Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
Palestine and Challenging Settler Colonial Imaginaries
This week on the show, we’re airing a portion of our 2018 interview with filmmaker and activist Yousef Natsha about his film about his hometown, Hebron, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We invite you to check out our full interview with him from March 25, 2018, linked in our show notes and we’re choosing to air this right now because of the flare up in violent evictions, home destruction and the assassination of around 100 Palestinian residents of Gaza by the “Israeli Defense Forces”. [00:10:24]
Then, we’ll be sharing a panel from the 2021 UNC Queer Studies Conference called “No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism” featuring occasional Final Straw host, Scott Bransen alongside E. Ornelas and Kai Rajala. This audio first aired on Queercorps, on CKUT radio in Montreal. If you’d like to engage in this project, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org [00:24:05]
No Blank Slates: A Discussion of Utopia, Queer Identity, and Settler Colonialism
Scott Branson, E Ornelas, Kai Rajala
Under the neoliberal regime of multiculturalism, the settler colonial project has relied on the assimilation of certain subaltern communities into its project for the effective dispossession and control of indigenous lands. This discussion will present ideas from a book project we are collaborating on in order to invite conversation around the intersection and tension around ideas of liberation and forms of appropriation and oppression. Our main challenge for radical queers is to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can subtly replay exclusion and erasure. How do neoliberal utopian gay politics perpetuate settler colonial erasure and genocide? How do politics that seek inclusion and representation–in other words assimilation–disavow the work by indigenous self-determination movements, which are also poised on the frontlines of planetary self-defense? The workshop will be divided up into short presentations by each writer, followed by a structured discussion facilitated by the presenters.
The utopian project that underwrote the Canadian/American settler colonial states that still exist today was eventually transmuted into a neoliberal utopian sense of identity. The entire concept of space and self that we inherit is imbued with utopian longing for a time and place that we can fully be ourselves. This kind of rhetoric is largely at play in mainstream identity-based movements, like gay rights. But this longing often works in favor of the regime of violence and dominance perpetrated by the modern nation state. We can see how the attempt at inclusive representation of queer cultures leads to assimilation and appropriation. What gets included in regimes of representation ends up mimicking the norms of straight/cisgender heteronormativity, in terms of class aspirations, behaviors, and family structures. This therefore contributes to systematic erasure of Black and Brown queer folks, who are still the most targeted “identities” for state violence and its civilian deputies. With images of diversity that appeal to bourgeois urban gays, businesses and governments can pinkwash their violence.
A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius or “blank slate” space. On the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, as if the continual degradation of human and more-than-human communities has not already arrived. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity and, in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. Furthermore, visions of radical utopias as-yet-to-be-realized (or, as-yet-to-be-colonized) discount the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be “improved” with a “new” model.
Here we have a problem of erasure of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different iterations, in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier. We argue against these linear progression narratives of societal and environmental collapse which promise to bring about a future idealized world of rainbow-diverse identities. Instead, we propose ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. There are a few ways to offer a glimpse into the lived realities—what we might still call utopian moments—that make up the non-alienated, revolutionary life: queer and indigenous histories of resistance, rituals and moment of community care and mutual aid, and science fiction revisions of the world. We argue that this other world does in fact exist—has existed and has not stopped existing—if only in the interstices or true moments of communing and inhabiting the land alongside friends and family.
This is not an argument in favor of utopia, but one that seeks to bypass the utopian/dystopian divide. The world we inhabit is clearly dystopian for most, and utopian for some, and in many estimations, constantly on the verge of ending. The disaster scenarios, repeating the puritanical eschatology that helped settle the colonies in America, perpetuates the history of erasure of ways of life that aren’t in fact gunning for that disaster. We still argue that the purpose of dreaming, of envisioning alternatives, is to make action possible today, through recognition of the power we do already hold. Our discussion will interrogate the settler-utopian impulses that get hidden within apparently liberatory movements, such as radical queers and strands of environmentalism, as well as the way these identities and politics are represented in narratives of liberation that rely on the same logic they claim to oppose.
E Ornelas (no pronouns or they/them) is a Feminist Studies PhD candidate in the Department of Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies. As the descendant of a survivor of the Sherman Institute, a Native boarding school in Riverside, California—and therefore robbed of cultural, linguistic, and tribal identity—E’s research interests focus on the continued survivance and futurity of BIPOC communities, particularly through the use of literature. E’s dissertation illuminates community-based, abolitionist-informed, alternative models of redress for gendered, racialized, and colonial violence by analyzing Black and Indigenous speculative fiction. When not on campus, E can be found reading feminist sci-fi, making music, baking vegan sweets, and walking their dog. [00:45:06]
Kai Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-la) is a queer, nonbinary, white-settler of Finnish and mixed European descent. They are a writer, and an anarchist anti-academic working and living on the unceded territories of the Kanien’kehá:ka peoples on the island colonially referred to as Montréal, and known otherwise as Tiohtià:ke. They are currently pursuing studies as an independent researcher and are interested in sites outside of the university where knowledge production occurs. You can find Kai on twitter at @anarcho_thembo or on instagram at @they4pay. [00:57:28]
Scott Branson is queer trans Jewish anarchist who teaches, writes, translates, and does other things in Western so-called North Carolina. Their translation of Jacques Lesage De la Haye’s The Abolition of Prison is coming out with AK Press this summer. Their translation of Guy Hocquenghem’s second book, Gay Liberation After May 68, is due out next year with Duke University Press. They edited a volume of abolitionist queer writings based on two iterations of the UNC Asheville queer studies conference, due out with PM Press next year. They are currently working on a book on daily anarchism for Pluto Press and researching a book on the institutionalization of queerness in the academy. They also make books of poems and artwork. You can find Scott on Instagram @scottbransonblurredwords or check out sjbranson.com for more of their work or on twitter at @sjbranson1. [00:30:41]
Yousef Natsha: My name is Yousef Natsha, I am from Palestine from a city called Hebron. And Hebron is part of West Bank that’s under that Israeli military occupation. I did start my professional work mainly with human rights organizations on the field and start documenting what my community is facing from the Israeli government. Since that till now I’m doing this awareness for the other communities to know what’s going on in my community. I have been working on it for no less than two years, it is a long process of footaging these terrifying moments.
The documentary mainly focused on human rights violation that’s the Palestinian community is facing from the Israeli military, they are occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip for sure. And when I started the process of making the documentary, I start saying, “should I go to the, you know, the the history part of what has happened and how this is ended up being existed till this moment”, the issue that I ended up going back to the time to like 1917, when like things actually did start, and how the colonization system did begin on Palestine and ended up bleeding into what we’re having right now. So I ended up actually, after a lot of thinking, I ended up just doing it about human rights abuses. And I saw that my community, my family, my friends are not treated as humans. And from there, I ended up just taking my community voice into this documentary to explain the suffering. It took me a while to understand what is actually going on, “Is this normal to face? Should I just live my normal life in terms of just going to the college and finish that and then find, you know, a job to be occupied with all the time, having a family building a house”, and so on.
So it has been a long process for me after the age of 18, specifically, of what I actually have to do, which path I should take. And after a year or so spending it on studying accounting in one of the colleges and Hebron, I just said, “This is not my place, I can’t see myself eight hours sitting behind the desk.” That’s the moment that I ended up pushing that college door with my foot and saying, “I am going down on the ground.” I started filming with my phone. And I didn’t know that these footages would not go anywhere, but at least I felt that I’m doing something for my community. Afterwards, I ended up having a media scholarship. And after that I became more familiar with filming and photography and so on, and I worked with different local radio stations, and international filmmakers, and at the same time journalists. And on the age of 20, I ended up knowing this human rights organization based in Chicago called the Christians Peacemaker team that I did start working with them on the field. And I can say that gives me in some extent, the ability of moving around under the protection of an international organization in some extent, a lot of people had the question of how I was able to take these footages, how I was able to move around soldiers. Some people do have an idea how much it is difficult to be around Israeli military, specifically on the field and documenting these abuses.
I can say that one of the things that did help me first is English. I used English to talk with the soldiers when they come to try to turn me back to not allow me to film I use English because if the Israeli military somehow if I spoke to them in Arabic, which I can say that they can tell from my face, obviously, but at the same time using English that in some extent, let them think of, you know, it seems like he is not Palestinian at least. Does not mean that I have not been facing harassment from the Israeli military. I have been pushed away, being arrested, being interrogated within the work that I have been doing on the ground.
So I can say that the process has been super difficult but at the same time, I did succeed in making my community comfortable and me being around in terms of, you know, if they are facing harassment from the Israeli military, they will say “okay, well let’s call Yousef”. So with the years I ended up having my phone number with my community members and they will give me a call when the Israeli military is making a, you know, house search or a body search for one of the community members in the old city of Hebron, specifically.
So I can say that the footages has been taking during the process of two years or two yearsish but it does not mean that the footage is that I have to it is not repeating itself and happening now. That’s one of the things that people have to take in consideration that “Oh, with this kind of an old footage, why we need to see it?” Well, actually, it is not, it is happening daily. It shows that struggle that the Palestinians are facing in other places. As a Palestinian and a person that grew up in an environment that does not believe in government — for sure, I don’t — seeing the impact of power on my community, for sure, I don’t believe in that. And I am seeing it first as a way of using the suffering for collecting money. And that’s why I feel like I for sure will not believe in any kind of government power that’s mainly using the struggle of my community for funding, for resources and saying that “we’re going to use it for building houses”, and that’s for sure it’s not happening. And a lot of money that has been directed for the Palestinian authority that Palestinians don’t see it. The only thing that we do see is armed Palestinian police, that they don’t have authority on anything, the Israeli government controlling even the Palestinian authority.
In terms of the history about Palestine and what has been sent abroad for the international media about my community struggle. It became super tricky about how we’re going to name this struggle, how we can finish it, how we can focus on a something, you know, a anything, to try to solve this issue. And my community did resist this occupation, we have used different way of resistance to try to take this occupation down. And unfortunately, the international media did play a big role of sending the wrong image, to the extent that the Palestinians being called “terrorists” for whatever we are doing. Us naturally as human beings, we have to resist against a racist armed power to control us. That natural resistance became titled as violent, it became titled as a terrorist act. That’s one of the reasons why I actually focused about human rights and the documentary because unfortunately, that’s the only language that’s being accepted in the international community to talk about the Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian struggle.
And I can say, through the screenings that I had, so far, I have been seeing a lot of people being engaged with the conversation and saying that “yeah, it is completely terrible that Palestinians are not treated as humans”, which to be honest with you I didn’t see that reaction when I just spoke to the people about the struggle itself without showing them a documentary or the language that’s internationally being used. The history is repeating itself, some people will say they are from Saudi Arabia, or from Jordan or from Syria or whatever, I can say that they are Indigenous community.
Other thing that people don’t recognize, sometime when we say Palestinian, they will think that we are just only Muslims, and that’s wrong. The Indigenous Palestinian community are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinians Jews, PalestinianChristians. There is different ways to make a direct action to go marching down the streets, you know, for people to recognize that there is a community, an Indigenous community, that they are suffering from an armed military occupation, and their struggle needs to be ended before the time being too late, as the history have told us about other Indigenous community around the world. About how they have been suffered from their voices not being heared, their resources being taken, their history being being colonized, it is completely a colonization system, an apartheid system, and it needs to be stopped and my dream, really my dream is to see people marching all over the world about this struggle. One of the things that I do keep repeat all the time: first, our fight is not with a religion. Our fight is simply connected with an armed power coming to our houses, to our lands and saying that “it is not yours anymore”. Palestinians refugees, most of them still have keys for their houses. They are still having it. They are still hoping one day they will go back and having the right of being returned.
Scott Branson:I’m Scott Branson, they/them. I live in western North Carolina, and I’ve been part of organizing this conference for this session, this one and the last one, which is where I met my co–presenters, collaborators, E and Kai, and we started working on this project together. I’m a teacher, writer, translator, etc. Just as my background.
E Ornellas: My name is E Ornellas, I prefer E, so no pronouns is great, but they it’s also fine. Yeah, I also met Scott and Kai at the last Queer Studies conference that was in person, and so I’m happy to be back with y’all, but in a digital space. And yeah, I don’t really know what to say about myself. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and I currently reside on Ojibwe and Dakota land, although that’s kind of…there’s a really long, complicated history of that, those claims to land. And, you know, it’s now called Duluth, Minnesota. And I have a lot of feelings about land acknowledgments, but I feel like it’s important to at least name — as someone who is not Indigenous to this land, my ancestors were Indigenous to what is now central Mexico, as well as Canada, settlers from Southern Europe — I feel like it’s important, at least to say, you know, as a visitor to this space, whose land I’m on. Yeah, and I think I’ll pause for now and pass to Kai, just in the interest of time, and we can get into more stuff about land acknowledgments and who we are and all that hopefully soon. Pass.
Kai Rajala:All right, thank you E. I’m Kai, they pronouns. I am joining you from Kanienʼkehá꞉kaland, colloquially known as Montreal, also referred to by many as the island of Osheaga. I am originally from unceded Coast Salish territory, in what is commonly known as Vancouver, British Columbia. I met E and Scott at a conference in Asheville a few years ago and I’m happy to still be collaborating with them on this project. I’m a bit of the anti–academic, though I did do a BA in French language and studied with Glen Coulthard at the University of British Columbia in the Indigenous Studies Department. So a lot of my work is very referential to Glen’s work. Yeah, and we’ll talk more about the project.
E: I like that name drop, very jealous of that connection.
K: *laughs* I mean, it’s there, right? So name it.
SB: So we started working together, cuz we had overlapping interests in terms of working on like utopian vision within radical — particularly anarchist,social movement organizing — and the way that utopian ideas are entangled with colonial and settler colonial visions. So we had all done our own sort of work and were trying to figure out how we could collaborate on a larger potential book project, and this, so today is going to be one sort of installation of that ongoing project that we’re building. And we’ve each prepared like a little bit of where we’re coming from, to read. We also talked a little bit, before we open the session, we’re talking about land acknowledgments and I just wanted to also add that like, we’re in a university setting, and part of the stuff that we’re talking about is how the implications of settler colonialism get invisiblized and many of the institutions that we are working within are, you know, have profited off the theft of land grant institutions. We were talking about that a little bit, rightbefore, and land acknowledgments have been used even by these institutions as a way to kind of show some kind of like, performative solidarity that has nothing to do with, like, any material follow up, right? So like, it’s a thing that gets used but it’s also we thought worth acknowledging, you know, that we are not Indigenous to the land that we’re speaking from.
K: So I think what’s interesting to note is our project and actually start out as anything really queer related, we’re all queer, and for the purpose of this conference we decided to shape what we’re working on to fit kind of the lens of Queer Studies and, you know, queer experience. It actually started with a few things. I ran into E and Scott in Atlanta at an anarchist conference two years ago and then that’s kind of where this conversation really began, the ball started rolling. But one of the things that started with was a critique of sustainability politics and the kind of sustainability movement, which I think is like this liberal, kind of like nonviolent politic, which refuses to surrender settler agency or control over territories, and insteadit’s kind of focusing on preserving settlement and attempting to reduce the ecological imprint that the settler State has on the planet. And so you know, it’s kind of naively asking like, “how can we delicately tap the earth of its resources? How can we like politely remove indigenous people from their land? And you know, if the current practice of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession are destroying the waters? Like, how can we make the colony sustainable?” It started with that. And we’re also looking at ways in which as Scott was mentioning, in the beginning, more radical parts of our settler movements are actually reinforcing the settler state and the colony, and queerness.
EO: My starting point is usually from fiction. You know, I sort of blend maybe some of the more science and climate change stuff that Kai was just talking about, but with like, you know, a science fiction lens, and how like apocalypse, and climate change, and dystopia and utopia show up in speculative. And so that’s sort of my general subject area or interest. But yeah, I will explain shortly, I definitely made it queer for this. But I think generally, kind of radical politics, the whole, and how it takes up a lot of these narratives is what I’m concerned with.
So I’m definitely excited to work on this project. And I am excited to hear also people’s responses or questions as we’re sort of shaping this larger project we’re working on, we would like to make it some sort of tangible thing, a book or whatever out in the world. So feedback is very much encouraged throughout this, so that we can sort of be in conversation and not just like talking or writing at people. I really, very much want to welcome like, yeah, conversation.
