionaries that work diligently to organize and build anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and other progressive consensus among poor whites who are also subjected to class oppression.

As I already mentioned, it is our primary focus to transform these razor-wire plantations into “schools of liberation” and the oppressed communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. To do so, it’s imperative that we re-educate our white brothers and sisters as well as our non-binary komrades who have been deluded by racist, White Supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interests.

With the help of my Anarchist Komrades and my partner, Nadia, we have started a WPO newsletter. A dope newsletter, I must say, that serves as an educational tool used to teach and popularize the history of our ancestors who recognized the need for Resistance against slavery and recognized the need of Class Struggle such as John Brown, Bill Blizzard, Marilyn Buck, Mother Jones and many more.

Prisons are seedbeds. This is where the Revolutionary is grown. Our newsletter prunes and nurtures the reader, enabling them to blossom into all-the-way Revolutionary thinkers.

We have a Toy Drive for the children of prisoners. We understand the importance of family and the need of a father in the lives of these children. At this time we are limited to what we’re able to do to ensure relationships between prisoners and their children remain strong and continue to grow. We did this toy drive to show prisoners as well as their families that the Panthers have their back. The first 30 prisoners who wrote to us with their child’s name, age and address got toys sent to them with a message from their father . You know we are just trying to serve the people. We have plans once this covid-19 mess clears up to provide transportation for the families of prisoners who are unable to visit their incarcerated loved ones due to lack of transportation. Strong family ties create strong community ties, both are vital to advancement of our struggle.

We have a couple different endeavors in the works such as an STG / SRG campaign to address the draconian policies that those of us who have been validated as an STG / SRG are subjected to. This is something I will expand on later in this interview.

But I hope I am able to provide the resources needed to have Ruchell Magee released from prison. I intend to exhaust every avenue to have this done. Several of the elders have been released, most recently Jalil Muntaqim.

Ruchell is one of the longest held political prisoners, he has been incarcerated since the 1960’s, people, it’s time that all put forth effort to have Ruchell Magee released. We, despite what political ideology you espouse, must work diligently to expose the use of the criminal [in]justice system as an instrument of political repression and demand amnesty for our imprisoned elders. Those of you who desire Revolution, it’s essential that you defend the imprisoned Revolutionaries. This is an essential part of building for Revolution.

TFSR: You have received push-back from the NCDPS for your political organizing, including your call in 2018 for NC participation in the Nationwide Prison Strike. Can you talk about the repression you’ve faced?

ShineWhite: As our Minister of Defense Kevin Rashid pointed out, “Nothing is more dangerous to a system that depends on misinformation than a voice that obeys it’s own dictates and has the courage to speak out.” Since gaining the support of my komrades on the outside who amplified my voice, I’ve been working diligently to report and pursue public exposure and redress of the brutality, torture and abuses taking place within these razor-wire plantations. As I mentioned earlier, the past four years of my incarceration were spent in solitary confinement. After calling for for NC prisoners to participate in the 2018 national prison strike I was sent to NC’s only supermax unit at Polk Correctional. On this unit, the cells are secluded from everything and everyone. You don’t leave your cell for nothing, a cell that’s smaller than the average parking space at your local Walmart.

While being held there I witnessed prison guards wantonly murder prisoner Freddie “Barn” Pickett. I exposed those involved as well as their claim that he had committed suicide. This got national attention and some of those involved were fired. This is when the reprisals really intensified. On January 14, 2019 (my birthday), shards of glass were found in my food. A call to action was put out demanding that I be transferred. During my transfer, all of my personal belongings were lost, this has taken place several times.

After organizing a hunger strike and my outside support network coordinating a phone zap to address the living conditions at Scotland Correctional, prison guards entered my cell and physically attacked me, fracturing my ribs as well as my right hand.

