Hey folks. This week, we’re sharing our 2020 chat with Keith Lamar aka Bomani Shakur who is facing execution on November 16th 2023. We hope you enjoy his insights and check out his support website, KeithLamar.Org and get involved in helping him fight for his life and for justice. Starting February 25, 2022 you can hear Keith, Albert Marquet and others performing “Freedom First”
Bomani Shakur speaks to us from death row at OSP Youngstown in Ohio. Bomani is accused of crimes related to the 1993 Lucasville Uprising he claims innocence of and has an execution date set for November 16, 2023. For the hour we speak about his upbringing, his case, injustice in white supremacist and capitalist America, Bomani’s politicization and struggle to find himself, defend his dignity and his life. To hear a longer, podcast version, check out this link on archive.
This interview was originally recorded on April 29th, 2020. Thanks to Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement – NYC for hooking us up with the chat and helping coordinate the Month Of Solidarity. More on his case can be found at KeithLamar.Org, on the facebook page “Justice For Keith Lamar” and at the twitter account, @FreeKeithLamar. On his website you can find a link to his book, Condemned, ways to donate to his phone fund, and a link to the excellent, 30 minute documentary on youtube about his case also named Condemned.
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin is an author, black anarchist, organizer, former Black Panther and former political prisoner based in Kansas City, Missouri. In this segment, Lorenzo talks about prisoners organizing unions and other associations in the past, the thoughts of George Jackson and Martin Sostre and more.
You can find a recently republished edition out from Pluto Press of Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s classic “Anarchism & the Black Revolution” plus a bunch of other essays. If you order this from Firestorm books here in Asheville, you’ll get a 10% discount and we’ll get a kickback, too! Otherwise, it’s available at any number of renowned booksellers.
And a quick note that the interview with Lorenzo was conducted by a member of True Leap Press. Since 2017, True Leap has provided free print political education materials for imprisoned people engaging in abolitionist study. They have over 200 titles in their new 2022 catalog. They don’t keep a mailing list, as literature is only available upon request. If you would like a new catalog of their 2022 literature selections, please visit them at their website TrueLeapPress.com or at their new address:
True Leap Zine Distro PO Box 6045 Concord, CA 94524
Sean Swain is back in general population, has phone access and seems to have a reprieve from being interstate transferred for the moment. Find out how to write and support Sean by visiting SeanSwain.Org
This week we are really pleased to feature Scott conducting an interview with author and activist William C. Anderson about his new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition which is out now from AK Press. In this interview they speak on the book and its many facets, and Black anarchism more broadly, some of the failures of euro-centric and white anarchism, and many many more topics.
(see links above for more context of some of the people and documents mentioned)
Scott Branson – TFSR: I’m very excited to get to talk to William C. Anderson today, whose new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition was just published by AK Press. Thank you so much for spending the time to talk to me today. If you want, can you just first introduce yourself with your pronouns and any affiliations or background that you would want to share with the listeners?
William: Yeah, my name is William C. Anderson. I am a writer, activist, and just a person from Birmingham, Alabama. My pronouns are he/him/his, and I’m really excited to be on the show with you today, I’m happy to be talking with you.
TFSR: Likewise. I think this book is a really important contribution. I want to just delve into it. In the book, you’re locating Black anarchism as a practical development in revolutionary action, both in the history of movement work, but also I think, individually, in individual consciousness. I think that’s a super helpful intervention and contribution, thinking about our history, and also strategizing for the future. So I want to talk about both of the moments, movement stuff and individual stuff. I also just want to acknowledge and appreciate that the book is clearly grounded in your own experience. It doesn’t seem like top-down theorizing that often happens. I’m thinking sometimes of ways that white leftist anarchists use Afro-pessimist texts to talk about blackness without being grounded in movement work.
Okay, first, what do you mean by Black anarchism? I see you using this in relation to the legacies of Black Liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. I just want to use this quote, because I think it’s really important. You say “Black anarchism is a break away from the revolutionary Black Power movement, as opposed to simply being an effort to diversify or revise classical anarchism.” I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this development in Black revolutionary thinking and why it often gets overlooked for the different ways that the Black Power movement gets represented?
W: Well, this really all starts with Martin Sostre introducing Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin to anarchism in 1969 and federal detention in New York. Lorenzo was a Maoist who fled to Cuba after hijacking a plane where he was imprisoned alongside other Black radicals who were fleeing during that time. He was essentially deported to Czechoslovakia, where he was imprisoned again. Then he fled to East Germany, where the federal authorities caught up with him. He was fleeing originally to Cuba because he had trumped-up charges against him. It was a frame-up for being accused of threatening to bomb a KKK judge. So he decided to flee, he goes to Cuba, he’s in prison there, he goes to Czechoslovakia, he’s detained there, he flees to East Germany, and he’s detained again. He’s tortured in East Germany, too. He is sent to New York. In federal detention, he is clearly upset by his experience with the state socialist governments he had gone to look for a safe haven. With that frustration, he meets Martin Sostre, who is a famous political prisoner at the time, he’s an imprisoned intellectual. He’s a jailhouse lawyer who is repeatedly suing the prison system and actually creating new reforms and gaining new rights for imprisoned people. Through his lawsuits, he completely transforms conditions, almost single-handedly through his litigation. He is talking to Lorenzo about his frustrations and he tells him there is more than state socialism. He tells him, it’s not the only form of socialism, he tells him about stateless or libertarian socialism, which we know is anarchism. Lorenzo starts doing the reading.
A decade later, he writes Anarchism and the Black Revolution. That is the real start of this development in many ways. Other former Panthers and members of the Black Liberation Army are also becoming interested during this period. They’re all thinking about their frustrations within the Black Power movement, with the Black Panther Party, with Marxist-Leninism, with Maoism, etc. They’re all writing and moving accordingly and asking questions. So I don’t think that you can exactly place a location and a time on the birth of Black anarchism because I don’t like to think about history in that way. I think that history is a lot more complicated than trying to place official stamps on things. But that’s really a great way to think about its beginnings with Martin and Lorenzo. You can also complicate that a little bit more if you want to bring in someone like Lucy Parsons, who was obviously doing a lot of writing and speaking about anarchism much earlier, in the early 1900s, late 1800s. This is a formerly enslaved Black woman. But I think what makes a person like Lucy distinct is also that her relationship to her blackness, and to race was a bit more complicated. When we’re thinking about Black anarchism, we’re really thinking about this break away from the Black Power movement, in terms of questioning and disturbing this idea that revolutionary Black nationalism and state socialism together were the only solutions in terms of ways to think about pursuing Black liberation.
TFSR: That’s really helpful. I like how you’re grounding it also, specifically in the material conditions, like the people at that moment were like this, we need something else to look towards. But also the way that you frame it in your book, you’re saying that they’re not just taking on European anarchism, but actually, you make this really telling statement that Black anarchism represents a failure of the anarchist movement in terms of the European tradition of anarchism. I have my understanding of this as what you also talk about in the book, is that Black anarchism isn’t a diversity and inclusion effort of a white anarchism or something like that. It’s actually a critique of anarchism that Black anarchism delivers. So I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on what you see as a failure of European anarchism, and then how a Black anarchism would add what you call “precision”. I really like that word.
W: I could talk about this all day. Historically, I think European anarchists have been self-involved and focused on how they were/are right about the nature of the state in a way that actually limited their appeal. It may be arguable that state socialists were much more effective and thoughtful about bringing Black people and oppressed people of the world into their efforts. Now, that’s not to say that Black people were not met with hostility for bringing up historically what’s known as the race question or the Negro question. There were certainly confrontations that had to be had around race and class that required Black Marxists to challenge conventional white state socialism and Marxism. So I consider, actually, those efforts are part of the legacy of Black autonomous radicalism too. That’s why I draw from an autonomous Marxist like C.L.R. James and my writing. Classical anarchism was not as effective in wrestling with that and it didn’t develop in the same way.
Now, there’s also the factor of the Russian Revolution and other revolutions that were claimed by state socialists, that global impact can’t be ignored in terms of influence. So all of that has to be considered. But Black anarchism isn’t a diversity effort or an effort for inclusion, because it draws influence from the experiences that precede it. Lorenzo was a former Maoist, Martin was a nationalist, former Black nationalist member of the Nation of Islam. Ojore Lutalo had been wrestling with Marxism before Kuwasi Balagoon brings him to anarchism. They didn’t completely discard classical anarchism. Lorenzo, for example, revises it in a way that we can observe parallels, the way that Marxism is revised in the Black radical tradition. What makes it so special is that Black anarchism does that with Marxism too. That’s an important thing to know: it does that with Marxism, with Black nationalism, and with anarchism.
So, in my opinion, because of the way it challenges all of those forms, it transcends the left almost entirely. It rises above conventional leftism. That makes it special. That’s how I’m reading it in this book, it is one of the only places on the left where this confrontation and these revisions happen in so many ways that it actually creates something transformative that shows us how to rise above conventional historical leftisms, and dogma and orthodoxy, to think about creating something completely new. I think that that’s really beautiful. That’s why I’m so just blown away by the writings of Black anarchism, the thinking and the way that they were approaching the left, and the way that they were approaching Black Power and thinking beyond. I think that that’s a beautiful example.
TFSR: What you just said makes me think of this line you have towards the end of the book, which is: “Talking about Black anarchism, it looks at the whole of history and works to uproot oppression by asking the most basic questions about what power is and what gives anyone the right to control or oppress others, even those we share space with. The question is simple, but its implications are vast, influencing the totality of our lives, from race to gender to class and all the many aspects of existence into which power insinuates itself.” I thought about that when you’re talking about these basic questions about our life that anarchism is addressing, but it has this more expansive vision in a way than other approaches. I thought that was really helpful. What you said resonated a lot with that to me. I look to Black feminist writings, and I see versions of anarchism in there that aren’t necessarily called that. That’s something that you talk about in the book, too, that Black thinkers and movement workers have done anarchist work without necessarily calling it that.
I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what that term means or claiming anarchism or Black anarchism? What value there is in that? Because I know you have a particular relationship to the word itself.
W: Well, there’s a couple of things there. I think the first thing to address is the fact that I have an interesting relationship with the label “anarchist” because I’m not attached to it. I say at the beginning of the text that is not something I run from, and it’s not something that I run to. I’m actually appropriated that from Modibo Kadalie. Because I think that Modibo gets called an anarchist a lot, but that’s not something he necessarily lays claim to. One time I was talking with him, and he said, “I don’t run from anarchism, but I don’t run to it, either.” I adapted that as my outlook. What I mean by that is anarchism, for me, even Black anarchism is not the point. The point is liberation. I think that Black anarchism has amazing insights, that give us important direction to try to come closer to liberation. So, with regard to Black people, Zoé Samudzi and I wrote The Anarchism of Blackness. That led to us writing As Black As Resistance, which leads to this book. What we were talking about in The Anarchism of Blackness, at least one of the core insights of that essay was the fact that Black people have always engaged in these anarchistic, anarchic struggles across the Americas and across the world. That is something that doesn’t require people to lay claim to anarchism as a set of politics.
People have made movements, organizations, and waged fights that didn’t require them to lay claim to anarchism or have some ideological devotion. Many of those things precede anarchism as a political ideology. So, when we look at it that way, it tells you that claiming anarchism is not something that has to happen in order for people to do that work or to do things that are going to make conditions better. I think the most important thing is creating movements that have the principles of anarchism, not laying claim to anarchism as an identity. The last thing I would want to do is try to encourage people to have this rigid, unbending loyalty to dogma and to doctrine, rather than the principles that make those things appealing in the first place. So I think that that’s what’s most important.
TFSR: One of the ways I relate to anarchism is that it teaches us to let go of things that don’t serve us or aren’t useful to us and teaches us how to dissolve things. I think that would have to include anarchism itself as a label. When I was listening to you talk also about the European tradition, it made me think about today, where there’s another blind spot for, say, white anarchists in the inclusion of analysis of racial capitalism, of the history of Black struggle, anarchists are so often wanting to dissolve identities as this effective liberal / neoliberal state, and yet cling to this idea of anarchism as an identity, and to such an extent that it excludes people being able to find an entry point into the work itself. Yes, exactly. In a way, it seems like some of those blind spots from the classical anarchism that you were talking about persist, just in the new form of us.
W: Yeah, they do.
TFSR: Going back to history, you differentiate Black anarchism from other Black Power movements, but you’re also drawing the connections between them. One of the things you talk about in the book is Black nationalism, also Black capitalism. And these are two attempts to find empowerment for Black communities. Now, your book is totally critical of nations and states, but you also caution against just dismissing Black nationalism, or Black nationalist movements, and also specifically try to differentiate between Black nationalism and the white supremacist state and that nationalism. What are your thoughts about what role Black nationalism plays? How there might be potential collaboration? If you want to talk to just about the threat of nationalism more generally?
W: There are different types of nationalism. When we’re thinking about Black nationalism, you have revolutionary nationalism, and you have reactionary nationalism. I think that both need to be wrestled with, I don’t make a distinction between them in the book because I find troubling currents in both. However, I don’t compare Black nationalism that utilizes troubling and even homogenizing rhetoric in any form to white supremacy, that it does it in response to. So for example, I talked about [Marcus] Garvey in the text, and he said that he was the first fascist, he said that Benito Mussolini got fascism from him. Even though he said that he was the first fascist, did he do what Benito Mussolini did? No, he didn’t. I don’t think that Black Fascism is impossible or non-existent. There are certainly Black fascists now and there have been historically. But it’s important to observe what they’re responding to, and what their intentions are. There are parallels and distinctions. I wrote about this some years back, actually, with regard to the Nation of Islam, and I’m thinking about the Nation of Islam’s Black nationalism, specifically. The Southern Poverty Law Center used to have them, I’m not sure if they still do, I think that they took them off, but they used to have them on their hate group listing. I always found that disturbing, because white supremacists have always run this country. You can’t compare that and equate it with Black nationalisms that develop using rhetoric and reasoning that is similar to white supremacists.
In the book, I’m arguing that before it gets to that point, we have to stop now and observe history. We have to not glorify everything and depart from this idea that we’re all going to fall under the form or formation of a nation. The nation and the state are different things. But what many Black nationalisms lean to is the idea of a Black nation-state. That’s not something that comes with no risk for violence, because there’s no essential innocence, as Paul Gilroy says in his paper “Black Fascism” that makes this endeavor holier just because we’re Black. I quote Aimé Césaire in the text as well saying, “one of the values invented by the bourgeoisie in former times that went throughout the world was man.” He says, “we’ve seen what happened with that,” he said, “the other was the nation.“
This idea that the nation, and this idea of the state, even in a Black form, that these things are going to liberate us, this isn’t ours, it’s not ours to say that this is something that we can even use in this way, it is destructive. We’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas and to forms that we really shouldn’t be trying to own. So, if we look at history, and we even study post-colonial independence movements, it helps us see the atrocity that can occur even in the name of self-described liberatory state-socialist ventures and nation-building is not something that is just this, “hey, this is going to work. This is always good.” It’s not that simple. I’m bothered by people who treat it that way without being honest about a lot of the history and atrocity and really horrific things that have been done in the name of nation-building and state-building. We have to observe that honestly.
TFSR: Yeah. One of the things that you iterate in your book in a few different places is that the stuff that we do has to not only serve survival but struggle against capitalism in the state. We could think that Black nationalism and Black capitalism, both as things that come out of Black movement organizing, have also been not necessarily, like there have been white people in power who’ve been like “Yeah, that sounds okay. It’s not as big a threat as something that’s fully autonomous from those power structures,” which I think is in line with what you were just saying, about not owning those terms.
But on the other hand, when you’re looking at Black capitalism, in the book you talk about how the limited forms of autonomy that have existed within Black communities in the US historically, – specifically you talk about the massacre in Tulsa in 1921, – that the state just will not allow that to persist because to a certain extent, it is completely inimical to the nation itself. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Black capitalism historically and how it shows up today because it comes up a lot. People like Killer Mike and Beyonce are spouting it. They also claim some affinity for leftist movements in certain ways. So I’m just wondering if you could expand a little bit on the role of Black capitalism?
W: Black capitalism really comes from Nixon. It’s this idea that Black people can utilize capitalism to achieve some betterment, some freedom that we wouldn’t be able to attain otherwise without capitalism. So I think it connects with what I was just saying, in the sense that we’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas, and two forms of violence that shouldn’t be ours to try to lay claim to, to try to make use of. Black capitalism is connected to the state and this form of violence, that we know is doing us a lot of harm. To try to say that we’re going to make use of it and to achieve our liberation that way is all a part of the bigger picture I’m trying to illustrate using Black anarchism. It’s to say that you cannot reform and change the inner workings of violence that has been structured against us historically and then make it work for us.
That’s the truth with the state. That’s the truth with capitalism. We’re not going to get free by saying we just need to take this pre-existing form of violence that was not created to serve us and paint it black, or paint it red, or whatever the case may be, and say that it’s going to be different, and that is going to be liberatory that time, the gears and the mechanisms that are built into it are going to do what they are intended to do. With regard to the state, that means having a monopoly on violence that is always self-preserving. With capitalism, we know that means an unfettered, unrestricted desire for accumulation and exploitation. So those are not things that are going to help free us, and putting a Black label on them doesn’t do any good for us either.
TFSR: Yeah, and again, your looking to post-colonial Africa shows that clearly. One of the things I’m hearing what you’re talking about now, and this connects to another question I had prepared was the way that blackness gets used often as this monolithic or single-minded thing. But one of the chapters in your book talks about this rewriting of Black history in a relationship to a lost history, of history that is stolen through a mythology of what life was like for people in Africa.
You also connect this to a critique of celebrity, which is slightly different, but I was really excited that you took these things on in your book. But one of the things that I’m really interested in is that you allow for history to be complex and messy, right? You talked about African people who participated in the slave trade knowingly, they didn’t perpetrate the same institutions that the European colonists did, but it isn’t this Black-and-white thing easily. So I was just wondering if you talk a little bit about this mythological use of Africa and the cultural imaginary or if you want to talk about the cult of celebrity, too? Also, how do you think we can not keep simplifying everything or flattening everything out?
W: I think the narrative that’s been created around the slave trade that you can actually see historically and in many forms of white nationalism, that we are royalty fallen from grace, and that we need to reclaim that royalty. It feeds into iterations of Black capitalism that we see now. That’s why I bring both up. Because I don’t think that you can separate the two. You have someone saying that we’re descended from kings and queens and that we come from royalty. What they’re doing is they’re feeding into the idea that wealth and royalty are what gives someone worth and value. So that’s not something that you can separate from Black capitalism now, which argues the same thing in many ways, saying that by accumulating or having large amounts of wealth, we’re going to be free, and that we’re going to be liberated.
I think that it’s important to disrupt this idea that, even if we were descending from kings and queens, that that makes us good, or that makes us better, or that’s why we’re deserving of respect as people. I think that we have to push back against that. So when I look at that connection, it leads me to say, we have to complicate history a little bit more and be a little bit more honest, if we’re going to disrupt it. We do that by looking at what actually took place during the slave trade, which is very complicated and very complex.
