Queer Activist Perspectives from Southern Appalachia
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.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
This week on the show, I spoke with Comrade Chux, a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. JLS is an autonomous network of incarcerated activists from across the so-called US. They have been engaged in organizing and calling for the 2016 & 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike activities. Chux and I chat about the call for this year for folks on the outside to engage for Abolition on August 21 and September 9th, we talk about Abolition, Black August and other topics.
You can learn more by following JLS on Twitter and Instagram or checking out their website, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, lawyer is singular in this, dot wordpress dot com. You can also find out there about their fundraising, the JLS Mothers Day fundraising effort through Blackstone Career Institute to sponsor paralegal courses for people in Women’s Prisons, prisoners they’re supporting and more.
Comrade Chux also mentions Amend The 13th. From JLS’s website: “Amend the 13th: Abolish ‘Legal’ Slavery in Amerika Movement” is an all-inclusive, coalition-based national campaign and community-based organizing effort which is determined to remove the “legal” and social basis for the dehumanization of those subject to the judicial machinery of the United States – and finally abolish slavery in Amerika once and for all. “ More can be found at AmendThe13th.org.
1 Million Families for Parole, April 3rd, 2021
Another prisoner initiatives similar to JLS that have been mentioned and supported by the group that are worth checking out include the National Freedom Movement, which is calling for an April 3rd “1 Million Families for Parole” rally across the country to extend the following demands:
We demand that federal parole be immediately reinstated.
We demand the creation of a mandatory parole criteria and curriculum based on the specific educational, rehabilitative and re-entry needs of every parole-eligible person.
Sean speaks about supporting Dimitris Koufantinas, prisoner from the 17 November group in Greece who just ended a hunger strike. You can read a translation of his statement ending his hunger strike at EnoughIsEnough14.org. To hear an insightful interview by a comrade in Greece and another in the diasporic Greek community about the situation with Koufantinas and the aftermath of his hunger strike, check out episode #254 of Dissident Island Radio.
Love Zap for Comrade Z
There’s a weekly call-in to support incarcerated anarchist,
Julio “Comrade Z” Zuniga at Darrington Unit in Texas. Supporters are invited to call the Prison Show on KPFT radio in Houston at 713 526 5738 Mondays after 9:30pm CST to give a shoutout to E-Line and B-Line Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee members standing in solidarity with Comrade Z and all of the incarcerated folks at Darrington. There’s an image in our show notes for social media, suggesting to keep the message short and sweet, under 15 seconds.
There is a currently a petition circulating to press the governor of New Jersey, Phil Murhpy, to grant release for elder Black Liberation political prisoner Sundiata Acoli who is 84 years old and has contracted Covid-19. At his advanced age, Sundiata has developed dementia and has ailing health and is not a threat to anyone. He should be allowed to live out his days outside of prison walls with family and community. More info at the petition linked in our show notes.
Bring Mumia Home
Actions and information is going and available at FreeMumia.Com to release aging and infirm journalist, Black Panther, author and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keep an eye on his support site for ways to plug in and join the growing calls to release this great man! 40 years on a sham trial is too much!
BAD News, March 2021
We’d like to announce the release of the 43rd edition of B(A)D news: angry voices from around the world a commonly produced monthly show of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio network, on this occasion composed by free social radio 1431AM, a radio station in Thessaloniki, Greece. This month covers 5 topics over almost an hour. Check it out!
RoboCop(feat. Tuesday Tuenasty, Squeazy & Lil Stank)
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TFSR: First up, can you please introduce yourself for the audience with whatever name, affiliation, preferred gender pronouns, location, or other information that you think is useful for the audience?
Comrade Chux: For sure. My name is comrade Chux, the pronouns you can use is they/them. I’m a Member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). I guess I just want to say I’m in the carceral. state.
TFSR: For those who don’t know, who is JLS? What are its goals and what are its inspirations and aspirations?
Chux: So, JLS is an autonomous, anonymous group of prisoners that are also organizers and jailhouse lawyers, actually. You know, a little bit of the history is JLS started as jail house lawyers. And then one thing led to another and through these network connections, we actually started create this inside Federation almost, right? So JLS has become the movement. You know, it’s not just you know now when people hear JLS, it’s tied to so many things like the 2016 inside nationwide protests, followed by the 2018 protests, followed by now the special rapporteur that’s going on in the UN. And there’s a lot of other initiatives like the Ammend The 13th initiative that JLS signed on and is supporting to get released to all political prisoners. The idea of JLS is also these 10 demands. The 10 demands that you can find on any JLS platform, whether it’s Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook. And these are what JLS stands for. Every state is also autonomous and has their own needs of that state. However, here, in the broad scale of northern Turtle Island, this is what we demand, this is what we stand for and this is why we protest. So JLS has always gotten inspirations from the comrade George Jackson, from Fred Hampton from even nowadays, different autonomous groups, these autonomous organizations. Every person, every revolutionary, every organizer that has resisted, and moves for decolonization in moving to amplify the prisoner’s voice is who inspire us. So this is something we are constantly growing, it’s constantly moving and it is a constant struggle from the inside having to fight, having to be this voice. Because we now have a platform, we have a voice. And you can hear it.
TFSR: One thing that I think is really awesome that I’ve been hearing more and more in the last few years that I’ve been paying attention to. Prisoners organizing has been, like even folks who are not in immigration facilities, who are in state or federal facilities who are in county jails, making sure to vocally include ICE facilities and the people that are being detained in ICE facilities as comrades and as people similarly suffering under the carceral state. And I think you’re references to like decolonization and like naming that some people call this land Turtle Island is an interesting, like, expansion on the idea of abolition, the recognition that this is stolen land, and that the borders are bullshit. So I just wanted to name that right there.
Chux: I think it’s super important. I think that’s extremely important to talk about the idea of what abolition is. Like the idea that abolition is more than just the state or federal facility. Right? When we think abolition for a long time, we’ve always thought about just the prisons, but we have to begin to think outside of that. Right now. The prisons are ground zero. This is where to start. This is what became of the plantation. But we have to remember there are so many different stripe and so many different types of institutionalization that also has to be included in the fight. We talked about these ICE detention centers, and these black sites almost right. That’s what these ICE detention centers remind me of: black sites. That they just snatch people up, and body snatch them and throw them inside. But another thing that is important that I think folks have to remember, and that is not included enough in the idea of abolition, or even the carceral state is the so called mental institution. These mental institutions have to be included in abolition, because it was the colonizers, and it was the powers that be that just choose how people’s minds work. And so the idea of able-ism is such an important thing that that we have to include when it comes to fighting in the fight and then abolition. Because there’s so many arbitrary laws and rules that can take somebody out of society and cancel them and throw them instantly either into the carceral state or start building an environment where they will eventually end up in one of these institutions, whether it’s an ICE institution, whether it’s mental institution, or whether it’s actually prison.
TFSR: I’d like to explore the idea of abolition a little more. But first, I was wondering if you could talk about the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement that was released on the nationwide prison strike for this year. Can you tell us about it and what y’all are calling for and hoping for and who from?
Chux: This initiative is “Shut Them Down.” So you can find it on the JLS WordPress site, as well as on Twitter and on Instagram to find the link. What’s going on is it’s time to reignite the flame with abolition. Right now, we are making a call to any outside organizers and outside abolitionists to show solidarity with the inside comrades. And just inside folks in general, the idea that it’s time to shut them down needs to be an inside/outside work. Abolition doesn’t just work one-way it doesn’t just work from outside-in, nor does it work from the inside-out. This is something that we have to work together on and build community ties with each other. The idea of community is so important right now, especially because of how our community, how our terms, how our abolition has been co-opted by this liberal democrat idea or movement that’s going on these both lose no matter what movement has co-opted all these ideas that means abolition. So I think that this call right now is to reignite the fire abolition, we need to remember what abolition is we need to not fall into the liberal traps that are going on that are taking our terms like “defund” “decarcerate” “divest.” Right?! because those terms are starting to mean nothing. Defund has never just meant to take money a little bit from the police, it’s always meant to shut down the fascist police system. Divest has always meant to take all of your money out of the prison industrial slave complex. Decarcerate means that to decarcerate not just nonviolent folks, not just some people, but ALL people, everyone that is inside. And to get the idea, you take this prison industrial slave complex and dismantle it. And so what we’re calling for we’re calling for an action an outside action on August 21 and September 9.
This action can really just be however you want it to be, you abolitionists want it to be that show that jails or prisons and the protests. You could throw up tables.. zine tables in our neighborhoods to create spaces to talk about abolition, because I’m sure there’s so many people in the hood that are abolitionists that don’t even know because they don’t even know the term. So these are things that we have to create, to create the spaces to have the conversation. So throwing up zines, throwing up spaces, throwing up tables to panels, panels at institutions, panels at colleges, panels at small city colleges or big universities, I think are important. And if you can get any prisoners on I’m sure that would be able to happen through JLS through these different people that are inside. I think having prisoners on these panels are very important. I think that we need to make noise, make the noise we used to make. Right? COVID has separated us. COVID has pulled us apart. But COVID has also showed us that so much of these ideas of the so called American dream or this American experiment is fake, it’s false. I really think that right now, as everyone is getting vaccines, and everyone is feeling a little better about moving around about finding their communities again, I think right now is the time to do this. I think these two days, everyone that’s on Twitter that has been talking about abolition can finally meet each other. And we can start building and working toward this community to shut down this prison industrial slave complex to free all of the political prisoners. To rise from the ashes of the carceral fucking state. And I think it’s important, it is important to have just anything you can do. Anything to do, drop banner do a banner drop. Now banner drops are beautiful, right? But also for folks that don’t want to or don’t feel they’re ready enough to go outside, creating virtual spaces that we now know that are possible grab you and 20 of your comrades or 20 of your friends and do some little writing, do some letter writing to some political prisoners and some letter writing to prisoners that are in your neighborhoods or communities, hold each other accountable, hold each other accountable to create the spaces to fight and to shut them down. To build this community. One thing that is very important is to build this network from the inside and outside. And I think that’s what we need to do. That’s what we’re calling for. We’re calling for the abolitionists to be abolitionists and to step back away from the idea of voting or the idea of reform-y type of attitude that the liberal media and the liberal democrats have. So i think just showing up is important, showing up and doing whatever you can. And there’s so many ideas what I just said was just a small thing. Though the a small things are very important. You look in your areas for the different IWOC the Incarcerated Workers Committees. You can look up the different ABC’s the different RAM’s. If you are out west the Oakland Abolitionist Solidarity crew is amazing in New York you know IWOC in Philly… and these days are so important these days are so important it’s a day that we need to relight this match of abolition.
TFSR: Yeah I feel like there was there was so much energy this summer when everything felt like it was literally on fire around us and we lit some of those fires. But it feels like it’s a recurring theme that i’ve noticed throughout my life is that people on the left were left to center or even just centrists or whatever get so…. can get so aggravated when it’s a republican in office and that’s why the democrats get away with so much more once they get into office they push through. Maybe something that’s not so brazenly and outspokenly racist, carceral, whatever but you know the machinery that gets operated no matter which party happens to be in power in the US. It’s the same machinery, it’s the same bureaucrats, it’s the same three letter institutions. And all of that energy from this last summer I don’t know if it’s just the pandemic tiring everyone out or everyone just sort of let out their breath after January 6 or what.. But I know that there’s a lot of folks out there who know that just because brunch can start up again and just because people are getting their vaccines and there’s not some orange idiot in the White House that everything’s not okay that there’s still growing numbers of… I mean it’s not in a vacuum but there’s like still growing numbers of children that are being put into cages on the border as more people come towards the border to seek safety from situations in Central America but yeah I really appreciate you pointing that out I think it’s really important that people don’t forget who is in office and while they may be more acceptable to some of our palates you got a top cop and you got one of the constructors of mass incarceration in the United States right?
Chux: Yeah I think that’s super important to point out. Right? It’s easy to point out the orange devil. It’s easy to say who the orange devil is, right? Because he wears the color red or because he’s a republican or because of the crazy nonsense and racist statements and hate that he spews. However that’s easy to do. The difficult thing is when you have somebody that is taking these dangerous ideas like most happened in this liberal left or with this liberal democrat idea… they have this way to take these dangerous ideas that we are trying to cultivate and make them less dangerous and when they do that when they co-opt these things then it’s very, very… i don’t know… but it might be more dangerous than going against a threatening enemy. Right? So I think it’s important to remember who these people are.
Who is Joe Biden?! Man, who is he? Man.. he is the writer he is the architect of mass incarceration of this 1994 crime bill. Right? He was the one that started this 85% that started these three strikes that started black and brown… like the war on the black and brown. Right okay yeah, the war on drugs and one thing, but this guy is who made it blatant. “Super predators” who was he talking about? he wasn’t talking about “Amy” or “Landon” right? Nah man.. he was talking about the black and brown kids man that’s what they were talking about. Kids. When they started bringing up the idea of these “super predators” and then we have Kamala Harris, right? Like you said a blatant cop. She’s a cop. She was a district attorney. She was somebody that sent children to prison. She was somebody that sent people to prison constantly, constantly, constantly. So, yeah this is who we accepted. This is who (not me) we wanted. You wanted the devil in the mask instead of the devil that’s just blatant.
TFSR: The phrase abolition obviously has a deep historical weight. And it signifies a lot, as do the dates that were chosen and have been repeated through these last few years of nationwide strikes and protests around incarceration. Would you remind us about the significance of the dates of JLS has chosen to propose and the meaning of Black August to revolutionaries behind bars.
Chux: Sure. I think it’s very important, because I want to mention that most revolutionaries, I want to say all revolutionaries, but I don’t want to just put that blanket out there and be wrong. But most revolutionaries, do not celebrate Black History Month or heritage month. Nah, we celebrate Black August. Black August was one of the most volatile months that has happened in the revolution or in the spirit of the revolution. And on this month, during the daytime we fast, during the daytime we study, during the daytime we feel to each other, and we try to create and grab on to the extent of our ancestors, fallen revolutionaries. And one of the probably the greatest JLS inspirations and they’re pretty revolutionary inspiration is George Jackson. Comrade George Jackson, who was assassinated on August 21. And I guess, I mean, I can talk for hours about George Jackson and Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye. But anyone that does not know the history or who George Jackson was… I urge you to pick up his book. I urge you to find everything you can about the comrade, because for most of us, he started it all. So then skipping forward to the second day which is just as important to so many of us as September 9. September 9 is a memory that most of us still remember, most of us still recognize as a day of mourning for us. But that was the day that the prisoners in Attica in upstate New York took over. And one thing I want to say about this, and one thing I want you to remember is when this happened, it was because of the volatile and the extreme circumstances that were happening in New York at that time. It wasn’t a planned thing. Right? This was not something that was planned. This is something that organically.. that the revolutionaries that was there because there was revolutionaries there, with Black Panthers there, there was Young Lords there, there were Weather Underground there, there was Black Liberation Army there, there was comrades that were there that feed this organic autonomous movement, and they needed to take hold of it. Because if not, they would have never had those three days, they wouldn’t have had a voice, they would have died instantly. And there’s a brilliant book, called Blood In My Eye, that everyone needs to get that is about September 9. And what happened after September 9. The three days of the takeover of the uprising, followed by the years and years and years of covering. The state covering and the state of New York covering everything that happened that day.
TFSR: I think it’s worth noting also that this is the 50th anniversary of both of those events. The massacres, Governor Rockefeller, massacres of prisoners and guards and staff that were being held hostage inside of Attica, as well as the assassination of George Jackson. So that that significance definitely, definitely is there and it weighs heavy. So the the protests called for this year also explicitly mentioned political prisoners, and the need for them to be free. Over the years, it feels like there’s been distinctions drawn in a lot of prison movements around social versus politicized versus political prisoners. Can you talk about the demand to free our aging political prisoners, in particular, like amidst this pandemic, and so many of them being in their 70s and 80s.
Chux: There’s so many comrades that are inside that have been buried alive in here that we need to fight for their strategic release. I urge people to follow amend 13. Amend 13 has a vast list of the prisoners inside of the political prisoners inside. And I really want to remind people, these ideas of politicized prisoners or political prisoners or prisoners of war, once we all come inside, we’re all prisoners of war. Once they declared a war on the street, once they declared a war on the drug, the war on black and brown, the war on poor people. We all became prisoners of war. Once these Jim Crow laws started locking up black and brown people, and started creating the policies to lock up poor folks. That’s when we all became political prisoners.
Now yes, there are some prisoners that are actually inside because of their work on the outside. And those prisoners, Mumia. Maroon. and I can keep naming them all, but these prisoners are our inspiration as well. These are who we look up to. But not only them, there are so many prisoners like.. I’ll talk about George Jackson. George Jackson was not a political prisoner when he came in first day, when it comes to the terms “political prisoners” but no one would ever deny that he was a political prisoner today. And I need people to remember that.. Man, that just because there are certain ideas or politics on who should be released, who shouldn’t be released. Nah, everyone should be released, and especially the political prisoners and people that are suffering from repression constantly because of their ideas, because of their views, because of who they are. Because their skin color, because of the politics, these comrades are taking it next level. Taking the pain next level. There’s not any days that Mumia has that is an OK day in here. There’s not any days that Maroon is chilling. Right? So I need people to remember that these comrades. These political prisoners are the ones that are and have been extremely repressed and extremely tortured by the system.
I mean, look, with they have done to Mumia. Look. They have given them hepatitis C. They’re giving Maroon and him COVID! Dude! I mean, he’s not around anybody, you know, he’s in the SHU. How is he getting COVID? Like, how is this stuff happening to him? If it’s not the prison, it is not the prison crisis is not the system killing him? You know, so I think this is very important, I think it’s so important to push for the release of the people that should never have been inside. The people that if anything, should have went for some type of Geneva Convention, because that’s the war that will always be tore upon them. So there are so many people in here, so many people we have to remember. And I want people to see who Joy Powell is. Right? There’s one thing that is forgotten a lot here too, is the radical black feminists that are inside, the queer folks that are inside, that get forgotten about. Because of, you know, the numbers, the numbers. There’s not that many women prisons. So the women revolutionaries get lost. However, I know a few, that are suffering just as bad or even worse than the male comrades. So I just want people to go and look up, the radical black feminists that are inside and support them as well. Hear the voices we don’t hear a lot. Joy Powell is who we are hearing from a lot lately. However, we need more.
TFSR: So this last year has been really hard, especially for folks who are being denied the ability to move denied the access to safety, people in cages. It’s also notable that there have been an incredible number of uprisings, escapes, and other resistances because people have the fight in them, basically. Can you talk about what you’ve heard from other comrades about the pandemic, and how folks are making it through?
Chux: Sure. I think it’s important to point out that right now, prisoners have been in prison 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years that have been experiencing the state violence, this colonial violence, this ghetto violence, constantly. I think that it’s important to note that one of the common threads is right now this last year has been one of the most deadly years for so many of us. It’s easy for us to see our enemy when he has a knife in his hand, or when he has a spray can or when he has hand cuffs. But when we are now fighting against an enemy that we can’t see… COVID… that we know is coming in from the outside. It’s scary. And there’s so many more people that are talking about needing to create these safe spaces and needing to get the fuck out of here because they don’t want to die in here. So they’ll have to wait and fight to appeal and all that stuff. But now it’s so much more urgent. And everybody is just worried. Everybody’s worried that somebody they know is going to die in here that might lead to them. So this enemy, this biochemical enemy that is being reeked upon us. It’s scary. They’re not doing things to save us in here. They are making environments more volatile, more dangerous, more scary! So that’s why you’re seeing more stuff this year. That’s why stuff is popping off. That’s what people are hitting the fences. That’s why you’re seeing, you’re seeing prisons on fire. You’re seeing the Midwest on fire, you’re seeing St. Louis on fire, you’re seeing Georgia on fire, you’re seeing people, 15 prisoners rushing the gate at one time in South Carolina, you’re seeing these things because people want to live! These uprisings are us wanting to live and nothing more.