I’ve been subjected to many forms of reprisals at the hands of my overseers and continue to this day to be subjected to harsh mail censorship. Correctional officers spread propaganda that I am a snitch. I’ve seen it all and at times I almost allowed it to deter me. But the words of Komrade George would always enter my mind when I was weak, “If we accept Revolution, we must accept all that it implies: repression, counter-terrorism, days filled with work, nervous strain, prison, funerals.” You can always tell how much of a threat you are by the intensity of the repression or the actions taken to suppress your advocacy efforts. Wait until we kick off this SRG campaign.

TFSR: There are all sorts of organizations inside prison walls and the WPO and affiliated New Afrikan Black Panther Party organizers have received persecution by authorities with the claim that these groups are SRG’s, or Security Risk Groups. What is an SRG, how do you answer the charge of the accusation of being essentially a gang inside NC prisons, and how does it’s membership relate to other groups determined as SRGs?

ShineWhite: Prison officials claim that a Security Risk Group (SRG) is a group os prisoners that set themselves apart from others, pose a threat to the security or safety of staff or other prisoners, or are disruptive to programs or the orderly management of the facility.

Our Minister of Defense, Komrade Kevin Rashid, recently wrote a piece on this, titled “How the pigs abuse gang levels,” explaining how a majority of the SRG investigations and their staff are white and have been trained into a hostile doctrinaire view of the so-called ‘gang culture.’

I can’t speak about other states and how a prisoner becomes validated as a member of an SRG, but here in NC the slightest thing can get you validated such as having tattoos of stars or associating with prisoners who are already validated.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) does not have an SRG policy in place to outline reasonable due process rights to dispute being validated or to present evidence that would prove that the claims being made against you are false. I know several prisoners who have been validated that are not affiliated with any group. They are subjected to repressive sanctions and discriminatory treatment which have no reasonable purpose or justification. Some of these sanctions are, but aren’t limited to:

  • longer solitary confinement terms than non-validated prisoners for rule violations that are not ‘gang’ related;
  • restricted to two 15 minute phone calls a month, please tell me how a father can maintain a healthy relationship with his child with only two phone calls a month…;
  • harsher and often unreasonable censorship of mail, both incoming and outgoing. SRG staff use the claim that my mail is being denied due to it being SRG related. I deal with this at least 4 times a week. They use this to impede and disrupt my correspondences. Everything coming in from my partner Nadia is denied. She knows how harsh the censoring of my mail is, she has been dealing with it for over a year and a half now. She isn’t going to write anything out the way. But, yet Hitler’s helpers find an excuse to deny her mail often. My mail is being held for weeks at a time before it is sent out, if it even IS sent out. The incoming mail is held for weeks before it is given to me. SRG feels as if they can do as they please and until their arrogance and pompousness is checked they will continue to do as they please. This is why it is imperative that we coordinate a campaign that we not only expose these SRG sanctions but also compel public officials to redress the violation of our Constitutional rights. This isn’t just happening here in NC, this is taking place across the nation, people. And as advocates inside and outside of prison, a campaign addressing the draconian policies that prisoners nationwide are subjected to, we must put our resources together and organize against this;
  • Prisoners who are validated are only permitted visits with immediate family members when there is no evidence to prove that visiting with someone beyond an immediate family member would be a threat to the safety of the facility;
  • prisoners who are validated are being denied access to any type of educational or rehabilitative programming;
  • on February 5th of 2019, Prison officials incorporated a policy that prohibited prisoners from receiving financial support from anyone that wasn’t on the prisoners approved visitation list. As I have mentioned, Prisoners who have been validated can only receive visits from immediate famliiy members. The majority of the prisoners who ARE in gangs come from broken families or have been raised by aunts and uncles. This restriction targets poor, Black and Brown prisoners. If one has been adopted, or if their mother, father, sister or brother has been convicted of a felony, they are unable to apply for visitation. This restriction has created an environment within these prisons that makes it hard on the average prisoner due to all of the strong-arming and extortion taking place from prisoners unable to receive financial support due to their SRG validation. But by creating such an environment, it solidifies the request for more funding to solve the so-called ‘gang problems’, it solidifies the 23 hour a day lock-downs.