There were a lot of different tensions, there were a lot of different relationships between African people that show us that it wasn’t just as simple as many would hope to make it. I think that people give European slave traders too much credit. They were not as efficient as I think some narratives might make them, and not as intelligent as many narratives might make them. So I bring up the example in the text of Liberia and the formation of Liberia. I talked briefly about the fact that formerly enslaved African people went back to the continent and engaged in some heinous, very disturbing things that included using the backing of the US state to acquire land, to force servitude, and to expand a settler process on the continent, in the name of forming a Black nation. You can’t separate that history from this idea of trying to form a Black nation now and say that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t compare. There’s something there and that history that has to be looked at closely and observed in terms of what it means for Black capitalism, but also what it means in terms of Black nationalism. So those are things that I like to bring up because it’s these overlooked aspects of history that I feel would help people challenge this automatic response of just embracing what conventional leftism has told us, and conventional radicalism has told us is the way to go.
TFSR: That probably comes back to the quotation from Gilroy, I mean, even just proclaiming that innocence in a way evacuates, empties people out of the way that they actually operate in the world, which is not just one thing or the other.
W: And something that it does, too, that’s important to note, is that it actually, in my opinion, takes away from looking at Black people as people. It’s like when you try to create this myth of this essential innocence and make Black people into this uncomplicated homogenous group, you’re actually doing something that is really disrespectful to Black people. That’s an important takeaway here: by trying to make Black America into this exceptional group that is innocent and incapable of doing anything harmful, you’re actually feeding into another sort of violence and disturbing rhetoric against Black people.
TFSR: Right. Because in the end, that’s not even super different than some of the racist stereotypes that have been imposed upon Black people historically in the US. This might actually be a good place to pivot to this question I had about popular culture because you talk about celebrity and stuff, but I just wonder what your thoughts on how we relate to pop culture, because it clearly is inspirational to a lot of us, but it’s also super captured by the structures of capitalism, individual gain, there’s a hierarchy. You made a really amazing playlist that goes along with your book, for example, there’s a lot of political music on there, too. But I’m just wondering, how do we engage with this cultural production from an anarchist lens. The history of American pop culture is a history of a lot of theft of Black cultural production. But it’s also a place that historically, I think, Black improvement has been relegated to and the way that white consumers relate to it is another version of this flattening out, which you see also in writing and stuff. James Baldwin talks about this a lot. So I just wonder what your general thoughts are on pop culture, because it’s there, it’s inspiring, and it also has problems?
W: I think the relationship that we have with celebrity culture is also tied to the critique I make of Black capitalism and Black capitalistic rationale. So much of the value that people put on celebrities has to do with the wealth that they’ve acquired, the visibility that they’ve acquired, and these forms of capital that people seek out in social ways. When we’re thinking about celebrity culture and what fame means, a lot of times that feeds into this disturbing interruption that occurs within our movements, because activists end up becoming famous organizers, they become celebrities. That ends up being a distraction and a counter-revolutionary seed in our movements because it becomes more about what this one famous person, who’s a famous activist has to say and what they think because they are the leader.
Black anarchism, I think has a lot of really great insights, obviously, with regard to the historical critiques around hierarchy, and vanguardism, and the way that those things are problematic in our movements. That’s one aspect of it. But there’s also the way that people who are famous for other things, be it music or sports or whatever entertainment, the way that those people are viewed automatically as leadership and the Black vanguard or as someone who has some expertise on activism just because they’re famous. So fame also generates this idea that there’s an inherent intelligence and understanding that comes with the ability to accumulate. So it’s to say that this person is famous, so they must know what needs to be done, they must know what we should do, we should go to them. You end up having these celebrities who are commenting on things that they know nothing about, that they have no understanding of, with regard to movements and politics. It’s really absurd and really dangerous for our movements because you end up having people following the words and the direction of someone just because they’re famous, when they have no clue what should be done, no clue what’s happening on the ground, what is happening in communities.
So, Black autonomous radicalism, Black anarchism helps us to see that the people who know what needs to be happening are the people who are in those conditions, the people who are actually in their communities. It’s not just about the famous activist, it is not just about the celebrity. It’s not just about the famous revolutionary. That’s another point I try to make the text because I think that a lot of leftists would have a critique of a celebrity in “stan” culture and these cultish relationships that people have with certain celebrities, but they have those sorts of relationships with dead revolutionaries and people who they’ve turned into saints, and people who they’ve turned into infallible politicians and leaders of the past. They look at these people, and they have a fandom of their own, with regard to the way that they view history, and they treat their favorite historical figures as perfect, flawless characters that are unquestioned because of their historical fame and their noteworthiness with regard to revolutions of the past and efforts and fights of the past, that also escape critique because of their fame and the way that we regard them in this fantastical, mythological way.
TFSR: It makes me think, if we relegate our politics to the politics of representation, which was a huge response by corporations to the uprisings of last year, George Floyd uprisings to be Netflix Bookmarks series, we really get politics to that. Then also the representation that comes from having Black artists, Black actors, Black creators of culture be the spokespeople, like you said, ends up reifying that monolithic version of the race that is what the struggle is to destroy, right? By saying that someone could speak for a whole people, that are identified by this power structure as belonging together. So representation gets talked about a lot as a route of freedom, but it ends up being such a trap so often. As a teacher, I always get caught up with people who really stick to these things. Megan Thee Stallion is a feminist or something like that. Because we have such a simplified view of what it means to be political, it is just doing some basic form of empowerment.
W: I hope that people will understand that I’m not saying that a famous person can’t contribute to a movement. I’m also not saying that a person who’s a celebrity has nothing to give or nothing to offer or can’t know what’s going on or have an informed analysis. That’s not the case. I bring up Paul Robeson as a historical example of someone to look to that actually had a lot of amazing things to contribute to movements and had done a lot of work that is actually really impactful historically. But rather than thinking that fame is something that we should use to try to build movements, I’m saying that it’s actually a problem because it feeds into a lot of hierarchical arrangements, and a lot of disturbing notions of leadership and vanguardism, that we need to move away from, in my opinion. After all, I don’t think that we should be looking for some elite to guide us, be it a revolutionary elite, be it an entertainment elite. I think that what’s happening amongst everyday people who are self-organizing, who are building autonomy, and who know their own unique conditions, that is who needs to be focused on. The actual people doing the work in their own communities, in their own neighborhoods, and understanding their own conditions better than anyone else, would try to tell them that they should be understood under the guise of whatever ideology they might do that.
TFSR: One thing I hadn’t really thought about a lot, but I heard you saying is that it also connects to the ideology of capitalism, that there’s a meritocracy, like the people who we know, we’ve heard about are there because they deserve to be there rather than whatever luck brought them there. I think that’s really important to keep in mind also. Whatever becomes super mainstream and popular isn’t going to give us the full story. If it’s so popular, it can totally be a threat anyway. In that line, I want to go to the way that you talk about the legacies of Black freedom movements of the mid 20th century, and how they’ve been rewritten into a nationalist story, and I’m gonna quote you say that “it’s been made into a singular struggle with one line of thinking”, and that you call a state project that attempts to give Black people a stake in the violence of the US. So what is called Black history becomes everyone’s story. Then a source of pride for the US, not shame, for example. I was just wondering about that process and how it affects Black people, Black radicals differently than white radicals who are trying to struggle against racial capitalism and the state, too.
W: The way that this plays out, and has played out for some time now, historically, is that the state is able to absorb the Black struggle, by making it into something that is a necessary gear or mechanism to make it better. What I mean by that is I’m saying that the way the state has absorbed and taken the story, for example, of the civil rights movement, and made it about an overarching effort to just reform, the intention, and the direction of the US state, that’s something that has completely been normalized. That’s what we get in education in school and grade school, we’re taught that from the earliest moments that we enter into the education system. We look at that and see how the state is using Black history to maintain itself by saying that Black people have only ever wanted to make the state more efficient and more inclusive and better, rather than looking at the whole of Black History, where we can come into a much deeper understanding that that’s not the case.
One of the examples that I bring up in the texts, as I talk about Lucy Parsons, again, a formerly enslaved Black woman, who’s an anarchist, and she’s arguing against voting at a time where she doesn’t even have the right to vote. She couldn’t even vote and she said, this is worthless. She couldn’t even do it. You look at an example like that and you say, “That’s amazing for Lucy to have had that insight into the symbolism and the emptiness of US electoral politics at a time when she couldn’t even legally engage in it. That history really pushes against this idea that Black people were just a single movement, Black radicalism was just a single movement full of people just trying to fight to be included and treated better by the state. That’s not the case. So, we obviously see what this can turn into when people lean into that reasoning. You know, we have things like the 1619 Project, which said Black people made the US a democracy or something like that. But it’s not a democracy, it is not a project that is even doing what it claims to be doing in terms of, again, for example, voting. We still don’t have a guaranteed right to be able to cast votes as Black people in the United States. To say that Black people made the US a democracy and to feed into this idea of a more inclusive US project is actually doing a disservice to our movements by saying that the state is something that is redeemable, and that can be fixed if we just keep pushing and trying to make it better.
Now, whether people want to talk about it or not, that’s happening also from the left. And when we look at it in a more global context, what a lot of the politics that we see from many versions of state socialism are saying is that we need to just have a better state and that there are states that we need to be trying to be more like, because if we’re able to reform the state to a socialist economy, that’s going to solve all of our problems. Then, traditionally, obviously, there’s been a line that the state will wither away, and then we’ll have a stateless society, and that’ll be communism. But again, when we’re truthful about history, and we see what has happened historically with state socialist projects, you cannot just lay blame for everything going wrong at the hands of the imperialists and empire. There have also been betrayals, there’s also been atrocity, there’s also been corruption, there’s also been a lot of horrible things that have happened, that have contributed to why those projects haven’t done and achieved what we’ve been told by the conventional leftist narrative that what we’ve been told that they were supposed to do. So, when we look at those things in a much deeper way, we can begin to actually start to create and craft movements that think beyond the state, that think beyond trying to reform and fix all of these really dangerous structures that people are trying to wrestle with and lay claim to. In the context of us nationalism, so much of that takes place in really insidious ways, whether it’s the classroom, the museum, or television, popular culture, we are always being told that we can lay claim and reform what’s oppressing us and what’s killing us. I’m trying to write against that idea across the entire spectrum and say that these things are not for us. They’re not going to free us. People have already been trying to do this for long enough for us to say, “this is not working” and for us to do something that transcends the left and all of our ideas of movement and left radicalism entirely and historically.
TFSR: One of the convenient things about the narrative that we’re talking about that makes it something that’s over, which obviously, as you point out, contradicts the material reality of people’s existence, that struggle for freedom is over. Or even if it was just limited to voting, while the Supreme Court or whatever could say, “there’s no longer a threat to Black people voting”, that is clearly not true.
W: One thing I would add to that, too, is that for me to say what I just said, for example, about state socialism and how the promises of liberation are not completely achieved by just transitioning to a socialist economy. What I’m saying there is, again, similar to looking at the history of the civil rights movement and of reform and of legislative efforts. Because what is true is that there have been gains that have been made, of course, with state socialism. But there have also been gains that have been made through reformism and through some of the liberal efforts of liberal activists in the civil rights movement. I’m not saying that reform has never achieved anything. But what I’m saying is that it’s not enough. I’m not saying it’s never done anything. I’m not saying that Black nationalism has never done anything. I’m not saying the state socialism has never done anything. I know that they have, I recognize it much. But what I’m saying is, we have to be honest about the limitation when we see, the patterns that have occurred historically and push for something greater. That’s the point that I’m trying to make. So you say these things and people get defensive because they know about gains that have been made. But I’m saying let’s push for something much greater than the table scraps of liberalism. Let’s push for something much greater than the limitations and the violence of the state.
TFSR: Yeah, whether it’s from a performance perspective, or the authoritarian left, or the statist left, there’s this “realism” that gets invoked against our aspirations of freedom. But what you say in the book is that there have been some gains, right? I like the way you say “liberalism’s table scraps”, but they’ve also been gains that plug us in further to this killing system that’s continuing to kill at the same time.
W: Exactly. Because when you make those gains be a complete totality of everything, and when you overemphasize them to such an extent, you end up feeding into the system in such a way that you start working to preserve the system rather than exceed it and go beyond it. So when you overemphasize what has been done, you might start to lose sight of what could be done. You can look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Black Power movement, or any movement and act like it was perfect, and then just that it just needs to be mimicked. Because it’s not good to start getting caught up in this idea that that was it, that’s what we need to do again. Because when you’re doing that again, and again, and again, you’re not working to break free of it.
TFSR: Yeah. I think that was beautifully said. One thought that came up, a connection that I hadn’t made before. There’s something that I think is a really important connection that you make in the book is that you take a look at the great migration historically as a continuation of a diaspora that’s ongoing and connected to gentrification. I’m thinking about this also in relation to the statist leftists who can’t deal with the fact of stateless people, if their solution is the state. You use the migrant status of Black people within the US and also around the world as a point of solidarity, and you even talk about your own radicalization through migrant defense work. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about your reading of the great migration, because I think it’s something that maybe needs to be spoken about more, and also how you see that fitting into the current moment and in places of solidarity in the ways that the state is threatening most vulnerable people.
W: Yeah, the interesting thing is that that actually played a lot into my interest in anarchism, too. I was really frustrated with the left, but I also was thinking about anarchism because I was doing this organizing work that made me think a lot about citizenship and the state. In the immigrant rights movement, I’ve gotten involved because I understood that I was not a citizen, I was taught that growing up, my parents told me, you’re not just a second class citizen, you’re really not considered a citizen at all. I internalized that in a way growing up that became a part of my politics now and my understanding and thinking around statelessness, and the ways that Black people experience it across the Americas. With regard to all of that, I know that in the immigrant rights movement, there is a lot of subtle and overt racism against Black people. Black people are not the face of the immigrant rights movement. Despite experiencing disproportionate rates of deportation and incarceration, Black people are not seen as undocumented, or immigrants, or as migrants. What that ends up doing is it takes away from a type of solidarity and a type of struggle that could be built, it actually undermines that movement significantly. I used to try to point that out in that movement, where people didn’t really have a lot of understanding of why I was participating. I was trying to find a language to explain this back then. But it didn’t always come out the way that I can express it now, because I had to take a lot of time to think and develop the understanding that I now can claim. But you hear people talk about migration struggles, and they totally neglect the Great Migration.
To be more specific, they neglect the Great Migrations, there was more than one that has occurred with regard to Black America, forced and otherwise. They’re all forced in the sense that I’m talking about migrations of Black people who had to leave because maybe they got priced out or gentrification happened now. And historically, you had migrations during enslavement, whereby people were forced to move en masse to other places in the country because of the demand of the slave-holding class and what their desires were for agricultural production. When you look at that history and pay attention to all of the times that Black people have had to move and have been pushed out of places and forced around this country, it creates a pretty stunning example of what we can see on a global scale that’s happening domestically, which is there is no real place to run to find this absolute safe haven and asylum that we can lay claim to that’s going to protect us from state violence.
When you bring that into the history of Black anarchism, you see someone like Lorenzo, who’s fleeing to other countries, looking for that asylum and not finding it. Lorenzo’s story is one of many. I highlight his specifically because I’m talking about Black anarchism. But there have been plenty of other times where Black people have historically gone to other countries looking for liberation, looking for freedom, and did not find them, including under state socialism. That’s something that’s happened both domestically and internationally. I’m trying to draw that connection there. Obviously, domestically, we’re talking about under the oppression of the US state. But then when you start thinking outside of the US state, there’s a discussion to be had about what Black people and migration tell us about the state generally, here within the US context, but also outside of the US. There’s something there that needs to be unpacked very much, needs to be observed deeply and internalized.
TFSR: I appreciate it in the book that you draw the connection that those conditions that force Black migration within the United States aren’t different in kind that forces the other migrations around the globe, whether it’s Black people or not, but it does include Black people, and, as you rightly point out, that’s often overlooked. But building on that idea that you said came from your parents, too, in terms of your relationship to citizenship as a Black person in the US. That’s something that is going back to your work with Zoé Samudzi, the idea of Black and anarchy, that being Black in the US positions someone into being potentially this internal threat to the coherence of the state, that doesn’t necessarily translate into radical organizing or radical consciousness.
But one of the things that I see you really working on in the book is how do you move from that space of being potentially a threat by definition from the state to actually working towards generalizing that ungovernability or whatever a process of that radicalization is; how do we get people to see those conditions and then politicize their actions. You frame this also just in terms of the Black Panther survival programs, which weren’t just like feeding people, but also politicizing them. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what insight you’ve gained about individual radicalization from a position of blackness, and also how to frame the survival programs that you talked about Black people having been doing historically for generations and centuries even, but like how to frame those as explicitly antithetical to the state.
W: I think that one of the best things that we can do is discourage people from positively identifying with the US project. We can do that by illustrating all of the different times that state violence has targeted Black people historically. We can do that by talking about statelessness. We can do that by talking about how Black people have been positioned as inherently seditious, inherently “alien”, or inherently criminal. Those sorts of realizations help us highlight that this is not something that is going to be fixed through reformism. When we were writing The Anarchism of Blackness and talking about the way that Black people have had to work and think outside of the state and engage in anarchistic practices without laying claim to anarchism as a set of policies, necessarily, what we are saying there is that highlighting those examples historically and talking about how they occur repeatedly throughout history, even today, that is telling us and that is informing us about what the state actually is and what it means with regard to Black people. So rather than trying to reform it, or seize it and lay claim to it and reform it, we’re discussing what we can actually do to delegitimize it in our minds and move away from trying to make it ours or make it better or make it more efficient. It’s important to advocate for that, in my opinion. Because if you get caught up in this idea that you can actually reform the state, what ends up happening is you get this overarching patriotism, that creeps in there and starts encouraging people to try to find value in what it is they’re putting efforts towards reforming and trying to fix. If you’re doing all that work, you might start saying, “Well, this is something that’s redeemable and it’s something that can just be adjusted.”
That’s one of the things I think is really important for anarchists to challenge specifically because you hear a lot of conversations among anarchists and around mutual aid, you hear a lot of people saying, “I’m not trying to let the state off the hook, or I’m not trying to fill in the gaps for what the state should be doing.” But I think that what we were trying to get at back then with The Anarchism of Blackness was saying the state is not on the hook. The state is not malfunctioning, it’s not doing something wrong when it commits state violence against us, that is a part of its core function. It has a monopoly on violence. It creates a system of haves and have-nots. It has a ruling class, it has core intentions that tell it to do what it’s doing, that give it instruction and give it life through doing those things. So rather than trying to fix them, we should actually be encouraging people to remove ourselves from the idea that it has something for us in it that we just haven’t discovered yet.
TFSR: Do you have any thoughts on how to make our mutual aid projects not co-optable? Because they do fill in the gaps in terms of making people survive and I’m thinking in disaster relief, and particularly in the long COVID period where there’s been a lot of survival programs put in place by people, and they may be done by anarchists, but I don’t necessarily see how they’re a threat. A lot of disaster relief work around hurricanes and stuff could be claimed by the state after the fact. I mean, that’s something you talked about in the book, that that’s something that we need to do. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.