TFSR: You’ve already listed a bunch of ways that people can engage in their communities: Get together, talk about abolition, make some noise & educate folks. And I guess points where that can especially be noted are these invisiblized spaces of terror that are in all of our communities. ICE detention facilities, jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, mental health facilities, as you said. There’s also a reference to higher education in terms of I guess, like, universities or colleges that work with prisoners, I reckon. Is that is that right? Why? Why JLS has pointed out higher education facilities?
Chux: Well, there’s so many prisons, I mean, there’s so many institutions, there’s so many colleges that actually invest still in the prison industrial slave complex, why there’s so many of them that create these things that the small things that prison need. And I’m not talking about, you know, one that comes to educate the prisoners. Now, there’s some places like different universities that will create great stuff for the state to help the state run the prison. And even if it’s little things, and that’s why it’s important to have these areas, right. One thing about the institution, these ivory towers, is that we have to remember that it is part of and at the end of the day, you know, and it’s blatant! When you see these radical professors like the comrade Garrett Ferber getting kicked out of Ole Miss because of his political views. He was one of the most brilliant historians of the recent times. And all the stuff that the comrades would do for…. I mean, this professor actually had classes on the JLS 10 demands, right? So it’s like the anything that pushes the idea of abolition in the institutions in the “higher education” facilities are not actually trying to further these dangerous ideas or these ideas to shut down the state. Because the state still perpetuate, and still grows inside of the higher education facilities. Right? Inside of these institutions. Inside of these colleges and prisons, right? I mean, there’s only so much of a radical education that someone can get in there. And then it starts turning into a liberal education. I use the word liberal as this big Democrat, watered down idea of what it means to be radical.
TFSR: The demands for 2018 which I think besides a modification of adding the focus on on political prisoners.
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offend
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services
Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Chux: So the only thing that’s been changed is number 9. 9 has been revised to “Free all political prisoners.” Because you know for some, and for a lot of people the pell grants were reinstated. I’m not so clear on the rules a number i read at the beginning that it was under a certain amount of time that people can apply for pell grants and maybe it’s extended… I don’t know, but the revision has been to number nine that explicitly called to free all political prisoners. I think what’s important, I think what’s very important is to remember that everything right there is what abolition is. Every single thing that we quoted and you know some people like to argue and say well some of these ideas or are kind of reformist, right? Some of these ideas are… the idea to create a humane living environment. Some people say that investing in the prison industrial slave complex… and you know the argument is that it might be. It might be for the moment. However, we know this fight for abolition is going to be a long fight. We need to be able to live in here. We need to be able to grow in here. We need to be able to educate ourselves. We need to be able to get the opportunity to build and to create. One thing i’d like to point out is purely what abolition is: it is the goal. No matter what road it takes to get there, abolition is the dismantling of the prison industrial slave complex. Shutting down every single prison, shutting down the carceral state that’s what abolition is.
TFSR: Abolition, like the demands towards abolition and understanding these things… there is no one who knows better what is needed to ameliorate the situations than the people who are in those situations. So like while there’s some of those demands that if I was writing a list with my experience and whatever else, I might not prioritize. I’m not going to question that that people that are on the inside and living it day to day feel that these are important things for people on the outside to stand in solidarity as accomplices and to push for.
Chux: Always. That’s for sure and that’s what we look for that’s what we appreciate. We appreciate things like Final Straw we appreciate the comrades out there that understand that our voices are important our voices are out there. It’s not like we don’t have a voice. We do have a voice and just because some people have contraband phones or some people are able to have more of a voice does not mean the voices that are not actually heard are not important either. That’s why I think letter writing and writing to political prisoners and creating networks inside/outside networks are so very important we need more words of prisoners out there. Even if it just comes like this on a collect phone. This is what we need.
TFSR: So there is…. I guess similarly, and this is not a JLS call out.. but so listeners know there’s a very good Millennials Are Killing Capitalism interview with some other organizers from JLS and the host brought this up I think or maybe one of the guests… but the National Freedom Movement is calling for 1 Million Families for Parole Rally on April 3. This is for places all around the country. Participation from wherever you can as I understand because parole is a national issue that affiliates of the National Freedom Movement all around the country are are experiencing a lack of access to it and in particular like worsened by the state’s response to the pandemic by shutting things down by pulling back on access to educational opportunities that would allow people to score the points basically so that they can actually earn their freedom through the system. It’s fucked up, but it’s the existing system that the prisons have set up.
Chux: The strategic release ideas and parole is so very important but for all those people that say “I heard you want to abolish parole” and okay yeah in the end when we abolish the system we’ll be abolishing parole too, but man we need parole right now we need the opportunity to release any prisoner any way we can! So I think that we need people to make these calls we need people to go to these state we need people to learn on how arbitrary that their parole systems are because every state is different, every state that even has them are different. So I think that this is important to fight for those that are parole eligible. I think it’s important for those that have family on the inside or just have any type of idea or want to be part of this abolition movement to find out about these parole systems and trying to find out any way to release as many prisoners as we can.
TFSR: Besides how people can continue following and supporting the work of you and other comrades with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, do you have any other topics that I didn’t ask about that you specifically want people in the audience (whether they’re behind bars or in the “free world” or whatever) that you want to share with them?
Chux: Well I just want everyone to know that the fight is coming and it’s constant. It is a long fight. It’s something that is not pretty, but it’s something you have to work towards. Every single one of us have to work towards this because the carceral state affects our community. These pipeline’s that are sending black and brown folks inside is something that has only increased. Yeah, sometimes you hear the liberal media talking about that “it’s changing or getting better” but from the inside we’re telling you it’s not. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse as they’re creating more of these types of lockdown institutions and lockdown programs and they’re trying to find the comrades on the inside with these contraband phones. So I think that it’s super important to find your local abolitionist network and build with them. Because we can’t do this alone. Abolition is a communal thing. This idea of inter-communalism is abolition and we need to stick together we need to build with each other we need to find our organizations. We need to find both those communities that are close to us. Then if there’s none that are close to you just contact and call the Fight Toxic Prisons called the Oakland **** call just the comrades everywhere to find out how to create these autonomous networks these federations, these groups in your own area. If there is none contact the IWOC. Contact everything you can to be part of this movement because this is a community thing and we need to build with each other.
TFSR: Comrade Chux, so much respect to you and the work that you do and thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. Yeah, solidarity.
The last year has been a trying time for everyone. Among the hardest hit have been prisoners who have seen increasing infections of the covid-19 virus brought in by guards who live off site or other prisoners transferred in from other institutions, prisoners who don’t have the luxury of free movement during the incessant lockdowns their wardens employed as a band-aid measure to limit transmission, prisoners who don’t have effective healthcare in non-pandemic times and who across the board have had limited to no access to personal protective equipment. In many cases, incarcerated people have had their lives put on hold, the hard-fought programs they rely on to earn earlier releases paused during this emergency situation, access to the outdoor for exercise and socializing with others in their institutions unavailable because of under-staffing or concerns of spread. This sort of situation, hearing about the spread and deaths on the outside and being unable to defend yourself or loved ones, undoubtedly has a lasting impact on our psyches.
For this hour, Bursts spoke with a member of the Perilous Chronicle about their report “First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19” concerning the spike in measured prisoner resistance in the forms of work and hunger strikes, fights with guards, riots and escapes from facilities ranging from county jails, state prisons, ICE detention facilities and federal prisons across the so-called US and so-called Canada. The report begins coverage of events on March 17, 2020, when protests occurred at facilities on either coast naming concerns of the approaching pandemic as impetus. Our guest speaks about the data they’ve been able to gather, their approach and specific incidents. The report, published November 12, 2020, will soon be followed with more information concerning the trend as it spread, including overlaps with the Rebellion for Black Lives of the summer of 2020.
Soon after this conversation was recorded, on February 6th 2021, prisoners at the St. Louis so-called Justice Center, aka The Workhouse, engaged in an uprising, taking over the fourth floor of the facility, flooding toilets, setting items on fire, busting out windows of the facility and waving banners. This was the 4th and 5th protest at The Workhouse since December and had escalated after mismanagement, lack of proper PPE, covid-19 screenings, warm clothing, access to recreation, price gouging, people awaiting trial in the postponed court hearings for months because they lacked money to pay the bail, filling meals and the lack of medical care of prisoners known to currently have the novel corona virus among other reasons that echo a lot of what our guest today talked about. You can find a good summary, including prisoner statements, in an article entitled “This Is Genocide”: St. Louis Inmate Issues Statement on Horrific Conditions Behind Revolt on It’sGoingDown.org
In case you missed it, the A-Radio Network broadcast it’s 6th Transnational Live Broadcast of Anti-Authoritarian and Anarchist Radios and Podcasts, this year from studios around the world cooperating via the internet (thanks to the magic of audio comrades in Thessaloniki and others). You can now hear members of the A-Radio Network (producers of the BAD News: Angry Voices from Around The World) discussing various topics with international perspectives from Slovenia, Greece, Germany, Russia, Belarus, the UK, Turtle Island (specifically us at The Final Straw), and occupied Walmapu (aka Chile) speaking on various topics around the pandemic and repression, mutual aid organizing, prison and resistance and a Spanish-language section specifically with updates from Abya Yala, in so-called Chile, broken down into topics of 1-2 hours of audio for ease of listening. More at the A-Radio Website.
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E is a Black trans comrade who went through a critical medical emergency. A fundraiser for resources after their release from hospital is ongoing. You can support them at Venmo (@SolidarityMachine) or CashApp ($SolidarityMachine) with a note saying “Comrade E”.
If you like the work that we do here at TFSR and want to support us, you can find ways to donate or purchase our merch by visiting TFSR.WTF/Support. Funds from our patreon go to support our transcription efforts to get conversations like this one you just heard more easily into the hands of prisoners and folks with hearing difficulties as well as making the chats more translatable and legible to search engines. You can find printable pamphlets and more of those chats we’ve transcribed by clicking our zine tab or visiting TFSR.WTF/zines. Supporting us can also look like telling folks about us on social media and rating us on streaming platforms like iTunes, Audable or Googlepodcasts. You can find links to us on those platforms and more by visiting TFSR.WTF/Social. Another great, free way to support us is to contact a local, community or college radio station in your area and tell them you want to hear us broadcasting on their airwaves. More info at TFSR.WTF/Radio . Thanks so much to folks who have been contacting us with ideas and supporting us in these and a myriad other ways. It really helps us out and we really appreciate it!
All We Got Iz Us (instrumental) by Onyx from Last Dayz
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself to the listening audience with any name, you want to share preferred pronouns, and any affiliations that makes sense for the purpose of this conversation?
Perilous: I’m a researcher at Perilous Chronicle, and through Perilous I’ve been studying, kind of researching and reporting on prisoner resistance riots, protests and other forms of unrest for the past few years.
TFSR: Cool. And is that the maingist of what perilous does? And why do you think that sort of work is important?
P: The project was formed out of conversations that wanted to try to document and basically build a timeline of prisoner protest movements since 2010. Maybe we hesitate to call it like a singular movement, but like, basically all these different acts that are just basically too diverse almost to think about it as a single movement that have been occurring inside the US and the Canadian prison system since 2010. We limit that just for our own capacity, we can’t study the whole world at this point, at least. But we basically are interested in looking at prisoners who have organized hunger strikes or even have you know, organized prison breaks, different riots, hostage taking…everything from huge rebellions in which guardsfire live roundsand there’s tactical riot teams that come in, to prisonersattacking guards and setting a trashcan on fire. We’re interested in all of these different sort of acts that are happening inside the prison system.
Yeah, so it started from there. And then we quickly realized: while that is stillkind of at the core of the foundation of the project, we’ve really honed in more recently on two aspects that we think are…there’s a relationship withthe sort of the audience,like, what are we positioned to do well, and what do peoplewant from us? And what do people like that we put out? We’re really focusing now on sort of more investigative journalism, a little bit of breaking-news kind ofreporting, but often kind of more in depth reporting.
For instance, one of the Perilous journalists wrote this really amazing piece on the Lauren Reed case, down in the southwest, the self identified email anarchist, who is picked up by the feds. There’s already reporting on that, but sort of like in–depthreports on different stuff related to the prison system, and also kind of like data–driven research. And what that means — I know, data is sometimes a scary word to people — but this means doing really clear fact–based research. Specifically this came out andonce COVID hit the prison systems in the US and Canada, we wanted to really carefully document like, how many events? How many of these in each facility? How many facility types? I think that’s kind of, in part, what we’re going to be focusing on today in this interview.l I’ve done the journalist stuff, too, but now I’ve been mostly focused on the sort of data report data tracking side of things.
TFSR: Any media project has an audience — and as you say, you’re trying to figure out what your audience likes to engage with, and would look to you all for what you do well — but there’s also a purpose, whether spoken or unspoken, to why a project focuses on a specific issue. And I think that there are other projects like the Marshall project, for instance, or The Intercept, that will talk about prisons, but specifically, putting the focus on the agency of people behind bars to engage in numbers more–than–just–one is an interesting choice. I wonder if you have anything to say about why your project is explicitly focusing on collaborative actions against the prison system against, you know, not even justfights between prisoners?
P:Well I think that’s very perceptive. I think, in part, it was just looking at the landscape of research projects focused on prisons. That’s very general, but that would include stuff like The Intercept, to the Marshall project. Where I live, one of the big driving forces trying to shrink the prison system is the libertarian right, because of budget balancing things. So they’ll put out really important and interesting reports on shit.
But looking at this entire landscape, there isn’t a project like ours. And that’s not tosay we’re the best thing out there. I don’t think that’s true, either. But to just actually be honest, as far as we know, this iswhy the project started. There’s been efforts in the past, different efforts to document, especially around the 2016 prisoner strike. And I’m also not an elder, I’m sure stuff like this has been done in the past. But the short answer to the question isall these projects just don’t do what we do. And we think it’s, at the bare minimum, we think it’s an important part or should be an important part of the discourse. And in a broader sense we see our project as basically a big intervention in this discourse, andreally centering what prisoners say, and more importantly, what prisoners do.
Oftentimes, we don’t know what they say about what they do. And we try to reach out somehow, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And we’re not corrective in the sense that we just only focus on what prisoners say and do and like, they’re the truth tellers of all. I mean, also part of our reporting often includes reaching out department corrections for press releases, reaching out to family members, guard unions, etc. We want to tell the full story of these events, because we think these events are significant. But they’re significant because prisoners did them. So that’s at the core of the project.
And I think, in a way, your question…like we don’t have to come out and be like “we think prisoners are important” you know? I mean, yes, yes, we do, we think that. We think the prison systems are in crisisin a general way. And we think that the waves of resistance and protests over the past decade aresignificant to what happens next. But like, we don’t want to say thatevery article, you know? We justtry to tell the story and highlight the actions that the prisons are taking.
Which for me, this is why I do any of this at all. Basically being moved by prisoners back in 2016, who have really put themselves —in the September 9th of that year, and the National prisoners strike, the 40th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion — you know, you have to be really brave and courageous to do what these prisoners did. And at the very least, for me personally, I mean, this isn’t my mission statement of the project, but that’s important. One of the things we can do on the outsideis help tell those stories, and tell the stories in a way that humanizes them too and isn’tjust like “freedom fighters bravely set this trashcan on fire” or something. We want to tell the story with the good and the bad parts. Because we think that’s what the prisoners deserve, to have their story told, to have their voices out there.
So that’san even deeper core of the project in a way. We use these other ones you’re referencing, like we use The Intercept, we have a relationship with an Intercept journalist, for instance, not Glenn Greenwald-
TFSR:formerly of Intercept.
P: Yeah, right *laughs*. And we have stuff like the Prison Policy Initiative, and…these groups aremuch different. Probablythey probably they get paid, for instance. They do. But I mean, these groups are all super important, we use them too. But we have something that they don’t have. So I would like to get to the point where it’s like, Perilous is almost like part of that ecosystem, not because we have the same politics necessarily, but because all our research complements each other.
TFSR: So in November, y’all released a much lauded study on the first 90 days of the COVID 19 pandemic and prisoner resistance in the so called US and Canada. How was the report received? And can you talk about the methodology that y’all followed?
P:Yeah, this was an exciting moment, I think, for me, and for the project. We were trying to figure stuff out for a while. I mean, the project’s been around for, I don’t know, four years? Almost? I think we’re coming up on the two year anniversary of our public launch, but I think we were probably meeting for a year and a half before that. And this sort of data tracking — which is not what we call that — we been trying to do for a while. To be able not only to research past events, but research events as they’re happening. Andthe collective really rose to the challenge earlier this year, in part because of similar dynamicsI just was referencing. Like, man, shit was so bad. And what people were doing inside seemed so important. I mean, because itseemed like this death sentence and in fact was a death sentence for too many, and continues to be so.
So I think, in part, being inspired by the actions people were taking inside, and in part because we had a little bit of preparation; the way the virus spread geographically, we started seeing these news reports of other places. I remember specifically Italy, rebellions and prisons happening in Italy as COVID hit there. I know right before [you and I started recording this interview] you referenced the mass release of prisoners in Iran, I think you said 50,000? That sounds right. I remember reading about that too. And the collective of Perilous, we were like, it’s quite likely this will happen here. And we were kind of positioned in a way to be the ones that focused and do the initial reporting on that.
And I’ll temper that extremely, becauseI really can’t emphasize: I feel like so much this work relies on the work of so many other researchers and journalists. Part of the report we were able to put out was only possible because of all these journalists from all sorts of media organizations focusing — in March, April, May, June — on prisoners. And that’s great, because otherwise we couldn’t have done what we do. I meanwe’re really at the end of the day, a small, humble organization. That also applies to sort of prisoner support organizations and other media organizations of all sorts of stripes. So family members, too. You see what I’m saying? We’re not doing all the reporting ourselves. We’re often relying on other people’s reporting, but basically putting it all together and seeing if it talks to each other through the medium of data.
It took us a long time to get the report actually out, it was mostly done — I don’t know, if people didn’t burn down the third precinct in Minneapolis — it probably would have came out in June. But that changed a lot of our priorities for a little bit. Interestingly the report we released goes through the middle of June, so you do get to see the sort of overlap of the George Floyd rebellion, mostly in the streets, some prisoners would reference it still talking about COVID though. Basically, everything that happens inside people are talking about COVID, which makes sense.
So, it came out in November, it came out through this relationship with this journalist, Ella Fassler, who was great. Ella reached out to the Perilous and it was like “your project’s cool, can we work together?” We’re like “yeah, we have this report we’ve been sitting on will like send you a draft right now if you want to start writing and pitching it to places.” So basically, we released the report the day that Ella’s article in Truthout came out. It’s a great article, called Report Finds Over 100 Rebellions in Jails and Prisons Over COVID Conditions. I mean, truly big shout out to Ella. It could have been likely that the report came out on our website and no one saw it, but because it came out Truthout. I mean, also, because there was, in fact, over 100 rebellions in jails and prisons in the US, we counted 119 in the first 90 days in the US and Canada, maybe one or two of those are non events, but there’s probably numerous, countless other events that we just don’t know about.