As far as the WPO or NAABP being recognized as an SRG in NC, that danger doesn’t currently exist due to my relentless advocacy efforts to have both removed from the list as an SRG. This was done with the help of Senator Jayce Waddell who sits on the Senate Select committee for Prison Safety, as well as with the information provide by Komrade Malik Washington.

You see, the US Supreme Court has long held that “minority”/ dissident groups such as the WPO and NABPP have the same First Amendment right to engage in political expression and association as do the two major political parties.

The NABPP and the WPO are above ground Communist, Non-violent, Anti-Racist, predominantly New Afrikan and white organizations/ political parties. In no way do we promote anything illegal, or gang related. The courts outlawed censorship and discrimination against Communist groups by goernment officials long ago. By pointing this out to prison administrators and showing ase laws such as Brandenburg v. Ohio, I was able to have both the NABPP and WPO removed from the list of recognized security Risk Groups. But this still hasn’t decreased the political intolerance shown by prison officials.

I am validated as a level 3 Blood, the only white person in NC validated as such. This stems from when I first entered the prison system back in the early 2000’s. With this label on me, SRG staff use it to suppress my advocacy efforts claiming that I am organizing gang members.

To be completely honest, it’s vital that we gain the support of the street formations. Their support is essential to redressing not only these SRG restrictions but society as well. Both the government as well as these prison officials are aware of this, this is hwy they’re diligently working to create situations and environments to keep the members of these street formations at each others’ necks.

For example, the J-Pay Restriction policy I mentioned earlier that was incorporated on February 5th, 2019. By prohibiting prisoners who have been validated as an SRG from receiving financial support from anyone beyond immediate family, the policy has drastically increased the violence between the street formations within NC prisons. Poverty breeds violence. Not only has this policy increased the gang on gang violence, but also has fostered a very dangerous environment for those who are not affiliated with any of the street formations. Prisoners I’ve known for years are now joining these street formations just so they can enjoy the Canteen they’re able to purchase. The miscreants who incorporated this policy claimed it was done to prevent the strong-arming and other criminal activities that take place within NC prisons. This policy has done the opposite.

These are not tactics only being used in NC prisons, it’s taken place nationwide. We as Panthers are working to build a Clenched Fist Alliance, that would united all the street formations toward a common Revolutionary alliance that would address the oppressive living conditions within all prisons. I‘m aware this is a colossal task, but it can be done and should be done.

The members of these street formations relate to us and the Panthers relate to them, not relating to their lumpen tendencies but along the lines they are brothers and sisters who are from our communities, who are subjected to as many forms of oppression as the next person. Before I came to be a Panther myself, I was of the lumpen strata. Just as each and every member of both the NABPP and the WPO were.

The lumpen are not a class in the fullest sense but part of the lower strata of the proletariat. Lumpen means broken. The lumpen proletariat are those who exist by illegal means or hustle. The street formations are made up of the lumpen proletariat. They’ve been conditioned to believe that they only way to survive is by illegal hustles and in some of their situations this is true.

Some of them cannot be reached, but there are many who can. By showing them patience and that we are dedicated to redressing issues that affect them we’re able to Pantherize them, gaining their trust as well as their support. I’m in the trenches with these guys daily and many are my close komrades, their struggle is my struggle.

There’s other self-acclaimed prison activists within NC prisons who consistently write about gang violence and how they are being affected by it and how the street formations are retaliating against them because of their advocacy efforts. I’m sure some of the listeners have read about this recently. I want to clarify something quickly before we move on to the next question. I’ve been on the frontlines of this prison movement here in NC for the past six years and have organized many demonstrations which had the support of the street formations, not once have any members of the street formations attempted to retaliate against me. So for the prisoner who has been writing to those of y’all on the outside who publish and support our advocacy efforts here in NC, telling the people that he was attacked by gang members because he had exposed the prison officials where he was being held at, it is falsehood. I myself personally investigated his claims and found them to be untruthful. By lying, it only help s those we’re supposed to be fighting against. I know this doesn’t relate to the question you asked, komrade, but I wanted to put that out there because this movement is very important to me. I have sacrificed so much and I’m willing to sacrifice it all to assure the movement continues to thrive here in NC.