W: Well, I think that one of the most important things to observe is the history of revolutionary intercommunalism of the Black Panther Party. That’s one of the reasons I’m bringing that up in the text. And that’s where we get survival programs. That’s where that comes in. So survival programs and mutual aid are obviously distinct, and they have different meanings. I’m not trying to conflate the two. But one thing I’ve been saying when I talk about this book is that these are both things that work. They can complement one another. Because of people’s dedication to dogma, to ideology, to doctrine, they look past things that could work to their benefit. So the intercommunalism of the Panthers and the survival program is something that offers a lot, a lot, a lot of valuable, good history, good organizing, good work that can be done to actually be much more effective now. I don’t think that people have a real deep understanding of what it was that the Panthers were doing with intercommunalism and what the survival program was.
What needs to be done is going to be specific. First and foremost, I want to say that it’s going to be specific to every community, and I’m not going to try to be a person that is doing exactly what I tried to speak against, saying that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that is gonna save everybody, I’m not going to talk like that, or at least I want to try to avoid talking like that. But one of the things that we can see with the survival program, for example, was that Panthers were creating a systemic approach to meeting the material needs of people and communities across the country and doing things that were absolutely necessary to sustain everyday life for Black people. They were not just doing it to just be doing it. That’s an important thing to note there. Because you can have a program, or you can have a mutual aid group, and just give out food, or give out clothes or do whatever the case may be. But if you are not politicizing that word, undermining capitalism, talking about state violence, and rejecting and fighting back against it while you’re doing that work, and through that work, then that takes away from what you’re doing. If I give somebody some groceries, and say, “Hey, here’s some groceries, I know that you need some food,” it is not the same as giving somebody some groceries that have some propaganda in there, that say, “I’m giving you these groceries because of this capitalist system creating a problem where you don’t have access to them in the first place oppressing you.” Those are two completely different things.
So, you can be giving someone groceries every week. But if you’re giving groceries with that intention, and with the political education, and the radical information you can distribute with it, it’s a much different thing. These efforts have to be politicized and be radical in a way that actually is doing the work, which makes it a threat. The Panthers were targeted because their work was a threat. What is going to make our work threatening, what is going to make us ungovernable, to quote Lorenzo, a lot of that has to do with the political intention to actually undermine the state and to undermine the efforts of the state to maintain power. So, you can’t just do it just to be doing it. There has to be that intention behind it. I think that that’s one of the most important things, and when you look at different Black anarchist approaches, one of the things that’s going to come up is “Okay, if everybody does start doing it with that intention, where do we go from there?” Again, that’s going to be a different answer depending on who you’re talking to, or depending on who you’re reading in terms of Black anarchists historically. But if you talk to somebody like Lorenzo, Lorenzo is going to talk about dual power, he’s gonna talk about building dual power.
Again, that takes us back into the history of Black anarchism drawing from that which informed it, but that which it also critiques. So that dual power that’s coming from Lenin, and I will tell you right now, Lorenzo has plenty of criticism for Lenin. But he’s drawing from dual power. You can talk about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon outlining dual power before Lenin. You can keep going back with the history there, that it’s more complicated, but Lorenzo’s conception of dual power, he’s drawing from Lenin and talking about building a complete economy, a complete network that is taking these efforts to actually counter the state and making them so effective, that it is actually posing as a real challenge because it’s connected. It’s not just happening on these individual bases, sprinkled throughout the country and isolated. It’s being connected in a way that begins to actually pose a challenge to power. That has to happen globally, too, when we’re thinking about this, this isn’t just about what’s happening within US borders.
TFSR: And that’s how you pull on Huey Newton’s intercommunalism as a replacement for internationalist thinking as a way of linking struggle without that nationalist idea. I think that’s really important. I’m grateful to you for teaching me about that. I’m going to characterize this as a white leftist utopian idea that defers revolution to another time, but also it’s always thinking about catastrophe is impending, not here yet. But when you listen to the Black anarchists, indigenous anarchists, there’s this awareness that we’re in the middle of it, right? It’s not it’s not about to happen. It’s been happening. You say in the book that the race war isn’t coming, we’re not just looking at white supremacists and Nazis preparing for the race war, it’s here through the state. So, I’m wondering if acknowledging that survival-pending revolution doesn’t mean the revolution is always to come, but it means that we’re in the midst of it right now, maybe. How does that help us reframe these dual powers, mutual aid, survival programs as more effective at the moment rather than preparatory to something that’s going to come?
W: I’d say, if we’re being honest about conditions and what has to happen, there’s no real choice other than to be building these programs. Because if we don’t, people are going to perish and people are going to suffer. If we’re honest about the fact that the state is not for us, it’s not serving us, it’s not benefiting us, then there’s a core truth that comes with that, that this system which is ruling over our everyday lives is a part of the crisis that people seem to have this cinematic idea of. It is a part of this crisis at the current moment. It’s not something that is a destination that’s far away. It’s something that is here now. It’s connected to our everyday lives in this present moment.
So, rather than trying to portray it as something that is this end-of-the-world apocalyptic moment, we have to look at what’s occurring on a day-to-day basis. I would encourage people to read Professor Bedour Alagraa’s work because her writing on catastrophe has been pretty influential around my thinking here. But it’s not something that we can just look at as a final event that’s going to take place and just fall on our heads. It’s something that’s playing out day to day. And for us to actually work against it and to fight these systems that are dropping terror on our lives regularly, we have to recognize as much and try to undermine and work against this repetition that is playing out in this destructive way, rather than treating things as if they are going to play out in this cinematic film-like fantasy way that there’s just this one explosive thing that’s going to happen. A lot of the history and a lot of the events that we think of as a part of that film-like fantasy are things that have already occurred before and are things that are going to occur much sooner than would happen in that play in our heads.
TFSR: The subtitle of the book is Black Anarchism and Abolition, and one way you define abolition is that it is one step within a larger project of the revolution. How you’re talking about this makes me think that it changes the timeline of revolution, like abolition is this thing that we’re doing right now within this larger horizon. I wonder if you want to talk about how you see abolition, and how it relates to a Black anarchist project, too, because those words get linked, but they’re also seem to be distinct, right?
W: When I was talking about abolition, I was talking about it because, obviously, abolition became much more widely discussed in a very quick amount of time. I wanted to take abolition beyond the state for more people. Because I think that what abolition meant to a lot of people when it became so much more widely discussed and embraced, the way that it did during the uprisings of 2020, I think what abolition meant for a lot of people was no more police and that’s it. I was trying to complicate it in this text by saying that the police are just one aspect of state violence, they are not the entirety of it. Ultimately, if you want to get rid of state violence, you need to get rid of the state. Black anarchism is already been having that conversation for a long time now. So I was just trying to bring abolition to that point for some people who may not have been there yet.
TFSR: It’s so important, I think always to include the state in our project of abolition, not even just police and prisons because they all uphold each other in a way.
W: Even if you were to get rid of the police, that’s just one form of policing. That’s just one form of systematic violence that the state uses to inflict terror on people domestically and globally.
TFSR: Exactly. One thing that comes up for me is going back to migration, diaspora, and the relationship of diaspora and indigeneity. I’m Jewish, I am from a diaspora position, and specifically, as a Jewish person I’m against Zionism as the solution to diaspora or something, because it’s another violent settler state, a racist settler state. But I’m also like a settler in the US. So I was just wondering, from a Black anarchist perspective, how you might relate the conditions of diaspora and the support of indigenous struggle, without turning them into some argument between the two, which I see also happening sometimes. Because a distinction that has been drawn between the conditions of blackness and conditions of indigenous people in the US is like landlessness and stolen land or something like that. I’m just wondering what you think are connections of support and solidarity between a Black anarchist perspective and support of indigenous struggles in the US and worldwide? I was framing it through a question of diaspora because diaspora and indigeneity could be seen as some oppositional position. If it doesn’t really make sense to you, that’s fine. I’m struggling a little bit with how to articulate it, it was something I’m interested in.
W: There’s this thing that happens that people don’t see Black people as indigenous people. In a way, that parallels what I was describing with the way that Black people are not seen as migrants or immigrants. I think to put them in proper conversation, you just have to recognize that Black people can occupy that category and do occupy that category, and to have a more complete understanding of indigeneity, rather than trying to make blackness and indigeneity mutually exclusive. So, when I’m talking about bringing a more full and complete understanding to Black people and blackness and migration, then what happens is you start doing the work of getting away from undermining what could be a stronger movement when you have that more comprehensive understanding of all of the intricacies that can take place under that term. In the same way, I was talking about how the immigrant rights movement undermines itself by excluding and having racism against Black people, rather than seeking to be included and to diversify, just being honest about what is actually taking place. It’s not just about including me in this movement and making me a part of it. I’ll have representation rather than saying, “Why is this movement not including and why is it not recognizing this,” and then trying to do better and go beyond and push for more. I think that the same thing could happen for sure with indigenous and anarchisms, rather than having this conflict around inclusion.
TFSR: The other thing that I would love to hear you talk about is the title of your book because I think it’s a really beautiful, evocative title. You’re critical of the nation, but in the title and in your writing, there’s this idea of a nation beyond the state, and map, too, has been a tool of colonialism, but also holds some mystery. I’m just wondering what you’re saying with the title and what your inspiration here and how that phrase “the nation on no map” frames blackness in relation to the state?
W: The title of the book comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem about the gang that was once called the Blackstone Rangers. She has this line in the poem where she says “their country as a nation on no map.” When I first read that poem, it really stuck out to me, it was so beautiful, the way that she constructed that. It was something that I included in As Black As Resistance when we’re talking about the complexities of gangs in that text. Part of what’s being said with the title is that there is an acknowledgment of that statelessness that is there and that phrasing “the nation on no map”, but there’s also another thing that I’m trying to do, which is to say, what if we’re not only a nation on no map, what if we’re not a nation? And what if we’re not on a map? Because we know that those things are not for us. It’s really about acknowledging our position but letting that lead to more questions about why that position is what it is in the first place. So I’m not trying to advocate for nationhood in any way, I’m actually questioning it with that title. So I appreciate Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem as well because I think that gangs and organizations that formed on the streets have a lot to say and form a lot of my thinking about how things could potentially look in the future in terms of the way conflict I feel is going to play out in this country. I think that a lot of the left ignores and doesn’t recognize gangs, and doesn’t think and try to approach gangs in the way that needs to happen. But there’s a lot of revolutionary history there. So much of this is about overlooked history. There’s a lot of evolutionary history there that has to be acknowledged, and I wasn’t trying to go back down that path, because I felt like it was already covered a lot in As Black As Resistance. But I was trying to bring back that thread.
TFSR: I think that’s super important to look at gangs and how it gets overlooked. Thanks for breaking that down. In the book, you also have included photographs, and I just wonder if you can talk about how you see them interacting with the text. They are beautiful and haunting clearly. How you chose them or what their role is in that text?
W: Those are just all my photos. I took those photos over years. There were just a lot of different moments, when I was writing this text, that I saw something and I took a photo, and I was writing the text and thinking about how those photos and what I was taking an image of how it relates. For example, somewhere within the chapter where I’m talking about the narrative around kings and queens and the mythology and the way that history is mythologized to make Black people into all descendants of African nobility, I thought about that with regard to a Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I attended in Louisiana, and I took a picture of one of the re-enactors on his horse. I put it in that chapter because I think that is absolutely connected to what I’m saying. I wrote an essay about that, that also exists on Hyperallergic. I wrote that, but I thought about it and its connection in the sense that the way that I was seeing this idea that by glorifying this former slave rebellion, it will restore a certain pride and a certain revolutionary spirit in Black people. It made me wonder about the connections between the past and what we tried to communicate through emphasizing certain history. I thought that it was really interesting to witness that at the Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I went to. So I put that picture there, just because I thought it was connected. I didn’t go into the detail, obviously, that I went into just now, but it’s just something that I was thinking about when I was there.
Many of the photos in that text… I talk about bombings, I talk about Dynamite Hill, I’m from Birmingham, so I took a picture of Angela Davis’s childhood home on Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and also took a picture of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was also subject to that violence. They’re just there to illustrate connections. But they’re also there because I like to include as much imagery with my writing as possible. I try to be very thoughtful about images, whether it’s an essay or a book, there are no images in As Black As Resistance. But I definitely will try to put images wherever I can, because I think that they make it easier to read. I think that people like to look at things and see images while they’re reading. I think that it also helps try to take away from this idea that the type of writing that I’m doing has to be really plain and not interactive. So I’m trying to make it more fun to read something that’s not necessarily a fun subject, if that makes sense. Maybe fun isn’t the right word, but at least just make it more interactive for people.
TFSR: I totally get what you’re saying. I really appreciate you unpacking that particular connection. But it’s almost an invitation to the reader. Because it sparks your imagination and be like “Well, what is this picture? What is it doing here? How does it relate to the text?” It invites interactive reading.
W: I write about photography, a decent amount. I have multiple essays out there in the world about photography that I’ve done with Hyperallergic and the British Journal of Photography. So photography is really important to me as an art form, but also as something that can be violent, and used for really horrible and disturbing purposes. So I think about photography a lot. It’s always something like music, it is just a big part of my life and my work and I try to interact with it whenever I’m doing these things.
TFSR: You’ve entertained a lot of questions, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and think about all this stuff and present some of the ideas from your book to the listeners. Is there anything else that you’d want to talk about or cover that we didn’t get a chance to?
W: Not at the moment, just want to say thank you for this interview and for reading the book. Thanks to anybody that’s listening for listening or reading the book or thinking about reading the book. I’m really grateful for all of it. Everyone that’s listening, be safe and be good in your community and try to do what you can, and solidarity.
TFSR: I really appreciate your thinking and your work and I think it’s a huge contribution. Thank you for taking the time and we’ll include in the show too, how people can connect with your work and you if you want.
In this chat, they talk about racialized violence against trans/queer people as a foundational part of the modern US state; trace this in the formation of the US settler state and how it persists today. They also discuss the improvised ways trans and queer people learn and share survival tactics and thrive under these condition in order to envision a new world.
Dan Baker Has Been Transferred
Anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Daniel Baker, who was convicted of transmitting threats while calling for anti-racists to show up in Tallahassee and stop a possible Trumpist coup received 44 months in prison and 3 years of probation. His legal defense is appealing and we’ll be re-airing an interview with his support crew soon. Meanwhile, there’s a great article by Natasha Leonard in The Intercept on the outcome of the case and we wanted to let you know that Dan has been transferred to FCI Memphis.
You can write him and send him books at:
Daniel Baker #25765-509 FCI Memphis P.O, Box 34550 Memphis, TN 38184 United States
Note that he cannot receive photos or colored envelopes. You can find his book list plus a bunch of other info by visiting PrisonerSolidarity.Com and searching his name, alongside a bunch of other political prisoners of the so-called US & elsewhere.
Blue Ridge ABC Letter Writing
If you’re in the asheville area, just a reminder that Blue Ridge ABC will be hosting a letter writing at West Asheville Park on the 1st Sunday of December, only THIS time it’s from 3-5pm to handle the available natural light.
B(A)D News Episode 50
If you’re looking for more anarchist perspectives, check out episode 50 of the A-Radio Network’s BAD News: Angry Voices From Around The World. This November 2021 episode of our monthly offering features a shortened version of our talk with ASP, updates from Frequenz-A in northern Germany about the situation on the Belarusian and Polish border, Elephant In The Room from Dresden with updates on repression and resistance in Belarus, A-Radio Berlin sharing on the racist police killing of the migrant Giorgos Zantiotis in a Wuppertal jail cell and resulting protests and Crna Luknja from Lubjlana talking about the refugee situation in the Western Balkans.
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Dicks Hate The Police by Dicks from Kill From The Heart
Riot (prod by Gobby) by Mykki Blanco from Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss
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Eric Stanley: My name is Eric Stanley. I use they/them pronouns. I live, work, and organize and in various capacities and San Francisco, California.
TFSR: I’m super excited to get to talk to you. And specifically we’re talking about your recently published book Atmospheres of Violence. And before getting into the argument specifically, I just wanted to acknowledge and appreciate that you publish a book with an academic press, Duke University Press, that’s very explicitly anti-state and anarchistic aligned, and that find unique, remarkable, exciting. So I was just wondering if you wanted to talk at all about your experience as someone working within academia taking an anti-state position, because I’ve had a lot of push-back. I’ve been in and out of universities, and it’s not always a very safe place to be explicitly radical, or there’s a limited amount of symbolic radicalism that you can do. So I just was wondering if you had any ideas on how you take that position up.
ES: I mean, that’s a really interesting question, one that people usually don’t ask me. So it made me think a lot. So as you might know, I published my first book that I edited Capture Genders on AK Press. So I’ve worked with them a lot over the years. And I published this one on Duke, because you know, one of the little secrets about having an academic job, if you don’t publish on an academic press, you get fired. And then you can never work in the University of California system for the rest of your life. So there’s that part of it, the materiality of you know, this is what you have to do. But that being said, my editor at Duke, Elizabeth Ault has been incredibly supportive since the beginning of the project. There’s never been any push-back from her. And I feel like she’s done a really good job protecting the project in terms of my vision and my politics and my theoretical commitments. So I appreciate that.
And then in the larger question of the academy… and I think, for me, I somewhat fly below the radar. I’m just this small person in this huge institution. And luckily they generally are not paying a lot of attention to me. So that is definitely to my benefit. When the introduction of the book did come out, though, the alt-right started doing all these screen-caps of it and it got very big in this weird alt-right way. They started emailing me and emailing my job and trying to get me fired and all that kind of stuff. But that being said, I think you’re exactly right. The university itself is fundamentally right-wing institution. There are some people that can do okay stuff. I always think about it in terms of it’s the place that steals my labor. It’s not a thing that I heavily identify with. It’s my job that I go to. Sometimes I can do interesting things there.
I really like working with students, and I get to learn from interesting colleagues, but it’s not a central part of my understanding of myself. And I think that that allows me to be like “Okay, it’s just that thing over there. And then I leave there.” My organizing oftentimes hasn’t actually crossed over. My organizing life is pretty separate. I think that that has been important to me as well. All that being said, I’m sure it’s coming for me any moment. I think it’s always a matter of time. It’s not really if, it’s always when.
TFSR: Well I hope you can continue to use the resources that it gives you to do the work you’re doing. And you do, in the book bring, distinct from your personal organizing, bringing that perspective into a theoretical academic work, which I think is really important. Because a lot of the time the theory is so far away from any kind of street level, grassroots movement. So I guess one of the things that I thought was really important in your argument is that it’s specifically taking a stance against the state. And so, given that, and then we’re talking within an anarchist radio show and podcast, I was wondering how you define the state in its workings of power, but also as an object of our countering our political movements. Also if you want to talk a little bit about one of the things that I found really important in your book is how you highlight the incoherence of the state, and also the way that we reproduce this logic. So yeah, just if you want to talk a little bit about the state.
ES: Yeah, another incredibly big question, but it also is really important. So for me, the way that I think about the state is I think I call it something like a collective projection, meaning that the state is not something fundamentally external to us. It’s the collective ‘we.’ That’s both good news and bad news. We have the ability to radically transform it, the way it transforms us, perhaps end it. But we also must be accountable to the ways that we allow it to continue. So that also seems really important to me. There is a certain kind of critique within anarchist thought or anti-statism, or whatever you might want to call it, that always assumes that the state is something external, that we have no accountability for its violence. And I actually think we have to make ourselves account to that continuing violence under the name of stopping it. So I think that that’s why that configuration is really important.
