On February 12th, 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson and his ex-girlfriends’ two sons participated in the botched robbery of Casey’s General Store that took three victims’ lives: Mable Scruggs, Mary Bratcher and Fred Jones. Mr Johnson has no recollection of the murders, was in despair and had been drinking and smoking crack in the hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. A Black man with intellectual disabilities and no former, violent convictions, he was convicted by an ill-informed, all-white jury with the help of Boone County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane. Ernest Johnson now faces an execution date of October 5th, 2021.
This week, we spoke with Elyse Max, State Director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty about the life of Ernest Johnson, the media and court situation he faced, his twice overturned death penalty, the links between the lynching of Black people in the US and the current death penalty, intersections of race and class in who are the victims of capital cases and who sit on death rows, the mishandling of Ernests intellectual disability in the case and other topics.
You can learn more about Ernest’s case, including ways to help press Missouri Gov Parson for a commutation of Ernest’s execution and the work of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting MADPMO.org. You can follow their work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram via the handle @MADPMO.
Sonja on NSU-Watch and Autonomous Anti-Fascist Research
This week on the show, we share an interview with Sonja, an antifascist activist and researcher based in the state of Hessen, Germany, and involved in the network known as NSU-Watch. For the hour, we talk about the case of the National Socialist Underground terror group which killed 9 immigrants of Turkish, Greek and Kurdish immigrants between 2000 and 2006 and were only discovered in 2011. Sonja tells about organizing with those who lost their loved ones in the attacks, the uncovering of government knowledge of the networks that produced the NSU and the milieu and international nazi scene it arose from, autonomous antifascist research.
We then speak about the ongoing case of Franco Albrecht, the former German military officer who is presumed to have been planning a false flag attack to draw ire to immigrant communities in Germany, as well as the network of military and police involved in the coordinated “Day X” plot to overthrow the German state. In some ways this interview was meant as a corrective to the New York Times podcast entitled Day X, one which de-centers state agency, opacity and collusion in the plot.
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, gender pronouns, location, political or group affiliations that you’d like the audience to know?
Sonja: Well, hello, I’m Sonja and a part of NSU watch. I will tell you about the organization, and what we’re doing later. I’m doing antifascist politics and research since around about 15 years, and I’m located in a very small town in the middle of Germany, in the State of Hessen.
TFSR: Thanks a lot for being here. I really appreciate you taking the time to work with me on this conversation. So, first up for the international audience, would you lay out the known circumstances around the NSU that sparked the creation of NSU watch?
Sonja: Yeah, I will gladly. Thanks for inviting me, I want to say as well. So in November 2011, two men killed themselves after a bank robbery gone wrong in a small town in Eastern Germany. Their RV, they set it on fire after they shot themselves. And in this RV, a weapon was discovered a Ceska that was linked to a series of murders taking place between 2000 – 2006. And at the same time as the RV was set on fire, a flat in another Eastern German town was set on fire as well. It was the cover up flat of the third member of the core group called Beate Zschäpe was set on trial afterwards. And after she set the flat on fire, she got undercover and sent out a CD to different addresses all over Germany, before she turned herself into the police. And on the CD was a video with the famous cartoon figure of Pink Panther, making fun of all the victims and reading through the murder series.
And so this day, the 4th of November of 2011, was at the same time, it was a shock all over Germany, and especially for the victims families. And also it was a relief, because the families, they were told that they were wrong considering the murder of the family members were racist attacks. So at this day, we found out that there was a Neo-Nazi terror cell, killing nine migrants and one police woman for a series of 13 years or something… being active that time. It was a shock to all of us in the antifascist scene and the anti racist scene, seeing that what we feared always was right, and having the clarity about that this is possible in Germany.
TFSR: So NSU, or National Socialism Underground, kind of considered itself in some ways, continuing the trajectory of Nazi heritage, I guess? And the same sort of goals as far as we can tell.
Sonja: Yeah, they did. They were Nazi group that was founded in a big circle of people in East Germany in the 1990s. They were politically socialized in a very racist time. That was shortly after the German reunification. Yeah, it was a very racist time in Germany with a lot of attacks. And also, the State being very worried about the losers of the reunification and was putting in a lot of money at that time in youth clubs and youth work, which created a safe space for Nazis in Germany. Because there wasn’t the thinking about institutional racism, structural racism, or racism at all in Germany at that time. And so they put in a lot of money to create a very nice and comforting space for the Neo-Nazi youth groups. And that was a time the NSU founded itself. It was also based in the Blood and Honor Network, and also very deeply connected to the Hammerskin Network as we found out recently. They were racists who saw themselves in the tradition of other Neo-Nazi terror groups like the Order. They read a lot of the common texts in the Neo-Nazi scene like *The Turner Diaries*, or the novel, *The Hunter*. Yeah, being part of the music scene in Germany, the Nazi music scene in Germany, being very deeply based in a nationwide network of Nazi groups.
TFSR: What I understand is that, so with the reunification, at least East Germany, which was a satellite State of the Soviet Union, had an outward program of de-Nazification of the area that the Soviet allied government operated in, in the eastern part of the country. But I’ve also heard that there’s a lot of xenophobia in that part of the country and a lot of the Nazi movement maybe had a foothold there. Can you talk a little bit about maybe what the soil was like at that point, and why there was such a rise in Neo-Nazism if it was just international, like the Blood and Honor stuff from the UK or the Hammerskins which started in Texas in the USA. It seems like they couldn’t have sparked homegrown Neo-Nazi revival in Germany, right?
Sonja: Well, in the eastern German States, they had like an antifascist understanding of the State itself. So fascism couldn’t happen in that State. It was forbidden to happen. So it did not happen. And so of course, there was a lot of xenophobia, there was a lot of racist attacks. And there were a lot of groups of young people, not very organized, very spread out over the country. And we have a term for that. It’s called the baseball bat years. Because there was so much street violence in that years. And if we look to Western Germany, there were the organized groups of that time, there was a very structured far-right scene. And when the reunification was done, a lot of the Western German groups went over there and organized the very spread out with Neo-Nazi scene in Eastern Germany.
So it got together very well. And also in Western Germany, in the years after, a big wave of racism connected to the new nationalism rising up to the reunification. And the State reacted like it always does in Germany: it gives props to the far-right. The asylum laws get restricted. People who were affected by the Neo-Nazi violence didn’t get help. And they try to get the Lost Souls back in some way. Like they thought the reunification was a very deep economical crisis for most people in Eastern Germany. So they put in their State for taking care of the Jews and stuff. It was kind of a pampering for the Neo-Nazi movement. That is the same reaction we had in 2015. The far-right, rises, it protests, it takes marches… and then the politicians they give props to that and take away rights from the asylum seekers, for example, or the migrants.
TFSR: So can you tell us a bit about NSU watch and what you all do what Apabiz is, and A.I.D.A? And why do you feel that an autonomous research and recording process without strings tying you to the government is necessary.
Sonja: A couple of weeks ago, a very famous German antifascist and communists Esther Bejarano died. She was a Holocaust survivor. She was a member of the music group in Auschwitz. And she put her life to fighting fascism in Germany. And she said “if you want to fight fascism in Germany, if you want to fight Neo-Nazis in Germany, you cannot rely on the State.” And that is really something we take at heart. I said the fourth of November 2011, was a big shock to all of us, because we have these very old antifascist research structures in Germany, like I have colleagues doing that for 30 years, 35 years now, collecting every bits and pieces of the Neo-Nazi movement, trying to get as much information as possible to do background checks and to put attacks that happen in the background.
So when this happens when the when the NSU discovered itself, we have got to say, because nobody, not the police, not the authorities discovered them. So when they discovered themselves, it was a big shock for us, that’s all we feared, was actually true. Like, if you read the antifascist newspapers we put out for decades now… there was always a warning about weapons and about Neo-Nazis, discussing theories, papers, and concepts. So it was a bitter pill to swallow that we were right all this time, and that we didn’t see it happen, actually.
It was also a shock to see how racist we are as antifascists, because we didn’t listen to the families, the families of the NSU murder cases. They always said it must be Neo-Nazis. There can’t be any other explanation because the authorities there always said “Well, there’s something about Turkish mafia or Kurdish Turkish conflicts or something, it must be in their culture.” Actually, there was a quote in a police file that said “No one of Germans cultural heritage could do this kind of murder: shooting in the face, shooting in the head. This isn’t like German at all. So it must be some foreign culture doing that.” So, and the families that were talking about it, they put on rallies to get the public interest. And we didn’t really listen to them. We didn’t check the media. They wrote about it as Döner killer, Kebap killers. And we didn’t realize how racist that was. We didn’t listen to the families.
And so it was a big shock moment for us that changed a lot of our politics. Like really looking into our own racism, our own focus on looking at the Neo-Nazis and not looking at the victims that close. And so it did a big switch for us in our politics, like we have got to work together with the families, we have to listen to them! They have a lot of information, a lot of knowledge that we need to recognize, and that we need to consider. We just can’t as white German antifascists look at other white Germans, the Neo-Nazi scene, without considering the racism we all grew up in that is all part of our society.
And so after the discovering of the NSU core trio. We said we need to change something. And that’s why we founded NSU Watch as a network of old antifascist structures, of people doing the work for lots and lots of time, to put all the pieces together because the murders that took place all over Germany, mostly Western Germany, But there was murders in Munich, in Nürnberg, there was an attack in Köln, there was a murder in Hamburg, there was a murder in Dortmund, in Kassel, and so on.
And so we gathered all the groups, the local groups and founded the network so we can get the information together to kind of get to the bottom of all of this. Because that was pretty clear at the beginning that it couldn’t be just the three: the two dead men and the other who was put on trial, there must be a bigger network. And afterwards, there were five people on trial besides Beate Zschäpe, but there couldn’t be the network as well. Like, the biggest question of the families is “why did the murderers pick my father? My son? My relative?” And so in general, it’s very clear that it was for racist reasons. But in specific, like, who pointed out that internet cafe? That shop? That flower selling stand? And so it was very clear that then there was always a local helping structure for the Nazi terrorists.
And so, we came together to gather all the information we have, and we have very old research structures in Germany, and one of them is the Apabiz. It is an archive, an antifascist archive collecting all printings of Neo-Nazi scene in Germany. They have a very big collection of all fanzines, of all newspapers, articles, a lot of information gathered from the local groups. The antifascist movement, (of course) in Germany, organized in autonomous groups all over Germany collecting all their local informations. And we don’t have a central station for putting it somewhere. But in the archives, we have a couple of them like Apabiz in Berlin and A.I.D.A. Archive in Munich. And we have a have a couple of others. They are the antifascist structures to collect the knowledge of the generations of local people doing the research.
And so with NSU Watch, we try to gather all the forces and gather all the informations to deal with that kind of work. Because also, not only the murders took place all over Germany, also the investigations took place all over Germany. We had different parliamentary inquiries in all the different States. We had one in the Bundestag, we had the trial in Munich. And so with all this, these different locations of investigation, it was very hard to stay in focus and to get all the puzzle pieces. And for example, we found in the north there was a parliamentary inquiry and they look very deep into the Combat 18 structure there. But the Bundestag trial did not, and also the trial in Munich did not. So we had our people everywhere monitoring the inquiries, monitoring the trial to get all the puzzle pieces together. Because we didn’t know when something would make sense. Like where to put the puzzle pieces, we still have a bunch of them we can’t connect to anything.
And so for me, it’s also… there is no bottom line in the NSU complex. It’s a topic I will deal with… I think… my whole antifascist political life. Because we don’t know when somebody will talk, when somebody will give up information. And so we don’t even get close to the truth in that. And to deal with that kind of perspective in this kind of work, it was necessary to found a network that could get more connected with all the people all over Germany. And so this is what we did, NSU Watch.
TFSR: This is kind of a side note, it’s sad, but also really inspiring that you can lean on these multi generational centers of research that build from a longer movement memory. I mean it’s sad that people are still having to do this work and have these conversations, but it’s pretty amazing that people have put in the work to see this through. It makes me think of things that have heard about the autonomous movements coming out of the 70s. And having a long memory of like things that their parents or local cops or whatever did during the war era, or before the war, or whatever, and recognizing the continuation of a lot of those structures, because the same people in a lot of cases had gone about their lives. And I could sort of think of like a parallel here with the anti imperialist stuff from the 60s and groups like the John Brown anti-Klan committee, and how that sort of fed into the start of Anti Racist Action and other movements here.
Sonja: Yeah, it’s also it’s also a sign of our marginal perspective. Like, in the last couple of years we have academic research about right-wing terrorism. But otherwise in Germany, we don’t have a collective memory of that. We come from a fascist society. We are a post fascist society. Of course, in the 50s, very directly, there were Neo-Nazi terror groups. But in Germany, we just have this memory of left-wing terrorism of the RAF. And so we always have to collect our own information to get our own analysis, because there was never a State or society to back us up.
TFSR: So you mentioned that the folks that went on to form NSU Watch, had realized that they hadn’t listened to the voices of the families of the victims of NSU violence about what they thought was really at the heart of the deaths of their loved ones. How does NSU Watch continue to reflect and engage with survivors and community members and loved ones of those who were killed by NSU violence?
Sonja: Most of the families, they founded their own groups, or there were groups founded to support the families in their fight of memory. Because this is always something the German State wants to get into. They want the remembering of the victims in a polite way. Not not an angry way. Not a political way. And so there are a lot of groups dealing with the struggle around the memory, and how to how to memorialize the victims. And we as NSU Watch… we do support all the groups, all the families that we can.
Something else we did was we work closely with their attorneys for the trial and gave up all our information we could gather. In the first years, we had very intense meetings, looking into every name we found in the complex, looking into every document we could get in our hands. And so we put that all together and gave it to the attorneys of the families to back them up and to give them information besides the State. Because the State was never really interested in researching the network.
Well, the first thing is that we acknowledge our own racism and that we take it in consideration. We learn that for future cases. Now if someone is murdered and the family says “Well, I think this was a racist attack.” We write that and try to support and try to get good journalists to write the true stories. We get in contact with the families and try to support them there.
And also, we did all this monitoring work. We monitored every day of the five year trial in Munich and wrote a report about every day in the trial. We also translated that to Turkish and we did the same with some of the parliamentary inquiries. For example, here in the State of Hessen, where I live and my where my local NSU watch group is, we had this parliamentary inquiry where the family was invited last in the very last session of the inquiry. Which was quite offensive at that point. And to give them an opportunity to follow what’s happening there around the cases of their loved ones, we gather this information and put it out for the public, also translated in Turkish.
And so we see ourselves as one movement now. Which is different. Before, we had this division between antifascists and antiracism activists. There was always kind of an overlapping. But now we’re one movement. We see ourselves as one movement with all struggles, it gets with us. But we were very open to critique around racism to our own structures. I think that’s a very, very good thing coming out of that.
We had these hard, really difficult, racist attacks in 2020. We had the murders in Hanau, which is very close to my hometown, where a racist shot nine people. And yet, there it was shown that this new understanding of what antifascist research is for, and what it’s about, really works great together. Because we could support the families in their struggle, and they get the grip on it. Like they don’t stop asking questions. They don’t stop putting public pressure on the politicians dealing with that case. And I think that was a hard learning process for us. Because before, of course, we thought we were the good ones because we’re fighting Nazis. But it was also a very clear process of seeing how much racism is deeply written into our society and what we have to get rid of and what what we have to unlearn to make a difference. And I think we’re on a good way to that now.
TFSR: That’s really good to hear. That’s definitely a critique that I hear in the US that seems pretty well founded. That a lot of like, people that aren’t directly or as directly affected by fascist violence jump in to be sort of saviors. But don’t listen to the people that are most directly affected or work with them to create victim informed ways of organizing. So that’s cool.
Sonja: Yeah. And also like as white antifascists in Germany, we are also victims of Neo-Nazi attacks. Like if it wasn’t personal.. it was always friends of us. I talked about the baseball bat years. It was against punks and leftists as well as it was against POCs and Black people in Germany. And so we came to the conclusion that as victims of Neo-Nazi violence, we’re not all the same. We don’t live the same lives. We don’t have the same values. But we’re all on force put together in this victim group. And we got to deal with that. And we have to support each other in that.
TFSR: A common experience is that a world without Nazis would be better for all of you. So, there was a trial that ended in 2018, releasing the living member of the assumed core of the NSU, Zschäpe, to Nazi cheers. The case uncovered (among other things) that the group had operated for 13 years all over Germany, as you had said, killing and injuring nearly a dozen people. And that there had been cover ups by different levels of the German government. To name a couple of these cover ups: One the destruction of files by employees of the Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution. And the witnessing of a 2006 NSU murder by a Hessian police officer for the protection of the Constitution, as a second example. Can you talk about the office for the protection of the Constitution, something about the State links in the NSU case? And, again, to reiterate why it is so important that independent archives are doing this investigation, and the State doesn’t just watch itself.
Sonja: During the discovery, our investigations in the NSU complex, we came to the conclusion that the State is plays a very big role in all of it. The Secret Service… how did you translate it?
TFSR: Federal Office of the Protection of the Constitution? What would you call it?
Sonja: The German word is Verfassungsschutz, which is quite a wordy translation for that. And yeah, it’s a Secret Service. Basically, it’s the Secret Service for inner affairs. So the Department of the Protection of the Constitution, which is called itself. I think it’s a very euphoric name they gave themselves. They had the idea that they could control the Neo-Nazi movement. And they did that with getting informants at the most high levels in these organizations. For example, a very high member of the Blood and Honor movement in Saxonia was an informant for the State. So their main resource for information about the Neo-Nazis scene comes from informants, Neo-Nazis, active Neo-Nazis. They were paid for giving up the information.
And there’s different ways of the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany to deal with that. Some do it in secret. Some do it openly to their comrades and say “Well, we get the money from the State, and we can put it back in the movement.” And there were lots and lots of informants undiscovered in the NSU complex. And there were informants very close to the core trio. There were informants involved in getting papers for them to live underground. And we came to the conclusion that the State knew a lot about the weapons in the Nazi scene. A lot about their goals. A lot about their doings. So it wasn’t a problem of a lack of information. It is the problem that the Secret Service in Germany collects the information to have it and to keep the idea of that they can control it.
The difference is the Neo-Nazi scene in Germany, they rather don’t want to attack the State itself. They’re feeling very close to the State. They want to take over the State. They want to make it more authoritarian. They don’t want to abolish the State. So the working process of the Secret Service doesn’t really get to the victims of the Nazi scene, because the victims are the others, the migrants, the POC’s, the black people in Germany, the leftits, the communists, the disabled people, homeless people, queer people… definitely queer people. And so the Secret Service in Germany is not there to protect the people, but to protect the State.
The Germany Neo-Nazi scene which is very driven forward by this Day X ideology, we will talk about later, I think. So they never get to the point where they want to attack or abolish the State, they get to the point where they kill all of the people that don’t fit in their view of the world. And so, we came to the conclusion that there is a very deep problem in the understanding of right-wing terrorism, because right-wing terrorism doesn’t want to abolish the State, it wants to create a Civil war. It wants to create gaps and widen gaps that are already there in the society. And because there’s no collective memory, no collective understanding of right-wing terrorism in Germany.
We have this theory, what the politics in extremism are based on, we call it the Horseshoe theory. It’s like you imagine a horseshoe, and you have the left end and the right ends, and they’re kind of the same… and they’re kind of the same danger. And in the middle of the horseshoe you have the good middle of the people. And the idea is that the democracy is threatened by the Left and the right-wing extremists, and they have to protect the good middle. This is a theory which comes from the Weimar Republic before, before the National Socialist State. The idea was not that the conservatives or the bourgeoisie put the Nazis into power, but to have this conflict between Right and Left. And that put the democracy into danger. And this is a theory which also continues until today.
So there wasn’t a particular understanding of how right-wing terrorism works. There was always a comparison to Leftwing terrorism. Like they said “Oh, we couldn’t know that was terrorist attack, because there weren’t any letters.” No communiques about it. And so they said, “Oh, well, we couldn’t see that it was terrorism.” And so there was always this necessity for us as antifascists to point out “what are the basic structures of right-wing terrorism? How does it work? What are its goals? What are its methods?” Because we could never rely on that. And so when the NSU discovered itself in 2011, the first thing the Secret Service did was destroy files with information about informants in the direct surrounding of the trio.
And it continued, like the parliamentary inquiries, they had problems getting the files from Secret Service. The trial in Munich, they didn’t want to ask questions about the network. They didn’t want to know about involvements around. And so it was basically us and a few Parliamentitions from the Leftwing parties who had interest in getting into it. And it goes further. Like the informants in the Neo-Nazi scene, they can commit crimes in a certain way, and don’t get punished in a trial. Because they are informants, they get protection from the State. So they can do like propaganda verdicts, or in cases of assault, they can do it to stay in their role as Neo-Nazis. So the the thinking is to be an informant, you still have to be involved in the movement. And so you have to do what the movement does. And you get protection for doing that if you’re an informant.
So there was always the knowledge about it, but we didn’t know how many people there were working in the Neo-Nazi scene for the government and also not that they were so high level Neo-Nazis, like they tried to get all the high level Neo-Nazis working for the State to control the organizations from the top. That was the thinking of the State, or is the thinking of the State. Until now. Only the State of Thuringia, they cut all this information system. But the rest gets more budget for it gets more people doing the jobs. And so, the structure, it wasn’t really broken. Also, now after 10 years, it just works further.
And the top story of that all is the one you mentioned about Andreas Temme. He is and he was an employee of the Secret Service. He was not police, he was an employee of the Secret Service. And he was in the internet cafe of Halit Yozgat in Kassel when he was shot. He claims that he wasn’t there. That he didn’t see the body lying behind the counter, that he didn’t hear the shots. And because it was so unbelievable. There was an English Institute, forensic architecture, who rebuilt the internet cafe and try to get an idea of what he must have been seeing, hearing, and smelling. Because also like if you fire a gun in such a small space, you can also smell the gunpowder. And so they did a recreation of that. But that was considered an art piece, not an academic investigation. I put you the link of the investigation in the link list. They made a video on the 5th.
And yeah, Andreas Temme. He was in the internet cafe he claims to be there for personal reasons for sexting from an anonymous computer. Because his wife shouldn’t know. But it’s very unlikely. And he had two phone calls with this Nazi informant that day. One before, and one shortly after. And one was especially long. And he didn’t tell the truth. Neither in the in the court trial, nor in the parliamentary inquiry in Hessen. And so the truth was never found why he was there. If he was there on duty, if the Secret Service got any information, if he was involved with the murders, if he knew someone from possible local helping structure for the trio or something. He just lied, he just didn’t tell the truth. The politicians, they stood behind him at that point. And when Halit was shot, he just left the internet cafe and he didn’t respond to the call from the police to get people who saw something or might know something about it. And so the police got to him. It was because he got locked in with his phone there on the computer. He left his work phone number there. And so they found him and they arrested him but he was released shortly after because the governor of the State of Hessen said he needs to be protected because he’s part of the State.
And so there’s a lot of silence. There’s a lot of lies in there, and we didn’t get to the truth. After the trial, after the five years of trial and three years of parliamentary inquiry. We still don’t know what drove him there. What was his role in the murder of Halit Yozgat.
TFSR: None of the surviving members of the NSU have gotten any prison time?
Sonja: No, Beate Zschäpe. She’s in prison lifelong. Yeah, the others, they got really light sentences. They were five years on trial. They were released the day the verdict came out, because you get the investigation jail time you put on your normal jail time.
TFSR: I really started hearing about this case, because the New York Times podcast called Day X started telling the story of the case of Franco Albrecht or Franco A, relating to the NSU and government connections, and finally discussing about a wider conspiracy with members of the German military and police to prepare for, or likely to bring about the overthrow of Germany’s parliamentary democracy, which would be replaced with a military right-wing junta. What’s known about the Day X plot and the case of Franco A? And you’re covering it right as in as NSU Watch?
Sonja: Yeah, we do. We sit there in on every day of the trial. And it’s quite interesting, because when I listened to the Day X podcast, it’s such a wide picture of the of the whole case. The trial is right now about what kind of money Franco Albrecht got from the from the government when he was living his secret life as a fake refugee. This is what the trial is about. For weeks now sitting in the trial every day, you don’t get a sense of what’s actually discussed there. Boring, very detailed stuff about Franco Albrecht taking money from the German government. And it’s hard to stay on focus, not to get bored by all these details. It’s very hard.
So Franco Albrecht was a very strange discovery, actually. The State didn’t want to put it on trial. They wanted to do it two years ago, I think, and they just disposed it. They said “No, there’s no case here.” And now we have the pressure from the higher court, the State-wide court, to put it on trial. And so they did it in Frankfurt.
We have these chat groups all over Germany, called the cross groups. Like Nordkreuz, Südkreuz… The Northern Cross, the Southern Cross, the Eastern Cross, Western cross. This division, these chat groups, which are a quite new phenomenon. But like always when there’s new technology available, you take it for organization. It’s not such a surprise actually. The connection between the military and the far-right are very known, especially to the antifascists public in Germany. Like we wrote about it that often, like, years and years, and that in a lot of military bases there are Nazi networks, so it wasn’t quite news for us. The news was how far they got along with their planning. And also the question “what does the Secret Service do if they don’t look into that kind of stuff?” because this is an area of society where we as antifascists, we don’t get any information from there. Like if they want to do it in secret, we are not the people going to the military, especially now if you didn’t don’t have to in Germany.
It was always clear for us that something like this could happen. And it was also clear for us that there’s high skilled trained people in the police and the military forces joining right-wing movements, sharing the ideological backgrounds. No surprise so far at that point. But we were quite shocked about how the State didn’t inform the people who were on the lists, with how the State dealt with that kind of danger, actually. And how and unuseful all the all the different stations of Secret Service are in Germany. We have a special Secret Service for the military. And it was quite clear that they’re not doing their job for years. Because like we know very high level Neo-Nazis in Germany who were part of this Secret Service, of the army Secret Service. They they served there, and afterwards, after they quit their jobs, they held speeches at Neo-Nazi rallies and gatherings. So it was always clear that there’s a deep connection in there.
And so it’s interesting now that the State kind of wants to bar out the public In the case of Franco A. And it works, it works. It’s a very hard struggle to stay on focus there. And also because the same with the NSU case, there’s not the one institution to get to the bottom of it. Like you have the court trial, but the court trial is just there to find the guilt of Franco Albrecht himself, it’s not about the network. If you get a parliamentary inquiry, they don’t have the authority to punish somebody. So we don’t have this one institution which can take care of it all. I don’t think that this will happen. But the information is very spread out widely. And there’s not the one to finally make a call and say “Okay, this is what happened. This is the network. This is what we’re doing.” So right now they have Franco Albrecht on trial but only him for planning assaults on different people on his list, for violating weapon laws, and for getting money from the State living a life as a fake refugee. So this is just his skills at that point. And now there’s different members of the Cross Groups all over Germany, but it’s unclear if they ever get to trial, if they lose their jobs, how their career continues, for example.
TFSR: I don’t think we have said… since you just mentioned what Albrecht had been planning Generally, the story is fucking crazy. Like, some German man? I guess… one of his parents, I think were not German.
Sonja: Yes, French… No Italian. His father is Italian.
TFSR: Yeah. Like he joins the military. He’s been writing about a right-wing push in the German State as being a good thing for a lot of years. I guess like through his high school, he had written a paper that kind of concerned some people. And so at one point during the “refugee crisis.” He ends up darkening his skin and wearing tattered clothing and going into a refugee resettlement office and getting his fingerprints taken, and passing off part of his life (when he’s not on an on the military base living in an apartment under this assumed name) so that his fingerprints are then in the system as the Syrian refugees fingerprints.
A few years later, or a year later, this janitor in an airport – I think in Frankfurt? I might be wrong. Oh, in Vienna – finds a pistol hidden behind a toilet. And it’s got his fingerprints, and they just the police just lay in wait for whoever to come back and grab the pistol and they arrest him. But they noticed that the fingerprints match the Syrian refugee and he’s like “No, no, no, that must be a mistake. I’m a German military person.” The apparent false flag that this person is building is, like, kind of ingenious. And also, it’s it’s crazy to think of what could have happened considering the way that people around the German speaking world where some people were brought out into the streets and just fully angered against what they consider to be the migrant crisis with word going around about assaults on German women. You know, because we are filled with immigrants who have come from other places, I don’t know, and the rise of the AFD around the same time, like it just seems like it’s a big story. Right?
Sonja: Yeah, it’s a big story. And it’s, it’s a perverted perspective on what happened in 2015, 2016. In Germany like this so called “refugee crisis.” People mostly coming from Syria, fleeing the Civil War, they’re fleeing ISIS attacking people. It was a big mobilization moment for the far-right in Germany. like around the 2000-2010 years. The German far-right had an organizational crisis. They didn’t get the success they wanted. And so when 2015 came, they formed a very widespread racist mobilization. We have the AfD in the Parliament at that point or at most Parliaments.
AfD is “Alternative for Germany”. It started out as an anti Euro right-wing Populist Party and got on a really racist way, in a very short time, in two years or something. The AfD was founded in 2013, and in 2015 it was the most racist, openly racist party in the State. They didn’t really see the danger in that. So we had a lot of Nazis who weren’t organized at that point, because we had this organization crisis where a lot of organizations just fell apart. Some of them just got closer together, like we had a Combat 18 reunion in Germany in 2012, 2013. So some of the groups they got closer together, some of them just fall apart. And most of the Neo-Nazis who were organized into organizations falling apart, they were re-mobilized by this racist mobilizations. We had rallies all over Germany, we had attacks of refugees, or POCs, in general, Black people in general. It doesn’t depend on their on their status, it depends on their race.
So we have this big wave of attacks, this big wave of hate, and at the same time, the AfD, and the parliaments and also a lot of the television shows, talking or setting a frame for a new kind of racism, open racism in Germany. And so we, at that point, in 2015, we saw the rallies, we saw the danger of the rallies, and we saw the attacks, but we didn’t know what went on behind the scenes like in this chat groups, in the military. And so the story of Franco Albrecht is a very, very perverted lens of looking at what happened at that time. And if you look at what does the Secret Service say to the rallies at that point, they say “Oh, it’s just concerned people, and some Neo-Nazis trying to undermine them.” But actually, it was racism was new material to get all the different spectrums of Neo-Nazism in Germany, getting together again.
Also, the network of racism and sexism at that point, like you said, one of the main topics of the mobilization was the safety of white women of white German women. And the AfD took a big part of that they put a lot of money in media campaigns. Every time a refugee, or POC, or Black man attacked a white woman, they would push it in the public, and widely over Facebook. They put a lot of money in Facebook campaigning. So there was a misunderstanding. We have a big problem with violence against women in Germany, like a big problem, like all over the world, all over the world. There are femicides. But the idea was to just put the cases in the center of attention where a POC or Black man was the attacker.
And that worked out pretty great. And also like with Franco Albrecht… and also Stephan Ernst, who was the murderer of a politician here in Hessen, in Kassel as well, Walter Lübcke, he was shot in 2019. They both have this telling that the State falls, and the brave German man has to protect the country and its women. And this is also part of the of the Day X – German men have to redefine their manhood and get in the role of the protector again.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s a pretty common narrative. And there’s so much that without taking away to talk about US context, so much of what you’re talking about just reflects things that I’ve seen happen in the US over the last couple of decades too. So I guess, going back to Germany, though, like how does how does the Day X plot fit into the ecosystem of the far-right in Germany today, like with anti vaccine and COVID conspiracy myths, intermingling with members of AfD and anti immigration rallies?
Sonja: Well, the Day X telling is a very old one in Germany, like after we are a nation of defeated. After the Second World War, we had this this period of occupation. And since the bat was founded, so the Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany, there’s always the telling in the far-right, that this kind of State is not the real representative of the Germans. And so there was always the story of how to get Germany back. There’s different colorings of that telling like this, zionist occupied governments, like because parts of Germany were occupied by the Americans, you have a lot of anti American thinking in the Germans far-right. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re very deeply connected and do a lot of work together. But there’s always been this telling about the Germans don’t own their own State anymore since the Second World War.
So, in 2015 when Angela Merkel welcomed the refugees, there was this myth that she’s opening the borders for them. The truth was, there was never breaking a law in that point. There was always the Right asylum laws taking place there. So there was this idea of Angela Merkel letting all these refugees in, and we had this the telling of the Day X movement, I think you would call it more intellectual, new-right movement, that was called the Great Replacement. So there’s a plan for exchanging the people in Germany with refugees. And so there was one moment where a lot of right-wing groups got their mobilization momentum, because they could tell the people “now you see how the government wants to destroy Germans.”
So there’s always the thinking that not the right people are in charge, and that’s the State doesn’t represent the real Germans. And there was a new moment for the for the whole movement. And so the telling of the Day X of getting to the point of civil war, where the possibility is to take over the State. It was very common, always in the far-right storytelling in Germany, but there it got a new momentum. And so a lot of groups, a lot of people, got on the streets got organized in this kind of way. We had like motorcycle Brotherhood’s or motorcycle-like Brotherhood’s coming together, making… they call it neighborhood watches. And so there was always this thinking about “we have to protect our people from the government, which is in that multicultural great replacement thinking.” So that was the big topic bringing it all together.
After 2015, the politicians cut a lot of asylum laws. They stopped the people from coming to Germany itself and reinforcing the border. Now we don’t have the attacks on the refugee homes here, because we don’t have that many big refugee homes any longer here. Because now people are dying in the Mediterranean instead. But the government tried to stop people from coming to Germany itself, as giving the right-wing movement props to stop the worrying about it. And it worked. We don’t have that many attacks here, because we don’t have that many refugees here. But people are still dying in the Mediterranean. And we have this big mass grave now on Europe’s borders. So given the power, right, that kind of props at that point, they lost their momentum for the racist mobilization. And they turned it into the anti vaccination demonstrations.
Now they found a new topic where the government wants to control wants to defeat the German people in their thinking. So we have the same forces, the same people who were pushing forward the racist mobilization, doing now the anti vaccination protests, but also with a different note. There are a lot of people who think of themselves as alternatives, like people who are into alternative medicine, or esoteric, or late hippies, for example, who joined now the right-wing organizations. And that’s a very, very dangerous mixture we got there now. And so the Day X movement move from this great replacement topic, to the pandemic topic now. But it’s the same people, the same groups doing the mobilization there.
TFSR: So I guess looking at this Day X plots from the context of the US, there are many comparisons and parallels that could be made between the development of the different far-right movements here. And the scene from which the NSU and their contemporaries came out in Germany. In fact, historically, there was a cross pollination that NSU Watch notes, such as visits to Germany. I mean, you already mentioned *The Turner Diaries* and *The Hunter* being read or Blood and Honor or Combat 18 from the UK going over, but there’s also a member of the US based White Aryan Resistance and the KKK groups from the US that came to visit and and showed up during the development in the scene with the three core NSU members. Contemporary examples for groups from the US that parallel developments in Germany might be the Oath-keeper movement, could be compared with the Day X plot members of law enforcement and military, or former, stating that the current government that they serve is in decay and must be reformed to a more traditional and radically conservative style. As well as other groups from white nationalist movements like the NSU, with the now defunct Atomwaffen Division, or the Base.
Do you have any thoughts on the international nature of Neo fascist organizing? And what roles those common myths such as the Great Replacement, which you mentioned, which I think it came out of the you said the European new Right, but like, Nouvelle Droite, the the new far-right coming out of France in the 70s? Can you talk about how this cross pollination happens, some of the common myths? And what follows from it for international antifascist organizing? What do we need to be looking at, and where are some good directions to point energy? Or how do we coordinate with each other against some of these common enemies?
Sonja: Well, the internet, of course, is a big factor. In that it’s helping us to get connected like we do right now. But it also helps Neo-Nazi groups to get connected. We have these big heroes, they would say, like Anders Breivik, who published his manifesto on the internet. Which was an inspiration for an attack in Munich three years ago. On the same day, recalling to Anders Breivik, it was the inspiration for the Christchurch attack in New Zealand. It was the inspiration for the attack at the synagogue in Halle two years ago. And so we have this opportunity for groups to organize internationally, and also to find background organizations online for that. You don’t have to have the comrades right at your door. You don’t have to meet the people in person, you can connect with them via the internet and exchange about that stuff.
But of course, there’s also the meeting in person, the the important role of worldwide networks and organizations, you mentioned the KKK. We have KKK groups in in Germany as well. We always had contacts to the US like two weeks ago, an antifascist network called Exif Recherche. They published a very detailed paper on the Hammerskins in Germany and their connections to the US. Like Wade Page, the murderer of the people in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He was visiting Germany a couple of times, and also playing with his band. There’s the role of music and concerts, Nazi Nazi rock concerts and organization for that, like there was a lot of exchange of context about that music scene and bands visiting. This is also a great connection for Australia and Germany, for example. Or for Eastern Europe, like Hungary, or the Ukraine, or Russia. People are coming to Germany with their bands, or to see a band, or to visit a concert and in this context of the concert, there are always meetings taking place.