But, as far as the relationship between myself and those of the street formations, I stand in solidarity with them and will continue to work diligently toward building a Clenched Fist Alliance amongst them.

TFSR: Race in the US is a major schism among the working classes that is used to pit us against each other, as is pretty standard in settler-states founded by Great Britain. And prison hierarchies and organization reproduce and often improve upon those divisions. Can you talk about the importance of white folks, and white prisoners in particular organizing in anti-racist formations like the WPO? And do you feel there is a danger to organizing along the lines of racialization rather than class lines?

ShineWhite: As Komrade Kwame Nkrumah pointed out to us, “racist social structure is inseparable from capitalist economic development. For race is inextricably linked with class exploitation, in a racist-capitalist power structure, capitalist exploitation and race oppression are complementary. The removal of one ensures the removal of the other.” We White Panthers, and any other whites who are anti-racist, anti-capitalist, etc… have a special opportunity and responsibility to counter the influence of racist ideology and organizing within the working class and poor white communities by re-educating. Those who have been deluded by racist, white supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interest, enabling them to uphold proletarian internationalism and the unity of a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class against national and capitalistic exploitation and oppression.

The WPO recognizes this class struggle but before we’re able to organize as a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class, it’s our duty to make whites see themselves “as they really are, instead of who they think they are” to quote Karl Marx.

The WPO refutes the concept of White Power as well as the ideology of white supremacy. As Komrade Spidey, the original spokesperson for the WPO recognized, “White Power not only fails to empower poor white people, it is a psychological trap that masses of people fall into that renders us politically impotent. We become unwitting tools of our own oppression. It blocks our only avenue of advancement which is through class consciousness and unity. It makes us the unwitting tools of oppression of not only non-white people but ourselves as well.”

When trying to educate white prisoners on the truth about race and why racism keeps us oppressed, the majority of them reply “Why don’t you never write or talk about Blacks being racist?” And, yes, I agree that there is such a thing as reverse racism. But as a white person, it’s my duty to re-educate the whites and it’s the duty of any New Afrikan komrades to educate the New Afrikans.

How much success would I have if I attempted to talk to New Afrikans about why they shouldn’t e racist, that’s not my place, my place is to re-educate the whites. The United Panther Movement recognizes that there’s only one race, the human race. But if we’re going to successfully combat racist oppression, we must recognize that discrimination comes down different on different groups of people and that it is important to organize within each group of people in accordance with the way they are perceived in society. That’s why there’s a Black Panther, a White Panther and a Brown Panther to carry out the task.

TFSR: There has been an outbreak of covid recently at Alexander CI, where you are imprisoned. I hope you have been able to avoid it. How has the NCDPS and your facility in particular handled the pandemic, how have prisoners reacted to the pandemic and what, if anything, have you seen from outside supporters and the wider public ala covid-19 and prisons?

ShineWhite: Thank you for asking, Komrade, in my opinion supporters on the outside here in NC fail to realize how grave the current living conditions are right now for prisoners during these unprecedented times.

Those of us who are currently imprisoned are utterly at the mercy of the miscreants who patrol these concrete fields. With there already being issues with overcrowding in NC prisons and prisoners being corralled in small housing areas, we’re unable to maintain social distancing, to control our exposure to vectors for disease transmission, to choose the quality of type of mask we wear, unable to seek independent medical treatment, overall unable to protect ourselves from the corona virus.

This is in spite of several health experts having suggested that prisoners with upcoming release dates and at high risk of medical harm be released from the custody of DPS. They explained to prison officials that by doing so it would address the crowded living conditions that have led to numerous constitutional violations and has been a cause of several covid outbreaks within NC prisons. Prison officials claim that if they were to release these prisoners, it wouldn’t really make a difference. I’m inclined to disagree with this, to date several prisoners who reside in the same block as I do have release dates within the next two months, but yet are being held and impeded from earning any extra gain days that would enable them to be released as early as tomorrow.