SB: Yeah, even maybe inviting, like, collaborators too. Because like, another thing that we’re trying to do is envision projects that aren’t like single author ownership based. So but I guess let’s go into the reading of our prepared statements, and then go into the discussion so we have more time to unpack those things. So I’m going to start out with grounding in in the kind of like, questions about queer movements. I’m going to start reading.
Today’s radical queers are stuck in terms of figuring out how to inherit the legacy of gay liberation over against the more recent legacy of gay rights or assimilation. And I think that this dialectic between liberation and assimilation is a little bit misleading. And from like, retrospect, we can see the cooptation is like the goal. I mean, that’s a kind of pessimistic narrative, but it’s the thing that keeps happening. Often, this stuckness produces a nostaligia for the time of general militancy and rebellion across different groups experiencing domination, a time that ultimately splintered through hierarchy, liberal identitarianism, counterinsurgency, murder, incarceration and incorporation into the dying liberal bourgeois state.
And yet, today we see a proliferation what at least previously were deviant genders and sexualities, especially among younger people, while acknowledging an easier terrain for older people to come out and a culture that replays images of queer criminality, liberationist slogans, and apparent subscription to the radical claims of those movements. And when I said like a “dying bourgeois state”, I don’t mean that in like a good way, because something worse might be coming, right? Um, some kind of neofeudalism or whatever.
Theoretically, a major issue in inheriting this legacy of queer liberation or gay liberation has been how to deal with a liberationist ideology that sees queerness, or more precisely, homosexuality, or even more precisely sex between men, as somehow inherently revolutionary, spelling the eventual doom of cis-hetero patriarchy and racial capitalism. Like if men fuck each other than the world will fall apart. If only for the reason that that efflorescence of public queerness via the movements didn’t actually produce this liberation right — that didn’t happen — but instead various backlashes on public sex and cross class contact over against recognitions of certain rites, we might discard the idea that queerness is radical. Of course, we still would have to contend with the way that HIV AIDS forced gay movements to combat the state and scientific communities for the very lives of those who are dying. But I think we can also get to the understanding of the limits of gay liberation theoretically, simply in the idea of the homosexual.
One version of this is the transgressive or even criminal, that category tends to rely upon the normative for its power. So it can always be absorbed. And this has been talked about by like, lots of people like Bataille or Judith Butler. For us, this absorption has already taken place, because gay now means a specific consumer niche.
Another version of this like paradox inherent in gayness is articulated in the early days of so called queer theory by Eve Sedgwick in her reading of Billy Budd, as what she called “the crucial question of a potentially utopian politics”. And this is what she asks, “Is men’s desire for other men the great preservative of the masculinist hierarchies of Western culture, or is it among the most potent threats against them?” I’ve been, like, sitting with this question for a really long time. For Sedgwick, this ambivalence is tied up with a “definitional incoherence” — that’s what she calls it — that plagues modern attempts to classify homosexuality. Is it a minority group, an identifiable class of person, or is it a universalizing tendency that represents a possibility across classes and types and also, like, nations?
The modern gay rights movement has strategically employed the minoritarian response in a bid for recognition and incorporation, and therebyhas left behind some of the more destructive and dangerous impulses of gay liberation — like the movement — which often call for general homosexual realization of culture, or transgendering everyone, so that society, like a capitalist society, and all its norms of oppression would be destroyed.
Sedgwick certainly looked fondly on the liberationist tendencies, but overallshe operated within the typically academic Foucaultian framework that came to displace ideas of liberation, especially in Anglo queer theory. This framework sees the invention of homosexuality as a modern phenomenon occurring through the biopolitical intersection of criminal, medical and even literary discourse. The theoretical approach that is dominant, then, sticks to incoherence in homosexuality and this paradox without deciding to resolve it towards liberation, right, like it doesn’t take an ethical stance often.
Now I’ve been really, like, this new recently released book by Christopher Chitty, Sexual Hegemony — it was a posthumously edited volume by a friend Max Fox —has really been reframing some of the ways I think I’m thinking about this. Chitty supplies Foucault’s discursive production of homosexuality with a class analysis of various nodal points of capitalist development. Ultimately, Chitty shows another picture of the ambivalence of same sex practices and communities with the practice could signal both the potential of proletarian unrest, and also the punishment that enforce social norms across classes on top of the oppressive economic and material conditions, creating the condition for the possibility for these sexual cultures to blossom in the first place.
The biggest threat overall tended to be seen in public sex, which reinterpreted urban space outside of bourgeois hegemony, and created cross class connections which threaten the state. In this way, the policing of sodomy, according to Chitty, gets looped in with criminalizing vagrancy and sex work. So these categories all kind of go together. Chitty’s work reinscribes the political ambivalence of queerness for it’s no longer that homosexuality is simply a threat to hegemony but actually plays a role in statecraft and state consolidation, and historicall. Chitty offers a different definition of queer, and I’m quoting now, “as a social category queer would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis, rather than marketing some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self transformative play”. So this kind of, again, is a way of getting rid of the utopian possibilities inherent and queerness. What remains of the liberationist drive was ultimately tied into a liberal bourgeois idea of identity subject to it in progress. The modern queer identity that we have today is just as much a product of bourgeois ideology, despite its intermittent threat to social order, or its intermittent use as a targeted police force, which then creates a community under siege and looking for reprieve.
Not only is it a product of capitalism, but also colonialism, as colonial outposts historically did and still do provide areas of sexual license for bourgeois European American men. And similarly, the experience of settlers in the US on the frontier were propitious for same sex encounters and love between men, but that was inextricably bound with a project of removal, replacement, genocide, and settler colonialism.
One of the things that Chitty brings up that I think is worth further developing, that doesn’t get developed in the book, is that we could boil down all the contradictions of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality to questions of consent and the deployment of power. Along with the extraction, displacement and erasure of different life ways and colonized lands, the European proletarian cultures of sex and even sexual identity were eventually displaced by a bourgeois homosexual identity that’s still overdetermines our understanding of sexuality today. And the theory and science that this gay identity produced also created an industry of history and knowledge that tried to trace the universal aspects of same sex love and gender deviation across times and cultures. These gay myths and origin stories could mine colonized and genocided cultures for proof of the biological minoritarian naturalness of gayness or transness, while not analyzing the power dynamics that produce this Eurocentric gaze on other ways of doing sex and gender outside of bourgeois sexual hegemony.
And so, like, you know, in the 19th century anthropological discourse there is this like fascination with the berdache as, like, a third gender and that idea that some people claim for a kind of naturalness of trans identity that we see in our modern, like, settler colonial state is, like, coopting, appropriating and also misunderstanding something, and it is all part of the process of the kind of binary gendering of colonization.
If we follow the association of homosexuality with nodes of capital development and crisis, then we can’t collapse these other cultural life forms into something that we know in the same way, except as appropriation, extraction, colonization, erasure. In the end, it turns out that the good part — I’m arguing — that the good parts of gay liberation, I mean, besides the pleasure of cruising, of public sex and creating possibilities of contact, were in fact versions of militant anticapitalism, antiracism, and decolonialism. The gay identity that ultimately won recognition and military inclusion and marriage rights reworks the utopian lines of liberatory thought into a utopia of identity, which is ultimately a white utopia purchasable by certain norms. And this function also largely minimizes and forgets the ongoing HIV AIDS crisis worldwide.
For example, we have queer conferences at universities and support for queer students and perhaps visibly queer professors, but that hasn’t changed the institution itself, which trades in an empty promise of upward mobility for life of debt peonage, not to mention its entanglement in the legacy of chattel slavery and the ongoing project of settler colonialism. The joke is that this respectability politics came at the same time with a deeper crisis in capitalism and so arguably queerness itself is an artifact that we might want to discard. For it’s perhaps nothing but a scrap of meat thrown to another marginalized group to get them to consent to being ruled. So one thing that, again, going back toChitty, he deflates the utopian impulses and gay liberation and rights using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community to describe this universalizing attempt at, like, global solidarity. Not to resist state violence but to gain recognition. But this queer imagined communities only imaginable through coordinates of a bourgeois him to hegemony of interiority, subjectivity and identity. If gayness is an identity is already colonized, and colonizing, whitewashed and recoupable.
Early gay liberation thinkers like Guy Hocquenghem, someone I work on, were committed to a decolonial, feminist, anti racist, anti capitalist division of liberation. And they said this even at the beginning of the gay liberation movement Hocquenghem pronounce the end of gay liberation within a year or two of the opening of the of the movement and his involvement in the Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaire, not just because the gay liberation movement was splintering along lines of misogyny and moralism. Hocquenghem demanded that as soon as homosexuality was one it has to be given up or else you just serve the purpose of being a token fag or professional revolutionary. In this spirit, I want to point to a different way of thinking of the possibilities of radical queerness liberation and utopia that don’t work through erasure of settlement, terra nullius, or liberal forms of identity and sameness.
I’m influenced by theories developed from study of anarchism, abolition, Indigenous knowledge and Black radical tradition, and ideas like fugitivity flight, the undercommons and marronage. But as a settler, as a white person, my position has to be taken up critically, dispossessed settlers, as well as arrivants on the American continents have long sought ways to escape the dominant forms of colonial identity, the demands and allegiances that became codified as race, gender and sexuality. In fact, these notifications often happen from on high in order to root out cross class, cross race, same sex affiliations that could never fully be controlled by criminalization. And yet the legacies of these laws have become written on our bodies, and the discipline runs the gamut from parental pressure to police murder, or perpetual incarceration.
I’m gonna skip over this, but I was talking about like the ways that sort of racial codes came through controlling sex and reproduction. And also through these complex alliances between people who were keen to be defined as Black and white settlers against Indigenous populations. All these things are densely complex, and they have different relationships with eventual strategies of state formation, through parceling up of identities and accumulation, extraction and dispossession. But another side that we could think of through queer history of like escape, and maroons is thinking about how these histories are modeled counter hegemonic, counter institutional, counter powers and the fissures of capitalism’s ever constant crises. These histories that don’t often get told or those of communities who lived in uninhabitable places which, by which I mean like undeveloped, or undevelopable, often across racial lines. And these histories aren’t utopian, they can’t serve as a salvific function of escape for white queers. Instead, they point to the alternative and living organizations that still happen today outside of the nation state across identity markers that could be continued in explicitly decolonial struggle. To join that struggle white queers would have to put their own status on the line, no longer to help to clear the land but to give possession up, along with queerness too and identityas we understand it. The whole reason queer liberation has ceased to be a problem is that is no longer generally a threat to the bourgeois status to be gay.
Or on the flip side, the relative sexual freedom that has become hegemonic is coincident with a crisis in capitalism and the dissolution of the bourgeoisie as a moral enforcer, may be on the way to this new neofeudalism. And yet here we all are, every one of us imperiled in our attempts to survive in the system that exists. And that identity is packaged as race, gender, sexuality and class marks certain populations out for easy disposability.
So just to kind of sum up, settlers have to give up queerness along with whiteness to reenvision the relation to the land, we have to give up utopia both in our identities and in our methods, since it is a concept steeped in the processes of racialization, settler colonialism, the production of the human through genocide and enslavement. Our relation to the land can’t romanticize past life ways and must promote self determination and some sort of coexistence outside of the hegemony of European knowledge production. So my question to like, go into the discussion, and I’ll reiterate it when we do that is whether there’s a need for queer liberation movement right now? And if so, why would it be called that and not something else?
EO: Thanks so much, Scott. I’m going to pick up some of what Scott brings up at the end there and expand on it in my remarks. And yeah, I also have some questions and things I’d love to discuss. But again, I’d love to hear other folks thoughts. So I’m going to give some, like, definitions just to start us off in a place, so we’re all kind of on the same page, starting with settler colonialism. So Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice defines settler colonialism as quote “distinguished from the more traditional ideas of colonialism, wherein invaders claim resourcesbut then return home. By emphasizing the settler population to creation of a new social order, that depends in part on the ongoing oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples” end quote. So this is what Patrick Wolfe also calls the elimination of the native.
This oppression, displacement, and elimination is always ongoing. It’s not just a one time thing, it’s continually happening even now, and it’s always gendered and sexualized. So that is to say, settlers, demonize, punish and violate Indigenous peoples along the lines of gender and sexuality, and simultaneously, settlers seek to replace diverse native views, practices, identities, lifeways, with a homogenous, Western, cis-hetero patriarchal system that ensures the future of a white settler population. So my main challenge, our main challenge here, and this is for radical queers to rethink the kinds of futures we try to include ourselves in, and how our liberatory work can suddenly replay exclusion and erasure. So specifically, I’m going to grapple with the questions: how does utopianism show up in radical queer and feminist discourse? How does this perpetuate the settler colonial imperative of terra nullius, erasure, genocide, etc, through utopian ideals? And how do radical queer politics romanticize Indigenous knowledge and modes of living to motivate utopia? And then I’m going to end with a question sort of everybody, what other forms of futurity and speculation resist the settler colonial imperatives of a terra nullius utopia?
So one of the obvious examples of utopian thinking is the sort of assimilative drive within mainstream liberal LGBT movements and cultural productions, sort of this desire for acceptance, the promise of protection and homo normative procreative future that is the ability to keep living, but within the dictate of the US nation state. So borrowing from Jasbir Puar’s term “homonationalism”, which indicates that certain queer bodies — often read as white and white passing — are reconstituted as worthy of recognition and protection. Scott Lauria Morgenson says that “settler homonationalism is the product of the sexual colonization of Indigenous peoples insofar as queer subject hood and queer pride becomes tied to a sense of modernity, rather than a “primitive” quote unquote “Indigeneity” and indebtedness to a supposedly progressive nation. With this normative gay pride perhaps best visualized by “love is love” yard signs rainbow striped us flags, and Rue Pall singing “I am an American just like you too”, is easily dismissed by more radical queer activists. Or is it?
With the recent rise of media such as the Brown sisters podcast “How to Survive the End of the World” as well as Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s edited collection The Feminist Utopid Project: 57 Visions a Wildly Better Future, there’s been a noticeable uptake and interest on the left in the construction of a wildly better future, in spite of a supposedly impending end of the world. I’d like to challenge the radical queer feminist urges to create these utopian visions of a society based on the apocalyptic crumbling of the present. A radical queer politics that relies on unquestioned utopian and dystopian visions, risks aligning itself with a settler colonial imaginary of terra nullius, or blank slate space.
So on the one hand, dystopian and apocalyptic visions perpetuate the unquestioned assumption that a societal collapse is impending, right? As if the continual degradation of human and more than human communities has not already arrived. So in an article on science, and science fiction narratives of Indigeneity and climate change, Pottawatomie scholar Kyle White reminds us that quote, “the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have already endured, due to different forms of colonialism. Such as ecosystem collapse, species loss, economic crash, drastic relocation and cultural disintegration” end quote. This critique could certainly be extended beyond the climate crisis to other hardships that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, also known as North America, have endured, such as the continued murder or disappearance, dispossession, removal, forced assimilation under resourcing, and what elsewhere I have called “phenomenological ignorance”.
So when I hear fellow radical queer activists and scholars lamenting the current social, political and meteorological conditions were weathering, who balk that this is anything new, let alone impending. To accept that it is, I think, would be to erase the experiences of my and many others Indigenous ancestors. Particularly dangerous in this assumption is the kind of crisis rhetoric that fosters opportunities for settler colonial sentiments of insecurity, and in the face of this insecurity, assertions of belonging and sovereignty in land and lifeways. So I think Emily Potter succinctly summarizes this, quote, “the non-Indigenous fear of dispossession or exile manifests in the need to defend their jurisdiction over land” end quote. So this implicitly creeps into radical queer discourse when settler queers faced with very real contemporary issues, such as anti-Black legal and extra legal violence, neofascism, militarized policing, etc, attempt to construct autonomous or occupied zones, buy up land, houses and property, some kind of, you know, maybe manifestation of radical prepping, or in other ways individualize and privatized their survival. So Additionally, painting disruptive phenomenon as “apocalypses” belies the human made, in fact, settler made, emergence of these crises.