The Hammerskin structure, the Hammerskin Nation is a very big example for that. And also with the example of the Hammerskin nation, when the attack in Wisconsin happened, the German Hammerskins went over there right away to meet with the people of the Hammerskin Nation groups in the US to make a plan how to deal with the situation. And also when the Hammerskins in Portugal were banned, they got help from the other chapters worldwide. So there’s always this supporting structure if you have to live underground. If you need weapons, if you need money, there’s this big worldwide organization providing that for you. And also getting experiences you can’t get in Germany. Like in Germany, it’s legal to shoot a weapon and to own a weapon, but only if you’re in a certain kind of organization, and you have to put in a big amount of paperwork for shooting your gun. And so every time German Neo-Nazis go to the US, shooting in the wild is a big part of the experience there. And also like being violent against other people. It’s always a big part of that.
And I think these two things, like this highly professional, organized, worldwide networks we’re seeing and also the fear of the so called “lone wolf” who can sit in front of his computer in Germany and gets connected with other people and get printings for 3D printed weapons and stuff like that. It’s a It’s a very harsh challenge, I think. But also, what I see is it’s a backlash. It’s a reaction to emancipative movements all over the world. Like, if we look on queer rights, if you look on the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement all over the world, if we see how decolonization fights are supported from all over the world. They are in fear to lose their position, and their right to do. We are on the move, we’re doing what we can.
What I think is very hard to do is to not get lost of the wider perspective. Like “What does capitalism do to these problems we’re facing?” Like “What are the struggles that make us all the same, no matter where we live in the world?” And I think talks like that, like we’re having right now, being interested in the struggles of each other like to learn from each other is very important. And also not to rely on the State, or academia, to find the similarities. Because there’s capitalism all over. Like in Germany, the research is so much driven from where to get funded, and where to get the next project funded, that it’s not about, like finding truth or something like that.
So I think it’s a very important thing to stay connected, to read Twitter news from all over the world, to stay on the pulse of what’s going on around the world, and where it’s a little bit like the struggle we have as fascists in Germany. Where’s our role in all that suffering? And what can we do to create solidarity with each other?
TFSR: Does news about this interrelation between Nazis and the security apparatus surprise members of the community impacted by this violence that you all have spoken with? And I kind of wonder, also, just to tack on there, what the wider response in Germany has been from the general population. Like you said, at one point that our perspective is a marginal perspective, and also that the German government, at least with the NSU case, did a lot to try to stop it from coming to a wide audience. And it was probably the targeting, like with the Day X stuff, at least the targeting of politicians that actually got the national attention brought on it and forced it to trial, right.
Sonja: Yet, the German State declared that right-wing terrorism is the biggest threat now. But they’re not doing anything differently in the structure. They want to get the police forces more diverse, but they don’t want to talk about structural racism. There’s so much going on. Like every day, we get news about a new police chat group sharing Hitler pictures, or jokes about migrants or queer people, about Black people, or Jews. We have a deep problem with institutional racism in Germany, and there’s not one step I can see that makes that any different. Like we have those parlimental inquiries and the State is doing its thing, but nothing actually changes. And also, you have this shocking news about the Secret Service being involved like that. But what’s happening is there’s more surveillance, there’s more budget for the Secret Service, the Hessen secret service here, it doubled its budget from 2011. With Andreas Temme, sitting at the murder scene. It’s absurd. It’s absurd. And so… No, actually, it’s no surprise.
For a lot of the families that were the victims of the NSU, they were all men from the racist murder series. They were all men from mostly from Turkish, or Kurdish heritage. One was Greek. And they were the ones coming to Germany in the 60s and 70s to rebuild the State and they always faced racism in a dimension you couldn’t imagine, and a dimension that wasn’t speakable for them as well. And so, when the police came to them and didn’t believe them, that it was a racist attack and said “Well, there’s something about drugs.” Or in one case, the police made up a woman, the man who was killed had an affair with. The family of Enver Şimşek and the widow of Enver Şimşek. She was confronted with a picture of the blonde woman with two children and they said “Yeah, that’s the second wife of your husband, didn’t you know?” He was trading flowers, and so he went to the Netherlands a couple have time some months to get the flowers. And they say “Well, he must be into drug smuggling and stuff like that.” So the families, they didn’t really have anything in their hands to protect themselves from this kind of institutional racism.
And also, they didn’t have any help, because the migrant community being threatened with so much racism all their life, they turned against the families, because they say “Well, if the police says it must be some kind of mafia stuff, maybe we keep away from the family.” So they were separated from their communities, and they have this second victimization, like, after the family member got shot, they get victimized by the structural racism of the police, of the media, and its effects on the on the society. And I think, from their perspective, they were kind of surprised. And a lot of them, they don’t live in Germany any longer. A lot of them went back to Turkey, because they couldn’t stand living here. Some of them, they picked up the fight, they are part of the movement, they’re part of the organization. But a lot of them they couldn’t bear the pain and left the country.
And so, what what we learned in the last 10 years, and it’s quite unbelievable that it has been 10 years now, since the NSU discovered itself. We learned not to trust the State, in no case. The question, of course, is how to deal with that kind of threatening without the State because like, the antifascist movement, the anti-racist movement, we’re not that many people. And most of the German populations, they don’t give a shit. They don’t give a shit about the victims of right-wing violence because we are the others, we’re the communists, we’re the queer people, we’re the disabled people, we’re the homeless people, we’re the Black people, we’re the POCs. And so most of the of the German society… they just don’t give a shit. And this is really hard to realize.
But at the same time, we have this very big movement that’s a very forceful and strong movement. And also, we have a youth that has a language for what is happening to them, like the victims of the NSU. When they came to Germany, they said that to the children that they should assimilate. And now we have the third generation of, for example, Turkish or Kurdish people coming to Germany, who have a language for institutional racism, for pointing that out for having this kind of conversations.
And also, the far-right, they are taking up like more and more space, like, for example, the murder of Walter Lübcke, he was a politician of the city, which is the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, who Angela Merkel is a member of as well. And he was shot on his terrace and his murderer, Stephan Ernst, he said he wanted to bring the terror to the people he thought were responsible for the politics that brought around migrants in the migrant crisis in 2015. So they shot one of them, and they don’t react to that. This is like really unbelievable. How much silence there is. I’m so wondered why there’s not more anger. But at the same time, we have a great movement, and an understanding, and a language now for doing that. And that keeps us going, I think.
TFSR: One thing I didn’t think to ask about, but it’s sort of occurring to me now is for all the talk of like Neo-Nazis in Germany, we haven’t talked about antisemitic violence very much. And I know that, yeah, it seems like NSU Watch came into existence with the realization that like, these specific groups of like, Kurdish, Turkish, and the one Greek gentleman, were being targeted, and so we focus on those specific populations, but to talk about Neo-Nazism in Germany without talking about anti semitism feels a little strange. One of the people on the kill list I think, for Franco Albrecht is Jewish and was being targeted I think for being Jewish. But I might be wrong about that. But can you talk about it?
Sonja: Yeah, you’re right. It’s Anetta Kahane.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about antisemitism in the in the modern far-right in Germany, as pertains to the conversation we’ve been having?
Sonja: In 2018 we had the attack of the synagogue in Halle. It was a on a high Jewish holiday. And the perpetrator he couldn’t get into the synagogue because they have a very good security system. Also, the Jewish communities in Germany, they don’t depend on the State as well. After the attack in Halle, they had police protection for some time. And now on higher holidays, but also they took care of themselves. Like they had a big wooden door and very skilled security person at the entrance. And so the perpetrator couldn’t make his way into the synagogue. So he shot a queer woman on the street. And then he went on people hunting in the city of Halle, and he went into a Kebab shop, and killed the owner, and attacked another person.
So antisemitism in Germany is always connected to the far-right thinking. It’s always one of the motives. And we have like these different kinds of racism, these different kinds of racist pictures, like the Jews being the “superior, always in control kind of people” and the people coming from other parts of the world are the “wild and aggressive and hyper masculine” threat to the Germans. And so in Germany, the far-right is still driven by the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft, which is the community in the Third Reich. And this is really based on Blood and the country they’re living in, still. And we still have this thinking of the Third Reich in Germany, in so many different levels, like there was never true antifascist movement.
So the struggles were always connected. Also, the antifascist movement in Germany is deeply inspired and connected to the survivors of the Holocaust. And there was always this tie together. One of the problems we faced in Germany is that all the leftists were killed in the concentration camps, as well. And we only got the Social Democrats who survived the concentration camps. And so after the Second World War, we had a very weak left-wing movement there. And so they’re different perspective of marginalized life coming out of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. And so we always had this thinking of having this this one struggle and having to support each other.
But it’s also a very complicated history, because Germany itself, it made itself the world champion of remembering… like, getting rid of such a heritage and dealing with such a heritage was a very big political topic in Germany. And so there was always the telling of how Jewish life in Germany is, and the reality of Jewish life in Germany. And so this was also and always a very marginal perspective. And antisemitism is one of the basic foundations of right-wing thinking in Germany. It comes in such different shades. And also we have a huge problem with daily antisemitism, as well as daily racism in Germany. And we’re still debating here publicly, if we’re an immigrant country. No matter where the people are coming from we still have this very folkish thinking, like, there’s this group of people living here for 1000s of years and we’re the “real Germans.” And that’s really hard to get rid of.
Also in the laws, also to get a word like “Rasse”, which is the translation for race, but we don’t use it in the daily talking out of our Constitution, for example. It’s very hard to really get an emancipative perspective on German politics, because there’s so much shit going on, and very different variations. And the attack and Halle, it reminded us again, reminded all the society about the threat that Jewish people are facing in Germany. And of course, they are antisemitic attacks on a daily basis, like restaurants getting attacked, people getting attacked wearing openly Jewish clothing, for example. And it was always a topic for antifascists as well to deal with that. And yeah, like the attack from the perpetrator in Halle, who wanted to get into the synagogue to kill people, Jewish people doing their prayers there, you can switch to a different form of racism if that doesn’t work. And so right-wing ideological thinking is always inspired by racism and antisemitism in the same kind of way.
TFSR: Thanks for answering the question that I didn’t ask you about before. And also, you had made references, for instance, right at the beginning to the survivor of the Holocaust, who had been doing music in Auschwitz and spoke about not not relying on the State.
Sonja: And she she’s actually a very great example for how the struggle can get together. Because she and her daughter, they found music group with some rappers of Turkish heritage. And one of these rappers was also living in Köln, which was attacked by the NSU with a nail bomb. I don’t remember the year actually. But yet, and they were founding this music group together doing rap songs and Yiddish songs together, talking in schools performing at rallies and stuff.
TFSR: That’s awesome.
Sonja: Yeah, that’s really awesome.
TFSR: In the US, one frequently sees the liberal State use real or perceived threats to public safety as an opportunity to increase surveillance and repression of autonomous movements and communities, such as repression of the radical ecological and animal rights movement after the September… actually prior to the September 11 attacks in the US, but the widespread surveillance and attacks on immigrant and particularly Muslim or Muslim perceived populations after 9-11. Or we develop, I think pretty, like insightful fears about further clamp down on Black Lives Matter or antifascist movements following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which was conducted by far-right extremists. Are there any such fears that you all in Germany see or have concerning the State’s response, as all of these insights are rolling out about things like the NSU, or DAY X, or Franco Albrecht’s case in particular, where the State uses the rising violence that’s brought to the public eye coming from the far-right, as a means of repressing everything in the middle of that horseshoe that you referenced?
Sonja: Yeah, definitely, like we had two big laws passing in the last couple of months. One gives the Secret Service the possibility to put on a trail on everybody’s phone without having a court acknowledge that. So the same Secret Service who is funding the Neo-Nazi movement still in Germany, and being involved so much, and also being involved in the destroying of the evidence can now put a spy app on everybody’s phone. We have this big budget increase for the secret service as well. And there’s always the telling “well, we could have stopped it if we would have more persons doing the job, or more budget for doing so.”
And the opposite is the case like we had this in a different direction with the attack in link to the IS in Berlin. The case of Anis Amri. Where it’s clear that there was an informant directly in the surrounding of the attacker, and didn’t do shit about it. And as always, I think they play with the fear to increase public surveillance, and it’s quite ridiculous. We have so much Neo-Nazi terrorism going on. And it’s all like separate people, no networks, no groups, no deeper insight there. And on the other hand, we have very big cases of criminalization of leftist or ecological movements.
They’re like, right now, we have a terrorist case here in Germany, where a young antifascist called Lena. She is in jail for, I don’t know, more than half a year now. And they attacked a Neo-Nazi. He wasn’t hurt that bad. I think he they may have hurt his leg or something. So there was just physical violence on a very low level compared to what Neo-Nazis do all over Germany all the time. And she has a terrorist trial now and is in jail for half a year for attacking this well known Neo-Nazi who was also a member of the Atomwaffen Division, by the way, in Germany.
And what is also very concerning is all the stuff going on in the police forces like, also with Nordkreuz, for example, where police officers took a sketch of a house of a person who was threatened. And these sketches were found with the Nordkreuz people. So you have police giving away private information about people and giving it to Neo-Nazis. We had the same thing here in the State of Hessen, where an attorney of one of the members of the NSU case the attorneys name Seda Başay Yıldız and she got death threats by email. A lot of people did actually. The sender calls himself NSU 2.0 So directly relating to the NSU case. She found out that the police in Frankfurt looked up her address. She protected it from public institutions giving it out to people. You can do that if you’re part of a threatened group. You can say “my address is secret” and only the police can look at that. And so she found out that the information in the email, which included her daughter’s kindergarten address, her personal address, and her daughter’s name and age, they were giving out by the police in Frankfurt. And so we have a lot of this connection that directly from the police to Neo-Nazi groups, or other cases of death threats there.
This is a huge problem where there is no actually dealing with that right now. Everyday we get a case where some police officers get together in telegram groups or WhatsApp groups sharing racist pictures or thinking there. And some of them are put on trial, but there’s always the saying that “first of all, it’s just a joke. Second of all, there’s not enough public to get a verdict for that.” Because in Germany, if you want to do hate speech, you need public for that. And if you just have five people in a WhatsApp group, that’s not public enough. You can hang a swastika flag in your living room, you can’t put it outside your window, because there’s public and if you do it in private, it’s fine. And so there’s not so much punishment for this kind of behavior. And also in Germany, we don’t have any outstanding force to investigate police stuff. The police investigates itself, I think it’s the same in the US maybe. And so they cover up each other’s asses for for doing so. We don’t have anything to handle with that, actually.
TFSR: Well, thank you so much for having this conversation for all of the details that you’ve brought, and I really appreciate the work that you all are doing. How can listeners find out more about NSU Watch and support you in this work? and get involved even!
Sonja: So we were on social media. We do have an Instagram and Twitter account. I sent you the addresses so you can pull it up. We also have a very good English website where you can get information about the work we’re doing. Actually, one big help if somebody of you out there can speak German, is to help translate the texts antifascists put out. Especially… I mentioned the big research paper from Exif Recherche. It’s talking a lot about the US, because they all do it on in their free time and not paid, they didn’t have the power to translate it. So if you’re open to that: offering help for translation, that could be awesome. Yeah. And otherwise, just help us push. That’s a big help, actually,
TFSR: A lot of solidarity to you. And thanks for having this conversation. I really, really appreciate it. Yeah, thank you so much for being interested. You can find more about NSU-Watch’s work at NSU-Watch.info/en/ or follow them on Twitter (@NSUWatch) and Instagram (@NSUWatch)
This segment was first aired on TFSR in 2013 and then again in 2015. We thought it was time to share some of the story of Chicanx, anarchist-communist political prisoner Xinachtli, in his own words. Throughout the segments original audio, I used his state name of Alvaro Luna-Hernandez as he had not yet adopted the moniker Xinachtli, which means “seed” in Nahuatl. Xinachtli is a collective member at and editor of the Certain Days political prisoner calendar.
Xinachtli is serving a 50 year sentence since 1996 in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for aggravated assault on a Sheriff in Alpine, Texas. The Sheriff was serving a warrant for Xinachtli’s re-arreast at Xinachtli’s home. When questioned on the nature of the warrant, the Sheriff pulled a gun and Xinachtli was able to disarm him and make an escape without harming the Sheriff significantly.
After a few days of man-hunt, his mothers house was surrounded by numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the house was beseiged. It was only a 9-1-1 call from Xinacthli made stating that he was not being allowed to surrender that caused the troops to stand down and he allowed himself to be taken into state custody.
The grounds for the arrest warrant have since been overturned, but based on the post-facto word of the Sheriff that Xinachtli had pointed the gun at him, Xinachtli was sentenced to 50 years. He’s been determined to be a political prisoner based on his participation in multiple cases against abuse by prison officials and police, his jailhouse lawyering, advocacy for Latinx and other marginalized people in Texas and his political stance that the US and state governments occupying the Southwest of Turtle Island is a racist and illegitimate regime.
Here is featured an interview with Xinachtli that we received from comrades in the Anarchist Black Cross who were doing support work for him. The original interview was incomplete, missing the voice of the interviewer, so we did our best to edit and reconstruct the audio to better fit a conversational format and present his conflicts with the Prison Industrial Complex, his views on his political prisoner status at the time of this interview and his views on his case. More info on his case, plus his writings and ways to get involved in his support campaign can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net.
You can write to Xinachtli by addressing your envelope to:
Alvaro Luna Hernandez #255735
W.G. McConnell Unit,
3001 Emily Drive,
Beeville, Texas 78102
Be sure to use Xinachtli only in written content meant for him, prison staff likely won’t deliver envelopes with Xinachtli written on them.
TFSR: Could you tell listeners about your persecution by law enforcement in Alpine and other parts of Texas and your participation in the Chicano rights movement?
Xinachtli: The history of my involvement in the community organizing, not the original movement, but after back in the 70s and 80s, which led to my my re-arrest – aggravated assault case. That started everything back in Alpine in Brewster County, Texas. Well, you know, my incarceration now, is unjust. I’ve been persecuted by the police in Alpine because of what I was doing and my long history of involvement in exposing police brutality in Alpine. For example, I was a witness to the murder of Ervay Ramos, a 16 year old friend of mine who was shot and killed by Alpine police – Bud Powers, in June, the 12th 1968. And I witnessed the murder of Ramos because I was with him that night. In fact, his case was published by the US Commission on civil rights.
You know, just like everything else, Powers was given the probated sentence. I don’t think he even served a day in jail. I think he passed away a couple of years ago, but he never served a day in jail. And of course, you know, this is just a continuation of a legacy of police brutality against Mexican Americans by the police in a multitude of social injustices that happen in Chicano Mexican American communities and so forth. Like education, racist education, segregation.
TFSR: What was it like to grew up there for you?
Xinachtli: When I was raised in Alpine? I attended the Centennial School, which was a segregated school. I mean, back in even in the 60’s… 68, 67… all the schools were still segregated. That was part of the legacy of hatred that the police always had for me, because I was… in a sense, I was a rebellious youth, you know? I mean, I was supposing police abuse of Chicano youth in the barrio and from that point forward pushed into the criminal justice system at a very young age. I even spend time here close to a facility here when it used to be the Texas Youth Commission. It used to be the facilities for juvenile offenders. And it used to be in Hilltop. I did a year. I think I was 14 years old. I did I did a year then. And, I mean it’s just been confrontation with the police, with the criminal justice system, and so forth. You know? Until until back in 72, 73 I was sent to prison at a very young age again for destroying some police cars. Right there in Alpine. And from that point forward, I mean, it was just have a lot of problems with the police and so forth. Then which led up to this wrongful capital murder conviction, which to this day, I have always proclaimed my innocence, you know, I had nothing to do with it.
TFSR: Can you tell us about that capital murder conviction?
Xinachtli: The robbery and murder of the night clerk at the Ramada Inn in Alpine in September of 1975. It was Capital murder. The state was seeking the death penalty. My court appointed attorney was Melvin Gray, out of the San Angelo. I was charged. My uncle, Juan Herandez was charged. Palmina Hernandez was charged. And allegedly she was the one that turned state’s evidence and put the blame on me, see? But it was her and my uncle who had robbed the clerk and killed him. I had nothing to do with it. I was nowhere around there. But since all the evidence showed that I was never around there. I mean, like the footprints, all the tests that was done on the evidence that was collected by the police never matched. But they never said anything about it. They wanted me. They didn’t want them. She was granted immunity for prosecution. She died in a car accident a few years back. Juan Hernandez, he was convicted in a jury trial in Crane County, but his conviction was overturned on insufficient evidence. He’s also deceased.
Okay, so see? The state was seeking the death penalty. The jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty. So the state waived the death penalty during the punishment phase and they said “well just give him a life sentence. That’s cool.” So the jury gave me a life sentence, but the state was seeking the death penalty. And they had just opened the jail in Fort Stockton. The brand new jail, but they had me housed in Pecos, Texas. Close to my trial, they they move me to the new jail in Fort Stockton. Pecos County that’s Pecos County Jail.
TFSR: Here Xinachtli tells us a bit about his most recent conviction, garnering him the 50 year sentence and what led up to it.
Xinachtli: So when the jury found me guilty, I was awaiting sentencing. Me and three other inmates overpowered the jailer and took his gun, locked him in the cell, open all the cell doors for all the prisoners and told them they could leave they wanted to. And we took the jailers car and we drove all the way through Marathon to the Big Bend National Park and into Mexico. You know, of course, there was no bridge there at the Big Bend National Park. So we left the car and we swim across the river into Mexico. When they saw the car two or three days later through the air, because there was a big manhunt for us. They saw the car. They started trailing us and…. Texas Rangers, FBI, the Mexican police. So when they accosted us on the other side of the river…. we had to shoot out because we had…. I took all the Sherrif’s arsenal. I had all the weapons from the Sheriff Arsenal. I took them. Machine gun, and shot guns, and weapons, pistols and all that. So when they came up on us, we started shooting. Nobody was hurt, nobody was shot, nobody was killed. We ran out of bullets. And that’s when they apprehended us brought us back across the river. I think we were what? Two, three miles into into Mexico? Right there in Santa Elena, Mexico. And they brought this back and that’s when they had me handcuffed and in leg shackles and all that. And that’s when they beat me up.
TFSR: And at that point, some of the officers saw the severity of the beating you were getting and reported to higher authorities to save your life. Right?
Xinachtli: Yes, some of the officers saw the beating, and they went and called the Justice Department. They told them to go check on me because they they thought I was dead. So that’s when the Justice Department Criminal Civil Rights Division got involved in the case. And they indicted indicted Hill and May. And prosecuted him in Federal Court. John Pinkney. He’s in private practice now in San Antonio. John Pickney, he was the assistant US Attorney handling the case. Although I never did testify against him because being said that it was a trial strategy. He never called me to testify against them, but they weren’t convicted. The other inmates did testify against them. Because because they were first offenders and they had no criminal record. I already had… at that age, I was 22 years old. But during all this time I became I became politically aware inside prison. You know, I was involved in the Ruiz trial and the Ruiz case. You know, we went to two federal court to testify on behalf of all all Texas prisoners and so forth.
I was on parole on this conviction. March 11 of 1991. I was paroled after serving 16 years in DDC. And I went to Houston. I was very involved in community organization. You know? I was a delegate for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. I organized a lot of civil rights groups and so forth. Married Elizabeth Perillo. And then after a few years, we had a divorce and I went back to Alpine. And when I returned to Alpine that’s when the police started harassing me.
TFSR: Xinachtli talks about the aggravated robbery charged that the Sheriff use to legitimize the warrant for Hernandez’s arrest.
Xinachtli: If it hadn’t been for the aggravated robbery case, there would have never been the assault case. Some drunk guy in a bar said that I had snatched some money from his from his hand. And the bartender was right there witnessing everything. And he said that the drunk man was lying. Because he witnessed everything. He said, he followed me and him outside. And he had a wad of money in his hand and the wind blew the money up from his hand, because it was real windy on the outside of the bar. And because I brought all these witnesses in at a pre-trial hearing, I was acting as my own attorney. They had no choice but to have it dismissed. They dismissed that case. But the assault had had already happened. I mean, it was it was as bogus as they come.
TFSR: So this 50 year sentence that you’ve been serving since 1996. Tell us about it.
Xinachtli: This new sentence stems from my act of self defense against Sheriff Jack McDaniel. He’s also deceased. He was the sheriff of Alpine. And I was on parole up when I was charged with aggravated robbery case and made bond. He goes to my house to arrest me and he gets mad because I asked him for the copy of the warrant of arrest. I was never notified of the withdrawal or anything. So when I questioned him, he went for his gun. And you know, when he went for his gun, I took the gun away from him. I disarmed him. You know, to be honest with you, I was scared. I thought he was gonna shoot me. Because I have seen all this brutality from all of them. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I had seen when when Ron was was killed, I had seen a lot of brutality from the police. You know what I’m saying? Well, I took the gun and I ran. And then about a few blocks down the road. My wife picked me up, and she took me to Marathon, 30 miles away to the Marathon Post. On our way back she was arrested. See, she was pregnant, then she was expecting a child. Alvaro Jr. On our way back she was arrested and charged with hindering apprehension. I was indicted for the aggravated assault on the Sheriff. So after, you know, after that I had a jury trial. They had a change of venue to Odessa, Texas, and I had a jury trial and I was convicted on one count of aggravated assault on Sheriff McDaniel and not guilty on another account of allegedly shooting a police in the hand, Sergeant Curtis Hines. And I was given a 50 year sentence.
But the the old…. the ’75, ’76 conviction was used as part of the justification for increased punishment. The aggravated element comes in when the sheriff said that I pointed the weapon at him. The way it happened, really, by me disarming him and fleeing from the scene… It’s not aggravated. See, the aggravated even though it was a weapon, I never used the weapon. See what I’m saying? But he’s saying that I took the weapon away from him, and pointed the weapon at him, and threatened him. See? That’s what makes it aggravated. KOSA TV channel 7 in Odessa did a live interview because when I fled the scene, they had a manhunt for me, and it was broadcasting all throughout West Texas. They were they were hunting for me. There was a manhunt for me. So when KOSA TV goes to interview the Sheriff initially… he tells them exactly what happened! That I disarmed him, took his gun and fled, which is true. You know? I disarmed him. But I never threatened him with it. I never pointed the weapon at him.
My hired trial attorney, Tony Chavez out of Odessa, subpoenaed the video. And I remember as if it was yesterday where the news anchor Daphne Downey out of Odessa KOSA TV came into the courtroom. She had a copy of the VCR video and they was gonna play that before the jury. But it was never played before the jury. Mysteriously, this video has come up missing. Nobody can locate it. Daphne Downey from KOSA TV said that since they moved location to another building, that all of their videos, all their archives were donated to the University of Texas at the Permian Basin, the journalistic department. Twitch and a lot of other people have tried to help me locate that video, but nobody seems to know where it’s at.
TFSR: Xinachtli, is there anything that reporter could do if the actual videotape of the Sheriff’s testimony is missing?
Xinachtli: If the reporter can recreate? You know, what the share of relayed to him then. See, because there’s partial testimony. In fact, even some of the some of the offense reports that the sheriff wrote that initially, he told the truth: that I never threatened him with a weapon. I just disarmed him.
TFSR: And when did the Sheriff’s story change?
Xinachtli: After he talked to the District Attorney. Because probably what happened is that the District Attorney told him “Well, I mean, it’s more serious if you say that he used the weapon against you, and threatened you with it. That makes it aggravated, that makes it a first degree felony, which carries a more aggravated sentence, a harsher sentence.” And that’s exactly what happened. See? Because at that time he started… the sheriff started filing all kinds of charges on me. For example: He charged me with disarming him. He charged me with assault. And then he charged me with resisting arrest. I mean, he just kept finding all kinds of charges on me. And then he finally charged me with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Which was the more serious of all the charges. But in a lot of his police reports, even his pretrial deposition that he gave in the case.
Another thing about my lawyer, he was a paid lawyer. Tony Chauvez was a hired lawyer. I think it was about about two months after I get convicted. The federal government hits him with a Rico Indictment for drug distribution, drug conspiracy, involvement with a with a Ojinaga Cartel, Midland Odessa Cartel. They issue 20 some count indictments against him and he immediately enters into a plea bargain with the federal government and pleads guilty. He agrees to surrender his law license, and he gets 30 months in federal prison and he was disbarred from the practice of law. See, at that time… at the time of my trial, the federal government had been investigating him for over five years. And in fact, his home and his law offices were being wire tapped.
I have never been able to obtain copies of those wiretaps. Because my theory of the cases is that if the state and the federal government law enforcement agencies were working together in this big criminal conspiracy out of West Texas, involving the use about 30 or 40 defendants. If they were working together then the prosecutor that prosecuted me knew that Tony Chavez was under investigation by the federal government, because the case started as a state case. All these legal grounds that I had, like the suppression of evidence, the wire taps, the lawyer being under investigation being convicted.
Some of those issues have never been really fully developed, because some of the evidence…. I don’t even know. Because I’ve never had a chance to get a hold of all this evidence, like the wiretaps on his office. What was the nature of investigation? You know? There are some people that have filed some Freedom of Information Act Requests. And, the state and federal governments, they have released some documents, but they haven’t released all of the documents, and they’re claiming exemptions on the other documents. Refusing to release them. They have deleted some of this information, because, you know, I’ve always said that there was a conspiracy between between the police. The police didn’t want me back in Alpine. They knew that I was back in Alpine. And as soon as I got back from Alpine from Houston, they started harassing me. They had me under surveillance. They even sent this heroin addict, by the name of Mary Valencia, to try to entrap me. She later told me this. You know? But the lawyer never called her as a witness during the trial.
TFSR: Who was Mary Valencia?
Xinachtli: Well, see. She was a worker at the motel in Alpine. I was staying at this motel in Alpine. Bienvenido Motel. And she was a custodial worker there. She used to go in and clean rooms in the motel. She was a local heroin addict. I mean she had a bunch of theft charges. And, she later told me that the police had approached her to try to set me up. The police had approached her to find out what I was doing. Because at that time, I was doing some freelance paralegal work for an attorney out of Fort Worth by the name of Alex Tandy. You know, and I used to spend a lot of time in the law library at the (unclear) State University or at the county Law Library. In fact, one day, when I was at the Law Library in the county courthouse I saw Sheriff McDaniel as he was walking by, and he looked at me and he said… These were his exact words. He said ” Well, I see your back.” I told him, “Yes, I’m back.” And he said, “Well, just keep your nose clean.” I told him “Well, the people who need to keep their nose clean are the police, and you! Because all you do is steal from the county. That’s what you do. Steal from the county and beat Mexicans down.” And you should have seen him, he got really agitated.
From that point forward, I mean, they continuously stopped me on the streets. I mean, they even had the Border Patrol drug dog run through my car. You know, they they were all under the impression that I was using drugs that I was selling drugs, because I had started dating this girl who was known for drug use. Maria Imelda. Imelda, was her name. She was an old friend. And, that’s why they always said that I was using drugs. That I was a drug addict, and all this. Which was, you know, I was just trying to, I was dating her, and I was just trying to take her off the streets. In fact, she was the one that got pregnant and had my child.
You know, she was the one that was there at the at the house when Sheriff McDaniel came up that morning to try to arrest me. She was nine months pregnant. Two weeks later, she had the baby when I was in jail. See? And she testified on my behalf, even though they told her that if she testified…. they tried to intimidate her by by threatening her that if she testified on my behalf, that they were going to charge her too. She said “I don’t care. I’m going to tell the truth.” So, you know, she testified. And she testified to the truth. That I never pointed the gun at the sheriff.
TFSR: What is the likelihood of your parole?
Xinachtli: Well, see? I’m under the new law, which is the Half Law. That’s the new aggravated law. You got to serve 25 calendar years out of 50 to be eligible for parole. That’s just to be eligible for parole. You know, that’s why they The Half Law. You get 100 years, you got to do 50 calendar. If you get 50, you got to do half. 25. So that’s the aggravated element of a felony first degree case where there’s a weapon involved. Where you use or exhibit a deadly weapon. You know? And there is a factual finding an affirmative finding. What they call an affirmative find in the use of a deadly weapon that automatically makes the case aggravated. Under the Half Law, you got to do, you got to do half before you even are eligible for parole.
And my case is… see? I’m considered a political prisoner. I’m recognized internationally as a political prisoner because of my community involvement in the streets, as an organizer, as somebody who would protest, police brutality, protest injustices and so forth. You know? I mean, I was a delegate before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, because of that involvement with my community. When I was in Houston, my case has been mentioned in law journals and books and so forth, including my Jailhouse Lawyering back here in prison, Mumia Abu-Jamal and his book *Jailhouse Lawyers*. He mentioned me. There’s that book by Matt Meyer, *Let Freedom Ring*. They also Chronicle my my case from going all the way back to to the Alpine case.
TFSR: So, Xinachtli, where do you stand with your appeals process?
Xinachtli: And of course, I’ve exhausted one full round of appeals. You know? When I was convicted, I appealed my case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. They denied it. I filed in Federal Court. I went to the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals. I went to the Supreme Court. I’ve never had licensed assistance from an attorney on post conviction. I did all the work myself. You know, I never was able to collect all the evidence that was withheld. Although I did ask for it. They never they never released it. You know, like the wire taps, all the other evidence, because I know, there’s a lot of evidence that that could be developed on the prior convictions. If I could reopen that case… that would certainly knock out this other case. But I have to take it against one step at a time, you know. I mean, right now I’m in a Control Unit back here. I’ve been back here for 10 years on basically what they call administrative segregation. I’ve been in solitary confinement for the last 10 years back here on this unit on this new sentence.
In the cell by myself, when I go into recreation, I go by myself. Every time I exit the door, the cell door, they have to handcuff me with my hands behind my back. We get searched every day. I get back three times, two times, a week outside recreation in a yard. Which is… you know a cage. That’s all that is, cement, high walls, all you can see is the sky. The day room is in front of the cell. You know, I mean, you can see the next inmate who comes out to recreation, but that’s about it. There’s no contact. There’s no… I mean, you go to and recreation for an hour a daily. Like this morning I was out there this morning. After you finish rec, you go to shower, and then they put you back in a cell. You know, this is just it, I mean, you go out once.
TFSR: Can you talk to the other inmate as you pass? Can you carry on a conversation?
Xinachtli: Well, I mean, you could holler at him. But I mean, that’s all you hear: hollering. Back in this facility in fact, they just had one that hanged himself last week. There’s a lot of people who have hanged themselves. Who have committed suicide. And I have always complained about that. You know, I’ve always complained. But no. The repression. The the sensory deprivation, the isolation. I mean, we don’t have access to TV. We got access to a typewriter. We got access to a radio, small little radio, but you got to buy those on your own. You know, we have no access to television. Yes, we get Law Library, about three times a week. We order a Case sites from the law library. And that’s how I do my legal work. Well, there’s no limitation on correspondence, but there’s a ten person limitation on your visitation. And you can have visits every week, as long as you maintain a clear disciplinary record. Because if you violate serious disciplinary rules, then they’ll send you to another part. And you have to serve 90 days segregation, minus all of the other privileges. They totally strip you of your property and everything.
TFSR: Xinachtli before this interview in late 2012. When was your last visitation?
Xinachtli: I hadn’t had a visit in a while. uhh… years! Yeah, I think… Let me see the last visit I had. I’ve had a few friends that would drop by. Twitch has come by. A friend from Canada, Sara used to drop by every now and then. I had some family members sometimes come, but I hadn’t had a visit… you know, in a while. Very little. The expression that you find is through pen and paper. It’s through my typewriter. And I mean, you could sense through, I guess, through my writings… the passion, the anger, you know, the despair. Still, there’s…. I cling to hope. You know, because I’ve seen a lot of injustices. What the system has done to a lot of people who speak out against it. They try to crush you. They tried to break your spirit. I mean, They try to just isolate you and just crush you. You know what I’m saying? That’s the power of the state. And I realized that. But no prison or no solitary cell will be able to break my spirit.
I know that I’m right. I know that my cause is just. And I know that. I know that the police assaulted me. But I have no power. You know? They have the political power. They own the court systems. How many Mexicans are killed down across the border every day? And who gets charged all the time? Ya know? we do. You know? we do. So that’s the power. That’s the power of the state and the political process. I know. That’s the only hope that I have like reaching out to people who who have a sense of justice. You know, people that I can appeal to for a sense of justice. Because I know that there’s a lot of people out there, powerful people, that don’t want to see me free. Because they know what I can do. They know the power of my spirit. They know what I could do as far as organizing people making people stand up to fight injustice.
And that’s what I do, that’s what I used to do. If you don’t conform to the system, to the political system. If you step outside the political system and you seek independence from from the political process from the social economic process, then you’re a troublemaker and the only place they want to put you in jail or put you in a grave.
Updates from Greece
1431 AM, Thessaloniki
Greetings from Thessaloniki, Greece. From Free Social Radio 1431AM. On 23rd of April anarchist Vangelis Stathopoulos was sentenced in 19 years in prison. Solely because he tried to help an injured comrade, Chatzivasileiadis. Late he was self injured during the theft attempt. There is no solid of evidence that *Stathopoulos participated in the theft. But even in that case, he could only be sentenced for a misdemeanor. But after phony evidence and anonymous calls, a counter terrorist service, he was tagged as a member of a terrorist group called a Revolutionary Struggle. Basically, Stathopoulos is in prison for his anarchist identity, which he clearly defended in front of the judges and for his attempts to get injured adversary and to have access to a doctor. Since then, many actions of solidarity have taken place throughout Greece, until the every cage is burned until everyone is free.