So anyway, it came out in November, and got reposted on Slate, and got picked up a lot of places. Which washonestly just really exciting for us. Because like, prisoners had been taking action, and then we’d been reporting on it, and it seemed like we weren’t doing it in the best way to communicate it to the larger public. Which is kind of what the project is about. And this feels like we succeeded in this goal, and that feels really good. Democracy Now, for instance, picked up this Truthout article and put it in their headline section. Noname, you know, this communist rapper, posted on Instagram. All these little things, they matter to us because it’s also a confirmation of people wanting this research and reporting done that’s focused on prisoners and what actions they’re taking.
We talkabout conditions, we talk about budgets, we talk about COVID spread in that reporting, but…I don’t want to take any of the sales out of this excellent show, but I also don’t want to get too bogged down in the details of the methodology. The base of it all is: prisoners act, and then we try to report on it. The collective talks about the methodology on this long episode of our podcast on our website, o if you are interested in that…I just don’t want to get too bogged down in the nerdy shit.
Basically, we count a single event as when two or more prisoners take action. And, not that it doesn’t happen, we just exclude events that are just groups of prisoners fighting each other. That’s not tominimize the significance and violence of that in the dynamic in prisons, butwe just have to limit ourselves. So we’re focusing on stuff that’s not that, even though it’s often the same conditions that lead to both. Prisons are just these violent, terrible places and that violence is gonna find outlets in many different directions.
We started on March 17and ended on June 15th. March 17 is not arbitrary — 90 days at the end of the day is an arbitrary length — but we kind of wanted to end in the transition to the George Floyd rebellion period. It seems like there was a change that happened in the way the rebellions were playing out. But March 17 is chosen because this is, as far as we know, the first actions occurred in the US in which the prisoners articulated COVID as the reason they were protesting. There was an action in New Jersey, and also one in California.
TFSR: And those are two different kinds of facilities, right? One was an ICE facility and one was a county jail?
P: Yep. And following the one in New Jersey, there was a string of similar actions. Basically this ICE detainee hunger strike, about COVID, and then outside supporters were doing car caravans. Which I don’t know if people could remember back in March, feeling like we had no idea what this meant, what the pandemic meant, what the virus meant. I think that’s a general truth for everyone. Some people immediately dismissed it, but we all around were like, paralyzed in a way, of what was happening. And these car caravans, I remember seeing that and being like “oh, okay, but we can still do stuffthat’s not just in your house or on your computer”. And again, the first thing is the prisoners act, these ICE detainees went on hunger strike, and then Never Again Action, a network of Jewish activist, starting this car caravans. And then a few months later wewere like “oh, we can actually do other actions besides cargo vans.” I want emphasize…I know personally, for me, it was so beautiful to see that because it wasin this moment of fear and paranoia and uncertainty, it was like “oh, people can still protest or something that seems important.”
The methodology is:we count an event, like I just said, and we have a pretty basic system — which we’re improving on now — of data extraction, kind of data entry thing, oftentimes from other reporting, sometimes original reporting, and that’s the relationship between the Perilous journalist side of things and the data side of things. And so we look at the different event types, a hunger strike is different than a food strike, protest is different than an uprising, maybe they would be both, an event can absolutely have like multiple event types based on our schema. But same with facilities, there’s many ways of doing it. Oftentimes a county jail will have a contract with ICE, and so it’s like both of these things, even though the populations will be segregated, we just mark it as both. Then we mark state prisons are different than federal prisons are different than ICE detention centers. We track of which prisons are private, if there are private prisons, and what company runs it. We also track if the guards attacked the protests, what weapons did they use. We track a number of different things that just comes from looking at other articles, looking at independent research that the Perilous Chronicle has done, and then trying to put it all together and just pulling some numbers out of it.
And there’s a second step to all this data stuff, though, we don’t really want to do in a way. Like we kind of want to put this report out and be like “these are some initial thoughts on it, there was almost 10 escapes in the first month of this stuff.” And it’s like, what do people make of that? Like, why did that happen? Well, COVID, you know…this is a second level of interpretation that we almost want people to use in lots of different ways. We want journalists and other researchers and academics to use it. Unfortunately, I’m sure like some law enforcement someplace, download our data set. I mean, they’ll be reading it through a totally different lens. But, you know, we put it out, and we want it to circulate. Because for us, the most important thing is to emphasize how widespread the actions were: the diversity of the actions, the diversity of the facilities, the geographic spread of it, across the US and Canada, the number of participants which we count as best we can. And that’s really, at the end of the day, what the report does, like here are the numbers, and some other details, do what you will with it. Which is scary, but that’s that’s how it works, I think.
TFSR: Often on the show, we have guests who call in from behind bars, or we’llput together a segment based on an interview through letters. We try to amplify the voices of prisoners as much as possible. And while they can generalize their circumstanceto some degree, they’re limited, obviously, from being in prison to the scope at which they can talk about experiences. Like a few weeks ago, I got to talk to Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun of Free Alabama Movement, and he’s been participating in these wider discussions among incarcerated folks around the country. So that is a bit different of an example, but one thing that I like about the work that y’all put out, and this report, is the opportunity to look at like, okay, numerous facilities in these geographic areas are having this sort of reaction, and how does that relate to the spread of Coronavirus or the prior history of those facilities, or the amount of connection or activity on the outside? So I think that your report — even if you don’t want to do that second level of conclusions, or whatever, that are based on your own experience — this does allow for people to get these takeaways related to policies and repression and resistance. Are there any takeaways from the report in terms of resistance during the pandemic that you’ve observed that you feel comfortable waxing philosophical on?
P:Yeah. The first part of that, which I think is what you’re getting at, we’re able to put all the events together so they talk to each other in a way. That’s something that I would like to think we would offer to prisoners who see themselves as part of the movements, currently incarcerated people — not to reinforce the prison walls, in a way to say that people outside aren’t — but I have access to more research stuff. I know this from talking to people, like my friends on the inside. So a lot of criticisms of the project, though, it’s like we haven’t really…we can’t do everything. We’ve tried some ways of sharing our project with people on the inside, and we haven’t really come up with the best way of doing that, besides maybe describing it over the phone. Or I think people have actually sent inprintouts of the article. But that’s not really facilitated on the website.
I mean, it is a digital project, so we can’t do everything. But I guess if people — whether that’s you or other listeners even — had thoughts on how to do that, in a way that isn’t a whole separate project, that would be interesting to hear about. As far as the conclusions based on the research, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, that may be totally waxing philosophical, but for me one of the most interesting things, not maybe the biggest part of the wave of rebellion — which it does feel fair to call this first 90 days of resistance to COVID, it’s like something like a wave — it’s like something similar about much of it. Even if there wasn’t some sort of formal coordination, in the same time period responding to similar if not almost exactly the same conditions, a lot of the prison systems dealt with COVID in similarly inadequate ways.
I think the biggest thing is the size of the number of events. But within that, one of the things I was drawn to the most was the emergence of this demand for immediate release. And, I’m willing to be corrected on this, but in the short amount of time I’ve been paying attention to prisons and prisoners stuff, and being in support organizations and doing media work, I just don’t think that’s a demand that people normally say. Like, you’re in prison, and you have a list of demands, and one of them is “let me out of prison”, right? I mean, that happens over and over again, during this period, because prisoners early and accurately described COVID as a death sentence for people who arelocked up. It’s truly tragic. It’s hard to dwell on it in a way. No one, in Michigan where I live, was sentenced to death. Andthey’re just in there, getting sick, and dying, or having permanent symptoms.
So early on, people were like, like even the big national prisoners strikes, the demands were better wages and stuff. These are all like, good things, they wereways to kind of publicize. And I know that those demands made sense in that moment, in lots of ways; I think we could have some other debate about that. But putting that aside, the demand for immediate release, or not even an immediate release of yourself but the immediate release of elderly prisoners-
TFSR: …or people who are reaching the end of their time already, like a few months away.
P:Yeah. Exactly. So there’s policies, there’s like legislative talk off and on in different states about how to strengthen prison population, but this was a new thing. And I think it’s a really amazing thingbecause there’s something common sense and simple, in the best way, about this demand. It’s the single best thing that the systems can do to make prisoners a little bit safer, rather than masks and hand sanitizers and testing guards temperature and stuff. And everyone kind of knows that: the different state governments, the different federal, you know, ICE and stuff, everyone kind of knew this. And then in a way, it’s still tragic, but the way thatthey didn’t act, it’s just like an obvious thing. I feel like prisoners were like “you need to shrink the prison population today or we’re gonna die.” And they were right. And it sucks they were right.
In a study we actually marked that, when prisoners were either released a list of demands, or they talked to the media in some way, we looked at what they said. And every single time they said something about COVID, anytime we have a prisoner quote, they mentioned COVID. Which isabout half the events were like that. And then a good number of those, I don’t have the number right in front of me, but a good number of those, they had something to do with immediate release. So that’s, that’s one of the things I was most struck with.
And the second one related to that — in its own kind of direct–action–oriented way — is the high number of escapes. Okay, there were nine clusters within this 27 day period. So that’s from March 23 to April 19. And we have an attempt to escape in May. But just to focus on these nine, one of them — it was an attempt, they were on their way out and got got — we marked it because it was a big effort, a significant effort. And so just to look at the other eight for one second, some prisoners went on a hunger strike and wrote this letter to the media that was demanding to be released, which is amazing. Because in this moment, it’s like, “oh my God,this is impossible to imagine” and now prisoners are doing this. A few people got released, and I don’t want to minimize that either. But it was obviously, absolutely, in general, totally inadequate.
There’s these nine escapes in this early period, right in that psychological time when we were all unsure and nervous and uncertain. And these people, they just literally jumped the fence, or walked off. And because there’s only nine of them, we got to look at the sort of time between escape and recapture. Which is just like, what do you draw from this? I mean, I’m not really sure. But it just seems significant that this demand comes out of immediate release, and people are immediately releasing themselves also.
I think thatfocusing on prisoners actions are important because they’re one of the players that will decide how this plays out. I mean, they’re like, if shit is terrible, like it is right now they’re going to…my friend Nino says this phrase “the riots will continue until prisons are gone”. So it’s like how will the actions of prisoners affect how that plays out. And I think with that in mind, the emergence of this demand for immediate release, along with the actual, immediate release — only temporarily, of lots of prisoners all across the country — I think is significant to that larger narrative.
TFSR: I think some people are probably, like maybe not regular listeners, or whatever, but are going to hear that demand for release, and think that it’s like using your first three wishes to wish for more wishes. But like it is so fundamentally…it’s the only option. In a situation where, on the quote unquote “best of days”, without a pandemic, when full fundings in effect, when the system is functioning at full capacity, it still cannot provide adequate health care, adequate programming, adequate rec time, you know, religious facilities, visitation. It can’t provide these things that it claims as a correctional system to be there, and organized for the purpose of. So they, better than anyone else, have known from the beginning.
I’ve continued getting letters from prisoners in various parts of the country saying “hey, I need you to talk about this. We’ve been promised here in Texas, here in California, here in North Carolina, here in Illinois, like we’ve been promised PPE and we’ve not gotten it. I can write down the documentation of when the state announced that they were going to be releasing a nonalcohol–based sanitizing fluid that they were going to be giving to prisoners. We haven’t gotten that. We’ve just been on 23 hour lockdown. So even those of us who like could potentially work towards getting a shortened release are being put on hold because we can’t get those hours. We can’t get those programs. The staff are just basically rats carrying the plague in and we’re a confined population that has to live with this.”
The jail system here in Buncombe County — where Asheville is — decided when the pandemic started happening, that they worked with the police department to decrease the amount of arrestable incidences, so they were just, in a lot of ways, ticketing and releasing people. They released 300 people from the jail and have been keeping the population way lower. For the most part, unless there’s like extenuating circumstances that I’m sure they can argue, but like decreasing people being incarcerated forsimple property crimes, or possession of drug crimes, for instance. They are on contract with the federal government and they have 200 beds that are being held for federal prisoners, that hasn’t changed.
But I think that it begs the question, like “Oh, cool. So if the county can decide which of these instances they will put someone behind bars for and charge them a bail, and all these different circumstances that rests most heavily on poor and other marginalized parts of the community, if they can listen to people’s demands of like, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to be released in three months, or this guy is going to be released in three months anyway, can you just let him out now?’ or ‘this elder has chronic health concerns, and a stint in prison could be deadly’”. Rightfully, I think administrators look at that as a threat because they see the erosion of the position that they are the blue line betweenchaos and safety in our society, that their jobs are necessary and that prisons work. And that everyone who’s in there needs to be in there.
P:Yep, you’re touching on a lot of significant dynamics happeningkind of in response to the pandemic, and I think George Floyd and subsequent political crises have all played into it. We’re talking about prisons here, but even in some sense the essential worker framework — which is a messed up, to force some people to work — frames the economy in this totally new light. Like, what do we actually need? Like, that’s the question that framework poses to me anyway. And similarto what you’re saying, on the optimistic side isoh, if you’re able to do this, these things that we want, don’t put people in a cage for property crimes and drug stuff — I mean, at the minimum, right? We want more than that — but like, you can do that right now. Let’s just keep doing that. As the return to normality plays out, depending on how the vaccine goes and stuff, I think people — whether that’s prisoners or people in the outside world — will fight to hold on to some of these gains they got during this period. Everything from tenants fighting for different protections, to unemployment access being made more widely accessible — mildly available to people who have been out of work because of the crisis — to prisoners.
I think of myself as an optimist. And I feel like you just had the optimistic take on this stuff locally, which is great to hear, seriously. But in Michigan? I don’t know if they got anything to hold on to. I mean, maybe they got some righteous sense of anger, but I mean, they’re getting killed, and they’re gettinga free five minute phone call once a day. Because visitation is canceled. Maybe they fight to hold on to that. I mean, that would be I guess good, as long as they get visitation back. But the first thing you said was that the release is like the wish to get three more wishes. That’s really funny. I hadn’t thought of that framework. Of course, that’s the case, but it’s also thatsome people are always gonna think that prisons are working.
I know, you said this thing about the administrators feeling nervous about their power being eroded during this time, and I think that is very legit. I think the director of the Department of Corrections is stressed about that. And I’m thinking mostly anecdotally about Michigan here because these dynamics play out differently everywhere. This is getting a little bit away from Perilous, but I don’t think anyone actually in the prison system thinks they’re working. No, that’s too strong, I’m retracting that. Even guards, they know that there’s innocent people in there. That’s easy to get, there’s literally innocent people who get out, get released and get paid a bunch of money because they were tortured for 30 years for something they didn’t do.
Iget the sense that a lot of people know it’s a fraud. It’s a hollow core to the whole idea that prisons do anything positive in a structural way. The way it’s played out in Michigan, for instance, is like I said, the libertarians want to cut the budget, the left wants to shrink the prison population, the prisoners are fighting, the guards are also fighting. Yeah, they’re the ones literally carrying the virus in and out, but also the guard union right now is fighting so hard for the resignation of the director of the Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington. There’s some of these car caravans around prisons and the guards are so stoked about it, too. It’s sort of like everyone against the government kind of,even though the guards are government workers, I’m not trying to absolve them, my sympathies are clearly with the prisoners. But you had this optimistic “maybe people can hold on to these gains” it seemed like you were almost saying and I like that a lot. But maybe the biggest gain here and other places is that there’s been almost the this ideological sort of shift, and a lot of people knew was kind of a fraud but now it’s like oh the policies that the Department of Corrections is handing out and that the state government is making possible, there’s no more illusions about what things are now in Michigan. Because it’s just been a huge death toll, some of the worst hotspots in the country.
So anyway, I just wanted to add to that and like the context for why maybe I see theimmediate release stuff is so much than some sort of clever workaround. I think it’s like a common sense solution to what people now have to acknowledge. Even townspeople that live in prison towns they’re at risk too, for the decisions made in Lansing, and at the Capitol.
Anyway, just to respond to your rant with a rant man. It’s like I yeah, oftentimes, the immediate release stuff comes with other demands, too, like for personal protective equipment, and all sorts of stuff. That’s often there. But then they know that in a way that things are falling apart. There’s a sense that things are falling apart, things are in crisis, things are in this terminal decline. I probably would have said that before this year, but now I’m more certain of it, because I feel like lots of other people that would not have said it a year ago. And I do in fact think that some of that veneer has been scrubbed away, because of all this shit in the past 12 months.
TFSR: Yeah, I can’t imagine that. Guards — no matter what state they’re in, and if they do have a union, like in Michigan or a few other states — I can’t imagine many people besides truly evil souls wanting to go in and really enjoying their job being prison guards. I’m sure that most people are just, you know, paying for college, kids college and whatever, sloughing through and they know they’re hated, and they know they’re doing a despicable thing. And I’m sure that now…what’s the phraseyou used? What the government’s been calling people that work in grocery stores…
P: essential workers.
TFSR: Yeah, essentially, sacrificial workers, it puts the lie to like, I’m sure that they already realized that before. But they can’tbe happy that, at a certain point, how much money is it worth it foryour position to be perpetually understaffed, you being in danger of getting shivved by someone, everybody hates you where you are, and your boss is literally going to send you in there to be a carrier for plague for all these people like.
P:Yeah, sacrificial is a great framework. That’s great. You have to sacrifice the prisoners and the guards, and the people living around the prison. Because if you don’t sacrifice them then the system falls apart, or something. That’s great, I like that framework of sacrifice, I think it’s really useful. I don’t know, that hits.
TFSR: I mean, the alternative would befundamentally changing the way that the system works. And the people that are at the helm definitely don’t want that to happen. I kind of wonder, so you mentioned before, in these conversations and reports that y’all were working with, there was constantly that discussion of COVID coming up, which makes a lot of sense. But also, because of the overlap with the George Floyd rebellion, that started seeping into at least some of the dialogue, or some of the like reasons, or some of the statements that you were hearing from or about prisoners in uprising. Are there any other insights, any sort of things that you were able to glean out of that that stand out, that show up in the report or not?
P: Yeah, it’s a super good question. It’s a question that we’re interested in. And instead of really diving into the extent of that, we just decided to put the report out, but luckily, tune in soon, to perilouschronicle.com for report number two. Because this one went so well we’re gonna do a follow up one. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be basically 2020 in review, so try to take the full 12 months. And part of that one will be focusing specifically onthe interaction between actions inside and the George Ford rebellion. I do know that period, basically, from May 28 to the end of the report — the middle of June — there’s a handful of these actions in which basically, people reference the rebellions in the streets. And that’s really cool and important.
I just don’t know, at this point, how much more I could say about the interaction. I mean my hypothesis is that the way things played out around the country, after, you know, people responded in Minneapolis to the murder of George Floyd and people know the narrative at this point. I’m sure it changed so much. I would guess it changed the ways prisoners were acting, thinking about their actions and articulating their actions to the media. But at this point, I don’t know a lot more than that. It would be interesting to see ifnew tactics emerged, or if old tactics changed. These are all questions we want to answer with the next report, basically.