Then I also think about the collective projection of the state being its totality, is useful, because it also helps us understand the way that we’re constantly reproducing it. It’s not only the cops in our heads, but the state itself is in our head. This is not to say that the murderous institution of the state is not real. And that we don’t all equally have to be accountable for its violence. But I am interested in why and how we continue to allow it to exist.
So on the question of the incoherence of the state form, there’s this other kind of simplistic story that oftentimes gets told that the state has some kind of external force that just bears down upon us. If that were true it actually be much easier to fight. So that’s why argue about argue that we must understand its radical incoherence as indeed, its vicious fortitude that allows, which is also to say, mandates, that we have a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the collective ‘we’ and something that we imagined to be external, like the state.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s really helpfully laid out. I’m thinking about what you’re saying now in terms of the way us and anti-authoritarian anti-state movements relate to the state as something where fighting. Because on the one hand you talk about how we reproduce the state everyday, just in our relationships. I am going to refer to a tweet that I saw you made recently, which is ‘it’s not that our demands are too little, that we need to demand more.’ I really thought that was an important point, because when we temper our demands, we give the state too much power in some way. That’s how I was understanding it. If you want to jump off there. I’m thinking about how we can fight the state in a way that’s not just always on the back foot, reacting to its incoherence and then narrowing our horizons because it feels so impossible.
ES: Yeah, this is obviously deeply in conversation with prison abolitionist thought and organizing as well. I actually see them as fundamentally the same project, even though people definitely disagree with that. But for me, one of the forms of violence that the state takes is this radical narrowing of our dreams, our demands, our wants our desires. It always forces us to ask for less and be happy with nothing. That’s why I think the internalization of the state, that kind of analysis is so important, because that’s actually something that we’re doing for the state. Even before they say ‘no’, if we’re gonna think of it as something external, we’re already saying ‘no’ to ourselves and to each other.
TFSR: Yeah. So also, the thing that you fit within the scope of your analysis is democracy. Which, again, I think is something that is an under analyzed, over suggested answer to all the problems. I know, in an anarchist milieu it’s often something that we’re critical of. But I wonder if you had any thoughts about how we can let go of democracy as this ubiquitous solution to our problems. Like more democracy is gonna solve the problem?
ES: Yeah, so the code of the book really thinks about this question. And I end with a bunch of open ideas, so it’s not incredibly definitive. And but something that led me there was thinking about what is democracy? If it’s something that both allegedly the left and the right argues over, then what is it substance? And oftentimes the argument is, like you’re saying, the left will say ‘Oh, the state’s not democratic enough’ and the right is saying ‘Oh, it’s too democratic.’ So one of the things that I’m interested in asking throughout the text is ‘what is this idea of democracy? How is it enabling our more radical dreams for freedom or liberation? How is this thing that we’re holding on to also holding us down?’ And of course, I’m not drifting toward some sort of totalitarian dream. Just to be clear, that’s not that’s not the direction I’m going. Democracy is so open, right? It’s a placeholder that collects up a lot of different things. And so some formations of it, yes, definitely. But other formations of it are in and of itself already a kind of totalitarian regime.
So I’m interested in pulling apart the kind of steady understanding that we have of it, that we think that we have of it, that we’re all thinking about the same ideas and the same concept. Also how that is one of the ways that the state disciplines us. Through the demand of democracy and as a kind of future-oriented process or project that we can never quite achieve. It’s always the democracy to come and it’s never here. And one of the things I ask is ‘what if it’s already here?’ And what if, instead of an imperfect democracy, what if imperfection is indeed the system itself?
TFSR: Yeah. I guess that really ties into the sort of central argument as it relates to trans and queer life. I’m going to kind of try to encapsulate it: that racialized anti trans and queer violence is a necessary expression of the liberal state, not a fault that will be reformed away. Or the violence that trans and queer people experience is a fundamental part of the atmosphere that we live in, using your term. Could you elaborate a little bit on this sort of understanding of how queerness and transness relate to the State and violence, and also where you see transness and queerness opening a horizon for liberatory struggle?
ES: Sure, so the book, as you just articulated, is an extended meditation or grappling with what I understand to be the fact of violence. Which is to say that it’s not an aberration of the state form, but indeed, is one of its foundations. And so to me, what that means is that the way that we commonly are taught to think about violence, is that especially violence directed at specific populations for example here, trans and queer and gender non conforming people, is that it’s just the work of a few bad apples or a few bad actors, or whatever metaphor you want to use, directed at specific people. And what I do by paying close attention to the scenes of violence, which are really horrible, is I tried to build an analysis that understands that those specific actions are an ambassador for a larger murderous culture.
For me, that is incredibly important, because, in the final instance, the book is deeply invested in ending the scenes of violence. But, I don’t allow myself or the theoretical tools that I use to rely on the State, something like the police or any other facet of the state as remedy to that violence. And so then the question is ‘what what is to be done?’ “What can we do?” There’s many other ways to think about this. But I think centering the question of the state itself is necessary. Otherwise we’re caught in this feedback loop where we just keep at best, addressing specific instances without radically destroying the world that mandates them. And I think that that is the necessary move that we have to make.
TFSR: Yeah. In the book, you really pull from Fanon and his theorizing of anti-colonial struggle. And so I’m wondering about violence to on the part of liberation. I want to quote you, you talk about ‘violence as a generalized field of knowledge that maintains this collective undoing lived as personal tragedy of those lost to modernity’, speaking specifically about racialized trans and queer people who are subjected to this kind of violence, but you also place violence as a tactic within our struggle. So I was wondering where you see it on our side as a way of like getting free.
ES: Sure. So, the primary figure that I think with throughout the book is probably Frantz Fanon. He allows for many things and among them is a re-conceptualization of the time of violence. When does it end? When does it begin? And I argue that the scene does not begin or end with an individual attack, but constitutes the very possibility of that altercation in the first instance. Right. And so we’ve already kind of re-positioned the temporality of violence. I think that that’s where we have to begin.
Fanon, of course, argued that revolutionary violence was a necessary precondition under the state of total war, that was racialized, colonial occupation, right. So that’s something that a lot of people know about Fanon. And so for him in the first instance, we could not ‘reject violence’ when it is already here. And so it’s repositioning our relationship to the very question. And so, I’m interested in thinking about how we might respond to not escalate that harm, but also under a commitment to ending it in a much more structural way, than the way that we’re thinking about it now. That’s why I’m always thinking with and sometimes beside Fanon on this question, because it’s so incredibly fruitful the way that he articulates it.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really helpful way of thinking about kind of the method of analysis that you bring to the book. The book is difficult to read for multiple reasons. One of the main ones being that it’s involved in this archive of anti-trans-and-queer-‘violence. And then each chapter is structured around specific events that you talk about. And, you talk about what it means to describe the violence and trying not to reproduce the power operations that are under girding it, even while trying to use your analysis to end it. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about how you feel you’re able to engage with this horrific, genocidal archive of daily, trans and queer violence in the United states while not feeding into that, but also like what you say, kind of ‘reading from the perspective of struggle’ because this would be an intervention into that time of violence from the point of view of ending it.
ES: Yeah, so I think that this is another open question that I sit with throughout the text. I think that place of ambivalence is not a place of knowing or not knowing, but indeed, is a kind of theoretical commitment to being in the time of antagonism. I never know in advance how should I narrate this. How can I be as careful as possible? How can I be as precise as possible? Without a kind of empty re-traumatization, just for the sake of re-traumatization. We all know that that’s not useful for anybody. And related, not engaging with the archive is another form of violence. Looking and looking away are both equally tied up in the totality of its scene. None of us can assume to be pure subjects outside of it.
Then what I attempt to do is go slowly. Think with people that are both survivors, and not pay really close attention to the language that they’re using. How they’re experiencing their own life, how they’re theorizing their own life. For me, it’s about not using people’s really horrific events as simple analogies or as examples. But I argue that they’re theorizing all the time. And does it work? Does it not work? I don’t know. But that’s as close as I could get. Again, for example, I don’t show graphic pictures in the book. When I do narrate things, I try to go slowly through it, and I try to talk about why I’m doing it and why I’m making certain choices and I’m not making other choices, right? Sometimes survivors say this is what happened to me and I want everyone to know. And so in a certain sense that allows us a little bit more space. But I actually think in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t really. We’re still in that scene, even if a survivor wants something specific. I think I’m just trying to hold all those contradictions at the same time and push them to the front as opposed to hiding them.
TFSR: Yeah, it really comes through to me as you were talking about the people who are involved in these experiences theorizing them themselves. You don’t have a hierarchy of who produces knowledge in your book, which is also I think unique from an academic perspective, which really does separate the people that are being described from the people doing the analysis. So you locate trans theory in the lived lives of trans people no matter what their educational backgrounds are. One thought I had is that this so called ‘trans tipping point’ that we’re past now, brought into representation, specifically, I think Black trans women in a different way than had been before. But I really feel like it goes hand in hand both on like the reactionary right, and on the left spectacularization of the violence that Black trans women experience that feels like at best useless at worse harmful. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts beyond this about how to work to keep Black trans women alive and not relating to Black trans women as victims. What kind of work we can do right now to support them?
ES: I mean, obviously always asking people what they want and need is where we always start. But I think to your point is incredibly important, because in the beginning of the book I think a lot about Marsha P. Johnson in the way that she was exiled from mainstream or even radical leftist lesbian and gay culture in the 1970s through the time of her death. Now she’s kind of been brought back in as a trans of color, Black trans woman activist ideal. And I make an argument that both of those are violent in and of themselves. So like one of them is not the remedy for the other one, because the way in which she is brought into the archive doesn’t disturb the coloniality of the archive itself. All it is, is a kind of accommodation, not for the politics that Marsha was invested in throughout her life, but indeed, to actually support a white supremacist state. And so that is really important, because what I’m also hearing in this question is the ways in which trans women of color get emptied out of content or of politics, and they just become a screen upon which all kinds of people just project a whole lot of things onto them. And so I think that it is all of our tasks, to understand Marsha as a theorist and to read what she wrote and to listen to the words that she said. As opposed to just projecting our contemporary analysis on top of her as an empty subject of history.
TFSR: Yeah, that really gels it for me. In the way that even leftist or radicals or whatever can reproduce the sort of anti-Blackness, I feel like often Black trans women are brought into a conversation as if they’re already victims, and not included in the conversation as the theoreticians that you’re showing them to be. In certain spaces, obviously, it’s not everywhere.
But since you mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, one thing that I see you doing in this book is intervening in the history of gay liberation, trans liberation, queer liberation movements, and the way that relates to queer theory. I think early on what was really exciting about the movement, and what still I think resonates with people today is this thought that trans and queer people in themselves are revolutionary in the ways that they live and love and fuck. But that didn’t really stop from the assimilationist arm being the main focus of a gay rights movement. And then I see in the university with queer theory how queerness gets theorized away through power, but then divorced from the actual work, and even the living, I think this is particularly true after the heyday of Act Up. But now I’m seeing more crossover of movement work and academic knowledge production. So I was just wondering if you had anything to say about the inheritance of a radical queer legacy, but also where you see your works situated within that inheritance and the location of knowledge production of the academy?
ES: I think that for me… a number of things. I’m always interested in the ways that politics or post-political regimes of intelligibility congeal, more so than identities. I say this all the time, identity is not a politic. San Francisco has many, many trans police officers. I also always say that San Francisco is the laboratory of neoliberalism and any awful thing will always to be developed here in terms of multicultural white supremacy. I study it, because I live it. And that is also to say that all of that analysis… all that comes from organizing. Street-based organizing. One thing that I’m always careful to say is that anything that I have to say that might be useful in this text comes from those worlds. Comes from the worlds that have taught me so much in collective anti-authoritarian or anarchist spaces. So I want to foreground that. And in terms of the specific moment that we’re in with scholarship in the academy, I think that there is this kind of turned back towards the kinds of political questions that were not as readily apparent as they were before.
That can be both good and bad. Because I’m also interested in what gets constituted as political and what doesn’t, and oftentimes the things that I think are most useful are things that are not on the surface ‘political’ and then they’re really messy problematic ones are the ‘political’ texts. So, you never know what you’re going to get. But I do think that this book in particular, it’s kind of interesting. It hasn’t been out that long, but it is interesting where it gets taken up and where it doesn’t. I don’t know if LGBT Studies stuff will really engage with it. I don’t know. I mean, I hope so. I hope people look at it, I guess. But I’m not sure what forms that will take yet. I have a whole bunch of open questions. But, towards the point of identity again, I think I explicitly say this in the book is that I don’t have anything definitive to say about LGBT or otherwise trans or queer people. I’m not actually making an argument about people. I’m making an argument about formations of vitality or generativity or something like that.
TFSR: That makes sense to me. Maybe a way to rephrase what I was trying to get at is that, the early gay liberation, if you read a lot of the texts, there’s this, like, imagination that the revolution is at hand, and part of it has to do with gay life. Like, cruising is revolutionary, or whatever. And then that doesn’t happen. That revolution doesn’t happen. But then you see this certain kind of… you get to Lee Edelman’s version of queer theory in No Future where he’s like ‘queerness is the death drives of society.’ Taking up that same view that queerness is disruptive in some kind of inherent way. Although it’s different at this point, what he’s talking about than the Gay Liberation Front or the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
How do you understand queer and trans? There’s one thing that you describe that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about this way and I thought it was so important is that we can get slurred at in the wrong way… and yet it’s still correct in some manner. Because there’s some way that you say we signify differently. So that’s a specific kind of visibility that can be wrong and right at the same time. So I don’t know if you have a way of talking about how you define trans and queer or the location that we live in?
ES: Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. I can only think about it through negation, because I can’t think of any kind of prescriptive identity because it’s always gonna fail. And so for me, trans and queerness is a retroactive reading practice that can only be known after an identity or an event unfolds. But like you’re saying, one of the things that I find really interesting is that, I’m not deeply tethered to the idea of identity itself and yet the world is constituted through identity. At the same time we have these radical critiques of the impossibility to know trans and queerness as a totalizing or generalizing force, nonetheless, I walk down the street and someone knows that better than I know myself. And so that is really interesting. What is it then? To me is why I think about anti trans and queer violence as a kind of general field of knowledge or an epistemology of violence. Because of that everywhere and nowhere-ness that it simultaneously inhabits.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess building on that, do you want to talk a little bit about how you see this disruption, this projection, this negation that gender and sexuality does it goes hand in hand with the process of racialization that has occurred, specifically in the US context through the capture and enslavement of Africans? How does race, gender, sexuality get forged historically as these systems of domination? Because that’s a huge part of what you’re talking about in the book.
ES: Yeah. It is what the book is about, so sometimes I forget to make it so explicit. So just to be clear, I’m never talking about everyone that ‘might identify as LGBT.’ That’s a useless category for me. And indeed, I also make explicit that many people that identify under those terms that have access to normative power, visa vis white supremacy, ableism, class, other axises of difference, know very little in the materiality of their life about the forces of violence. So, I’m not making this equal distribution argument. That being said, my book takes as a kind of axiomatic that chattel slavery and settler colonialism are at least in this nightmare of the United States, the primary scenes of gender normativities concretization. And so I don’t believe that we can ever do ‘queer trans theory’ without a deep engagement with both of those as ongoing practices, and indeed not simply facts of history. So I’m not interested in how gender and sexuality took form in slavery as if it’s something that happened then and isn’t constantly happening now. Right. And so then in attention to the settler state, and its anti-Black idiom is fundamental, if we are ever going to attempt to begin to open up to questions of gender, sexuality, transness, queerness, etc, right? So they can never be separated.
TFSR: I wonder if the way that you talk about this in the lineages of Black feminism that you pull on, specifically of how Hortense Spillers talks about the kind of ungendering of Black female flesh as a site of a potential insurgent ground. To me that always rings in a certain like trans way. And C Riley Snorton builds off that too. A lot of people do. How do you see this situation that often gets narrated as a place of complete domination and violence, also as a place for destroying the world that we live in now and reshaping it in a way that would let people live?
ES: I mean, definitely. I always include Hortense Spillers work as fundamental to whatever might constitute itself as trans theory. And like you are saying people like Riley and many others do this as well. And I think that it’s definitely the right move. At least for me, she opened up so many of these questions and continues to do that work. So thinking with her theorization of insurgent ground, we also know that along with the structuring horrors that in their epistemological force, that were, and are chattel slavery, there are always moments of people fighting back. So one of the arguments that I make is that even within a totality, there’s still possibility. That might seem kind of contradictory and it is. It’s structurally contradictory, because a totality can’t have that. But I still think that that’s actually how the world works. And it’s also the version of the world that I want to hold on to under the name of ending it so that we might build one that we can survive. I don’t see that as a kind of linear teleological process, but a kind of simultaneity of action, theorization, revolt, revision, all happening at one time. I think that that is already happening. So then one of our goals is to hold up those moments where we can see it so that it might open up possibility for others.
TFSR: Yeah. Could we tie this in a positive way to the incoherence that you’re talking about -that power works through and the state? Because on the one hand, that makes it so that it’s hard to know how to react or we get caught just reacting, but also it means that it isn’t coherent, and therefore already over, right?
ES: Yeah, without a doubt, I mean, I think about this all the time just in just in like actual organizing terms, or whatever. We never know what’s going to set something off. We just have no idea. We can make all these strategies and theorizations and think we have a plan for it. And then it goes so sideways and it can either open up radical possibility or shut down everything. And we just don’t know. And I think that is because of the state’s radical incoherence. And it’s not a kind of prescriptive politic, but a way of a way of thinking about that, that, of course, there’s always a plan for action in relation to it, but also beyond it. So it’s not a simple, constant reaction to the state, which is oftentimes what we’re tied up in. And that’s one of the ways that the state disciplines us. And that we’re accepting that discipline through the constant reaction. I understand sometimes we have to do that. And that just as the materiality of living in this awful world. But that being said that’s not all of it. And that’s also not all of what we’re doing. I’m always looking towards those spaces of hyper-marginality, where things that don’t look explicitly political, but to me are actually giving me life, giving me possibility, the things that actually helped me go on in the world are these really small moments that oftentimes gets passed over.
TFSR: Yeah, my mind went to something that was very explicitly political. Something, I keep thinking about it and maybe you have some thoughts on this. Last year the pandemic hits, and I’m like ‘Okay, we’re going to be met with the incoherence of our lives.’ The contradictions of being forced to work or not to work and pay your bills or whatever. And, and that was like ‘some kind of revolt will happen’. And it didn’t happen until George Floyd uprising. I don’t want to take away the specificity of the George Floyd uprising, but I think that something is connected between the way that that was generalized outside of Minneapolis and the work that people were doing in response to COVID even though that maybe wasn’t as visible in the moment as a riot. I’m just kind of going off the cuff here. But I feel like that also points to sort of the underpinning racial components of COVID that don’t get talked about very often. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that. That was just sort of me thinking about what you’re saying.