On May 12 a new law was passed by the greek government about child custody. The law states that child custody automatically and compulsorily goes to both parents equally in case of divorce or even when both parents recognize legally a child born outside of marriage. Up until now usually the custody was given to the mother with some rights of visitation from the father, and in the cases that the custody was given to both parents it was because they both peacefully and collectively agreed so, not because a judge decided so. This new law and its authoritarian power over a child’s life does not include parameters of the child’s benefit or opinion, and even more for cases of domestic abuse, as it recognizes that a parent loses the right for shared child custody only after if they are found irrevocably guilty of physical violence, which is rare in cases of domestic violence. Under this law, all decision for the child must be taken from both parents, and if they don’t agree on something then it’s up to the court to decide. A parent can appeal on this decision but it can take years of court hearings and meanwhile the child is shared like an object with its abuser.
The Hatzidaki’s bill is the continuation of a long series of laws of the Greek state, where under the pretext of increasing the competitiveness of companies that will thus contribute to the economy, started the overall deregulation of the labor market with the main characteristics of changing the schedule from fixed to flexible working hours, reducing labor costs and labor rights. The modern working day that has been shaped thanks to the previous legislations that have been implemented, is full of insecurity and pressure due to the fear of dismissal, low wages, “split” working hours, increased rates of work. Many bosses in Greece don’t pay the workers their gifts, put employees who are suspended to work, insure the employees for 4 hours and make them work 8 and 10 hours, sexually harass, commit violence, bully.
All this with the support of the state that consciously allows such practices to be perpetuated and even proceeds to consolidate and worsen them, probably submitting on June 17 the aforementioned bill, in which you provide: Elimination of the eight-hour period and imposition of 50 working hours per week, with the imposition of individual employment contracts.
Bosses will be able to employ employees up to a maximum of 10 hours per day, without additional pay, provided that within the same 6 months they pay the hours with a corresponding reduction in hours or breaks or days off.
Increasing the hours of legal overtime to 150 hours, with the increase of the limits the legal overtime work will become cheaper. The possibility of a legal claim for re-employment is abolished (even in the case where the dismissal is deemed abusive) with the payment of compensation, thus giving the bosses full immunity for the dismissals.
Abolition of the SEPE (Body of Labor Inspectors) and its transformation into an “Independent Authority” (in fact it will be fully controlled by the state)
Criminalization of the strike guard that will lead to the termination of the strike with a court decision under the pretext of the possible physical or psychological violence that can be exercised by the strikers. At least 33.3% of the services are required, in addition to the security staff, which means that a large part of the workers will have to work during a strike.
Remote voting, electronically, in particular for a strike decision. The measure undermines both the exchange of views and the General Assemblies themselves
Mandatory file of all members of a union and its activities, so that employees can exercise their union rights, in the already legislated Register of Trade Unions maintained in the information system “Ergani” of the Ministry of Labor Flexibility in remote working in the form of either full-time or part-time employment.
R.O.S.E. 93.8FM, Athens
Open Assembly Against Green Growth
On June 6, the open assembly against Green Growth and Wind in Agrafa called together with other collectives in Tymbanos, where work has begun on the installation of wind turbines, and the construction of the substation. Taking advantage of the pandemic and destruction of the area from the Mediterranean Cyclone Ianos. Despite the attack by the repression unit, the protesters resisted and regrouped, continuing the mobilization, shouting slogans, making it clear that they will not back down until the work is stopped. In it’s call, the open assembly calls on the inhabitants of the agrarian villages in the cities of the plain to be vigilant for a cessation and blocking of the works for a relentless struggle for land and freedom.
Sexual Harassment on Athens Social Transport
On the occasion of ever increasing complaints about incidents of sexual harassment in the neighborhoods of southern suburbs, a mobilization was organized on Friday, the fourth of June 2021 at 9pm with a call the metro Argyropouli station. The mobilization is inspired by the Reclaim the Night Movement that emerged in the 70’s in Britain from feminist groups to reoccupy the city for women in the night. The central slogan was “On the street, on the metro, at night, to be free, not brave.” The Gathering in the metro station of Argyropouli in a very positive atmosphere remained in the area for about an hour to highlight the collective presence and protection of women against the incidents that took place in the metro Argyropouli in previous weeks. Then a block of up to 150 people was formed that crossed nearby streets and alleys within the next two hours and finally passed through the shops and ended up in a nearby Square. The march had strong chants with slogans against gender based violence, patriarchy heteronormativity, police violence and sexual harassment in the restaurant. Many people reacted positively, went out on the balconies, applauded and even went on their way. The initiative was organized by the newly formed Witches of the South Team. These mobilization, the first of its kind in our region, leaves behind an optimistic mindset in terms of struggle.
Government Witnessing Changes
Since first of June, according to an instruction of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum. Public servants are prohibited from attending as witnesses in trials where the public is accused of illegal acts as it is said to safeguard the interests of the Greek state. The directive informs the Civil Servants that the testimony in favor of the opponents and against the Greek state constitutes a disciplinary misconduct and a criminal offense. As mentioned below, the affidavit of ministry officials is allowed only to support the allegations of the Greek state. As always in the ministry against which a series of serious cases are pending even at European level. The state is getting shielded in every way.
IDOC Watch, Leon Benson and Abolitionist Organizing in Indiana
First, you’ll hear from Koby Bluitt talking about her father, Leon Benson and his struggle for release after 23 years in prison, 10 of which was in solitary confinement, for a murder charge in 1998 that he has consistently claimed to have not committed. More on Leon at freeleonbenson.org or leonbenson-freeleonbenson on facebook. The Mass Release & Clemency for Leon rally in Indianapolis is July 25th at Tarkington Park. [00:04:44]
Then, you’ll hear from Landis Reyonolds, a founder of IDOC Watch currently held in Westville Correctional Institution and who’s been in since he was a juvenile, and Ray, an outside organizer with the South Bend, Indiana chapter of IDOC Watch. They talk about their work to start study groups in prison, promote Prison Lives Matter, support jailhouse lawyers and recruit outside lawyers through the Prison Legal Support Network alongside the NLG and more. More info at IDOCWatch.Org or find them on twitter, instagram or fakebook. You can support them via their patreon as well! [00:38:08]
Join abolitionists on June 5th, 2021 at Chimborazo Park from 2-6pm for an Aboliton Assembly & BBQ, hosted by the VA Prison Abolition Collective and Prison Lives Matter. You can find that and more events across Turtle Island at ItsGoingDown’s Upcoming Events page.
Drop The Charges in PDX
The Portland Anti-Repression Defense League, or PADL, is launching a campaign to demand all charges from the 2020 BLM protests get dropped. You can find a link to the press release in the One Year Rebellion post of the IGD column, In Contempt. And you can contact the organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Solidarity with Palestinians
Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front have called for weeks of actions in support of the people of Palestine under the title “International Solidarity Is The Weapon of the People.” We’d like to remind you that while occupied Palestine is no longer in the news as Hamas and Israel signed a ceasefire:
the everyday brutality of the blockade on Gaza has been going since 2007
Israeli courts, cops, military and settlers continue to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestinian Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists and others from the occupied territories as they have since the Nakba began
the US government ok’d more weapons sales to Israel during this recent assault that left dozens of Palestinian adults and children dead, destroyed water treatment, housing, media, medical and other infrastructure
Eric King & CLDC Are Suing BOP
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, on behalf of incarcerated antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King has filed a lawsuit about the ongoing cruelty and torture Eric has faced since he was incarcerated in 2014 for an act of sabotage in solidarity with the then-Uprising in Fergusson, MO, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown, Jr, by police. Eric cannot be abandoned or forgotten, notably since he’s in the crosshairs of the state and white supremacists for his anti-racist and anarchist views. You can find an announcement of the lawsuit at the CLDC website, you can find a great writeup on the situation by Natasha Leonard on The Intercept, and you can hear our interview with Eric and his partner from 2019 at our website.
Skelly of CLE4 In A Halfway House
Joshua “Skelly” Stafford, a part of the Cleveland 4, 4 young anarchist men recruited out of Occupy Cleveland and entrapped by a paid FBI informant into a conspiracy, was released to a halfway house recently. We are excited to see Skelly on his way to full release. Keep an ear out for more details and possible ways to support Skelly post-release.
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Printmatic (Instrumental) by Soul Position from 8 Million Stories
Innocent by Leon Benson / EL BENTLY 448 · MeachThaGod
Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk (instrumental) by Cypress Hill from Cypress Hill
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Koby: Bluitt:My name is Koby: . I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I am one of two children of innocent political prisoner Leon Benson. His other child is Leon Bluitt. So that is my younger brother. And I’m here speaking on his behalf and my experience, just want to thank you so much for having me here.
TFSR:Would you tell us about Leon Benson?
Koby: : He has been incarcerated in the state of Indiana for 23 years. So, to rewind, in 1999 he was sentenced to 60 years of which he has maintained his absolute innocence, despite the Indiana justice system’s refusal to grant him justice in its appellate courts. To touch on these different things that we’re trying to get through the appeal courts, they basically were able to convict him of mis-identification by the state sole witness, she changed her statement from the original statement that she had, they had him in custody, they wouldn’t even line him up when they wanted to do an actual lineup for her to be able to identify the person that she claimed that she had seen when she was there. Also, there was a new witness that was actually on the scene, and the testimony was never heard in court. And also, they have been not even accepting his appeals to even reconsider the case, even to reconsider any of the evidence because there’s not even DNA evidence, the sole eyewitness seen, she described him as a dark-skinned male, and he had on a certain amount of clothing. If you guys have ever seen my pops online, or ever checked out his website platforms, like my pops is nowhere near darker complexion. He is a very light, very light brown young man. And also the clothes did not match, the clothes that the actual police had locked him up in, when he was locked up on that night, he didn’t even have the match of the description of the clothing at all.
There was a gentleman who they had got a tip from that actually had a disagreement with my pops. Prior to this crime happening that night, they were able to take his testimony, so-called, and this young gentleman I’m speaking of was someone who was known for using drugs in the area. And this guy basically gave the police a tip, because he was there out of spite to whatever he had going on with my pops. And I guess, of course, they wanted to get my pops anyway due to selling drugs or not that, so… And like I said if you guys heard my pops’ song called Innocent, he talked about how he sold dope. He talked about how he was on the streets trying to make a way for his family, my mom and helping her and everything, and not saying that that’s right. But that’s what he did. And then my pops had a witness who was actually with him that night that never got to speak in the trial, and they wouldn’t even allow him to speak in none of the trials, although he’s ready, willing, open to do it. And there are also other witnesses that did not get to speak on my pops’ behalf. They literally just used this young woman and this other gentleman who was known for using drugs, and he was already on parole, too. It was definitely some mess going on. Maybe a reduced sentence for this young man who actually claimed that he’d seen my pops do it.
Basically, where we are now is my pops has been really trying to get into the appellate courts, and they have refused. He has filed a petition of clemency. This happened back in October of 2020. They finally logged into the system about December of 2020. Within four months in the state of Indiana, they’re supposed to give you a decision on if they’re going to grant it or not. And it’s clearly been more than four months. Despite that, Leon Benson, my pops has demonstrated his humanity, growth, and rehabilitation. For the past seven years, he hasn’t had any misconduct, any write-ups, anything. And he has completed over 50 vocational, therapeutic, spiritual and educational programs, over 50. So he has used his time to really what they think in this criminal justice, incarceration system is supposed to work, people are supposed to get rehabilitated. He really took advantage of all the things that they offer. He is now an asset to society. This is a clear case of rehabilitation versus punishment. Are we going to continue to punish people, even after they have sought redemption from within, they have utilized all the services that are offered within this so-called prison system.
Just a fun fact for those who are listening. Indiana has only granted three clemency petitions since the 70s. Okay, and we are in 2021. And I’m sure there are other people who have sent in applications, and he is not the only one in Indiana who has been wrongly convicted. This is not a unique case. This is tragic when it’s known that it’s prolonged incarceration. And it’s not really to rehabilitate prisoners, we all know incarceration hinders mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. With hopefulness, we are going to basically where his case is now to keep things simple as that he filed for clemency, we’re waiting to hear back.
TFSR:Another thing that I’ve seen, talking to folks who are behind bars, who’ve been fighting for a change in the sentence, if nothing else, is that during that period of time, because of all of the “tough on crime” culture war stuff that was going on to the US from the Democrats and the Republicans.
TFSR: There were people getting super long convictions. And since then, there have been reforms of the sentencing structures in a lot of states, where people like old-law people like Jason Goudlock, for instance, is one incarcerated activist in Ohio that I’ve spoken to. He’s talked about how the difference between the old-law prisoners, the ones who had the mandatory minimums, who had the 20 to life sentences, or parole as opposed to required release after a certain period of time that younger prisoners have. Not only is that an unfair situation, but that’s also totally political, where someone who is accused of a crime at a certain point… If your pops is innocent, he should be released anyway. I’m not in favor of carcerality and prisons like they exist in our society. But then again, it seems like it’s obviously a sign of the times of when he was convicted, and it wasn’t about him as much as it was about filling a cell, like you said, if people that are being convicted now of crimes that are similar to that are getting less time. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but is there a discrepancy between convictions currently versus the time when he went in in 1998? Is that any sort of leverage that you can make in the case?
Koby: Yeah, during that time, I don’t know if the listeners are aware of the prison industrial complex. Really seeing what that time looked like, and what it looks like now, and like you said, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were really pushing this “tough on crime” kind of thing. And this “tough on crime” attitude within legislatures and just within the drugs, right? A lot of drugs were going on and they were using that as a way of really getting these people who were black and brown and just even lower to middle-class people out of here. During that time, it was definitely more than just the person and the actual so-called crime, it was more of a culture, it was more of a push like “We’re gonna get all these people out of here, they’re a menace to society and they need to go. We’re not even open to hearing innocence. We’re just going to get them out of here”. And it’s a lot I can touch on. Absolutely.
That relates to… as you said, they have minimum sentencing back in the day, it was different things that they had in place. They still have that, right? Even to connect to why… he’s having clemency, we’re pushing for him to have a clemency hearing. And the thing is we may not even be able to participate in this clemency hearing because they’re supposed to let us know at least two weeks in advance, but with it being over four months, he filed in October 2020, and they logged it in their system in December 2020. And it is May 28 of 2021. This is an opportunity where he could have people come in and speak. And that’s something else I’m gathering, I’m gathering organizations here within Indiana that are involved in knowing that prisoners, their lives matter, they need to be present, they need to be here, focusing on rehabilitation versus punishment and all of that, but the thing is I think the system is just sets you up. We may not even be able to be in court to speak on my pops’ behalf, to let the judge know that he has support, to let the judge know he’s not just somebody, that you’re not just letting out a person who could be a menace to society. I don’t even agree with prisons in general, but like, nonetheless, we won’t even have an opportunity, possibly, because it’s so late in the game, they might just literally tell my pops a couple of days before that he’s gonna go to court, and we won’t even have enough time to get together, to be present for him. And they may not even let him know in enough time to let us know. So I definitely think the times that back in the day in the 90s, the 80s, and the 70s. Like there’s an amazing Netflix documentary The 13th just about why people should care if they don’t even have people incarcerated or know someone.
TFSR: Would you share a bit about Leon’s activism inside, his creativity, and the gift that he and others like him continue to share despite the dungeons that they’re kept in?
Koby: Yeah, for what it’s worth, my pops has not spent this time in prison and let it go to waste. He really got into books, he really got into unlearning to relearn about the world around him and culture and religion, and cultivated a new him, he had a lot of time to spare, clearly. I think a lot of people who are incarcerated, not even my pops, they come out with such an amazing, broader perspective on how do you take the pain and turn it into a passion of some sort, how do you take the pain and possibly be able to create a platform for your children to be able to begin, to create some revenue through learning about turning all that they’ve been through and learning how to get creative with it. And what I mean by that is, although, my pops’ body was locked up, although there are other men and women who are incarcerated, and their bodies are physically behind bars, their mind, my pops’ mind was free to roam, as he dedicated himself to writing powerful poetry and music and helping to create motivational and educational programs to benefit his other fellow comrades from the inside. He has also worked closely with community activists to push for statewide prison reform, to build a system that truly treats every citizen equally.
My pops has been a key part of forming and running several programs in prison meant to create a better system for others. So I want to mention that he was chosen to be a mentor for the staff that created the band of brothers. And this band of brothers basically taught realistic views of masculinity and help individuals to become better members of their families and communities. My pops has really gotten to the healing point that they so-called push for in prisons, he really got into that, but he created that with other individuals that he was locked up with, and they created that community with each other. And, he is a mentor to other men who are in there for different reasons. And he was tasked with facilitating this group and other group discussions and using his unique perspective to make sure that everyone got the most out of the program.
My pops has been not only a father, he was a brother, he was a friend of his community. My pops is from Flint, Michigan. And he came to Indiana in 1995 and was sentenced to 60 years to life by 1999. He wasn’t even here this long, he’s not even from here, he came down here to help his uncle with his painting business, and to help them do home renovations. But nonetheless, my pops has really taken all his pain and turned it into a passion. Through his music, you hear his pain, but you hear his liberation, you hear his never dying, ending faith, that his music and his art and his poetry really speaks for itself. Some other things he’s been involved in is that he was chosen to be council praise team member and sermon group leader for the congregation of Yahweh, and basically a Hebrew spiritual, cultural community.
My pops is very spiritual, he is not religious, and he speaks about spirituality. That’s what we need to be going towards because we all know religion is a social creative construct. My pops spent 10 years in solitary confinement, where people are known to kill themselves, I don’t think there are any windows in there, it’s literally the size of a bathroom or even smaller, and 10 years in there. I mean, the man has amazing strength. And this is why when you hear his song Innocence, when you hear his songTND Truth Never Dies as long as we discover it, he created most of his art being in the shoe, being in solitary confinement. And so, Leon’s commitment to spiritual betterment has won him praise and respect from his peers.
And even from the people inside, and also, Leon became a demand educator, developing a course called The Streets Don’t Love You Back, where he educated hundreds of participants about the perils of street life, and how to escape and find your higher purpose. We know a lot of our men end up going to the streets, not because they “Oh, yeah, sign me up, I want to go, I want to get into things that could possibly get me killed or sent to prison for life”. No, they get into these things because within their environments, there are little to no options, especially coming from a single-parent home. My pops never met his father. And this is something unique for me. I didn’t know my biological father. I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. The reason why I’m here today is that my pops stepped up with my mom and said that he would help raise me. And he said he would be my father. Because he never had his father. My pops had character before he went in. Yes, my pops sold drugs, but he did it because that was one of the very few options that he had to actually provide for his family outside of the option that he came down to Indiana to do when that wasn’t working.
As I said, he taught an education course in prison called The Streets Don’t Love You Back and he educated other men who are in prison because of these things. He became a very gifted public speaker delivering over 300 speeches that could be inspirational, comical, tragic, or uplifting, all at the same time. My pops is very artistically inclined. While in prison, it allowed my pops to raise his creativity to new heights. He studied theater, Shakespeare in particular. He took part in several productions. He developed another program called Poetic Justice, in which he helped his fellow inmates to express themselves in words while learning about poem structures, style, and performance. Really turning all the BS and all the things that they put him through, he was able to make it because he was able to find meaning within all of this and is still finding it.
He’s also published several poems, and also several books that have even been stolen. What I mean by stolen is that there are books that he actually had produced and came out with, but they were stolen by different people who actually published them and actually did the legal work behind them. He doesn’t even own that material anymore. It’s just really crazy, but that’s never stopped him. He’s still going on, still creating, he actually has an album coming out called Innocent Born Guilty. And that will be towards either late July or August. He’s done a lot on the inside and has been a part of what prison is supposed to do, to so-called rehabilitate. But once you rehabilitate, then what? Do you still gotta pay? That’s where we are now. It’s been seven years that my pops has had any write-ups and any violations and as anyone knows, prison is a jungle. It may not be you involved in some mess, it might be somebody else, your cellmate, the guards are corrupt. There’s just so much that could happen but for him to be solid that long especially he’s in there wrongly convicted, so he could have really lost his mind and really snapped and crackled and popped. But he’s been really strong. His strength is so admiring for these past 23 years.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the Mass Release campaign? And how does it relate to the efforts to gain clemency for your pops?
Koby: I am actually working with IDOCWatch, an amazing organization. They have a chapter here in Indianapolis, Indiana. And basically, they have four things that they are working on within this Mass Release campaign, they’re working on actually holding the Indiana Department of Corrections accountable. We need to release some people, we need to release them all because people are not getting rehabilitated through this kind of system. And even when they’re rehabilitated, so-called, they shouldn’t have to sit and die in these prisons without their family and those other things. So there are four topics that are connected to the Mass Release campaign. One is compassionate release, and this is the release of the aging people campaign. The second is clemency. And my pops is representing this portion of the four topics that they are going to touch on within the Mass Release campaign, and also being able to get Direct Relief. That’s the second one. And the third point that they’re connecting with the Mass Release campaign is that when their so-called discipline and written up, people are getting their good time taken away. You can get time added to your sentence, really crazy things. And then the fourth one is that some people are getting sent back for technical violations. And literally, they have added like five to ten years on to their sentence. Even though they have good time, even though they’ve been solid for the last couple of years, if they have one violation or one behavior misconduct, they will add time. It’s designed to keep people in, it’s not designed for rehabilitation. With this mass release we must release them all and let’s rehabilitate them, release them all, and let’s actually create programs. As you guys know, if you don’t even have a member of your family incarcerated, our tax money, our tax dollars are going to build these prisons, we can put this money back into reconstructing some rehabilitations, get some social works out there, get some psychologists out there, therapy, we need it. But they’re focused on keeping people in. So with this Mass Release campaign and my pops, really calling on all those to stand in solidarity and for the state of Indiana to begin to reevaluate the mass utilization of the Indiana Department of Corrections. Even across the country, not even Indiana, but just other departments of corrections. They need to reevaluate this mass incarceration.
TFSR: What might you say to folks on the outside who don’t know that they know anyone in the carceral system, or don’t think that they have this vested interest in abolition about your dad’s case and about the mass release campaign?
Koby: We are all witnessing what is going on. People are getting screwed from different ends, to be very transparent, to be very frank, even just outside of mass incarceration, that is happening – our healthcare. There are just different things that are being screwed that if we all come together and stand in solidarity with one another, and it doesn’t have to be because you directly are affected, it is because that you are a part of this Earth and you have to walk the streets of a person who is affected, who is involved. And you have to make sure that that doesn’t mess up what you have going on, that is not deconstruct anything that your children-to-be are going to grow up. We got to think about what kind of world we want to be a part of, what is the change that we want to see. And it’s going to take more than the people who are actually affected by mass incarceration. And maybe you don’t have a father like me who’s been incarcerated. Maybe you have a brother, maybe you have a friend, maybe a friend or a mother who is a single mother because her boyfriend or the father of her children is incarcerated. And now she’s out here having to make ends meet. Now she’s out here making decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she had assistance from the actual father of her child. Now her children are put in spaces with different scenarios that could go left or right because now she has to make it by herself with little to no support. You’re seeing children that are ended up having mental and emotional issues within the school system, that may be sitting next to your child and class. And they may be having behaviors that are they’re acting out in school, or in high school, or maybe they’re in sports, and they’re a little aggressive on the field, and there may be some things that are going on, that you may not even know about, that have to do with their parents being gone incarcerated, that have to do with their parents having health issues, mental health issues, and have to do with their family, be in situations where they did not… the children don’t even have a say, so they don’t even they’re not even cared about. And it’s just that we have to be a part of a world that we want to see.
It’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take everybody. You are going to have to choose a side. You got to ask yourself every day: are you doing what you would want the world to look like in the future? Are you a part of the change that you want to see? Or are you remaining silent and being compliant? Because remaining silent and not saying anything and not being involved does not make you better or not. That’s actually a worse offense. Because if you see something, say nothing, then that lets you know that you are in compliance, that you are just as at fault as the people who are doing these things, the systems that are a part of oppression for different people.
And there are different ways. You don’t even have to be standing on the ground, standing in solidarity. Where’s your money going? Where are you donating your money to? Is your money going towards these efforts to get these things off the ground? IDOCWatch, have a Patreon and they have things that people can send in money because they’re actually working with prisoners. Also, they’re connected with Green Star Families, actually helping families be able to… Certain children are not able to connect with their parents. And because they can’t even afford a phone call, they can’t even afford to put money on the books of these incarcerated loved ones, right? We just have to remember: it takes a village to demand change. And we all have to do our part. You don’t have to be on the ground standing in solidarity. You can be redirecting your money. You could be writing letters, you can be reposting this campaign that you’re hearing today. There are ways to be involved. But I would say being silent is definitely not the answer. Your silence lets you and the world around you know where you stand. And if it was you or your loved one, you wouldn’t be silent. We just have to really think about that.
TFSR: So how can people support the efforts to get clemency for Leon Benson? And is there a way that they can follow the campaign?
We’re going to actually have the demonstration on July 25 in Indianapolis, Indiana at Tarkington Park in connection with the Mass Release campaign. This mass demonstration will have guest speakers, it will have poetry, we’re going to have vegan food and ways that you can connect with like-minded individuals and network, and whatever else you want to do with being a part of a mass demonstration, being a part of something.
Also if you guys already are connected with IDOCWatch or you need to, get on them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IDOCWATCH/ and also check out his music, google Leon Benson. It’s a lot of information out there, he’s on a lot of different platforms, and see the story for yourself. You don’t have to just take it from my word, you can look up the facts and public information that is on this case, and you can see it for yourself. I encourage you guys to do that. I encourage you guys to support this clemency by seeing what’s next and actually being present for the actual demonstration. But if you’re not able to be present, you can definitely support the fundraiser we’re going to have, we’re going to have a T-shirt and different items that people can purchase. Be on the lookout for that. As I said, the proceeds are going to go to Green Star Families and IDOCWatch, and then half is to Leon Benson and continue the movement that he and I are doing which is Truth Never Dies. TND, that’s the movement that I am constructing for my pops myself and Valerie, which is his sister.
TFSR: Awesome, Koby, thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you’re doing, and good luck. I really hope to see your father free soon.
Koby: Yeah, and thank you so much for this opportunity, thank you guys, the listeners for listening and I hope to see you guys soon. I hope you guys you know really start to stand for something and you gonna fall for anything.
Landis: : My name is Landis Reynolds, I’m currently incarcerated in Westville Correctional Facility. I was convicted at age 17 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I’m now on year 17. While incarcerated, my advocacy and activism began with juvenile justice reform, trying to get them to change some of the laws that they use, with respect to waiving minors to adult court and sentence them to adult time for offenses committed as juveniles. And as I began to study some of the background there and witness some of the horrors that take place in the penal setting. I just started to expand my activism a little bit, study more of the systematic causes and abuses that are perpetrated by the prison industrial complex.
Ray: And I’m Ray, I use they/them pronouns. I’m the PSLN outside facilitator and a member of IDOCWatch in South Bend.
TFSR: So for the listening audience, could you all maybe talk a bit about the IDOCWatch, what it is, how it developed? What motivates it, who it supports and why?
Landis: Okay, so IDOCWatch began rather informally. There were some incarcerated individuals in long-term segregation and in various prisons that reached out to individuals on the outside and began to form friendships and relationships with those individuals. And as those friendships and relationships blossomed, the individuals on the outside were able to see the daily struggle that incarcerated individuals go through in the Indiana Department of Corrections, they were able to see some of the systematic abuses and the violations that go on, and over time, as those friendships and relationships began to blossom. It morphed into what can we do to fix this situation? So, IDOCWatch is essentially a collective to provide assistance for those that are incarcerated, to fight back for their rights and assert themselves. IDOCWatch believes in a prisoner-led abolition. Basically, as we strive and struggle for abolition, we believe that it starts with the individuals that are incarcerated. We have to educate ourselves, we have to take those first steps in the fight towards abolition and asserting our rights. And IDOCWatch has grown exponentially and towardsfurthering those goals.
I’m curious about… with the organizing that y’all have been doing on the inside, how has the Indiana Department of Corrections reacted to prisoner self-advocacy, sharing education, sharing experiences, and building this community, as you say, and friendships?
Landis: They’ve responded in some overt obstruction, some of the obstruction is subversive. Anything that appears to be offenders or prisoners uniting is extremely frowned upon, any type of assistance or attempts to uplift each other is frowned upon. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is form study groups where we can help educate each other politically, assist each other with education, whether it be pursuing a GED, different stuff like that. One thing that we’ve seen at the location where we’re at is anytime a study group is formed, and we began making progress, that there’s a mass movement and the individuals that are taking part in the study group are scattered throughout the facility. You see administrative rules that are enacted where you can receive a conduct violation for studying in a group. Internal advocates, or what’s also known as jailhouse lawyers, can receive a conduct violation for helping to assist other individuals in legal matters. So there’s absolutely a constructive attempt to stop that type of solidarity and prisoner to prisoner assistance.
TFSR: It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing are rules infraction board-type assaults on individuals inside. Have they done anything that would resemble gang-jacketing participation or solidarity or study groups?
Landis: Oh, absolutely. Anything that same as in support of abolition or in support of solidarity, they actually refer to it as a security threat group activity. So when members get together in a study group to help uplift each other, they see that type of unity, even though it’s in furtherance of reformation and rehabilitation, they see that type of unity as a threat to the safety and security of the facility. And they actually can act pretty harshly against it.
TFSR: Ray mentioned the Prison Legal Solidarity Network. I’m wondering if y’all could tell the listening audience a little bit about how that developed and your partnership with the National Lawyers Guild and what the vision is for that?
Landis: Okay, so with PLSN, one of the things we’ve seen historically, is when it comes to any type of movement when individuals are asserting their civil rights, protesting, and things of that nature alone, without more, it is difficult to accomplish the goal. So various members of IDOCWatch, we put our heads together. And we see that in the correctional setting, many constitutional violations go unchallenged, because either there’s an ignorance amongst the prisoner population on how to challenge those constitutional violations, or what we’ve seen in recent years, is a meaningful or willful attempt on behalf of IDOC to keep offenders out of law libraries or make it difficult for them to assert their legal rights. So, with the PLSN we’ve seen an opportunity to not only build a network that provided the necessary resources for offenders to attack their criminal convictions or file lawsuits against systematic abuses within the correctional setting, but we’ve seen it as an opportunity to educate. One of the main pillars and objectives is empowerment. In that, we seize the opportunity to educate the incarcerated on the true motives of the prison industrial complex and the history behind the prison system as apparatus of class warfare and subjugation. We see it as providing the necessary resources to weaponize the very system, they weaponize against our communities, against the prison industrial complex. And it provides an opportunity for us to network and to build those friendships and meaningful relationships to continuously grow and progress towards the ultimate goal.
TFSR: Yeah, that kind of strikes a chord that I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes of, in the last few years, from prisoner organizers, which is I think a mixture of a quote from… I’m not… amazingly versed in George Jackson, but between George Jackson and also Ho Chi Minh, talking about turning the prisons into schools of liberation. When reading up on the Prison Legal Solidarity Network, I also came across the Prison Lives Matter which I’ve also heard referenced by incarcerated activists that I have spoken to. Can you talk a little bit about PLM and how the Prison Legal Solidarity Network engages with it and what that initiative is?
Landis: PLM is an amazing organization that was created in part by one of our members, one of our inside coordinators Shaka Shakur. And basically, it is to shine a light on the fact that just because the person was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot at reformation. The public a lot of times doesn’t understand the factors that condition individuals and set them up to be incarcerated, number one. And number two, a lot of people think that incarceration is conducive to reformation. They believe that when you come to prison, you have the ability to take advantage of programs to reform yourself and to become a productive member of society. But that’s absolutely not the truth. They don’t understand that prisons are absolutely saturated with narcotics. They don’t understand that prisons are ridiculously violent. And that most administrations enforce policies and a culture that reinforces the cycle of addiction and the cycle of violence. And when an individual spends years at a time in these environments, without the opportunity for a meaningful reformation, that the system is essentially manufacturing monsters that they’re returning to these working-class and minority communities. And it creates that cycle of violence and failure and addiction and re-incarceration. And they don’t understand that that was the true meaning of that system.
If you look at the Indiana Department of Corrections, their model isn’t reformation, it isn’t rehabilitation. If you look at their emblem, it says, Employees Efficiency Effectiveness. So they’re utilizing employees to efficiently and effectively incarcerate individuals. It has nothing to do with the reformation, nothing to do with rehabilitation. So Prison Lives Matter was a formation to shine a light on what really goes on behind these walls and to start to put the mechanisms in place, to start to form the relationships and the networks to actually be able to create an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation and supports what we’re striving for.
TFSR: And while the work that y’all are doing to co-educate and to engage other people that are behind the bars, it seems super important, especially since people are coming in and going and going back in, people have families and communities on the outside. And one of these major dehumanizing methods of the prison system in the United States is to attempt to, despite what it says, break up those connections. It seems like Prison Lives Matters gives an opportunity for people to gain more tools to be able to talk about what they’ve experienced to their loved ones on the outside and re-contextualize the reason that they’re in that place and engage the people on the outside to fight along their side too.
Landis: Absolutely, and what’s disturbing is when you’re incarcerated, those relationships and friendships with your family are already strained because of the distance and the difficulties that come with incarceration. But we’ve seen an effort on the part of the Indiana Department of Corrections to make that even more difficult. So one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve made it harder for offenders to receive snail mail. And one of the reasons for that is they issue began issuing tablets where we can send electronic mail to our families and everything, one more way that they can make money. So what they began to do is, instead of allowing us to receive actual letters, they began copying our letters and making it difficult and limiting the type of mail that your family can send you, they can’t send you actual pictures anymore, to force us to start to use these tablets. Now what we’re seeing, since COVID, is an attack on the contact visitation. One of the most dehumanizing things about incarceration is you don’t have the ability to receive that reassuring touch. And contact visitation, when you’re able to see your family and actually hug another human being, hold their hand, kiss your child, that reminds you of your humanity, that’s a motivation for you to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And here recently, we’ve seen an attack on that.
We believe that, and I’ve heard from a senior official that they’re actually trying to eliminate contact visits in the Indiana prison system and force us to have to utilize the video visitation to see our family. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, not all families have the financial resources to do that. Number two, the Wi-Fi system is ridiculously unreliable. Frequently, one of your family members has scheduled a visit, and they can’t even get through because the Wi-Fi is not up. So as you were saying, maintaining these human connections is really important. And that’s another thing that we’re seeing constructive efforts to obstruct our ability to maintain that contact with those loved ones, our ability to maintain the network with individuals like yourself who support us and support our well-being.
TFSR: It’s a strategy that Departments of Corrections seem to be applying across the country, including at the federal level. It also increases the possibility of surveillance, right? If you’ve got emails shooting back and forth, and you’re paying 50 cents for an E stamp or whatever, through JPay, then suddenly, it’s way easier to run an algorithm to just search for certain key phrases or monitor your relationship with people on the outside.
Landis: Absolutely! One thing that’s particularly scary is for activists, without contact visits, without the ability to utilize snail mail at any time, people that are shining a light on the systematic abuses and oppression, they can cut you off electronically, stop you from being able to send electronic messages, they can stop your video visits. Because the way that it was set up before is they could restrict your visit, they could put you on non-contact visits, but at any time an individual could come up there and make sure that you were okay. But the things that they’re trying to impose now, where they’re making everything electronic, somebody who’s a thorn in the side of a particular administration, they would have no problem whatsoever cutting off all of your contacts with the outside world, and you would literally be at the mercy of that particular administration. So it creates a huge possibility for abuse.
TFSR: And so I guess while you all are working towards PLM as a project to garner more attention and get more support, more understanding on the outside, the Prison Legal Solidarity Network is a tool towards multiplying the number of people that are going to be able to advocate for each other and also build solidarity with each other, to advocate on each other’s behalf, help them through filing these lawsuits, challenging the imposition of this for-profit filtering of people’s real lives and ability to survive.
Landis: So, one thing that we have seen in analyzing history is movements such as this, like I said earlier, require more than simple protesting. In order for us to achieve the things that we want to achieve, we have to start to put the support systems in place to sustain an ongoing movement. One way to proactively counter PRC aggression, and to fulfill certain objectives, such as legal education, political education, the empowerment that we need collectively, was to put this support system in place. We also believe that we have to begin to put other support systems in place to continue to counter some of these moves to further the objectives of the prison industrial complex.
We see, especially at locations like this, where they only provide the minimum amount of education required. Here, under IDOC policy, they’re only allowed to teach English in the classroom. So one thing that I’ve seen is we have a large number of Hispanic immigrants here that can’t speak English. So those individuals aren’t provided books in Spanish, they aren’t provided a translator or individuals that can teach them English, and they’re still expected to be able to get their GED. And what’s even more unfair about the situation is in order to go on to a vocational school or programs like PLUS or other reformative programs, they require GED. So basically, individuals who are immigrants or don’t speak English have to do 100% of their sentence simply based off of a policy. And you see that if you study the policies, the policies aren’t geared towards reformation or reintegrating individuals in society, they’re geared towards keeping individuals here longer.