This isn’t unknown to prison officials, to keep it plain and simple they just don’t give a damn. The death of Ms Faye Brown proves it. She was a female prisoner who was held at the women’s prison in Raleigh, NC. At the age of 65 she died of covid earlier this year. What is sad about this particular case is that prison officials had trusted Ms Brown enough to permit her to ride the city bus five days a week to Sherrill’s School of Cosmetology where she was employed as a teacher, unsupervised. It was evident that she wasn’t a threat to society but being that she had been convicted in 1975 for participating in a bank robbery in which her co-defendant killed a state trooper, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee denied her an early release which led to her death.

I contracted the virus myself. It could have been avoided but prison officials failed to take the proper steps that would have prevented this and would have saved the life of Jenny Combs. There was a prisoner housed in the same block as me who was showing all of the symptoms of covid, often complaining to the guards. He was able to get one of them to escort him to the nurse’s station, he registered a temperature of 102 degrees. Instead of having him placed in a block that had been set up for quarantine, he was allowed to return to the block to move around, spreading the virus for three days before his test results had come back positive.

By this time, several prisoners out of the 48 who lived in B-Block were showing symptoms of covid. On Novemeber 2nd, prison administrators had the block locked down and all 48 prisoners were tested for covid. It was 21 prisoners who had tested positive. Mr Jerry Combs as well as myself were not of those 21 prisoners, but being that prison officials compelled us to remain in the block with those who had tested positive, those who hadn’t tested positive eventually did. Mr Jerry Combs contracted it, complained to medical staff and prison officials that he needed medical attention beyond some non-asprins, prison officials allowed his please to fall on deaf ears. Two days later he was found dead in his cell.

Prison officials quickly claimed that he had committed suicide by overdosing on his medications. I know thi sto be untrue, they are only trying to cover their tail as they always do. Despite three prisoners dying of covid here at Alexander, the precautionary steps that should be taken to prevent this are not being taken. They continue to move prisoners around, the guards fail to wear their masks and we are not being given the needed disinfectants to disinfect any living spaces.

This will continue until supporters intensify the struggle on the outside. I will be honest, this is my opinion. NC movements on the outside need to step it up on all levels. I know what I’m about to say will ruffle some feathers but I’m speaking the truth. The inhumane living conditions prisoners in NC are forced to endure could be ameliorated if outside supporters would take the advice of certain prisoners who have proven to be able to organize those within the walls. This struggle is one that requires much work and dedication, this isn’t a weekend thing.

We all have to be on the same page, if we are going to compel prison officials to make changes that would enable prisoners to successfully rehabilitate themselves. NC prisons are among the five states across the nation that don’t have tablets. We are forced to remain locked in our cells, no access to educational programming or rehabilitation programming. The primary objective is to rehabilitate the prisoner, correct? Well, that isn’t the case here.

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set forth by the United Nations, says “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” One of the “rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration “ is the right to education, as stated in Article 2t6. Yet prisoners here in NC are denied higher education because our states of incarceration. This is blatant discrimination. Y’all on the outside are being told that we are being offered educational opportunities. This is a lie.

What does this have to do with covid? Well, I just wanted to point out that it shouldn’t take a pandemic for those on the outside to organize to redress these living conditions. It should be taken serious at all times. As I already mentioned, I am working on an SRG campaign that would address the draconian policies prisoners are subjected to. If you would like to know more about it and how you can help, write to me:

Joseph Stewart #0802041

Alexander CI

633 Old Landfill Rd

Taylorsville, NC 28681

Or email my support network at pantherlove@protonmail.com and someone will contact you. 2021 is upon us. Let’s make this the year of intensifying the struggle on all levels. Bridges have to be built, meaningful working relationships have to be built. It takes both the prisoners and those on the outside.