ES: Yeah, definitely. Of course we’re in a settler state, so COVID is going to be explicitly anti-Black and otherwise racist in terms of its impact. So I do think that that’s always important to say. I would like to pretend like I’m an accelerationist, but I just have no evidence that that’s ever true. Because it actually is a kind of safe place to be. You’re like “oh, all we have to do is like… everything will get so bad, it will just go” No, it just gets worse. That’s one thing I learned with getting older. And I think it’s interesting in thinking about the incoherence of the state because then you’re always longing for things you never wanted in the first place. And that’s a trip, right? When you’re like ‘Oh, the good old days when whatever bad thing….’ I think about that with gentrification too. When you start longing the things that you used to hate, because at least they’re not as bad as the things that are now.
I think that the conditions, retroactively we can maybe think about why things pop off in certain times but we also can’t prefigure that because sometimes all the same conditions are there and it just doesn’t happen. And I think there’s something about the generalized spontaneity of the social world that can’t be predicted and can’t be corralled. And I think that that’s actually really good and beautiful. But that said, we also shouldn’t live in a world that has to constantly respond to the unmitigated, unending, anti-Black violence that is leveled against Black people all the time everywhere.
TFSR: Yeah. Well, to return more specifically to the book, in that light we’re talking about racialized gender, but also you pull from a Sylvia Wynter-influenced idea that all the violence that we see, that’s gendered, sexualized, racialized is tied completely to the ideas of humanity and modernity. And you say that ‘the racialized trans queer person rests at the limit of the modern and of the human and is necessary to maintain the lie of those projects sort of through being endlessly disciplined and killed.’ This one comes out really clearly in your analysis of suicide. And I don’t know if you want to talk about that. But I really love this line that you say trans queer suicide reads the world for the filth it is because it puts it pretty boldly to me what you’re talking about here. So I wonder if you want to talk about how the concepts of modernity and humanity come in to your analysis of the regulation of and killing of trans queer life?
ES: Sure. So throughout the text I kind of intentionally slip between the settler state modernity and enlightenment humanism. And again, I’m not saying that they’re all the same thing. But I think together they gather up and they also help name these tendencies of recurrence that we inherit in our contemporary moment. So they’re all doing something a little bit differently, but they all help me name something. So, if the human is that which can stand before the law and make claims as its proper subject… that’s like the kind of traditional understanding of the figure of the human, then it also needs its double, its Constituent Outside to maintain its stability. So this is a very common figure in Black feminist thought and also and critical theory. The constituent of outside is that which constitutes the human. And then those that are subjugated to the limit, then become limit concepts, and they kind of police the border, the inside/outside, and they’re necessary. They’re actually the major figures in terms of the schema. Fanon as the same thing, essentially. And so, I think that that is so compelling because of the specific forms of violence that I’m thinking about. It’s not just about exiling people. But it’s about a kind of incorporated inclusion where people are both forced out and brought in at the same time.
We can think about this with TERFS. TERFS are so fascinated. They spend way more time thinking about gender than I do, a gender professor. It’s fascinating. I’m like ‘you are obsessed!’ I think that that same formation is actually incredibly useful, right? Because that’s the form of phobic attachment that I’m interested in. So, it’s a kind of inclusive incorporation, where it’s both pushing things out and bringing things in and that’s actually a really horrifically violent formation to be caught in. It’s way worse than just exile, because you’re shuttled in between the inside outside, in a scene of total war. And so for me, that ties into this figure of the human as, again, the subject of modernity. And so then the contingent of outside is that structure is what I’m naming as the limit concept. And that’s a very like theoretical way of saying it.
Thinking about that in relationship to the chapter that I have on suicide… that chapter is important to me because one of the things that I tried to do in it is depathologize people that are pushed to the limit, while also wanting to keep people alive. So ,it’s not like a kind of nihilistic where I’m like ‘this is jouissance’ or something like that. I’m like ‘this is actually horrific, and I want it to stop.’ But I also know that we have to stop gas-lighting people into recreating this narrative that this is an individual choice and that this person alone was pushed to the limit, when indeed the world is pushing people to the limit. The everydayness of racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist violence is indeed the force that’s pushing them there. It’s not a kind of self what Fanon calls ‘auto destruction’ is never really about the person themselves. It’s about the way in which they’re positioned in a deadly world.
TFSR: Right. I’m sort of like at a loss. I think that’s really important the way that you talk about that because you can get so lost in the individual situation to sort of erase the commonplace experience that precedes it for someone who’s been harassed their whole life for just being. I wanted to ask you about representation and aesthetics because you have this really interesting analysis of surveillance film. And in that you’re kind of going through the filmic image itself and talking about how dominant aesthetics are grounded in anti-Blackness and anti-queerness not even just how its represented, but in the structure of representation. And in your arguments about the specific acts of violence that you are reading, the violence goes beyond the immediate moment. But then you also importantly, I think make room for queer, trans radical art and life as a kind of aesthetic. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about anti-Blackness, anti-queerness in aesthetic production, but also the rooms for alternative visions and use of different media?
ES: Yeah, so that chapter I’m thinking a lot with people like David Marriot and his work on racial fetishism, anti-Blackness and the moving image itself. Also, Fanon helps us think about this question, Sylvia Wynter, and a bunch of other people.
But for me, representation is always a double bind. So it’s that which brings us into the world. And that which brings us out of the world. I also am a filmmaker. I like films. I understand the way that they literally build a world, and they don’t just represent one. So it’s not as if I’m arguing for a representational austerity or something like that as the revolutionary possibility of the world. Like, that sounds horrible. No to that. And on the other hand, I know that ‘positive representation’ is the thing that is most easily given to us by the Settler State. We demand free housing, free health care, free education, free, whatever it is, and they’re like ‘Oh, here’s a trans side kick on a TGIF show.’ Alright. So, one of the things that I always say is that whatever is the thing that they’re most ready to give us is the thing that we actually don’t need.
And so it’s again, holding that contradiction, because I know that representation constitutes the world. And yet it doesn’t only do that. That chapter in particular thinks about formalism. Conversations around transness and Blackness sometimes are more interested in the kind of narrative depiction of the image. And I’m interested in that as well but something that’s more interesting to me is the formalism of the image itself, because one of the arguments that I make is that you actually don’t need a kind of scene of anti-Black anti-transness on on the image for both of those kind of twinned ideologies to be operative. Right. It’s kind of ironic, I turned back to a bunch of 1970s film theory, because they’re actually thinking about formalism and structural film and things like that, that we don’t do as much of now. But that seems really important to me, because I’m trying to get at why changing towards ‘positive representation’ alone does not change material conditions. That’s actually the question. I’m trying to get at.
TFSR: Yeah, I was interested that you were quoting Christian Metz, because that was something from my early grad school days. When you’re talking about Fanon’s idea that violence precedes and comes after that specific moment, you talk about him in the theater, just sitting in the theater is an anti-Black situation, regardless of what the film is representing. And that makes me think post-George Floyd uprising, the way that all the media companies were doing Black voices and you could still present supposedly Black Lives Matter content in an anti Black environment.
I could nerd out with you a little bit more on the formalism but I kind of want to move to some of the stuff that you you get to at the ending, if that’s okay? So, one of the words that comes up in the subtitle, that there’s legacies of resistance you give this the name of ungovernable, becoming ungovernable. You take it from the classification that certain queer youth get for their perceived social disruption. And then you also use the word ‘sedition’ which I was really excited to see. So I take it in my reading of your book that some of the stuff that’s happening as a kind of clandestine survival, and maybe this goes back to being not within the archive and not being represented. But what do you what do you mean by ungovernable? What do you mean by like a queer sedition? How do we have this kind of survival? What kind of worlds does it build? Is it generalizable? Or does it need to be under wraps all the time?
ES: Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s generalizable, and I’m not sure if it can be a prescriptive project, it might be something that can only be noticeable in the aftermath of it, or something like that. I’m not totally sure. Ungovernability are big becoming ungovernable is useful for me, because it names that kind of non-space of being both a subject and an object simultaneously. And I think that it’s actually how many people are forced to inhabit the world. So, I think that it’s generalizable in that reality. But I also think that because many of the practices are clandestine, I’m not interested in bringing them into representation outside of their specificity. I’m not trying to narc people out.
I think about that a lot, our relationship.. like what am I doing? I can only nod towards things. Again, I don’t want to be hyper specific about them. But that being said those are some of the moments that are so deeply generative to trans and queer world making. I think it can be so incredibly small, to something really large. It can be like when another trans person’s working at the cafe and they give you your food for free. It’s actually on those basic levels and how that changes the molecular structure of your body. I actually think about that a lot. And unfortunately, that’s becoming increasingly uncommon, it used to be more common, and like the 90s when there weren’t security cameras and all that kind of stuff everywhere, and you could just like, give someone a free coffee. Now that person will get taken to jail. I think that there’s that.
The examples that I use in the book, are Tourmaline has this really great film called The Personal Things which is this really short stop motion animation film about Miss Major, and it kind of narrates how she changed all of her gender markers. Then she changed them back again because she wanted to be recognized not as a cis woman, but indeed as a transgender person, and they wanted people to love her for that and to fuck all this other stuff. And to me, that moment is…. changing state issued identification was actually much easier in a clandestine way, 25 years ago, because there weren’t really massive computer systems. And they were just paper with a picture glued on it. And so I think about that as another way of resisting the biometric drive of the contemporary Settler State. There’s all these movements towards more gender options, which I think are fine. And different forms of biometric technology that are not predicated on gender. But I actually don’t think that any of those are going to necessarily get us any closer to freedom in a generalizable way. I understand that yes, they’re things that people need to stay alive right now and I always will support that. Especially for people that are in hyper-institutionalized situation. So I always will support that. But that being said, I don’t think that that can be the end of as Tourmaline puts it ‘our freedom dream’. I think that’s the way that we’re caught in the cycle of asking for something really small when what we want and need is actually something much bigger.
TFSR: I talked recently with a person who does the organizing with a trans woman inside. The beginning of the campaign was to get her moved to a woman’s facility. And it turned out, in retrospect that being in a women’s facility wasn’t safer than being a men’s facility. And now they’re denying other forms of support that she needs in there. So maybe that’s also a form of the incoherence. That sort of validation doesn’t necessarily lead to our survival. But you talked about Tourmaline and Miss Major, and you have this line from Tourmaline that I think is really important too. ‘It’s easy to be free’ which I think becomes irresistible. And you say about this line, ‘radical dreaming affords us the space of ease, which is how we might learn to feel freedom.’ Then you bring this to Miss Major’s life practice as an ‘organized yet improvisational practice in common that revels in pleasure and expropriation whose aim is to collectivize exposure toward the exposures abolition.’ That again is a quote from you.
Listening to you, in those like minor moments, I’ve been interested in certain radical trans theory lately that’s trying to think about the process of transition, also materially and collectively, not as this individualized gender journey, or whatever. I guess, to frame this as a question, you talk a lot about shared tactics of survival and beloved networks of care. I’m just wondering what you see in terms of trans, queer interdependence moving forward. It’s something obviously, that those of us who are here have benefited from in some way.
Sorry, I’m spinning out here about how do we make this a question. A lot of it’s just very inspiring to me and I find it very beautiful. So I wonder if you have more thoughts on on these ideas that I’m bringing up from your book?
ES: Sure. I mean, I think, for me, exactly what you’re saying… we’ve all benefited and helped produce these kinds of underground networks of care, that have been the materiality of survival for so many people. And I mean that in an actual way. I know that the other side of that is that not everyone has access to that. And so that’s also the reality as well. I’m always thinking about how we can expropriate resources from institutions that have them to support those networks, so that more of that kind of care can proliferate. So that doesn’t just become on one individual person to have to do a whole lot of labor for for many people. And that can look like a lot of different things. I think that a lot of the mutual aid projects that have popped up, not all of them, but many of them are really great and interesting, and I think have hopefully helped us all relearn what it means to be in radical relationality with each other. You know, that’s my more optimistic take.
But even on the more personal, more intimate level, I’m also interested in how these incredibly personal, hyper local, very specific moments string together to actually build the materiality of the world after the end of the world. And that’s why it’s already here and already possible. Again, turning to Tourmaline’s incredibly evocative and precise statement that ‘it’s easy to be free.’ What does it mean to sit with that statement? And to let that actually wash over you? Because we oftentimes don’t have the space or the time or the ability to do that.
TFSR: I find that really important. And one way that you put it in the book that I think is really helpful is calling for a collective life without universalism’s commitments, which I guess also goes back to my question ‘is this generalizable?” No. It’s maybe collective, you can collectivize it, but it’s not generalizable because it can’t be claimed universally. I just think that’s so important. And maybe it’s also where you get another limit of that representation, because either being careful, like you were saying, to not snitch on these moments of survival, but also the fear of losing them to the generality.
That’s the questions that I had prepared. I did have one thing just come up from the last thing you were saying. I was thinking about how people are afraid of the ‘Gay Agenda.’ That gay people, queer people, trans people are out to convert. I’m thinking about how you talk about the violence that gets it right and wrong at the same time. Because through these mutual practices of care, we do help each other become gay, or queer, trans. So we are doing that work, but it’s not the way that they think we’re doing it. We’re not like evangelical Christians. And I wonder if you have any thought about that kind of gay agenda logic?
ES: That’s funny, I was just talking about something kind of similar with a friend recently. Hmm. I guess how I would phrase it is that, hopefully we’re opening up the possibility for people to live. And so that can look like a lot of different things. And that can look like a lot of different things over time. And that’s something that I think we need a lot more of and sometimes that looks like recruitment. I think that’s fine, too. I’m from the 90’s. So we used to say that.
I think that when you are in the social worlds that allow you to rub up with other people living in such fierce beauty against the drives of the normative state, of course that that’s going to be contagious. Because you see all kinds of possibilities that have been substantially foreclosed to you your entire life. So you can feel that on a molecular level, and it’s terrifying and beautiful and invigorating and scary and all these things at once. But again, I think it radically opens up life worlds for us and new forms of relationality between us and others.
TFSR: That’s a really beautiful way to end our conversation.
– Hunter A. Shackleford “Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford (they/she) is a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia … They are the creator and director of a Southern body liberation organization, Free Figure Revolution, which focuses on decolonizing antiblack body violence … Hunter illustrates the relationship between Blackness, fatness, desire, queerness, and popular culture.” (Instagram: @huntythelion)
– Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ work on CPS and how anti-Black racism and fatphobia infect this institution.
– Health At Every Size, evidence based medical paradigm that heavily critiques the social constructions of “obesity” and diet culture, and aims to present folks with a compassionate and inclusive framework for taking care of themselves.
– Caleb Luna (Instagram: @chairbreaker Twitter: @chairbreaker_) “Caleb Luna (they/them) is a fat queer (of color) critical theorist, performer, poet, essayist, cultural critic, and performance scholar. As a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, their research focuses on performances of eating, and historicizing cultural representations of fat embodiment within the ongoing settler colonization of Turtle Island.
Autumn: Thank you so much for having me. So, Hello! My name is Autumn I use she / her pronouns. I’m really honored to be here and appreciate you taking the time to have me on air. Some background about myself, I am an anarchist scholar-activist who focuses on abolishing racial capitalism, through a Fat Liberation and Disability Justice lens. I am a white, Jewish, anti-Zionist, queer person. I’m a longtime organizer around mutual aid, present and border abolition and anti-fascism Palestine solidarity as well as some direct action. So, some of my work has focused on bringing a fat liberation lens to revolutionary anti-State left movements and looking at how we can create dialogue and, more importantly, coalition between our movements.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Do you have any more words to say about the like, scholar activist aspect to your work?
Autumn: Totally. So I think that scholar activism is basically a way of how can we reclaim or liberate intellectual work that is kind of sometimes held captive or gate-kept by like academic institutions and by this very capitalist idea of production and producing knowledge within academia. So scholar-activism, one way it works is through taking resources from academia and giving them back to on the ground organizers. Or sometimes it works. And it’s a form of, you know, creating knowledge by and for our movement, and creating kind of collective knowledge as opposed to this sort of like, again, capitalist colonial model of like the brilliant academic or the brilliant individual.
William: I love that. Thank you so much for going into that. So we’re here to talk about fat liberation. And like I said, before we started rolling the tape. This is a topic that I have wanted to cover on the final straw for some time now. So thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for being willing to speak on this. How did you come to be working toward fat liberation?
Autumn: Yeah, that’s a good question. So firstly, my life as a fat person, also as a disabled person, as a queer person, as a working class person is deeply effected by anti-Blackness. So if I want my life and the lives of folks in my community and my loved ones to improve, I really have no choice but to invest in Fat Liberation on as a revolutionary struggle. On a more macro level, I have a strong background in community organizing, as well as some anti-capitalist organizing. And, you know, when I first started organizing, I began to notice that when I would enter radical spaces or organizing spaces, there would be zero analysis around factors other than shallow and incorrect ideas, that top audience were simply the tragic result of State and Capitalist violence, like food deserts, and that really like bewildered and upset me because so many of the struggles that I faced in my life were connected to anti fatness. Specifically, you know, getting denied health care that I needed, not being seen as a survivor of sexual violence. And, you know, seeing fat liberation being used as a tool of white supremacy, particularly anti-blackness. One of the breaking points for both my class consciousness and my fat liberation politics was when I was at one of my former workplaces and a co worker was sexually harassing me and I reported it to my manager. And my manager basically looked at me up and down and laughed and told me that I wasn’t “pretty enough to be harassed.” And so then slowly, you know, kind of, I developed a concept like a consciousness around about activism, and I was introduced to the works of activists and scholars like Jervae, Hunter A. Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Strings, Marquisele Mercedes, Caleb Luna, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, and others. And that really inspired me to understand liberation is not only connected to other revolutionary organizing struggles that I was a part of, but like integral to them. So we cannot have other revolutionary struggles for collective liberation without fat liberation.
William: Definitely. Yeah. And we’re gonna get into some more of what you just mentioned, I think, later in the interview. So, you and I believe another person have compiled a syllabus, entitled “fat liberation syllabus for revolutionary leftists.” And it has as a stated objective to confront fatphobia within radical spaces and also the entrenched liberalism within the more mainstream fat liberation movement. To just begin though, for any listeners who haven’t heard this term, will you just begin by saying what is meant by “fat liberation” and where it came from?
Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. So fat liberation is a radical, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-State movement that was started by fat, Black and brown, disabled, queer and trans people. It locates fatphobia / sizesism as a tool of capitalism, the state, white supremacy, colonialism, and specifically a tool of anti-Black, State violence. Bodies, especially body is commonly thought of as “deviant” or “unhealthy”, are often sites for state and capitalist violence of how we should offer as a lens to revolutionary transform how we think about bodies, how we think about medicine, how we think about healing. Which is really crucial for us as revolutionary leftists and how we organize to take care of one another outside of the state and outside of capitalism, as well as our work to abolish capitalism and all, you know, all settler colonial states. I think it’s really important to think about that liberation is not just another box to check off for the sake of like, liberal “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas. But instead, it’s a necessary framework that we should always be operating within our activist spaces.
William: Totally. So you mentioned fat phobia’s roots in colonialism and anti-Blackness, and anti-Black racism and not to put you in a corner or make you talk about stuff from a subjectivity that isn’t yours, but would you just talk a little bit about that, from your perspective, and what you’ve learned so far?
Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. So I first want to say that some of the really amazing scholar-activists who have done that work, I just want to shout them out and give credit where credit is due. And you know, if any listeners have financial resources, and can support these people, pay these people’s Patreon or donate to them, I really strongly encourage that. So there are folks like the Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who just recently published a book called I think it was just published in August. It’s called “Belly of the Beast: anti-fatness as anti-Blackness.” Dr. Sabrina Strings, who wrote a book about I think two years ago now called “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”. Hunter Shackleford, who is a really amazing, fat, Black, academic, educator, artist, and activist. And basically, they’ve explained that the origins of fatphobia are very intertwined with the rise of colonialism and racial capitalism. And unlike other systems of oppression, we only have to go back about 300 or 400 years to kind of find the origins of fatphobia. And so if we think back to the original colonization of Turtle Island, or the so called so-called North America and the inception of the violence settler colonial nation on whose land we said, the so-called US. That original colonization was from Puritan European colonizers and one of the kind of ideas that they brought with them was the Protestant work ethic, which basically says that individuals who are”godly”, if they are disciplined if they’re hardworking, if they’re able to restrict themselves, whereas it is, quote, unquote, sinful to be lazy, you’re overindulgent. So this was a way of basically looking at the body and understanding that “Okay, so thin bodies, especially thin white bodies are hardworking and are disciplined and they’re able to restrict themselves. Whereas fat bodies are lazy, they’re overindulgent. Those are sinful, quote unquote, bodies.”
And so kind of the origin of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness is, we see it very much arising in the era of like 19th century eugenics. And this idea that white European scientists were trying to basically look at, look at like, physical characteristics and use that as a justification for the superiority of European white people, especially like Western European white people. So in that the used the idea that “okay, Black people tend to be larger than white people. So that means inherently that Black people are more ‘primitive,’ and they’re not able to control themselves as more they need to be controlled and restrained. Whereas like white people are able to have discipline and they’re more intelligent and their political more advanced.” And then, in the era of 19th century eugenics, that was when body mass index or BMI was like developed as a concept, and it was very much used to label white bodies, especially white men’s bodies as, normative or healthy and label Black people’s bodies as obese and unhealthy. And so this continues to this day, where we see the entanglements of fatphobia and anti black violence continuing medical establishments, again, we’re fat Black patients are less likely to receive care that they need. I mean, fat bodies in general are less likely to receive the care that they need, they’re often just told to just lose weight. The state, when they surveil and target Black, brown and indigenous communities for having “high rates of obesity” and then using that as a justification to have Child Protective Services come in and remove fat children. There’s a lot of work done by Dr. Dorothy Roberts on the child welfare system not actually being about child welfare just being another way for the state to like control and monitor Black families or indigenous families or brown families. And disproportionately, Black and indigenous children are removed from their homes for non-justifiable reasons and because there’s this… It’s hard to find the racial statistics of children who are removed from their homes, but because oftentimes “obesity” is used as a justification for that,, I think it’s pretty like easy to infer that that’s oftentimes a justification for removing Black and indigenous children from their homes.
You know, in terms of state violence, fat Black people like Kayla Moore and Eric Garner, and recently Ma’Khia Bryant were murdered by the police and then the police in the general public, blamed their murders on their fatness. Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who I mentioned before, discusses this justification for the state murders of black people in their book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.” Does that kind of answer the question?
TFSR: Oh, yeah, totally. And it’s such a like, vast top pet topic that, you know, I think that you like, shout it out some really amazing resources. Sabrina strings is the one who I’m most familiar with. And her book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” which is a fantastic breakdown by era: she looks at art history, she looks at the developing trade routes built on the back of enslaved people. She does all of this stuff. And it’s a really amazing, amazing resource.
Autumn: Absolutely. I really recommend that folks read that book and look into it.
TFSR: I also just want to like, name the… You know, you mentioned like treatment by your former manager, when you like brought concerns about your co-worker, and then saying that vile shit to you. That is like, completely unacceptable. And I’m so sorry that happened.
Autumn: Thank you. Yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. Yeah. And I think that that kind of highlights… I talked about it a little bit in the fat liberation syllabus, but there’s a really kind of disturbing intersection between fatphobia and rape culture that I don’t see getting talked about enough. And I’m hoping that those conversations can get started more.
TFSR: Absolutely. Hopefully this will like help start that conversation a bit. So, we talked about a little bit: in order to talk about how fat phobia and fatmisia, which is… Would you give a definition of fatmisia really quick?
Autumn: This is one of the first times that I’ve heard it, but I would say that it’s more kind of ideological understanding of this idea that fatness is something to be avoided or pathologized.
TFSR: And it’s like distinct from fatphobia in that like phobia is like a fear.
Autumn: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how it’s… I think fat phobia is similar. I think sometimes fat phobia is used more in terms of thinking about how we internalize like anti fatness, and how that’s enacted in interpersonal interactions, or in communal interactions, whereas fatmisia is more like on a broader kind of ideological lens?
TFSR: That’s really helpful. Thank you. So, in order to talk about both of these things, and how they emerge in radical spaces, firstly, we could probably talk a lot about how it emerges in broader society. Since fatphobia, infects so much of the structures we are forced to contend with, like you mentioned, the medical industrial complex and the state for starters.. Not to like, start too big. This is a topic whose completeness may like be beyond the scope of a single podcast episode, but nevertheless, could you speak on this in a general sense, and the roots of fat phobia and fatmisia specifically, I know you touched on this a little bit before but do you have anything else you want to say about it?
Autumn: No, absolutely. So, and like any other system of oppression, there’s nothing natural about fatphobia or hating larger bodies. As humans, there’s nothing that’s like natural about us that says, oh, thinness is better. That’s completely socially constructed. Just you know, and this is a common disclaimer that I have to give or that a lot of like fat activists have to give. Anytime that we talk about fatphobia, one of the most common forms of backlash that I see is the claim that like, “Oh, it’s unhealthy to be fat, and there’s an obesity epidemic. And don’t you think that we should focus on health?” So, you know, I really wish that I didn’t have to give this kind of disclaimer, but you know, I won’t in this interview won’t be addressing the question of is it healthy to be fat, because health is multi dimensional, it’s not a measure of our worth, and nobody is obligated to be healthy. There are many people of all sizes, who have disabilities and chronic illnesses, who will never be “healthy” by normative standards. That said, it’s actually not unhealthy to be fat. And there’s a lot of scientific research and evidence that supports that conclusion. There’s a really valuable, evidence-based medical paradigm called Health at Every Size, which is readily available online, there’s a Health at Every science website, there’s a book by Lindo Bacon, called “Health at Every Size,” which, you know, people are interested in that you can go look at that.
And historically, you know, and before 300 to 400 years ago, fat bodies were actually kind of like revered and celebrated. I kind of mentioned earlier that the rise of fat phobia and the rise of the idea of the thin ideal is very rooted in the Protestant work ethic as well as this kind of neoliberal, bootstraps idea that weight loss is simply the result of hard work and discipline rather than the result of.. Most people who lose a significant amount of weight, gain it back within five years, and we have a lot less control over our weight over our bodies, than we’d like to believe. And, you know, importantly, our ideas about health and medicine are not objective or neutral. Black feminists, especially, have done a really good job at explaining how what’s often cast is supposed “objective medical facts” as actually completely socially constructed. There’s no evidence to support that. And again, as I mentioned before, in the age of 19th century eugenics, that was really the era that emerged that fatness was inherently unhealthy, and that people should be instructed to lose weight. You know, before that we don’t really see a lot of emphasis on weight loss is the key to health. People were really concerned about, like dying of dysentery. So, you know, if you were fat, you were considered like robust and healthy, because we’re less likely to die of all the infectious diseases. And so, as I mentioned, before, fitness became a marker of weight, especially Western European bodies being disciplined “intelligent, well controlled bodies” and Black bodies became seen as uncontrollable, and inferior political primitive. And, again, the fact that white scientists noticed that Black people were larger than white people that was used as a justification for the supposed inferiority of Black people.
And then in terms of the connection between fatphobia and capitalism… So there’s an at-least $2 billion weight loss industry. And as the center of the weight loss industry is this kind of myth of critical personal responsibility that you can have what is called the ultimate fantasy of corporeal malleability that is just like “if you just work hard enough, and if you’re just disciplined enough, and if you just, you know restrict… you just eat the right things, if you just eat like healthy organic food, and you just force yourself to eat that, that thinness can be achieved through that.” So and, importantly, there’s this kind of these two models of fatphobia that tend to emerge. This one of conservative contempt and this one of liberal pity or liberal fatphobia. So for example, conservatives believe that our people are simply lazy, that, you know, we just need to go to the gym or put down the cheeseburger. And then I mean, I wouldn’t even call the flip side cuz it’s not the polar opposite of this. But liberal fatphobia in this kind of liberal pity model looks down about people as objects of pity and views us as abject and diseased. And as the result of, you know, structural problems like GMOs and food deserts. And oftentimes, this is very racialized, like this is oftentimes, white liberals looking down at fat Black and brown people and just thinking “Oh, they just need to be taught to like, eat better, basically,” through a very kind of like paternalistic forms of intervention. And I just really want to touch on that, you know, conservative contempt and liberal pity, are not polar opposites, right? They’re kind of different sides of the same coin. Like they both result from this idea that fatness is pathological and that it needs to be eliminated.
William: That’s a really amazing breakdown. They like as a sort of like the double prong not even like dualistic because like you said, it’s not it’s not polar opposite like the conservative and liberal like lenses through which this is, you know, largely viewed in society is like really interesting to think about. And also the neoliberalism inherent in the weight loss industry to is I think we’re totally remarkable, like the whole like individual focus on like your individual effort or whatever it’s, it’s like tantamount to being “oh, all y’all who are like buying a new toothbrush every year, you’re, you’re causing climate change,” or whatever. You know, it’s totally ridiculous. But, at the same time, it just rules so much of how this is viewed.
Autumn: Absolutely. And I would say that that really shows how we think about health, and just how we think about wellness. Because I think that there’s this really great podcast that I maybe will mentioned in some of the…, I don’t know if maybe we don’t mention that later, but it’s called, it’s called Food Psych. And the person who like is the host, her name is Christy Harrison, she’s an anti-diet dietitian. And she talks a lot about the social determinants of health and how only about 30% of health outcomes are determined by individual health behaviors, including things like smoking, or having unprotected sex. Which are, you know, but no judgement, of course, it just causally linked to health risks. But I think that just goes to show that the real threats to our health are not necessarily like what we eat, or how much we exercise, but stress caused by racial capitalism, caused by poverty, caused by state violence. And I sort of wonder when we’re so focused on “how can I personally restrict my consumption? So I don’t cause global warming?” or “How can I eat as healthy as possible so I will have good health outcomes?” Rather than, like, “how has racial capitalism and how is the state making us sick, and basically having a really detrimental effect on our bodies and minds.” And it’s kind of like a distraction from the important questions.
TFSR: Absolutely. And just to support that, briefly, I have a friend who’s an ER nurse who says that about 95% of everything he sees is a direct result of racialized capitalism.
Autumn: Absolutely, just like, stress, especially stress that’s directly caused by racial capitalism is probably one of the worst things for our bodies and our minds.
TFSR: To touch also briefly on the liberalism in the fat liberation movement aspect of your work, specifically, you write and compile resources about the interaction of the “body positivity,” and “diversity” aspects to capitalism and toxic diet and culture. Would you expand on this and say a few words about how this also influences more left radical spaces?
Autumn: No, for sure. So the term “body positivity,” to me, it’s pretty meaningless and I feel like it’s basically become this kind of individualistic self help movement, which locates the solution to fatphobia in individuals loving their bodies, and, you know, separate from anything that’s political. There’s nothing wrong with with self love, I think it can be really helpful. But as activists, we need to be invested in a political revolutionary movement, rather than focusing on self help. And so I think that there’s just a lot of ways that, especially now, you will see capitalism really kind of co-opting body positivity. Like if you go on Instagram, like you’ll see so many companies like trying to sell you something by proclaiming how “inclusive” or “diverse” they are. I think what is especially harmful about that is when companies like do try and showcase fat people, or when celebrities try and showcase fat people in their music videos. It’s like fat people are like treated as props to show how diverse and inclusive a celebrity or a corporation is. For example, I think there’s like two years ago now, Miley Cyrus had a video, I think it’s called “Mother’s Daughter” and in the video… It’s supposed to be representation of… they show a fat person and they show someone who uses a wheelchair and they show someone breastfeeding. But then, you know, thin, white Miley Cyrus, able bodied Miley Cyrus is still the center of the music video. And so in that instance, it’s you know, that’s just an example I would say of fat people or disabled people becoming these props to just like prove, how invested Miley Cyrus’s and like diversity and inclusivity.
And so my theory is that there hasn’t really been a lot of conversation, at least in my experience, it’s changing some which is great, between fat activists and revolutionary and anti-state leftists. I think a lot of that is definitely due to fatphobia on the left. But more broadly, I think fat liberation tends to get siphoned off into these kinds of specific fields such as, at best being about like public health and at worst being on this kind of individualistic like self help movement that’s led by Instagram influencers with clothing companies. And so that doesn’t really allow space for us to draw connections and coalition’s between fat liberation and anti-state, anarchists or leftist movements such as, you know, abolishing racial capitalism, and abolishing prisons and borders, and why fat liberation as a part of that. And if there was that coalition, if those conversations were happening, we wouldn’t have people who have been really active in the body positive or the health of every size movement, being for example, Zionists, or endorsing Elizabeth Warren. One glaring example without naming names is there’s this person who has been a central figure in some “body positive” or “fat spaces,” is a fat person and has written some like influential books about health and advertising. And that person is a zionist, and has literally publicly claimed that fat activists need to support the State of Israel. And so a radical intervention into that line of thought would be to understand how colonial states like the so-called US and Israel often use the logic of diet culture and fatphobia to uphold genocidal violence and occupation. So, for example, Israel literally restricts the amount of calories and food that goes into Palestine. I want to be really clear here that I’m in no way equating being a fat person or being someone targeted by diet culture in the US with being a Palestinian living under Israeli apartheid or Israeli occupation. But I think understanding how diet culture and fatphobia is used as a tool of colonialism and occupation… I think that’s really important for thinking about fat liberation as an internationalist, an anti-colonial project and I think that that leads the way for some really exciting potential coalition between fat activists and, you know, those of us fighting for the Liberation of Palestine.
TFSR: Absolutely, I had no idea that the State of Israel was doing that bullshit. That is really Stark and very, very troubling. I’m wondering, too, so just to narrow the focus perhaps onto like radical and anarchist spaces. There’s many, many, many ways that fatphobia and fatmisia, like spin out in anarchist spaces and rad spaces. But one of those that you mentioned in your syllabus, is that people sometimes exhibit the unfortunate tendency to equate fatness with capitalism. Can you expand on how you see this happening?
Autumn: 100% Yeah, so I never want to see another anarchist, or another leftist graphic that uses fat bodies as a metaphor for capitalism, or bosses or the police. So I feel like I’ve seen a lot of graphics that show like workers tearing down the big fat boss. And I just want to facepalm whenever I see that, because that’s a great way to alienate fat comrades. That imagery is especially ironic because, like other marginalized groups, statistically fat people are more likely to be paid less, and they’re more and more likely to live in poverty. You know, and I think, obviously, gender and race play into that, but it’s unlikely that the CEO of a big company would be a fat person, even if it is like a white cis-het man. And again, I see this a lot of in leftist spaces, a lot of repeating diet, culture logic around fat being unhealthy and fat being something that needs to be eliminated. Particularly I see it come up in conversations around food deserts. And playing into the liberal pity idea that, fat bodies are this tragic result of food deserts, or food apartheid.
Autumn: Marquisele Mercedes, who’s a really wonderful critical Public Health Studies, scholar and activist and also a fat studies scholar, has a really wonderful article called How to recenter equity in decent or fitness in the fight for food justice. And she talks about understanding food apartheid, or differential access to food across racial and capital, and class lines as an intentional form of racial capitalist violence. But then the problem with a lot of liberal so-called food justice movements is that they use fatphobia and diet culture to distract from the real problem of racial capitalism with the focus being on again “obesity prevention” and trying to paternalistically “fix the eating habits of poor Black and brown people that don’t fall into a fat phobic, white-middle-class-centric standard of healthy.” This great article by Marquisele Mercedes also talks about how true food justice is not about what one person or organization believes that marginalized communities should be eating, it’s about supporting the community’s autonomy and control over their food. It’s about supporting people to be less stressed, well fed and nourished, however that may it look like.
On a side note, I found it telling how there is so much focus on trying to get poor working class people to eat more vegetables or eat less processed food. And you know, this idea that that’s going to be some kind of remedy for racial capitalism and state violence. Of course there’s nothing wrong with building a community garden but I encourage us to think critically about why we as a culture are so obsessed with food and exercise as the ultimate you know remedy when we know that there are more important issues that we need to address. Also I think there’s something to be said about the way that and this is gonna be an unpopular opinion maybe, with some people but… This kind of hatred and disgust of fast food and the way that I see sometimes in leftist spaces fast food being singled out as this really abomination disgusting abomination that nobody should be eating, but I think it’s important to think about “why do we think that and why are we singling out McDonald’s” when you know Whole Foods or the United Fruit Company or Sabra hummus are like active participants or causers of gentrification? Or the United Fruit Company literally supported the US military installing right wing military coups and Central America and the Caribbean or, you know, Sabra hummus is profiting off of the occupation of Palestine. And why do we single out fast food or food corporations that we see as unhealthy when there’s some very pervasive, racist, fat phobic and classist stereotypes about who is presumed to eat fast food. Let’s really think about when we think about people who eat fast food, who do we who are we thinking of? And why are we singling out fast food and that’s not necessarily accurate but it’s a very it’s a very unfortunately pervasive cultural trope about who is presumed to eat fast food.
I guess other areas of fatphobia that I see in leftist spaces in anarchist spaces… I feel like I hear it more from Marxist-Leninists with this argument that we need to get the proletariat fit and healthy so they can fight Nazis that makes me pretty angry because that’s just literally eugenics and diet culture disguised as a poor interpretation of anti fascism. You can kill Nazis on a moped! You know? There have been a lot of really kick ass fat and disabled anti fascists who are literally doing that work. I guess on the maybe on the more anarchist side I guess I see about phobia kind of coming up sometimes in lifestyle politics and this idea about in order to be a devoted anarchists, we need to be vegan, and we need to be dumpster diving and living in a squat. And I think we need to really kind of abandon those lifestyle politics. Um, you know, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan or dumpster diving, but it doesn’t make someone more of a comrade if they’re not if they don’t want to do that. And just like our politics are not defined by the food we eat or by, you know, why do we choose to live in a decaying squat?
TFSR: Yeah, thank you so much for talking about fast food and exercise. I definitely see that meme and anti fascist spaces that really fetishize this exercise the like “a fascist worked out today, did you?” or something like that. And the topic of veganism is also really interesting. There’s definitely a lot to be said about it. I think I myself have definitely noticed not all leftist vegans that I’ve come across have exhibited this tendency but sometimes I see people doing veganism in order to… And I don’t want to use judgy language and I might cut this out so like between you and me… To maybe mask some very troubled relationship with food itself.