TFSR: Like handling a surplus population.
Landis: Absolutely. So, that’s two things that the PLSN is looking at right now is we’re looking at how they are deprived of good-time credit. And we’re also looking at the parole system in Indiana, and how they have absolute authority to re-incarcerate individuals at their whim, which is scary. Once an individual does their required sentence and they’re released on parole. If I forgot to report, a change of address, they can send me back to prison for the rest of my sentence.
TFSR: I’d also like to hear a little bit about – I know it’s off topic of the Prison Legal Solidarity Network – but if you could speak a little bit about what your experience with COVID has been in the facilities that you’ve been in, and what vaccination, if any, is happening among the guards, how prisoners feel about vaccines, because I know there’s a lot of hesitancy or distrust in certain facilities around the country.
Landis: Well, at the location I’m at with respect to the vaccine, there’s a huge distrust. We know that historically, prisons have been the place where they’ve done medical experiments, tested experimental medications. So amongst the offender population, there’s distrust for for-profit medical companies like Wexford, who could care less about our physical well-being, their main concern is their bottom line or profits. So very few of the offenders that I know have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and most of them think we all had COVID. So what’s the point in getting vaccinated against COVID, if every person that you know has already had it?
The public has no clue what went on behind these walls during this pandemic. It was terrifying. So when we begin to see news reports about the severity of COVID, how serious it was, there was no meaningful response from the administration whatsoever. And the scary thing is this facility holds more prisoners than any other facility in the state. I just arrived here when the pandemic hit. We have a unit here called ANO where when you’re first transferred from another prison or you come from the reception diagnostic center, you go to that unit first, they assess you, and then they send you to your respective part of the prison you are assigned to. So, the first case was on that unit. And what they did is they tried to keep it hush-hush. They didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Then when we started to hear that they had positive tests in that unit, from what the correctional staff was saying that they instructed officers to stop, if you weren’t assigned to that unit, you weren’t supposed to go to that unit. But we were seeing officers go up to that unit, where they had positive cases, visit with other staff, and then go to other units within the facility. And within a few days, maybe a week, we start seeing individuals start to exhibit the symptoms of COVID. Once itfinished sweeping through the prison like wildfire, then they step in, and they basically quarantine each dorm to their dorm. But they knew that the virus was already within each dorm. So, we weren’t issued masks. When staff was walking around wearing masks if an offender has made his own mask out of whatever materials that he could get, he received a conduct report for it. And then once they finally started to issue masks, at first, I believe those maybe one or two days, medical staff would report to each unit and check to see if guys had symptoms. But after that we didn’t see medical staff for months, there were instances where an offender would be so sick that we would have to threaten to riot to get that offender medical attention. It was a very, very terrifying experience.
TFSR: Sure. Although it sounds like you were describing an instance where maybe someone was transferred in and brought it into the facility as an inmate or as a prisoner, I don’t know if there were any concerns, if you would be aware if the guards had any quarantining going on among them, because they’re coming in and out of the facility, they’re not regulated in the rest of their life, where they’re spending their time, who they’re around, and if they’re masking up outside.
Landis: Exactly. None whatsoever, the guards were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted to do. The only thing that they changed, and this was after there was a ridiculous amount of positive tests, was they started taking the guards’ temperatures coming in. That’s it. And it’s crazy because we read a newspaper article, where the Indiana Department of Correction reported that there were 233 COVID cases, department-wide in every prison in the state of Indiana, they only had 233 people test positive, which is laughable. Because every dorm on the complex that I was in, pretty much everybody had it. There were periods of time where you wouldn’t see an individual for two weeks, and then they would pop back up. And you didn’t know that that person had been in their bed sick that entire time. They tested the dorm underneath the ANO unit. And I believe they had 93 people test positive out of 96. And they stopped testing after that. They wouldn’t test anybody else anymore after that.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess if they reported those numbers, that’s like opening themselves up to a federal injunction or something. They don’t believe in actually being held accountable for anything, let alone for prisoners’ health.
Landis: I’m going to be honest, I believe, because I read some articles on herd immunity. And basically, herd immunity means you let the majority of the population become infected. And basically, that slows… there’s immunity that’s built up on the antibodies. And that basically takes the place of a vaccine, and that’s what I’ve seen take place here. What they did, is they restricted the movement, and they just let the vaccine run its course to the detriment of the people that were incarcerated here.
TFSR: If we don’t know the long-term effects of what the vaccines will do, and there have been like small examples of the negative impacts on a few, a 100th of a percent of the population that’s been vaccinated. But definitely, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts on the cheaper version of herd immunity, which is just let everyone get infected.
Landis, you talked about how you’ve been in for 17 years, you came in as a juvenile, correct?
Landis: Yes, sir.
TFSR: And you’ve been an advocate around shifts and changes in juvenile incarceration in Indiana. If you could talk a little bit about what some of that work looks like and what maybe people on the outside don’t realize why there need to be major shifts in the way that people consider criminality, incarceration, and juvenile health.
Landis: The first thing that people don’t consider is that minors are physiologically incapable of making an adult decision. So anytime a minor is waived to adult court and sentenced to adult time for a decision they made when they were incapable of thinking as an adult, in and of itself, contradicts justice. For me, after I was convicted, I was at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the most violent prison in the state of Indiana. I was placed in a dorm called K-dorm, it was a program called YIA, youth incarcerated as adults. And basically, it was like Lord of the Flies in there, it was violent. There was a lot of misconduct on the part of staff towards juvenile offenders, we really didn’t have any rehabilitative resources to speak of. And one thing that I’ve always seen is that if there’s any renewable resource, here, within the last 10-20 years, as a society, spoken a lot about renewable resources, if there’s any renewable resource, it is our children. If anybody is capable of reformation and redemption, it’s a child. But we’re the only country in the world where a child can commit a crime. And one thing that really isn’t taken into consideration is the background that this child came from, what motivations caused this child to commit this crime.
Not understanding that background, not understanding the inability to think at the level necessary, and sentencing a child to considerable term in prison goes against what our Constitution is supposed to do. Because here in Indiana, we have Article 1 Section 18 that says the Penal Code shall be founded upon principles of reformation and not vindictive justice. But what’s more vindictive about sending a child to prison where they have a choice between joining a gang and engaging in violent behavior, or being raped, or being robbed, or abused. Basically, when you send a child into this environment, either he has to become a monster to survive, or he has to become a victim. And if reformation is the goal, that makes reformation impossible. So looking towards the initiatives and the things, there is pretty much nothing in place that would allow a child to reform themselves.
TFSR: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And there’s some audio of you also speaking about your experiences up on the IDOCWatch.org website. Really just spell it out also, and very worth listening to. How can people who were in the listening audience support PLSN and get involved, support PLM, if you can speak to that.
Ray: As far as Prison Lives Matter, you can our focus is incarcerated people and people on the outside. You can reach us at PO Box 9383, Chicago, Illinois 6069. Or you can visit us at supportprisonlives.org. For the Prison Support Legal Network, if you are a jailhouse lawyer or interested in our initiative, you can write to us at PO Box 3322 South Bend, Indiana 46619, or leave us a voicemail at 423-281-5009 with your name, DOC number, and a brief introduction and any legal experience or training that you may have, and we will contact you.
If you are a lawyer in Indiana, a paralegal law student, abolitionist-minded with a little bit of legal expertise, we’d love to have you onboard as well in our external committee, and you can email me directly. That’s Ray at email@example.com.
TFSR: Ray gave us a little bit of information about how outside people can get involved with or find out more about PLSN and PLM. The website for IDOCWatch, or it has a reference to support for the demands of the 2018 national prison strike. About a month ago, I got to speak with someone from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak about the Shut Them Down 2021 initiative. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this initiative, if either you as a member of IDOCWatch, or you as an individual, have any words for the audience about that call out for people to come together around the theme of abolition and engage with juvenile facilities, ICE facilities, BOP, local DOC, whatever and challenge them and educate each other.
Landis: With respect to this specific initiative, I haven’t really had an opportunity to read up on it or anything like that. But one thing that I can say is, without unity, we’re not going to make it anywhere. Every year, I see our rights eroded, I see the abuses become more blazing and more sadistic. But unless individuals come together and make up their minds that meaningful change is the only thing that they’ll settle for, things are only going to continue to get worse.
TFSR: I didn’t have any more questions that I had scripted out. So is there anything that we didn’t talk about? Or that I didn’t ask about that you want to be asked about or that you want to just riff on?
Landis: I don’t know, Ray might have some stuff. The only thing that I wanted to touch bases on is some of the long-term goals for PLSN. Because as a mechanism of genocide, the prison system is just one component. I think that people don’t really see things like public defender agencies as mechanisms of genocide or tools of the prison industrial complex. And what we’re doing is we’re developing some future goals and objectives and strategies for how we can continue to combat the prison industrial complex, not just in the prison setting, but on the street. So one of the things that we’ve started to develop is what we call the Indiana Criminal Representation branch, where most public defender agencies blame their inability to adequately defend defendants on the number of cases that they have. So, I believe that one of the strategies that we can utilize in fighting against the public defender agencies being able to feed working-class and minority individuals as to this horrible system, is by creating our own mechanisms for criminal defense, things like the PLSN, where we have professionals, we have lawyers and paralegals and jailhouse lawyers come together, and law students, and pooling resources to effectively provide that legal support.
If we start to put these mechanisms into place prior to incarceration, I believe we can really carve them out of individuals that are fed into the system and save a lot of lives. Another initiative that we’re looking at is non-profit bail bonds. In recent years, we’ve seen a movement for bail reform, because we know that the odds of an individual receiving an unfavorable outcome to their criminal case is a lot higher when they fight their case from behind bars. And that’s one of the strategies that they use for working-class minority individuals is they keep you locked up. And a lot of times the lack of these resources and these public defenders that either won’t or can’t perform their job effectively assist in feeding the prison industrial complex. If we could come up with mechanisms to where we can assist minority and working-class people in getting out of jail so they can find their cases on the street and start to implement some community-building with those programs. So for the individuals that take part in the indigent criminal representation, or non-profit bail bonds, where they’re actively doing community service, going to school, taking part in political agitation, assisting in initiatives like the PLSN, where they’re actively helping members of their community understand what the prison industrial complex is perpetrating against our communities. And further our goal of abolition.
TFSR: Ray, did you have anything to add to this conversation? I think this would be a good place probably for us to start wrapping up.
Ray: I think that what Landis said above and beyond covered things that I wanted to talk about, and that are call-outs that I mentioned, our buffer inside and outside, you mentioned that it was heard outside, somebody they’re in contact with that is in Indiana that is interested in being a jailhouse lawyer or being trained, contact us.
TFSR: How can people follow IDOCWatch?
Ray: You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, both with IDOCWatch.
TFSR: Landis, are you cool with people reaching out to you? And is it okay, do you have a preference of JPay male or I guess what remains is snail mail?
Landis: However they’d like to reach out, I’m definitely interested in sharing my story and participating with any organization where I can help further the goals of abolition or assist anybody who’s going through what I’ve been through or is going to go through what I’ve been through. In any way that I can help anybody, I’m willing to. You can reach out to me through GTL by downloading the Connect Network app or through snail mail. My name is Landis Reynolds, DOC number 157028, and I’m located at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana.
TFSR: Thank you, all of you for taking the time and helping to make this conversation happen. I really appreciate it.
An Indian Anarchist on Anti Caste Organizing and More!
This week we are very happy to present an interview with Pranav Jeevan P, who is a student, a writer, an anti-caste activist, and an Indian anarchist living in the state of Kerala. You are listening to the full extended audio from this conversation, where you’ll hear Pranav explaining how he got into anarchism, how anarchistic praxis unfolds in India, some about the origins of and worldwide implications of the caste system, anti-caste organizing and how anarchism feeds it, and about how the BJP and Hindutva have real influence on people’s lives and destinies.
He further touches on the struggle of Dalit and Other Backwards Caste folks and how this tendency has always had solidarity with Black liberation here on Turtle Island, much more information about the anti CAA protest and the Farmer’s Protest, a little bit about the ongoing military occupation of the state of Kashmir, and many more topics. There is already a lot of really good anti-caste hip hop out there, mostly performed by those in oppressed castes, and I’ll be including a bunch of those tracks which have been recommended by our guest, plus providing links in the show notes.
There are a lot of terms in this episode which may be unfamiliar to all listeners, and we warmly invite folks to take a look at our show notes for this episode to see links for further reading and research. Please also look forward in the coming week to this show being transcribed in full, if you would like a copy to send to a friend or to read along while listening.
Also you may have heard that covid is spreading out of control in India right now, in no small part due to government mismanagement. Please also take a look at this ongoing list of donations compiled by the group Students Against Hidutva Ideology. You can follow this group on Twitter @Students_A_H to see their updates and events. You can also follow India Solidarity Network on Instagram for updates on COVID in India.
Please be aware that in this segment, sean speaks about the Derek Chauvin trial and the murder of people at the hands of police. If you would prefer to skip this subject matter, you can skip forward about 8 and a half minutes. This segment occurs at the end of the episode, [02:02:27-02:10:58]
Happy May Day, y’all. We hope that you have a rebellious and joyous celebration in whatever way you see fit this week. If you’re looking for a place to hook in or have a public event, consider checking out ItsGoingDown’s post “May Day Is Our Day” and joining in or adding to their list.
NYC ABC has called for people to get together and to write anarchist prisoners Casey Brezik, Bill Dunne and Gage Halupowski, more info at NYCABC.Wordpress.Com or linked in our show notes.
Finally, another idea is to act in solidarity with the “Eyes on Starbucks: Don’t Fund Tigray Genocide!” call from the Indigenous Action Federation and Horn Anarchists from Eastern Africa for boycott and protest actions against the genocidal actions in Ethiopia from May 1st – 7th. More info on that linked in our show notes and at https://iaf-fai.org where you can find background, stencil designs and ideas of places to apply pressure.
BOG: Would you please introduce yourself with your name preferred gender pronouns location or any other information that makes sense for the purpose of this chat?
PJP: okay. So, I am Pranav Jeevan P and I identify with the pronouns he and him. I am basically from the district of Palakkad, which is in the state of Kerala in India. So, as far as where I come from I am actually right now doing my PhD in artificial intelligence in the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra. I am part of the Anti- Caste Ambedkarite movement in India. And most of the issues that I struggle around the lack of representation of marginalized communities in the higher education sector in India, especially the engineering colleges and STEM fields. So, where I come from personally… my background is that I come from what is called a backward caste. And both my parents, they’re first generation high schoolers, like they got their diploma. So, they were the first in their family to actually complete formal education and get jobs That actually enabled me to access a really good education and go for higher studies. And even though that was the case, the society that I am currently living in is filled with the elements of patriarchy and caste. Even though the state of Kerala is comparatively better than the services in India, as far as the Human Development Index and literacy is concerned. It is almost similar in living conditions to the Western countries like Britain or US. But the evils of caste and of the particular hierarchical structures & social structures are very obvious here. And my parents really had to face that in the workplace, and especially the places that we live, which are sorted by the dominant caste.
WG: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think now, like, especially in the US, the issue of caste and caste-ism is becoming a little bit more visible just through the work of people visualizing it, and and also the election of Kamala Harris, who is half South Asian herself, and she’s from an extremely privileged caste. And some people are talking about that, and we would love to talk about that some more later in the interview. But in terms of anarchism in India, although anarchism, you know, was a philosophy that motivated people involved in the movement against British colonialism, like, like Bhagat Singh, for example. And through the independence struggle, anarchism, as a cohesive philosophy doesn’t seem to have much of a life in modern India, does that seem like a fair estimation? How did you come to identify with the philosophy and how has it melded with your work and thought?
PJP: Okay, so that’s the first issue with anarchism in India. Anarchism is unheard concept in India, as an ideology. It has never been studied or even in the activist circles, like people who actually study ideologies, who goes to this fight, even they are not completely aware that such a philosophy actually exists. I think, even in the freedom struggle, like there were self proclaimed anarchists who actually did anarchist organizing, like Har Dayal and MPT Acharya they were actually never active within India, because most of the organizing happened for Har Dayal that happened in the US. he started an anarchist movement in US, and even MPT Acharya, he was active in Europe. And so it’s like very few individuals who actually studied and none of them actually did much organizing in the subcontinent. So, that was one thing and the case of Bhagat Singh, identified himself as a Marxist and he was an admirer of Lenin. He wanted to study Lenin’s life and things like that, but he had an attraction towards anarchism, and he wrote about it. So he had published a series of articles on anarchism and that might be the only articles on anarchism that is existing in India.
And then what happened is, the Marxist dominance happened in India like the what people call us community, some people identify immediately with the Communist Party of India, the ML party and The problem is, everyone identifies communism or like the left radical thinking with this particular party. They don’t know anything beyond that. So, whenever we talk about the left ideas, people immediately associate that “okay – you are talking about communism, and the CPI/ML party”. So, or like the what is happening in USSR or China and things like that, there is no awareness or any rigorous academic, or even activist awareness about this particular ideology. Like when I talk to people who actually read a lot about different ideologies, they haven’t heard, or they haven’t read much about Kropotkin or Bakunin, or what actually happened between them, him and Marx. Yeah, people are really unaware of this particular ideology. The funny thing is that there are many people in India, actually very huge number of people in India who actually are following anarchist ideals of like, who understand anti authoritarianism. Who understands the importance of liberty and equality. Who understands the importance of mutual aid. and who actually work on this kind of decentralized organizing and everything! But they don’t know that there is a philosophy like this, that is existing already, on which activists have been propagating. They just don’t know that they’re anarchists yet. So, that is the whole issue with anarchism in India right now. So, part of what I am trying to do is that. So since there is this moment of this Anti-Caste movement against this hierarchical social structure, which combines attacking all kinds of hierarchies like patriarchy, class violence, caste violence, there is this language superiority, colorism… All of this type hierarchies, which exists in society, and anarchism, as an ideology is best suited for it and I am trying to build that bridge between these the more political movements and social movements that are happening in India, in this ideology. Just showing that these are not separate. There is it an ideology is already existing, which you are actually following. You just don’t know it, but you’re already doing it. So, that there will be a much more academic and organizational backing to the moment that are already happening.
That makes so much sense, you know, we or I at least I don’t want to speak for my co-host. But I understand anarchism, like the construct of anarchism to be you know, as coming from like, these sort of very imperialistic backgrounds or powers. And I think that it’s articulating something that people who have to survive in the face of a lot of different kinds of oppressions do naturally, in a way. So, like, that makes so much sense. How did you come to anarchism? Like, you said, you’re writing a lot you are trying to build bridges, like how did you first like stumble across it? Or or how did it first start to make sense to you?
Okay, so initially, for me I started as an Anti-Caste. I was reading more and more and more about anti-militarist and anti-caste activism and I was part of the anti-caste struggle. Then I realized one particular thing that people are always… so, every person gets oppressed by certain hierarchies and they are getting privileged from certain other hierarchies. For example: there are upper caste women who suffer due to patriarchy, which suppresses them, but they get privileged from the caste system, that gives them privilege. And they get to oppress the lower caste men and women. There are lower caste men who are oppressed by the caste system, but they have privileged over a woman when we will look at that. So there are these multiple dimensions of hierarchies, which exist simultaneously. And I was thinking of like, what kind of ideology can actually attack power, because people when when they then there’s fighting against hierarchies, they kind of forget that every hierarchy creates a power imbalance and it is the power imbalance that has to be fought.
Of course, the fights are different. You cannot attack background either way you attack castes or the way you attack religious fundamentalism but the way power works is never studied deeply and I wanted to understand more about what is the fundamental nature of power that is creating these hierarchies and ensuring these hierarchies. So, in many of the movements you see these leaders emerging, and taking control of the movement. And suddenly after some time, the position of leadership becomes a lucrative post, which attracts people who, who don’t have the will to fight for the cause, but who just want to capture the power or to show themselves as the savior of all the oppressed people… to be the voice. They just want attention and privilege that the power gives and the voice that it gives them. So, that nature of how power is getting concentrated on few people: that I observe across these different hierarchies, like in every hierarchy there is this position of power and it always comes to certain few indigenous communities. And then I started looking for other ways of organizing or other alternatives which actually tries to create a system in which the power itself is decentralized. So, I was introduced to socialism and it gave the opportunity to create a society that is built on justice and liberty and equality. But how to organize a society, and because the nature of power is such that whenever there is a small accumulation of power, it will attract all the people to concentrate power.
I was trying to find systems which are designed so that there will be complete democracy, there will be decentralization of power where people can actually exercise all that, because without dilution of power, if there is a concentration of power, it’ll automatically create hierarchies, if this hierarchy is broken, and the hierarchy will replace it. So I wanted to attack the fundamental thing. I identify the fundamental nature of power and how to fight it. That is how I came to read about like, the critique of Bakunin and Kropotkin on the communist moment, so how they told that like, the idea of a Vanguard party or the dictatorship of proletariat, how it wouldn’t happen because of this accumulation of power. That no matter how much you try it will not match up with that, because it’s the property of power, no matter how well-intentioned it is, an accumulation of power will always result in hierarchies. Once hierarchy is established, it always try to protect itself. So, once I started reading Kropotkin and then then I understood that Okay, so, these are the people who actually understand how power works, and they are trying to develop or design systems that will keep power in check or make sure that the concentration of power doesn’t happen. Then I realized “Okay, so, this is what I have been looking for so long! This is something that is really needed right now. In all the moments that are for social justice happening in India right now.” Because what has been observed until now is that whenever there is a social struggle, it kind of fizzles out or it kind of breaks down because of this particular concentration of power. It is not helping it. All the approaches or from top down. So there will be few leaders who will be commanding. So once the leader falls the entire struggle fades. So and there has never been much work towards building the movement from the grassroot level, that will be much more sustained. And anarchism actually gets a better analysis of how to do that.
BOG: So in some of your writing, you bring up parallels between different movements that have existed in the last decade or so in various countries. For instance, the Anti-CAA movement and some occupations related to it. As well as the distributed mutual aid that’s existed in… for instance: the farmers movement. Are there other examples of anarchistic approaches that are already existing in Indian culture and in political movement that you think are worthwhile of pointing out that that maybe could be used to help bridge an understanding of how this philosophy is already in action and how to run with it from there?
PJP: So, the issue with anarchism in India is that Indian society is designed to be hierarchical. It is designed for not just one hierarchy, it is designed for multiple hierarchies everywhere. Indians are indoctrinated to respect authority, just like like complete subservience without questioning. That is considered as a sign of obedience. Obedience is glorified here. You don’t disrespect the people who are older to you no matter what they say. The woman can never disrespect the man even if he’s wrong. So that glorification of subservience is core to the Indian social order. Anyone who tries to break that social order will be severely punished. So you might have heard of honor killings in India. If a boy and a girl from different castes get married, they’ll be killed by their family themselves because they broke the social order. And that is happening even in India right now. It’s very rampant. So its a society where hierarchy is celebrated. And it is considered the norm. On organizing leaderless? that happened with the Anti-CAA protests and the farmers protest. It was unprecedented.
I think one of the reasons why the scale of these protests… if you see, these have been the most massive protests India has seen after independence. So once the Anti-CAA, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was passed 19 of December. The moment it was passed there was no call by a political party or citizen activist group to create this huge protest. It was just people just came themselves out to the streets and started sloganeering and they started meetings, and they started to occupy places. So it was a spontaneous thing. And I don’t think it was just because of this current one law. It was because of the decades of neo-liberalism, assault on rights of certain democratic institutions that has been happening, and the rising inequality that India has been witnessing for the last 20 years. When such a draconian law was passed people said “that enough is enough.” They just wanted to raise their voice because they felt one after the other that their right as citizens was being taken away from them. Whenever there is organizing like of this sort that was happening before, there is always a tendency of infantilizing. Saying “Okay, these people don’t know what they are doing. They are not educated or they are not aware of what they are protesting against.” So there is this tendency by the media and the government to delegitimize protesters claiming that they are unaware of what they’re talking about, like “we are the ones the experts, we know everything.” These people are illiterate, they are they don’t know exactly what is what is good for them, basically. And this particular law, once it was passed, like people came out, telling exactly what was wrong with them. They were articulating and ,regarding the Shaheen Bagh Protests, In India, there are these communities who we naturally stereotype as uneducated or who have no agency. And the Shaheen Bagh Protests was a symbol of a category of people who were considered to have no agency, no education, no rights. They came out and they occupied a particular spot and demanded their rights. It was an unprecedented moment in Indian history. There were Muslim women, who were likely not to be not to have education more than like a high school education, who were housewives. There are like, women of all ages from children to more than 90 years old. And they came. They knew that there was an injustice that is being imposed on them. And they came out to fight for their rights. So it broke multiple preconceived notions of what a citizen is, and how aware they are of their rights. And I think that is the first symbol of democracy. Where the citizens starts to assert their right.
I think subsequently, the citizenship protest started in December, it went till March and then the COVID pandemic broke out. Due to which the protest had to be called off. But the model that was shown in the citizenship protests in which literally every major city, there was massive demonstrations of millions of Indians coming to the streets and fighting for their rights. Okay, now, here’s the second thing. India is heavily divided on sectarian lines of caste, of color, of language, of religion, of cuisine, of culture, of religion. So, what the government expected was, and since this particular government is far right hyper Nationalist government. So every fascist government has this tendency to create an other, so that they can demonize that community in hopes of getting electoral or political gains from the rest of the group. So in India, what the BJP government is doing is they are demonizing the Muslim community which comes to about 14 to 15% of the population. And so that they can get electoral gains from the rest. And they bring up all these issues, the Hindu Muslim binary issues, because everywhere the government is failing, the government is completely failing the corporations, they are taking away the worker and labor rights. The labor laws have been diluted. The economy is falling. Inequality is rising. The public health care and public education system is completely being dismantled. There are no jobs, there’s a higher level of unemployment. To mask all these failures of the government, the government will keep on bringing up this Hindu Muslim binary.
All these laws, the Kashmir issue, the anti-CAA. The CA law itself was a way to distract people from what is actually happening, like what is the actual issues the country is facing. But here the government is calculated. People came, actually more than Muslims, it was the other people from the other religions like Hindu, from other communities like Dalits, OBC’s (Other Backwards Castes), everyone came together, because they understood what exactly the media and the government is trying to do, and the narrative that they’re trying to build. They just broke through the narrative. They just came out in support in solidarity with each other. And that was a turning point, I think in the Indian democracy, I think this is one of the first signs that that there is some democracy that is actually left in India. Not the institutions, or the government, or the machinery, but actually in people themselves. There is a democratic feeling. There is a sense of democracy and that is being expressed right now. Actually, we were really disappointed when such a public outrage was not happening when the Kashmir issue came out. When the government implemented Article 35, which actually granted special privileges to the state of Kashmir. They completely threw away the elected democratic government of the state and imposed their complete control without consulting a democratically elected government. So by that time it was disappointing to see that the government, the people of the country, were not actually coming forward to protest it. But after this happened, within two months, when the CA bill was passed, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, then the nation reacted. So that actually gave hope. And since occupation protest has never been more successful. India has always seen rallies in which people just walk to the National Capital of the state capitol and stay there for some days and then they just come back. If prolonged occupation protest actually needs the idea of mutual aid and solidarity, because you need these protests are participated by millions of people. Like the farmer protests that is right now happening in Delhi has more than 300,000 farmers that are stationed on all the borders. And it is not easy to sustain such huge protests, without the kind of mutual aid and solidarity networks that is right now existing. And in that mutual aid network of this scale, I think is unprecedented in human history for protests.
BOG: It’s amazing to see that many people in one place for a common reason, and also being able to sustain such high numbers of people is really prefigurative. So I was wondering if we could get back to the issue… because a lot of us in the west in the US in particular, myself, who doesn’t come from any sort of Indian background has a very, very weak understanding of the caste system and I know that you’ve done a lot of writing and activism around the evolution of it. Can you talk a bit about some of its history and ground it for the listening audience. Talk about some of the modern struggles against it, including B. R. Ambedkar, who you’ve mentioned in some of your writings, and how you came to organize and write against it, how does an opposition to caste-ism intersect with your work against patriarchy and and how can anarchists specifically add to your anti-caste analysis?
PJP: Okay, so the caste system is something that started I think, around like 5000 years back. So it is this is the oldest form of strict social hierarchy. It existed in India since I think when the Aryans came to settle in India, and this has been mentioned in the the Rig Veda and everywhere. So what this basically does is creates a gradient inequality. It is not a strict inequality that you see in places with slavery,serfdom, and things like that. This is gradient inequality. So, a gradient inequality, it’s like a ladder, in which there are multiple castes, with one on top of the other. So, the person who is on the very top, they get all the privileges. The person who is the right below them, they are also fine, as long as they get to oppress those who are below them. So, they will forget, and or they will actually increase their own oppression, because there are people below them who they can oppress. So for every class that you look at, there is always someone below them. This this particular gradient inequality survived for all this time, because there is very little incentive for people to actually fight against it, because there are people below them that they can actually completely exploit. So how is caste system practiced? So one way of it is practiced is by enforced endogamy. So a woman doesn’t have any rights. As far as the Indian social organization. The woman, their main purpose is for child rearing and being the homemaker. They have to worship their husband, and that is the ideal wife, or the ideal mother. And here is where the patriarchy comes in within this structure, they can’t remarry. They have to keep women in control because everything about our system is about purity.
The way it works, the people at the top top… they don’t eat or drink with, or even touch the people who are below them. There’s this practice of untouchability. Actually, in my part, the Kerala State where I am from we had a practice of unapproach-ability. The higher caste people won’t allow people of the lower caste to come less than 10 feet to them. So forget touching, even coming close enough to pollute them. In certain castes who are considered at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy, they won’t even allow them to come out in the sun. So that the upper class people won’t have to see them, because the mere sight of these people will make them polluted. So there were communities in this country who weren’t allowed to walk in during day, they could only get out of their home at night. That was the way this thing has been working for centuries. People of one caste cannot marry another caste. So that is precisely why they had to practice this strict patriarchy. Women cannot be allowed to have independent wishes. Their their bloodline has to be pure. Even the food that we eat.
Basically the people of the higher caste pride themselves of being vegans, that they don’t eat meat. They consider meat as something which is polluting. It’s only the people who are from the deepest caste which eat meat. Basically, because all the economic and cultural capital always start with the upper caste and the people from the lower caste had to basically live with whatever was available to them. So that social realities that are existing in society was enshrined into the way these people live and interact and behave. This remained exactly the same till the Britishers. So, India has been ruled by multiple communities like between 80,000 to 83 Britishers. India was also ruled by Muslims. But even when India is ruled by people from other religions, the evil of caste system never dies. So a person who is born in the lower caste, even if they convert to another religion, they won’t lose their caste.
So, basically, if Islam and Christianity… these are religions which actually doesn’t have the caste system right? But in India, when you come and look, you can find that there is a caste system within these religions. The people who actually convert to Islam who are from the higher caste, they have a richer status, they have their own separate mosques in which they will never allow people from the lower caste who converted to Islam to attend. Similarly with Christianity, for example, in Kerala, the people that top-most caste is called the Brahmins. That is why we call it a Brahminical hierarchy, or Brahminical patriarchy, the caste system. So the Brahmins who converted to Christianity, they are the dominant Christians who have all the wealth and all the land and all the power, political and social. The people who actually converted to Christianity who are from like.. let’s say, fishermen trade or from various other lower castes, they will never get the respect. These people actually practice untouchability on them, even though they’re not actually belong to the Hindu religion anymore. Now here comes the other issue, if you’re born in a lower caste, no matter if you can actually make money, if you actually gain wealth through any means, still, you won’t be allowed to enter many places, because of your caste. So this is something that might promote economic mobility, but you will never have social mobility. The lower caste were not allowed to enter temples a place of worship of Hindu religion, for like years, it’s just only in the 20 century that they were allowed to enter. So, even Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, he had to have a huge mobilization to get the higher caste to open templates for the lower caste. And there are places in villages where the people of lower caste cannot access water. There are ways from the public bath from which the lower caste people can not access even today in India. So, there are public baths, where people from the lower caste can’t access. In some places when you go you are served different utensils in restaurants, separately for upper caste and lower caste even today.
And now, the problem with this is that once the British came and there was this influx of Western education in India, the people who were at the top of the hierarchy, especially the Brahmins, were the first to get a chance to access education and all the knowledge that was provided to it. So, these people from this particular caste who actually form less than 4% of the Indian population, they dominate literally all the fields. When you go to any elite University in India, they are all belong to this particular caste, all the students belong to this particular caste. You go to media, all the news channels are run and operated by them, all the businesses in India run by these families, you go to the media, like the movie industry, all the actors that you see are from the upper caste.
And even the Indians who actually move abroad – the Indians who actually migrate to USA, so the way you talk about Kamala Harris, the fact that these people were able to move to the next country, because they had the economic and social capital to actually have the money to go elsewhere and start working there. That is why most of the Indians who are actually immigrants, who actually live in the other countries are upper caste Indians, they don’t represent the entire the actual Indian population. So, all the people who actually immigrate from India to the other countries are upper caste, they take their caste with them. So then people from the lower caste when they are actually moving abroad, because they have access to it, they are discriminated by these people who are in dominant places. So most of the people who are in the in the western universities, Indians who claim that they have been racially discriminated actually practice caste discrimination in their own households and to their fellows. So, what I personally work on is the issue of Indian Government, once the constitution was framed and since Dr. BR Ambedkar, he was the architect of the Constitution. So, there was certain safeguards that was introduced in the Indian constitution for the people of backward castes, so that they get adequate representation in all spheres of life. In economic, social, and political.
So here comes the reservation system in India, which is like heavily debated topic. So it is a little bit different from the way affirmative action works in the US. Here, a fixed number of seats or a percentage of seats, it’s correlates to a proportion of the population which is actually kept aside for people from this backward community, so that they will have representation in all the spheres, but this is actually only implemented in the government sector, which is less than 10% of all the jobs in India and all educational institutions in India. So even in this small available seats among the Indian opportunities that are accessible to Indians, what we find is that since all the topmost positions are being dominated by the dominant caste. They deny this constitutionally granted safeguards to these people from the marginalized communities. The norms are never implemented. So even after 70 years of independence, even the higher education institutions, especially the IIT’s” (Indian Institute of Technology, a network of tech universities in India) is one of the elite institutions in the world, more than 95% of all the faculty are from upper caste, even though the law states that 50% of the seats has to be from people from the backward class. Like it is completely thrown out even after 70 years. And when you take the students, again, more than 70, since the professor’s can choose the students directly, especially with regard to the PG admissions, the postgraduate admissions. They deny access to the students who actually come from the backward castes, and they only allow students from their own community to get these opportunities. And this network of nepotism in a way actually creates a huge barrier for the people who actually comprises more than 75% of the Indian population from accessing any of these facilities: education, health care… you name it, the representation is almost zero.
WG: Thank you for going through that in such detail. I think that interfacing with this system, which is over 5000 years old, is a continuous, imposed social hierarchy that is extremely adaptive, like it has adapted through countless social movements, and it’s still remains somewhat intact is a little bit difficult for folks to wrap their heads around having something so old to struggle against, and that really, really shapes people’s lives and people’s destinies for them. And you talked a little bit about this, about how the caste system gets exported to regions where immigrants go or like a Desi community forms. But I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on this? Or say some more words about this meaning specifically, why should In your opinion, internationals, be aware of the caste system? And its worldwide implications?
PJP: Yeah. So regarding why should the international community be aware of this particular system is that most of the international community are aware of racism, colonialism, and I think like the fascism… they have experienced with all these different hierarchies. They have a history of struggle against it, they can easily identify it, they can fight it. They have succeeded against it, like many struggles have been succeeded. But caste is a kind of hierarchy, which even after so much time, there hasn’t been a clear path to victory, because of its great inequality component, which is not actually present in most other hierarchies. Like in other hierarchies, you can easily distinguish between the people who are oppressed, of course, there can be other dimensions, which actually split people and won’t allow them to unite. For example in India, even in within castes, who actually share the same social rank, there, there won’t be unity between them, because there might be internal disputes of like, who has more land, who has access to water for farming and things like that. I think a similar case occurs between maybe like the blacks and Latinos in the US. So they have the same social standing, because they are both oppressed by the structure or the community above them. But there is this lack of cohesion between them. But this lack of cohesion is not because these people get to oppress someone else. It is because there is a narrative that is being created of a lack of cohesion between the two. That’s it, it is the dominant narrative by the government or the dominant communities of the people who actually have a command over the knowledge production, like the academicians, who mostly come from the dominant caste. The news anchors will be from the dominant caste. The people who will create literature will be from the dominant caste. The people who make movies, the actors, everyone comes from a dominant caste. The narrative and the knowledge that is produced is from the dominant caste and there is no knowledge that is being produced to meet the demand of this particular community.