Prisoners have to see the fruit first before they are willing to put the work in that’s needed to ameliorate the situation. It’s sad but it’s true. You must keep in mind that many of us have been abandoned by family members and other loved ones. So, they find it hard to believe that there are people on the outside that care about their well being when their own family doesn’t. By showing prisoners that you are willin gto struggle with them, you gain their trust and support, which is necessary if we aim to mobilize and organize.

TFSR: How do you see the struggle against racialized capitalism in the so-called US developing moving forward into a Biden presidency and what suggestions do you have to organizers on either side of the razor wire?

ShineWhite: As Mark Twain pointed out to us ,”If voting could change anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.” It doesn’t matter who is the president, because they all share the same objective: expanding the dominance of capitalism.

As long as the masses maintain constituent allegiance to the parties such as the Democratic and Republican parties, racial capitalism will continue to thrive and expand. A vote for any representative of either party is a vote of confidence in the reform-ability of capitalism and a vote against the need for socialist revolution. If we’re going to advance the struggle against racial capitalism, we must stand in implacable opposition to the dual parties of capitalism.

If the overall objective is to create a mass-oriented socialist system of mutual cooperation, fair and equal distribution that would benefit us all, certain methods will have to be adopted in order to be compatible with the newer systems which we the people are trying to establish. The primary method should be eradicating racism and taking an empathic stand against the false ideology of white supremacy. Both allowed capitalism to be sustained. Dividing the working class along racial lines is key to maintaining capitalist rule in the US conscious of the social power that the proletariat would attain through unified struggle. The ruling class utilizes divide-and-conquer strategies that have proven effective for over 400 years now.

The most important factor in the advancement of our struggle is action. We must begin to put our thoughts and strategies into action. Komrades, without action there is no mobility. Moving forward we must intensify the struggle at all levels. This includes lines of communication between prisoners and those of you on the outside.

We musn’t continue to operate from old strategies that are not effective, it is a waste of time and energy. Those on the outside must do more to support the prison movement here in NC and across the nation. Changes don’t happen without reason. People must become the reason.

TFSR: Well, we thank you for your time and I really appreciate this interview. Before we wrap up, do you have anything else you would like to share with the listening audience?

ShineWhite: Yes, it’s imperative that I thank my support network. Without their support and love I would be one of the many prisoners here in NC whose screams for help fall on deaf ears.

Dria, my komrade out on the West Coast. I love you deeply, friend. You have stuck by me throughout it all. I have so much to thank you for I don’t know where to start nor where to end. Just know I am grateful and I cherish our friendship.

Professor Victor Wallis: Thank you for all the educational material and for taking the time out of your busy life to educate and mentor me from many miles away and through this razor-wire and concrete. You deserve to be acknowledged even though I know you don’t desire it. Thank you, friend, I am grateful.

Penelope: even though all the work you do is unknown and behind the scenes, it’s imperative that you know that without you and the desire you have to support the struggle any way that you can, our newsletter may not have made it off the ground. When you are absent, you are missed. Thank you for all you do.

Leah: In a short matter of time I have so much to thank you for. You go to the extreme to make sure I know you care about meas well as my well being. Even though our political praxes are somewhat different, you are dedicated to ameliorating the living conditions prisoners are forced to endure. Thank you for all you do for me on a personal level and the love you give. You are loved.

Nadia: I know the listening audience can’t see the smile I have on my face, but thinking of you causes the biggest smiles. I want to thank you for your willingness to compromise. I know you are a serious anarchist and you’re against organizations and uplifting the names of them. I just want everyone listening to know that you helped me revamp the WPO, it was dead within these razor-wire plantations. With you at my side I was able to bring it back to life. You dedicate so much time to both our Newsletter as well as the New NABPP Newspaper. I know you would disagree with this but you are a Panther, may it be an Anarchist Panther, you are still a Panther. I love you endlessly and you are my best friend.

Also big salutes to Komrade Rashid, Keith Malik Washington, Jason Renard Walker and Kwame Shakur. I see your vision, Komrade. I’m with you, let’s make it happen. And I would like to thank Final Straw Radio for giving us a platform and for amplifying our voice. Thank you. All Power To The People.