That’s a long way of saying: I don’t really have a lot to say about it *laughs*. But we’re really interested in that. Part of this is, when I talk about the collaboration of the central this project, if incarcerated sinners, or anyone, has thoughts on this stuff, we’re not professionals or anything, we’re just a couple people that just like to do this because we think it’s important. Because we’re nerds. So if people have thoughts on these sort of questionsplease reach out. Or if they have events that they think should be coveredthat aren’t on our site currently. I mean, all these things. Do you have thoughts on that?
TFSR: I asked Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun about this and he expressed, “we were hearing about this on the outside, we were hearing lots of things, things that just didn’t really make sense and couldn’t tell who was saying what, what was actually happening.”
I remember seeing Jeremy Hammond using a video call to record a bunch of the other people that were incarcerated with him, making their statements, in various languages, about the Georgia Florida uprising and in solidarity with the people on the inside.
P: Right, right, right. I remember that. Yeah.
TFSR: He was probably still in a federal holding facility. God, I forgot that was in like, April or May. No, that had tohave been in May or June. Now I’m just like, the year was such a long year! But I remember where I was when I was having that conversation. After seeing that videoI got to interview Jeremy for the June 11 episode.I don’t know, I remember seeing stuff passed around, for the most part getting out. But I know that also, when talking to Sean Swain or whoever else that I talked to, and having them talk about what they’re experiencing from the mainstream news. But they’re, they’re getting so many things that are just so filtered. Unless they have loved ones that are like in constant communication with them and keeping them up to date on stuff.
It seems like it was inspiring to a lot of people that run the inside. And this is me speculating, but I would imagine that where they were getting a sense of conversations around the abolitionist demands that were being put forth on the outside around police, that there was some resonance around that, but actually I don’t know. Besides those few instances of anecdotally me talking to people, or seeing that video, I can’t really speak to the experiences of folks on the inside, you know?
P:That’s actually helpful. And also did it play out the other way? I mean, it’s hard because so much of how I think the mainstream understanding of stuff is like: what do people say about what they do, like, what are the demands of the George Floyd protestors. Or, you know, in some sense it’s a totally silly question. To some extent it’s important, also. But I say that to say, I don’t know, if people on the outside, it resonated with what people were doing on the inside. So the reverse. Like the George Floyd rebellion, actually, as a product of this prior wave of rebellion, or rather, maybe just similar conditions. Anyway, all these sorts of dynamics, they’re there. It’s complicated. It’s hard to say conclusively, it’s impossible to do so. Unless you’rean arrogant sociologist at a university.
P: But if you’re more of a participant just trying to know a little bit more, so it can help you make decisions about what’s important. I guess we’ll try to do that in the report, to see what is the other resonances between inside and outside the George Floyd rebellion and the prisoners responding to COVID? Hopefully answer some of these questionsyou and I are just saying right now.
TFSR: The next question that I had written down, it’s kind of already gotten touched on, between these discussions and my rant and your rant. But I wonder if you have — maybe stepping outside of your role as someone speaking on behalf of the collective Perilous — any things that you’ve gleaned out of looking at not only inside action, but also the outside actions that people have taken, or the dialogue around prisoners during this year of Unprecedented Death Sentences by Disease?
P: Yeah. I referenced this earlier, but it’s important to not reproduce in our own heads the prison walls, to imagine them as these insurmountable barriers. Not only because we literally saw videos of people jumping over them this year. Or last, sorry, last year. I mean, did 2020 ever really end though? Are we just in 2020 until-
TFSR: It’s the long 2020.
P: *laughs* Yeah. But like we were saying, also in negative ways the virus goes in and out there, the prison walls are in fact porous. So in some sense, the distinction between inside and outside…*smiling* I’m not coming at you, obviously, it’s something that I do too. It’s something to grapple with, on the ways that that limits us. That being said, there are these concrete differencesbetween the two, easy access to the internet and stuff. The short answer is: I’m inspired byall of these different things, people acting from where they’re at. Like the car caravan and stuff early on…I already said it had this effect on me that was really positive. And it’s like feeling hopeless in a way and then seeing these people like “okay, we have cars, we’re safe in our cars, we won’t spread the virus.We’re safe, you know, safer. And we can show our support for the hunger strikers.” That was really important. And in the same sense the big, huge rebellions arealways inspiring to me, because now I get some sense of the difficulty of organizing in prisons, the social dynamics and the risk involved. But also the prison breaks. You know, there’s sort of some Hollywood–esque moments, like this little video, where is that? In Washington? You referenced it earlier–
TFSR: *laughs* Not yet, but I was going to in what was going to be the final question. But the Yakima Community Detention Center.
P:Oh yeah, right. Well it’s this video of this guy just chillin in his car. I don’t think it was planned at all. And he just pulls up, he’s listened to music, it’s like salsa music or something, I don’t remember. And these people are literally jumping over the fence. And then also one of these escapes, a handful of prisoners escaped from Arkansas Community Corrections on April 12.
TFSR: There’s McCormick in South Carolina too not that long ago. That was like at the end of 2020.
P: Oh yeah. Totally. The one I was thinking of actually, he was captured in Arkansas. But a handful of people just I ran out of Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in Oklahoma and one of them lasted for three months. But they finally found him in, and it was like a car chase, he ditched his car and then tried to swim across the Arkansas River, and there was like police chasing him on boats. And they did finally get him.
Anywayat the same timecar caravans have almost become normalized in a good way. At least here where I live. And just the sense that, you know, we’re getting away from the project, but like, I’m just personally always inspired by people taking action from where they’re at, figuring out what makes sense, and doing stuff, and experimenting. Andthe best parts of the past 12 months have been the result of that.
TFSR: Well, thanks a lot for talking. Where can people follow and get in touch with Perilous and how can they support the project?
P: Yeah, so we’re on twitter.com, I think it’s @perilousprisons. And then perilouschronicle.com is our website. That’s where new research articles come out, the new data report will go up, different sorts of things like that. Lots of resources on there at this point, and we’re constantly figuring out ways to make it more easy for users to access those resources as well. Also let me pull it up real quick, if you want to write uswe would love, we receive some prisoner correspondence. And especially if you have details on events we either haven’t covered or we’ve covered but we’ve missed a detail about it, you can write us at: PO Box 38 Tucson, Arizona. 85702. And we also use email, that’s info@parallels chronicle.com
TFSR: Since we’ve startedtrying to fund a rolling like transcription of episodes, hopefully this will get transcribed in the next couple of weeks and made into a zine and that can be easily sent into prisoners. So that’s part of the goal.
P:That’s awesome. Seriously, that’s super cool. I’ll probably bug you off the recording, just bounce ideas around on how we might do something similar.
TFSR: Hell yeah. Lovely to chat and keep up the great work.
ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation
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
633 Old Landfill Rd,
Taylorsville, NC 28681
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
633 Old Landfill Rd
Taylorsville, NC 28681
Or email my support network at email@example.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.
Organizing To End Prison Slavery with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun
[starts at 00:02:37]
This week, Bursts spoke with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun, co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement and the National Freedom Movement, which is helping coordinate prisoner-led organizing across the so-called US. Bennu just finished a 5 year period in segregated housing for his organizing efforts. For the hour, they talk about the National Network coordination, the continuation of slavery from chattel slavery in which black and brown bodies were private property to the modern slavery of mass incarceration, pandemic behind bars, the importance of platforming prisoners in their struggles, the January Boycott FAM is conducting against prison industries, reform efforts and more.
Bursts mentioned Karen Smith and Rebecca Hensley, who both had memorials written up in the December 2020 SF Bay View Newspaper by comrades.
Sean Swain’s segment will be at the end from [starts at 01:04:17]
[starts at 00:00:00 til 2:37]
Likht’samisyu Village Fundraiser
We’d also like to share a fundraiser being hosted by the Likht’samisyu Clan in so-called Canada for the purpose of expanding their sovereign village construction and to help pay for ongoing maintenance. You can find out more at their GoFundMe.
The Final Straw is beginning to use our Patreon to fund comrades transcribing the episodes. Subscribers to our Patreon for $10 or more a month, will receive an episode a month as a zine in the mail alongside other thank-you’s. For every $120 we raise in donations above $10 we will commit to another monthly episode transcribed up til our goal of $480 in those kinda donations. Transcriptions of our episodes allow for easier searching of content, so our chats will show up in search engines more quickly and completely, it’ll also aid in translation, help folks for whom comprehension in English or audio is difficult and make it easier for abolitionists to send our chats into prisoners for discussion! You can find out more at our Patreon.
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Track used in this episode:
La La (instrumental) by Slum Village
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Our conversation with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun of the Free Alabama Movement
TFSR: For the audience. Would you mind introducing yourself
Bennu: My name is Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun, I’m the founder of the Free Alabama Movement. I’m also the founder of a organization we’re putting together now called the National Freedom Movement, where we’re building a coalition of inside-led, inside-based organizations bringing all of those together. And also orchestrated the 2018 Campaign to Redistribute the Pain nationwide, and also laid the groundwork for the 2016 National Freedom Strike, which was the largest strike in US history. And I’m incarcerated in the Alabama Department of Corrections. I’ve been incarcerated for 22 years now and I’m an activist, I’m an organizer, I’m a freedom fighter, abolitionist, whatever is necessary in this fight behind these walls and cages.
TFSR: And could you tell the audience a bit about the Free Alabama Movement, like how it came to be formed, your philosophy, and the methods that you use to struggle—and who participates in it?
Bennu: As I said, Free Alabama Movement was founded inside St. Clair Corrections Facility. I ran across an article in 2012 that I did some research on and it inspired me to come up with solutions to some of these issues we were facing here in the state of Alabama. From that we came with Free Alabama Movement. And it’s a human rights movement. Started out we were civil human rights, we’re moving moreso away from the civil rights aspect and head on with the human rights aspect. We acknowledge that these prisons are slave plantations and that they—their roots trace back over 400 years to the institution of slavery. We are aware that ownership and control of these plantations occurred as a result of the 13th amendment. So the ownership was transferred from private property owners to the state government. And what we know of and called prisons and mass incarceration today are nothing but cover-up for what’s actually going on and it’s a humanitarian crisis. And it is slavery.
Also you asked about our methods and so the methods that we use—because this is an economic enterprise, people call it the prison slavery industrialized complex. So many different names, but at the core it’s an economic system. And so we use economically-based tactics no different from what other laborers use in society. We organize labor, we organize work strikes, we also understand that there are a lot of contractors that are involved such as phone companies, JPay, Access Secure Deposits, incentive package programs, and whatnot. And so we organize boycotts of these companies. Also, there are a lot of industries—private industries—who are getting products and services from this out of prisons. So we organize work strikes in those areas. And so, basically, everything that we’re doing is addressing the economic aspect of it. Because even with private prisons, you see these companies listed on the stock exchange, people are investing in this stuff, people are buying and selling human bodies, human trafficking, and the only way to drive those people away from the table is to dry—is to attack them head-on, point blank, at what brought them to the table. And it’s the profit. And the profit is all centered on the labor and the funding that we spend from the inside. And so that’s how we organize, we organize around that.
We also use protests to build awareness, to show support. We protest at the prisons. A lot of organizations of people like to march in the state capitals and whatnot. But we like to conduct our protests directly at the headquarters of these facilities. For example, the Department of Corrections. We like to protest there. The parole board, we like to protest there. But most importantly, we like to protest at the prison because that’s where the people are. That’s where the suffering is. That’s where the crisis is. That’s where the COVID-19 is killing people. That’s where the drugs, the overdoses are occurring at, this is where the suicides are occurring at, this is where the murders and the police brutality is occurring it. And so this is where the presence has to be. This is where the inside presence is and this is where the outside presence has to show up at to let us know that they support us. And we lead with our own ideas, we lead with our own initiative, and we ask people to support. So that’s how we structure our movement and that’s what the National Freedom Movement that I mentioned earlier is all about. It’s about being inside-led about being inside-based, and it’s about people who are interested in this stuff coming to the table and not so much bringing their own plans and their own agendas, but to bring their resources and skills and apply them to the things that we’re requesting because we don’t have access to a lot of the things that people have in society as far as technology goes. We don’t have the resources simply because of our conditions. And so we actually need to come in to, like, maybe make flyers for us or make posters for us or set of phones or setup—uh, one of the things that we’re asking for from our outside support people is to identify yourself in your state as a certified outside support organization. And what that means is that you set up a phone call, set up a phone line, to accept phone calls, and activities on the inside will share that information all around the state prisons so that when activists are hijack, we don’t have to try to figure out who they want to call, who they want to contact. That designated outside support organization will be right there, the information will be inside the prison, and people will know contact them, call them, and provide whatever resources that we can get staff attorneys and we can get paralegals, people to assist with, you know, the administrative process.
We’re trying to set a structure up that is that is structured from the very beginning around what it takes to assist organizers on the inside. And the reason why that’s important because a lot of people bring stuff to the table that they think is helpful. And a lot of this stuff is not helpful, or is paternalistic. They come and they want to tell us what to do. Well, we’re tired of being told what to do. We’re adults, we’re thinkers, we’re planners, we’re strategists, tacticians, and all of that, too. We just don’t have the resources. And so this is this is our response to that. This is how we’re going to put our structure together on the inside. So if you have an inside organization, and they want to be a part of this and come on and get on board with the National Freedom Movement.
TFSR: Can you say how widespread the National Freedom Movement is? Like, I know that in—the first time that you and I had a conversation years ago, there was representation in the chat also from Mississippi. I know that folks like Imam Hassan in Ohio was a part of the Ohio movement, I’ve heard about it in Illinois. Where is representation right now or—I don’t know how much you can talk about with that for safety’s sake.
Bennu: Okay. Yes, I can talk about it. We want to talk about, we want people to know. As you know, when we started out in 2014, we were just stateside our organization. But the support that we received, the attention we received, was from around the world. The majority of it was in the United States. And so when we received all that support, we started building relationships with people. This is what allowed us to lay the groundwork for even creating the thought about a national structure of bringing people together. So in 2015 I developed something called the six step—the Free Alabama Movement Six Step Plan of Action. And it laid out what organizers could do in their state to do the same thing that we’re doing. Still didn’t know that it was going to turn into what it turned into, but it evolved, it got better, more people got involved. And the next thing you know, we had—we were connected with prisons all around the country. And that allowed us to have the historic 45th anniversary of September 9 Attica rebellion national prison strike.
And the thing about that was, even though we had that network and connections, it was not built as an organization. We just had very loose networks of people and we had asked our organizers—they brought their networks and their organizations, but they didn’t help us build our own. And so when they left and things broke down, they took everything that they had with them. And they even took resources with them. They took, you know, our sacrifices, you know what I’m saying. They capitalize off of it. And so what I started doing in 2017 when I started writing out the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain which was a national bi-monthly boycott campaign throughout the entire year 2018. In a November 30 article that I wrote that was published by San Francisco Bay View, I started laying out what the framework of a national structure needed to be, what it should look like. And I put that in that article and guys from the inside, my brother Kwame Shakur, he reached out, a few more people reached out, few more organizations reached out and, you know, they liked the idea of us doing that.
And so I ended up getting sent to the SHU in Alabama. So that kind of disrupted my ability to continue to do that, because I was limited in what I could do, but I was able to do the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain. I was able to get the message out, I just will not be able to organize it the way I needed to. So now that I finally gotten out of seg after a little over five years, get my feet back on the ground, started by talking to people, now we’re putting the actual infrastructure in place.
We’re in contact with Conrad Lee down in California, we’re in contact with the United Black Family Scholarship Foundation, Ivan Kilgore, we’re in contact with other activists and organizers on the inside from as far away as California. We’re in the Midwest, we have organizations up in Ohio, Indiana, activists in Michigan. We basically have the south of South Carolina—we have South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. And these are all confirmed. People who have been consistently coming our meetings. We’re having people showing up from Pennsylvania now, we’re getting calls out of New York. We have our conference calls every week. And people are just, they’re coming on board, you know what I’m saying. But the main thing is that when we bring people on board, we’re emphasizing to them that this is going to be an inside-based and inside-led organization. And we have a specific way that we want to structure. We have specific issues that we want to address.
And the reason why we’re doing it like that is because some states have different issues. Every state doesn’t have the same issue. But there are certain core issues that every state has. And the national structure will be responsible for directing the movement on these core issues that we all share in common. But the thing that—the glue that brings it all together, is that message. If you have a parole issue, if you have a post condition issue, if you have a sanity issue, or visual affinity issue, mandatory minimum issue, we don’t care what your issue is. Only thing we want to do is we want to bring all of the organizations together at the same time. Like, you may see a protest in California, a couple of weeks later you’ll see one in Kansas, a couple of weeks later, you’ll see one in Texas. Well we want all of those protests will be going on at one time to elevate the issues nationwide.
That’s how we elevate the issues nationwide, we have to coordinate the actions nationwide. And we have four core principles and methods that we use. We use work strikes, boycotts, protests, and like I said, social media campaigns. We use social media. We have YouTube channels, we have Twitter, we have Instagram, Facebook, TikTok. We’re building across all of these platforms because this is how people communicate. And so the National Freedom Movement, we use these four methods to address whatever issues that our coalition members come to the table with. We have some issues that will be on a national scale, other issues that will be on the local scale, For example, this coming up April the 3rd, there was a call out of Georgia by an organizer. He’s on Facebook by the name of Peace Justice—1 Million Men and Women Parole Rally. Well, when I saw that, I know that we have parole issues in Alabama too. There’s parole issues in Ohio, which is one of our main organizers. They’re Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens—the EPIC organization—they’ve been working on doing that. And so parole is an issue around the country. It’s different, but the fundamental issue is that the parole boards have discretion around the nation, and that they’re using their discretion to keep these prisons full for economic interest.
And so it is in our interest to support that, but not just recorded in words, but to support an action. And so this gave me the opportunity to actually bring this National Freedom Movement structure together around an issue, because you don’t want to just be calling people together telling them, “Hey. we’re trying to put a National Freedom Movement coalition together.” We need thousands of people to show up, because there’s no responsibility being placed on anyone. There’s no duty, there is no obligation, everybody likes to show up and talk. But when you have this issue sitting on the table, this parole issue, and I put it to the members, out it to the people we have the networking with, Like I said, the response has been great. People have been coming in, and we’re letting them know that we’re here—we’re here to build an organization, a coalition, not just to address the role, but to address all of our issues. It’s just that this parole action right now gives us the opportunity to organize around, to bring people to the table, to address that component of this system right now as we continue to build a coalition to address a few more wide-ranging issues.
I know on my last call we had to have at least, you know, twelve, fifteen states on. I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but it’s recorded. People can go on and look for themselves. We have multiple organizers inside and outside of California, multiple organizers outside in the state of Texas, multiple organized inside and out Mississippi, Alabama, our Florida representatives is an outside representative. We’re trying to build up his support base on the inside. South Carolina with representatived, they probably had the most people on the last call—the most from the inside. And now. We also have Ohio organizers on the call.
So just so many people were involved, and more people are getting involved. People come in that, you know, cuz it’s a open session. We’re not trying to be exclusive. We don’t have anything to hide, we’re very transparent. We’re building a media list yo get this information out. We’re trying to build a contact list to build awareness. And we’re just trying to build this thing. But the thing is, we want it to be live from the inside and we have particular duties or responsibilities that we need outside organizations to carry out and we orientate them to that, and we allow them the opportunity to answer, “Do they want to do that?” And a lot of them answered the call. And they’re here.