April Ansan, shows how quote “settler apocalypticism” end quote, obscures colonialism, and its attendant, disaster capitalism, as the true culprit of quote “racial and environmental contraction.” end quote. Therefore, if settler queers insist on using the language of dystopia and apocalypse, they also work to veil their own complicity in these processes. So one apparent amelioration to this could be found in the call for radical queers to quote, “learn from Indigenous peoples”. But this could also easily fall into a trap of what Jean O’Brian calls lasting, or the idea that Indigenous peoples are the last of a nearly decimated group, whose wisdom belongs to bygone eras, yet can still help settlers avoid their own potential extinction. This assumes that to return to Kyle White, quote, “Indigenous peoples are communities who primarily reside in the Holocene, and over time have been gradually deteriorating to the point that the plight of the modern era threatened to kill them off permanently” end quote.
So instead, right, so I would ask radical queer, non-Indigenous accomplices to see Indigenous peoples as of this time, and not monolithic, right? And not to covet these knowledges. And then in thinking about our utopias, rather than dystopias, I do worry that that sort of notion of the future as this mysterious open space and having this sort of as yet to be realized, or as yet to be colonizedquality, creates then another terra nullius space.
To be forever looking towards this horizon, as the space of resistance as a space of resistance like finally realized, and safety finally secured for queer and trans people, I think, one: makes it seem like we can’t create this in the present and that many Indigenous and other queer, trans, two-spirit folks aren’t already creating this in the present. And two: I think this reinscribes yet another, “other”, quote unquote, space that is not yet “ours”, and also ours is in quotes. But it will be one day, right? We can colonize it, we can be there one day, we can claim that one day. Hence mirroring the settler colonial imperative of elimination replacement and what E. Tuck and K. Wayne Yang tell us is the intention of making a new home on the land, homemaking, insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. This would be the domain of the future utopia. So this discounts the ongoing presence of Indigenous alternatives to the current settler colonial dystopian reality, and instead preserves a view of geographic and social space as blank and ready to be improved with a new model. Again, here we have a problem of erasure, of the oppressions and resistances that have been ongoing in different durations in favor of the blank space of the utopian frontier.
In other words, radical queer politics romanticizes Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to create a future utopia for themselves, and potentially “altruistically” quote, unquote, for others. I therefore argue against any linear progression of societal environmental collapse, which then promises to bring about this future idealized world of rainbow diverse identities. Instead, I propose — I think we propose together — ways for radical politics, particularly those espoused by non-Indigenous people, to disavow such settler colonial mindsets. And then again, to end, I’ll reiterate this later, I opened with the question to everyone “what other forms of futurity and speculation might be imagined that resists the settler colonial imperatives of terra nullius”?
KR:Thanks E, I guess it’s me. Okay, so I’m going to begin by positioning today’s discussion within the larger body of my work, thinking and research. I’m currently interested as a mixed European white settler predominantly of Finnish descent in the ways in which Finnish immigrants have contributed to the expansion of the Canadian project of settler colonial occupation. Finns traditionally settled in Thunder Bay, Ontario in Canada, elsewhere around the Great Lakes in the United States and the Midwest, including Minnesota and Michigan, and are revered amongst leftist historians as being important to the labor movement in Canada. This contribution was not only through the overt methods of settling and primitive accumulation, which included work as loggers clearing land for settlement, and as pioneer homesteaders, but also his workers involved in union organizing.
Written above the Finnish labor temple in Thunder Bay, Ontario is the Latin phrase “Labor Omnia Vincit”, which translates to “hard work conquers all”. This can be read many ways, namely, that if one works hard upon arriving in these lands, one will be promised the bounty of the Canadian dream, property ownership and middle class prosperity. But the word “conquer” is perhaps the most important part, and interpreted through a lens that challenges settler colonialism, really hones in on the role of the Finnish worker in the nation building, as being the soldier of conquest able to tame the wild Canadian frontier. Finns and also Russians would attempt to establish utopian colonies on the west coast of Canada, which included Finnish Slough in Richmond BC and Sointula Village on Malcolm Island.
So, right, there’s this anti-Indigenous idea of terra nullius, which the three of us are bringing up, that this land is somehow empty and it is not already utopic or to European standards, it is empty and needs to be transformed. This research — namely how ethno cultural utopian and socialist settler movements were important in the construction of the settler political imaginary and essential to the structure of the Canadian settler state — will represent the bulk of my contribution to our ongoing collaboration, which we hope to turn into a book project titled No Blank Slates.
In the realm of queerness, and settler colonialism much of my research and writing for the past few years has been on the history of the so called gay liberation movement in Canada. The ways in which it has differed from that of the United States and how gay and lesbian settlers and their pursuit of rights throughout the later half of the 20th century helped to strengthen both the image and the political power of Canada as a supposedly inclusive, multicultural and progressive nation state. In the 1960s, there was a pivot in both the direction of settler governance and the modes of control over Indigenous nations. Canada’s natural governing parties, the Liberals, under the leadership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who many of you will recognize as Justin Trudeau’s father, was promoting the idea of a just society, which sought to incorporate those once outside the Canadian body politic. And here I quote “the just society will be one in which the rights of minorities will be safe from the whims of intolerant majorities. The just society will be one in which our Indian and Innuit populations will be encouraged to assume the full rights of citizenship through policies, which will give them both greater responsibility for their own future, and more meaningful equality of opportunity.”
Aspects of this strategy were to be achieved through the criminal law Amendment Act Bill C 150, which drew inspiration from the criminal lawcode reforms going on at the same time in England, as well as the proposed 1969 white paper. During their transformative era of the 1960s Canadian government actors were retiring the overtly genocidal tactics of segregation, starvation and eradication that their predecessors had employed against Indigenous peoples, opting instead for more covert ways of dealing with sovereignty claims, by way of legislation, which would effectively attempt to trade title to land for Canadian citizenship. The white paper introduced by Pierre Trudeau government and then Minister of Indian Affairs John Chrétien sought to eliminate Aboriginal title and treaty to lands by abolishing the Indian act as it stood, and to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society, but was ultimately rejected through the organizing of Indigenous leaders and activists.
Settler colonialism is not only a social and psychological project, however, it operates primarily in a material way relying on access to land and resources in order to continue the process of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. Indigenous nations stood in the way of Canada’s access to land. The growing Red Power movement was not one of identity, but instead centered on self determination, and was a result of Indigenous peoples refusal of the insulting tactics of Trudeau government and the Canadian state.
At the same time, the Canadian gay liberation movement emerged as a response to 1969s Criminal Law Amendment Act, which effectively decriminalized aspects of homosexual sex between consenting adults in private. Queers demanded increased rights and accommodation from the state, encouraged by the Stonewall riots in the United States, and by the olive branch Canada had extended with its progressive reforms. At this historical moment, there was certainly room for radical potential of settlers and Indigenous people uniting against the assimilatory actions that Pierre Trudeau’s government attempted to enact towards each group, but no coalition materialized.
For upwardly mobile gays and lesbian settlers, those that desired recognition from the state and representation amongst the high ranks of its governance structure, the Canadian state becomes a utopic vision. The incorporation of productive white homosexual men into the folds of nationhood — which began with reforms to the criminal law code — was a decision that ensured the Canadian state could expand the viability of its capitalist economy, and maintain its assumed authority and legitimacy in the minds of those it subjugates. It is also something that of course necessitates private property. As Jasbir Puar reminds us settler colonialism has a long history of articulating its violence through the protection of serviceable figures, such as women and children and now the homosexual. In this historical process, so called gay liberation, presumably from hetero patriarchal norms, transmutes into gay assimilation into the nation’s body politic. White homosexual men were, in fact, so eager to penetrate into Canada’s body politic, that they named the first Canadian gay periodical, The Body Politic after it.
What was lost in this moment of assimilation was the radical potential of a combined movement — between those organizing around gay liberation and gay rights — with the burgeoning Red Power movement at the time. While the gay movement in Canada throughout the later half of the 20th century shifted their focus to the pursuit of rights and recognition from the settler state, Indigenous people, for the most part, continue to refuse Canada’s attempts at assimilation, and instead to reaffirm their rights and titles to land which had not yet been seated. The 21st century saw a new marriage of sorts between queers and the Canadian colonial project. For queer settlers the promise of recognition in the eyes of the progressive state did not end with the passing of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005.
In the US that followed Justin Trudeau’s election assimilationist gays, lesbians and transgender settlers, who already desired upward mobility within the capitalist order were offered even more fruits from the state. In his role as Prime Minister, Trudeau marched with his family at the head of a slew of pride celebrations, from 2016 to 2019, emphasizing the importance of family values. In response to the violent repression that queers had endured at the hands of Canadian policing, Trudeau performed a very public and very emotional apology. In March of 2019, when President Donald Trump moved to ban transgender troops from the US military, the Canadian Armed Forces, the CAF, overhauled its existing policy to extend an arm and welcome Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Like the US military under Barack Obama’s presidency, the revised policy incentivize transgender Canadians to enlist in the army, offering support services for those who wish to medically transition as well as insisting that the CAF would create an environment where transgender members were free from harassment and discrimination. This served to only widen the Gulf that existed between those fighting for self determination in Canada and gay, lesbian and transgender settlers.
And again, though we can only speculate on the radical potential the combined forces of gay liberation and the Red Power movement as they emerge simultaneously in the 1960s and 70s Canada, a queer anticolonialism exists today amongst the queer, trans and two-spirit youth on the frontlines of resistance against the Canadian state. The current generation is leading the Shutdown Canada and Land Back movements, as well as the efforts to abolish the Canadian colonial police force the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, RCMP, and defund municipal police bodies in major Canadian cities. A radical political analysis rooted in a necessity for Indigenous sovereignty has been growing momentum as radical, queer and anarchist organizers continue to learn alongside and build relationships of solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations. As Canada moves to secure land for resource extraction amidst a global pandemic, and pacify conversations around repatriation and abolishing the police, all settlers, but especially queers, must commit to pushing back against their own government structure, which will continue to erase voices of resistance and mount its own narrative of the benevolence.
In his book Red Skin White Mask, Glen Coultard applies the theoretical concept of the politics of recognition to post 1969 Canadian society. Expanding upon Franz Fanon ideas surrounding the shift from the overt violence of colonial control, over colonized subjects, towards recognition and accommodation as a form of state management. Coulthard concludes that because rights and permissions are distributed by the state, the cycle of colonization continues and the rights must be rejected. He extends the strategy of rejecting state management to “other subaltern groups, not just the colonized” and which is a quote, which would include the working class, people of color and gender and sexual minorities. Because the Canadian state privileges the treatment of respectable and middle class gay, lesbian and transgender settlers at the expense of Indigenous people, it makes sense for queers to turn this recognition and accommodation provided by Canada on its head.
Theoretically speaking, this extension of Coulthards call to reject recognition and the gifts of the settler stateby marginalized groups other than Indigenous people has not yet been taken up. The project of queer refusal of the settler colonial project is not an ideological attainment or position, but instead an ongoing commitment to the disruption of settlement and the economies which sustain it. Radical queer settlers who choose to align ourselves with Indigenous peoples and nations whose land we continue to occupy, and whose stolen wealth we continue to benefit from must start by refusing the recognition and the gifts that the nation state offers us, as well as actively disrupting the ways in which our identities are used to advance Canada’s myth of progress. Armed with the lessons of the past, we must help to enact decolonization in its fullest, most literal sense, moving beyond the perfunctory gestures of acknowledgement, and towards outcomes that are material.
This project is one that destabilizes queer utopian ideals and settler agency in imagining alternatives to capitalism and colonial governance, and instead centers the repatriation of lands and the reclamation of laws, Indigenous governance structures, and Indigenous economies that have been suppressed. It is a commitment to action and relationship building, to solidarity and learning.
A few weeks ago in a talk given at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, Susan Stryker signaled that in a post–Trump era, Biden certainly embraced liberal inclusive model of recognizing trans rights. She continued and emphasized that — and I’m paraphrasing here — the laws are not going to save us, the institutional power is not going to save us. We have to become a new body politic moving beyond the state. With the return to liberal inclusion politics in the US, I want to signal a potential area for collaborative prefiguration between radicals living in both nation states to challenge the ways in which both of these settler states weaponize queerness and building off of the proposal of Coulthard and in response to the remarks put forward by Stryker. I would also like to suggest the imperative task of taking up the project of queer refusal in a serious manner, and then instead of a new body politic, a disembodied politic of sorts that rejects the narrative of queer progress, and challenges the very nature of queer identity formation be pursued instead. The greatest threat to the settler state, then, should not be seen as the radical queers lifestyle or rejection of heterosexist society, and social and sexual reproductive norms, but the rejection of state power and capitalist accumulation.
So to end, the question that I had for the discussion is, where do we go from here? How do queer movements engage with the state? How do they build relationships with Indigenous movements? And one thing that I wanted to add is that some of these sites of refusal have already begun. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Criminal Law code Reforms, Canada announced it would issue a commemorative dollar coin, quite literally a token of gay capitalism. Beyond mere pinkwashing, Trudeau was in more ways than one continuing this project of assimilation, the fabled construction of the “justice society” that his father had begun in the late 60s. And amongst several disruptions, myself and other queer activists and academics, gathered in Ottawa in March of 2019, for the Anti 69 conference — and that’s anti 1969 as in the Criminal Law Code Reforms, not anti 69 is in the sexual act *laughs* — to trouble the mythology of the Omnibus criminal code reform bill and to shed light on the Canadian states ongoing crimes on Indigenous people within Canada and abroad.
Revolutionary, Indigenous political prisoner, Oso Blanco, is marketing the first in a series of full-color postcards based on his paintings to fund-raise for children’s schools in Zapatista territories and Turtle Island. More at BurningBooks.com
Certain Days Calendar Call-Up
The Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar collective (CertainDays.org) will be releasing our 21st calendar this coming autumn. The 2022 theme is “Creating a New World in the Shell of the Old,”looking at collective approaches at creating a more inclusive and fulfilling world through mutual effort. Read the invitation up at their website!
Scott: We’re talking today about sort of the current state of radical anti-authoritarian, queer liberatory movements, and the legacy of gay liberation, you know, from the 60s and 70s, and like, gay history. Before we get into it, can you introduce yourself and the kind of work you’ve done? We’re talking about, specifically, Christopher Chitty’s book and sort of your placement within that, and if you want to say anything else about yourself, and your pronouns, whatever you feel.
Max Fox: Sure, my name is Max Fox, I use he/him. I am the editor of this book that was written by Christopher Chitty. It’s called Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System. I’m also an editor at gay communist magazine called Pinko and the translator of short book by a French theorist Guy Hocquenghem called Ampitheater of the Dead.
S: Which is sort of that’s how we met sharing an interest in Hocquenghem. Do you want to talk at all about how you got involved in editing Christopher Chitty’s book and the project, and how you, yeah, how your work relates to it?
MF: I knew Chris when I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, he was a graduate student in the history of consciousness department, which is this kind of fairly unique, critical theory, Marxist philosophy, etc, etc, style graduate program that I, as a young, enthusiastic leftist was like, “wow, simply the coolest thing you could possibly be studying”. And so I like tried to sit in on all these classes in that department, which is sort of one of the ways that I encountered him.
But we met really organizing on this anti-austerity, anti sort of tuition hike, movement, in, let’s say 2009-2010.Like right after the crash, that became the sort of Occupy California, Occupy DC system movement, which was sort of like a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street stuff. And so he was someone who I met in this moment of kind of like, intense, you know, personal transformation, I suppose.
And he was also working on this very incredible sounding theory, that promise to, in my view, kind of revolutionize the understanding of the history of sexuality, sexuality studies, queer theory, etc. And I was like, very eager to have something like that, because I felt kind of dissatisfied with a lot of the sort of sexual politics that were ready to hand at the time, it was, you know, “gay marriage” moment. And I felt kind of unconvinced by a lot of the positions on both sides even, and I wanted something more like, whatever Marxist or rigorous or something like that, you know. And Chris was working on precisely that. So I was very eager for him to finish his dissertation and sort of get that out in the world.
And so when he died in 2015, you know, I was personally very devastated. And I attached that feeling to this thought that, like, the work wouldn’t be finished. And that was something that I could actually sort of put some efforts towards. And so I, I didn’t really think it’s gonna be such a long project, but I sort of assumed the responsibility of collecting his, sort of, the draft material that his family and his friends had access to, and finding a publisher and, you know, getting it through the revision process and things like that, and now kind of like seeing it through the publicity end or whatever.