-Shine White

Organizing in “No Chance Alamance” County

Organizing in “No Chance Alamance” County

a man holding a sign with people of color killed by cops in the US at a BLM protest
Download This Episode

This week on the show I’m speaking with three folks engaged in organizing in the rural Alamance County, North Carolina, and it’s capital of Graham. All three work with the 501c4 political non-profit, DownhomeNC which in Alamance has been working on a range of engagements including running local candidates for office, doing get-out-the-vote work, sparking conversations with rural residents of the county, running a bail fund and working on bail reform, rent relief and operating food distribution. Dreama Caldwell, one of our guests, ran on a platform of bail reform to be the first Black woman elected to the County Commission, though she was not elected, is a mother, and as an Abolitionist has been working to abolish cash bail and change the condition for people of Color and poor folks as relates to the Alamance courts and jail. Sugalema is an organizer, a mom, and the daughter of undocumented parents from Mexico who’s been living in Alamance for the last decade. Gwen is a mother from a white, working class background who has also worked to support Alamance organizers through Downhome on a number of campaigns. You can learn more about the organization at DownhomeNC.org and their various social media pages.

As a side note, the folks who produce The Final Straw do not endorse electoralism as a strategy for lasting change or community power. We are anarchists. There are plenty of places you can go to find anarchist critiques of engaging in electoral politics, sometimes with anarchists or anti-authoritarians advocating limited engagement in elections but usually calling for abstention. Even though DownhomeNC is not an anarchist organization, we do feel like the experiences of Sugalema, Dreama and Gwen are important to share because they talk about the work of changing minds and building relationships in the rural south where an autonomous left or anarchist movement doesn’t exist… like most of the world. They are intelligent and impassioned women doing hard work to grow community resistance and engagement. Abolition also includes the complicated work of decreasing the harm caused by systems of oppression like the police, courts, borders, white supremacy and capitalism while simultaneously building discourse against those institutions that impose harm. We really hope that listeners will get a lot from this conversation.

Announcements

Eric King updates

Anarchist and antifascist prisoner Eric King caught covid at FCI Englewood, alongside over a hundred other prisoners, thanks to the ineptitude of his captors at the BOP who have been moving staff between Englewood and FCI Florence where an outbreak had been ongoing. His trial for defending himself from an attack by a prison officer has been pushed back to April of 2021. In good news, his mail ban appears temprorarily lifted and his website hosts his book list again. He’s been able to receive letters, magazines and books for the first time in years. Check out the update at SupportEricKing.org and send Eric some love.

To hear our interview with Eric from last year, visit our website.