TFSR: Because I was looking to ask about some specific Alabama questions, but since you’re talking about the national framework and involvement inside and outside, I’ll just ask this last question first. How do people in their various states, whether they’re behind bars or on the outside of bars, whatever that means, like how do folks get in contact with the National Freedom Movement, or with Free Alabama Movement, or figure out if they’re already people doing stuff in their state or how they can get involved? And how do they become a part of those conversations?
Bennu: Okay, the number one, firstname.lastname@example.org, that is our email address. We’re in the process of getting our website put together, that additional resource will be there. It’ll be available—I think it may already be available, it’s just not all of our information. But that is a freelabamamovement.org, www.freealamabamovement.org. The contact information for Free Alabama Movement right now is email@example.com. What people have to understand is that we have very limited access to that technology. And with limited access to technology, we have limited knowledge about technology and what all we can use. And so right now we have a limited means for people to contact us. They can contact Free Alabama Movement on basically any platform. But as far as the National Freedom Movement, it’s something we’re just putting together, we’re getting people to come to the table, we’re having a Zoom call every Saturday. We have organization We Pray for Justice, they’ve come and volunteered to sponsor our Zoom call so they come on, they conduct our Zoom calls, they share our documents, they put our organizing agenda on there, our plans.
Like I said, we’ve got a couple of a Google Sheets put together, we’re building all of that. We’re just now in the early phases of actually building this infrastructure but we had a lot of people to come and we’re receiving a lot of support. And we’re more than pleased with where we are and what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far but we need more people.
But, like I said, when you come, you need to understand what you’re coming for. This is not for you to come and tell people what to do. This is not for me to come and you think it should be this, this, this, and this. This is for you to come to offer suggestions, ideas, but the final decision on whatever is going to be done in your state is going to be made by someone on the inside, as far as the National Freedom Movement goes. And whether or not your organization can be recognized as an official outside support organization will be determined by people on the inside. you know. And so that’s the thing that’s new, I think, that people are going to have to get used to and prepare themselves for because a lot of people, whether they know it or not consciously or subconsciously, they don’t give people on the inside credit for our ability to think either. You know, when they come to the table they think, you know, well we will do this, this is what ya’ll need to do, or this—but the outside ideas have not advanced the call, it has been the inside ideas, it has been the inside work strike, the inside boycott, the inside protesting demonstrations, it has been the inside filming from phones and taking risks and absorbing the punishment that comes with it that has pushed this movement forward. And we feel like that there can be no legitimate movement that does not include people on the inside. And that means in all areas.
We have to be at the table in all areas. And we have issues with that or we have problems—no problem, we’ll create our own table. And we’re going to drive this movement. We’re going to be a part of—this concept of people talking about, “We are their voices,” or “We’re the voice for the voiceless.” All of that is very disrespectful. We have a voice. We have a voice. What we don’t have is people like you, Bursts, and others who are willing to extend their platforms to our voice. Instead, they want to go in there and do the talking for us: call, ask a few questions, and then come and put their spin or their narrative on it. Well, we’re not going for that. We’re going to build our own network, we’re going to build our own media, we’re going to be aligning ourselves with people like Bursts and others who understand the importance and value of our voices being heard and that’s how we’re going to build our network.
We don’t care that the mainstream media doesn’t need this that and the other—no problem. We can create a—we can be just as powerful as the mainstream media if we organize. And that’s what we’re doing, we’re organizing that also as a component of this National Freedom Movement structure. So we’re not dependent on anyone doing it for us. We got YouTube channels, we can publish, we have Zoom, we can do all of that. The live yard, we can do the stream yard. Whatever it is, we just need people to bring those resources to us, let us know what’s available. We’ll let you know what we want to use and we’ll let you know how we want to get it out there, and then we just expand that to us. And that’s how we want to build this National Freedom Movement.
TFSR: Can you talk about the current protests and boycott that Free Alabama Movement is conducting?
Bennu: Right, the boycott is a continuation of the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain and what we’ve been doing overall as a whole, as an organization, since 2017. Anyone who wants to learn about the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain, go on the San Francisco Bayview website put in my name the Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun for the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain and you’ll see all those articles.
And like I said, there are two—there are two sides to this economics. The the first foremost is the labor. And after the labor is these contractors, these phone companies, these incentive packages, these people that sell all of the stuff that the canteen goods and stuff. So all—both of these together is where these operating budgets come from, this is where the profits come from. And so this campaign right now, this 30 day economic boycott that was called for by Kinetic Justice Amon, that’s what’s going on now. But more so than that people need to understand: this is a call to action. It is not to say that everything—that everyone has to be involved on the first day. You may join as you learn about it, as you get more information, you may want to join some point later on during these 30 days. You may want to do something different, but you have to attack this stuff at the core, and that’s how we’re different. These are the only actions that we feel like that can make an impact for those of us on the inside. And so when you see us make a call like this, remember, you can contact our family members, they can contact legislator, they can go and get bills passed, they can go and get phones. But while—we can be a part of that. But what can we do in addition on the inside? Because the issue boils down to, “Are you doing everything that you can to get free?” And the answer to that question includes, “Are you working for free? Are you providing free slave labor? Are you providing resources to the state to pay for your incarceration?” And if you’re not addressing all of those things, the answer to that question of are you doing everything? The question is no, because you may be filing all your petitioners stuff, and that’s great. But that’s not the only thing that we can do.
And so we’ve broken this thing down and figured out what can we do on the inside so that when are people go and to talk to legislators, they go and negotiate from a strength of power, and not from a strength or weakness. And the power that we have to empower our people with this is labor because the Prison Legal News did an article, I think was in 2016, and it shows the institutional investors in these power prisons. The top—the top ten institutional investors includes an employee’s retirement system mutual fund here in the state of Alabama. And that system is made up of the judges retirement system, the state employees retirement system, and the teachers retirement system. So these are people who all have an economic interest in this system. These people live to finance their retirement systems off of these prisons. We’ve also got a list of the contractors around the state, state agencies that are going in, contracting out, convict leasing, hiring slaves out from the prison system to come and do a lot of labor, and they’re getting paid market value for, but the people performing the labor are getting either nothing or $2 a day or whatever it is that they’re putting out. And so the only way that we can attack all of that is we got to stop that labor, we got to stop that money stream that money flow coming in. And this is what our role is in this movement. This is our role: is not writing articles and op-eds. That’s part of our role, but everything that we do has to be centered around the economics because when you remove the economic from this system, you destroy about 80% of it.
People talk about wrongful convictions, over sentencing, the mandatory minimum drug laws, and enhancers, all of that is—those are monetary. Those are like rules or laws for people to make sure that their business and profits are more long-term and not short-term. And so when you attack the labor, what makes those laws profitable, then you start clearing out the system, because they cannot afford to keep these system running if they’re not making money off of them. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to cut—we’re trying to set off a money. We’re trying to defund from the inside through direct action until the legislators and others and the administrators figure out that they’re not going to be making money off of this stuff forever. We goin’ stop that. And this is how we do that.
And when we do that, our people go and talk to people, whoever they need to talk to, they sit down at the table with them and they’re not sitting there just begging. It’s not a one-sided conversation. The person is sitting across from them, that state employee, their retirement is in control—is being controlled by that person, our family members that sitting on the other side of that table. So everyone has an interest in those conversations. And this is how we’re trying to empower pour people to increase their standing when they’re sitting at the table, negotiating.
TFSR: I guess to bring it back, like—and not to say that the federal government does right, but sometimes it investigates—it’s forced to investigate in situations where it is pressured to. The ADOC, the Alabama Department of Corrections,nas well as like Louisiana and a bunch of other states, have been under pressure from the federal government for a number of years due to findings of overcrowding, due to terrible sanitation issues, brutality within the prisons, not being releg—like regulated or, you know just for all of these issues. The fact that they’re failing, they’re failing in the “corrections” element of what they’re proposing that they’re providing.
And so because of this the ADOC was supposed to be releasing—they decided to release thousands of prisoners starting in October of this year. And yet the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in July of this year that hundreds of people were being denied parole amongst the, like while the pandemic is going on. And that in this, white prisoners were at least twice as likely to be paroled as Black prisoners. In September, Governor Kay Ivey and the ADOC announced that they were going to be building three more prisons, partnering with private prison industries, including Core Civic and a conglomerate called Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. Where do you see Alabama on the promise to decrease the prison population and their motivations?
Bennu: Right. Well, first thing, first thing we have to remember is that the state of Alabama has been a slaveholder state since it has been in existence. And so even though they’re using the words “new prisons,” they know they’re building new plantations. As far as the federal government, the federal government, has been involved with Alabama prisons since 1865 when the 13th amendment was ratified, and it said that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for crimes shall exist. With that, that made the criminal justice system the place where you’re convicted for crime and the slave and involuntary servitude aspect was carried out in the institutions that were created by the 13th Amendment, which were the prisons.
Now, when you talk about the conditions and whatnot, then you’re talking about the actual practice of slavery. In order for the institution of slavery to go on, you can’t house people in five star hotels and split level mansions and stuff. You have the most deplorable and inhumane conditions because this is the least amount of investment. So everything that we’re seeing here is consistent with the historical practice of the institution of slavery.
Also on the federal government side, the federal government—the Constitution of the United States, is the Federal Constitution. So the federal government has been involved with Alabama prisons since their existence and not once have they stopped the institution of slavery or the slave practices that go on. They always found these prisons to be in violation of the 8th Amendment. In the 1870s they found it as such. The solution, they made Alabama build more prisons. In the 1920s and 30s they found these prisons to be below a human standard. They made Alabama build new prisons. In the 1970s the federal government found these slave-like conditions—plantation slave-like conditions—in federal court. They took the took the prison system over, put it in receivership, made Alabama build new prisons. Every time the federal government gets involved, even a result from that aspect is the same: Alabama ends up building new prisons, everything’s hunky dory, problem solved.
Now, these most recent reports have gone to more simply because of the era and the time that we live in and the magnitude of the microscope that’s on the Alabama prison system. The reason why people are familiar with the Alabama prison system is because of the sacrifices we made with Free Alabama Movement beginning in 2014. Prior to that we very rarely heard anything about the Alabama prison system. Since that time, the Alabama prison system has been the most talked about, has been in the news more than any other prison system in the country. And that’s because we exposed the conditions, the lies, the everything, through our through our methods.
And so, being a Black person in America, the federal government left during reconstruction. The federal government left us during the civil rights era. The federal government has been responsible for the assassinations of our leaders through the COINTELPRO, the Black Power movement, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton Jr., and just recently, the federal government is declining to prosecute these slave catchers, these police officers. They’re not—they just recently announced that they’re not going to do anything about the Tamir Rice assassination. So the federal government has never shown itself to be a friend of the African American people, the brown people, the poor class of white piece of. The federal government is not a friend in this situation. The federal government is part of working hand-in-hand with the state government to create a solution that will become acceptable to the people, but it’s not going to be to solve the problem.
So we don’t see anything. I mean, you think about it. In 2014, the federal government came out with a report to say that the women of Tutwiler were being sexually abused for over 20 years. They didn’t arrest anyone. No one lost their jobs. No one was held accountable. You know what I’m saying? We just saw another report in another state prison system. The federal government has came out with another one of those reports. They’ve came out with two or three reports in the state of Alabama. Murders, cover ups, abusive process, violating oaths, no one is being arrested and held accountable. So there’s nothing about the federal government that we stand here and say, “Our savior has arrived.”
That’s the reason why we continued on with our organize. We got to save ourselves. If you a Black person and you don’t know about COINTELPRO, you don’t know about the things that the federal government has done, you don’t know about the experiments, the genocidal of the federal government has done, if you don’t know about reconstruction and how the federal government left us to be assassinated and slaughtered by the KKK, if you don’t know how J. Edgar Hoover use the federal government tax dollars to carry out a domestic war against Black people rising up from this oppression and you need to do yourself a favor and do research. But you don’t have to go back to the 70s.
You can look at the actions of the federal government, of these police murders, and look at the federal government, their prison system, these laws that Joe Biden and them, these are federal law. These are federal laws. So the federal government is doing the same thing. You know what I’m saying? So these are not, these are not—they’re not here to say today. Unfortunately, they’re here to save America, and the perception of America that’s being put out there as a result of the actions that we’re taken on the inside.
TFSR: I’m wondering, what kind of response do you and—well I know you can’t necessarily speak for other people and I don’t know if FAM has put out like a statement or the national movement—but what sort of response do you have to the proposal by Democrats in the House of, like, a sort of abolition amendment to the constitution that was proposed in early December by Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri to—that would basically take the loophole—take the punishment clause out of the 13th amendment’s language and fully abolish slavery. Do you think that there’s—do you have, are you kind of hopeful about that? Do you think there’s a possibility?
Bennu: It’s a great start. It’s a great conversation piece. It’s an important piece but remember, they’re only talking about changing the language. But as I pointed out a few minutes ago, when the 13th amendment was ratified, it wasn’t just language that was added on to the books. When the language was added, institutions were built, Department of Corrections came into existence as a result of this language. And then there are practices that were put in place, the Convict Leasing system of the of the 19th and early 20th century came into existence because of this law. The stuff that we see with these district attorneys and the judges and the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”, Prison Litigation format, Mandatory Minimums…All of these laws were put in place because of what they were doing as a result of the 13th ammendment. So simply changing the language of the 13th amendment is one thing. What about the institutions that were built because of it? They’re not talking about taking these institutions down which are the prisons and the practices.
Okay. The fact that the language is removed, how does that translate immediately? We saw the language change in Colorado, we saw a change in Utah, we saw a change in Nebraska. But what has changed about the practice, and what has been the change as far as the institutions? We haven’t saw many. We see the guys in Colorado who have filed lawsuits now, which is great, we have to get behind that. But it’s more than just changing language because the language had a practical effect on this country. It caused the prison system that we know today to be built and it caused a certain type of practice where the labor was being exploited and these people created a monopoly over every dime that we get, they control it at 100%. And so all of that has to change with it. And that’s the thing that we emphasizing in the movement. It’s great to see the language but the language is only a start. Is not the end game and we’re not going to be fooled or deceived.
TFSR: So switching gears slightly, let’s talk about the looming pandemic that all of us are experiencing. How have you experienced the pandemic in the Alabama prison system, at your facility in particular. Did the ADOC release prisoners with upcoming release dates or health concerns such as old age or pre-existing conditions who might be especially endangered by the pandemic? I know that was a claim and a—not only the, like, elements of the federal government brought lawsuits against BOP facilities for that, but I know, state by state, certain states made the claim that they would do this thing in order to respect the dignity and the possibility of human life of people that they were putting in cages.
Bennu: Well, you don’t go from a slave owner to a humanitarian and lover of human beings overnight. This pandemic in and of itself, it gave them an opportunity to be confronted with the issues that they had created as a result of what we call, you know, mass concentrating, over incarcerating, and all of that stuff. And they did not address that. The fact that they may’ve released a few people is good PR. But it’s not, it’s not good for human life. So whatever their claim, how many people that claim, we haven’t saw any of it yet.
Like I said, the slaves—the southern state did not free their slaves. They went to war and when the war was over with the only thing they agreed to was to transfer ownership of it over to the government or to nationalize is, as we say. But today, these promises about releasing people, and—it has not been a reality.
You know, if you go back and look at that conversation about the early release, there was a law on the books in Alabama that called for mandatory parole release of people who were sentenced since 2016. They had not been complying. There was no paperwork explaining it, no one knew how it was implemented, you just had a bunch of people talking about it. And so we started talking about it, because I met a guy named ‘Frog’ at Limestone, he brought it to my attention. And when I got to visit this institution, I started researching it. And I found out that this is a law that entitles people go free and the state of Alamaba is not complying with. And so we started talking about it and I started doing a blog on it, started doing radio show talking about it. And then when the pandemic hit, we did a press statement and we mentioned that again. And that was the first time that we received a response from the state. And then they say it’s supposed to be done to Central Records with a process for. So that wasn’t a result of the pandemic, that was a result of activism form us on the inside.
To our knowledge they had not taken any action will save any lives on the inside. And we’re seeing people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties die every day inside these prisons who shouldn’t be shouldn’t be home.
TFSR: Now, I don’t want this question to make it sound like I have any love for guards. But it seems like, state by state, at least with folks that I’ve talked to in Ohio in particular, more recently, that—and I know that this has been the case in the past in Alabama where there’s been, like, just broiling conflict between the workers in these facilities and the administration’s that are wanting to cut back on staffing, cut back on, you know, health concerns, cut back on things that would increase the safety for guards when they’re in there doing whatever job they’re doing. And I would imagine that it’s been a similar situation for the staff of the prisons during this pandemic, that they’ve also been thrown under the bus by the administration because it’s still about money. And they’re just cogs in the machine. Is that an okay way of looking at it? And has that grabbed any traction?
Bennu: Yeah, I mean, these people, they’re human beings. They got jobs, they got families, they’re not trying to take COVID home to kill anybody in their family. But the fact of he matter is, in order for them to make a living and to afford the lifestyle that they’ve been able to afford with the skills that they have—you know, they don’t recruit correctional officers from Harvard, or Yale, or Moorehouse. They recruit these people out of margins of society with, you know, limited education.
These people come here and they’re told that, you know, you want your debt—credit paid up, you want to get afford to get hair done, you want to get you a house and a car. This job will provide a middle class lifestyle for you with a GED, that’s the only thing that’s required is a GED. So they take the job, benefits, paid holiday, off time and everything. And then when they get inside, they don’t really have to do a lot of work. So from their perspective this is a good financial offer for them. And so we understand what brings them here.
And then for the Black officers, you know, there’s only a limited amount of jobs already available to Black people, and it’s very few of them that is going to allow them to have the lifestyle that they have with the education and socio economic background that they come from. So we not oblivious to all of it.
Be that as it may, when they come inside these places, they know what’s wrong, they see what’s wrong. And they’re not sophisticated enough to even understand the danger to themselves. No one will be walking on. Anyone reasonable, sensible person will not be coming up in here. Like, you know, but it is what it is.
I mean, we’re here, they’re here we’re all in this shit together to a degree. You know, we’re not on the same side of the fence. But hell, if COVID comes they bringing the shit in and we’re getting it and the state ain’t checking us or checking them, then we just transferring it back and forth to each other. So I mean, it’s just, it’s overwhelming. It really is. It’s overwhelming to see that… people!
You know—and we have to have that conversation. We have to educate and enlighten. But all of us are stuck in the damn fishbowl and the people who are making the shots, calling the shots and making the decisions, they’re in downtown Montgomery, they’re in the state capitals or they’re in Washington, DC. They’re insulated and far removed from this shit. And they have enough money to saved up, they wealthy enough that they can take the time off, they can secure themselves.
And so, you know, this pandemic, the way that is being managed, the lack of investment, the lack of legitimate resources, PPE and whatnot, the lack of bleach, the lack of cleaning supplies, the overcrowding, the inability to social distance, is just—it’s a slaughter, you know. It’s a human slaughter, it’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s very underreported, it’s under appreciated. People don’t really understand what we’re up against here, how many people are dying, how many people to sick. I’m pretty sure I had contracted COVID seen it in real time.