So, that is actually what causes the rift between them, and they are constantly being fed by false narrative and fake news telling that the other person is the the reason you aren’t getting opportunities. So, they fight internally, but caste is a little bit different. In caste, even though there are internal conflicts, they are fine with caste system, because they always have someone below them they can exploit. So, they can actually take pride in the fact that “okay, I am superior to someone else, I’m happy with that” They are okay with someone on top exploiting them, because of that particular nature of this system. And that is one of the reasons why the people of each different caste in the different levels of the social hierarchy have complete mistrust towards each other. So, the Brahmins they’re on top. they’re completely fine. because no one oppresses them. The problem is that when you go down even when you go down to the cast, who are literally at the bottom they are also fine with the system because they get to oppress someone below them. So, a complete unity a vertical spectrum is not happening. And of course, there has been moments in India, like there have been moments of anti-caste in Kerala has happened in Maharashtra led by Jyotiba Phule, in Tamil Nadu led by Periyar there has been moments it was happening, but the problem always was that the condition that was established breaks away, because when you give what can I say, when you give power or political representation or economic representation, in a token form, there is a fight among all these communities to get that because we have a reservation! So out of 100 seats, let us say 50 seats are reserved for the community for the backward castes, but there are like 1000s of backward castes. So who gets to be in this 50 becomes another issue altogether. So the one who actually have access to some social capital might actually gain that advantage and certain communities in this particular caste, they will feel that “okay, it is because of them that I didn’t get to get this particular representation” and they would have resentment for their fellow caste men rather than the people who created the hierarchy in the first place, who who are the Brahmins.
So, that internal rift is actually exploited by the current government. So, what happened was in the past 22 decades there has been an increase in representation in the political sphere by the backward caste. If you are from a caste in the backward communities and got that representation, it created and animosity in the minds of the other backward castes and the BJP like in the the there is ideology, they they were able to exploit that sentiment. So, that is why even though BJP, or their ideologues. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) is completely like a caste-ist, patriarchal, hierarchical, structure. They want to create that hierarchy completely and throw away this notion of secularism or democracy. They have support of the people from the backward communities because of this rift within the community. And there they are very good at creating narratives that tells that. So what they do is they create alternative histories. They create the idea that India had a glorious past, like before and like caste never existed in India, it was something that was brought to India by invaders. Kind of like the marriage of Nazism and Hitler – What Hitler did to alienate the Jews from the Germans. That is exactly what they are using to create their foothold in the Indian society. So they are telling that India had a glorious past, like they create these ridiculous stories of in ancient Indian technology, where India had this interplanetary travel system, we had information of genetics. So you wouldn’t believe it! India has this annual Indian science conference where all the latest research findings of the Indian scientific communities discussed. In that forum one of the guys actually brought a presentation, which told that India had nuclear missile warheads, like in like 3000 BC, and we had interplanetary travel, we had stem cell research. We had teleportation. This was actually told in the Indian Science Conference. And not for just one year, it happened multiple times. So, there is currently research happening in India telling that the, let us say… that cow has magical properties. There here is golden cow urine that like if you drink cow urine cancer will be cured, AIDS will be cured. This is actually being done by the government. It is government funded program and in universities, public universities. So, there is a complete attack on logic. It’s a attack on the entire scientific method. So they have, they are rewriting history textbooks to tell that we had this glorious past and it was the invaders who came, the Muslim invaders who came, the Britishers who came, who actually ruined and created differences in the Hindu society by installing caste.
WG: That’s so incredible.
PJP: Yeah. So now people who actually suffer from caste system think that the enemies (the Muslims) are the enemies of Westerners who came to India, who actually… so that is why their life is crap. And they hope that this government, who actually promises them that ancient Golden Age, will actually bring prosperity back to people. When in actuality what they are doing is they are giving complete, they’re giving the entire country in the hands of the corporations who completely exploit the people. They are destroying all the social security systems that have been existing in India. Like India had minimum support price for the farmers, this was taken away by this farm laws, which is where the farmers are protesting. Like Indians had the option of going to court in case a corporate actually breaks a contract of trust. Like if the contract says that “I will purchase this many quantities of potatoes from this farmer at this rate after the harvest” and the often during the harvest time the corporate denies, like they don’t agree to pay that pre agreed price. Now the farmer cannot go to the court. The right to constitutional or legal remedy have been take has been taken away by the this new laws. So the farmers are protesting, not just for the farmer laws at this point. They’re actually protesting for every citizen of India for their democratic right, to, like constitutional remedies.
WG: When you’re talking about sort of this government propaganda this really outlandish sort of, you know, ridiculous claims. I mean, it is true, or I believe it to be true that I mean, the India has like a vast history. And, you know, they’re one of the first instances of indoor plumbing that they found archaeologically was in a city in India. I don’t exactly remember where because it’s a gigantic country as well. Yeah.
BOG: But they weren’t teleporting the feces to another area.
WG: They weren’t. It really reminds me of like the conspiracy theory machine that exists here too, on the far right, where, you know, we’re being ruled by reptilian overlords and the 5g chip is going to be implanted in us in the COVID vaccine and stuff. It really reminds me of that a lot. And it’s like, incredible to me that these systems seem to me to be a bit parallel in our two locations.
PJP: Yeah, it is. So right now, what the government is portraying is that what India needs is a strong leadership, which they have epitomized in the image of the Prime Minister himself, the Prime Minister Narendra Modhi. He’s like the Iron Man who can like unite India and bring all the glory back to India. So they have created all these stories surrounding this particular narrative, such that in Indian society like I said, you cannot question anything that hierarchy dictates to you like, if someone is dictating something to you, you have to obey it. There is no space for what you say… democratic discussion or debate, anything that is democratic is immediately. So the first fundamental thing of democracy or democratic policy making is that when you make a law, you have to consult with the people who actually will be impacted by the law. That is the first principle of any policy-making.
And here for such a huge farm…. so let me give you an estimate like of the scale of the issue. India is a country which has more than 1.4 billion people, of which almost 60 to 70% engage directly or indirectly with agriculture. So that is like almost around 600 million people. Just doing agriculture, of which around 520 million people are living in poverty. So, a recent statistics have showed that 63% of the rural agricultural workers in India, they don’t have enough income to actually get a nutritious food three times a day, they don’t have it. 63%. Almost 100 million people. This is the case, if they spent their entire income in food, even if they spend their entire income in food, they still won’t have enough food, nutritious food to feed them three times a day. And normally, most people don’t spend their entire income in full, they have other needs, too, right. So the actual data is saying that almost 73% of the Indian Indian population on the rural population in India. If they use two thirds of their income in purchasing food, they won’t still have nutritious food three times a day. So this is the status of India. And in a country like this, then the government and that to this many people are actually employed in agriculture, but the government is passing a law without consulting anyone. like and back to a time when the pandemic has hit and has completely obliterated, like, the scope of… it has completely pushed the country to its knees. It is like what the government expected was….
So the government always expected an opposition when this particular law will be passed. So the government has been sitting on this law for a long time. When the government was in power for the last six years, they never passed it till now, thinking that the farmers will protests. They immediately pass the law in the backdrop of this pandemic. Thinking back… because of the pandemic the farmers wouldn’t be able to organize. And they completely misread because the farmers were like “okay, we have had enough! if the pandemic won’t kill us, this law would.” So in India, like more than 30 farmers are committing suicide every day, because of the agrarian distress. It’s a huge issue in India. And right now, since the government is like attacking all the institutions, this was there for the Indian citizens.
So in India, the government… there is this huge array of government schools, which are like public funded schools, which literally everyone, anyone can attend without paying fees. The quality is less, because it has been systematically degraded by the governments to aid the private institutes. The same thing is with the healthcare, but still, these Institute’s where institutions are there, so that the people from the lower castes or the Muslim communities can actually send their kids to get education. And even though the quality was poor, it was a way for these communities to actually have some social mobility. But now the government is destroying even the remnants of the system that are existing the public education and the health care and they are completely opening up the country for… I don’t know what the word I should use for it… I think a complete takeover by the corporate industries. The corporations can come in, they can dictate the laws of labor, the corporations can actually decide like how much time the worker should work in the factory. They can change, it was eight hours maximum, now they can increase after 12 hours arbitrarily. They don’t have to pay the minimum wage anymore. So, this is like complete violation of the basic human rights and the government is completely fine with that. So, when people are protesting the government needs this diversionary tactics of like this Hindutva, like this, “we had this glorious past. You are suffering right now, because of the Muslims or the other castes, or other communities that came to India. We are the ones who will be giving you…”
The government is just a corporate propaganda machine instead of a government right now like you can see in every single place that you turn like the media or in the billboards, for every institution that you go and see you can see like pictures of the Prime Minister standing and telling that everything is going fine. We have like… India is like now becoming a symbol of hope for the world and the reality is completely opposite. So, this is not just in India, what is happening right now, right? The rise of populism and Trump in US of Boris Johnson in UK of Bolsonaro in Brazil, like this is happening everywhere at the same time because of this… I don’t know… the because of this neoliberal assault on all the public institutions and I think one of the hope that I see is that simultaneously everywhere in the world. So there was this occupy protests in Mexico, in which the feminists in Mexico they went and occupied I think the National Human Rights Commission office, and they just stayed there as a protest against femicides. So I thought like, “okay, that that is similar to Shaheen Bagh, what the women in Shaheen Bagh did they just came and they occupied a particular space and they just stand there telling that they demand that they demand justice! And that is what the farmers are doing right now. They are just coming and collecting together. And right now, okay, the nature of the protests has actually changed right now, even though there are like many farmers protesting around around Delhi, the farmers are now traveling to each and every village in India right now. And they are communicating the issues of the protests, and what are the issues that are plaguing the country right now. And all these meetings are attended by 1000s and 1000s of people! This is happening right now in India, you will never find this in any of the news. But right now, that’s Yeah… this is unprecedented.
Two days back, there was a meeting in one of the villages in which more than 20,000 people attended. And so the people who attended, they go back to their villages. They create a council and start creating the awareness expand the awareness of what is actually happening and why this is happening. Because you cannot trust the media in India anymore. like India has one of the worst propaganda machines in history. And they just regurgitate what the government actually tells them to do. They delegitimize the protests and they distracts people with really futile stuff. So the farmers thought that “okay, we don’t need a media coverage to a pass what we have to tell the people we will directly go to the people!” Grassroot level, like bottom up, like bottom up communication. I think that’s, that’s amazing to see.
The attack against the agrarian sector has been there for like the past three, four decades. And systematically, the people who had land to farm they lost the land because of they’re in crisis. And they had to become farm laborers, and go and work in other places where they can get money. Because of this, a lot of people who actually were farmers became a farm laborers, and they go to the Vela farms, like in Punjab and Haryana to work from other states. So that is why most of the other states in India, they never had this thing called minimum support price or this multi system, which was there in Punjab. So the reason why the protests act in Punjab was because these farmers had a lot more to lose than the other farmers. And since the way this law has been devised. So there are clauses in the law, which actually is very interesting how the legal terms are right now. How the laws are being formed by the government right now. So let me just read you one sentence from that law. “No suit prosecution, or other legal proceedings shall lie against the central government or state government, or any officer of the central government or the state government.” Or here’s the interesting part, any other person in respect of anything, which is in good faith that or intended to be done under this act. Or have any rules or orders made thereafter.”
So basically this is like, arbitrary. Like, you can’t, you can complain against not just the government, you can complaint against any person. And not just, if they do something bad. It is intended to be done in good faith. So they can just say that this happened like this, it ended badly, but I did in good faith. So I should not be criminalized for it. This is like, ridiculous. And this is the nature of all the laws that the government has been recently passed it.
WG: It’s so dangerous when there’s a piece of legislation that could literally mean anything. You know, we can see this everywhere, you know, it’s very bad sign, when you know, there’s something that can be just arbitrary, like you said, arbitrarily applied, no matter what. I did have one last question about anti-caste organizing. I became aware of this movement, which is Dalit Lives Matter. After sort of this, we had this summer of 2020, this summer of rebellion against the murder of George Floyd. I wonder if you have any thoughts on Dalit Lives Matter or DLM? would you would you mind expanding on that?
PJP: Okay, so unlike some Black Lives Matter was actually moment in us, right like there was an organization called Black Lives Matter. And like there was huge organizing based on that particular that particular tag. But in India, of course, the the issue of Dalits has been like, and the anti-caste organizing has been happening for a long time. And since there has been a lot of similarities between the issues of black people that they’ve recently faced in the US and what Dalits face from caste system, there has always been a bridge, and a takeaway of learning from that moment. So when the Black Panther Party was formed in the US, for the emancipation of the black movement and the black people so that there was an awareness that was being created in the community to organize and like emancipate themselves against the oppression that they are facing, the police brutality and everything. Simultaneously, there was a Dalit Panther Party that was founded in India, all in the same ideals.
If you actually look a little deeper into the history, like you can see that the various things that the rap music or the hip hop, which was used by the black activists as a way of expressing their anger, and their protest was similarly being… is being actually similarly right now used by activists, the caste activist in India, they are using hip hop to communicate and express their ideas and anger. So there is a learning that is being happening across these two different, but in a way, similar kind of oppression that is being faced by this people. So then, then there was this issue that happened, the murder of George Floyd. And there was this huge uproar, and then in the international community, and it didn’t limit to the US it it spread all around the world. Like, wherever there has been racism and colonialism, the statues were being thrown into oceans and dismantled everywhere in the world. Exactly. So it was an attack on a system of oppression. That was happening.
So in US it was black lives, right? But in other countries, there was something… like in Australia, it was indigenous tribes, right? Aboriginals Lives Matter. So, in every country, it will become a call for the people who are being oppressed. And in India, that happened, like it was the village. So when there was this Delhi Pogrom, in which there was an attack on the Muslim neighborhood, as a reaction to the anti-CAA protests, there was a new movement that came called the Muslim Lives Matter. So when a movement shows that there is something that can be used to create a mass mobilization that gets accepted or reproduced in other moments. And I think this was just a reaction to what was happening there. So since it was attacking, a voice raised against the hierarchical oppression, the similar thing just happened in India. And also another thing, why this happened to us because you can see a lot of Indian Americans there, who will be championing for Black Lives Matter, and they tell that they are also facing racism, because they are from a different community.
What we the people who are from the lower class in India find amusing is that it is these people who actually come to India and practice the same kind of oppression on the people who are below them in the cast. So this was actually a lot of this Dalit Lives Matter came as an opposition to these people, championing the cause of black lives matter because we were like, okay, you don’t get to talk about black lives matter, because you are the same, you are causing the same oppression. A lot of celebrities in in India who were like, suddenly championing for… they were raising their voice on “Okay, like, there is racism in us like I have faced racism in us.” And we were like, “okay, fine, you have faced racism or you got dismissed because you are Indian, but just remember the caste system that you are imposing on the fellow Indians? And why are you not raising the voices?” So all the people who from the dominant caste raise the voice against the BLM, but in India every day, like, only the women are being raped. Yeah. And they’re brutalized, and like they’re beaten, they’re paraded naked for being Dalit. It is a show of power by Dalit communities, to put their lives in their proper place. And none of these people who are actually championing BLM, they never raised their voice against us. So we were like, “Okay, so we are creating your another, like, let’s say hashtag. Just like black lives matter. That is what you missed, at least then then promote this too.” It was it was a mixture of all these emotions, basically that came to the emergence of Dalit Lives Matter.
WG: Thank you for going into that too. Like, it’s something that I’ve been seeing and yeah, it was, it was good to hear your thoughts on the matter and it makes a lot of sense that you know, yeah, people who were in the US and her from extremely privileged castes were like it completely ignoring the oppressions that they perpetrate. So thank thank you for going into that.
PJP: So actually, with regard to the Kamla Harris issue, recently, there was this case in California, in I think, John Doe versus the state of California, in which the internet employee in the Cisco company faced caste discrimination from his superiors. So they both actually went to the same Institute, like the one that I’m actually studying right now, IIT Bombay. So they are alumni of that Institute. And so this guy knew that John Doe was actually a Dalit. And he outed that to his other Indian colleagues and that led to him being discriminated in matters of job assignments, his appraisal, and stuff like that. He’s didn’t get promotions and he complained. And then it became obvious that the state of California doesn’t have a legal prohibition against caste discrimination. So there is currently a case that is being going on in California Court, which actually wants to include caste discrimination in the list of all the oppressions that people face along with racism and colorism and other things.
WG: Yeah, I remember hearing about that.
PJP: Yeah. And since Kamala Harris is from an Indian origin, and she actually… her grandfather is a Brahmin, her mother is Brahmin. So she’s, yeah, she’s from the dominant community. And they’re also called by the activists in US that Kamala Harris would actually make a statement in this matte. Because she claims to suffer racism and everything. And like, why are you not telling anything about this particular issue? That is actually much more closer to you than any other American actually.
WG: Kamala Harris is a huge, you know, you know, sticky wicket, I think because like she was the, you know, the District Attorney of Oakland, California. Her job basically was to incarcerate black people, you know, like the incarceration rates in Oakland are exactly the result of stuff that she has perpetrated. So she’s a police officer, she incarcerates a huge amount of black people. I’m sure she suffers, you know, suffers racism, you know, I’m sure that she does. But like, she also perpetrates a whole hell of a lot of racism, not even to mention the fact that she’s a Brahmin, you know.
PJP: So that is one thing that I actually keep saying again, and again. People very easily identify the hierarchies that oppresses them, but they are not ready to acknowledge the hierarchies that gives them privilege. Absolutely. And I think anarchism is an ideology, this is where I was attracted to it the most because it doesn’t attack one hierarchy. It attacks every hierarchy, the legitimacy of all hierarchies. And I think even when I’m when in the struggle against caste, a caste as a hierarchy is not a single hierarchy. It has patriarchy. It has classism. It has language. It has cuisine. Like there are multiple aspects of it. And you don’t just attack caste as a single entity, you need to attack caste from all these angles and that philosophy actually gives you the tools to at least create a narrative of how to attack these oppressive hierarchies. In a way that people can understand… Okay, even if I am not oppressed by your hierarchy, and if there’s a hierarchy that I am being oppressed by, I should be able to relate or translate my oppression to the other hierarchies too.
So that I can in a way empathize with what is happening to other. I think that can create a huge change if more people are actually aware of it. And without any teaching of anarchist ideas it is automatically happening like this spontaneously happening in the farmers protest. Because in farmer protest, many of the landed farmers are from a… I wouldn’t say dominant caste… They are like basically still a backward caste, but a better off backward castes, called Jats. And most of the agricultural laborers are from the Dalit communities. So historically, there has been a rift between these two. But since these new farm law came there has been a new emergence of solidarity, in which the landed caste now understand the struggles that the laborers are facing. And the laborer castes, they acknowledge that if these laws are implemented, now, it won’t just affect the landed caste, it will penetrate and it will affect the people who are actually employed as laborers too. And now there has been voice voices being raised on redistribution of land to the Dalit laborers, a raise of minimum wage, and other other things. So and, and here is the most beautiful part, the participation of women in the protests in India has been like… it has increased significantly, because recently almost 20% of the people who are currently stationed around Delhi the protesters are women. Which is huge when you consider the fact that India still is a hugely patriarchal society in which which doesn’t allow a woman to step out of the room, you can see a woman driving tractors. And the funny thing is almost 80% of all agricultural laborers are women. But most of them they are unpaid, like they are, they are expected to work. This particular protest actually shows the agency of women and their awareness. And it bring forth the strength and unity that the woman can actually show and the solidarity that they can contribute in this protest. And the issues that women face: like the patriarchy, the lack of wages, lack of equal wages, then there is this maternity benefits, this is a huge other array of issues, which are now being recognized because of this particular protest. Earlier, it would only be just limited to this one struggled against like a particular law or a particular event. Right now, everything is being discussed. And I think that’s a huge part. Or it gives me hope, that like, okay, now, at least the people are slowly awakening and they realize that they have more to lose together.
WG: I’m also very happy that the participation of women in the farmers protest has been so foregrounded by people who have been writing about it, or at least the people that who have been writing about it that I’ve read, like I’ve read your work on it. I’ve read some other folks’ work on talking about the farmers protests and it’s really cool that people are foregrounding the participation of women. And like, contextualizing it as a very important, you know, aspect to the protests,
PJP: So I have explained a lot of how the mutual aid was happening, right? Like, of all the networks of solidarity that was shown how community kitchens were being organized, and how from the village and the food, grains and milk and all the essentials were being brought, how volunteers are collecting blankets for these farmers. During winter there was medical aid that was being set up. There were laundry rooms set up to wash their clothes. And so the other thing that there has to be understood is that these are poor farmers who are living, who are actually sleeping on the roads and tents and makeshift platforms, or even their tractors. And when they came last December, it’s just like brutal cold in Delhi, like it was one of the coldest winters in 70 years. And right now, it is March and it is the opposite. The temperature is like nearing 45. And it is like extreme heat.
Now, the government what they did is they cut off water supply, they cut off electricity, they cut off internet, so that the farmers will go back. So what the farmers were like, okay, they dug bore wells for water, they install solar panels for electricity. So like, little by little the self organization. because the number of people who are participating is so huge, so is their resourcefulness. And I think, for any protests of this magnitude for it to become self organized, in which the people can solve all the problems and the institutions of service or support is automatically emerging out of them. Because there are so… like the threshold has reached like, okay, we have enough people so that we can do everything on our own. We don’t need an external support from the government. No matter what the government does, we can actually make this work on our own that has been achieved. And another aspect that is interesting is the lack of like a set of leaders. Of course, there are like eloquent leaders who actually speak of the protest.
But the decision making is decentralized. There are more than 500 farm unions who are actually participating in the protest along with other support groups. And even though like only 30 to 40 leaders are going and talking and negotiating with the government, every proposal that the government surpluses has to be brought back to the farmers, where they will collectively sit together and discuss and debate where every member will be present. And like every member of the union will be present there are more than 500 unions at the present time. They will debate, discuss, and the people who actually represent these farmers, they cannot decide on what they should, what distance to make, or what points to agree with the government, they have mainly a voice of the farmers to the government or spokesperson, they’re not elected representatives, per se. And I think that that that difference from in a hierarchical society like India, to a representative form of a decision making process, to participate in decision making process, even though it’s not perfect, of course, but the seeds of it is being assembled in this protest, even the anti-CAA protest, you can see that there is no single party that actually organize all these protests across the country. So I was in Mumbai, and in Mumbai there are multiple protests happening every day in different parts of the city. And the protests that I went to there wasn’t a single organization, it was collectively decided and everyone was taking part in the decision. There are huge debates happening. And I think people need to experience democracy to actually understand what they are losing in the current social situation. Only when people realize that their voices are heard. And they get an experience of expressing their voices, no matter how eloquent how bad it is, it doesn’t matter, then they understand that their voices deserve to be heard. I think people will not go back.
WG: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.
BOG: I was wondering, this wasn’t I keep stealing the headphone out of my co host ear. This wasn’t one of the scripted questions. But how has COVID impacted India? As far as you know, like has has Modi and the BJP followed the pattern that so many authoritarian governments around the world have done with the pandemic and denied public access to services or denied maybe the dangers related to it? Or has there been much in the way of mutual aid response from communities to get people access to protective gear or medical access?
PJP: Okay so what the federal government did was they cleverly denied responsibility for the pandemic, in a way that they just tasked the state governments to handle the pandemic on their own. So that they will be free of the responsibility. That is what basically they did.
BOG: Oh, that’s what Trump did…
PJP: And that’s very clever, because most of the same governments are not run by the BJP. So what they can do is they can…. if a state government fails to provide access, they can just point to that government telling that “Okay, these people are not doing it well, like they are not letting the central government do the job.” And they can get away with it. And in the states that actually are run by BJP, the numbers, the data that we see, the official data is never true. So there are states which do tracking and in good response. So personally my the state of Kerala, the state of Kerala has been lauded by international community for its past action and response because the state of Kerala has a strong public health care system. The government really funds the public health care and the state of Kerala was prepared to handle a pandemic because last year, there was a similar virus called nipah is hit the state and the state had to engage in protocols of how to handle a pandemic and like what other medical gear is that the blockers should wear that health professionals should wear and the government of Kerala was better prepared. The other state governments were not prepared for it.
And many of the states ruled by the BJP, they don’t do the testing enough so that they can show that Okay, we have very low cases in our state because we are doing very well. This is not the case they’re not testing to know whether like there are enough people who is actually contacting COVID and the government using their propaganda machine, the media, they are diverting every issue, like even when the COVID pandemic was at its peak, the media was discussing something completely different. Like they were going after like small things…. like celebrity news and stuff like that, they wer completely ignoring it. Now let me explain what was the actual humanitarian crisis that India faced during the pandemic. So when there was an initial lock down for 31 days that happened. So in India, there are like really poor states, like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Orissa. So, the marginalized communities from these states, they don’t get wages, literally they don’t have any rights when they are living there. So what they do is they migrate to other states where they can find a job as manual laborers, or they set up small shops. Basically, most of them are manual laborers who work in construction sites. And the women, they might work as maids in the urban households and stuff like that. So there is a huge migration of people from the rural to the urban cities. And when the pandemic hit, immediately, the economy went to a standstill, there was no work. Everyone was asked to stay where they were right?
So these people, the people who are unorganized, was who are not actually the formal employees, they just their daily wage laborers, they just go everyday to any place they can find work, and they just work there. They collect their earnings and they get food from daily earnings. So when the entire lockdown happen, these people, they were completely cut off from their income. So what they did, they didn’t have any other thing to do, they just started going back to their homes. And since it was a lockdown there was no railway, there was no bus service, there was basically no transportation available. So now you know how big India is right? People from across the country started walking back to their native villages! like walking 1000’s of kilometers! So during the time of pandemic, you could see millions of Indians walking. And it was March which is like extreme summer. 1000’s of people died due to sunstroke walking back home. There were images and videos of people lying dead in roads in railway stations and bus stops. People were run over by trains, when because they were sleeping in the railway lines. So it was terrible. And the government didn’t do anything. And when asked about the number of deaths, in pandemic by these migrant laborers who are walking back home, the government told that we don’t have any data about it. And the government is busy doing like other stuff like cricket or something like Bollywood is doing as well.
And it is busy passing laws that will further take away the rights of the… so it is during the pandemic that the Farm Bill first passed the labor laws which diluted the labor norms was passed.
So the government has their own priorities for corporatization, they don’t care about what the actual people and citizens of India, the struggles they face or anything. But one thing that was noticeable was the Indian community, they reacted to this particular migrant labor crisis. So across the roads, when people are walking, people are offering water, food. So there was this mutual aid that was automatically. There was this huge, so in every city in which these migrant laborers are walking, people are offering them water, if you’re offering them modes of transport, like they would take people who are really… who are elderly, who can’t walk, or children, they will have them transport in small distances. Like a relay kind of transport mode was set up. Many restaurants, they opened up so that they can feed these people for free. And there are many families which were like stranded in remote places without access to… let’s say I if I have a family and my elderly parents are living alone, and they need medicines, it’s lockdown, the medical shops are not open. So there were volunteers who were ready to deliver essential medicines to this families. So there was a parallel, when the government failed the people, the citizens rose to the occasion to try at least try to mitigate a huge disaster. It wasn’t perfect, of course, like it didn’t work everywhere, but it it prevented a much worse disaster from happening.
WG: I love that people stepped up to help each other. Of course, nothing’s perfect, but especially if you’re reacting to a widespread disaster that could very well like, you know, affect you… or is affecting you as well. You know, it’s a crisis. Crisis planning can often like look imperfect.
PJP: Yeah. And another thing that also came forward during this an issue that came to the forefront was police brutality. So this happened literally before the George Floyd issue happened. So what happened was during the lockdown, so you know, like many people who live in India are illiterate and they are and they are working the unorganized sector. They sell vegetables they sell…. So, in order for them to eat something today, they need to earn something today. It’s not they have savings they can go back to get food. So many of these people who are like daily, like who food vendors like to sell vegetables and stuff like that, they came out to sell their stuff because they will die literally of hunger if they don’t come out. And the government even though they promised to deliver food and stuff, in most of the places they didn’t. So when these people actually came out to sell their produce, you could see police going and like destroying their vehicles, beating them black and blue. These are people without any social or cultural capital. They can go to court, they don’t have money to hire a lawyer to fight for their case. And you could see police trashing them black and blue. And then there were cases of custodial deaths that have happened, because they arrested like two people in Tamil Nadu. They’ve arrested a father and son for not closing the shop on time. So the law mandated that the shops should close by 7pm or something and they didn’t close… they kept the shop open for five more minutes or something. And the police came, they arrested both of them. They took them to the police station, and they trashed them till they were dead. This happened last year. And this happened at a time when the George Floyd issue, the George Floyd murder, that protest was happening in US. And at that time there was a voice against police brutality. Right now, because of all these issues, there is a sentiment that… Okay, so till now, police was seen by the people because in India, people, like people worship authority. So they’re always saw police as the saviors and things like that. And now, they are understanding that police are just instruments of the ruling power to just further their institutions of hierarchy. It is not actually for the citizens…. police are not there for the citizens to actually like fight for their rights. And that particular sentiment is also seeping in because now we could see the farmers being stopped by the police and they were firing tear gas and water cannons are these farmers who are like, really old farmers like they are 70 or 80 years old people who are actually coming in the winter, and they’re firing water cannons at them. Which is like equivalent to like throwing knives at these people because it at six degrees, seven degrees, like water literally, it literally kills you if you get hit by it. And yeah, so the notion of police brutality as an issue has also been brought up due to this protest.
WG: Thank you for speaking on that. So we have just two more questions. You’ve touched on a lot of the topics that we were interested in hearing about and also like, way more and thank you so much for doing that. You’ve talked a lot about how like how the government operates the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But would you talk a little bit about this philosophy known as HINDUTVA? And can you give a sketch of like what this is? And it’s also been said that the HINDUTVA movement is like the largest fascist street movement in the world. And I’m curious if this resonates with you.
PJP: Yeah, you can call it the largest, fascist street movement in the world, because it is happening in India. Because this is such a huge country with huge population. Anything that happens here will be like, the biggest thing.
BOG: That’s a good point.
PJP: Yeah, because the the when the farmer protests happened on November 26, there was a call for an All India strike, which was participated by almost 250 million people, which automatically made it the largest in world history, because anything in India will become the largest in the world. So, I don’t doubt that point at all.
So, why, what it is is actually? You have to understand what India what the word India is. India, the word comes from the word… so you have might have heard of the Indus Valley Civilization of is the Mohenjo-daro was a city. So there is this river called the Indus. And the land beyond Indus was called by Europeans as India. That’s it. There is nothing more to the word India than that. So the name of the country came from the river, the land beyond the river. And the people who were living in that land. Which was beyond the river was called as Hindu. Hinduism is not a religion, per se, it is just what you call a group of people who lived in a particular locality. So in India, when you actually look at it, Hinduism is not a religion or monocultural religion anyway. It is like a mixture of multiple cultures, multiple faiths, there are different kinds of traditions, which are completely in opposition to each other. And India’s political or geographically united place never existed in the greater scheme. It was like a lot of different smaller countries. And when the Mughals came, they try to unify it. Even before that there has been moments in Indian history when there has been large empires ruled over India. But even though there were these empires, the local cultures of the country… so in China, you might it is a little bit different, like Chinese culture is… even though there there are diversity and variations in it, it is mostly similar. India is more like Europe, the states of India are like the countries of Europe. The languages are completely different. So, if I go from Kerala to the next neighboring state, I wouldn’t understand anything that they say, because the language is completely different, the culture is completely different.
So, when the nationalistic struggle against the Britishers came, you needed like…. these people don’t have a common culture, they don’t have a common religion, they don’t have a common, let’s say, language. They don’t even have a common sense of identity, so that they can rally against a common enemy. So the Britishers adopted this policy of dividing the Hindus, pitting the Hindus against Muslims and stuff like that. So to create unity, or create a sense of unity, or sense of identity, a nationalistic identity. The founder of RSS, who is Savarkar. He created this notion that, okay, let us create this new sense of identity and name Hindu, which is like the people who actually inhibit this locality, it has nothing to do with the religion, per se, it is just the people in the locality. And then he thought that okay, to make the Unity more foundational, because the big since there was a huge sectarian divide, because of religion, caste, language and everything. He used the spirituality of Hinduism the Hindu philosophy, to give it a much more stronger backbone, so that people will fit in together. And people only rally against it, against a common enemy if you identify an enemy, and instead of identifying the British as the enemy, he identify the Muslims as the enemy.
You might know that the person who assassinated Gandhi, Mohondas Karamcha Gandhi (‘Mahatma’ Gandhi), he was actually an RSS ideologues, he was a part of RSS, who believed that because Gandhi actually spread the idea of unity and harmony between the religions, and the RSS society of hindutva is completely against it. They want the the entire community who calls themselves as Hindus, even though it includes Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and all the other, like even Sihks. They have to separate them from the Muslims because as far as they’re concerned the Muslims are invaders who came and ruined our culture. So it’s like, exactly like Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy. And actually, there is much more similarity between the two because the Aryan race of Hitler and the dominant caste group of India, they actually hail from the same part, the Central Asia. That’s why there’s a similarity between the languages: Sanskrit and German.
They were like, okay, so they exactly copied the ideology that Hitler used in Germany, and they changed it to suit the Indian needs. That’s what they did. And for that, they had to brutalize or demonize the community, the Muslim community. Then what they needed was they had to create this narrative of a history of a golden age of India, in which India was like the golden bird of the world and we had solutions for everything, we were technologically superior we were like an egalitarian society, heaven on earth. And then this Muslim invaders came, and they brought their religion, they ruined our culture, they broke our temples, they broke our gods, disrespect our gods. And we are suffering because of that. And it was the Muslims who brought the Britishers in, and like everything that is faulty with the country is because of the Muslims and you have to, you should never accept the Muslims as European, they can live here, but they have to accept their status as secondary citizens exactly what was subjected to the Jews. Even though there has not been concentration camps that has been set in there are retention camps.
The CAA law was actually something similar with and there is this entire procedure of NRC the National Register for Citizens, which is trying to create a new document and in which the citizens have to prove that they are Indian. So the entire anti-CAA protest was not just against the citizenship Amendment Act, it was against this implementation of this national interest for citizenship, the entire process. And since there was a huge backlash against it, it has still been kept on hold. Even though the government is telling that they will implement it, they will implement it. I think if the government starts to implement it, there will be huge, much bigger protests, which will happen along with the farmers protest right now. So the government is like… and since the government is facing elections, state government elections in the next month, they won’t do anything to damage the reputation, right. So everything in India, everything this party that in this is basically that. So they want power, so that they can just sell India to the corporations, and they need this hindutva philosophy, to make sure that the people will always worship the established hierarchy and won’t question anything. So this is how the dynamics of Indian nation as a whole right now works.
BOG: I guess a final question that we had would be you had touched on the conflict in Kashmir, and like obviously, it’s a very complicated place on the border of two competing states. But we would love to hear about what had happened in Kashmir and a little more detail from your perspective and if you could sort of explain the situation and what to your knowledge the state of the people of Kashmir is at the moment in terms of military occupation.
PJP: So okay, before telling that I should mention that okay. Kashmir is not an issue that I am directly involved with. So, everything that I know is actually what I have heard from my friends who are actually from Kashmir. The articles that I read and from the activist who actually traveled. With respect to Kashmir, what is happening is that, so, there has a lot of history to Kashmir like it started with the independence and why Kashmir became part of India and not of Pakistan. So, Kashmir is not just one place. So it is Jammu and Kashmir. So there’s like the entire state has three major parts one is Leh, one is Kashmir and one is Jammu. Of which Lehs is Buddhists dominated, Jammu is Hindu dominated, and Kashmir is Muslim dominated. So what happened is… so even though the people of Kashmir were mostly Muslim, the king of Kashmir at that time was a Hindu, and then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, he was a Kashmiri pundit. So Kashmir was his home state. So he actually really wanted Kashmir to be part of India. So now the history becomes a little bit like untrustworthy, even I don’t exactly know what happened. So there were this… I think Pakistan instigated some militancy in the region, which forced the king of Kashmir to agree to a suit to India.
And there was something called an instrument of accession, which actually granted Kashmir special privileges. So the one thing which most people don’t know is that these special privileges is not just unique to Kashmir in the Indian context, this is the same kind of privileges are provided to other states in India, like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and there has been calls for independence and autonomy by these states too. And the Indian Government has been trying to like what do you say to suppress the revolts the government has been declaring martial law, there has been cases of the Indian Army brutalizing the people and killing them, overreaching of authority. The issue is that with the current government, Kashmir is like a issue of pride and national pride. Because citizens government is not able to deliver on any of the promises on economy, on employment, Social Welfare or any of these things.