Yeah, so you know, it’s like this, you know, I had an intense, like, intellectual response to this. I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think, if I didn’t think it was worth thinking about or thinking with, but obviously, there’s a pretty significant, like, emotional component as well for me.
S: Yeah, thanks for sharing that history that you have, like connected with Chris Chitty. And I mean, yeah, it is, I think you’re right, back then, to say that the work is going to make a giant contribution. I’ve felt reading this, that it has really affected my way of thinking and also responded to some of my own frustrations. But also I want to like yeah, acknowledge that kind of like personal grief work there, that must have been part of your editing, but you like, brought this thing out, which I think is super important. If you’re ready to kind of move into some of these ideas, then like tease them out a little bit.
So, in your foreword to the book, you summarize the project, as, I’m quoting you, “an attempt to think through the failure of sexual liberation, by what Chitty described as returning the history of sexuality to a history of property”. And like we could talk about that as kind of combining his readings of Marx and Foucault as you do, and that’s a whole debate within queer theory. But, uh, I was wondering if you could sort of explain this argument the way that you sum it up, how would you articulate the relationship that he explores in the book between same sex practices, particularly sodomy, sex between men, and the development of the bourgeois state? And how is the figure of the homosexual or homosexuality helped consolidate the state?
MF: Yeah, okay. So he, one of the tricky things about this book, I think, is that it’s making two slightly different claims that they’re obviously related, but the relation between them is maybe a little underspecified. He is saying that there’s a way of grasping power that falls into the name of sexual hegemony, which is basically how a ruling class comes to install it’s particular sexual practices and norms in the intimate self conception of numbers of classes that don’t occupy the same position in society. So that’s sexual hegemony. And then secondly, he’s saying that the figure of male homosexuality kind of illuminates the particular history of how in capitalist society, sexual hegemony is an integral part of bourgeois rule or rule of capital sexual relations.
And he’s telling a story about how, in the earliest sort of capitalist societies and the earliest spaces in the world that you could plausibly claim are governed by capitalist relation to production — which he, following this economic historian Giovanni Arrighi, locates in northern Italian city states in 1400 or so, Venice in particular — he says that, well, okay. So first of all, in the Mediterranean basin, there is, in this moment, there’s a basically widespread and unremarkable just fact of men having sex with men. It’s just simply, it’s not, it doesn’t have its own name, necessarily, or it’s not, that doesn’t give you a sort of unique social status, because it’s so ordinary, you know. Basically relations of production, you know, apprenticeships and seclusion of women in the household, and even you know, things like, the type of ships that they use, all of this basically contributes to a public sphere that is exclusively male, essentially, where men and women don’t have any access to each other, except for within their own family. So that’s kind of prohibited by the incest ban, sex between these people. And so the only kind of sexuality you’re gonna have, if your man, is with other men who you will encounter, you know, on the docks, or in the marketplaces, or in your workplace, or in the cruising areas and in the taverns and whatever. And that’s simply what you do. It doesn’t give you an identity or whatever.
And so he’s saying that around the same time that capitalist relation to production began to take hold. There’s also a new form of Republican governance, where the laws of the city have some shared source of legitimacy. It’s not just a kind of feudal lord or whatever, but there’s some attempt at reviving a kind of like civic base of power. And that then obviously kind of comes in conflict with the actual disparate levels of power that people have. There are more powerful rich people and less powerful working people. And so you need a way of managing this conflict that doesn’t end up expressing itself in overthrowing this new form of government and installing rule of the many who are poor, instead of the few who want to have the legitimacy of consent or whatever. Anyway, sorry, that’s, that’s a bit of an aside. The point is that these governments start adopting a new way of enforcing or regulating sodomy, which as I said before, wasn’t really a sort of serious problem. But there are problems obviously when you have disputes between lovers or disputes between clients and patrons, right. And so instead of, you know, punishing sodomites with capital punishment — which was maybe, you know, a scary threat in the past, but wasn’t ever actually applied very often — what these governments do is they start a special police force that is just there to investigate accusations and issue fines, basically.
And so what this does is it incentivizes people to inform on each other. If you’re mad that your ex is going out with your rival, then you can call the police about it and say, these two sodomites, I saw them in the loggia the other night, and you should go find them 24 Florins or whatever. Or you’re a sex worker, and your john doesn’t pay you and you threaten to turn him in, or whatever. So it establishes a new way that power operates in these relations that were more directly mediated by personal sort of encounters with each other. So that’s in the first instance, that’s like a way that the emerging bougious state — or capitalist relations of production that need a form of government to kind of take hold — changes and kind of takes a new form in these ways of regulating sodomy, are ways of taking sexuality into itself and turning it into a new instance where the state like is a is a presence of people’s lives where it wasn’t before. I don’t know if that was actually a direct enough answer at all. Do you think that was good for your question?
S: Yeah. I mean, that really breaks it down in a helpful way for me. I mean, the first sort of historical chapter starts there when you’re talking about and like, the way you explain it shows, it’s like the first sort of capture of whatever becomes homosexuality, because you talked about how it kind of routes the relationship through this state. So like, you can have recourse to this concentrated form of power in that police force that will fine people. And so people then like, give up whatever relationship they have between each other to go to this other place to deal with their problems. And I think that, yeah, the way you explained it was really helpful.
And then the other aspect of it that I think is important, in what you’re saying, is that it becomes a way of trying to mitigate potential threat, right, from like, the many, or the lower classes. Yeah, there’s this framework of like, consent to be ruled, by getting your recompense, or whatever it could be, like if you’re jealous, or something’s taken from you, or you’ve been forced into a situation you don’t want. But then that also diffuses the possibility of rebellion in some way. I mean I guess that’s the definition of sexual hegemony and how that helps, like, work for state power. And there’s like this way that he traces the increased politicization of homosexuality to that history of producing the proletariat. So you were talking about the emerging forms of capitalist production, that goes from cutting people out of subsistence ways of living, bringing them into wage work, creating these urban centers, where people are living different lives and working different ways. And he often calls that like a kind of surplus population, or superfluous.
The thing that’s really interesting is that there’s these cultures of public practices of homosexuality, where the men are working together. The thing that really strikes me is how Chitty’s argument replay some of the old coordinates of talking about homosexuality, that can either be a kind of pro gay way of thinking, or a really homophobic way of thinking. So like, it usually centers around the kind of that superfluousness or uselessness or the non-reproductive aspects of sex as a form of decadence and disruption of a moral form. And I was just wondering, are we so inundated with this framework that, can we think about sex between men outside of that moral framework? Is it always going to be ambivalent? Like there was a way that like communist parties would say homosexuality was a was bourgeois decadence, and like, it’s true to a certain extent, right, like Chitty’s showing us that it’s tied to that, but it’s not, yeah, I mean, I’m to articulate this, if you want to jump in.
MF: So I mean, there’s a lot there. So there’s another thing that he’s trying to do in this argument, which is to say that this repression that we have come to identify with the meaning of sexuality, of homosexuality or queer sexualities, whatever, “deviant sexualities” that’s not a necessary feature, either of sexuality as such — which is like, maybe that’s not exactly what its objective investigation is — or sexuality under capitalism. Because, you know, he’s a good reader of Foucault, power is productive as well as oppressive, right. So you don’t want to have a concept that can only say, “sexuality is what the state takes from you”, or something like that, or stops you from having.
And so he aligns this history of kind of like, Arighian hegemonic centers of the world system, as capitalism kind of expands over the globe. So it goes first from Florence and Venice in northern Italy, and that goes to Amsterdam, is the next center, then London and then New York. This is the sort of world systems theory, according to Arighi narrative of caplitalist expansion. And Chitty says, “Okay, let’s find out what happens in the moment of transition from one center to the next, when the declining center is experiencing crisis or loss of its previous capacity to exert hegemony”. So he’s saying in these moments of decline, you can find increased depression and that’s actually what the repression means. It’s not that capitalism has this kind of like, inherently sex negative aspect, it’s that as a sort of cyclical crisis ridden system, it’s going to have these moments of dissolution that will have, you know, semi predictable effects. And one of the predictable effects that he asserts is discoverable in the record is that there’s this increased attention to male sodomy, or men having sex with other men, in these moments of crisis and dissolution of the hegemonic center.
So on the one hand, that’s one explanation for this kind of like moral valence, right? So like, capitalism only notice is that sex between men is even happening in this moment when it itself is going through crisis. So of course it’s going to attach a kind of pejorative meaning to it, right? Because it’s looking for reasons for its decline. And I think that’s, you know, relatively convincing. I have to say I haven’t done this historical research myself, so perhaps another set of archival material would be able to make a counter argument that says, “no this is actually constant, or actually it has nothing to do with the temporality of financial crisis” or blah, blah, blah? I don’t really know, I mean, this seems compelling to me. But I don’t think it’s actually necessary for his argument to be true.
I think that the point that he’s making…so capitalism is characterized by a kind of ceaseless drive to expand, and consume evermore arenas of human social life, right? Like that’s observably the case, that’s theoretically drivable, from, you know, Marxist analysis and from, it’s a classic tenet of most people left. And what that means is that historically, generally, what that means is people who are living in non-capitalist parts of the world, and basically subsistence forms of social production and reproduction, are severed from their capacity to live like this and brought into the circuits of capitalist production. And so a lot of the times that has meant then turning them into a kind of like industrial proletariat, putting them to work in factories, or on plantations, or, you know, sending people to die in armies or settle genocided territories or whatever. But something that that requires is that you have this kind of floating population that’s been severed from the means of reproducing their own life at the very beginning, so the premise of capitalist production is a surplus population, right? That is sort of not able to meet its own needs for survival without seeking employment on the market. Right, or in kind of non-waged areas, whatever in the household, internally, or in the gray market or whatever.
And so I think one of the useful things about Chris and his analysis is that he has a sophisticated enough reading of Marx and capitalism to sort of dispense with what a lot of the traditional Marxist — basically moral positions — on work are, and say, you know, “it’s not good, that people are productiv, in fact, that’s a source of domination”. These questions of like, “is homosexuality somehow intrinsically related to non productive modes of living?” I think he deals with it in a number of different ways. One of which is to say that the forms of direct production under capitalism produce homosexuality, you know? Like the classic form of capitalistic production is — this wasn’t always historically the case, but you know, in the fantasy — is the sex segregated factory, right? So, a bunch of men who all spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day with another 100, or 1000, whatever, some number of other men. You know, most of them often historically live in dormitories, or in workhouse style situations, they certainly don’t have enough money to start a family, you know. So oftentimes, historically, the only kind of pleasure they’re going to find is in each other. Or the other sort of like proto-typically capitalist form of productive activity is shipping, you know, where you have the same problem, right? And obviously, famously, these are like hotbeds of homoerotic intrigue.
And, you know, the same goes for the army. The same goes for, I mean, if you think about the fucking settler colonies, like on the frontier, all the men are either there alone in the wilderness, and out away from the social world that they were raised in. So it’s everywhere, once you start looking at this. You know, prisons, obviously, famously. Once you impose a kind of sex segregated route norm on the sort of productive social apparatus — which wasn’t consistently the case throughout the history of capitalism, certainly — but then you inevitably have the problem of proletarians are gonna have sex with each other. And so anyway, so that’s one of the sources also of this concern for regulating sexuality, regulating homosexuality is because it’s a labor discipline question sometimes, too.
S: Yeah. I mean, so like, this does a few things, right? Like in the earlier articulations of sexual liberation, and also gay liberation, like sexual liberation more generally, and gay liberation, there’s like that repressive idea that there are these forces that are making us not have sex we want and then gay liberation, like had the strategies of trying to find proof of like, the natural ness of homosexuality throughout history. And so in a way, what Chitty does is expanding on Foucault, like you were saying, who says, “Well, no, the homosexuals invented at a certain moment, and it’s not this eternal force of like, repression and sexual license” or whatever.
But in another way, I think what I like so much about what Chitty’s doing is like, he’s saying that we’re not asking necessarily the right questions when we are focusing on these things. So like, like you said, homosexuality as we know, it is created by the development of capitalism. But the other thing he keeps insisting on, Chitty, is like that it’s contingent, right? And that’s, I guess, the other kind of deviation from like, Marx, it’s like a contingent history. It’s not necessarily that it was this way. And so in a way, there’s, like, the ambivalence of homosexuality, which is also like, is a tool of rule and a tool of oppression. It’s a medium for us to like, find liberation and a way that we’re captured is like inherent to that process. And I don’t know, I mean, in a way, it’s like, I mean, I’ve seen this being articulated in various ways, but like, almost like an unresolvable paradox in a way. And so like, I guess what I’m interested in exploring with you a little bit is like, how it shifts the coordinates of what we think about when we try to aim for liberation.The way that Chitty, if I can quote from him, like the way he articulates that, and this is a line that you just mentioned to me before we start recording, he says that “queer would then imply a contradictory process in which norms of gender and sexuality are simultaneously denatured and renaturalized”. And that’s like the process of sexual hegemony, like using sexuality as a rule, a form of ruling. And like the threats are often public sex or cross class sex. So I was wondering if you want to help me unpack that, if you spent some time on that? Like, what does he mean by these norms, the sexual hegemony being “denatured and renaturalized”? And like, what does the double sided process look like?
MF: Yeah, so there’s another one that I find very helpful, that I think might also illustrate this a little bit, which is that…oh I can’t remember where it is so I’m going to try and just reproduce it from memory, but it’s probably gonna be slightly different: “sexuality could only become a problem for a society in which biological reproduction was decoupled from the reproduction of ownership”. So that, you know, that’s, maybe that’s a little complicated, but it’s an historical argument, which is about the dissolution of the kind of like, feudal world, where, let’s say, land title is passed down through the family, and, you know, on the peasant side or whatever, and, and sort of, conversely, political rule is hereditary inheritance as well in the aristocratic sense, or whatever. In that society sexuality appears as something that’s kind of natural, right? It doesn’t, it can’t really be an object of anxiety or control in the same way. And historically, it wasn’t.
You know, you had this kind of, I mean what Focault talks about, it’s like, the pastoral power versus that, whatever, the medical discourse or whatever. But, um, priests could tell you to confess, but like, there’s really not a lot of power to investigate whether or not people sex was taking place, according to the way that you wanted it to be, or to punish people for it. Because it’s very hard to, you know, provide evidence that a sexual act took place, in the absence of being there, compelling eyewitness testimony. Peasant marriage in feudal times was actually quite limited. So anyway, it just wasn’t a floating social problem that needed regulation the same way that it did, once, he’s saying, ownership — private property relations — become transferable, alienable. Which is the hallmark of capitalist relations of production.
So in that sense, sexual norms have become denatured, they once appear to be organic, natural expressions of the sort of unitary creative world., and now they appear to be an object of political contention and control. And so they’re renaturalized in this new way, by the reimposition of what appears to be necessity of socially objective meaning that’s enforced by, you know, state repressive apparatus, but as well as the kind of like private mechanisms of coercion and control in the workplace and family. So these new norms that say, in the past you may have been able to, like, whatever, fuck your friends in the field, but now there’s a different type of threat from the police. And so you become a different, a new kind of person. You become, your nature changes, right, and you’re suddenly apprehended by the state in a way. And so it’s this, it’s this kind of decomposition of a previously automatic organic expression of the social order, where sex is a kind of meaningless in that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not ownership gets transferred in the normal way, to something that might disrupt it. And it might disrupt it because there’s a new type of person in the world, and that is sort of, like, the subject of the hegemonic sexual norm, and the deviant person who fails to be protected by this norm. Does that help?
S: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s interesting because, you know, where we are today, we get stuck on identity. And it’s like, the problem that you talked about, like sexuality becoming a problem for statecraft and like state rule, is like internalized for us as a problem, like, “who am I?” And like, “how do I figure that out?” But if we trace back those identity terms, they’re like police orders or whatever, like, that there were forms of controlling criminalization. And he also talks a lot about how, like, this is a history of policing, right? So the policing of homosexuals goes hand in hand with the policing of sex work and also the policing of vagrancy.
MF: Sure, yeah.
S: And so the other thing that I think this is parallel to, and maybe there’s something to articulate here, is like, within the Marxist theory there’s — this is another form of maybe primitive accumulation, in the way that Sylvia Federici talks about in Caliban and The Witch in terms of how the gendering of women forms a kind of enclosure around their bodies and sexuality — like this is another enclosure, which is like an identity type rather than whatever those organic forms are. That could have existed before. And if you’d think about those previous communities and like, maybe even pre feudal, right, like, it just wasn’t a problem. Or there were other norms in which it was like, acted out, but like, it’s not like, “yeah this guy sleeps with other men sometimes” wasn’t like a problem. There’s just like, “oh yeah, that’s a thing that someone does”.