And people talking about the pandemic, like, before the COVID-19 pandemic there was already several epidemics. Alabama prisons became the most violent prisons in the nation. The murder rate leads the nation, the suicide rate is one of the leading in the nation, the drug overdose rate, one of the leading in the nation. You know, the malnutrition over a long period of time, with the body causing people to die early, you know what I’m saying? Our mortality rate is like seven or eight years younger than the average person in society just from being in prison. Some people die a lot sooner because of the inadequate health care. We see mental health people who don’t even have the faculty to protect themselves and COVID or anyone else.
And the drugs. See, people are overlooking the drugs in this epidemic. When you have a drug addiction with these drugs that they have today—this Flaka, this Ice, these mind-altering drugs—when you have that, and you have people when they wake up in the morning and they done sold everything they got, they done sold they bodies, they’re prostituting themselves out, they’re doing it—they’re willing to do anything for a high. These people don’t have masks. If they get a brand new mask they gone sell it because they gone sell it to get high. And so now you have this going on in the midst of a pandemic, that’s going to continue to keep the pandemic in circulation. And the drugs? The drugs in and of themselves is already killing people. So we have a drug pandemic going on, we have a violence issue pandemic going on, we have suicide issue epidemic going on, and then you gonna add a pandemic on top of that with a virus that for what we got going on inside the prisons, the way that we’re forced to live, the culture that we’re forced to live in—I mean, there’s nothing else that could—you either gonna—only two things can be done. You can release us and take us out of this hell, or you could stand back and watch us die and they chose the last version. They standing back and watching us die.
TFSR: On the day after Christmas, there was an uprising at McCormick CI in South Carolina that led to some attempted escapes and the taking and eventual release of unharmed guards by the prisoners. It’s a different state. You did mention that South Carolina folks are organizing in this and I was wondering if you had any comments about what you heard about the circumstances of people incarcerated at McCormick, the deprivation caused by the prison cracks. Like, that’s a facility that I know, like, in the lead up to 2018 there had been a situation where the windows had been bolted over with steel plates denying sunlight to people on the inside. People were in a lockback situation. I believe South Carolina like a lot of other states, particularly around the US South, the former slave-holding states—although not limited to that—have to like experience gladiator fights that are coordinated by the guards that are standing over them who bet money on who’s going to survive them. I wonder if you can talk about what you’ve heard about McCormick?
Bennu: Well, we haven’t really got a lot as far as the detail go. We know that those guys are being subject to relentless cell searches, security searches, they’re trying to get their phones out because they don’t want those guys to get the story out. That’s the emphasis that the state has. But when you see something like that, you know, you’re witnessing human survival. These guys are doing what they have to do to survive. You can call it an escape all you want to, but the fact is, if you’re in an environment where you’re threatened with death and the people who have responsibility to protect you are the ones who are also threatened, then you gotta do something to get out, you know what I’m saying? And the fact that they chose that route means that they didn’t see any other way to survive. Because, you know, how we frame it to talk about it, our survival is this thing, and we’re not going to survive the COVID-19 unless something groundbreaking and monumental occurs and people gonna have to be released from these.
A lot of these prisons are gonna have to be closed down. If that doesn’t happen, a lot of people on a die. And whatever anyone does to escape that death, you know, I’m all for, you know what I’m saying? I understand it, I know it when I see it. And those guys are trying to escape death, you know what I’m saying, they’re not trying to escape prison, they’re trying to escape death. And that was what they did, you know, allegedly. And so if that be the case, you know what I’m saying, we can’t blame them and we support them, you know what I’m saying? We don’t blame them, we don’t criticize them, we don’t have anything negative to say about what they’ve done. We support them because everyone has the right to live and the state is taking that away inside these prisons. They’re saying that we don’t even have a right to live, they can create an environment where we can be—our lives can be in jeopardy and it’s okay. You know what I’m saying? They’ve got to release—they’ve got to, they’ve got to alleviate the crowding in these prisons, and if they don’t want to do it for us, then we have to take action to do it for ourselves.
TFSR: I’d be interested in your experience of the uprisings that this year in response to the ongoing killing of Black, brown, and poor people by police, sparked by the broadcast of the murder of George Floyd and by the Minneapolis police, and the resulting swell in calls for defunding and abolition of policing, as well as of prisons. The abolitionist movement in the US recognizes—most of it recognizes police and prisons as an anti-Black settler state—like, in that situation—as being two arms of the same beast.
Bennu: It’s very important, like, I wrote about that in my book and what that means to people because we always want people to understand that these people who are being murdered by the police, over 95, 98% of them, the police are there to bring them to a prison. Breonna Taylor, they was trying to take somebody.
Bennu: George Floyd, they was trying to take him to prison. Sandra Bland, they’re trying to take her to prison. Mike Brown, they were trying to take him to prison. And if you survived the bullet in the streets, then you get inside these prisons and you ain’t surviving that, you know what I’m saying? But all of it is interconnected, it’s all part of the same system. That’s the reason the police are involved. Everyone in prison, the police were involved. So people have to remember, there’s a lot of people in prison who survived those gunshots.
And they survived them at a time and in the climate where you couldn’t get the charges dropped like Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend. A lot of these guys had to carry those charges on through. Think about the charges that Mike Brown would have been facing had he survived: resisting arrest, assault on officer, aggravated assault, whatever the store clerk would have been caller. He would have all those charges. He would’ve had an outrageous bond, so there’s the bail bonding issue. He would’ve ended up having to plead guilty, there’s the plea issue again. And then he would have been sentenced as a violent offender, there’s the violent label again. He wouldn’t have been made parole, there’s that issue again. All of it’s interconnected. All of it’s interconnected. And some of it—some people’s end came on the street, some people’s end are want to be inside of a prison as a result of the rest of the dragnet that they got set up. So it’s all connected now.
Seeing people rise up like that, you know, we see so many things on the news. We here so many things. We don’t really know what’s going on. I can’t—I can speak for myself, I’m not gonna try to—I don’t know what it was going on. I saw all the people out there. I saw them worldwide. I saw them demanding stuff, but the type of changes that I want to see, I didn’t hear them. I didn’t hear the call for Reparations, I hear people saying like, you know, a lot of white people integrated into it, there’s a lot of anarchists… You know, I don’t know what all this stuff looks like, I just hear these names and see all these faces for probation and parole officers get burned up, so. I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know what inspires them to do this. So I really don’t know what I’m seeing, because we hear so many different things like they say that people will come in these situations occur and be behind the scenes hijacking, you know, and all we got into World News and the internet, you know. We don’t really know what all of that was all about, what caused all of that. What we do know is that the manner that George Floyd was killed was gut-wrenching that these people can sit there, in hindsight, and understand just how brutal and barbaric that was.
And I think that that’s one of the things—I don’t know if that’s the main thing, you know, human psychology, the way that we all connected, I don’t know. But I imagine that just sitting there watching this man having the life snuffed out of him live by a callous, unconcerned police officer who’s doing everything by the book, you know, everything that they were doing was by the book. And this tells you what the book looks like, you know, and that same training from the book that they got is the same training that these officers got in these prisons. And so I mean, it’s just, we connected on a lot of levels but like I said, we connected with the experience that George Floyd went through. I can’t speak for other guys’ experience, I don’t know what they were involved in. I was not conscious, before I got incarcerated, so I was not out in—hadn’t been to no protest. I was locked up when the Million Man Movement occurred and so I have not been a part of any of this stuff. So I’m still an observer and I’m still learning, you know, but I can just speak to my experiences as a Black person and identify with what happened to George Floyd on that day. And I know that there are numerous times where they could have killed me, you know? So. But it was good to see that people cared about that all around the world, that people were paying attention to that all around the world. I don’t know what their narratives were or none of that stuff. But just the fact that that many people paid attention to the murder of another black man, that was good.
But on the flip side, on the inside, you know, these are moments that we are constantly allowing ourselves to be left out of. That’s why I’m talking about building this national coalition led from the inside so we can be connected so when things like this happen, we can we can get involved, you know what I’m saying? We can get involved in a lot of this stuff. When people go out into the street marching, protesting, we can get connected and build a proper coalition.
The second part of your question about defunding police and all of that and all of this stuff as being connected, the abolitionist movement, you know, again, you know, this is stuff that we are getting snippets, snippets of. We want to defund prisons, we want to defund the parole board, we want to defund all of this stuff. But we got some stuff we want to defund too, you know. So I mean, but the thing is, everybody needs to be working together. Everyone who sees and understands that all of these systems are interconnected, we all need to be working together. The hunger strikers—I saw a report that one of the hunger strikers in Alabama was retaliated against, was jumped on by police. And, you know, there’s still. There’s something going on in Alabama, but the things that he just suffered that they beat him for, are going on all around the United States.
So why aren’t we all on conference calls? Or why don’t we all in some type of regional calls talking about this and the other things that are going on? Ice detention facility in New Jersey, the fires being said throughout the Texas prison system. You know, why aren’t we on the phone talking about these things and trying to figure out what is it that we all need to be doing collectively, instead of state by state, you know what I’m saying? Sporadic by sporadic. We got to turn up a whole lot more in order for our problems to go away. So that’s the focus me man. To defund things are great, you know, if the people are talking about in society, but I’m more concerned with what guys on the inside of talking about. We need to make sure that our voices are being heard, the issues that we have. We’re vocalizing those, and that we have a plan of action with methods and tactics, strategies that we can use from the inside. And that’s what’s up with us.
TFSR: Bennu, was there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to address on this episode?
Bennu: I can’t think of anything. Just wondered—I know we have personal conversations and then we have these conversations, just make sure that the personal conversations are separated out from this.
Bennu: And I guess you can delete them or whatever you do. I just want to make sure that there’s nothing like that. And other than that, no, I don’t. What about you? What—is there anything else you want to ask? Are there other things going on that you think I might be—need to know about?
TFSR: Nobody ever asked me questions when I’m the microphone talking to them. This is an awkward position to be in. Oh, hold on one second, will you?
Bennu: Okay. [chuckling]
TFSR: So I haven’t I haven’t asked anyone about this specifically, and we haven’t said a thing on our show about it. But anti-prison activists, activists for liberation, abolitionists—on the inside, especially—are always in danger of dying or do die. And they don’t necessarily get a lot of recognition from the outside. I want to, like, go into this question recognizing that. But there were a couple of activists in Florida recently who passed. Karen Smith and Rebecca Hensley. There were outside activists who had a lot of connections to a lot of folks behind bars and we’re known in their communities for not just advocating but also, like, amplifying the voices of folks on the inside. And I wonder if you want to say anything about either of them, if you had a relationship with them, or since a year did pass, if you want to name anyone?
Bennu: Okay, well always, you know, we like to uplift Richard Mafundi Lake,he’s joined the ancestors also. And he’s the one that’s helped most of us. Taught us conscious. Taught us, you know, taught us struggle, he taught us revolution, you know? He revolutionized our mind. He broke us away from the stuff that was destroying the community and taught us how to be it.
I knew of Karen, I didn’t—I don’t think I’ve had a personal relationship with her. You know, so many mail, I don’t know if I’ve ever recieved mail or anything from her. But Rebecca, I do know Rebecca. We talked several times. She sent me the book, Albert Woodfox’s book. I got it right here with me now. So we talked and communicated with some of—she told me a lot about what she was doing in Louisiana with the guys in the Louisiana prison system and stuff.
And so yeah, I mean, but we got to replace them, you know. This is a long-term struggle. This is a long-term struggle. And these are great people that came in and did great things. And now some other people have to step up and replace those people. And, you know what I’m saying, learn from the examples that they led by, learn from their writings, learn from the relationships that they built, and then apply that and keep moving, keep pushing the movement forward. You know, so other people have to step up, now’s an opportunity for others to step up and fill these gaps that have been left by these people who are passed on. But that’s part of the struggle, too, you know. We have to be resilient. We have to be resourceful. We have to listen to what our elders taught us and pay attention to history. And then we have to apply that to our next move. Like they say in the game, you want your next move your best move. Well when you rely on the experiences of people like that, and what they left behind. In addition to what’s going on today, man, you put yourself in that position, though. We salute to them and appreciate everything they’ve done. Like I say, I didn’t know Karen well but I did know Rebecca and I know that she was beloved in the community.
TFSR: Awesome. Well, thank you so much Bennu for this conversation. And I’ll make sure to plug in all the information so folks can can get in touch with you and I hope this helps the struggle and helps to build that network. Stay healthy.
We also talk about Jalil Muntaqim’s release from prison after almost 50 years. Well, he’s been re-arrested by a politically motivated warrant from Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley’s office for allegedly attempting to register to vote and is being accused of voter fraud! There is an article and a petition and more information available on the SFBayView National Black Newspaper’s website.
More information on the case and support for Eric King can be found at SupportEricKing.Org. To hear our chat with Eric from last year, take a listen to this interview. Also, the recent interview by the Solecast of Robcat of Fire Ant Journal (to which Eric contributes) was quite lovely.
We’ll close out now with a track entitled “Back To You” and performed by The Hills The Rivers. You can find it and more on the album Burning Down: The Songs of Anarchist Prisoner Sean Swain.
The following is a conversation between folks involved in anti-repression work in 5 parts of the so-called US. The goal was to present a zoomed out vision of scope and patterns of repression since the Floyd Uprising of this summer, particularly as the US sits in a period of heightened tensions around the elections and continued killings by police. Please consider sharing this chat around. We need to be ready to push back against repression and support the mostly BIPOC folks facing heavy charges for hitting the streets against white supremacy.
In the conversation, we hear about a few cases of folks attacked and/or killed by police in the communities our guests come from and whose memories contributed to the Uprising where they were. These include:
Rodney J. Freeman (killed by Dane County Police in Wisconsin);
Elliot T. Johnson (killed by Monona Police in Wisconsin);
Jacob Blake (brazenly injured by Kenosha Police);
John T Williams (killed by Seattle Police);
Charleena Lyles (killed by Seattle Police);
Kevin Peterson, Jr. (killed by Clark County Sheriff deputies in Washington State);
Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal (killed by Salt Lake City Police);
Atlanta: Rayshard Brooks (killed by Atlanta Police);
The Right To Rebel Against Slavery: The Case of Ruchell Cinque Magee
This week, you’ll hear Ruchell Magee speak about his struggle over 57 years to be heard in the California court system and appeals to US Federal courts. Ruchell is the lone, surviving prisoner-participant of the August 7th, 1970 Marin County Courthouse Rebellion, lead by Jonathan Jackson and including prisoner rebels William Christmas and James McClain. Ruchell took the name of Cinque (aka Sengbe Pieh), the Mende man who justified for his right to resist unjust enslavement aboard the slave ship Amistad in 1839. Over the years Ruchell has become an accomplished jailhouse lawyer, helping many other prisoners and yet still languishing in prison.
I found this interview extremely illuminating, perhaps like many other people who might not have strong ties to either academia or popular education models of learning, I had sort of written Oscar Wilde off as this kind of white dead rich guy who carried little to no relevance apart from a model of queerness that we could look back on. This interview very much proved that this isn’t the case, and that he and the circumstances around him very much influence how we as queers and as anarchists can sense historical threads that pull on our lives very tangibly today. Thanks a million to Scott for researching and conducting this interview!
You can learn more about the author, Kristian Williams, who is most known for his book Our Enemies in Blue, which is a critical history of American policing and police, at his website kristianwilliams.com.
Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!
One announcement before we begin from our comrades at the Charlotte Uprising, Charlotte Jail Support has been getting extremely targeted harassment for some months from CMPD and the sheriff’s department. In times of rebellion or revolt, it is the support infrastructures that are often the most vulnerable to repression and violence. All of their supplies have either been seized or destroyed by the police, if you would like to support them re upping their much needed materials, you can Venmoing them @Ashwilliamsclt or Cash App $houseofkanautica.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Scott’s interview of Kristian Williams on Kristian’s book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, published in 2020 by AK Press. Thanks to Jim of the MKE Lit Supply for all the work!
Kristian Williams on The Final Straw
First aired on 9/12/2020 at https://TFSR.WTF
Scott (TFSR): I’m talking to Kristen Williams, who just published the book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Kristian, would you please just introduce yourself, your pronouns, your name and any information that you think would be pertinent to the listeners of the Final Straw?
Kristian: Sure. I’m Kristian Williams, author of a handful of books, probably most famously Our Enemies in Blue, which is a history of the police in the United States. As you mentioned, my most recent book is Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, which is probably the book that has taken me the longest to write. I started working on it about 13 years ago.
Scott (TFSR): Oh wow. Is it nice to have it out? Was it a big passion project for you?
Kristian: Yeah, it was the thing that I was always working on, never finishing, and had a surprisingly hard time interesting publishers. I think everyone I approached about it, their first response was, “that sounds great, but no.” Eventually AK [Press] asked to take another look at it, and I don’t know, here it is.
Scott (TFSR): Well, that’s exciting. And I’m glad [for] that.The shadow of Oscar Wilde kind of loomed large for a long time on anything that was related to him,so I’m glad that’s not still persisting, and they published the book. I also just incidentally, as an aside, I was writing my dissertation with a chapter on Wilde and got super sick during it, writing about Dorian Gray. And I ended up in the hospital, and I couldn’t finish that chapter, so I don’t know if there’s like a curse with writing on Oscar. I always thought about that. All right. Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about Oscar Wilde and anarchism. The main argument of your book is that to really understand Oscar Wilde, or at least to understand Oscar Wilde as a political thinker, we need to think about all of his art and philosophy through the lens of anarchism. And it’s really exciting to read the book and see how Wilde kind of intersected with anarchism and anarchists at the time. To read about the history, like the fear of anarchism that we’re [still] presented with today, and then just like getting another perspective on Wilde as a person, his relation to the aesthetic movement, the beginning of the queer movements, and all of these things I think still are pertinent today. I think a lot of people have heard of Oscar Wilde, maybe read a little bit or heard his epigrams, but do you think you could just give a quick overview of who he was as a figure and a person?
Kristian: Sure. Let me see if I can do this at all efficiently. So, Wilde was born into the Irish aristocracy, educated at Trinity College in Dublin and then in Oxford, where he excelled in classics. Immediately, [he] became of sort of an early example of a person who was famous for being famous.Having developed a kind of celebrity and notoriety before he had really accomplished very much,[he] then leveraged that notoriety into a year long, a little bit more, lecture tour in the United States on the aesthetic movement. After that, he went on to publish a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then really rose to prominence with a set of four society plays, which were sort of nominally comedies about the manners and dramas of the elite of English society. At the peak of his popularity he became embroiled in a dispute with the Marquess of Queensberry, because Wilde was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Queensberry’s son, which led Queensberry toward more and more public and offensive behavior toward Wilde, which then led Wilde to file a ill-advised lawsuit for libel, which Queensberry very aptly turned back on him and produced criminal charges for gross indecency, which was the criminal term for homosexuality. That led Wilde to prison for a couple of years. He lost his family, lost his fortune, lived the short remainder of his life in exile in France and died virtually penniless.
Scott (TFSR): Thanks for that overview. And I want to touch on a few of those elements that you brought up just, [but] because this is an anarchist radio show podcast—I [want to] to start with anarchism in particular—did Wilde identify as an anarchist?