The government needs some particular narratives or particular incidents or events that we can highlight as their strength. Because this government has come because of the charisma of this one Iron Man: Narendra Modi, who can destroy every obstacles in his path. And who can decide to take actions completely independently without worrying about this corrupt politicians and stuff. So big neutral narrative, they have to always show strength. And the easiest way to show spine is Kashmir, because they just toppled the state government with just one act and they just arrested everyone and they arrested the chief minister of that state and put them on house arrest for a year. They arrested all the prominent leaders in that state and put them on house arrest. Every single activists who tried to raise voice against Kashmir was arrested and new laws were passed just before the Kashmir state autonomy was snatched out. There was this loss called UAP. Which is like Prevention of atrocity and NSA – National Security Act. So what these acts enable the government is they can arrest anyone, just on suspicion, and they don’t have to produce them on court for two years. So they passed these laws just before this Kashmir Act was passed, so that any opposition against this would be come met with complete incarceration. Then what they did was they completely cut off internet for a year, so that anything that is happening in Kashmir will never be like communicated to the mainland. So only the government and journalists and the government employees will be able to devise narratives and create stories. In the news when the Kashmir the article 35 was abolished the Indian propaganda news media, there were new celebrations in Kashmir, of people eating biryani and ham like playing with firecrackers and celebrating because their years of oppression are over.
And what is actually happening in Kashmir on the ground, the truth was actually revealed when certain activists travel to Kashmir and interacted with the people. So the military have complete autonomy, they can do anything they want, like the martial law is declared. It’s called AFSPA – the Armed Forces special power act, they can even kill people on suspicion. They have complete immunity against any atrocities that they commit. So, the problem with such an a process of water in the Indian sea from a personal perspective, I think that the people anywhere in the world should have the autonomy to decide what what kind of government they want. And it was fine till the Indian government had the Constitution because these are also citizens of India under the Indian law, and the constitution grant them the political rights they can they have the right to choose the government and what the central government did was toppling the democratically elected government who had legitimate power or the people gave them the legitimate power to rule them. So that was completely illegal and talk about illegality in India right now, everything whether something is legal or illegal is decided by the Supreme Court of India. And the RSS/ BJP government has destroyed the institutions in India in such a way that like the judiciary is also playing the same even as the government and in most of the cases where the judiciary knows that if they pass a judgment in fair play in favor of the government, the people who protest the judiciary conveniently decides to not take the case. They will just hold the case for years. So the then the Jammu Kashmir state was actually bifurcated into two different territories, that act was disputed in the Supreme Court.
There is a case in Supreme Court, when the government imposed internet a ban in Jammu and Kashmir, there was a case like the lawyers brought it up telling that it is a violation of human rights. That the people are not being given access to internet facilities. Because the entire businesses of Kashmir, they were completely cut off to the mainland, online, this everything just went down. What happened then was the government will tell that okay, we will need like two months to analyze the situation. And the court, we just grant them the two months. And again, the government after that, filed extension, and this court will just grant. So the court is just playing the same tune as the government. So in the farmers protests, something really interesting happened. The Supreme Court seeing that the farmers are coming to Delhi and the protest is not stopping, decided to intervene and tell that, “okay, we are ordering the government to stay the law for one and a half years.” So the law cannot be implemented for one and a half years. The farmers are like, “okay, we don’t care what the Supreme Court tells, we want the law to be abolished. We won’t take anything else.” So the it’s like the people is literally losing faith in the institutions of judiciary, and the executive and legislature. The people are taking matters into our own hands. That is action. And I think that that’s a huge change when people are realizing that they are the true sovereign, that the power actually resides in them to decide their own fate and their own lives. I think that is democracy.
WG: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for going into that… and I think that that people are really, you know, starting to feel their own power and starting to see the states, whatever state that they live in is as sort of the complete Sham that it is. And I think that you know, yeah, we can look to the farmers protest, you know, as the largest mass mobilization, like it is in India. So it’s going to be the largest one, maybe. But as like one of the most robust mass movements in sort of recorded history in a way too. That was all the questions that we had. Thank you so, so, so much for your words and your energy, it was just a delight to get to talk with you a little bit and get to hear the things that you’re working on and the things that you’re thinking about. Would you give, if listeners are interested in reading some of your writing? Do you have a website? Is there a place that people can go to, to read your articles and to read your work?
PJP: I can actually provide you links of my articles, I usually publish my writings in like different journals. So I can give you a list of all the articles that I have. So you can share them with the listeners. I will also like to thank you for giving me this opportunity. And I hope that I did justice to these movements in communicating what is actually happening on the ground, because I know that I couldn’t cover everything, maybe I might have left out the really important parts. And I might have, like, oversimplified many stuff, or might have gotten things completely wrong. But to what I know, I think, yeah, I really think that it is important for the international community to at least get a sense of what is happening in India right now. And like, and these are models that should be learned from and replicated elsewhere.
WG: Absolutely, yeah. Family, like, you did I think amazing justice to a very complex situation and topic and complex place. So, I hope that listeners will hear your words and go out and do their own research too, because so many people and I will link to some books and some articles too. If people are interested in learning about like anti-caste stuff a little bit more, if people are interested in learning about the languages, the bioregion, the the politics of the place, we will provide some links as well. And like as many voices as possible speaking about India, and the Indian diaspora and stuff that people face, you know, I think is best. So thank you so much. Do you have any recommendations? I remember you were talking about sort of anti-caste hip hop. Do you have any recommendations for like, songs that we could play on the show?
PJP: Yeah, I can give you links to that, like most of them are new too. Excellent. Yeah. I will mail you the links along with the audio clip. So that is actually a very new development that happened, like the hip hop was used by the anti-caste activists as a way of expressing themselves. That is completely, like mimicking what was happening in US. So I think so like, it’s it’s amazing that like, the people from who are oppressed, they are looking outside for signs to learn from for lessons to learn from. And I think till now, like we have been looking elsewhere to learn from it. I think it’s about time that others look at us.
WG: Yes. Yes, yes. Absolutely. Thank you so much family.
BOG: This is great speaking with you. Let’s do it again soon.
WG: Let’s do it again. Yeah, same here. Okay. Yeah, take care. Stay healthy.
BOG: Ciao. Yeah,
PJP: I think it would be morning there, right. Yeah. Have a nice day.
This week, we’re airing a conversation recorded by Eda Levinson on September 12th, 2002, with political prisoner Veronza Bowers, Jr. It originally aired on Youth Speaks Out on KZYX in Modesto County, California, and we re-air this with permission of Veronza and the current producer of the Youth Speaks Out. The show continues to produce youth focused and progressive content available at YouthSpeaksOut.net.
For the hour, you’ll hear former Black Panther Party member Veronza describe to the audience in his own words his upbringing, his experiences of racism, his time in prison, his case, his views on the burgeoning War on Terror, and the situation of political prisoners in the US. You’ll also hear some recordings of Veronza playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute. Veronza was convicted of the death of a US Park Ranger on the word of two prison informants who were paid and received reduced sentences. Veronza continues to claim his innocence and he has been illegally held beyond his mandatory release date of June 21, 2005, based on political pressure by GW Bush appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers, the widow of the dead ranger and the Fraternal Order of Police.
The conversation is very much a product of it’s time, for instance the discussion of the implications of the one year anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sadly there is a timelessness in their discussion of the brutal war against the people of Afghanistan as well as the continued incarceration of Veronza, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, alongside many other long term, leftist and liberation political prisoners held by the US government. Currently, the Biden administration is discussing some sort of pull out of US troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in the last year we’ve seen the deaths due to medical neglect and decades of incarceration for political prisoners like Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, deaths right after release like Delbert Africa, and the endangering of aging political prisoners in their 70’s and 80’s who’ve had bouts with covid and cancers inside like Sundiata Acoli, Dr Mutulu Shakur and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Veronza was successfully treated for lymphoma and pneumonia in 2017 and 2018, having hip surgery in 2019 but his death by incarceration only looms a larger possibility day by day.
He is currently being held at FCI Butner in North Carolina and can be written at:
Veronza Bowers, Jr. ##35316-136 FCI Butner Medium II P.O. Box 1500 Butner, NC 27509
You can learn more about his case as well as see pictures of Veronza and loved ones, read his writings, poetry and interviews at Veronza.Org. Some of this is also available by viewing his page on PrisonerSolidarity.Com and you can read many articles about his situation on the SFBayView.com.
Other Veronza Audio Recordings
These are a collection of audio recordings of spoken word and musical pieces featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr, political prisoner since 1974 and former Black Panther Party member in the US. These are being posted with the permission of Veronza and we hope to have them more available for streaming in the future.
Healing Heart is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Birthing Song is performed by Veronza Bowers, Jr, on shatuhachi flute with overlaid ocean sounds
Song for Alexis is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
To Touch the Spirit is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Eulogy was recorded by Veronza “Butch” Bowers, Jr, in memory of his Mama’s passing. As Veronza was unable to participate in his mothers funeral so with the allowance of the then-Warden at USP Coleman, alongside comrades Rev. “One Love” and another comrade, Siakatame “Mountain Heart” Hafoka, the three speak their goodbyes to Dorothy Woodruff and Veronza performs poetry and music in his mother’s memory and family.
Sean Swain talks about the FBI
BadNews #44 Out!
The A-Radio Network has released the 44th monthly episode of our Angry Voices From Around The World, English-language podcast. Check it out! Updates from Bristol & the wider UK, Mare Liberum about resisting deadly anti-refugee practices in the Mediterranean, hunger striking anarchists and prisoners of the Uprising in Chile, interview with a Myanmar Food Not Bombs activist, the student movement and trial of the anarchist Vaggelis Stathopoulos from Greece, anti-dam resistance in Aragon (Spain), and notes on repression and struggle against the state in Greece!
All Out for Mumia’s Birthday
It’s notable also, that Mumia Abu-Jamal, prolific author and journalist, former Black Panther and political prisoner in Pennsylvania is in grave danger. He’s been in prison since conviction for the 1981 death of a cop in Philly based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony. From a blood infusion, he contracted hepatitis-c which was eventually treated and cured due to his struggle on behalf of so many other prisoners, that condition gave Mumia cirrhosis of the liver and damaged eye sight. He developed congestive heart disease from his time inside and this year Mumia has contracted covid-19 and is fighting for his life in an emergency heart surgery. The white supremacist police state failed at assassinating Mumia, they failed at executing him and now they’re killing him by medical malfeasance and mistreatment.
It is long past time for Mumia to be free. You can join Mumia’s friends and family for his 67th birthday on April 24th by taking to the streets to exert pressure to releaes Mumia so he can get the medical treatment he needs and end this charade of injustice. There are events popping up around the world for the 23rd through the 25th. You can find some info at FreeMumia.Com
New bilingual website for Fidencio Aldama Pérez
There is a now a bilingual support site for Fidencio Aldama Pérez, a Yaqui de-colonial activist in so-called Mexico who is serving a bullshit 15.5 year sentence on a murder he did not commit. You can hear a little in our Mexico interview from last year, there’s a brief intro post at IGD about the case and the site, and you can learn more at FidencioAldama.org/en/
. … . ..
To Touch The Spirit by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [01:02:42]
Song For Alexis by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:22:50]
Healing Heart by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:37:59]
. … . ..
The following transcription was done by Dan Roberts, producer of Youth Speaks Out when the interview was conducted through today. More of their episodes, including politically progressive ones like this, can be found at YouthSpeaksOut.Net. This transcript, alongside a further dialogue with Veronza by Dan can be found in the mid-May/June 2003 issue of The New Settler Interview #136, archived online by Freedom Archives
Eda Levenson: For four years I have been in contact with a man who has spent the last thirty-two years of his life in prison. His name is Veronza Bowers, Jr. Before his incarceration, he was a member of the Black Panther Party during the Sixties. At twenty-six years old he was convicted of the murder of a Park Ranger—although the legitimacy of his trial is questionable, due to the lack of physical evidence and the reliability of the key witnesses. To this day, Veronza claims his innocence, and that the FBI framed him. He is currently being held in a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Last June, my family and I visited Veronza. This is the first time that any of us, including my father, who has known him for fifteen years, has seen Veronza in person. During our visit I brought up the idea of doing a telephone interview. After months of negotiation, and being denied once by the assistant warden of the prison, I was finally granted permission to interview Veronza over the phone. On September 11th of 2002,1 conducted the interview.
Because of his circumstances we could only talk in fifteen minute segments, with fifteen minute breaks in between each one.
Veronza Bowers, Jr.: First, I want to thank you, Eda, and Dan, and everyone at the radio station KZYX and all your listeners. This is such a great opportunity, because I recognize the fact that I don’t exist in a vacuum, and at the same time, I understand that it is a tremendous responsibility because people listen to what people say sometime and our voices have been silent for a long, long time.
So this is great opportunity, and I really do appreciate this opportunity, and I’ll try to let it flow. Secondly, you might hear a lot of noise in the background. But it’s not really noise: it’s other human beings, just like I’m situated, and they are getting ready to go and eat, and it might sound like feeding time at the Serengeti Plains.
Eda: I’m going to ask you to talk a bit about your personal background—where you grew up and went to school.
VBJr: I’ve given some thought about my childhood growing up. One thing about prison: it gives you an opportunity if you take it, an opportunity to do a lot of reflecting upon your past.
I grew up in a little town in Oklahoma named McAlester—that’s where they have a big penitentiary—I grew up in a very, very small, tight-knit community, at a time when things were a lot different. And reflecting on that, I grew up primarily with the influence of women. Because my father was away in the Army. My father, Veronza, he did a twenty-five years in the U.S. Army. So my mother, Dorothy …
I’m glad you asked this question be-cause in order to understand anything, you have to look at it in its totality, it’s connections—it’s historical connections, if you will. And growing up in this little town, surrounded by women as I was—because my grandmother had six children: five of them were women, and one son (we called him ‘Uncle Sonny). And so, the little neighborhood that I grew up in, all Black neighborhood, we didn’t have any experience with racism directly.
Or even with all the conflicts that result from that.
Looking back on it, you think about poverty and being poor and all of those things: but back then, it was just always a very, very good feeling. My great grand-mother, Granny, she was my first real teacher of Our Story (it’s called ‘history’). She was seven years old when slavery was abolished. She taught me a lot of things about that past. So my youth was very rich in tradition and stories. And I remember my grandmother (everybody called her ‘Bucker’, but I called her ‘Grandma’). She was like the backbone of the Johnson/Larkins clan. And her word was law.
Growing up as a little boy like that, I learned to really listen to and appreciate the old people and what they had to say. Because they always were talking about “Life”—you know. That was a great joy for me to be able to sit around and listen to all those kinds of things.
And Mama was always ‘Mama’. With my father being away all the time, she gave so much strength and understanding of the world around me.
So, growing up in McAlester, Oklahoma—I was born in 1946. [the sound of many men in the background grows louder].… Eda, listen to this: you hear them call chow? It will get quiet in a minute so I won’t have to speak so loud and so fast, maybe… I’ve really come to the realization that when you start talking about the past, there’s so much that happened, so many memorable experiences that you could wander on and on and on.
EL: Would you talk a little bit about what it was like to be segregated and discriminated against.
VBJr: Eda, I never understood what segregation meant and what racism meant, and I never heard the word ‘nigger’ because, as I say, I grew up in a Black community where there was a lot of love and concern about each other.
I went to a little small school, named L’Ouverture High—but it was for from the first to the twelfth grade. We had to catch a bus and cross a little canal to hop on the bus to go way, way across town. And there was a little school right up the street about two and a half blocks on a dirt road: it was a very nice red brick school. I come to find out later, it was a grade school to jr. high. That’s where white people went to school. And I used to walk past it sometime and look at it and wonder: What kind of teaching goes on in there that’s so much different?
Later on in life I found out L’Ouverture High was named after Toussamt L’Ouverture, the great liberator down there in Haiti. They’d never taught us anything about that.
But that little town, as small as it was, we thought it was normal. Like when we wanted to go to the movie theater. Back then you paid five or ten cents to go to the theater.
They had three movie theaters in the whole town: the News, the Chief, and the Okla. The News was the one where we could go to. I always wondered why we couldn’t go to the other ones, but I didn’t ever question that. And when we did go, we had to sit up in the balcony; and it was only on Saturday or Sunday that we could go.
One time they had this movie called The Ten Commandments—I remember just like I’m looking at it. They closed the theater and let all the Black communities in. Third ward, Fourth ward and Fifth ward (our communities were called ‘wards’).
That was for two weeks. And once that was over and they figured everybody had seen The Ten Commandments that were going to see it, they closed the movie theater down for another two weeks and fumigated the place, because we had been there.
Those experiences as a little boy: I would look at them then and wondering what all this was about. They still had the water fountains with signs: one water fountain said ‘Colored’ and the other water fountain said ‘White’.
I remember on a sunny day, my father picked me up (because I’m too small to step on the water pedal and drink at the same time) so he picked me up and the water is coming up, and I look over at the other water fountain—I could read too, by then—and at the other water fountain a little white boy’s father had him picked up. I’m looking at this water, and the water is sparkling because the sun is shining through the window, and when my father set me down I said, “Daddy, how come my water says ‘Colored’ and the other water says ‘White’ and they look both the same?
And I remember my father lifting me and he said, “Boy, you’ll understand those things later on in life.”
Those are the kind of little experiences, the accumulation of which, along with the lessons of my grandmother, that leads a little young mind like I had into questioning a lot of things that you see around you.
EL: At what point did you become aware that because you were Black you were being treated differently, and when did you realize you wanted to make a difference, and you wanted that to stop?
VBJr: You know, Eda, I don’t think it was a particular point. It was just an accumulation of my experiences growing up, particularly in McAlester Oklahoma, and then later on in Omaha, Nebraska. I think it was just the accumulation, starting back from my real education by my great grandmother, and then watching the women with the Welfare and all of that kind of stuff going on in the neighborhood.
Then one day they came up with the desegregation of schools (I think that was 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court) and I starting going to that little school two and a half blocks up the way, and that’s when I was called (to my knowledge) ‘nigger’ for the first time.
Those kinds of things growing up. Becoming part of a wrestling team and going away to college. Being in the military, the US Navy for a short stint and going overseas in the Mediterranean. And along about that time (by then I guess I’m about twenty years old or so), Brother Malcolm X came on the scene with the Nation of Islam and that whole movement toward recognizing what they called ‘Negroes’ at that time, as Black people, people of African descent—that we were actually somebody. That we were human beings and not just the doormat of the world.
And just listening—because I’ve always been a listener. I was raised that way: to listen to the old people, to listen to adults when they talk. And I took that listening and listened to a lot of things. And not just listened with my ears, but with my heart and feeling. And as I grew up and started looking around me, and I see what is considered poverty everywhere and that it is such a pervasive thing. Then going overseas and seeing how people live differently; coming back and seeing how we still are at the bottom of the pecking order, so to speak—the doormat of the world—and then hearing people like Malcolm talk about (and even the Honorable Elijah Mohammed) talk about “do for self, and pride in your own self.”
And then the pride I was given by my grandmother, Bucker. You know, Eda, if I could, I would like to just give you a little idea through a poem that I wrote to my grandmother. She died in 1983. I used to write a lot of poetry and I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. So I wrote this poem and sent it to my sister and asked her to read the poem—(‘To Grandma,’ that’s the name of it)—and place it on her chest, place it over her heart. I haven’t written any poetry since. The poem goes like this:
Grandma the silence of your heart brings pain to all who love you
Could I say goodbye to you in tears. I would
But somehow I know you would only smile and say
‘Boy, wipe your eyes. I’m free at last. I’m free at last
Thank God, Almighty. I’m free at last.’
So, Grandma, I’ll remember you in your strength
You taught me to stand tall with pride and dignity
Although I live in shadow
At this moment in time
Grant me but the memory of you
Your face, your smile
In darkness then I live without fear
Lost though I may be for a while
Wonderful memories of you sustain me
And I know the meaning of hope
Reflections of you spring from my heart
To liberate me from the chains of men
Grandma, could I say goodbye to you in tears I would
But never can I say goodbye to all that you were
To all that you gave me
Grandma, may you rest in peace
And you know, I wrote that to say that not just Grandma, but the people of the community. You’ve got to have a real appreciation for the strength of a people who were able to withstand the discrimination, the exploitation, the oppression — that life — and still be able to love each other and hope for a better day.
I learned listening to people like Malcolm, and to my own heart, that not only should you hope for a better day, but you also have to struggle for it. So at one point in my life when I heard about the Black Panther Party being formed out in Oakland, California; and I read their platform and program, I said to myself: Man, maybe here we can do something to better the condition of our people.
And then “Our People” expanded to be people who were living in a bad way. And so, I joined the Black Panther Party.
EL: What did the Black Panther Party offer you? And what did you want to accomplish by getting involved?
VBJr: The Black Panther Party became a nation-wide organization and we established chapters for the state and branches in the city all across the country where there were major (what people called) “ghettos”. We began to address some of the issues of our communities—the same ones that I’d seen growing up as a little boy.
Hunger. We established programs like free breakfasts for school children— programs for any child that wanted to eat a healthy meal before they went to school. They could stop by at any of the places where we had that established, and have a good, healthy and wholesome breakfast.
Because it’s a hard thing to sit in school, trying to learn, and your stomach is growling, and you hear more of your stomach than you do the teacher.
So those kinds of issues.
Or, like the old ladies would be going to the store and a youngster would come by and snatch her pocketbook: we addressed those kind of issues. Even recruited some of those little youngsters to escort the ladies to the store and not be worried about being molested.
Those types of positive programs in the community—doing for self—became like a vehicle. And I was just one of the many young men and women who were filled with a vision and a burning desire and a hope and a dream for a better future for our people. And so, we embarked upon that journey, not knowing where it would end. Or if it would end. But we knew we had to do something.
—Not to mention the police brutality that was raging from coast to coast—and still is from coast to coast. We began to wrestle a lot of those issues, and unfortunately (and history will bear it out) we were maligned and attacked.
And my incarceration is a direct result of that. Not because of something I have done, but because of my (what they call or what is called) “political activity.” So that makes me one of the long held political prisoners in this country. And I am just one of many – and it is hard for me to just speak about myself. But because of the nature of this interview, I know that’s necessary. But I can’t be understood apart from a People and a Movement.
Because in reality, as a political prisoner—and that’s known throughout the world: that we were representatives of a people and we were accused of trying to overthrow the government and all kinds of foolishness. Because that was never the case. We were trying to make a better life for our own people. And for that—history will also absolve us on this—a war was declared against us, and many of us linger in prison now. For decades. I’m almost in my thirtieth year, and I’m still struggling.
EL: Would you talk about what happened during your original case. What happened during that time and how old you were when you were convicted.
VBJr: I had never really been in trouble with the law, other than selling Black Panther newspapers and a lot of little miscellaneous charges they were using to try to disrupt the flow of activity.
So, I was twenty-six when I got convicted of first degree murder of a National Parks Service ranger. It was a very strange thing, because not ever having to have an experience with the law and justice and all that kind of stuff, sitting there in the courtroom, clearly things were running pretty ragged. —And I had some very good defense lawyers, and I could see they were doing their best, but I also could see that apparently the deck was stacked.
I’m going to try to make it real brief and straight to the point: they had two main witnesses: one guy that I knew well (and I knew his brother even better) and another guy I had never met, although I knew his brother. The first guy, the main witness, testified that on the night of this killing that I was with him—which was a lie. And that I was the trigger man—which was a lie. And in exchange for his lie, and his testimony (he had already been convicted of an unrelated bank robbery and had received twelve years) he wound up doing two years at some camp and received $10,000 for his testimony.
The other witness —who I had never laid eyes on in my life— he had three cases pending in court for Possession, for Sale and Distribution of heroin. And in exchange for his testimony against me(he corroborated the main witness’s testimony—with another lie—by saying that I came and told him everything that happened.) In exchange for that lie, the State’s cases for possession and sale of heroin were dismissed and he received $10,000. Plus, we had a 1973 Grand Prix that was taken, and it was awarded to him. He was rewarded with our own Grand Prix for his duplicity.
Those two testimonies, with no physical evidence, sealed my fate. And I’ve languished in prison ever since, unable to unravel that strange web that was weaved.
Weaved at a time in history, Eda, when (as it is generally known, now) there was a program called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that was designed to disrupt and neutralize the Black Liberation Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement. Many of us were victims of that program set up by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. And the web was spun so tight, that we haven’t been able to unravel it except in a couple of cases like Geronimo Pratt out in California. After twenty-seven years, they finally proved it was a wrong conviction and he was released after twenty-seven years and awarded something like four and a half million dollars. That amounts to about fifty dollars a day for your life, and that is not a fair exchange.
And there was one other brother out of the Panther Party named Dhroba Moore. After nineteen years of wrongful conviction by the state of New York, he was awarded some-odd millions of dollars. But that is in exchange for a life, and our lives are just as precious as anybody else’s. We are political prisoners, and there are many others that are still lingering in prison in New York state and California and Maryland, and Mumia up there on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Leonard Peltier over there in Leavenworth. And we just continue to try to do the best we can. To try to live and do the best we can.
My case has so many clouds on it, and it’s been through many procedures; but it can summed up pretty quickly this way: I was arrested on state charges—a number of them and they were all dis-missed, not only because of the Search Warrant. —The judge ruled the Search Warrant was illegal, because there was no Probable Cause or anything. Back in those days there was a lot of fishing expeditions going on.
And then, after the state charges were dismissed (each of them carried Five-to-Life in the state of California: three or four different charges) the Feds stepped in and charged me with the murder of this National Parks Service ranger. And because there was no physical evidence linking me to the crime itself, the government chose to use two people who already had trouble with the law (one of them, I thought was a friend of mine; and like I said, this other guy that I didn’t know) and in exchange for their testimony and all the rewards that they got, the Feds secured a conviction.
I appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, and of course, got no relief. And I haven’t got any relief up until this day. Including when I go to the Parole Commission.
One of the things they require is that you show remorse for the crime that you committed, and from my first time going there in 1983 up until the present, I’ve always maintained my innocence. I explained to the commissioners on more than one occasion that that places me in a dilemma, because it is one thing to have remorse and sorrow for something that you’ve done, but it’s an impossibility to have remorse and sorrow for some-thing that you haven’t done.
And I have made it very clear to them that I did feel sorrow during my trial when I heard the ranger’s wife testify about her husband: I could tell that she loved him. The taking of human life is something, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the same time, I’ve expressed over and over again that my life, in essence, was taken without remorse for a crime I had nothing to do with.
So that’s the thing I have had to deal with, coming into prison as a young man—by the time I got to Atlanta, I was just turning twenty-seven and I’ve had all those birthdays in between. But basically, I became eligible for parole in 1983. I was sentenced to a life sentence, but in 1983 I became eligible for the first time for parole, and at that parole hearing they told me to continue to a full consideration hearing, which meant 1993. I took my court appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit and actually won the Appeal in the 9th Circuit, and that took ten years and the court ordered the Parole Commission to recompute my parole release date, give me an immediate new hearing, absent any erroneous and false information about an alleged assault that never took place—it took place, but I wasn’t involved in it.
And the Commission went through the motion of giving me a new hearing, and then said “Continued until 2/3rds Expiration,” which is 2004. Since ’83, I’ve gone to the Parole Board in ’91, again in ’93, ’95, ’98, 2000, (I haven’t gone in 2002 yet). And in 1993, for the first time, the Parole Board examiners recognized that something was wrong, and they attempted to give me a Parole Release date: they recommended I be released on December 7th, 1998 and they awarded me fifty-seven months for superior program achievement because there have been a lot of things I’ve done positive since I’ve been locked up. And it went to Washington and they took that back. And again in 1995, the Commissioners attempted to give me a 1998 release date, and again, it was taken back in Washington.
I appealed that decision, and thanks to the effort and support from numerous friends, too many to mention, I was able to get some very good legal representation. And now, we have a case in court down in Florida and it’s right up to the ending point, whereas if the judge rules in my favor, I will get immediate release. If they rule not in my favor, then no doubt I’ll be released in 2004—if life lasts and death passes.
But it’s been an on-going struggle with the Parole Commission.
And I have to mention this, Eda: it’s not just me. Particularly those who are considered political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abul-Jamal in state prison, and many up in the state of New York—all over the country, about one hundred and fifty of us. That’s the treatment that we received: we received long, lengthy sentences; in many cases, wrongfully convicted.
And in spite of the fact that we have pretty much been what they call “model prisoners” because we are who we are, we do what we do—in spite of all of that, we keep getting denied parole over and over again. Like Leonard just got denied parole on July 9th, this year. And Mumia got his case overturned in so far as the death penalty phase, and they’re trying to re-sentence him either to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
But thanks to the many people whose eyes are now being opened, we’re getting a lot of support. Because in the old days, there was very, very little support. We were pretty much going on our own. Thanks to the untiring efforts of many people, I was able to get some very good legal representation. But in spite of that legal representation, the Parole Board has dug its heels in and has refused to honor its own rules, regulations and guidelines, as well as the law of the land.
And so we have a case in court that addresses all those issues and it will be decided in the not so distance future. Maybe within a month or two. Hopefully, less than that. Obviously, I’m eligible to go every two years. So, I’m waiting.
—Because when I went in the year 2000, represented by my attorneys, the examiner told me he recommended I be released on Sept 12, 2001. And as witness our interview right now, this is 2002 and it’s September 11th, and I still haven’t been released. It’s a lot of things that don’t meet the eye. But at any rate, we continue to struggle.
EL: How do you maintain the positive spirit—and sanity—after being in prison so long?
VBJr: That’s a question I’m often asked by a lot of the youngsters that are around today—when I look around prison today (because I was one of the younger guys in prison back in those days in Maximum Security penitentiaries). And so I meet a lot of young guys—young, very, very young with more time sentence-wise than they have been on the earth. Like twenty-two or twenty-three years old with Life sentences and forty-five years, and they often ask me: “Man, how do you do all of that time?” That’s the question. But when you say how? Obviously, you just continue breathing—you know what I mean. But it’s also (in my particular case) because I’ve always recognized that myself, as individual, I’m just a part, a small part, of the suffering of a People.
And so even though I’ve suffered the pain and despair of being separated from my loved ones—my mama: she’s eighty-six years old now and in bad health; and my daughter, when I left her, she was five years old: now she’s just had her thirty-sixth birthday—and married with two children, my grandkids. So that pain of that type of separation—longing to be with your family—can never go away. It’s that 24/7 type of pain.
But I also recognize, when I look back and look at the suffering that Granny and Grandma and all the other grannies and grandmas and mommas and daddies and children who have been living lives that could be so much better (you know) if things had changed to some degree or another, that that individual pain and suffering, is long-standing; and so, my suffering becomes very little when you com-pare it, or make the connection between that type of suffering and the suffering that I endure as an individual.
And I’m surely not saying that because I understand a few things that I didn’t understand when I was a little boy—if that makes it any easier. And of course with friends (and I could just name a whole list of friends and supporters who’ve given me courage, who’ve given me hope—guys in prison too but a lot of people who I have been in contact with over the years who have given unconditional love and support and friendship.
And then when you look at the struggle of peoples throughout the world, you recognize that you have to live life somewhere.
And I recognize that. That whether I am in prison or out in the so-called “Free World’ that I have to live my life somewhere. And I’ve determined long ago that I want to live it the best I can, and as fully as I can, wherever I am and wherever I find myself.
In those Maximum Security penitentiaries back in the old days, you used to do a lot of ‘hard time’, they called it; it reminds me of a poem: “Without the cold and disillusion of winter, there can never be the warmth and splendor of spring. Calamity has hardened me and turned my mind into steel.” It’s like the life of a willow tree: you learn to bend when you have to and weather the storm.
So people have told me: “Man, you seem to have found a way to maintain your sanity and dignity.” And I remember reading in one of Nelson Mandela’s books (you know, he did twenty-seven years over there in South Africa, he and his comrades)—and he said one of the hardest things that they found doing that type of incarceration and misery, was how not to adjust. That you maintain your dignity and self-respect, and honesty in dealing with people; and you care for people.
I think I’ve done that because that’s the way I was raised. And so when people look and say, “You’re a strong man,” it’s not because I’m a strong man but because I was raised by strong women and a strong people. And I’m just blessed and thankful that some of those characteristics of those people I just mentioned found a way into my own heart. I just do the best I can, because I love people, and I love life, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have good people in my life.
Like a master flute maker I know named Monty, and an eloquent lady, Kayo, and your sister, Anna. Those in the Jericho Movement: Safiya and Paulette and Herman. My sisters Cynthia, Rhonda, Voni & Joi, Betty, Jean Marie, Ovedia, Debbie, Debb. Mamma Mae, her beautiful daughter Theriseta. My attorneys: Neoma Kenwood, who fought single-handedly for ten years, Mr. Curtis Crawford, Mr. Benjamin Malcolm (may they rest in peace), Edward Hammock & Donnna Sullivan. John Neptune & the world of Shakuhachi. Maynard Garlield —the list goes on to where you just can’t name all of the people who have influenced your life, and you accept that blessing as it comes.
One thing that I forgot to mention is that I had tried to escape in Lompoc in 1979, and I was shot and apprehended, as was my comrade.
Archie Fire Lame Deer sent a couple of warriors over and invited us into a sweat lodge ceremony of Native Americans, and from that ceremony, that day—it was a healing ceremony—I’ve adopted those ways and I walk that path of what is called the ‘Red Road’. And that sweat lodge, the ceremonies—the discipline it takes and the connection with all living things—has made a significant change in my life.
—Including Shakuhachi: the blowing, the using of the breath, connecting with your inner self in meditation. Those kind of things, and healthy exercise and trying to eat the best you can, you can still smile in spite of the harshness of the environment. Environments do make a difference, but I don’t think they are the determining factor in how you view the world and how you respond to that world.
Because today is a lot different than it was in the old days. And particularly, Eda, this institution where I am—Coleman, Florida. It’s the first time (after twenty-six years) that I came to a lower-level security-type institution. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I’ve never experienced an Administration like this one. Here, because of the broad vision of the warden and his administration, we’re allowed to have quite a few programs that are meaningful. Programs in the sense that the guys can contribute something back to society. We have a little program we call YES—Youth Encouraging Support—wherein we are able to make contact through our program with young kids who they call ‘trouble kids’, but they really are kids in trouble. Kids from the ages eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen who have been in trouble with the law. We’re able to sit with them in the visiting room and interact and exchange a lot of ideas and feelings and thoughts—to try to make a difference.
We have a program called ‘Non-Violence Training Outreach’ an out-reach program teaching guys self-respect and character building. We have a Fine Arts Department where we put on plays that are slices of life. These types of programs, because of the way things are going to-day, have been not allowed in many many places. So I think we’re like pioneering and laying the groundwork for the future. Because today, there are so many young guys coming into prison, many of them without a GED, or communication skills. And we’re able to make a difference. And that is very meaningful to me as an individual.
So even though prison is a place where no one wants to be; because we are here, some will make a positive use of their years of confinement—and some don’t. And its real painful and terrible to see those that don’t, who often times, through no fault of their own.
At any rate, all the little things combined together to either make you into a better human being, or break you and make you unrecognizable as a member of the human family when you are released.
EL: Today marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and undocumented workers. Could you describe what happened inside the prison that day, and how it has changed since September 11th.
VBJr: On that particular day, it was probably like everywhere else. What happened was something that we couldn’t have even believed to be possible— the loss of that many lives all at once. And not just the lives that were lost immediately, but the families, the things and everyone that was affected by it.
There is one guy here, Siokatame Hafoka from the island of Tonga—that’s way in the middle of the Pacific—he’s a member of our Sweat Lodge ceremony. He’s a big gentle giant—I mean a huge guy—and he’s a gentleman and has a heart as big as he is. Big. And this guy (there are about 1700 people here in this institution) was so affected (as many people were), he fasted every single Tuesday, until today—till yesterday—which made it a whole year of fasting—without food or water. Just to remember that day and remember the spirit of what had happened.
I know that in other institutions, there was lockdown; meaning everybody was locked into their cells. But this place is a lot different than a lot of other places and we didn’t directly experience that—although a few guys got locked up because of their religious affiliations with Islam.
And you hear a diversity of attitudes. But I myself recognize that not only were a lot of innocent lives lost here, but that there have been repercussions on the people of Afghanistan and that people throughout the world have been effected by what happened that day. I think it was something like 2,824 odd people have been identified through body parts that have been found. In my own mind and heart that was a great tragedy. And like in all wars of all times, war is a mutual slaughter of men and women, and those kinds of things they can only sadden the heart.
EL: If there was one thing that you could change in this world what would it be?
VBJr: I would love to be able to change the relations among men—when I say “men” I’m also including women. Humankind. Because we talk about war, poverty, hunger and misery on the one hand, but it’s opposite always exists. But it evolves down to the relationships. Relationships to me are very, very important, and if there is to be a world free of sexism and fascism and ageism and all those other “isms”and schisms that divides humankind—not to mention racism, which is an artificial division of human being based upon skin color or positions and stations of life…
If we could go back in time to that time of what is called “primitive communal society”, but really was a society when there was a lot of collective and mutual cooperation in order to survive against the beasts of prey and the forces of nature that man didn’t understand; if things could be ordered in such a way (not ordered in a sense of a dictatorial thing) but ordered by mutual respect. ..
Like the way I grew up in a community. The elders had respect, not because they had authority being imposed upon those who gave the respect, but because that respect was well-earned and understood. And that’s the type of respect that even great presidents and generals and foreign ministers don’t have because those things are not something that can be forced upon a people.