Xinachtli Parole Support

    “Xinachtli,” as. many of you know, means literally in English, “Seed,” or, as Comrade “X” likes to phrase, it from a prisoner’s perspective, “Germinating Seed” and s/n Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is a Chicano/Mexicano-Anarchist Communist and Anti-Imperialist Internationally-recognized Political Prisoner, has suffered long enough from a (50-year) bogus Aggravated Assault conviction rife with racist civil rights abuse and judicial misconduct.
    The contrived & trumped-up Aggravated Robbery charge brought by Sheriff McDaniel without the authority of a warrant, was thrown out later at trial, but through prosecutorial chicanery, allowed the assault charge to stick being a paroled felon.
     The so-called Aggravated-Assault charge, which should’ve amounted to a ‘misdemeanor,’ occurred with his near-term pregnant wife nearby in their own front yard, as he, showing no demonstrative violent aggressive behavior, correctly disarmed the Sheriff as he drew his service revolver in anger as “Xinachtli” challenged his authority to attempt an arrest in a situation that could’ve proved lethal for all three, mother, baby, and most surely “Xinachtli” himself. The local authorities hated him and his family and his labor organizing in Brewster County, Alpine, Texas.
     Many of you already are familiar with this abuse of authority yarn, but, does bear repeating, as he is still held captive for this injustice in ‘STG’ (Security Threat Group) status, studying law and assisting other prisoners with their appeals, while continuously sharing, and germinating his revolutionary thoughts and ideals in cocoon-like solitary confinement, at the repressive TDCJ-CID James V. Allred Unit, ‘Supermax’ Gulag, in Iowa Park, Texas, marooned in the North Texas’ Red River Valley. Texas prisons are now one of the nation’s COVID-19 virus’ ‘hotspots,’ and the courts are refusing to intervene, WHILE PRISONER DEAD BODIES PILE UP IN LOCAL MORGUES. “XINACHTLI” is an elderly person, with his life in danger.
     Presently, “Xinachtli” is preparing for his (1st) upcoming ‘Parole Review Hearing,’ on July 18, 2021. We are in need of help with a groundswell of support from the Prison Abolitionists, Human Rights, Indigenous, and Prison Activist Movement communities. TBPP suggests that FEW, clear & concise letters are preferred, to place in his case-file for review; lazy eyes is a disguise with TBPP Parole Panels. So, let’s blast ’em with a barrage of letters to help us ensure that his ‘Review’ is an impartially-heard (Hearing?) by traditionally ‘parole-stingy’ Texas Board of Pardons & Parole Commissioners; and is a successful one.
     Try to include in the letter, that”Xinachtli,” though, he has tested ‘COVID-19 – negative,’ and in recent months received a ‘flu shot,’ he has hypertension that’s medicated, and is ostensibly cured of Hep-C, he nonetheless will be 69 years old next May 12th, 2021; so the Corona Virus danger rages on!
     Also include, a solid confirmation that there’s a solid support system waiting, available opportunities of employment, residence, and transportation, as well as psychological/coping support and a period of adjustment, are all important – he’s been in a solitary ‘time-capsule, the worldwide ‘spider’ web has exploded on the social scene since his conviction in June of 1997.
     Please address all your Letters of Support for “Xinachtli” with his registered name, ALVARO LUNA HERNANDEZ, and prison number, TDCJ-CID#00255735
You can mail the letters to his lawyer:

Allen D. Place

Attorneys at Law

109 S. 7th Street

Gatesville, TX, 76528

To hear Xinachtli telling his story in his own voice, check out our website.

Pipeline Updates from Yellow Finch Tree Sit

Pipeline Updates from Yellow Finch Tree Sit

"Water Protectors / Mountain Defenders" photo from Yellow Finch Tree Sit
Download This Episode

690 days. That is how long the tree sit on Yellow Finch lane has been standing to block the progress of the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s proposed 301 mile corridor of pressurized, fracked liquefied natural gas.

This week, we speak with Dustie Pinesap and Woodchipper who are at the Yellow Finch Tree Sit in so-called Montgomery County, Virginia, who talk about the MVP, the recently-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, resistance during the pandemic, solidarity with the uprising against capitalism and white supremacist policing and a whole lot more.

Appalachians Against Pipelines:

Announcements

#DefundAVLPD protest Tuesday

If you’re in the Asheville area this week, city council will be conducting a hotly contested vote on the police and other budgets Tuesday, July 28th. According to the instagram account, @DefundAVLPD, there will be a rally that could turn protest starting at 5pm in front of Asheville city hall at 70 Court Plaza in downtown.

Phone Zap for Hunger Striking AL Prisoners

Anarchist prisoner Michael Kimble and fellow prisoner Brandon Oden began a hungry strike from all food other than water to protest the following:

the inept mishandling of the covid-19 crisis at Easterling Correction Facility

  • a lack of outside exercise time
  • a lack of access to law library
  • a lack of access to immune building foods and fruits
  • a lack of clean and fresh water
  • a refusal by administration to release all vulnerable prisoners being held at Easterling
  • a lack of proper testing and quarantining

Kimble and Oden are asking that everyone call and fax the Governor and Commissioner to demand that they seriously address and correct these problems.

GOV KAY IVEY (334) 242-7100 fax (334) 353-0004

Commissioner Jeff Dun (334) 353-3883 Fax 3343533967