MF: Yeah. Or it’s just like, yeah, that’s what men do they love to have sex with beautiful people, whatever, as long as they’re the active partner, or whatever. Like, it doesn’t have bearing necessarily on the social standing of the person doing it.
S: Well, that’s the other thing that I think is in the book that like, because it’s not to say that there were these previous sexual utopias where, like, men could have sex with other men freely, but they often happened along power lines of like, young and old or different classes, or like, how he talks about the kind of, like, workshops where a master and apprentice might have a sexualized relationship. But it wasn’t one, there was a discrepancy in power there between the master and the apprentice. So it’s not like these were old gay utopias.
MF: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the interesting things that he does with this is, it’s like, there’s a liberal story, and it can basically take the same material that he’s looking at and say, like, “okay, there was this precapitalist utopia for gay people. Somehow, let’s say, the capitalists decided to chase them out of Eden and pursue them across these centers of financial power, up until the present, at which point they finally rebelled at Stonewall and now we’re free”. And that kind of posits, on the one hand, a kind of like, a single tradition and identity that was like, unbroken, again, that somehow cross all these social formations. And one that was unjustly persecuted, and one that would recognize itself in the present as kind of like, finally free, right?
And there’s a lot of things that don’t really hold up about that argument. One of them is that there were these sexual norms that we would now call violent, or abusive, or rape, you know, that was just simply how these practices happened. You don’t have to be like, “Well, you know, they really should have been persecuted by the state” or like, “actually was fine because they all really consented at some level”, or whatever. It’s just like, there’s a real heterogeneity to the social practices, that doesn’t really fit the kind of like, triumphant, oppressed past, liberated future, sort of arc.
And it also kind of flatters the present and says “and now we know better, and now violence doesn’t happen in sex. And all of our ways of conceiving of pleasure are totally fine for everybody involved, and we don’t have any contradictions that we still need to work out.” So he has this kind of like skeptical view of what was a very, very effective tool for people to win real, serious changes in their condition and the present. But like he’s not just saying, “well it wasn’t actually like and I’m here to speak the truth because I love academic freedom” or whatever. But because it’s actually a much more complicated question than we like to imagine.
S: Yeah, totally. Like, I guess,speaking personally in my relationship to this, like, so there’s a kind of double nostalgia that maybe falls into some of that liberal trap. Like when I first read Foucault, in The History of Sexuality talking about like, “before there was a homosexual people weren’t an identity, they did things” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that makes so much sense.” That’s like liberating to be like, “I don’t have to be a thing I could just do whatever I want”. And l mean I don’t think that Foucault is necessarily saying that, but that was how I first received it, you know? And that kind of connects to the naive sort of sexual liberation, gay liberation discourse that gay sex, queer identity in different forms, like transness, whatever, are inherently disruptive and revolutionary, and will overthrow capitalism if we can just like, fuck whoever we want, wherever we want. And that was a line that people took strategically also, which is like, maybe on the other side of looking for recognition of rights and entry into the power structures of, you know, marriage and military, etc.
Okay, so there’s like an nostaligia, definitely, for me for like those moments of gay liberation, where like, the militancy was also paired with this kind of way of thinking, like, “Oh, are sex is revolutionary”. And I see that also, just like, generally today with radical queers kind of replaying a lot of those old moments. But and then, you know, with a lot of the academic stuff that tends to be pessimistic about the revolutionary structures, never were satisfactory to me, but like the way that he argues it, that Chitty argues it, does something that makes me, it helps me understand it a little bit more in a more complex way, than to simply be pessimistic about it. Although there is certainly a pessimistic line in it. Yeah, like one of the ways he phrases it is that “the ideas of liberation elevate a liberal bourgeois theory of the state into the constituent of principle of human desire and all other cultural formations”. First of all, how does he help us — in your reading and understanding — understand the failures of gay liberation? How does it like, help us articulate a new pathway for our liberatory movements, starting from the positions of like, gay, trans, queer, whatever you want to call, whatever, different ones that are sort of loosely linked? Like, how do we go from this critique to like articulating a movement that really wants to be, you know, revolutionary, that wants to tear apart these hierarchies and oppression?
MF: Yeah, no, that’s, I mean, that’s the trick, right? I mean I think that it’s so helpful and refreshing to have someone sort of, just say like, “here’s why this doesn’t quite work”, you know? Yeah, I too, find it unbearably romantic to imagine that the sex in the 70’s could have somehow fucked its way into a utopian universe or whatever, and the only reason it didn’t happen was because AIDS, maybe. I don’t want to dismiss the gravity of everything else that people were doing, it was in the context of like, pretty widespread, sustained, intense militancy. It wasn’t just just sex or whatever, right? I’m not being so Stalinist about it.
I’ve been reading this book that I’m pretty sure Chris was reading throughout early on or whatever, by this theorist, Moishe Postone, who taught at University of Chicago where he did his undergrad. And it’s this critique of what he’s calling “traditional Marxism”, “traditional theories of Marx”, that basically mistake what Marx was doing, for giving a critique of capitalism from the perspective of labor, so as to say like, “labor makes capitalism but then capitalists take it away, and if we just get rid of the capitalists and keep laboring in the same fashion, then we’ll have socialism and then everything’s going to be fine”. And Postone is like “no, that’s not really what Marx was saying. Marx was saying actually that because of these, the contradictory character of the sort of basic categories of capitalist society: abstract labor, commodity, etc, etc, abstract time”- I don’t wanna get into the details too much, but basically, like, “you can’t rely on a kind of like simple affirmation of your position that you find yourself in, within capital society to kind of like undo the problem. You need to find a way to self abolish, basically.” To kind of like, not so not simply just get rid of everything, but like, you know, transform the present such that you’re no longer reproducing your own domination.
And I think there’s a kind of a symmetry in the way that Chris was trying to treat these categories around sexuality. Sexuality appears as this potentially a standpoint of critique of sort of straight society or whatever. And you could imagine that all you need to do is get rid of the straight people who are preventing us from living out the free satisfaction of our desires and then we’ll be able to kind of like, you know, stop upholding the larger capitalist social order that we are convinced — and I kind of agree — that your sexuality is, like a really integral part of. And that’s basically, and it’s interesting, but that’s basically the kind of thesis of sexual liberation movement, right? It’s like, our desire is blocked or impeded from its full expression in the social, and what we need is to find a way of removing these barriers to its kind of full expression, and then the problem is going to be over. And to critique that position, and certainly not to say like, “no, it’s actually fine, everything’s fine. You’re complaining, you’re whining about nothing”. There’s serious vectors of misery and violence, obviously, you know it’s still going on much more intensely around gender and trans people right now. But there’s obvious enemies to be opposed by any kind of liberatory political formation.
The trick is to not let yourself be so mesmerized by them that you think that they are the only kind of danger, right? Like the whole of society needs to reproduce itself in your moment, somehow, through the mediation of these categories, and our movements have to have a delicate enough grasp of what presuppositions we might be affirming, when we are working out the kind of horizons that we’re going for, or the sort of strategies that we adopt or whatever.
S: Yeah, that makes me think of this line that really stuck out to me as like, it’s not something that is expanded upon in the book a lot, and it’s a place where I want to keep thinking, maybe you have some thoughts on it, where he writes, “the central contradiction connected with homosexuality, and by extension, with the category of heterosexuality and social power more generally, is that of consent. How various societies have understood consent as the basis of the exercise of power more generally”. Yeah, there’s, I just think there’s a lot contained in there. And also consent is a term that’s being used a lot within our movements to reframe our thinking around justice and accountability. But I was wondering if you have thoughts on unpacking that. Like how could a queer movement or gay liberation be articulate around this idea of like, consent on one hand, power on the other. Because there’s something here about being, it’s not just like, about consent, but like, being kind of pushed into consent to be ruled, too, I think
MF: Yeah, so that’s, yeah, I find it really suggestive and helpful. But I’m not positive exactly what he meant. I’ve only been thinking about this example for like, an hour or so today so I hope I’m not going to walk myself into a bad position. But there’s this interesting article today in the New York Times that was about touch hunger through the pandemic. And it was this person who was like, “I did sex work, I was like a dominatrix and I really liked it because I was able to kind of like, be much more explicit about the type of touch and interaction and shit that I was going to get in a sexual situation. Because, like lots of women, I had childhood socialization to, sort of, unwanted touch from all types of people. And this past year of like, touch hunger or whatever during the pandemic, has really made me reconsider how much I consented to touch that I didn’t want as a sex worker, and I like reached out to all these other sex workers. And I asked them about it too, and they’re all like, ‘yeah, I’ve consented to like”…basically the thrust of it was like, consent and desire are not the same. You know, you basically you can extract, like a sort of misogynist, you know, rape culture can extract consent quite easily from people whether or not that’s what they want or what’s good for their psychic well being, etc, etc, etc. Or has anything to do with kind of like, social equality, you know. Consent, in other words, is like actually a way of reproducing exploitative power relations, and it’s an integral part of a sort of misogynist in this world that operates on gender balance.
And I know I was reading that and I was like, “yeah, so then maybe consent isn’t really the question, is it?” Right?” If it can be the constant throughout all of these stories of like, not all of them are traumatic, but you know, shitty times that people had that stayed with them and affected how they continue to operate in the world and access pleasure and things like that, maybe it’s not the sufficient criterion that we are looking for to have a sexually free world. I think that kind of direction is what he’s going towards, and this question of the normative order, current sexual hegemony that we all kind of live in, carry out.
Yeah, so it’s a way of kind of like eliciting a kind of consent at a formal level, to this terrifyingly violent world. Like consent to be governed by social relations that run on gendered violence, you know, like, how could you possibly have a meaningful, discreet sexual encounter that’s separate from that larger context? And say “yes”, to that, but like, not to the rest or whatever, I think that’s kind of the direction he’s going in. And there’s a lot of feminist legal thinking around this, that I, unfortunately, I’m not as versed in as I’d like to be, but you know, it kind of extends this contractual idea that you can freely enter into some kind of relation with another person in an unequal society. And, sure, you can, in a practical sense, like, you know, in fact it’s necessary for the society to operate – you have to have this level of formal equality for its concepts of legitimation to operate. But if you don’t buy the presupposition, the sort of capitalist rule, like you’re an anarchist, or communist or anti authoritarian of some sort, then that’s just simply not sufficient to guide your interactions. Looking at the way these concepts are really deeply embedded in our capacity to think about relating to other people. It’s tricky, you know, I wouldn’t say, like, we need to get rid of this concept, you know, and just kind of figure it out later. But, you know, there’s some pretty serious contradictions that are worth following.
S: Yeah, you lay that out in a helpful way. So like, he talks about the norms of consent being part of the bourgeois development of sexuality, sort of like post World War Two I think in terms of like domestic heterosexual marriage. But you also connect that to like this sort of myth of like the liberal subject who consents to be governed, and that’s what we’re kind of taught ideologically. Of course that moment of consent is always pushed outside of our actual experience or history, it’s like this other time. Also going back to that kind of Edenic version of like, the gays being expelled. So that makes sense to me, and like sexual identity then consent can be used strategically, but if we get caught up in that as the thing itself, then we’re stuck in that discourse.
MF: I think that’s a good way of putting it.
S: And that’s why I think that’s interesting too, to think about in connection to, you know, there’s like, consent culture, but then also the kind of abolition movements and transformative justice discourse that goes around, like we often use the word consent to get at those things, but the thing that like, that transformative relations are getting at, isn’t about articulating consent, but articulating relations that don’t operate along those same power differentials, right.
Or it’s like, if we had to actually theorize consent in this way it would be infinitesimal, right? Like every moment would be having to consent to, and that’s like, an impossibility in a way. I don’t know. I’m also just like, kind of going off of this, the way that you kind of unpacked the example from that sex workers experience because it’s also been something that’s critiqued within like BDSM, where they’re like, Well, it seems this place where consent is made very explicit, and yet here, all these examples of like, where that explicit consent culture can be abused, by people who have various forms of power within that culture. So yeah, I don’t know if you had some thoughts on what I was saying there.
MF: It’s making me think of some things that I don’t think I’m capable of reproducing right now.
S: *laughs in understanding* Okay that’s fine.
MF: I know it’s a rich field of thought. And I’m just not going to pretend like I can contribute right now. *laughs*
S: Totally. No, I mean, yeah, I’m just getting excited about but like, yeah, that’s another conversation perhaps. So there’s like a couple more things that if you’re up for it that I want to touch on. You mentioned the kind of interruption that HIV/AIDS brought to queer movement. And that, you know, also coincided with further dismantling of radical movements like Black liberation and Indigenous movements. But you know, Chitty’s argument has some interesting things to say about how AIDS kind of like, replays histories of control of sexuality. So I wonder if you wanted to expand any bit anymore on like, the way the history of disease and epidemics is tied to our understanding of sexuality? Because like, it was preceded by syphilis and etc. Yeah, if you had some thoughts on that, or just expanding on AIDS in relation to gay movement.
MF: I put the finishing like the final edits on the manuscript, last like April? Like in the first month of lockdown. And I’d been working on the texts — that make sense, he died — since 2015, and I mean, not, you know, consistently, but I’ve been sort of going through it at various different levels. And that whole time, I didn’t quite catch how central disease was to his narrative. Until this last April, you know, what he’s pretty explicit, that, you know, the sort of like preconditions for a modern bourgeois concept of sexuality, a sexually free body, you know, a has to do with the kind of enclosures in the European countryside to bring all these new, uprooted, ex-peasants to the city, etc, etc, etc, social capital, social relations, production, blah, blah, blah. But also you need to have plumbing, and you need to have a sort of health infrastructure that can keep people’s bodies relatively clean. And this is the result of successive pandemics.
So it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about this. But like the vagrancy laws that are first used to criminalize sodomites in northern Italy, are passed in the aftermath of the Black Death, to kind of manage this kind of collapse in feudal social order, right? So like the feudal countryside is transformed in the wake of this plague, right? And so all of a sudden, these peasants can kind of travel in a different fashion. And they need to suddenly compel them to stay in place in a new way. So they pass all these vagrancy laws: you can’t be more than 100 yards from your local town or whatever. And these are the same vagrancy laws that they start using to threaten the sodomites with. And secondly, syphilis, the way that it’s transported from the New World kind of demonstrates the kind of the new global trade networks and relations of extraction, domination and violence, that are kind of putting Europe into a new kind of like orientation towards the rest of the rest of the world. In particular, exposing its proletarian populations to all kinds of new bodily conditions, basically. Syphilis, that kind of transforms the needs of the emerging state to kind of manage and have kind of like sanitary body around cities, so it’s not spreading pestilence.
Cholera obviously is a similar story, you know, when you have these kind of enormous swarms, where you’ve kind of just dumped the factory working population. But because they’re living on top of each other, they’re super liable to spread disease if it shows up. And so all of a sudden you need to invent plumbing and heating, you know, epidemiology and whatever. All these modern conveniences also go into a kind of reconceptualization of public sphere so that men are no longer free to piss on the street, he says, the story is bourgeois women start showing up in public once again after centuries of being secluded in the household and they’re scandalized by all these penises that are everywhere. And so Europe starts putting up these urinals which kind of hide the penises, but obviously also in this dialectical fashion that kind of concentrate, and eroticize…what does he call them? “Temples of urethral eroticism”. And so anyway, the point is there’s this whole thread of existence of disease as a kind of motor of this sort of social transformation of what sexuality means, in the story that he’s also telling that I didn’t quite grasp for the first number of years I was working with the text, only past year that it really hit me.
And then he has this whole other story where like, okay, so you have the sexual, gay liberationists in the 60’s and 70’s, who are like “we have a glorious past that we need to kind of liberate, ourselves and it, through us.” And then with the arrival of HIV AIDS, all of a sudden, the histories that these activists are telling are quite different. They are about the kind of like bodily practices that actually constitute material social reality of what homosexuality is, because that is where the virus lives. You know, that’s what’s salient for them, politically and essentially. it changes the sort of the way that they’re theorizing about themselves and about history.