So if those relations change—relations to the point of production—then we could have a much better world where a woman would never know what it is to have to give up her body in prostitution, or people would never know what it was like to grow up in slavery, a beast of burden. That’s what I would hope for my children and grandchildren and the children after them, and yours, and those yet to be born. And it could be so, but that requires a lot of struggle and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of willingness of people to understand that unless we cooperate as a human species, then we are going to perish.
EL: Is there some advice you would like to tell youth in America today?
VBJr: Yeah. It’s been said (and it’s not rhetorical) that the youth are like the sunshine at eight or nine o’clock in the morning—bright, full of beauty and vigor. And they will visit places where those of my generation and other generations can’t even dream of—yourself included. You have places to go that can only be dreamed of. So, the youth have a great responsibility—like all generations that come after the generation that’s currently struggling to make a better world.
The youth have to take a sober look at that. Not in the sense of foregoing all the joys of life that come with youth, but also recognizing that youth, just like old age, is a passing thing, and it’s here now and it will be gone.
So we listen to our past—reflecting on our past—and plan for the future and live in the moment. . . Often time we see that youth have been criminalized as a generation. They still are our hopes, because they are going to be the future leaders of tomorrow. And so, that responsibility that they have, that has been squarely laid on their shoulder, it will be a heavy burden. But I have full confidence in our youth—the hip-hop generation.
Every generation has its ways. The youth of today are very much in tune with life and the world around them. You hear it in the music, you hear it in the rap music; you see it in their dance, the way they walk and talk. It’s just a matter of being willing to listen, as we all have problems listening when we are young. I pin my hopes upon the youth.
And when I see these youngsters come into the programs I was telling you about: we’ll be out in the visiting room talking and you look in their eyes, and sometimes you see despair, and sometimes a few sparks flare up, and your heart hurts inside, because without some changes, then you know a lot of people will live half-butchered lives, who could otherwise live meaningful lives.
—Not just in the sense of being professional people like doctors and lawyers, but just contributing positive things to their own communities, and to their own families. That’s where it starts at, with the family. And it goes out from there to the community and to the city and the state and the nation. And the world.
EL: What are your own future plans when you finally get out in the year 2004
VBJr: If that happens—and like my mama always say: “If life lasts and death passes.” In other words, if I keep breathing and I am fortunate enough to be re-leased in 2004 (or if I win my case down here in the court that I have going now, and am released immediately). I have a lot of plans.
One is to try to keep breathing—living. And I would really like to be able to open up a Meditation Healing clinic. Over the years I’ve studied and learned and practiced acupressure and hands-on-healing and tsubo therapy, and a variety of healing arts including blowing shakuhachi as a means of self-meditation healing, and have gained some insights and rewards doing all of that stuff to relieve pain.
Pain is a thing people don’t have to necessarily live with—or “learn to live with” as the medical profession often says. But pain can be relieved with the touch of a finger or the sound of a note, or the sound of a voice or a birdsong.
So I would like to try my best to open up a clinic of that nature and train some youngsters in that art of caring, and try to make a little difference in some lives, and take it from there . . . (Loud commotion-sounds like. “Closed, closed, prepare/or. . .] That’s a big announcement.
Anyway, I really have to say that I’m very happy that my mother (who is 86 years old), and my daughter Veronica, even though they suffered so much pain in my absence, that they’ve understood that I had to follow my dream for a better world for US all. Because at one time, I don’t think they understood. But they do now. And those kind of things help one situated like myself, to continue. Those are the kinds of things that mean so much. And I want to thank you, and I want to thank Dan, and I want to thank all of the people at KZYX and all of you listeners who put up with all of my ramblings. Obviously, I definitely want to thank all of the people who have believed in me and have supported me. And I can only hope that that will continue, and that somehow in the future, that my own life—what I have left of it—will be used in a way that is befitting that type of unconditional love and support. This call is from a federal prison. This is a prepaid call. This call is from . . . Veronza
The conference was titled Fitting In and Sticking Out – Queer [In]Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion. From the panel’s description for the conference:
This panel brings together 4 local (Asheville, NC) and regional groups working at different intersections of queer community support. We will learn about the work these groups do, the particular issues that affect southern queers, the changes in visibility and inclusion for queer community, and the building of larger coalitions of liberation. Representatives from four organizations will be part of the panel:
Youth OUTright (YO) is the only nonprofit whose mission is to support LGBTQIA+ youth from ages 11-20 in western North Carolina. Learn more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a nonprofit aimed at working towards LGBTQ liberation in the south. Find out more about their work on their website, and support them financially here.
Tranzmission Prison Project (TPP) is a prison abolition grassroots organization that provides literature and resources to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. Learn more about their work on their website and donate here.
Pansy Collective is a decentralized, DIY, queer, music and arts collective that created Pansy Fest, an annual queer music festival showcasing LGBTQ musicians from the south and rural areas, prioritizing reparations for QTBIPOC artists and community members, and community education and organizing around the principles of autonomy, mutual aid, antifascism, love, and liberation for all. Learn more about their work on their website, or donate here.
Phone Zap for Florida Prisoners in Mandatory Toxic Evacuation Site
Over 2,000 prisoners in Florida are trapped inside an evacuation zone less than a mile from a retention pond that is in imminent danger of failing, sending 800 million gallons of acidic radioactive waste water flooding over the local area. According to Deputies, the local jail has no plans or intentions to evacuate prisoners.
Please CALL AND SHARE NOW demanding the safe evacuation of all prisoners at the Manatee County Jail.
Scott: Okay, so welcome everyone. This is our the final event of the first day of the 2021 Queer Studies conference. So happy to see you all here, we made it through the day. This is a really special panel because we’ve invited representatives of local organizations and groups that do work in the community in the region to help queer community – and we’ll hear more about the work that they do specifically – but this is in the spirit of the conference, which is going back to its founding, conceived as a way of like having academics and organizers and activists meet to talk about queer issues. So this is special to highlight the work that queer folks are doing on the ground. So I’m gonna be moderating, my name is Scott. And I’m going to now turn it over to each of our panelists to introduce themselves, the group that they represent, and give a brief overview of the work that the group does in the community and beyond, and then we’ll get into more involved discussion from there. I can name y’all, or if someone just wants to go, go ahead. If the spirit is calling you…
Leroy: Alright, I will jump in here so that then I can sit back and listen to all the rest of you. Hello, I’m glad y’all are all here. My name is Leroy Kite, I use they/them pronouns. I’m here with Tranzmission Prison Project, we are a queer and trans powered abolitionist books -to-prisoners group that serves the entire country…with a few exceptions of states that have banned us. And we are a sister organization, a sibling organization with Asheville Prison Books, which just serves general population prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina. For those of you that are Asheville specific, we are located out of the back of Downtown Books and News, you can drop by and see us.
And, yeah, we’ve been around for like a little over 20 years somehow? So a very long time. It’s kind of a mystery to me, how that has really sustained this long. I’ve been involved for about seven years, and there is some historical memory losses, there’s just been a lot of turnover over those two decades. Basically, we are still in the process of reconnecting with the origins of how this group began and trying to call up those long lost elders of this project so that we can kind of seam some of the pieces together of what has changed from then and now.
But that pretty much gets up to date. The arc of our work is we receive requests from prisoners around the country, across the LGBTQIA and two spirit spectrum, and mail them back books that they are asking for whether that is romance, thriller, sci-fi, erotica. You know, we try to highlight getting people materials that a lot of other organizations are either unwilling or under-equipped to send to those populations, particularly when it comes to things that regard people’s sexual and gender autonomy. That’s a area that it can be very, very hard to find free resources from organizations that are willing to send that to people. So that’s kind of one gap that we see ourselves filling that’s kind of unique. And with that, I’ll pass it off to whoever wants it. Thanks.
Adrian: I can pop in. So my name is Adrian, I use they/she and he pronouns. I’m the executive director of Youth OUTright WNC. We are a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQIA young folks between the ages of 11 and 20, which kind of led up to 24 during COVID. Thanks for dropping our link, Shawn. So our programs focus in on racial justice, gender justice, and sex and relationship education. So right now we’re running programs Tuesday through Thursday, we have chat rooms on Tuesday and Thursdays that are held on Discord. And we have a video call on Wednesdays that run 6 to 8pm. And that’s those programs are run by Brian Thompson, our youth programs manager, and they’ve been doing a great job there.
We also do some work supporting the GSA clubs across the state of North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with GSA’s, those are “Gender and Sexuality Alliances”, formerly known as “Gay Straight Alliances”, and those clubs really vary between social support and activist groups. But we support them wherever they’re at and with whatever they have self determined to be their goals, right? So if they’re focused on building community with each other, that’s awesome, we’ll talk to them about that if they’re looking at changing policy at their school, also awesome. And we’ll talk about that we try to meet them with wherever they’re at and with what their goals are.
Self determination is really important to our work. Over the past few years, we’ve been really incorporating youth leadership, all the way up through the board level. And so that’s been really important to us as we progress. We like to create professional opportunities for young people as well. We had some part time staff positions last year as educators and facilitators, there’ll be more opportunities for that later this year. And we’ve provided stipends for peer education around sex ed, or mental health, different things like that. In 2019, we held a GSA summit, we hope to do that again. We were a little shaken by the by the pandemic, as most folks were, so we’ve had to postpone that but we’re looking at a virtual version soon. Keep an eye out for that.
And beyond the direct Youth Services, the GSA work, we also do advocacy around policy. So we’ve been working with Campaign for Southern Equality around the Department of Public Instruction’s name policy within the virtual learning system. We were seeing last year that a lot of trans young people were being outed just by the virtual learning system, and so we now do have a preferred name field that will be integrated into Buncombe County and implementation is happening now.
We work with Equality North Carolina on things like non-discrimination ordinances here in Asheville and surrounding counties. And we’re also working right now to put together a storytelling campaign around the anti-trans sports bill that just hit earlier this week. So we’re working with some trans athletes at a couple different high schools to uplift their stories, and really raise awareness to that.
One last little plug I’ll make is for our racial justice and gender justice panels, which happened once a month on our Instagram Live, and that Space A Digital Place to Talk About Race, and TYME (Trans Youth Movement and Education). Those panels are led by young college and high school trans folks digging in deeper to racial and gender justice. And I’ll stop taking up space.
Monse: I’m happy to go next. Hi, everyone, my name is Monse, I use they or she pronouns, and I’m here at repping SONG, or Southerners On New Ground. We are a 28 year old LGBTQ base-building membership organization. We are definitely unapologetically abolitionists, Black and Brown, and all things queer and magic. So we have chapters all across the Southeast. We have chapters in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, in Louisiana. We currently don’t have an Asheville chapter but we have lots of Asheville members who, in the past couple of years, have been engaged in our bailout action that we have done for Mother’s Day where we have raised money to pay the bails of Black mothers and caregivers who are in jail due to bail. And this was definitely to bring awareness to the issue of money bail used as a racist, classist practice in not only Buncombe County, but all across the south, where folks are held pretrial. So before their conviction, and if they don’t have the money to pay to get out, they have to stay in jail and await their court date when people who do have access to wealth or money can wait for their court date from the comfort of their own home. So further criminalizing folks who are already targets of the state.
So SONG was founded in 1993 by three Black lesbians and three white lesbians, and was definitely founded as a way to kind of infiltrate into the queer and gay movement in the moment, and really saying that money bail, that criminalization, that all these things are people facing oppression, like, is the gay issue. So we definitely wanted to make space for folks who are Black and Brown, who are facing oppression and criminalization every day, to be able to be in these spaces and organize and bring their full selves and not having to be closeted.
So SONG is an LGBTQ feminist organization, with core Black leadership. And we believe that until all of us are free, none of us are free. So that’s why we’re really wanting to move this work. Currently, we have campaigns to end money bail, so really connecting to our direct action to bail Black mamas and caregivers out of jail, and bring more awareness to the issue to end money bail and pretrial detention.
We also have been doing research around campaigns to end the collaboration with local law enforcement and ICE – so Immigration and Customs Enforcement – because we know that police and ICE are the same beast under the prison industrial complex. But we do a lot of training, a lot of just skilling-up and building community across the South because we know that the South is where all the shit goes down, and where all our people are. Where we have roots, where we have community, and we want to be able to grow and build and organize in the South. So that’s a little bit about SONG. And hopefully, you’ll get to hear more about the work that we do. But thank you all so much for having us.
Beck: Thanks Monse. I’m Beck, I used they/them pronouns and I’m here as the representative of Pansy Collective. And so Pansy Collective is a DIY decentralized queer LGBTQIA arts and music collective. Our biggest thing that we do is Pansy Fest, and it kind of started out as like, a queer visibility type of thing. Like the punk scene in the South and in neighboring regions around Asheville has been pretty bro heavy, pretty homophobic, racist, and we’re trying to make space that was an anti-racist, anti-homophobic space in the punk community. And then from that, it kind of started to build into more like Southern and rural coalition building and then specifically around moving from like, visibility to BIPOC reparations. So the first fest we actually worked with SONG’s Black Mama Bailout, and that was like the first beneficiary we had, and TPP was another one! But it’s like, it’s so cool that we’re all here right now.
But yeah, it was kind of a way to engage like queer folks into to put a public space that wasn’t some liberal kind of, I don’t know, upitty Asheville…you know? [laughs] People who are living here, you know. But yeah, so it was it was cool to like, create a space where we felt okay around each other, where we can have hard conversations. And also like, where we could bring some of the anarchist principles and things like that, in kind of a more tangible way into the punk scene. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve got all these lyrics that are like, ‘fuck this, like, hate cops’”, follow that. But also, do you know about prison books? Do you want to sign up? You know about Black Mama Bailout? So you know, having people tabeling there at all of our shows and events was really big. Making sure we have Narcan, you know, bringing in harm reduction into the scene…just kind of trying to, like, the spaces that we have idealistically in our head as like “a queer scene”, just trying to make it happen to the best of our ability.
And so we’ve been around since 2016? 2017! And it was such a bummer last year: we were like getting ready for a really cool event with HOT BITS. It was going to be like a really cool coalition building, with sex workers rights, and having a really cool, I don’t know, sex positive space, which was like something new for Pansy. And it kind of went all down because of COVID, of course. But we’re still meeting together! We’re still organizing, we, you know, try to coalition build where we can. It’s not looking like events around music and art right now. It’s more like, “Okay, let’s do a noise demo at the jail with Charlotte Uprising.” How can we be outside and distance and really do the work that we believe in, which is like mutual aid, it’s love, it’s like anti-prison, you know, it’s not queer assimilationist, right? So it hasn’t been so much “festy”, like punk stuff going on, but we’re still here doing it. And yeah, super stoked to be here. Thanks for having us.
Scott: Thanks, everyone, for introducing yourselves and the groups and giving an overview. It’s really interesting too, to see where these local regional groups have intersected and work together. My first question beyond the introduction is specifically linking to Asheville, Western North Carolina, a larger region, the South, what do you think Southern queers need? And how does your work try to meet those needs? And you can, you know, get as specific to our town as you want, or think more regionally.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. I think one of the things pre-pandemic, when events were happening, was just having a queer focused event that you didn’t have to pay for. That it was like, sliding scale and all of the money, it wasn’t, you know, going to this model of building up, it was just going to go into the hands of folks who need it. The fact that you didn’t have to show up and pay. I feel like everything else in this area in those spaces, too, it’s like “pay to play” situation. And it’s not really inviting, you know, from a class perspective, but also just like…those spaces aren’t necessarily where, like, I want to be anyways, right? Like I want to be in a space where it doesn’t matter how I’m dressed, how I look, if I can afford it. So just creating those spaces, I think.
And something that I just think of, like, resources and education and coalition building is something…there’s like, there’s a lot going on in the South, trying to make it happen, but it’s much more of an uphill battle, I think, compared to West Coast, East Coast, right? And so, you know, tabling events and stuff like that, but also like teachings, where we learn how to do jail support, or, you know, like fun stuff too! Like, do you wanna learn how to screenprint? Just having this open space, you don’t have to pay to get in. And you don’t have to know everybody, you can just come in, and people are gonna be like, “Hey, what’s up? Welcome to the teach-in.” And you’re like, already welcome at the door. And a place where people can share ideas, and it’s not coming from this hierarchical like, “I’m going to educate everybody in this space.” It’s “everybody has something they can bring to it.” So I think that’s one part that Pansy Collective comes from, for sure.
Scott: Adrian, that made me think, like, what Beck was saying about kind of the educational aspect and like, maybe that fits in the mission of Youth OUTright, connecting to young people?
Adrian: Yeah, a couple of things were coming up for me when Beck was sharing. The first thing that came up for me around education and teach-ins’s is: I feel like young people really need us adults to step up and educate ourselves. Frankly. You know, I think that our young people are often in the position either at school or with their families, where they have to educate adults around them about sex and gender, or racial justice, or any number of social movements that are happening in our intersectional community, right? And so something that breaks my heart, but also makes me really proud is watching these young people really articulately say what they need to say, to these adults, right? It’s impressive, it’s great. And also, come on adults, what are we doing? And so you know, where that brings in Youth OUTright is we’re in the process of developing relationships with Buncombe County schools to provide training to all of their counselors and social workers, right? From the adults, providing them training about how to support young people, and we may compensate young people to record their experiences or, you know, provide some amount of input in there. But we don’t want them to have to expend that emotional labor and potentially re-traumatize themselves in entering a space where they have to teach their teacher, right?
And so I think that there’s a big need for adult allies to step up into this place of peer educator for, you know, the people in their community and having these conversations. Of the folks who do want to engage in those conversations, we’re hosting every third Monday, a space called Continuum, which is an intergenerational conversation for supporting specifically gender and sexual minority young people. And so that’s a space where people can engage in conversation with the community there. But you know, we obviously have a little bit more of a focus on young people, right?
So part of our work last summer, we did a direct action training at Carrier Park. And so we brought together a small cohort of young people. And we were socially distanced and talked about what power mapping looks like, talked about some of the changes they want to see in the community, and they identified the Trans Panic Defense, right? They said “the Trans Panic Defense is something that we think is abhorrent and needs to go away”. And that’s super valid. They also picked a hard one. But you know, I think that having spaces like that, centering the young people’s vision, is really what they’re asking for. And again, I’ll go back to self determination, right? And I think that when we allow young people to set the waypoint, we realize that a lot more as possible, right? As adults, I think we get a little bit salty, we get a little bit jaded and cynical, “we’ll never get there”, right? So I think young people need us to tap into that imagination, and tap into that vision and support that, right? As well as stepping up to educate ourselves and understand that like, I’m still learning new pronouns, y’all! Like I’m still…there’s a lot going on, and culture is always changing. So I think they need humility from us, right? They need us to recognize that, to disrupt that adultism in ourselves, right? There’s always this dominant cultural belief that adults know what’s best for young people. They might know what’s best for us! Let’s look at our planet and what the young environmental activists are saying, right? There’s so many ways to look at this and where young people really have the answers. So I think we need to take a seat and listen, and then start making some moves from there.
Scott: Thinking of like, you know, identify problems that they want to attack made me think also about the kind of particular terrain that we have in the South. Given the kind of like, Republican legislative power and the way that they can kind of steamroll anti-trans, anti-gay policies, and I don’t know if maybe that’s something that Monse, you could talk about, in terms of the work that SONG is doing? Because it’s like SONG is as a Southern thing and there’s like, simultaneously kind of invisiblization of queerness in the South, but also this huge social war being waged by the state against queer people in the South. So yeah, that was a way to start to throw it to you. If you have some ideas.
Monse: For sure, I can definitely speak on that a little bit. Yeah, and I would say, like, the South is a region of both great despair and historical trauma, but also great organized resistance and resilience and magic. Like, we really organized in this region because we want to build up. And because we are a part of a long legacy of organizers and cultural workers, freedom fighters who have been committed to the South, and this is a place where folks live, where folks build their lives, where they love, where they organize, and continue to build their families, regardless of all the things and history that has. And I really would want to highlight that resistance piece, because there has been so much resistance that has happened in the South. And I think that’s the beauty of it. I think that folks, we’re naming, like, we organize in the South, and we have that kind of like a southern hospitality where we can find our people, where we can create the potlucks and invite folks in and like, making sure that our neighbors have what they need, that our community is good. And we are doing mutual aid, and we are doing those things. And there’s also like all those things against us, too.
But I think that organizing in the South, to me, is about kind of like that resilience that you’re like, “I’m not leaving this place, because this is where my legacy is, my history is.” And a lot of the times that negative and racist rhetoric is highlighted in the South, but I think, like, right alongside with it is where we grow, like where we are making everything out of nothing. And we are doing that pushback, and we are seeing some wins. And I think we have been able to see some wins, like even specifically throughout this year. Like folks organizing and doing the uprisings. Like we saw so many wins from that, like, where folks, like we are literally, everyone was talking about “what does it mean to defund the police? Like, what does it mean to believe in a world where we don’t have policing, where we don’t have jails and prisons?” And I think that that is because of years and years worth of organizing. It didn’t happen just out of nothing, and like folks rioted and stood up for what they believed in, just like, overnight. I think it has been years of oppression and resilience that ignited folks to continue that conversation. I think that the work is not by any means done yet. But definitely we’re making, we’re seeing the fruits of those commitments and those sacrifices happen. I think it’s up to us here in the South to continue to say like, “Fuck that” – [smiles] I’m gunna cuss on here – but like, “Fuck that, like, we’re gonna keep fighting and we’re gonna keep doing what our ancestors wanted us to do and what rightfully we have to do”.
So yeah, and I think in Asheville there are so many nonprofits, and like so many folks already organizing, and there is a great need for folks to organize. And we definitely saw that even locally in Asheville, when, like, we need to hold local and county government accountable. Like we saw that in the summer, we saw demands of Black and Brown organizers being ignored. We saw that there is a big need, like, we can’t, in Asheville at least, we can’t hide behind liberal organizing and expect things to to move. I think that we have to continue to push and continue to make space for Black and Brown organizers and for demands to to move, so that we can organize and build the world we want to live in, even here, on a local level. And I think that what SONG has to offer, at least here in Asheville, is like training, skill-up opportunities. Like, this 28 year old legacy of folks who have been fighting and organizing in the South because the South is their home, and definitely connection to those folks all across the south, and years of like trans and queer abolitionist organizing. So that’s what I have to say,
Scott: Thanks. And then, you know, building on that idea of like, how the queer communities in the South can get invisiblized in the racist and bigoted ideas of the South, I was gonna use that to sort of transition to the work that you’re doing Leroy with Tranzmission Prison Project, because also a community that gets invisiblized, is the people who are incarcerated, and specifically people like trans and queer people who are incarcerated. And I don’t know if you have something to say about that in terms of like, the way that you’re working with them to get their voices out or get their needs met. Because that’s also a site of like, tremendous resistance, building off what Monse was saying.
Leroy: Yeah, I think that there’s both so much potential here, and in full transparency, so much room for TPP to continue growing in ways that move beyond where the reality of, you know, most of our work to date has, even as an abolitionist group, typically shown up as service provision. Where we’re not as involved on the policy end of things, or able to keep up with all of the specifics of what is happening in this state in the South that specifically targeting these queer and trans prisoners. We, you know, have occasionally popped in to, like, offer a statement here or there about things that have happened on the federal level. Like in 2018 there was this change to the Transgender Offender Manual from the Bureau of Prisons, that really fucked over, altered, the safety of trans folks in prison across the country.
But as far as specific to the South, I personally don’t feel like I am informed enough to be able to say where, you know, we have as a project not yet had the capacity to orient towards how can we show up more and do more coalition building and outreach beyond our little silo of what this project has been maintaining over the years. But I think that that’s the real growth edge for us right now. And where the conversation has really been building over the last several years as we’ve gone from, basically like myself, and like one other person, when I first joined this organization, we sort of went through a period of so much burnout, and turnover seven years ago that the last seven years have been really just building back up our own base and trying to just keep up with the mail. We have, like, 100 to 150 pieces of mail on average that we get a month.
And so we’ve sort of been stretching to make space to have conversations within our group that are more than just “how do we sustain our own morale in this work?” And how do we actually network with some of these bigger, juicy or more challenging questions of “what does it mean to be abolitionists doing books to prisoners work”, and I think that networking with other folks in the south like SONG, like Pansy Collective, like Youth OUTright, is really where the work is headed for us. So that we can kind of use the best of what everyone else is already tapped into, on sometimes more of the policy end of things, sometimes more the grassroots end of things, but just where people have their ear to the ground in places that we don’t always.
I will say, as I kind of alluded to, I think in my first answer – and maybe this is foreshadowing for like another question that I don’t know, it still coming up – about like challenges of working in the South. But I think that the irony is that for longer than I have been involved with this project, North Carolina specifically has been one of the states that has banned us, Tranzmission Prison Project specifically, from sending mail in. And we have – for the cop who may be sitting in this room right now, this is the time where I’m gonna say “Fuck you, and you can leave this call” – but, you know, we we have done what we’ve needed to do to get folks books that they’ve requested. Like, we still get requests all the time from prisoners in North Carolina, and we’ve basically just found some ways to fly a little lower on the radar when mailing those books back to people. But things like we can’t use our letterhead, we don’t use our mailing address when we return those. And so there’s room for us to potentially challenge that.
I mean, in the last seven years, again, as a group we have not had the capacity to necessarily even investigate, like, is this really still a thing? Like, could we run a campaign to get this overturned? And so that’s where having a real upsurge of interest in prison abolition in the last year has been starting to put some more wheels under what feels possible for us, in terms of maybe doing some bigger work, then has really just been on the table for us. Just trying to like keep up with the need that has been there, you know, not not to fall into like, capitalist supply demand lingo, but I mean the reality is like, the prison system is a part of capitalism and we are often in our own constraints that are placed upon us by it by the nature of the prison industrial complex.
So there’s this real tension between like, “how do we ensure that our baseline commitment to just getting people the books that they are asking for is being met”, while also being like “is that in and of itself, abolitionist”. We really situate what we’re doing as centering people’s humanity, and really just restoring that sense of dignity and autonomy to people, that having information is something that we believe everyone should have. Having access to pleasure is something that everyone should have a way to expand their own minds beyond, you know, what’s often a cell smaller than a lot of people’s bathrooms. How do we, again, just connect the dots of the bigger constellation of “how do we keep these prisons from becoming kinder and friendlier to trans people” – whether that’s in the South or around the whole rest of the country – towards “how do we really shrink the system into nonexistence”?
Scott: Yeah, so jumping off of the obstacle point, that was a question that I had prepared. And I’m thinking also of just specifying a little bit because it’s come up – and this is the place we’re in, like, you know, post or not post pandemic, but in the middle of the pandemic – the pandemic hit, right, and like changed the terrain for organizing for everyone. So that, obviously, is an obstacle. I’d be interested to hear how a little more about how have you dealt with that. And also, potentially, on the plus side, the way the uprisings, rebellions last year affected the kind of energy and work that you’re doing, because that’s also something you’ve all been mentioning, in terms of the hearing more about abolition. So obstacles and but also like the recent sort of things that have occurred that have changed the nature of organizing.
Monse: I’m happy to kick it off. I think that yeah, definitely, what has been shared is definitely what we’ve been experiencing too, within SONG. I think even the election was a huge obstacle. I think that that brought up so, so many conversations, but also like, we were able to run a Free the Vote program within SONG in particular parts of the South, where we were doing voter registration and in the jails, for folks who are incarcerated, trying to get absentee ballots. And then we also face that same like, trying to mail stuff in trying to get to talk to people, it was those same things. So I definitely resonate with that, like trying to navigate and even just reach our people who are inside, making sure that they know that we’re out here and just trying to communicate with them has been a barrier put up by the state. And I think it’s very intentional, you know, they don’t want us to talk to them, they don’t want them to talk to us. So I would say I definitely resonated with that.
And I think even, yeah COVID in itself changed so many of the conditions which our folks were living in, and organizing in too. And we as SONG were definitely trying to figure out like, “is this the moment like to free them all? Like, are we trying to push for that, like, get everyone out of jail?” Like, of course they’re not following the CDC guidelines. Of course, they don’t care about the people who are in there. And really trying to see like, what ways that we could turn up on the state, and also keep our people safe from from COVID. We definitely started to do car caravan actions, like honk-ins at the jails all across the South, making sure like, hey, like we haven’t forgotten about y’all out here. And trying to do that. Folks in Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter were definitely turning up and putting pressure so folks could be released. Like, if they didn’t have to be there – of course, nobody has to be there – but like, if they were their pretrial, that they should be free.
So definitely trying to push on the campaign’s that we were already moving, in relationships to like, we need everyone out of that jail because it’s just COVID in there. So yeah, I think that even our tactics of organizing changed so much, and finding our people, and being able to do direct actions…we were thinking, a lot of like, “what does it mean to continue to turn up on the state and keep our people safe from getting sick?” Because we know that historically, our people don’t have access to health care, like our people don’t trust the health care systems, at all, and in fact, have been victims of violence by the healthcare system. So all the things, all the things. And I think, even just locally, some obstacles that have been coming up is also the fast-paced gentrification here in Asheville. Black and Brown folks, especially queer trans folks, are being pushed out of Asheville, so, so quickly, so so rapidly. And I think that that’s also something that my brain goes to is like, how are we like turning up against all these developers who are trying to take our towns, trying to take our people’s homes? And how are we creating space for folks to continue to live here, and work here and organize here in Asheville? It’s something that I would love to get into with any of y’all. But yeah, some of the obstacles.
Adrian: Thanks for sharing all of that Monse, a lot of that really resonates. And I think that, you know, with what’s coming up for me and the young folks that I work with, is I think that we’ve really shifted into more of a survival mode, right? You know, sex ed, and sexual violence prevention work was really integral to our programs before the pandemic, like every single meeting we’d talk about consent. Once we hit quarantine the kids were like, “We just need to hang out with each other, like, we need a little bit less educational stuff.” And we stepped back a little bit because they didn’t have the capacity to keep learning and keep learning. And they were also doing virtual school, right? I think the capacity for everybody, not just young people, just really got lowered.
And, you know, I have been fielding a lot more crisis calls over the past year. We have young people who are stuck at home in transphobic families, right, abusive families. And so, you know, we move from potentially thinking about targeting a trans inclusive policy at school to, oh, I might get kicked out of my home, right? And so I think that’s one of the challenges for us, is that while we try to build power within the youth community, so many of our young folks are just dealing with a different level of marginalization, by the pandemic, right?
One thing I’d point to is our GSA clubs, right? Like we before the pandemic, there were upwards of 35 clubs across North Carolina. Now we’re under 25. And a lot of those 25 are folks who have registered, but like, their club isn’t really meeting right now, or maybe they don’t have the tools to meet digitally, or, you know, they’re running their meeting but they’re only getting 5 of the 20 and 30 people that used to be coming to their meeting, right? So there’s this really big challenge in reconnecting with all of our young folks that have been a part of this network, and making sure they’re alright.
We launched a mutual aid fund over the past year, to support young folks 24 and under who were economically impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve distributed about $14,000 now, mostly to young folks who are housing insecure, and a good number of them are already homeless. And so, you know, in my conversations with the McKinney Vento liaisons who work within the Buncombe County school district and support the homeless youth there, they told me that they expected to see the homeless youth population balloon, maybe even double, over the course of the pandemic due to just the economic impacts, right. And the family impacts again, putting, you know, trans people back at home in spaces that aren’t safe for them.
So, all of those things are hard, but I do want to add a silver lining that has come out of some of these pivots. You know, we moved to digital programming pretty much within a week, right? It was pretty quick. But what was really awesome about it was a lot of our young people took a lot of initiative, right? They’re like, “Oh, discord, yeah, I can make a server, I can make you a robot. I can make you all these things.” And It was incredible and inspiring to see these young people step up to the plate…wow, a sports metaphor, how butch? Okay, that was weird. That doesn’t happen a lot. So, you know, these young people really stepped up to support each other and advocate for themselves, right? That’s been really incredible. And the other thing that comes from that, in the beginning of the pandemic our groups were smaller, but they were rural people, they were POC folks, and so we were actually getting to these young people who really need our services a little bit more. Not to say that young folks don’t need our services – we’re here for them as well – but there tend to be more GSAs within Buncombe County, there tend to be more supportive adults within Buncombe County. And so to see young people from Candler, Lake Lure, Cherokee, these other places, checking into our call, that’s a huge impact for me and for I think the folks in the community.
I think that moving out of the pandemic, as we slowly start to, we’re going to be keeping a lot of these digital organizing strategies that we’ve developed, and need to find this balance between, “okay, we’ve created access to our world programs, and there’s this thing that’s lacking from our in person programs that we need to bring back”. But I tell you, I’m not going to remove all the digital programs, because I’m like having those rural kids around.
Leroy: I can jump back in. Yeah, I’m really feeling the themes of COVID challenges plus, like weird COVID boons that no one necessarily saw coming. Yeah, at the very start of the pandemic, we definitely went into rapid response mode in a way that like, isn’t very typical for us. And again, wasn’t necessarily sustainable for us, but I think, as Monse already touched on – everyone’s familiar with this, I think, on the global level, but for those of us, especially with our finger on the pulse of what life inside of prisons is like, it was just like watching the storm rolling in times 1000 – it was just like the contagion of this is going to kill so many people so rapidly. And there was also this potential, like no one had really ever seen before, for these mass releases.
And so again, even though that’s not something that we, as a group, necessarily had a lot of power to help push for – I mean, I think individuals within our group are kind of like tapped into other campaigns outside of the work of TPP – but what we did do was reformatted a pamphlet that was a collaboration between Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross and Asheville Prison Books, which was basically just an informational two to four pager about what is COVID, and how can you keep yourself safe? And obviously, there were ways we were like ”We don’t know if people are going to be able to apply this.” I mean, obviously, there’s no PPE, there certainly was no PPE inside of prisons at the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried if people were even going to have soap. Hand sanitizer was like, not allowed for a lot of folks because of alcohol. But we were like, “We don’t even know what people are being told at this point, so it seems like the least we could do to just share what we were hearing, as we were hearing it on the outside, with those that we love on the inside,” to just say like, “this is what we know so far about this virus. And this is what we are hearing about what you can do to keep yourself safe as much as possible. And we realized that a lot of this may not be possible for y’all.”
The flip side of what those pamphlets offered was a sliver of hope, for those that were able to receive them, about some of what was happening in terms of folks being released in the South, actually, as well as around the country. And while that did not happen, I think as much as a lot of us in the abolition movement hoped that it could have gone further, there were also some prison breaks. And they were also just stories of people freeing themselves from the cages that they were in. And so there were some little blurbs about that. We also had some of those pamphlets bounce back, and we assumed that that was for that reason. There was like one or two that came back to us that something on the return to sender said something along the lines of like “this is a threat to our security and that’s why this wasn’t let in.” And so you know, it’s not really surprising because we know that knowledge is a threat and prisons don’t want prisoners to even think about the fact that they might one day have the power to liberate themselves, let alone be granted clemency. So, you know, the vast majority of them we think reached the folks that we intended them to get.
But we also weren’t sure for a while when we were going to have access to our office because as the original shutdowns were going on – like I said, we’re out of the back of Downtown Books and News – we lost access to our space for the first like, three, four months that things were going on. So part of those pamphlets, too, was this very kind of frightening disclosure that we were like, “Hey, we don’t know when we are going to be able to send you books, because there’s just a freeze on our ability to maintain this right now, but we want you to know that you are in our hearts and we are thinking of you.” And even just being able to send that little bit of personal love to folks, that in and of itself, I think, was where we were able to put our hearts forward at the start of this pandemic and let people know, like Monse, you were saying, again, like, “you are not forgotten even in this, and we’ll be back with you as soon as we can be”. And so yeah, it took some time for everybody to kind of get their feet back under them again, but by the summer last year we were starting to socially distance gather ourselves in the park to just like, reorganize our core group.
And then as we started to launch our packaging parties back up, which is how we kind of make room for more community engagement than just our regular core folks who come and pick out the books – in the pre-pandemic times used to do this out of Firestorm Books and Coffee, where we would take the books that were ready to be wrapped up and we would just do like a big almost holiday style wrapping where we just brown paper bag everything and address stuff and tape it up, and then it’s ready to go to the post office – we started to do that outside, also in Carrier Park, so that we could continue to do the work. And really, I think this is where this work gets really intersectional. I think that with everything that happened, with the uprisings of the summer and abolition starting to be talked about more and more, we started to see more people show up at those outdoor packaging parties than we had ever seen before. And we have been continuing to get new interests through our Instagram, through our email inbox. And yeah, I think that that’s where the last year has presented some really unusual, but exciting opportunities for where we’re now positioned, just with more folks plugging in all the time than we previously had. So that’s the upside of things. Beck, you want to get in on this?
Beck: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty quick and easy. COVID really threw a wrench in like everything we do. [starts laughing] We created physical spaces for queer community to come together and learn in sheer joy and you know, art, music. So, yeah, we really were at a loss for how to adapt, and none of us were in a place where we were like, willing to switch to digital. So we’re like, “Okay, what can we do right now”, we had applied for a mini grant from the Trans Justice Project. And we got it! And we’re like,” oh, dope, but there’s not a fest going on. So what are we going to do?” And so we decided to do a kind of like reparations drive project, community reach, outreach type thing, where we used all those funds from that grant, to BIPOC artists who are now like, without work. So focusing on Black and Indigenous queer and trans artists, and making sure they’re getting their needs, uplifting the work that they’re doing, you know, from a distance, and also just like, literally just fundraising for them and having our own reparations pool every month. So that kind of shifted that way.