And using politics to bury that or whatever. I mean, using politics to also bury classism and fat phobic tendencies as well. Be vegan, that’s fine, but do so for reasons that aren’t contributing to the oppression of people around you.
Autumn: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for saying that I agree with that 100% and I guess I just have trouble. I have no problem with people being vegan, if you want to be vegan, go for it. And that’s completely your prerogative. But I think just have trouble with this any kind of ideology that attaches moral values, the foods that we eat, and I think that there are and this is maybe it’s a longer conversation… But I think that there are, important things to be said about a decolonial or in or an indigenous worldview developing a more symbiotic relationship with animals and nature as opposed to this late very exploitative worldview coming from capitalism and colonialism. But I just have a lot of issues when people try to integrate speciesism into an intersectionality framework and claim that veganism is somehow anti-oppressive.
TFSR: Yeah, I mean, Capitalist Veganism is just as oppressive to humans and to the earth as other things. I don’t know, there was, you know, all of this analysis about factory farming, which factory farming is traumatic, right? A lot of people are super traumatized by it. On the other hand, I’m not gonna tell somebody that they can’t eat some things they need to eat.
Autumn: Absolutely. And again, factory farming is horrific, it should be abolished with a question “Is the issue meat or animal product consumption, or is it capitalism and colonialism?”
TFSR: Totally. Yeah. And I think that the problematic common denominator is definitely capitalism and colonialism. I’m wondering your thoughts on how we as a scene, together could bring fat liberation into radical and anarchist spaces and thought, love to hear your thoughts on that.
Autumn: Yeah, I really appreciate that question. I think it kind of starts with naming and identifying fat liberation as a revolutionary struggle and actually talking about it and engaging with it. You know, thin people especially you to engage with this. I made a graphic that will soon be a zine, which I’m super excited for it to be a zine. But it should be on my friend’s Instagram, and I can send a link to that. It’s about making in-person militant actions with a diversity of tactics accessible for fat and disabled comrades. And I think sometimes it’s just a matter of whether it’s a direct action or a meeting, or community space, really asking the question of “Can we all go and everybody fit in this image space, literally?” I have been in a lot of spaces where I’m very uncomfortable because the chairs are not made for fat people or, you know, I feel like I’m the only fat person there, or the door is not wide enough. And I think that’s also really kind of hand in hand with Disability Justice and thinking about how accessibility and Disability Justice is a framework that we constantly need to be operating within. I think also, you know, it’s important to call out or confront fatphobia when we see it, whether that’s in the broader world, or whether that’s with our revolutionary or organizing circles. I think it’s really important to share and amplify the work of revolutionary fat liberation activists. So the names that I mentioned before are Da’Shaun L. Harrison, Marquisele Mercedes, Hunter Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Springs, Jervae. Other folks who are doing really incredible work are Caleb Luna. I think that both her instagram and twitter is chair breaker. And then Sonalee Rashatwar who’s @TheFatSexTherapist on Instagram, who have some really incredible content. So I just encourage everybody to just go follow these people. Again, if you have financial resources, consider joining their Patreon, consider, you know, donating to them financially. You know, and I think beyond that, like it’s really important to reach out in fight for activists to be part of your movement and be in coalition with you. And I get excited when I hear other leftists just leaving fatphobia but I think I shouldn’t have to feel that way. Because fat liberation should be the norm.
You know, I think also again, kind of like rejecting the moralization of food and just understanding how oftentimes our hatred of fats of fast food is very in meshed with fatphobia and anti-Blackness like classism and capitalism. It just because there are a lot of like really pervasive, fat phobic, racist and classist cultural stereotypes around who eats or is presumed to eat fast food or processed food and no matter how much we try to masquerade our hatred of fast food or processed food as anti capitalist or as condemning the corporations that produce the food like that’s… No matter how much we try to mask read up, it’s still rooted in this fat phobic idea of that subject and food is better than other foods, in a post revolutionary world people will still have the options to eat hamburgers and fried foods if they want to and that’s okay. You know, I think also just, trying to hide hatred and disgust for fast food behind anger at the corporations and the exploitation of workers that doesn’t actually help fast food workers unionize it, or build power and organize. I’m a former fast food worker, and I can really attest to how that kind of attitude of being disgusted by so fast food workers.
TFSR: And I’m also a former fast food worker and definitely share that you mentioned, fat activists and fat activism, would you speak about the Fat Rose collective and how it came to be formed?
Autumn: Yes, totally. So I believe Fat Rose was formed in the summer of 2019 by fat and disabled activists who organized around the abolish ice movement to close the concentration camps. And they were specifically identifying that fat and disabled people have a specific seek in abolition because, again, our experiences are in no way the same of those incarcerated in presents or in ice detention. We do know what it’s like to be treated as disposable. And so my understanding is that fat rose really recognizes the radical potential of fat people to organize, as well as aiming to create spaces where fat people can organize without without experiencing fat phobia from other organizers. It’s not really my story to tell, but I know that there are folks in Fat Rose who have specifically sought out fat specific organizing spaces because of some really horrendous experiences with fat phobia and other lefty or progressive spaces. Fat rooms organized a really beautiful action in San Francisco at the ICE headquarters, where they demanded the abolition of ICE and the closure of the concentration camps. Caleb Luna, who I mentioned before, he was a scholar activist around for liberation read a really beautiful speech there. And this was the first time that I’d really seen anything to that magnitude that was explicitly organized from a Disability Justice and fat liberation focal point. Additionally, during the ongoing COVID pandemic Fat Rose has organized the no body is disposable coalition, which demands an end to eugenicist COVID triage policies in ICU where fat people, disabled people, elderly people, people who are HIV positive, and people who are living with other illnesses are denied life saving COVID treatment or taking off ventilator treatment. And there’s literally procedures for hospitals to take people off ventilator treatment, if the you know, fall into one of these categories. Fat Rose has been doing a lot of really cool work to organize against that. Since then, Fat Rose has put on a lot of really rad events. I know they recently did a series called busting out about fat liberation and prison abolition and transformative justice. I believe their Instagram is @FatLibInc, and their Facebook it should be fat rose. So I encourage you know also listeners to check them out on social media and follow them on social media.
TFSR: Totally, they have a really beautiful website, that’s just FatRose.Org where you can see a lot of you can see how to get involved. You can see essays that they have written you can see more about busting out. I’m looking at it right now. They have a cookbook. They have all this beautiful, beautiful material on their website. So I encourage people if they’re curious to go check, check it out.
Autumn: Thank you for showing off the website. Yeah. It’s really wonderful organization.
TFSR: Totally. You touched on this, like in previous answers, but I’m curious specifically, if you have more words on how might you encourage thin white people to show up for their fat comrades, friends and family?
Autumn: So I think you know, if you can’t just be fat people showing up for fat liberation. You know, as previously mentioned, I think it’s really important think about how you can name and show up for fat liberation struggles. Amplify the work of Fat Rose, again, if you have financial resources. Support or amplify the work of fat Black and brown activists, you know, join their Patreons, support them financially. Also, if you’re a thin white person who has a lot of social capital and visibility. Think about how you can reject the pedestal that you’re placed on and how you can pass this info onto others, especially other organizers. On a personal level, kind of interrogate who your friends or even lovers with, how you treat people in your lives, are your spaces accessible for fat people. You know, I think also it’s important to kind of unpacked desirability politics and especially unpack the idea that fatness is inherently unattractive. And I really just want to say that that’s not just about dating preferences, nobody is forcing you to date or sleep with fat people. But Caleb Luna, again, really brilliant proud scholar activist, recently wrote on their Instagram about how desirability politics affects them, way beyond just eating. It’s about how they’re able to access resources, like health care, and professional opportunities. And beyond that, I think in our radical and revolutionary movements, it’s really important to, again, make sure that we’re also talking about fat liberation and we’re naming and organizing around the intersections of fatphobia and racial capitalism or fat phobia and colonialism. So it’s about both like listening you know, doing some self reflection and introspection, as well as, materially showing up.
TFSR: Yeah, and if people are looking to start a reading or listening group, your syllabus really has just so much information in it. It’s broken down into categories, like there’s a category on anti fatness and anti blackness there’s a category on sis hetero patriarchy it’s really really really well organized and has a lot of reading resources if if reading is something that feels good to folks. How can people see this document? is it available for public use?
Autumn: Yes, thank you for asking it is available for public use. It’s available at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation if there are show notes you can put the link to that in the in the show notes but um that’s it available tiny URL please share it share it widely amplify it.
TFSR: There’s so much there. I really got a lot out of looking at this document and just going on these tangents and going down rabbit holes, and it’s a really, really, really well, well done document. Thank you so much for doing it.
Autumn: Well, thank you so much. And yeah, thank you so much for engaging with it. I also I do recognize that reading a long document is accessible for for everyone. If there are people who feel better listening to podcasts, there’s a really great one that I mentioned before whole Food Psych. There’s also following people on Instagram, like following @TheFatSexTherapist.
Autumn: Oh my gosh, there’s another podcast that the name of it is escaping me. But her name is Aubrey Gordon, her Instagram is @YourFatFriend, I think she has a link to the podcasts, but it talks especially about fatphobia and wellness culture and unpacking what we’ve been taught to think about wellness culture. So I just want to say that there are options that don’t necessarily like involve reading and other free resources. Jervae has also created a bunch of YouTube and TickTock videos and they’re a really incredible fat Black philosopher and artist, so they have a lot of also great resources that aren’t necessarily long documents.
TFSR: That’s awesome. And I’ll link those all of those that you mentioned in the show notes. How can people support you and your work and you’ve shouted out a lot of other folks how people can support them but how can people support you if you would like that?
Autumn: Yeah, thanks for asking. Um, I think so. I’m not on social media personally but I think just keep sharing the fat liberation syllabus, keep circulating it especially donate and amplify the works of, especially, fat Black and brown activists. You can donate to Fat Rose. One of my close friends has a Instagram and Twitter that is like I think it’s both @AbolishTheUSA on both Instagram and Twitter and they were they were the person who suggested I write the syllabus and on their platform that was where the syllabus was originally circulated from. So if anyone I guess wants to email me or get in touch with me specifically, maybe you could contact now at @AbolishTheUSA and say that you have a message for me.
TFSR: Autumn, those were all the questions that I had. Thank you so much for your time and having this conversation with me. I really appreciate your energy and the time that you spent in hashing all this stuff out. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to give voice to or something that you’d like to say in closing?
Autumn: I think we got everything but I just want to thank you so much, again, for having me. And this has been just such a incredible experience. And I’m always super grateful to the Final Straw Radio and just you all are doing such amazing work and I’m really honored to be part of it.
TFSR: Thank you so much. The feeling is super mutual. I’m really happy to have gotten to meet you a little bit and it was really lovely to get to share some digital space with you for a little while and talk about this thing thatI really hope that people will take back into their spaces and like do some thinking and do some reading and stuff if they need to do that. So thank you so much.
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.
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any name, gender pronouns, location, affiliation, or other information that will help listeners orient?
Elyse Max: Sure. My name is Elyse Max. I am the state director at Missourians For Alternatives To The Death Penalty. We are a statewide organization in Missouri and I work from Kansas City, and my pronouns are “she” series pronouns.
TFSR: We’re here to talk about the case of Ernest Johnson and the Missouri Supreme Court’s execution death warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. Would you tell us a little bit about Earnest, about his upbringing, about who he is as a person?
E: Sure. Ernest was born 61 years ago in rural Missouri in Pemiscot County and the city of Steele, Missouri. Ernest was raised in rural Missouri, he went to school in Mississippi County in the city of Charleston, Missouri. Ernest’s family… According to the court documents his father identified his occupation as a share-cropper. And we can see in Earnest’s family history that his maternal and paternal grandparents worked on farms in rural Missouri, which had ties to enslaving people. When Ernest went to school in Mississippi County in the 1960s, it was a segregated school. He never passed the sixth grade, there weren’t services at that time for special education or testing as we know it today. And so Ernest had a rough upbringing, his family history includes many people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities. He had a brother who was institutionalized and passed away. His mother died from what he says is alcoholism. And he didn’t have an easy life. But the folks that know Ernest that grew up with him and that know him now describe him as kind and gentle and soft-spoken. Earnest has no history of violent crimes, and only crimes of poverty, theft, things like that until he was convicted of triple murders in 1995.
TFSR: Do you know much about the context that led up to, as you said, crimes of poverty? What happened that we know of with the robbery at Casey’s General Store in 1994?
E: It was described largely as a botched robbery. We know a lot from media reports and court documents. The crime was committed by Ernest and the kids of his girlfriend at the time. According to reports, his girlfriend had broken up with him that day. And Ernest was in despair, he was drinking and smoking crack at the time. And he went in to rob this Casey’s General Store with his girlfriend’s kids. The three people that were working there were murdered that night: Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs, and Fred Jones. There was evidence that they were bludgeoned by a hammer, some stabs, some shot. To this day, Ernest says that he has no recollection of that night. He was the only one convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for those crimes that happened in 1994.
TFSR: You mentioned looking at the descriptions in the media at the time. Can you talk a bit about what the trial looked like and what the media landscape looked like for him?
E: Yeah, at the time Boone County, Missouri, it happened in Columbia, which is where the University of Missouri is and it was much different than it is today, it was pretty much a small town. So this crime really shook the foundations of Columbia, Missouri at this time. It was pretty well-covered, with a lot of media attention. It’s stoked a lot of fear in the public. Ernest was prosecuted by Kevin Crane, who was the prosecutor in Boone County at that time, and he is well known in Missouri as a highly problematic prosecutor. He was responsible for the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson, who is now exonerated. In fact, he is now a judge in the state of Missouri. But part of the problem with Ernest’s trial was that his intellectual disability claim has only ever been heard by a jury. In most states, if you have an intellectual disability claim, there is a pre-trial exemption where a judge will settle that before it even goes to court. We believe that’s what should have happened in Earnest’s case. But in Missouri, the law is such that the prosecutor has to agree to the pre-trial hearing for the ID claim. Kevin Crane rejected that, and the judge sided with the prosecutor. So it was just moved directly to a jury trial.
In fact, Earnest’s death sentence, not his conviction, was overturned two times due to errors in the presentation of evidence about the ID claim. In the third trial, he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury that was pulled from Pettis County, and they sentenced him to death for the third time. His intellectual disability claim has never been heard by medical experts, has never been determined by clinicians. And when the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities, they left it up to the states to determine what those criteria would be. So in Missouri, the criteria match what the APA’s definition is, meaning low IQ, early onset, as well as adaptive deficits in everyday functioning. But because that wasn’t determined by medical experts, the prosecutor relied on racial stereotypes and stereotypes of people with disabilities to win over these juries. The prosecutor, in the third trial, told the all-white jury to rely on their gut, rely on their common sense. And obviously, Earnest had street-smarts. He’s incarcerated, and he can play cards, complicated card games, he can play basketball. Really just urging the jury to rely on nothing that is medical evidence. That’s a huge problem today. So part of our campaign is to push for a board of inquiry that can look at the ID claim from that perspective and make a recommendation to the governor on clemency based on medical and clinical advice.
TFSR: To make it super plain, can you talk about the constitutional basis in which that’s grounded or the moral or ethical basis in which the idea that someone needs to be competent in the US system to face punishment for a crime and actually be held and be considered fully responsible for it?
E: Sure. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruling was Atkins vs Virginia, which made it unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. I don’t know the answer to whether or not this is the same as a competency claim, because it isn’t about competency to stand trial, it’s more about being ineligible for the execution. So it’s different than not guilty by insanity because they’re still guilty, but the highest punishment they could receive would be life without parole, so it just makes them ineligible for execution.
TFSR: It’s a strange delineation for me. The way that I’ve always approached was that if someone is considered to be experiencing a different reality than other people, you can’t hold them to all the same standards, as someone who you understand shares the same experience of reality as yourself, or the same ability to cope with the reality and responsibility of what would be a citizen or whatever. And so if the argument that the courts are making by saying, “Look, he can play basketball, he can play complicated card games. Therefore, he understood the ramifications of what he was doing at the time…”
And I’m speaking as if the assumption that somebody deserves to be killed because they’ve hurt other people or killed other people, is the decision that I want the state to make, which is not the case. I don’t think that that decision should be made, which pragmatically is one reason that I think that this conversation is important besides all of the other white supremacist ramifications of this case, in particular. But it seems that in order for someone to get executed for a thing if we assume that that’s the thing that the state should have the right to do, there should be degrees of responsibility taken for an action. And if there is a limit for who can take responsibility for such a heinous crime and receive that sort of punishment, they have to be considered to be operating at the same standards. And it’s reasonable to have the same expectations of participation and understanding and competency that you have of everyone else in the system. Does that make sense?
E: Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. I think that’s very confusing, and it was especially confusing to a jury of laypeople, is that proving that someone has an intellectual disability doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t understand what was happening. But it means that they didn’t have the same kind of agency that someone that doesn’t have an intellectual disability would have. People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to have coerced confessions, they’re more influenceable. Their agency isn’t the same as someone who would premeditate something and go out and commit a crime. They don’t have that same degree of agency. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he had no idea, he doesn’t know what he’s going to be executed for, he had no idea what happened on that night. In fact, we recently had a jury sign an affidavit that said that they would reconsider their decision if they had known what the clinical definition of an ID was because the prosecutor was trying to argue that Ernest was coherent, he knew what he was going to do. They said he cased the joint earlier in the day. So it was probably premeditated, but his agency, especially in acting with two other people, was less than someone who didn’t have an intellectual disability. So he shouldn’t be eligible for the ultimate punishment of execution, although he could still be eligible for first-degree murder, which would be life without parole, which arguably is more than sufficient of punishment for anyone. That’s a great question. I think there is a lot of confusion around that, and in no way shape or form should a jury be ever diagnosing or determining what someone’s intellectual disability or what their capacity or their agency is, in that sense, without understanding the medical and the clinical reasoning behind it.
TFSR: I appreciate you responding to that. Thank you. That was muddled “blah, blah, blah, but it doesn’t seem right”.
E: I hope that helps clarify because it isn’t right. And it is hard to understand. It is hard to articulate because it is so almost outlandish.
TFSR: Can you tell us a bit about MADP, Missourians For Alternatives To Death Penalty? How did you get involved in Ernest Johnson’s case? And what’s the current campaign’s goal?
E: MADP, we are the statewide death penalty abolition group in Missouri. We’re the only ones with that single focus. Missouri is not a state that is ready for full repeal. So we do what we call “abolition by attrition”. We just chip away at the system that is so very broken. Things like revising our intellectual disability laws, so that they require a pre-trial exemption for people with ID claims. We are basically just trying to make fewer people eligible for execution. In fact, in Missouri, we have 20 people that are currently sentenced to death. We don’t have a death row, so to speak, they’re integrated into the general population further proving they’re not a future danger to society. We work on the front end and the back end. We follow pending cases, pay attention to prosecutor races in high-use counties, as well as assist legal teams. We follow their lead at the end, like we’re doing with Ernest Johnson when it comes time to bring awareness to the clemency campaign around an execution. We are there, we’re across the board, working throughout the whole spectrum. Before a case even becomes death-qualified, it’s on our radar. And we’re trying to work with legal teams and the folks that have been impacted in order to stop this. And so for Ernest Johnson’s campaign, there are several balls in the air. The biggest issue is the constitutionality of the intellectual disability claim. Our hope, since the Supreme Court of Missouri recently unanimously rejected his habeas petition, our hope is that the governor will grant clemency, grant a stay, to call the board of inquiry to review the ID claim. Our governor and our attorney general have claimed to be champions… For communities of folks with disabilities, they base a lot of their pro-life arguments on the fact that our attorney general has a son with a disability. We really think they’re embedded in that community and that is the issue that could penetrate their hearts and minds and make them look at this in a rational way instead of a political way. And the death penalty is always political.