And so he’s like, you know, both of these things are quite valuable contributions to the understanding of sexuality, homosexuality, particular. Now, maybe in 2013, or whatever, the kind of like, apocalyptic urgency of the HIV AIDS crisis is in the past somewhat. And so we can kind of be a little bit more critical or assess these histories with a bit more distance. And we’re no longer kind of under this injunction to tell politically helpful stories that will save our lives. And now we can kind of like look at why maybe these presuppositions of the political movements that made these demands which are quite productive. Also, on other moments kind of inhibited a total liberation.
S: What’s interesting to think about, Hocquenghem was an early sort of utopian liberationist — although I think he’s more complex than that, because he also includes an idea of like, overcoming homosexuality — but he was so concerned, and he didn’t want to disclose his status or whatever, with HIV, because he was worried that it would imperil the liberationist forms of sex that he had, that were so important to his vision of revolution. Which was like, you know, cruising and everything, but then that’s something that he’s been criticized for, for his unwillingness to avow his like, yeah. Or that paradox of like this sort of sexual liberation and in his situation. But then on the other side, I’m thinking like, he kept it separate in a way that is problematic for, it puts a limit on it’s like sort of contribution at that point.
That’s not really a question *laughs* but the other side I’m thinking of, like, this book, Sexual Hegemony, in a way, like it’s maybe a weird connection, but maybe this will say something to you. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but to me it reads like totally as a companion to Samuel Delaney is Time Square Red, Time Square Blue-,
MF: Oh, yeah.
S: Where he’s writing in the height of the crisis in New York, of the HIV AIDS crisis in New York, and the way that’s used as a political tool to criminalize sexual public sexual activity under like public health measures.
S: While still maintaining this kind of utopian vision of sexuality in the midst of a health crisis. And yeah, there’s like a way that Chitty’s work kind of really resonates for me with the way that Delaney articulate sexuality, and he even gets these things about consent too, because he discusses masculine violence as a kind of effective a false scarcity that’s imposed on sexual availability — which like, really parallels the idea of capitalism enforcing sort of false scarcity or creating that. This is not also well thought out, I’m kind of like, going here in this moment.
MF: Yeah, that’s so funny that you say that. Yeah, I mean, he cites Delaney a couple times, I think. Definitely borrowing from it. But it’s so funny. Maybe this is just like, I mean, so this was an adaptation of his PhD thesis. So maybe this is just like how those things go. But um, I’ve read it so many times. And then I’m like, I’ll be reading another book that I know Chris also read, and I’m like, “Oh, my god he’s just…this is that argument”, or he’s just doing this, just kind of transposing that. So like, Hocquenghem in Homosexual Desire, in the first couple of chapters, I reread it, I’m like, ”Oh, my God, that’s exactly the form of argument he’s doing”. But then you’ll read Mario MIeli and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what he’s writing about”. And I mean, obviously, it’s like, he’s giving a direct response to Foucault History of Sexuality, Volume One. And then, you know, I’m reading Time Labor and Social Domination. And it’s like, oh yeah, that’s the form of argument he’s doing. And it’s like, whatever, maybe that’s just, like I’m saying, that’s just what a PhD is. You kind of process all this thinking and generate something that’s mostly digested, but still, it’s own new object.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s very unique. Also, obviously, it would be very hard to kind of combine all of those positions and not have something totally new. But, um, yeah, the Delaney I think, because he’s like, he’s like a legit liberationist. For whatever reason, I was going back and reading this article by one the members of the GLF. And, you know, which is like, held up as, “Oh, in the past the gay liberationists were radical and now they’re assimilationist, or whatever, we shouldn’t be like the GLF, blah, blah”. And I was reading it, I was like, this is super misogynist, and transphobic and like pretty boring, actually. It’s like, you know, he wanted to go back to like, use like, some term from Byron, rather than the alphabet soup that current radicals have. And just like, “okay, man, like, sorry, that you got annoyed by some kids”. But, uh, Delaney is like, very much, I mean, I’m sure he has some weird cranky positions, too-
MF: But at least in terms of his sexual politics, like about the sex that he has, and sex he writes about and puts in circulation, I mean he’s just like, he’s just free. He’s like, I’m here to experience pleasure in all types of bodies and write all about it. And like, I understand the sort of social and political dynamics that are flowing through the bodies in this moment, and it has a lot to do with, you know, capitalist development. That is such a valuable tradition, and not one that is always found in the kind of like, more properly political legacy works or whatever. I guess I didn’t, yeah. I don’t think, I don’t remember what the precise question was.
S: I didn’t really articulate a question. I was just kind of trying to put some pieces together. But that actually helped me because I think why I reached for Delaney, after talking about the interruption that HIV AIDS brought in to the liberation movement is that he’s still able, he writes in the 80s, about the work that was being done around care and support and health. But he also is able, within that moment, to still envision liberation as politics and sex as connected. And perhaps part of it is his fiction, that he’s a fiction writer, but he, in a way he can go into places — the things that I like about Hocquenghem is that he ultimately doesn’t want to hold on to any of these categories. And that’s why he upsets people who want to find liberation through these categories. And then that’s also what Chitty says, ultimately, and maybe this is where we can bring this to the current moment. The argument ends up, there’s a pessimism that’s like, “okay, liberation isn’t gonna be just gay, because the gay identity is a product of capitalism.” And we’ve known that for a while, but he articulates that in a new way that allows us to get more at the complexity of it.
So I don’t know I guess to get to a sort of final question: if the problem of queerness is created by the development of the modern state, right, then we can reach liberation without also overthrowing the state. So then the question I keep coming back to and I don’t think this has to be pessimistic or nihilistic is like, what’s left for gay liberation or radical queer movement? Does it need to be called that? Or another way maybe of putting it is like, where do we find points of solidarity that can keep like delinking gay liberation from identity and interiority, but open places to like work together? Because like, the power effects that Chitty traces historically happened to other people that wouldn’t identify as gay too, right? So I mean my basic question is like, where do you think this leaves us, radical queers who are also fighting for liberation?
MF: Yeah, that’s a hard question. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have a great answer, like, practically, pragmatically. I think that we’re in a really weird moment. You know, I think that we’re living through some type of transition between, let’s say…I don’t know, historical period, I mean, you wouldn’t want to make a prediction about any epochal change from inside of it. But it certainly seems as if the kind of thing — you were talking about this a little bit earlier — the kind of social order that being gay or being queer was dissonant to, is kind of defunct. And you know, there’s a number of different ways you can characterize that it has, you know. Some people like to call it Fordism. Some people like to call it kind of, like the classical sort of, like, you know, post post-war capitalist period, where social reproduction is kind of like privatized in the hetero family. And that’s been in kind of a bit of crisis for the past forty years now, or more, right? You know, it was like 50 years since Stonewall a couple of years ago. And it’s obviously like, you know, a crisis that lasts that long…maybe you don’t call it a crisis after a certain point. You just call it a new sort of period? So there have been ways of stabilizing social reproduction even though that type of family organization is no longer hegemonic. But then that means because it’s not hegemonic, maybe it wasn’t necessarily a feature of this particular order of capitalism, like social reproduction still takes place, even if it’s like largely mediated by the market or debt financed, or even kind of effected through queer forms of chosen family or distributed sort of community care models, or whatever.
I think what is useful about the political position of queerness being the inheritor of a tradition of really serious attempts at grasping how these different orders of social reality connect and reproduce each other. Because, you know, it’s really easy to say like, “oh, sex has nothing to do with the economy, real material productive activity” or on the other hand it’s easy to say, like, “oh, it’s just like a kind of mechanical expression of class belonging”, and that gets you to kind of fucked up positions of proletarians aren’t queer, and then therefore it’s bougious give a shit about pleasure. That’s just never been historically the case.
So there’s a really powerful and valuable tradition of thinking that has been handed down to us, I suppose. At a great cost, against serious genocidal perril, for multiple generations. But we’re in this ambivalent position where the object of that tradition of critique has transformed in ways that it didn’t totally foresee. Which is, in some ways great, because then it’s like, okay, so some of the real horrible shit is taken care of, or like no longer as urgent. And in other ways, it means that we need to kind of rework those traditions and presuppositions and what we inherit in a way that’s kind of faithful to them, but still kind of gives us a way out of the present because we still need to get out. And I think, in particular, sorry that was a long way to say: one of the useful things that there is still on offer in the queer movement is this ability, is this repertoire that we’ve developed, of grasping how what appeared to be natural or extra-economic forms of social existence that have a kind of objective or necessary or compulsory character, right? You don’t choose whether or not you have a sexuality, you just choose whether or not to kind of live it out, or express it in a particular way. But it’s something that’s, you know, in the social world that we live in, it’s given to you. And there’s all types of ways of that that evolves, you know? But an interesting confirmation of this sort of objective nature, you know, whether or not you want it, it the kind of the larger, kind of political activity or asexuality, right? Like, this is a type of identity position that like, is clearly real and meaningful and valid in exactly the same ways as all the other kind of like, whatever, allosexual identities, but it doesn’t negate the existence of having a sexuality as a kind of imperative, as a social sort of unavoidable fact. And, in fact, it confirms it, in this kind of negative way.
So a queer movement would be one that is capable of grasping these imperatives as intimately related to questions of revolution, solving these imperatives politically, through some type of collective struggle means investigating why they take the form that they do in this particular society with this set of compulsory socially objective relations. And not just saying, like, “Oh, it’s natural”, or, “oh, you just want to do this because I feel like it” or, “it’s socially constructed”, or whatever, so that we just need to kind of tell enough people not to do this in this way that we can get out of it. Like, no, it’s actually probably going to take…and obviously, like, you know, some level of that tactic is successful, you know, it’s necessary to any kind of social movement, unfortunately. You have to kind of do the really thankless work of yelling at people or bothering them about stuff that they think is the reflex, but there’s also a different level that it exists on and we need to have a kind of way of grasping that. And that’s not at all a concrete answer. But I think that’s the kind of precious insight or tradition or whatever in the queer liberatory lineage that I think is really useful.
S: Since we’re forming our discussion around this book, if like, what this book does is “historicize the history of sexuality” — I think that’s something he says — like, I’m thinking about how Hocquenghem talks about, like, the leftists are always fighting the last revolution. And like, if we get caught up in the conditions that produce gay liberation — which was like, according to Chitty, the policing of sexuality, that led to confrontation, like fighting police in the streets, which led to Stonewall — if we’re fighting that, that war now, like, that’s the wrong war. Because, you know, homosexuality has been included it’s no longer a threat. And it’s not the node of control in the same way. It is in other places, I guess, like, particularly around transness right now is being articulated.
But the other thing is like, this book doesn’t give us a predictive thing, obviously, a predictive tool. But since he articulates all these moments around these times of financialization, like we’re in that moment, right? We’re in a time of like, sexual hegemony potentially changing. So that term can give us something to think about the way sexuality is politicized. Not as like a simple dynamic of like, “yes or no” or “repressed or liberated”, but like, it’s a subtle tool that we need to kind of, like, try to understand how to wield for ourselves and not for the state. But like, yeah, I guess we’re still inundated with all those slogans that are so intoxicating from that time when there was way more visible militancy, you know, and the social war was visible, right, like, a lot more going generally visible at that time. So.
MF: Yeah, people picking up arms in a different way.
S:Yeah. I like, get left in this pessimistic place of “gay liberation has been totally captured”. But that’s also an old story. And then still like a thing of how the new articulations of queerness are potential locations of solidarity. And seeing the work that pinko does too, in terms of the way that the journal kind of brings together different fronts, I think is helpful to think through those kinds of modes, you know? Like, yeah, there’s a lot and I think it’s expansive, right? Like in the two volumes, it brings together different movement work on different fronts, right? There’s stuff around sex work, there’s stuff like the Trans History Project, there is theories of sexuality, there’s a mix of old discourse, like reprinted texts from the old movement, there’s like new takes on things. I don’t know. I think I like that because it’s like seeing it as a coalitional politics.
MF: Oh, yeah. Interesting. Sure. Yeah. That’s nice. But it’s nice to think about it like that. Yeah. I mean, with Pinko, one of the fantasies that I had, when I started working on it was that we would have a kind of a venue for bringing together a bunch of different perspectives that don’t, hadn’t really been in conversation, but also kind of like, hopefully trying to consolidate what might be a new position that I don’t know that we have yet. I mean, I’m hopeful, and I’m sure that it reads differently from the other side, you know, it’s more maybe more coherent, or more like, all in sync or whatever.
But the other thing that I thought would be important, to have a magazine or some kind of a record going was of these struggles around sexuality as the current dominant, hegemonic mode begins to sort of transform. I thought it would be useful to have a kind of place that was attending to the different ways that people are trying to work out what it means to be militant with these problems, or these concepts or whatever.
You know I think one of my favorite pieces was sort of the first issue — and I don’t know, I don’t want to say this in like a too simple way — but it was the interview with these two trans people who went down to a coal ship, a coal train blockade in Kentucky, I think. And they set up a kind of classic like encampment-style protest occupation thing that has been a really dominant form for a lot of types of protests for the past decade or so. And we had this interesting conversation with them, while they were, you know, there at the camp. And they have this very hopeful, like, “we’re here to support the miners, but we’re also members of the community, we’re from Appalachia, and obviously there’s, maybe there’s some tension around our transness or whatever, but like, we’re able to talk with them in a kind of chill way and resolve this conflict”. And when it came to us, there’s like, this cool story about precisely that. This coalitional thing, or it’s like, wow, trans struggles and the classical worker militancy thing can come together in these wildcat places where they block circulation. It’s this perfect illustration of so many political trends, like, we love this fusion.
And then actually, what ended up happening was in between the interviews that we did and the publication of the magazine, some Trump dude showed up, basically, and took over the camp, or like, installed themselves in the camp, and the miners basically weren’t able to reestablish their own control. And so the trans people were like “thid is not a chill place for us to be and we can’t trust you dudes to kick out this fucking biker gang or whatever, so we’re leaving” which is a reasonable thing to do.
Anyway so we ended up having to run this kind of long intro paragraph about why they didn’t quite work. Like what they thought was the fissures in their previous assessment that they’ve been able to do this interesting coalitional thing. And like, I don’t know, yeah, I don’t want to tell the story like, “haha they were proved wrong” or whatever. But I thought having the space to kind of investigate, there’s quite a lot to be learned in figuring out the limits also, of these forms of political action and political sort of conduct and protest and thinking. And I was glad that we had this venue where we weren’t like, “Oh, we have to give this kind of posi story about, you know, the powerful moment of unity between the macho miner dude and the less macho trans people or whatever”. It wasn’t a kind of affirmative thing. Like, what was interesting was that like, we could actually take the time to take apart why this in particular, this one thing didn’t work. Because obviously that’s going to happen much more than winning, you know? And so like, there’s a lot in figuring out how to think about how things come apart? And what to do with that, and what to learn about that. What I find interesting about the potential for Pinko.
S: That makes sense. And that’s sort of like, with the kind of crisis theories, like, or we look at the sort of moments of crisis as potential openings for something, even though all the past moments haven’t been moments of winning, they’re like moments of loosening where other things can happen. And that’s, I don’t know, that’s where I’m at right now. Is that like, instead of thinking about that punctual moment, to like, look at the places where things are being done differently in the present, and work from there. I don’t know if it’s like, yeah, aggregate, or what, but like we can’t tell these deterministic histories, which are, like, kind of used both in like liberationist theories and repressive theories, you know?
S: Well, we’ve been talking for a while. So I don’t know if there’s like any final thing that you kind of want to touch on. Is there any way you want to like direct people to find your work, other than read Sexual Hegemony that’s put out by Duke University Press.
MF: Yeah read that. Exactly. Yeah, go find that on, I mean the Duke website as a good place to buy it from. I’ll put a plug: the Duke Press, the people who work there are unionizing. So you better support them if you have any kind of interaction with Duke. You know, maybe if you buy the book, you should add a note saying you recognize the union or whatever we find is effective about those things.
S: I signed today on their author’s support letter and I saw your name. *laughs*
MF: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, actually, that’s funny. You probably can’t buy, I think if you want to buy the Hocquenghem translation that I did, I think I will personally have to fulfill it because the publisher is sailing on a boat in the Arctic now and she dropped off all the remaining copies that are in my closet. So if you really want to order a copy, I guess I can put that in the mail. But I wouldn’t I wouldn’t count on that being like a prompt delivery. And then Pinko you can find it at pinko.online.