I think a lot of it though, like Pansy Collective as individuals, was just like showing up in the summer, showing up in the street, showing up for aftercare type stuff, showing up where we could, as individuals, for our friends in our community. And so yeah, I think, you know, as things start kind of shifting and maybe outdoor meetups and stuff is possible, it’ll kind of start to go back to what Pansy is used to doing. But really, it’s just been, I mean, as a collective, just kind of being there for each other, and for the folks in town, showing up just as people has been the work, just giving love in a really isolated time.
Scott: Thanks everyone for going into that. I want to ask maybe a final question that would have two parts and then leave room for anyone here who wants to directly ask you individually or collectively questions, but so I’m going to put a couple of things together and hopefully this will work. So on the one hand we see queerness kind of getting more visibility and inclusion and representation, and I’m wondering – because all the work that y’all are doing is still on the terrain that is disruptive for, you know, systems of power, state control – so I’m sort of just interested in what you think queerness still holds that’s disruptive or liberatory, and then kind of putting that into like, what sort of coalitional projects you envision your groups doing in the future?
Adrian: Right now the one sentence that’s coming to my head is like “pink capitalism sucks” right? And I don’t have a whole lot more beyond that right now, in this moment. No, I think that, you know, the sort of acceptability politics that’s happening in like the big LGB sometimes T circles is rather sex negative. So I think there’s growth we could do there together in coalition building. You know, I think that this is probably because of the particular lens that I approach this work, but I see a lot of ageism and adultism generationally, right? I see a lot of skepticism from my elders on the vision that my young folks have, and sometimes I look to my elders to say, like, “Look, I don’t quite see how all the dots connect, but can you help me connect the dots for these young people?” And I need that support from our trancestors. And so I think that’s part of the coalition building that can happen. You know, I think that also we see a lot of white LGBTQ representation, right? So I think there’s a lot of work that we can do around, you know, centering BIPOC experience and what they need, right? So I would really love to see more inter-generational coalition’s between the different LGBT and racial justice serving organizations, I think that could be really, really fruitful. And I’m just kind of curious what other folks are thinking to?
Monse: Yeah, I think you hit it spot on for me Adrian. And yeah, I think that there are a lot of visible spaces and like, spaces made for queer and trans folks here in Asheville at least, but they’re mostly white spaces. And I think that just making spaces for Black and Brown folks to lead the work, for Black and Brown folks to just even come together and organize is necessary. And I would love to collaborate with folks, and just like creating those spaces, like finding the folks that are looking for the spaces and being able to support and find joy to bring our beautiful queer selves and organize together. So I think that that’s where we have a lot of room to grow, where I could see SONG collaborating with folks.
And I think even just like, also language, I’m very passionate about language justice, and that we need to be organizing not only in English because queer and trans folks aren’t only white, don’t only speak English. And I think that these identities can be very intersectional and like, folks are trying to do all the things. And yeah, so I think creating more spaces that are language accessible, that are culturally accessible, and that folks want to come to, because I think that there are so many white, queer, trans spaces in Asheville that a lot of times my folks don’t want to be in, that I don’t want to be in. And I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and a lot of space for collaboration, where we can make these spaces together.
Beck: I’ll go ahead. Yeah, thank you Monse, Adrian. I think all of y’alls responses…what I’m thinking of, how Asheville in particular, and a lot of liberal Southern cities, loves to show it’s pride in like, “we just hired a lesbian cop! Look at this girl boss who just joined the local government!”. When we look at our roots, when we look at queer oppression as a timeline, we have all of the same evils, all of the same oppressive entities are still the same, and no matter how pink or queer, whatever we make them appear, they’re still creating the same evils and the same oppressions.
There was a TikTok of a local lesbian police officer that got really big, and I was just like, “I know her. I’ve seen you arrest some queer folks before. And your TikTok famous, cute.” So yeah, just when we really look at all of these intersections, we can’t be pro gay cops, while gay cops are arresting Black queer people, Brown queer people, are incarcerating and deporting Brown queer people, Black people, Indigenous queer people, all of these evils are still there. If we put queer in front of it, it does not change that. And that’s the same for pink capitalism, like you talked about Adrian. Like, sure, I can go to Target in July and expect to find some rainbow t-shirts, right? But they’re still made in fucking sweatshops. Just because we put a coat of pink on it doesn’t change the system of oppression and the same status quo that we’re really trying to fight against.
And when we think of like, STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolution, and like that awesome organizing that was happening, it was focusing on people who were incarcerated, was focusing on trans Black and Brown people, it was led by trans Black and Brown people, like that is what, to me, that is where revolution is heading and has always been from. It’s not going to be from the lesbian white cop on TikTok who Asheville loves and had a meet and greet with a rainbow flag behind her, you know? Like, no, that’s not going to be it.
And thinking of, yeah, like Monse, you talked about earlier, there’s a gentrification that’s rapidly pushing Black and Brown folks out of Asheville. Like, that’s another thread that I don’t see a lot of queer organizing, like, really looking at, is that class piece, that racism and class piece, right? Yeah, like there’s a Save Charlotte Street going on in town – which is like important, right? This is a whole community – but it’s white folks that are affluent. And there’s a lot of build up and organizing around that, and like, what about all the Brown folks that were pushed out? What about all the Black folks that were pushed out during the 90’s?
So starting to bring all of that in together and look at that same root that is there, instead of just trying to, like, paint it pink and call it cute. Yeah, that’s the direction I would love for us to be heading in.
Leroy: [sighs exasperatedly] Yeah, “paint it pink and call it cute”, there is slogan to be dissected. Yeah, I feel like that was kind of where my brain was going as far as “where’s the liberatory potential of queerness still?” Is that actually still a thing, or is social capital and social hierarchy kind of just subverting this work into something really superficial? And where I see popularity as the potential thing that’s like drawing people into this, and social cred, more than what this work is actually about? I think that’s something that has been a really disturbing trend to try and assess.
Where it’s like, we have a very trendy logo, some might say, that was designed for us in the last few years, and to see our social media suddenly popping off has been really exciting. And it’s like, at the same time that we want people to come towards us and enter into this work, in the time that I have been involved with TPP, this has been primarily white led organization, and it has primarily been white folks involved. We have not had a lot of people of color come to us and say that they want to be involved in our work. And that isn’t to say, none, but I think that there are uncomfortable questions that I’m okay with being uncomfortable about that, for me, when I think about these things, I’m like, I just continue to sit with more questions than I have answers for. What does it mean for us to just continue to listen to other folks in the community, to continue to show up for other POC and Black led organizations in Asheville, so that we’re not just perpetuating part of the problem?
I’ve sat with this question of “if at some point this work needed to completely dissolve in order for something new to take form that was not the folks who have been leading this project for the time that I’ve been here to occur”…I think that’s part of what change is. It’s like death and rebirth and not being so attached to what we have carved out, what we have created, that we can’t still be humble and know that we, again, don’t have all the answers. So I’m excited for where we continue to get to connect, as you know, these four groups that are in this panel.
I’ll say as far as networking goes, TPP actually just got an email from Georgia chapter of SONG like last night about them wanting to start some books to prisoners work for LGBTQ folks in Georgia. And so we basically just send them like everything that we know about how to do this work, cause that was what they were asking us. And we are really like, “Yes, please. There need to be more groups that are specifically serving LGBTQIA folks that are incarcerated”. Because, again, whether it’s in the South or anywhere in the country that remains one of the most marginalized groups in prison, and we know that so many of those folks are Black and Brown and Indigenous.
And yeah, I think that more and more youth are starting to come to us. We have our first ever high school intern right now and she’s getting ready to plug us to the Racial Justice Coalition at her high school. So I feel like a lot of what’s being names as far as intersectionality in this conversation is really like coming to the surface. And it’s an exciting time for, you know what’s possible right now.
But there is a lot of cooptation at the same time. And so yeah, I really hesitate to say with great confidence like…yeah, there is some, I don’t know…the language might have to change. And I think that that’s actually the place where I want to insert this quote that I pulled from – for the old heads who still know who Critical Resistance is – this anthology Abolition Now from 2008, which at the time was the 10 year anniversary of Critical Resistance, a national abolitionist organizing group. I mean, at this point, it’s been more than 10 years since this book came out, but this is a quote from Alexander Lee, the founder and director of the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, or TGI Justice Project, of California. Alexander Lee says:
“As we go forward, we should expect to be forced to discard language that limits this movements to prison and the prison industrial complex, in favor of descriptors that foster prickly coalitions with others who don’t see themselves as anti-prison, but who do believe in the sacred nature of human dignity, however imperfectly expressed in practice. The prison abolition movement must expand its arms to envelop the same people who fight for housing but demonized prisoners, who protest war but love to watch CSI, people who marched for civil rights but yell trans slur at trans women, and queers who demand the death penalty when yet another one of us is murdered. We should move into these other sectors and act as the lodestar, pulling everyone towards the ultimate goal of building a world where liberation is the status quo. When we achieve these goals, the abolition of prisons will just be the icing on the cake.”
Scott: Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. And yeah, I guess maybe if we can just transition. I mean, I’m really grateful for all of you kind of speaking out of your experience and knowledge of doing this movement work. That’s so important. All right well thank you everyone.
An Ethiopian Anarchist Perspective on the War in Tigray
This week, we spoke with Anner, an Ethiopian member of Horn Anarchists, an anarchist group based in east Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian diaspora. The group has been around for about a year and hopes to organize and spread anarchist ideas and organizing in the horn of Africa. Horn anarchists is a newer group planning to do work with refugees and introduce anarchist ideas to east Africa. For the hour, Anner talks about the group, the history of post-Junta Ethiopa, the context of the ongoing armed conflict in Tigray, the fighting factions and the displacement and violence suffered by residents of the region as well as the ethnic hatred against Tigrayans by the government of Abi Ahmed and his Prosperity Party.
You can hear more perspectives from Horn Anarchists by checking out @HornAnarchists on twitter or visiting their website, HornAnarchists.NoBlogs.Org, which is mostly in Amharic and Tigrayan but readable in English via online translation services.
*** There is a content warning from 48:58 until 51:01 of discussion of sexual violence in the conflict. ***
Askari by Awate (a song about African conscripts fighting for colonial powers)
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself, if you’d like, and tell us a bit about Horn Anarchists as a collective project? What are your shared values? What do you do? Where are you based, and how long have you been around?
Anner: I go by the name Anner and I use she/her pronouns. Horn Anarchists as a collective project started about a year ago with the aim of disseminating anarchist ideas and values and the politics of the Horn. Individually, we were engaged in different anti-fascist, feminist, labor, and refugee solidarity organizing, and we later came together to bring the values of anarchism and some of our works into a shared, collective organizing. Most of what we’ve been doing in the past year has been online, since some of our members are in the diaspora, some of us are based in the Horn of Africa. And we haven’t actually been able to come together and work into a grassroots project as of yet, but we have hopes of doing that. Recently with what is happening in Tigray and the crisis, we plan to meet in Sudan to do some refugee solidarity work in Sudan for those that have been forced to flee their homes because of the genocidal war.
TFSR: For clarification, is there a set vision of anarchism that unites folks, or is it just a set of common values, and if you could describe what those are?
A: As a collective, the values we really uphold are those of equality, kindness, mutual aid, solidarity and voluntarism, especially some of us were radicalized through the different volunteer activities we’ve been doing. Some of us were radicalized through reading “too much of anarchist literature”, while others were radicalized by joining different organizing circles. Those are basically some of the values we all share and uphold.
TFSR: So, modern anarchist organizing in Africa that I’ve heard of has been mostly projects in South Africa, affiliates of the ZACF, or people like Sam Mbah and the Awakening Movement, a syndicalist movement in Nigeria or in Egypt during and after the uprisings against Hosni Mubarak. Can you talk a bit about the milieu or the movement of anarchism in the Horn of Africa. And maybe, if it relates to economic more so or religious or irreligious ideas, musical or sub-cultural genres, like metal and punk, (which) are a big thing in a lot of parts of the world around anarchist communities, or if it relates to regional or ethnic autonomy movements. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
A: Yeah, you’re definitely right about that. Well, when we came together to form Horn Anarchists, one of the things we wanted to do was to study anarchism in the “third world”. Most of the anarchist literature we’ve been studying has been very Euro-centric, so we wanted to understand how the history of anarchism worked in our part of the world, and we haven’t had much luck in that regard. The anarchist movements or any anarchist presence we could find were in very few places: there were some in Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria, a little in Sudan and Egypt, but not a lot, especially not in the Horn. And one of the things we attribute to that is that the settlers in this part of Africa, and especially the highlands of the Horn, are very hierarchical societies that are very religious as well. The two most dominant religions are orthodox Christianity and Islam. And both are very devout to their religion, and that has maintained a very strong hierarchical community that has been passing down to generations and their religion has also been highly tied with the state and people that loved their religion, their god, also had to love the state. So anarchism has not really been welcome in our part of the world.
The way anarchism came in the Horn, especially in Ethiopia and Eritrea has a very interesting aspect to it, as it did not come as a movement of its own, recognized and clearly differentiated between other movements. And actually the way it comes up in history, it is when Marxist-Leninists and other communist movements, communist organizations use it to label each other to indicate that the other was less desirable than they were. They wanted to build a strong state, though a communist state, and calling the other anarchists was a way to make sure that the public loses trust and looks at them with animosity, hostility. It was a way to smear each other’s name, basically, and that’s how anarchism has been used, not anarchism per se, but the word “anarchist”, as a label.
TFSR: Right now we’re speaking in the aftermath of a “police action” against the northern province of Tigray? And please correct me if I mistake any of this, but (it has been) conducted by the central Ethiopian military that has left widespread displacement. It’s been engaged from at least two other countries plus regional and ethnic militia, widespread reports of theft and sexual assault against people in Tigray. I appreciate you coming on to share what you know, especially since the Ethiopian state has done a lot to stop word from getting out about what’s been going on there. For those unfamiliar with the politics and the history of the Horn, of Ethiopia in particular, the history of the conflicts and various state and non-state actors, and their motivations can be a bit confusing. If it’s not too much, would you mind giving us a rundown or a thumbnail sketch of the civil war and its aftermath and lay the playing field for what’s going on right now?
A: Just to give you a rundown of the history to understand how we got here, Ethiopia boasts of having had an empire-building history that dates back to 3000 years ago. What has been central in the empire-building and state-building process has been a claimed ancestry from the biblical king Solomon in which different kings and queens claim they were descendants of King Solomon and hence had a divine right to rule. So this Solomonic tendency has been one of the strongest forces operating in the region until the 1974 Revolution in which the last monarch was overthrown in a coup d’etat and a communist state was established by a military junta that took power from the last king. And this communist military junta created a very oppressive, dictatorial and violent state and started a red terror campaign against other leftist groups that were functioning in the country at the time. By this time, there were quite a number of rebel groups, guerrilla fighters and the TPLF was one of the guerrilla fighters, along with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, Oromo Liberation Front and many others. The military junta was later defeated by a coalition of these guerrilla fighters under the name EPRDF (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) which was going to lead the country for the next 30 years. The TPLF was one of the central and dominant members of this coalition.
TFSR: Would you talk a little bit about the TPLF? I think in a past article on the blog for the Indigenous Anarchist Federation, your collective described them as a Marxist-Leninist group. Can you talk a bit about them? What their relationship is to the people in Tigray? What part they’ve played in this recent upsurge of conflict with the central Ethiopian regime of Abiy Ahmed?
A: TPLF has a very interesting history. As an organization, it started with tough people and it later became the largest armed struggle in the country. The relationship it has with the state has also been very dynamic. As it first started as a rebel group against the regime, and it would later be in power. But before that, it would craft its manifesto and its program as a political party and as an armed rebel group with the aim of self-administration or self-determination or even independence, if unity does not seem to be feasible within the country. This is what later led to Ethnic Federalism and then Art. 39, which is the most contested article in the Constitution. That is the article that gives nations the right to secession when unity is not possible. With the people Tigray, the TPLF had a very changing relationship. At first, it was very loved and adored by the community, it was hosted by the communities when it was a rebel, a guerrilla fighter, and then it took power, and then it became an instrument of the state, and the violence that is inherent to the state continued within the TPLF/EPRDF. The EPRDF, to remind you, is the coalition that was led by the TPLF. The violence of the state and the violence of the party could not be told apart, and then this started to rough things up with the people that used to adore the TPLF and admire their commitments, dedication and discipline. The TPLF was used as an example of courage, discipline, and dedication, but after it got power, after they got into office and then continued the violence of the state, the relationship was somehow changing with the rest of the Ethiopian state as well as the people of Tigray.
When Abiy Ahmed came to power three years back, that is when the TPLF had a chance to revisit its relationship with the people of Tigray. They resigned from their posts at the federal government and went back…. Members of the TPLF went back to the region of Tigray and started looking back at what they’ve been doing in the past years and apologized to the people for not having represented them enough, for not having done much good in the past 27 years. At this point, the people of Tigray did not really have an option. I personally think it was a siege, as roads to Tigray were blocked by the Fano vigilante group from the Amhara region, and there was very concerning hate-preaching that was done. State sponsored hate preaching that was done against Tigrinya-speaking people. Tigrinya is the official language that people in Tigray speak. They were not labeled as ethnic Tigrayans, but a state propaganda machine used the phrase “Tigninya-speaking” to tell of atrocities that have been done by the state apparatus in the past 30 years.
Abiy was applauded to be a reformer, a democrat and a neoliberal force in the region. In his attempt to prove this, he was making sure to document different documentaries that were run on state-owned media, which were basically exposing the violence of the state and especially how prisoners were treated, how there were prisons that were not even official, underground prisons, garage prisons and all that sort of thing. Very atrocious stuff that was happening. The accountability was given to the TPLF. The TPLF was expected to be accountable for all these atrocities that happened all over the country. Although the TPLF was only one part of the coalition that was running the country. The EPRDF, it was just one member of the EPRDF, the other members of the EPRDF were still in power, they still held office. But later they changed their name from EPRDF and made it Prosperity Party, which is the party that is now in power, the PP. The PP is a very sharp contrast that has been seen from the EPRDF, as it is almost a one-man party where Abiy is the chairman and the leader. And the party basically reflects what Abiy as a person is – very narcissistic, authoritarian, aiming to control everything that goes around. That is one of the threats that many people felt it was a threat to the ethnic federalism and the self-determination of different ethnic regions in the country.
The war against Tigray right now… One aspect of it is this ideological difference between a unitary state that is Abiy, the one that is led by Abiy, that wants to control everything, that wants to assign regional presidents from the center. And then the resistance from a party like TPLF, it was a very strong party. It has been in power for 30 years and it has a well-built structure, it’s very dominant in the region, controls the region and has almost all of the seats in the regional council. It was a force that could contend the central government, perhaps the only regional force that could contend Abiy and the federal government, as all of the others were under Abiy’s wing and he could assign any person to be the president of any region, and the people would not have a chance to either elect them or even have a say in who was elected to administer their regional state. That’s one of the aspects of the ideological side of the war: self-administration, autonomy versus unitarism and unitary dictatorship.
TFSR: What sparked the attack on the ENDF by the TPLF forces?
A: Depending on who you ask, the war in Tigray had different causes. One is the one I’d already mentioned. The strength of TPLF was a threat to Abiy, that Abiy as a person that wants silence and criminalizes dissent, would naturally be against a region that is powerful enough to contend what he is saying and have consequences. One of the ways this has been seen is with the election that the Tigray region held despite the central government, the federal government, deciding to postpone the election using COVID-19 as a pretext. Tigray region has established their own electoral board and managed to have elections, local elections in a way that took the pandemic seriously. They made sure people kept their social distance and they took the necessary measures but made sure the elections happened. That is perhaps one of the strongest measures taken by the TPLF that made Abiy very unhappy.
The other one, especially the one that the state mentions is the attack on the ENDF by the TPLF forces. We don’t know how true this is, regardless there are claims that, after a posed threat, TPLF allied forces attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, which resulted in a full-blown war.
TFSR: Is the communication blockade limited or has it been limited to Tigray, is still ongoing? I have some reasons why I think that the military would do this, but could you explain why you think it’s important for the military for the ENDF to impose this?
A: The ENDF and Prosperity Party reacted very violently, it made sure to cut all sorts of communication in Tigray, including telecom, internet, phone line, services, electricity and even water services were cut down. The entire region was in a complete blackout. We could not get what was happening. We had family there. We could not hear from our families for months, and there was a complete media blackout as well. And the ENDF was going wild in the dark without needing to think about consequences, believing that maybe the word would not get out.
TFSR: Thank you for that. You mentioned that Abiy Ahmed has gotten a lot of credit internationally. I think he got a Noble Peace Prize for whatever that’s worth for signing this treaty with Eritrea and since the conflict has escalated, there have been reports of incursions by military troops from Somalia and Eritrea, and also a conflict between the Ethiopian government, and I think the government in Sudan, where a lot of people were fleeing violence in Tigray, fleeing displacement. Can you talk a little bit about the way that the borders play into this crisis and the way that other international actors are taking part?
A: Neighboring nations like Sudan have responded interestingly. Sudan has been hosting refugees that were displaced, because of the war, it has hosted more than 60,000 refugees. The numbers would have increased if the borders were not blocked by the Ethiopian National Defense Force. On the contrary, Eritrea has been involved in this war in a very violent manner. The TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front used to be allies during the Derg regime when they were both guerrilla fighters and then Eritrea seceded and the Ethio-Eritrean warwhat happened, and there was animosity that lasted for almost three decades. And bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea was one of the main reasons Abiy was nominated and later got the Nobel Peace Prize. But this peace process with Eritrea has never included the major warring parties, which was the TPLF, and it was a peace deal between Abiy and the dictator Isaias Afwerki. Members of the media were not told what the peace deal meant and what it constitutes and in retrospect, it seemed more like a war deal, a genocidal war deal than a peace process. As a genuine peace process, this would have first and foremost involved the major, belligerent parties which this peace deal did not. And maybe the whole point of trying to make peace with Eritrea was to eliminate TPLF.
TFSR: There have been reports of massacres in, among other places, Mai Kadra. 600 civilians, mostly ethnic Amharans and Wolkaits. It’s been accused of the atrocity that was conducted by TPLF-sympathetic militia and police. This is one example where it’s considered to have been conducted by people from one side, and yet there have been also attacks and massacres that have been reported by Amharans against Tigrayans, as well as all of these reports that are coming out from the Human Rights Watch and other organizations about assaults by the uniformed military. It’s a hard subject, but can you talk about, I guess, some of the things that you want the international audience to know about, what you’ve heard about what’s going on, and could you read it as a sign of a wider breakdown of the multi-ethnic communities of the country?
A: The media blackout had really influenced the international response to the war. In the first few months of the waronly the Tigray regional state media was accessible, and that was also state propaganda, and then there was the federal state propaganda from here, but there was no way to actually know what regular people were going through. They were both just spreading propaganda and not reporting what was happening on the ground. The first atrocities we started hearing were from refugees that managed to make it to Sudan. They would tell what they’ve seen, what they’ve passed through and the horrors of the war. Although Abiy even went to parliament to discredit these reports by saying that these refugees were murderers and that they were youth organized by the TPLF, he basically labeled them a killing squad and tried to make them and their accounts lose credit. But international media was talking to refugees that made it to Sudan from Tigray and those were the earliest news we heard about what is happening. Survivors’ accounts, those were the first survivor accounts we could hear from the war. Later people came to Addis, especially people that had other citizenship, maybe dual citizenship. There were some: Ethio-Americans, German Ethiopians, and their embassies found a way to bring them back to Addis and fly them back to their countries. And they had more stories of what they had gone through. But the first reports we heard were from refugees in Sudan and then later the phone lines were accessible in a few areas in Mekelle City and a few other cities. The connection was really bad, but we could still get a picture of what was happening, and later videos and pictures and other evidence footage started coming up.
The massacre of Mai Kadra has been used to justify the war. It was the second biggest event that the federal state used to justify the war against Tigray. The first was the attack on the northern command of the ENDF and the second one was the massacre at Mai Kadra. We still don’t know who the perpetrator was, there are different claims. Some claim it was TPLF allied forces. Others claim it was the ENDF. Others claim it was the Amhara militia or the Fano vigilante group. Regardless, there hasn’t been an investigation that every group agreed on, but what we know is that there have been retaliations. Whether it was the Amharans that were killed or whether that was the Tigrayans. We know for sure that there has been retaliation and any other aspect of the war, including the retaliation, the different massacres we’ve heard about, the massacres in Aksum… we’ve heard of massacres in quite a few number of places, the biggest so far being in Aksum where 800 people were killed inside a church, and none of these were reported by the state, as was Mai Kadra. It has been almost four months, but the Mai Kadra still occupies air time and not the others. So the way it was used as a tool for propaganda makes one doubt the genuinity behind the reports.
So I don’t know, I wouldn’t see it as a breakdown of the multi-ethnic federalism. I mean there are signs of the breakdown, but not this war. I just see it as years-long hate-preaching and fascism, to be honest. One of the reasons the Amhara militia and the Fano vigilante group went to war was because they had claims over some of the lands that were occupied by Tigrayans and that is mostly in the western part of Tigray, which we still expect were the worst hit. They were the worst affected. There was an ethnic cleansing almost. Nowadays, one barely finds any Tigrayan living in that region that was occupied by Tigrayans and Amharans have taken over, and this was one of their causes to get into the war. So I would attribute it to fascism than I would to the breakdown of the multi-ethnic federalism.
Without clear evidence of what actually was happening on the ground, despite what the two warring parties were saying on their state-owned medias, I believe the international community was hopeful and optimistic and wanted to take Abiy for his word and that this would be a surgical operation to remove the TPLF without no further damage, but it has clearly been anything but that. If anything, this is a collective punishment on any and every ethnic Tigrayan that not only lives in Tigray but also lives outside Tigray. They have been ethnically profiled – I’m talking about people that were not in Tigray. They’ve been arrested, detained, they had their house searched without a warrants, and then they were harassed, tortured, abused on the streets by people as well as by security forces. And this collective punishment actually dates back, I would say, to 2016, when ethnic Tigrayans were forced to flee their homes. The place they’ve been living in for years, for decades, because they were ethnic Tigrayans, they were forced to flee and go back to Tigray. And since then roads were blocked, inflation was really high, the road to Eritrea was also opened, so inflation was pretty high in the city and as I mentioned before, the hate-preaching, the hate-speeches against ethnic Tigrayans, the labeling… They were called “daytime hyenas” by the prime minister, and this was something that has been building up for quite a few years.
The international community, I believe, was just being hopeful and wanted to take Abiy for his word. But later it became clear that this was not a surgical operation and that civilians were the receiving end of this wrath from Abiy. And now the international community is very alarmed and is trying to influence and pressure Abiy to make sure that he at least provides access to distribute humanitarian aid and takes necessary steps to protect civilians, not even protect, but just stop killing civilians. Now there are also threats of economic sanctions, cutting of aids, and now the international community really seems alarmed about what is happening and keeps mentioning it to Abiy. Although not much has changed about what he’s doing. Ethnic Tigrayans were facing repression. Not only were they illegally detained, illegally searched, even arrested, they’re also harassed and tortured on the streets if they had a Tigrinia-sounding name or if their ID said that they were of the Tigrayan ethnic origin, they were also unable to board international flights, as Ethiopian Airlines was asking people to provide their local IDs to make sure what ethnic group they were from to bar them from flying.
There were also a few indications that there was something like a concentration camp. We have not been able to verify if this was true or not, but you’ve definitely heard about a concentration camp as well.
Many ethnic Tigrayans were getting laid off. They were being suspended from work, especially those that had government jobs. Every member of the military that is an ethnic Tigrayan has been suspended. Also, members of the federal government and organizations functioning under the federal government that were working in different parts of the country were also suspended from work because they were ethnic Tigrayans. Many landlords were also evicting people and telling them to leave their house because, and only because, they were ethnic Tigrayans. This had gotten so bad that Tigrayans could not even speak their language on the street and in coffee shops or in hotels, as they were very alarmed and scared of what that would result in, hearing their language would make the state and security forces, even fascists, do.
***content warning that there is a graphic description of sexual assault coming up. If you’re concerned, please skip the following paragraph***
We’ve recently been seeing that there was footage that was circulating on social media of civilians being killed by the Ethiopian National Defense Force, being massacred in a very gruesome manner. One of the biggest concerns is also rape. There is widespread rape in the cities that are controlled by the ENDF. Both the ENDF and the Eritrean soldiers are engaged in gang rapes of very young girls. At first, it was teenagers and then the reports coming now are of children less than the age of thirteen. And the reason behind, what is being said, is that the Eritrean soldiers were warned against HIV. So the assumption was that young girls would be free from HIV and they were safe options, so they’re engaged in gang rapes of very young girls. And what is happening, what they’re doing to these people… We recently read a report and also saw a video of this young woman that was gang-raped by 23 soldiers for five days, and then they stuffed some dirt and plastic bags and even nails into her vagina. And there was a video circulating of the doctors removing all the stuff that was stuffed in her. The cruelty is unthinkable, it’s inhumane.
*** end content warning***
TFSR: How is the response from the international community in your eyes been to the conflicts in Tigray and the repression of the Tigrayan people?
A: When talking about aid distribution in the region, we need to understand what is at play here. There are international aid organizations that had food, medicines, medical supplies, food supplies, ready and packed, and they had truckloads of these items, waiting to distribute but could not get access to the region. The government and the ENDF would not allow access, and that was the main difficulty in helping the people that were starving and that were dying from hunger, thirst and lack of medicines.
TFSR: I definitelysaw a number of critiques in the social media for Horn Anarchists around the distribution of aid and what was actually happening to it. I imagine that some of it is a response to western social media users may be saying, “Look, someone’s already doing something, I don’t have to think about what’s going on over there” or saying, “I can send a few dollars, I just make a few clicks and then I have no responsibility or relationship to this anymore. I have done my part”. Is there any way to… while the wheels are turning in the UN, to try to get some intervention of peacekeeping troops, is there anything that you can think of that people from abroad can do to actually aid the people in Tigray and to send material, to get people fed?
A: Our critic was mainly because of the different GoFundMe accounts that were being started by warmongers that were supporting the war. We feel like it was dishonest to collect money and aid in the name of the Tigrayan people saying that you distributed to the people in Tigray when you have no means of reaching Tigray.The problem was not that there was a shortage of food or medical supplies. There were aid organizations that were ready to distribute, they had truckloads of them. They just could not get access, and regardless of how much money one was collecting in the name of Tigrayans and the people of Tigray, it wouldn’t matter how much money they collected as they would not have any means to distribute it. So our critique was mainly on these dishonest attempts to try and be sympathetic towards Tigrayans by collecting aid and by organizing GoFundMe’s.
TFSR: Maybe people in the audience who are concerned about this similarly could look up and find, for instance, businesses like Ethiopian Airlines, if they live in a city where there is a large international airport – and maybe there is an Ethiopian Airlines stall – that could be a place to apply pressure or any diplomatic, governmental buildings?
A: There are different ways in which the international community can show solidarity with the people of Tigray. The most basic one is tweeting, using the hashtags, making sure that word gets out, making sure there communication and media blackout does not mean the world does not know what is happening. We need to be as loud as possible to make sure that people are aware of what is happening. I personally believe that Tigray should be the center of the world at this moment. Every eye should be looking towards Tigray because there’s another genocide happening in the 21st century. And we can almost be sure that our leaders are going to come out tomorrow to say that never again, to say that they will not let this happen ever again, but this is happening right now and we’re living through it, and we can’t let it happen. And especially, we can’t let it happen in silence. The least we can do is raise awareness, make sure everyone knows about it, make sure our local representatives know about it, respond to it and report to the people that have elected them what they’re doing to try and stop it.
There are also options in helping refugees that have been displaced, most of which are in Sudan right now. Our collective was organizing mutual aid support with refugees that are in Sudan. There are also other initiatives trying to support refugees in Sudan, as well as those in Tigray. Access is relatively better now. We cannot say it’s unfettered and free, but it’s relatively better and there are also initiatives to try and distribute aid in Tigray, though it remains limited. There’s also the option of helping Tigrayan organizers, there are different Tigrayan organizers all over the world, trying to organize protests, rallies and appealing to the United Nations and the governments of the countries in which they reside to pressure Abiy to stop the genocide, to make sure that the Eritrean army leaves Tigray, that the Amhara militias and the Fano vigilante leave Tigray, because the atrocities they’re committing are very unthinkable and horrendous.
It’s also important that people that want to stand in solidarity with Tigrayans hold their representatives accountable for the measures that their representatives and their governments are taking to pressure the Ethiopian government to stop this genocidal war and to pressure their countries and the United Nations to intervene and act – its responsibility to protect civilians. With how bad this is right now, we have heard of confirmed deaths of more than 50,000, but many places are still not accessible and reports have not been completed even in parts that are accessible, but we expect so many casualties, and this is continuing.
TFSR: Back to the theoretical-world for a second, if you were to see after an end to the armed conflict, I’m sure that your collective has talked a lot about what it would be like to transition into a decentralized, grassroots, anti-fascist, anti-nationalist region and…
A: Yeah, we’ve discussed it a lot and what we’ve been hoping was some … okay, there are different fascists in Ethiopia, it’s very interesting. There are fascists that believe in Ethiopian and there are ethno-nationalist fascisms, but they are all right-wing, they all are fascists. And people were trying to fight a certain type of fascism, they go into another type of fascism, they go to their own group. There is quite a number of fascistic groups in the country right now that are supported, that get applauded by the government as well.
What we were hoping that we could have… Let me speak on my own behalf. Personally, I want to start a workers movement. I believe it would be crosscutting among different ethnic groups, different beliefs. And then the poor people of Ethiopia know their problem best and whoever is claiming to represent them and to fight on their behalf at the occupied of their behalf, basically are using them as a human shield. There are quite a few people dying in Ethiopia every day in different parts of the country from thesefascist groups and orgs, and they are very loud on their platforms. They control the media, they control the resources, and people are scared that if they will not align themselves with either this one or that one, there is no fertile ground for people belonging to different groups to come together and fight their own oppressors.
One of the reasons TPLF is known for oppression of the country. TPLF is a minority as I’ve told you. They haven’t been going around and repressing every ethnic group, it’s the structure that has been repressing and oppressing. The people of Oromia were not necessarily oppressed by people of TPLF, it was people that came from that group that were in power. People still feel like “I have been oppressed because they are a part of a specific ethnic group. And the only way I can fight this oppression is if I ally myself with my own ethnic group and fight against the others,” which creates animosity almost with every other group except your own. And then it becomes hard to even talk about class struggle in that regard.
But ideally, I would love a class movement. Class is a very important element in Ethiopian politics now that the politics is based almost solely on identity, and specifically ethnic identity. So you either a certain ethnic group or you are a fascist that believes that people should not mention their identity, should believe in one country, one god, one people. The struggle is very hard.
TFSR: I spoke a few years back with someone who was organizing in Bosnia, and some of the parts of this conversation remind me of parts of that conversation, where he talked about the institutionalization of ethnic differentiation and even if not in application, the institutionalization of “self-rule” and formalization of ethnic difference as being the basis on which people lived in community together. While, ostensibly, it would protect someone from getting repressed by another group and allowing someone to practice their religions, speak their language, these things, it also institutionalizing it into the government and being the basis for the representation of administering public monies or social programs, or whatever, also solidified differentiation between people, that, after the fall of Yugoslavia, where everyone had been sort of united under this idea of class in a lot of ways, as imperfect as Tito’s state was. This person that I was talking to was very excited about the possibility that people had broken out of those ethnic parties that were meant to divide them against each other. And it seems like a very important and critical thing. It makes a lot of sense to me.
A: Yeah, there are some groups that are mobilizing to criminalize organizing around ethnic identities. What we’ve had throughout the history of Ethiopia is.. Ethiopia is an Imperialist country. We have not struggled against these fascists of Italy, but we have not struggled against our own fascism. It’s an expansionist state, it’s an empire, and it has been assimilating into the dominant culture. I can’t criticize when people are fighting for their group rights based on their ethnic identities, they were not allowed to speak their own language, to practice their own religion, as the state religion for so many years has orthodox Christianity. And people were forced to denounce their own identity and get in line with what was considered the state identity, which is the identity of highlanders and Christianity. But this Ethnic Federailsm that most people of Ethiopia are against around nations and nationalities, complete self-determination to the point of secession. It has been the battleground for different political parties that trying to do this, to sort of force and places the arms of the federal government, or actually the regional government, activists from different ethnic groups claim that they will secede if this or that demand is not fulfilled. Honestly. I’m not against people struggling to protect their rights, especially minorities, but how long would that go? Othering is a major problem, especially nowadays when Abiy’s regime is trying to construct the old state of one Ethiopia where all identities are melted into one. Ethiopia is actually called the melting pot of identities into a certain dominant identity.
TFSR: Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time and working with me to have this conversation. I really appreciate it.
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.