Kristian: There are two occasions when he did. One was an interview in which he said, “once I was a poet and a tyrant, but now I am an artist and an anarchist.” And another, in a separate interview, he said, [when] asked about his politics, he said, “I’m a socialist, but we’re all socialists nowadays, so I must be something more. I think perhaps I’m an anarchist.” There were other occasions where he sort of flirted with the term, and probably my favorite is in a letter.He tells the story of being on a sailing trip with these two young men, and them getting caught in a storm, and it taking hours for them to get back to port. And when they got there, they were freezing cold and completely drenched and they rushed back to their hotel and ordered brandy. And the hotel proprietors sadly explained to them that because it was after 10 o’clock on a Sunday, the law prohibited him selling brandy. But given the circumstances, he decided he would just give them the brandy. And Wilde’s comment was along the lines of,“Not a bad outcome, but what utterly stupid laws” and then he finishes by saying that,“the two young men are, of course, now anarchists.”
Scott (TFSR): If I knew that that was the way to convert people, I’d be taking more sailing trips with young men. I’m always wondering. So, he used the term sometimes, but clearly anarchism and anarchists were out and about in Wilde’s time. I’m wondering a little bit what the common conception at the moment was of anarchism, and anarchists, and how it might have changed since then.
Kristian: At the time, it was considered practically synonymous with terrorism, and in particular of a foreign Eastern European sort of conspiratorial, random blowing things up kind of terrorism. That reputation has in different forms haunted anarchism really since the beginning. And while the sort of bomb throwing aspect has always been very much a minority affair of what anarchism is about, it wasn’t entirely baseless. I mean, there was a tendency called propaganda by the deed, which had this theory that a spectacular attack against the symbols of authority would reveal authority to be both artificial and vulnerable and inspire the masses to an uprising. In fact [though] it never worked out that way. It was a theory that was partly developed under the circumstances of autocratic rule in Russia, and then exported into Western democracies. In Russia, where it was basically illegal to even speak about anarchism, there was a certain rationality to moving to direct attack.And that was also in a way legible to the population who was also suffering under this kind of censorship. But when it moved into the Western countries, really the effect was to baffle the population and to largely turn them against anarchism, as it became synonymous with things randomly blowing up. Wilde, in fact, in one of those interviews that I quoted earlier immediately followed his statements that he must be an anarchist with, “But of course, the dynamite policy is quite absurd.” Meaning that even at the point where he was embracing this term, partly for its shock value, he also felt like he needed to distance himself from its more extreme and somewhat bloody elements.
Scott (TFSR): And that’s interesting. Do you think that there’s a way that he uses the term specifically for it’s just like surface level or superficial subversiveness or, as you said, the shock value?
Kristian: I think that he always wanted to be just shocking enough to be interesting, and not so shocking as to actually get himself into trouble. Which was a line that he was not always successful in judging, obviously. And so yeah, I would suspect that some of his rhetoric about that was chosen, like in those particular instances, [it] was chosen for the way he positioned himself outside of the mainstream. When he said, “well, I’m a socialist, but we’re all rather socialists nowadays. So I must be something more,”it suggests that he’s looking for the position, which is just slightly too far. Interestingly though, in his most directly political writing, which is called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”what he describes is a socialism without the structures of coercion or authority. And he’s very explicit about that. He doesn’t use the term anarchism anywhere in the essay. And in fact, he begins one paragraph by saying “Communism, socialism or whatever we choose to call it,” sort of signaling that the particular distinctions may not be that important and that in any case the word is certainly not the thing that matters.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because there’s a strategic way to use the word anarchism to get people interested, to get people to talk about things, and to use the way that it’s presented and represented in media. But then attachment to the word doesn’t necessarily help it if people are sort of doing their own thing. That was really illuminating to me to hear you put it that way. Since you brought up “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” kind of the central argument of your book is that this provides a key to give Wilde’s whole body of work a certain kind of cohesion through the lens of anarchism. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more more about some of the ideas that he presents in that essay. And then if you want to move on to how it shows up in other writings of Wilde’s.
Kristian: He begins the essay by saying that the main value of socialism is that it would free us from the burden of living for other people. Basically, in a society where everyone’s needs were being taken care of, it would be possible for people to pursue their own interests and to develop what is unique about themselves in a way that the burden of earning a living and the responsibility for taking care of your family, your dependents and all that sort of thing really limits a person’s ability to freely explore whatever it is that they find fascinating, both in the world and of themselves. And so he starts right at the beginning by arguing that the purpose of socialism is that it would make a kind of individualism possible. And in his conception, these two notions of socialism and individualism are tightly bound together. And that it’s possible for certain extremely privileged people to exercise a kind of individualism under capitalism, but for the vast majority of humanity, their lives are too taken up with drudgery and the struggle for survival.And a socialist economy would relieve them of that set of burdens, and therefore makes individualism a universal pursuit. He argues that when that becomes available we’ll see this whole renaissance of culture and art and science and intellectual and an aesthetic sort of blossoming of the human spirit. And then at the same time, he argues that any kind of authority or coercion is corrosive of that entire project, and that therefore no authoritarian socialism would be acceptable. What’s needed is socialism as this kind of voluntary association between free and equal individuals, which I’m not the first person to note is basically the anarchist conception.
Scott (TFSR): Right. That’s interesting, the emphasis on individualism. So in the way that puts him in a different place than some of the other aesthetic aesthetes and decadents. It made me think of that famous line [from the] Goncourt brothers about, you know, living our servants do that for us. The way that Wilde talks about some people, the people who are allowed to live some version of individualism are [enabled] to create beautiful things or even to think like that. Profound thoughts are relying on the work of others to do that. So his his individualism isn’t like a kind of selfish, narcissistic individualism, but one that is trying to extend that privilege to everyone.
Kristian: Exactly. And what I argue in the book is that if we take Wilde’s political writing, and in particular,“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” seriously, it helps us understand a lot of his other work, and that you see [that] marriage of individualism and socialism (and that version of individualism that should not just be the special property of the aristocracy) show up in other respects. And maybe the place where that pairing is clearest is in those lectures on aestheticism that he delivered in the United States. Where in addition to talking about the importance of sort of surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and treating life itself as a kind of art, meaning making the process of living as beautiful as possible. He also talks surprisingly much about labor and about investing in the skill and the craftsmen of the workers, such that the process of work becomes a creative pursuit and is pleasurable and then also produces beautiful things. Rather than everything being simply judged by its commercial value, and the worker simply being this kind of cog in a giant capitalist machine, where all of his initiative and all of the creativity is removed from the process in order to maximize the efficiency of profit.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that was really exciting to me to read your argument in the book. One line that that especially stood out to me. You make the claim that while socialism is more aesthetic than economic, because, “ it takes as its model the artist, rather than a proletarian, and as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker.” And that sticks out to me because I think you can [take as model the artist], just thinking about anarchism today. But I was wondering if you maybe would elaborate a little bit on this idea of shifting the revolutionary subject away from the traditional understanding of the workers, that kind of disciplined [and] manly person, and maybe that can also verge onto a critique of work, too. There’s a lot of anarchism goes away from this kind of idolizing of the worker as the person that will lead us to freedom. So, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about what this shift in thinking allows us to see for revolutionary politics.
Kristian: Yeah. I don’t know if he had an idea of a revolutionary subject, as you put it. Like, I don’t know that he thought that there was a particular class of people who were going to be responsible for the transformation of society, or at least not a particular economic class. What I meant in that passage was that rather than seeing the proletariat as the class that would become all of humanity, and therefore the model of how human beings would be, he looked to the artist. And so part of that, I think shows the influence of William Morris, who considered himself a Marxist, but whose politics are pretty hard to fit into any current conception of Marxism. And Morris largely thought that the purpose of socialism was to—rather than sort of a standard Marxist conception where industrialization will produce a particular class of worker who will then take over society—Morris thought that the purpose of socialism was to destroy industrialization, that he wanted to get rid of the factory system and its rigid division of labor, and in particular, this conception that there was a class of people who sort of designed and created and imagined the products of the world, and then there was this other class of people who were basically just like hired hands, who just did the work by rote without any input into the process. Instead, he wanted production to take the form of skilled artisans, bringing their full creativity to their work, and also therefore experiencing the work as an expression of their creative selves and finding joy and pleasure in the process of creation. And Wilde basically took Morris’s conception on the whole, which suggests that under socialism, rather than society being organized on the factory model with this mass of proletarians, who basically just like have the position in the assembly line and do the same rote task over and over again, that society would be organized as this free collective of artists and craftsmen, who would be able to express their individualism in the creative process while also providing for the needs of the society. So I don’t know that it’s a question of the revolutionary subject. It’s more a question of like: Under socialism, is the world populated by proletarians or is the world populated by artists? And the hope was that under conditions of freedom and equality, work would be more like art and therefore the individuals doing it would be more like artists and less like assembly line workers.
Scott (TFSR): Right. And that’s interesting these ideas, like you said [with regard to] industrialization, modernization. I mean, in Wilde’s concept of socialism there are machines that do the kind of dirty work so that people don’t have to and they kind of replaced that class of people. But this isn’t to enable some hyper-modernization, but to enable a kind of smaller scale of life that allows people to engage in the pursuits they want rather than this larger idea of driving civilization on, or something like that?
Kristian: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.
Scott (TFSR): There’s another thing that they’re brought up for me that is interesting because, you know, when you think of aestheticism, you think of Wilde and Art—art with a capital A—there’s already a kind of class distinction that’s assumed within.High Art versus other forms of art, but Wilde maybe through Morris and also Ruskin, [who] I know was like a teacher of his, isn’t making this big distinction between high art and crafts or other forms of creation. So then he’s also kind of envisioning a classless art world—would you say that’s right?
Kristian: I would say at his best, that is right. I think he was also prone to a certain amount of snobbery and ready to claim certain privileges of an Artist—with a capital A—that may not extend to everyone in society. And both sides of that showed up in his trial, where on the one hand when they tried to cite his writings as evidence against him and brought in The Picture of Dorian Gray and a set of aphorisms he had contributed to an Oxford magazine and that sort of thing,and they would ask him things like, “well, what is the interpretation that an ordinary person would put to these lines?” And Wilde would say something to the effect of, “I know nothing of the opinions of ordinary people, I’m only concerned with the opinions of artists.” And so he was willing to fall back onto a sort of special status for the artist, and in particular that artists could only be judged by other artists. At the same time, though, the prosecutor was absolutely outraged that the young men that he was associating with were often men of the lower classes. They were servants of various kinds or people who were just frankly out of work. And though nominally the court was concerned with the sort of homosexual nature of these relationships, the fact that he was bringing these servants into polite society was as much a focus of the cross-examination as any sort of sexual relation. And so the prosecutor would repeatedly ask questions like, “is this the sort of young man that a gentleman should associate with?” And Wilde would respond,“Absolutely—if the young man is interesting.” And he said over and over again, “I recognize social distinctions, not at all.” Meaning he didn’t care about their origins. He didn’t care about what they did for a living. What he cared about was their personal beauty and their radiant personalities. And that in particular was outrageous to polite society, in a way that [with regard to] mere same sex relations (there was a lot of that sort of thing at like the British public schools and then at Oxford and Cambridge) the men of Wales class were somewhat ambivalent about that. But the cross-class nature really was outrageous to public opinion and ultimately to the law.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that’s something that you elaborate [on] a little bit in the book in a way that I found very interesting. That people at the time, [some of whom] were anarchists and some weren’t, were kind of thinking about the cross-class same sex relationships as a sort of liberatory engagement. And that made me think that there’s sort of seeds of the radical gay liberation or queer liberation movements already in place in the end of the 19th century when these things were kind of being defined. I mean, I don’t know if any of these thinkers would go so far, but I was like reading into this this idea that men across class having relationships would be a sort of undermining of capitalist society. Could you talk a little bit about how the ways of this kind of cross-class relationship were being fought by the queer and anarchist thinkers at the time?
Kristian: Yeah, [and] this wasn’t just an anxiety on the behalf of the aristocracy. The men engaging in these relationships often did sort of theorize that it was going to destroy the class barrier and thus crash the social hierarchy, and that for them that seemed like an advantage. Of course, in retrospect, that all seems very naive, right? Like the ideas that wealthy aristocrats paying young men of the lower order for sex would destroy class relations just seems sort of fanciful. But it was a popular notion among radicals in those circles at the time. And I think to understand that, we need to remember sort of the difference between the traditional British class system and the sort of emerging capitalist system, where they still had the trappings of an aristocratic hierarchy, so that class position wasn’t simply a matter of who had money and who didn’t. And the divisions between the classes weren’t simply a question of one class being an employing in class and one class being a laboring class. The differences were also cultural, and it was possible to be kind of a destitute aristocrat, and it was also possible to make a fortune and yet remain ultimately sort of a middle class person. That [it] was a matter of both of the culture and the expectations and the values that people in those positions would have. But it was also a matter of how they would be regarded socially. So that in some way would even be more respectable to be an impoverished aristocrat than it would be to be a wealthy merchant. So there was this element where simply having kind of intimate contact with people of other social classes seemed subversive, seemed destructive of the barriers that kept them apart. And in particular, Wilde’s interest in the culture of the lower classes, and then also his interest in exposing them to what we would call High Art seems deliberately like trying to erase that cultural line between the upper and [the] lower. Though interestingly, he had basically no interest in the middle classes at all.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, which I guess makes sense. So there’s something interesting there, too, because you know, Wilde initiated a libel suit against the Marquees of Queensberry because he left this card at the hotel, where Wilde was staying.[And] that at least one reading of it, you say in the book of that card, posing as a sodomite reads like a misspelling. So he is being accused of posing as a homosexual. So this just made me think about how the class positions weren’t necessarily tied to actual wealth. But you could kind of portray the image of an aristocrat. And I wonder to what extent that relates to an understanding of aestheticism, like the kind of the idle dandy and the aristocratic bend to that. But you’re arguing that even though that’s one understanding aestheticism, it actually has a kind of anarchist political and ethical value or valence or something. So, yeah, I’m kind of thinking [and] wondering about this idea of posing, posing as queer [or] posing as an anarchist, and how Wilde uses these different positions.
Kristian: So artificiality was, in Wilde’s schema, a value rather than a vice. And part of that was that he had this idea that the purpose of life was this kind of self-cultivation, [this] sort of self-creation, which means that to a certain extent it is going to be an artificiality, that is going to be an element of artistry to the life that you create for yourself and the character that you develop in yourself, and also the presentation that you make to the world. And Wilde very deliberately created an image of himself early on as this sort of idle genius, and also as this person who in some ways was outside of the categories of conventional society. And he relayed that with his sort of flamboyant dress. He created that image by making a habit of saying outrageous things as he matured, the outrageous things that you said tend to have more of a subversive undercurrent to them. But especially early on, [it] seems like he was often just reaching for the thing that was going to outrage public opinion. So there was always this matter of posing.And one of his aphorisms is that it’s only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. One of the things he meant by that is that it is the appearance that we choose for ourselves. That is the way that we decide to present ourselves to the world. And that that’s important, right? And that, you know, it’s like you can tell a lot about somebody from what they choose to show you. So there was always this self-consciousness to Wilde’s presentation, especially publicly, and there was connected in that a gendered element where he presented himself as the sort of foppish, flamboyant aesthete, which was always interpreted like the dandy, [which] was always understood as sort of an effeminate character. But it actually wasn’t really until Wilde’s scandal that it was fully identified also as a homosexual character. And so he was often seen and sometimes mocked as this living affront to the ideals of masculinity. And this is hard for us to kind of imagine now, but at the time that wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. Which makes Queensberry’s claim that he was posing as a sodomite, a little bit complicated. And part of the work that the trial did was to construct this notion of what a sodomite is like, such that a person could be posing as it. And this gains a kind of circular momentum, where the image that it constructs is partly the negation of the ideal of a respectable middle class family man, but partly just the reflection of the image that Wilde has been projecting all along. And so in the course of the trial, what a sodomite is, the figure of the sodomite, is built so that Wilde will resemble it. Then once that equation takes hold, Wilde really becomes the icon of sort of what a gay man is expected to be like. I’m borrowing here from the work of Alan Sinfield, who wrote a book called The Wilde Century, which makes this argument in about 250 pages. So if you’re interested in that, and how exactly that happened, that is the place to look.
Scott (TFSR): It seems really important, and something maybe a lot of people don’t know, is that we’ve inherited a kind of gay male type or stereotype that can be traced back to Wilde, and these trials.That even over over 100 years, a lot of that hasn’t changed that kind of identity type that Wilde embodied, or even like the lampoon of Wilde’s identity still marks understandings of gay male effeminacy and campness, how Sontag talks about him. So I think you bring that out really interestingly. But like in your book, the thing that I think is really important that you add is that in the aftermath of Wilde’s trial, the queerness of Wilde sort of has an influence on anarchist thinkers at the time. In a way not only is Wilde’s queer identity becoming politicized and codified, but also there’s an anarchist element to that, and I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that—about the trial and how his sexuality became influential for anarchist thinkers.
Kristian: Sure. This went in a lot of different directions and had several different elements. But maybe the clearest is that Emma Goldman. Other American anarchists as well, but Emma Goldman in particular was initially extremely sympathetic with Wilde, but simply as an example of the puritanical hypocrisy of the legal system, and as a victim of state oppression, it wasn’t until later that she became exposed to the sort of sexological literature that was elaborating the theory of homosexuality, where she realized that it wasn’t just a particular case of the state doing what the state does, but there was also an element[of] Wilde’s trial was intimidating and terrorizing for anentire group of people. And that it wasn’t just a matter of individual suffering and individual persecution, but that there was a group element to this. And so it became important to her to specifically stand up for the rights of homosexuals, sort of as a class rather than simply opposing the state putting people in prison, because of course we’re against the state putting people in prison. Another direction that that developed was that in Great Britain and in the US, the anarchist sexual politics at that time were already interested in sexual liberation, but mostly in the framework of a critique of marriage and free love and advocacy around issues of legitimacy, meaning really the rights of children who are born out of wedlock. And so adding to sort of queer element to that, they were already kind of primed for that development. And then what that meant was that it wasn’t just that Wilde’s trial affected anarchist’s sexual politics, it meant that a particular kind of sexual politics came out of that, that [they] were interested in gay rights as an expression of sort of sexual freedom overall. There was a natural affinity between the way anarchists were already thinking. And the sort of challenge and rethinking posed by the Wilde trial. Another direction that developed was that in Europe, and especially in Germany, individualist anarchists took a somewhat different lesson from the Wilde trial, and were less interested in conceptions of group identity and more interested in understanding it simply in terms of sort of individuality, individual rights and [an] individual person’s ability to express themselves and find pleasure in whatever way they chose, regardless of laws or social convention, or religious or moral precepts. And that, curiously, also circulated back into the United States, partly through Benjamin Tucker and his paper Liberty, which reprinted some of the European coverage of the Wilde trial, and also editorialized on its own, and very much in a more sort of individualist, libertarian kind of approach. So there were a couple of different developments from that in terms of how Wilde’s persecution shaped anarchist politics in the generations after.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a still a kind of problem and paradox within queer liberation—the idea of an identity and a group type or a minority group demanding rights, and then [the] kind of queerness that critiques and wants to do away with identity. And obviously, the way you were outlining Wilde’s understanding of posing and artificiality is already showing kind of ambivalence to that, even as he’s being put in the position of defining this type. So it’s interesting to see these things that [still] are. Anarchists today are always fighting identity politics as well, whether or not they’re queer. So I think it’s interesting to see that these things were already happening at that moment.