S: Cool. Well, thank you so much for taking all the time to talk.
MF: Yeah, thank you so much for asking such awesome questions. I hope it was coherent.
S: I think you did a really good job explaining the main ideas of the book, also in a way that like helped me think about it. Like, because I’ve read the book and probably a lot of people listening won’t have read it, but, so like, yeah you brought up new aspects of it for me. I think it was really clear.
Alive With Resistance: Diasporic Reflections on the Revolt in Myanmar
This is a conversation with Geoff Aung (@Rgnhardliner on twitter), a Burmese American Marxist anthropology Phd candidate at Columbia University living abroad, about the current uprising, repression and revolutionary potentials in Myanmar. We discuss the evolution of tactics on the ground as revolutionaries adapt to the brutal murders of protesters by the state. Geoff also talks about the ways in which this movement is different from similar current movements in Asia and some of the historical context of struggle in Myanmar.
The host, John, wishes they’d had more time to dig into further questions. There are some links below of news sources and articles on the struggle in Myanmar.
Show attention to Myanmar government offices in North American cities
US:DC, NYC and LA
Canada: Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver
Donations to the movement in Myanmar https://www.isupportmyanmar.com but be aware that when the regime shuts down the internet it makes it impossible to get money and it has been difficult getting money there.
Support Zolo Azania
Organizer and former Black Liberation political prisoner Zolo Agona Azania has been fundraising for assistance in these hard times and could use some love. If you have some extra money you’d care to offer up, you can send it via cashapp to $ZoloAzania5. You can hear our interview with Zolo from some years back as well.
Michael Kimble Shirts
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John: Welcome back to the Final Straw, my name is John, I’m a guest interviewer and today I’m interviewing GeoffAung. Geoff, do you mind introducing yourself a little bit?
Geoff: : Sure, I’m a PhD candidate at Columbia in the Anthropology Department and my work focuses on large-scale infrastructure projects and political struggles that tend to coalesce around them. My main work is in Southern Burma, Southern Myanmar.
John: Oh yeah, and we’re going to be talking about the current conflicts and uprising in Myanmar, as well as a little bit of the history of uprisings and ethnic struggle there.
John: I wanted to first ask this very simple question, but a lot of my friends ask me if they should be saying Burma, they should be saying Myanmar or if it’s like one is woke and one is ten key? In my mind, they’re both both, but I don’t know if you could actually help me clarify that.
Geoff: Yeah, they’re shifting the political register of those two names. The thing is they both mean the same thing, right? They both signify the Bamar, lowland Burman majority and at different points in time, one or the other has been seen as the worst name by different people. I mean even in the 30s, actually, a bunch of the Thirty Comrades, a bunch of anti-colonial leaders, specifically chose to use Burma because they felt Myanmar too closely signified the Burman majority and arguably, that’s flipped over time, and now some people think that Burma, as a name, is too closely aligned with the Burman majority. Myanmar is supposedly more inclusive, but the name goes back to the same route.
John: In the language Burmese, “Myanmar” means “Burman”.
Geoff: Yeah, and for a while, you could tell people’s political leanings by which name they used. I think that’s less and less the case. I grew up using Burma, and in my family, Myanmar is still a word that is closely associated with the military and military rule, so I still find it a little bit difficult to use the word Myanmar. They mean the same thing.
John: That’s the same in my family, especially because I think the official name change happened in 1989 or something, right after the failure of the 1988 uprising, and so I think, there were very sensitive feelings around that, although now I’ve noticed it seems like even generationally, younger people just grew up saying that, so they say that…
Geoff: Yeah, I think that’s accurate.
John: But I heard Amy Goodman make a big statement about it being like “Burma or, as the military calls it, Myanmar”…
Geoff: Oh really? I wouldn’t go so [far]. I wouldn’t really put it in such stark terms these days.
John: Totally, I think it’s just a product of maybe her longer activism and age.
Geoff: Yeah, could be that for sure.
John: Another question I was wondering about and maybe I’ll phrase it in terms of my experience… Growing up with family from Burma, I was really exposed to the anti-Pepsi and Taco Bell campaign’s early on, and I think that that really influenced my butting into capitalism, especially by starting to understand the contradictions of growing up in this country, with all this excess and stuff. But then these companies are supporting this government that is killing civilians and enslaving people. All these obvious things. But I was curious if you also had a similar experience.
Geoff: Yes and no, I would say that the exiled political world and some of the advocacy groups that have existed in the States, they’ve had different kinds of things going on. So, on the one hand, as you point out they had these boycott campaigns – and I do think that for sure, for me as well, those were formative. What they taught me, I would say, is that something like business, economics, investments: these things are not politically neutral. You have to understand them in a political context and in Burma, for a long time, they were helping to prop up the military regime. So that was a basic thing that I picked up on. On the other hand, in some of the advocacy work and the exiled government world, you also had what became, I would argue, a neo-conservative flavor of activity where you had people all too willing, in my opinion, to reach out to people like Mitch McConnell on the relatively far right end of even the American political spectrum, which is already pretty far right, to begin with, especially after 9/11, and especially with the Bush Doctrine foreign policy of democratization. So there I think I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on a kind of anti-capitalism. But with some of the boycott stuff, I think that’s fair to say…
John: Totally. I remember hearing Bush mention Burma in speeches and being like “Ah, it feels very complicated”, but also democracy is a meaningless word that we love over here. I wanted to also ask if you still have family in Burma.
Geoff: I do. We have family in Yangon. We have a distant family in Pakkoku, up by Mandalay and in Mohnyin as well, but the family we’re in touch with are in Yangon.
John: Are they relatively safe with all that stuff?
Geoff: Yeah, they’re doing okay, my dad is our contact with them and there’s a particular uncle that he’s in touch with and they spoke again recently, they’ve been in touch and they are doing okay. Uncle’s sons are staying home. One of them actually has been sending me selfies from protests, but he has been laying a little bit low more recently.
John: That makes total sense. I was perusing Burmese Instagram and it is interesting – I don’t know what your cousin is like, but there does seem to be this whole, I don’t know what you call it, a kind of revolutionary shift in people where you could look through their old selfies where it is just a dude working out all the time, working in an office, and then the next picture is like full militarized black bloc with a shield, and I find it interesting that the Burmese state is incredibly authoritarian, but also people are like “Yeah, I take pictures of myself in riot gear and post it”, but I guess it’s more dangerous to be shot on the street than the long-distance repression that we are more familiar with here.
Geoff: Sure. I was thinking about the discussion over the summer in the States, the George Floyd rebellion stuff and a lot of discussion about like “Make sure you don’t take pictures of protesters who aren’t masked and maintain anonymity, be very careful”, all of which is totally good and then in Burma, it’s hilarious how people are posting pictures of themselves, all over the place, in the protests and everything. It’s a different kind of threat.
John: It’d be clearly an understatement to say that the situation on the ground is changing rapidly, maybe every half-day that I check on the internet. There’s updates about different bombings or massacres or the most incredible acts of resistance I’ve maybe ever seen, but I was curious if you be willing to and could talk a little bit about the most recent changes.
Geoff: Sure, as you say, that it’s hard to encapsulate everything that is going on and I think that’s basically impossible, but at least a few things that I’ve noticed. I would say, for one thing, certainly we’ve seen a shift away from some of the mass demonstrations that happened early on in February, where he had these occupations of major intersections, these have fallen away. Security forces have reclaimed a lot of central areas in urban centers and the recurring demonstrations that have continued, have gone a little bit smaller and have tended to take place in tighter residential neighborhoods, where, among other things, it’s easier to build stronger barricades. It’s easier to maintain disciplined formations with shield bearers at the barricades, a second group in the back dealing with tear gas and then maybe a third group, more general protesters behind them. So you’ve seen maybe the spatial shift into more residential areas, and in some of those areas, it’s been possible to fight the cops and soldiers to a standstill. So there’s been recurring holding patterns in different places. It’s hard to make a ton of headway one way or the other by either side basically. And you’ve also seen a shift towards more peripheral industrial areas of eastern Yangon were Hlaing Tharyar of course. Repression has followed this shift. So it’s not like the cops and soldiers retook downtown Yangon and decided to chill. They followed people elsewhere obviously and so Hlaing Tharyar, for example, there was massive bloodshed. It’s the largest concentration of factories in the country. Chinese factories were set ablaze. You had this crazy, really intense stories of workers who are armed with shields rushing police lines as live rounds are being used, that kind of tactical implications of which are a little bit difficult to work out, but very striking, very militant and in North Okkalapa, where there is quite a bit of bloodshed, another industrial area.
I would argue as well that actually, as some of the urban centers have been maybe reclaimed at least to a degree by the security forces, rural areas have become maybe more and more important, at least in the south, where I work around Dawei.Dawei town, which was the site of very militant demonstrations for weeks and weeks, has quieted down. I mean, there’s still recurring marches and demonstrations, they’re smaller. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of more militant activities again, but the villages around Dawei have seen an upsurge in marches, demonstrations, strikes. On Facebook, you see all of the rural areas are underway. It’s kind of amazing, they’re alive with resistance and in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected and that’s been really cool to see.
The other big rural issue is that the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, has been bombing ethnic areas. The Karen National Union, KNU territory in the east, there’s been airstrikes, something like 12,000 people have been displaced, according to the KNU. The Thai government shamefully has been fencing out refugees and the KNU has also been sheltering protesters who fled urban areas, it’s the total replay of 1988. And there’s talk of protesters training on firearms, hand grenades, tactical strikes on military facilities, a lot of talk of broadening armed struggle. That’s where things have gone. I think, as we were chatting before and some of the notes you put together you also mentioned – and I think this is also really important – is these local administrations have really consolidated or tried to set themselves up apart from the military regime. There’s been almost an autonomist streak lately, where you have some ward in neighborhoods that are claiming their own small-scale governments. Oftentimes aligned with the CRPH, which is the formally elected government, I guess we can call them the elected government. So that there is that connection. But there’s been this kind of autonomist, maybe anarcho move with some local governments as well, which has been really cool to see. I guess, I’m tempted to think of it in terms of dual power in some sense, but it’s maybe a bit early to go too far in that direction
John: Yeah, it was envisioning in some ways. I guess in a way that I’ve been trying to not convince but some of my friends and the comrades I have are like… There’s a suspect approach towards stuff there, but I think it’s because of liberal demands. But also because of just feel like spring revolutions in the past, like the failures of Egypt and all these things. I guess in my mind, this is, despite the horrifying violence that is taking place from the military, almost one of the most ideal revolutionary circumstances that we might see right now. I was going to ask you about this, but there’s a general strike and then there’s militant resistance. There seems to be almost, not uniform support but pretty close, and then there’s guerrillas taking up space on the outside. So, in some ways, it just seems like if the revolution there can’t succeed without US intervention or something, there’s actually may be very little hope for revolutions to succeed if the military doesn’t break apart and doesn’t want to give up power anywhere in the world. Maybe that’s a little too convoluted…
Geoff: I hear you and I agree. I do think it’s pretty fair to say it’s a genuinely revolutionary situation where you have a fairly small institution – I mean, it’s a big institution but relative to the entire country, it’s not huge – trying to cling onto power right now with absolutely zero or next to zero hegemonic purchase, let’s say. Nobody likes the military. And there’s been this militant resistance that’s really electrified the country, literally from Putao, just like the Himalayan foothills and far north Kachindown to the Kawthaung, which is the farthest point south, right north of Phuket in southern Thailand.
It’s been really interesting and in some ways surprising, because I think, for a long time, a lot of us who were working in Burma or paying attention would look to Thailand for the last ten years and see the kinds of popular struggles that have eruptedat different points. The Red Shirt struggle, the occupation of downtown Bangkok, even the Yellow Shirt occupation of the airport which has had awful political principles, but was an impressive popular struggle. And we’d look at them and say, “That’s amazing, but it’s hard to imagine in Burma just because of the openly violent nature of the military. They would just start shooting right away and blood would run and it’d be impossible to maintain anything,” and we have obviously seen violent repression and there have been 550 people killed. This is intolerable, but people are coming back and there seems to be this resilience, this unwillingness to bend. It’s really amazing. It’s hard to find the words, it feels silly to say it’s amazing, but I don’t know what else to say.
John: I don’t have Twitter, but I looked at your Twitter and it appears that you are like me or you just spend most of your non-working or whatever time, looking up news from Burma and following other accounts, but I might spend about an hour a day off and I’m crying in either sadness or that kind of being moved crying. Especially, I think, for me at least, and maybe we can talk about this more, but it’s across every ethnicity in the country, it seems like people are resisting and people are dying. And you see these funerals with Muslim coffins, you see funerals of Buddhists and Christians and I assume, animists. But there’s something about that unity that maybe you can speak more, but it seems not like something I could have imagined coming from Myanmar Burma five years ago with situations like Rohingyaand the Kachins and just different situations that just… It’s very moving, I guess.
Geoff: Sure, what’s happened is surprising and it is not surprising. I’m as surprised as you are. I think, if it’s not surprising, it’s only because, this is very vague and abstract, I guess, but as we’ve seen with revolutionary struggles at different points in history, solidarity is formed in struggle and it’s not always something that you can assume beforehand. And I think that’s kind of what we have seen here. There’s a lot of talk of unity. Unity is a term that occurs and recurs across political discourse in Burma a lot. I’m who is… One of my minor acts of… it’s not reallyresistance. But friends in the south, in Dawei, around this big project, when we’ve had unity in our materials. I always like to try and go and cross it out and put solidarity instead.
John: Yeah, I guess, solidarity is a better word. You are right though.
Geoff: It’s been really powerful to see that. It’s difficult to gauge, at least from where I am, which is quite far away, I should say. It’s difficult to gauge how much, how deep is this kind of reconsideration has gone. So when we’ve seen on social media people like these sort of effusive claims about Rohingyastaff, like “oh, we got it wrong. I can’t believe we’ve swallowed the military’s propaganda about this. We need to do better than this”, this sort of thing. There have been a lot of these statements. I don’t know how to quantify that. Having seen what’s happened in the last ten years and obviously not only the last ten years, not only Rohingya stuff, it does seem to me that some of these divides run pretty deep, and I hope that what we’re seeing is the beginning of the transcendence. But it’s difficult to say for sure.
John: That’s also my fear, I guess, is that people will forget again that in 2007, the military killing people in the Saffron Revolution, but seven years later them supporting the military killing other people that are an ethnic minority. I hinted at this, but I just wanted to ask the question that I think is maybe hard to answer or ask, but do you think that there is a chance that this revolution can win?
Geoff: Absolutely! I do think so. Is there a chance? There’s definitely a chance! I find prediction to be quite difficult. Here’s some things I don’t think.
John: That makes more sense.
Geoff: I don’t think outside intervention of one kind or another is something that anyone can count on. I don’t think that the United Nations, I don’t think that responsibility to protect, I don’t think the US of all countries, I don’t think these are realistic things to pin one’s hopes on. If there’s something that I would hold on to, it is this recurring willingness to return to the streets, return to urban centers, to keep the marches going, keep the strikes going.
The question is: how can that be maintained and to whatever extent even scaled up and generalized even more – where possible? I think for me, that’s the decisive factor. It seems to me, everything depends on that. There’s been a lot of discussions understandably, and I’m not super involved in it, so I can’t really speak to it in a ton of detail, but a lot of strategic discussion about the CRPH, about Dr Sasa, about their relationship to the general strike committee or the general strike committee of nationalities and their attempts to woo different people in New York and Washington DC, and how to spin up an alternative government and how do you legitimate it, and how do you take over some of the economic channels that the military has? I think those are important things to consider. Oh, and security council action as well. I’m not against working on all that stuff, but I do think that if you can manage to get something done at the security council, it’s not gonna matter if people aren’t out in the streets, if the strikes and demonstrations and marches aren’t happening. If it’s not possible to show mass defiance of the military, then I don’t think that elite civil society or alternative government strategies are gonna have very much traction.