TFSR: For the audience that maybe didn’t pick it up when you were describing Ernest going to segregated schools in… Missouri is one of the states in the US south but it’s considered to be Midwestern. It’s great plains. But it was under segregation. And you mentioned coming from a sharecropper family. So for folks that don’t know, Ernest would be considered Black under legal standards at a certain point in the United States legal system and has suffered from anti-Blackness, multi-generationally. So can you maybe unpack a little more? You mentioned the makeup of the jury earlier, and there are a few matters in terms of the competency of the jury to make decisions about whether or not he is an individual with developmental delays and disabilities should be held to the standard of the death penalty. But there’s also the wider claim of the constitutional right for someone to face a jury trial by a jury of their peers. Can you talk about the makeup of the jury in Ernest’s case, in any of Ernest cases, and the importance, the underpinning argument of why in southern states where white supremacy is much more near the surface in public discourse than it can be in other parts of the country? Well, that’s unfair. Let me re-state that part because, you know, America, right?.
Can you talk about the importance of that argument and why you’re arguing what he had as a jury during his trial does not hold up to that standard of a jury of peers?
E: Yeah, sure. I think that’s such a great point. The jury is supposed to be the consciousness of the community. In death penalty cases, a jury has to be what is called death-qualified. While they’re selecting jury members, they have to already believe that they can impose a death sentence. So how is that a jury of your peers in the first place? And then to pull an all-white jury from Pettis County, a county which had racial terror lynchings, which had enslaved populations in the past? Those things are our linkages. Really, if we look at the historical acts of racial terror, there are direct linkages between those counties and the modern-day mass incarceration system. And that’s one thing that we do at MADP. Looking at our state work, we look at counties that had high numbers of racial terror lynchings that, had high numbers of enslaved people on the census and overlie them with other indicators, like the Secretary of State’s traffic stop reports – the likelihood that you’re pulled over driving while Black. These historically problematic counties are problematic today. That’s where we see our high number of death penalty cases. Mississippi County just had an extrajudicial murder of a Black man passing through town in their county jail. And that’s where Ernest went to school. There were also four historical racial terror lynchings in Mississippi County, three in Pemiscot County. We work closely with the Equal Justice Initiatives and they connect this history with our modern-day criminal legal system. We know that there’s just such a huge disparity on who is sentenced to die in the United States, and that’s reflected in Missouri. African-Americans nationally make up 40% of people on death row, but only 13% of the population.
But even more so than the defendants’ race, it’s the race of the victim. So in Missouri, if your victim is a white female, you are 14 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if your victim is a Black male. And these are the types of remnants that we see with historical racial terror lynchings that, in the 1940s, they went inside because it became a shame to lynch people publicly. In 1972, the death penalty was abolished in the United States because of the racial bias that was apparent. If you look at the death row in the south, it’s like 75% of people are African-American. So then, when it came back in 1982, they decided that you couldn’t just eliminate the death penalty because of racial bias, but each individual case would be allowed these many rounds of appeals, so they could be sure that they were not imposing racial bias when imposing the death penalty. But as we know, that hasn’t really helped if they’re pulling all-white juries and if we’re having these problematic prosecutors that are remnants of the same thing that happened in the South as is the case was Kevin Crane and the complaints against him. So, Ernest’s case just coalesces all of these broader systemic issues and anti-Blackness within the system, but also connections to our own deep history in Missouri. We were a Union state but allowed to keep our enslaved population, we were just a very divided state. So we often, I think for Missouri, want to appear to be Midwestern. But our economics, our capital is based on racial capitalism. That is still the case today. And that’s so strongly reflected in our criminal legal system, not just statistically but when you look at the way that people of color, especially Black men are treated when they’re going through these trials and these rounds of appeals.
TFSR: I think that the racial capitalism element is a really important thing to contextualize this, too, because there’s, besides huge and visible racial disparities in terms of who is accused of being the assailant in an instance, there’s also an overlap of that with class. And when you look at again, to go back to Ernest’s family history of being sharecroppers, there’s a lineage right there of you are being denied the ability, you’re having your wealth extracted from you, your lives were taken to serve the white supremacist capitalist state, or feudal at that point. And then afterward with the Black codes and with other laws going into the system that, again, Michelle Alexander’s a good example of showing this history and the perpetuity of white supremacist continuation of slavery in the United States. So, generation by generation kept in systemic private poverty, through being forced to go to underfunded segregated schools, through redlining, through all of these economic ventures, people who get the death penalty, almost never are rich people. And when you’ve got the confluence of multigenerational, not poverty, but inability to conserve and hand down wealth that people of color and Black folks and indigenous folks in the United States have facing them. You can’t hire a really expensive lawyer to argue your case for you. You’re stuck going with public defenders, who are systematically deprived of the time and energy to be able to give enough focus to an individual and their case, to actually argue on their behalf and pull the strings and file the paperwork.
E: That is very true and every single person on the currently sentenced to death list in Missouri is with the public defender system. As we watch these new pending cases pop up, that is very evident to us. If you have a private attorney, you’re usually getting your charges dropped to second-degree murder through a plea agreement. And if you have a public defender, oftentimes, there’s not even a plea bargain on the table for you. That is pretty stark. You mentioned Michelle Alexander. If anyone from Missouri is listening, there’s a great book by Walter Johnson called The Broken Heart of America. And it is about the racial capitalism of Missouri, and specifically St. Louis, and how that evolved from Native American genocide all the way to Ferguson and modern-day hyper-militarization of the police in St. Louis. If you like to drill down on that, it’s a really good one to look into.
TFSR: It seems clear with the lines that you’re drawing…. This show identifies as abolitionist as well as anarchist, most of our guests are not necessarily anarchists. My understanding is that your organization is not explicitly an abolitionist organization, but as you said, you could view trying to reverse these and offer support to individuals facing the death penalty in the move towards eventually retracting the death penalty in Missouri as abolition by attrition. Can you just say a few words again about the continuity between lynching and the lack of subjectivity afforded to Black and brown folks in this country historically, and how the death penalty is a continuation of the same struggle, and the struggle against the death penalty is the same struggle towards the abolition of that same un-personhood that we’ve struggled for centuries in this country around?
E: Yeah, sure. The linkage between historical acts of racial terror and the modernity mass incarceration system is well-researched and well-versed, particularly with lynching being manifested within the use of the death penalty and their actual litigation on lynching that happened when it went inside. In the 1940’s, it wasn’t a public spectacle anymore because it actually became embarrassing to gather around it to celebrate these things because of the way public perception was changing in the 40’s. They moved it inside and tried to make it a matter of the judiciary. But there wasn’t the same due process that we have around the death penalty today. So a lot of times it was an accused before the judge, and they went right to lynching. And so the death penalty actually was abolished, Georgia v. Furman, I believe that was in 1972, because of its racial application of it. It came back 10 years later, and the Supreme Court said, “You can’t just abolish it because it’s racially unjust, you have to bring each case and present the individual racial bias in each case.” In fact, last year, North Carolina just granted retrials to every single Black person sentenced to death in North Carolina understanding that there is so much racial bias. Everybody who was sentenced gets a chance to have a retrial where they’re able to present what would have been the racial bias in their case at the time they were sentenced. The connection legally is there. We have this idea that, with the death penalty, there is due process, but the way the death penalty is stacked up, where you have to even be death-qualified to sit on a jury that determines whether someone should receive a death sentence. It’s just…
E: It is mind-blowing. I don’t know if I’m trying to find the right word that is appropriate for publication. It’s pretty evident when you trace it back. The museum in Montgomery, Alabama, it’s From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, where Brian Steven works with the Equal Justice Initiative. They collect jars of soil from lynching sites across the United States, they’re on display in the museum. And that’s what we’re working on now in Missouri. There were 60 recognized victims of racial terror lynchings during Reconstruction, and we’re collecting those jars of soil to keep in a statewide exhibit. And through that work, it’s where it really became apparent that historically problematic counties are current problematic counties, where they’re applying the death penalty more often, where there are more traffic stops if you’re driving while Black, where you have higher levels of mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings of Black people. So we need to look at that history and address that history. And that’s part of what our racial justice work is like, I don’t know if we can abolish it until we have come to terms with where these things in our system come from.
So, while our organization isn’t explicitly abolitionists, we’re not trying to abolish the whole criminal legal system, if we take what I believe is the tip of the iceberg, which is giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies through the power to execute, once we can get rid of the very tip of the iceberg, it blows open everything else it. That’s why they won’t abolish the death penalty on racial discrimination grounds is because the Justice has said, “Well, then we’re going to have to look at every single felony, every single life without parole case”. Because the stuff that we’re allowing people to murder by is really the same stuff that is contributing to our whole systemic mass incarceration problem. So I feel strongly as an abolitionist that my work with the death penalty is only going to further the abolitionist cause, even if my organization dissolves formally because we’ve succeeded in our mission of abolition, which would be great. That is only going to blow open this wound that is just going to require more work to be done. We have to be glad and we have to celebrate victories because this work is so hard. Even though I’m not personally a reformist, I know that each step along the way is getting us closer to what we want to see the world around us looking like. I’m very proud of our work and I think that it does contribute greatly to the abolitionist cause overall.
TFSR: Thank you for that. It pretty much started off saying that Ernest Johnson has a standing execution warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. That’s very soon. How can listeners help in these coming weeks before that date comes to pass? And it’s not a foregone conclusion that there won’t be a stay, but the very high likelihood and possibility that this man will get executed by the state.
E: Yeah, I think that people inside Missouri and outside Missouri can go to www.madp.org. We have a toolkit that is constantly being updated. For Ernest right now we’re targeting the governor, he’s got the ultimate executive power to grant clemency right now, although I know the legal team is working up to the wire to get litigation going all the way up to the last minute if they can. We’re focusing our efforts on the governor. So there’s information, there’s a call script on our website, a toolkit, some cut-and-paste social media posts you can be making. As we move closer we are going to have a few phone apps and Twitter storms, as well as there’s a petition on change.org that currently has about 18,000 signatures. And we’ll be partnering with the NAACP and several organizations to deliver that personally to the governor on September 29. On our website, we made our homepage The Clemency for Ernest’s page. And also, we have a great comms organizer. So our social media is on fire, I’ve been told. I would just suggest people follow us there and then keep their eye on the toolkit for up-to-date information on how to help.
TFSR: Obviously, there’s a timeliness to Ernest Johnson’s situation, that’s really important. So it makes sense that you have converted the homepage as focused on this case and getting people involved. Are there other ongoing parts of MADP that you want folks to know about and get involved in the longer term? Like, are there ways for people to invest their energy in the organization towards that longer goal of abolishing the death penalty in Missouri?
E: Yeah, thanks for asking that. We have as I said, 20 folks sentenced to death. Unfortunately, 75% of them are in their final rounds of appeals. With the way the United States Supreme Court is and the Supreme Court in Missouri, we need your support, and we need people to get engaged in the issue. Fortunately or unfortunately, the media picks up on innocence cases quite a bit and oftentimes leaves behind the death penalty until it becomes salacious, like the night of the execution, just like they do with the crime, where they want to only focus on the salacious and made for TV parts. And oftentimes, we hear from folks that they didn’t even know we weren’t actively executing state, they didn’t know that we even had the death penalty in Missouri. So we do want people to stay engaged. For the past three years, we have had one execution a year. While that’s less than Texas, we are one of only four states that are currently for 2021 have executions on the books. Just going through the website, we’re a membership organization, you can join for $50 and get our newsletter.
We also are unique in that we have chapters across the state. So it’s great, we have a base that we can activate, we will be activating them on October 5, and as things come on, we’re always using all of our tools – email lists and things like that. And we have several petitions. So we need people engaged all the time. Please don’t be like the media and only focus on it during times of execution. Because these people need support. We have a pen pal program, we hook up folks with spiritual advisors, and all of this is an effort to really just to bring some humanity to people that are in the system, which is what they lack the very most. So lots of ways you can get engaged on very small levels. And also you can make larger commitments as well. Thanks for asking that. I think it’s important that we aren’t only focusing during times of execution.
TFSR: Personally, as someone who entered political organizing around the death penalty, I feel like the movement seemed to hit a national peak in the late 1990s. With media representations like Dead Man Walking and the advocacy and publication of books by sister Helen Prejean, and the popular push to commute the death penalty against former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, among other folks. So I guess the timing of that matches up with the 1996 signing by Bill Clinton of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. I remember that happening at the same time. And that feels like there’s some concordance between those events chronologically.
Where do you see the anti-death penalty movement today, as far as a nationwide movement? And how can people find out more in case they’re not in Missouri and want to get involved where they’re at in this penalty that has no take-backs?
E: That’s a great question. You’re right, it does have no take-backs. I think that there was a peak in the 90s maybe as far as public perception goes, but we saw the tough-on-crime rhetoric. You’re right about the Crime Bill and Clinton, when he was running for president, made a huge public deal about rushing back to Arkansas because he had to oversee an execution. So while I think public perception has changed, that takes a while for that to change in the political sphere. And to the common issue that voters care about, and something that they’re even asking people to care about. I think we’ve come a long way. And really, last year, Virginia became the 24th state to legislatively abolish the death penalty. Actually, they’re the first southern state and they’ve executed over 100 people in Virginia. So it’s very inspiring to see that happen. This isn’t gonna happen through a moratorium. Obama had a moratorium and all it did was set up Trump to execute 13 people at the end of his regime. Biden has a moratorium right now, but he’s still pursuing capital cases, or let me say the Department of Justice is still pursuing capital cases. Eight federal capital cases are happening in Missouri, on top of the 19 state capital cases in Missouri. So a governor-imposed moratorium is a good start, but it’s not enough, this has to come from the United States Supreme Court. We have to determine that it is cruel and unusual. We’re one of the few countries that still continue to keep executions on the books. We’re in the company of China and Saudi Arabia. This has to come through the Supreme Court. I’m inspired by the 24 states abolishing legislatively, because once we can tip the scales and get 26-27-28 states, then we can argue before the Supreme Court again, that it is cruel and unusual and it’s being used rarely and not often, and that it should just be completely abolished.
Part of that is that public perception has to change. They have to run out of people to put on juries. That’s what we’re seeing in Missouri, juries aren’t giving death sentences. So as much as our AG and our prosecutors want to try, the juries aren’t doing it. I think it is moving in that direction, it is a slow haul. The death penalty is as embedded as white supremacy is in America, and they go hand in hand. And so the work that we have to do when acknowledging our past wrongs needs to happen for us to realize what the death penalty actually is and what we are doing by allowing the government to kill in our name. But people that do this work are faced with so many different barriers and challenges in all of the work that we do that I understand why it often gets forgotten.
So it would be nice to have a little sister Helen public revival. Just Mercy came out last year, which is a great movie based on the book by Bryan Stevenson. It’s bringing it back into public opinion. And certainly the slaughter by Trump last year brought it back into the public discourse in such a way that there is now a Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act in the house in the Senate, that’s trying to work through things in that way. It is a long haul, we’re just trying to chip away at it and save every single life that we can, because unfortunately, what we know is that states that abolish have very few people left on the row. Virginia, I think had two people left at the time that they abolished. Missouri has 20 right now, so hoping we can get there but also knowing what that could mean for us is a lot more hard work and sadness ahead.
TFSR: Yeah. A lot of what you talked about in terms of where the decisions get made, we need Supreme Court decisions to say that it’s unconstitutional so the courts can stop applying that. And in order for that to happen, or/and as a stopgap in the meantime, legislative decisions made state by state to say we need to abolish the death penalty, we need to impose a moratorium because they’re less easily retracted than when it’s an executive simply putting something on the books, and then the other party gets in power and they remove it. Then back to organizations like yours that are going out there and applying pressure on the public officials that are supposed to listen to public opinion. What you said about the juries having trouble getting people to sit on them, I think says something about a shift in the public consciousness, I would like to think. That’s not to say positive or negative about people voting or not voting, but it says, if people vote, a lot of people choosing to vote says something about the legitimacy that they feel about the system. And what you’re seeing there is a lack of a voice, which is a statement, even if it’s not clear as to what it’s saying, or the other.
People refusing to participate in trials, because either they just somehow recuse themselves, or more specifically, recuse themselves because they say, “I cannot give a pro-death penalty decision in this case. So you have to kick me off of this jury” says something, says a lot. At the foundation of this and the less visible side of it is public participation in discussions and in organizing with their family and talking to the family about issues like the death penalty. And ideally, that should be what creates the wave that would force to some degree the hand of public officials and courts to actually impose stops on these sort of acts. So that’s why I’m excited to talk to you is because, for people in Missouri, this is a place that they can plug in, this may be more their speed than going out and protesting outside of the jail if they’re an abolitionist, it may be more their speed than doing a number of other things. It’s a way, especially that a lot of people of faith can engage around the issue of life or just people who think that the state shouldn’t have the decision to take someone’s life, that that’s not a choice that the state should be able to have. Sorry, that was repetitious. Are there any national networks that MADP is involved with, or that you know about that do really good works that might have participant groups inside of them that are reflective of specific states?
E: Maybe? I know the Equal Justice Initiative. They have community remembrance projects across the United States and we work closely with many different groups: Amnesty International, the 8th Amendment Project (they don’t have chapters per se), ACOU is a great partner to us. I think that intersection. But making sure – and this is something that we’re working really hard to deal with – is we need to talk about the death penalty as a wrongful conviction. So whenever anyone’s talking about wrongful convictions, they think about innocence and really harsh sentencing. We just need to put the death penalty in all of those discussions. When we talk about progressive prosecutors, they have to be against the death penalty. You can’t be against cash bail and pro-death penalty and, if you’re a prosecutor, that needs to be confronted and I know progressive prosecutors have community coalitions that support them.
So we need to hack the culture, so to speak, so that the death penalty is seen as a wrongful conviction. Murder isn’t ever a public safety measure. So the deterrents argument and all of that is just so obviously untrue when you look at the data and the research. I just want people to start talking about the death penalty and discussing it in the way that we talk about all other wrongful convictions because essentially, that’s what it is. It’s ugly, it’s messy, it’s murder, it’s not fun, and so it gets left behind until it becomes an execution date. I appreciate you bringing attention to it today and understanding it as part of a system and not an anomaly that is just gonna continue to perpetuate these types of injustices.
TFSR: Elyse, thank you so much for participating in this conversation and being available to talk to me and all the great work that you’re doing. I really appreciate it.
E: No problem, nice to talk to you. Thank you so much.
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