Kristian: Wilde himself directly addressed this question in a short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which the story itself is complicated, and I’m going to do my best to sum it up quickly. Basically it involves a relationship between two men, one of whom has a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by and devoted to a young boy actor named Willie Hughes, the W.H. of the title.[He] then persuades the other man of this. The other man then goes and engages in a relationship with a third man and also tries to persuade him of this theory. And the whole thing is in some ways an excuse to make this argument about the history of homosexuality and its influence on culture. So it looks at the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I mean, there’s no way to talk about this that isn’t anachronistic. I should say that,first of all. Like, Wilde never used the term homosexuality, but the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece, the importance of homosexuality in the Renaissance, the importance of homosexuality for Shakespeare, and then more recent examples. The thing about the story is that they have this argument about the sonnets, but there’s no proof for it. And in order to try to persuade each other, each of the men engages in this fabrication of evidence [of] different kinds. The evidence itself, including the portrait of the title, is a beautiful work of art, but it’s also false. It’s also a fraud. And each of the men, once he persuades the other one of the importance of the theory, is then fatally compromised and dies–one of them by suicide, one of them by consumption. And at the end, you’re left with, on the one hand, this exercise in the construction of a homosexual genealogy, like a cultural genealogy of homosexuality. And on the other hand, the story itself exposes that construction as this kind of artifice and draws into question the wisdom of sort of latching your identity onto anything exterior to yourself. And so it’s both this exercise in the creation of a gay identity, and it’s also this deconstruction and critique of that exercise at the same time.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that seems like it could also be like a fitting parable for the attempts to naturalize or biologize sexuality and gender towards increasing rights for so-called gender or sexual minorities. Like these stories that we’re telling ourselves here in that essay or whatever you want to call it, like a story essay.
Kristian: Yeah, it’s a little hard to know how to characterize it. It queers our categories.
Scott (TFSR): I mean, it’s all just part of the seduction anyway. I think that you’re reading of that is really interesting. One of the things that [is] still kind of going on, this idea of identity.The thing that stood out to me after reading your book was that the legacy of Wilde, in a way, entangles these three groups, the people that are are kind of unwanted or undesirable anarchists, the aesthetes or the dandies or decadents or whatever, and and whatever was being defined at the time as homosexual, we might say queer now. And thank you for pointing out that we’re talking pretty anachronistically. But, yeah, just these three types. Right. Anarchists, aesthetes, and queer people even at the time were sort of confused in people’s minds and had this sort of like specter haunting people as like unwanted types. Could you talk about how that sort of legacy still persists today? [How] these entanglements of these different positions politically, artistically and sexually persist today?
Kristian: Yeah.Well, I mean, some of it I think you’ve already hit on. Anarchism, as it existed circa 1895, was already a sort of hospitable environment for a gay politics to emerge in a way that most other sort of political realms were not. Because anarchism already had this critique of sexual morality, it already has its critique of the family structure. It was already advocating for birth control and the rights for children who were born out of wedlock and the equality between men and women and free love and all of that kind of stuff. So it was ready for the addition of the concern of homosexuals. And I think once that took root there, of course, gay politics have then expanded far outside of anarchism and even arguably outside of the left. But it’s now just very infused with the sort of culture of anarchism and also the values and those sort of self perception of what anarchists do expect ourselves to be like. The fusion between aestheticism and queer politics has developed somewhat differently, but it also remains there, right? Where on the one hand, this becomes an annoying stereotype,and on the other hand, it’s also something that gay men especially sort of celebrate about their shared culture, such as it is. Where it’s like there’s an expectation that there are going to be these sort of fabulous creatures with good style sense and immaculately decorated houses and an interest in music and theater and that sort of thing. And also for the same reason, it’s always a little bit suspicious when an adolescent boy takes too strong an interest in painting or poetry,right?So there’s a weird kind of both good and bad aspects to the two of those things coming together and forming a type, or a stereotype. The connection between aestheticism and anarchist politics is in a way more complicated. On the one hand, it means that on a shallow level it has helped inform the attraction of anarchists to sort of the artistic avant-garde, which has shown up really throughout the 20th century from Dada to the beats to punk, really. Greil Marcus territory there. And on a deeper level, though, I think that the notion that life should be the sort of splendid adventure, and that the way individuals live should be reflective of their character and personality, rather than bounded by convention and predictable and productive, but not necessarily very creative or interesting. I think that this has done a lot to maintain sort of the spirit and attraction of anarchism. And that puts us more in the lineage of the situation as to crime think, right. But then there’s also this this paradox, where especially in the last couple decades anarchism has taken a very moralistic and sort of puritanical turn that has also always been sort of a feature of it. You know, at sometimes if you look at a figure like the early Alexander Berkman, his ambition toward martyrdom and his sense of asceticism and his harsh judgment of other people is just annoying. So there’s always been that kind of puritanical element to anarchism as well. But at our best, that is counterbalanced by this free and flowing and urge toward the beautiful. At the moment, it feels like the sort of purist and puritanical element is more to the surface.And the notion that the life should be anything other than, [or] something more than, just the political struggle and the urge to purify oneself and the group of people around you. It seems to have receded. I worry that we’re at the moment insufficiently aesthetic, and I. I wish we could bring that back more to the surface.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful idea. I really like the way that you politicize Wilde’s aestheticism because I mean, it is such an old argument in a way that’s kind of like tedious and boring.That, even like Sartrean committed literature is against the art for art’s sake, because that is like amoral or even elite. But your reading of Wilde’s shows that even within the stuff that isn’t explicitly political, there’s like an ethical and political understanding that we can get. You say one line that I really liked—your reading [of] the plays is that Wilde’s evasions often hide the seeds of subversion. So there’s a way of reading Wilde that when he’s not saying, like, I’m an anarchist and let’s smash the state, he’s not saying that, but there’s something that happens in his work that allows the subversiveness of his thinking to come differently, [while] not hitting you over the head.
Kristian: Let me run with a couple of points of that. One is that I think that had his politics been more direct in his writing, probably his work would not have survived as well as it has. And while I think that there is even something which on the surface just seems like this exercise in silliness, like The Importance of Being Earnest. If you read carefully, it’s actually shot through with political concerns. Concerns about legitimacy, concerns about the rights of women, concerns about Irish independence and Fenian bombings, right? There’s all sorts of political elements, political themes, political subtext, political references in what at first seems like just this almost Dadaist banter about nothing in particular. But I think [that] had Wilde instead taken the approach of like a movement writer or a message writer, then the work would seem dated and less interesting and wouldn’t remain as fresh as it actually does. The other thing I wanted to say, and this goes back to aestheticism, is that my argument about Wilde’s aestheticism is that it’s not just the places, especially early in his career where he said things about, like the importance of labour and re-conceiving labour, conceiving of labor as a kind of art. It’s also that he pushes the sort of values where beauty doesn’t have to justify itself. And that’s really what art, for art’s sake means. It doesn’t have to have a moral message. It doesn’t have to have a social use. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. That just the fact that something is beautiful and gives you pleasure is itself important. And I argue that that is an implicit critique of the values, especially of Victorian capitalism, and what Max Weber would later articulate as the Protestant Ethic.Which was supposed to value sobriety and hard work and thrift, and that every moment of every day was supposed to be invested with this improving moral weight, which meant making yourself a better person, but chiefly meant making yourself a better person through hard work. While aestheticism is just like a torpedo in the hull of that ship. Interestingly for us, I think it is also a good corrective to the more stoical and dour and sad faced parts of left wing thinking, the kind of Marxism that thinks that we should sacrifice everything for the party, or the kind of anarchism that thinks that the main purpose of politics is to morally cleanse ourselves of anything that may be socially compromised. That kind of puritanism, that kind of stoicism, that sort of often workerist, but also often workaholic element, I think need something to temper it. And I think the Wilde’s work, if we take it seriously, and also if we are willing to accept it as lightly as he produced it, can help us to avoid some of the temptations, if you will, of that kind of puritanism.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. And the way you elaborated that is really helpful because we see how, you know, anarchists then and other people who might identify as leftist or Marxist are replicating some of the kind of capitalist mindset of that work and seriousness. And Wilde, [with his] emphasis on pleasure and pleasure as a kind of perversion, I think is specifically queer and specifically helpful in a way as a corrective, as you said, to those tendencies. While you were talking, I was thinking a little bit also about like James Baldwin, who makes similar kinds of arguments [yet manages an] avoidance of being explicitly political in his fiction, [and how] he still he speaks to anarchists, as another kind of queer figure. These people who value the ambiguity of art, are also evading that Protestant ethic that goes along with the kind of capitalist path of individual development. I’m just really grateful for the way that you you expand on that in the book. There’s a bunch of a bunch of things that I can bring up. But one thing that we haven’t really spoken about, but that also I think resonates with today’s anarchism is Wilde’s experiences in prison. And so I wonder, he was incarcerated for two years and then his final writing was on prison. And I think that a lot of people are coming into anarchism specifically now through the abolitionist movement. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Wilde’s experience in prison, his relationship to prison and how that fits into his writing, and what he gives to us today as current abolitionists?
Kristian: Yes, I guess the first thing to say is that Wilde was against prison for his entire career. He thought that the whole notion of punishing wrongdoing was self-defeating and also barbaric. And in The Soul of Man Under Socialism in particular, he predicts that in a future society, there will be no need for crime, because there will be equality and there won’t be either the desperate need to resort to fraud or violence in order to meet one’s needs,nor the kind of resentment that results from being in the lower position of an unequal relationship. And that whatever traces of criminality remain, he argues, would just have to be the product of some sort of mental illness which should be treated by a physician, and not by the courts. So from early on, he was arguing a kind of abolitionist line. He also, partly from seeing the example of Irish nationalists who were being imprisoned, thought the prison could also be the sort of heroic and elevating kind of experience. And he had almost a Thoreauvian line that they could jail your body, but your spirit would remain free. What he learned when they put him in prison was that that was completely wrong. And he should you really should have known better based on what he already understood about the degrading nature of menial work and about the elevating possibilities of beauty and beautiful surroundings versus the degrading and oppressive nature of ugliness. And then he was put in this environment, which was really just designed to concentrate ugliness with the idea of breaking the prisoner’s spirit. And it was anticipated when he was put in prison that he would not survive the two years, that a man of his age and his class would not be up for the hardship and the deprivation, and were it not for the political intervention of some of his friends and the agitation of especially anarchists in Europe, who were demanding his freedom all together, he likely wouldn’t have survived those two years. And instead he was offered a number of privileges that were there to avoid the government’s embarrassment of him dying in prison. And he was very aware that that was the thing that was keeping him alive and that he was receiving this kind of special treatment.Much to his credit, he did his best to extend those benefits to the other inmates around him. [Mainly in that] he was allowed to request books and was allowed additional books from outside the prison. And reading his letters, you can see that among the books that he requested, there are books that he doesn’t particularly have an interest in, but he knows that the other prisoners would. And then for a while, he got the job of taking the library cart around to the cells to give prisoners the books they wanted, which importantly gave him the opportunity to talk to other people, because at that point, the prison system was entirely on a solitary confinement kind of basis.And then also gave him the opportunity to learn about the interests of the other prisoners, and again, sort of facilitate their intellectual pursuits. And then once he was released, he immediately set about agitating to improve the conditions for the prisoners and wrote a couple of long letters to the Daily Chronicle about conditions in the British prison system. In particular centered on the case of a prison guard named Thomas Martin, who had been fired essentially for being too kind to the prisoners. Martin’s specific offense was that he had given ginger cookies to very small children who were locked in prison for poaching rabbits. Wilde pursued both publicly and also less directly, through writing public officials and that sort of thing, the reform of the prison system, noting specific things that could improve the conditions for the prisoners, while also insisting that no amount of reform was ever going to be adequate, and in fact [stating] that the entire basis of British justice was badly founded and needed to be scrapped. This sort of reached its peak with his last published work (during his lifetime anyway) which was the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I also think is his best poem, which his correspondence makes clear really intended as both a great work of art and also as the sort of political message that we were talking about earlier. It was intended as a pamphlet that would outrage the public against the prison system as a whole. And for what it’s worth, his agitation had some effect. There was a parliamentary commission that was investigating prison conditions at the time, and it took up many of the reforms that Wilde had suggested in his letters to the Chronicle. And just in terms of literary genealogy, The Ballad of Reading Gaol in particular became this almost scripture for anarchists talking about prisons in the decades that followed. So you you find references to it over and over again in the anarchist literature about prison, really all the way up into the 60s.
Scott (TFSR): That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s part of Wilde that is like the “Be Gay Do Crimes” sort, romanticizing the prisoner. But then there’s this seriousness, and it’s especially after his two years of hard labor imprisonment, where he is specifically acting against the prison system and going outside of the romanticism of the like criminal type or something like that. In your going over that history, another thing came to me that you show really well, there are somethings, like Wilde just seemed like a good person, like someone you want to hang out with and be friends with. And in that way, there’s [almost] another aspect of like Wilde the person and his actions that I think are worth reflecting on, [and] not just as a figure, thinker, a writer, but that he embodied this anarchism in his relationships with people, even about the way that he engaged in relationships, whether they’re like intimate or just in passing.
Kristian: Yeah. For a person who is renowned or notorious for being extremely individualistic and extremely sort of egotistical, he was also very, very generous. And he was generous with his wealth when he had wealth, and he was generous with other people’s wealth when he did not. Toward the end of his life, he was practically penniless and living on the generosity of his friends. And yet when people that he knew in prison would get released, he would send them money. And one of his friends and benefactors got kind of annoyed with him about this, because here they are giving him money, so that he can keep body and soul together, and here he is just giving it away. And he said, but if my good friends like you take care of me, how could I not take care of my prison friends? Which I think really captures both something of his spirit and also something of the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. Friendship for Wilde was not a trivial matter. He didn’t think of his friends as just like people that you happen to know, he saw friendship as this deep and complicated ethical commitment, this kind of like practice of life. Which I think goes back to his reading of the classics, and probably Aristotle in particular. And so it’s also interesting that, lacking the vocabulary that we have now about like homosexuality and queerness, he described those relationships and the possibilities of those relationships in terms of things like passionate friendship and really saw them as, in addition to the sexual component and the political implications, also saw them as this tight interweaving of two people’s lives, and a sort of practice of generosity and engagement. Like a way that people could relate that was in a way deeply ethical, and in another way unconcerned with the conventionality and what at the time was was viewed as morality. So, yeah, I think there’s was something very anarchic about how he looked at that. And again, it was that very generosity that turned out to cause him so much trouble in the trials. Like had he just been hiring prostitutes and paying blackmailers, it wouldn’t have had the, I mean this is somewhat bizarre from our point of view, but it wouldn’t have had the outrageous moral implication that it had—that he was like taking these young men to expensive dinners, and buying them champagne, and taking them to the opera, and buying the suits, giving them silver cigarette cases with personalized inscriptions on them. All of that was like… You know, prostitution and blackmail was just old hat for a Victorian aristocrat. But that kind of intimacy with people of the lower classes and that effort to sort of extend to them the benefits of the society was politically very troubling and morally outrageous.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how all of these things sort of overlap. I don’t know, like reading your book, I’ve always loved Wilde and had an affinity for Wilde and in a way Wilde has explained to me my gayness, my queerness. But then reading your book, I’m like, oh, my affinity for Wilde also has something to do with my anarchism that I’ve had over my whole life. And I just think the way that you tie those together and show them through going through his letters, his the biographical details, [and] the anarchists kind of response to him. And his work is really compelling. I guess the final question, you know, going back to talking about the role of art and the kind of corrective that we can bring to the sort of dour anarchist politics. The other aspect of him, maybe the term we could say is a utopian, and he uses that in The Soul of Man Socialism. Is there anything that you can say about Wilde bringing a sort of utopian anarchist politics or any way really you want to kind of send us off with, like, how Wilde speaks to us today? Because I think that this book is something that we can learn from in our current moment. So, yeah, any anything in that line that you want to kind of send us off with on Wilde, the utopian anarchist.
Kristian: Yeah. You know his utopianism makes sense, given his aestheticism, given the emphasis on the imagination and on sort of the fanciful and the artificial and the the creative possibilities. And therefore, he didn’t see Utopia as this thing that we achieve and preserve, which might be more of the Puritan model. Instead, he saw Utopia as this this aspiration of humanity that was always just past the horizon. And so it kept us moving. And so he says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that all the progress is a realization of past utopias. And the utopia is a country where once we land, we immediately set sail looking forward again. And so there’s the idea that in order to achieve progress, we have to be able to imagine the better world. That once we achieve the world that we think we want, we’re going to imagine a better worlds still. And that, rather than that being a frustrating Rosero problem, in fact [it] is this beautiful hope that we can always be doing better. And, you know, right now I think we are pretty desperately in need of some utopian imagination, you know, with the pandemic really throwing our our usual social practices into question, and revealing the threadbare nature of many of our institutions, and the failure of hierarchical leadership structures to address the crisis in any sort of meaningful way, along with the increasingly present effects of climate change and the existential danger that that poses. And then also with the bizarre and perverse political culture that we inhabit in the United States, with the kind of polarization that makes every position a point of conflict and makes any sort of like of, I don’t know, reconciliation or even notion that we will arrive at an understanding of shared humanity, seem increasingly remote. We really need to be able to imagine something better. The alternative, I think, is a very bleak nihilism that just sees the future as only an extension of the present. And I think that from that view, nothing good can come. I saw a picture of some graffiti that said,“another end of the world as possible.” And I think that that that captures pretty well the need for utopian thinking right now.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. That even the dystopian stuff has dried up, I think. Yeah. I mean, you just said it pretty beautifully, so I don’t really have anything that I really want to add. I really love spending time with Oscar Wilde’s thinking and writing, and just thinking about him as a person. And you do, I think, a really important thing in kind of bringing him out as an anarchist thinker and bring him to us right now. And maybe it’s just like something worth living for. Like that in the end is like something, you know, he, sorry, my mind starts going in all these different directions…
Kristian: Oh, good! That’s what I’m aiming for.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, going from like living up to the blue China to dying so that he doesn’t have to see his wallpaper. But I think Wilde actually took things seriously in a way that’s instructive, even for all this kind of humor and artificiality. So, yeah, I don’t know. Again, I’m like really grateful for the book and for the chance to talk to you. And if you have any last things you want to add or also any other places you want listeners to go to the to access your work or whatever you’re up to at the moment.
Kristian: Yeah, I have a modest website it’s kristianwilliams.com, Kristian spelled with a K. Whenever I have a new article or whatever, I put something about it there and put a link to it. And then there’s some sort of category-based archives that you can look and see what I’ve written about the criminal legal system or about literature or about comics. And yeah. So if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve done, that that would be a good place to start.
Scott (TFSR): Cool, and yeah I recommend people pick up this book, Resist Everything Except Temptation, and of course, Our Enemies In Blue is super important too. But yeah, I’m grateful for the time that you gave to talk about Wilde with me.
Kristian: Yeah, well, I appreciate the invitation. It was a good conversation.
We talk about how reform and so-called ‘more humane’ ‘alternatives’ to incarceration such as electronic monitoring, drug courts and probation in fact extend the carceral net. We also talk about alternatives to the ‘Punishment Paradigm’ in responding to harm, police and prison abolitionism and resisting recuperation in our struggles to imagine and birth a new world.
We got word that Sean Swain has had his email, phone and mail blocked, likely in response to his “An Open Letter to Annette Chambers-Smith,” available via DetroitABC, as well as his soon-to-be-published book, “Ohio” (parts 1-3 of the first half available here in zine form, soon via LBC). Pass it on…