John: Yeah, totally. I was wondering if you thought there would be any potential for breaking apart the unity of the military? Because it seems like that’s also an important part of the revolution, and we didn’t really see that in 1988. There was some defection of maybe airforce folks and police, we’ve seen the police more willing to break away. It seems like recently there was an attack on a police station, by a former police officer in Kalay, which has been a really big site of resistance. But the former cop in regaining his humanity by attacking the police was killed in the process, which is sad, but also a true hero. He lead an attack on the police, so it seems like the police are more likely to break, but I guess I haven’t seen in history the Burmese military break apart. And it does seem like that tends to be how revolutions succeed, right?
Geoff: That’s the historical precedent, it’s true. I can’t really speak to that historical precedent so much, but my sense is that is the case. In terms of the military and the police, what we see is that these are two institutions that are not the same. The police as an institution has a different kind of presents, it’s not as closed. The military is often referred to as a state within the state, and the history of the institution going back to, let’s say, the 1950s really consolidated itself in the post-colonial period. It really understood itself as the sole guarantor of national unity. There’s that word again. I think some people think that that was a claim that they try to make. That was not like something that they could really protect, but this was really their genuine self-understanding in some sense, and I think in many ways that remains the case today. From what I understand, the military really is this quite closed off institution in terms of schooling, in terms of residential arrangements. I think that helps to explain why we’ve seen defections from the police and not so much the military. But hopefully, at least, you can imagine that in a hierarchical institution like this, you could see people who are not at the top of that hierarchy understanding that what might seem obvious to us, which is that this institution does not have their interests at heart and that perhaps there is a line or fracture that one could identify and that might take shape. I’m not a keen analyst of the military. I can’t really say too much more than that. I’ve been interested to track some of their economic activities, but in terms of their internal community, it seems to be pretty solid, unfortunately.
John: With the recent uptick of ethnic armed organizations, either actively throwing their support behind the protests or tacitly making statements about it, and then also with some protesters going up to the mountains or down to the mountains and maybe getting training, people have been talking a lot about civil war, and there already is a civil war going on in Burma. There has been war since forever literally, it seems since World War II, right before independence even. But I guess they mean a full nationwide civil war and a lot of western media is fretting that it would be a new Syria, which I could see, but I was wondering if you thought this was accurate. Obviously, who knows, but if you felt if there are key differences here?
Geoff: Yeah, I’ve seen that comparison a lot as well. I guess I can understand why people raise that. I don’t think it’s particularly likely. For one thing, as we’ve seen with 1988 in the past, and we’ve seen urban protesters go to the jungle and try to build a more generalized armed uprising beyond, as you said, the civil war that has been simmering for a long time regardless. And that has never really taken off, and I think part of the reason why we haven’t seen a kind of Syria-like conflagration and it is just because their regional interests are entirely different in terms of neighboring countries, in terms of people who might want to be running weapons into the country or training insurgents. There’s this destabilizing influence of the US, but not only the US, in Syria has been maybe the main factor in some ways. And as I said before, I just don’t see the US having any interest in doing anything like that in Burma. There have been reports of Chinese troops massing at the border, and even there, I doubt very much that it would come to that. The Chinese government has had different kinds of positions over the years. They’ve supported some of the armed groups in the border areas much to the military’s chagrin, but they’ve also not been happy at all to have any refugee flows coming into China. It would be quite hard to imagine a Chinese military intervention and I don’t think the US, certainly not Thailand or India. That’s the big difference to me with Syria. You had a great power struggle that took place in Syria and I don’t think that struggle gonna be happening in Burma.
John: That makes sense. I didn’t even think about that. I was thinking about how there is this shadow government that, in theory, does have a bunch of functionaries already set up waiting to take over, although obviously, they don’t have the economic ties that the military does, but it does seem a little bit more united, but it does seem like there is more centralization, maybe for the revolutionary side.
Not that I want to give credit to theNLD,or that I like them, but they have been serving as state functionaries since 2011 or 2014, but I don’t know if you saw this but right before we talked, I was looking online and one of the Burmese news sites was reporting that a Chinese ambassador actually started talking with the shadow government and has actually made phone calls. It’s just an interesting development, it appears that China is probably just waiting and seeing how this goes, and so I imagine they are hedging their bets.
Geoff: There’s been a lot of speculation about China’s position relative to evidence that happened in the past couple of months. And then there’s is a popular misconception, I think it’s fair to say, that China has somehow been backing the military to the hilt, has been supporting this coup. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence for that. The Chinese ambassador even made a very rare move of giving an interview in which he said that the coup is not something they want to see and, as you say, they’ve made overtures to the CRPH as well. There’s a lot of Chinese investment in Burma, and the Belt and Road Initiative runs through the China-Myanmar economic corridor in the western part of the country, they look to work with whoever ends up consolidating power. I think that’s fair to say.
John: I hope, no one reads us as us being like “Tankies” or “defend the honor China”, but I think China’s just does whatever is good for their economics.
Okay, I had a question about the demographics of the protests. I’ve read a couple of articles discussing the central role of women in protests, and especially I was reading about in ethnic regions and that also I’ve seen some photos and a couple of articles about queer participation in the demonstrations, and I was curious if obviously, you’re outside of Burma right now, but if it seems like there is a redefining gender roles coming about through struggle.
Geoff: I think there’s been some of that. I think a little bit like with the earlier question that we’ll see how it goes because there’s a long way to go. But it’s been powerful, encouraging to see what we’ve seen. As you say, I think it is fair to say that there is quite a strong institutional infrastructure for women’s organizations in a lot of different ethnic areas. So organizations like the Karen Women Organization, similar organizations inMon State, Shan State, Shan Women’s Action Network, in Kachin state as well. I wouldn’t put it entirely down to these organizations, but there is a history and a precedent for very strong women leadership in a lot of ethnic areas, and we see that reflected in the current resistance for sure.
I would also say that in Yangon, the industrial workforce is something like 80 or 90 percent women. And the industrial workforce has been absolutely crucial in driving the largest demonstrations early on and then in trying to keep things going right now, and so in that sense as well, you see really strong roles for women, definitely. And a bunch of those unions have really strong woman leaders. people like Ma Moe Sandar Myint for example, really impressive. I think it’s also important to recognize that the military, as well as the NLD are both highly patriarchal institutions. So there might be an extra element of opposition that comes from that. TheNLDtoo, of course, has Aun Saung Suu Kyi at its head, but is otherwise a gerontocracy of old men without a lot of strong youth or women and its leadership ranks. So when we see that’s the redefining of gender roles in the resistance, I think this is how we have to understand it, maybe in the context of two kinds of patriarchal institutions, civilian, political leadership as well as the military. These are what is being contested through struggle, and I hope we see this continued overturning of those patriarchal power struggles.
In terms of queer participation, it’s a little bit more difficult to say. I have seen definitely reporting that emphasizes queer participation, which is also been totally awesome and not something that I’ve seen at least in 2007 or 1988 as well, but queer politics has been it’s a pretty active space in some sense in the last ten years, with a lot of really interesting… Some of them are more liberal civil society oriented organizations and networks, and then some more left-leaning activist work as well, and so this is also what we see reflected in this current resistance and long may it continue.
John: I have three more questions. Speaking on another group of people that are… I’ve seen in media, especially in the media I consume, but it seems like there’s a small handful of anarchist punks in Yangon, it’s been on the radar of punks and anarchists in other parts of the world, but I think since around the genocide against Rohingya, because I remember seeing punk songs “Fuck racists monks” and stuff like that. They were very present in the early days of the protests and actually still have been, as far as releasing music in solidarity. I’ve also seen a representation of anarchy signs and black flags at some things, and I was curious if you thought there was… Cause it seems, at least from my perspective, they do mutual aid and it seems they do mutual aid at these demos, but also they are an educational project in some ways. I was wondering if you thought they had any influence on the moment now or if they’re just a part of a giant patchwork of things, which makes sense.
Geoff: I’d say, they are a part of the patchwork, but I wouldn’t want to discount their importance or anything like that. There is this kind of subculture, it’s pretty awesome, and they are really active in a lot of leftist scenes in Yangon in particular, and they were, much to their credit on Rohingya stuff, they were really outspoken. They really pissed off some of the monks and ended up apologizing in a ceremonial manner at one point, which I think lost them like a bit of cred, but as someone who’s mostly far away, I don’t wanna judge them too hard for that, cause what I’ve seen in terms of their social presence, it’s pretty awesome, and as you say, you could see it in educational terms. At a certain point, after 2011 it did become a little bit of a cliche for foreign journalists to come in and do photo shoots with some of the punks and then they would turn up in magazines in western countries. There’s a little bit of a head scratch in that sense, because some of the discussion around this was a bit superficial, not that I have super ended up insights on them, but they’re part of a larger story. Technically, they are a great influence to have, and the mutual aid work, like Food Not Bombs at their hands, is totally excellent.
John: It’s interesting, they are a small constellation there, but it seems like there’s this whole southeast Asia / southeast Asian Pacific islands punk anarchist world that blossoms in Indonesia. There’s thousands of them. As a kid that grew up as an anarchist punk and just a regular anarchist now, it’s funny because I think my commitment to revolution or whatever and being ableto interact with normal people pushed away from the punk, but it seems like there… And it’s the same as in Mexico. Punk and anarchism are very tied together still. Anyhow…
On the note of southeast Asia, Asian things, I wanted to ask you about clear inspiration from Hong Kong and Thailand, that’s been in these demonstrations, especially the early ones, but also the differences, because clearly there are much higher stakes, even though obviously people are fighting for freedom in different ways, but I think one person was shot in Hong Kong and that was the biggest deal in the world. And from friends that were around there, it felt like our American riot were – except for maybe the summer – but where you could step a couple of blocks away and just be shopping, you’re going to coffee, just the ways in which the tactics are similar. There are similarities, but also the ways that they’re different.
Geoff: No, I think the differences are really worth paying attention to and it has been increasing Milktea Alliance discussion, but actually, I guess it’s always been there from the beginning since February. It’s sort of an old question with internationalism or cosmopolitanism maybe in some sense. With some of the Milktea stuff, what you get sometimes is collapsing some important distinctions, like the antagonist in Hong Kong, Thailand and Burma are just wildly different, and so the stakes I think it’s fair to say are quite a bit higher in Burma, which is nothing against everyone in Hong Kong and Thailand, not at all, but I think that the stakes are higher. The forms that struggle has taken have gone in many ways more militant directions, they had to, and so I wonder sometimes how useful those comparisons are. However, I would say that those connections do seem to resonate with a fair amount of ordinary protesters, demonstrators, front liners. In particular, the kinds of tactical knowledge sharing that we’ve seen, especially between Hong Kong and Burma or Myanmar, has been really important. In late February, as it became clear that there’ll be an escalation in violence, like everyone else, I was sharing these crowd-sourced images in Burmese that came from people in Hong Kong about things like how to build barricades, how to deal with tear gas, want to do with smoke bombs, how to treat gunshot wounds, when the shooting starts, what do you do? Do you run, do get low? And how long do you wait? What kind of formations make sense in street battles? That stuff is fantastic, it’s priceless almost. For that information sharing and collective knowledge production is totally important. I just wouldn’t want to lose sight of some of the different stakes in different places.
For me, at its best, these linkages are internationalist insofar as they maintain a distinction between the oppressor and oppressed people in nations, which is something that I think is lost in a lot of cosmopolitanism discourse where it’s like “Oh, these are all young people, Gen Z, millennial, hashtag activists who are just like young people elsewhere, and they are rising up against faceless authoritarians in Asia”. And this framing is a bit of a straw man, to be fair, but I think there is an element of this in terms of how Milktea stuff gets discussed. That I don’t think is particularly useful.
John: If I can spare you from your family for one more question. For the rebel groups that are currently attacking the state in solidarity / just because they were already doing that, but specifically, the KNU being the Karen National Union and the KIA, the Kachin Independence Army, and also maybe the frontliners. Is there a political ideology that any of these groups seem to have other than just nationalism or defending people in a democracy?
Geoff: That’s a tough question. To be entirely honest, it’s difficult for me to say too much on that, just because the history and politics of the different armed groups is such a huge area. It’s not really my area of expertise, but I mean it is fair to say that there’s quite a lot of variation, which might sound like a cop-out, but it’s true. Some of the armed groups historically have been more likely to embrace broadly left-leaning political visions and others have not. Others have been very sort of right-leaning, ethno-nationalist, anti-communist in many cases, and some linked very closely with the communist insurgency, for example. And the Thai-Burman border is also has had different shifting political winds over time with different armed groups, also shifting their alliances and their vision. It’s really difficult to say. One question would be if there is so much variation among them, is it possible to imagine a broad-based ethnic struggle in solidarity against the military? And that’s what people are hoping for. You would have an alliance formed between urban front liners, people from lowland towns, cities, villages, and armed groups in the borderlands who are very well-trained in guerrilla warfare. Well-trained enough to maintain these guerrilla struggles for generations upon generations, which is no minor task at all. Is it possible to imagine a sort of shared political project? It depends on who you ask. For me, and it might depend on people temperamental in style and meanings. I guess I worry that, in the past, even just in the past twenty years, which is not very long, there have been so many times when there have been attempted alliances formed between armed groups and it’s always been so difficult to form and maintain any sustainable ethnic alliance, and there are also good reasons for that because there is such variation among the armed groups that for some who might be, in some sense, more principled, how much sense does it really make to line up alongside others that are perhaps less principled? There’s been a lot of hope for that solidarity over decades, and it’s been unfortunate. It’s fallen away time and time again. I hope, like everyone else, that maybe that will change this time. We’ll just have to see, I guess.
John: For sure. For frontliners / workers… The unions seem like they at least come obviously out of a leftist tradition, based on their flags and slogans and Burma just happening in the past to be completely leftist, but is there some sign of leftist politics or right-wing politics, or is it exclusively to spread democracy, which I don’t understand?
Geoff: It depends, to be honest, even the largest union federations have been quite active within the democracy movement and also had of significant exiled presence as well, which is great, I think, also places them in a broad liberal political tradition and so even some of the smaller labor organizations, not the trade unions per se, but some of labor NGOs, activist groups that are working in industrial areas. Even these will be hosting human rights trainings, these kinds of activities. I don’t see a lot of explicit articulate in the direct sense of sort of leftist political thought.
But that’s the question: to what extent do we need to speak or articulate our leftist vision or to be leftist? When you see the general strike, maybe people aren’t passing out copies of, I don’t know, the Communist Manifesto or something, but this is a militant movement based on overthrowing, in part, certain economic relations in the country. And so there’s a lot of explicit political discourses is liberal, obviously, but there are economic demands that are in play as well. And in some ways, that doesn’t necessarily bother me, just because I think the question of leftist revolutionary movements in the past. I’m not nostalgic necessarily, I do think they’re good and important independent leftist political genealogies in Burma that are not simply a question of the authoritarian socialism that congealed in the state. Before Ne Win’sdictatorship, but even during in some ways, you had worker and peasant writers activists who were articulating a leftist project that had nothing to do with authoritarian power. In fact, quite the opposite. Maybe we could think, okay, are people appealing back to that right now? Not really, and maybe that’s unfortunate, in some sense, but if we acknowledge that political thinking depends on material circumstances in some way, the material conditions have changed.
There’s no reason to believe necessarily that in the current moment the explicit political discourse we hear would match what we heard decades ago. I don’t think it’s a problem really that there’s no overt leftist discourse or not that much anyway, there is some. I think that as material conditions shift, we see shifts in political visions, political strategies, and I think some of what we’ve seen with the massive general strike has been the most encouraging phenomenon that we’ve seen along those lines for quite some time. In terms of the formal demands we’ve seen, I do wish some of them might be a little bit more targeted in an anti-capitalist direction. People were discussing what would that mean to demand the nationalization, the breaking apart of some of the military conglomerates, which just have a massive choke-hold on not just the economy, but everyday life of a lot of ordinary people, just stealing from ordinary people in many ways. What would it mean to try to break those apart or what about something like land reform, something like at least repealing a couple of awful land laws passed in the so-called reform period around 2012. Maybe there could be demands to repeal those in a way that might do a bit to speak to real material circumstances. There hasn’t been a ton of that discussion yet, but I think would be a mistake to see that this resistance as not being a material political movement. It’s founded in a general strike, and that’s important to remember.
John: For sure. Thank you very much for speaking with us. I really appreciate it, and maybe I can trick you in the future and talk again about the history of Burma.
Geoff: Very cool, thanks for having me, I should say I am pretty far away, these are just things I’ve picked up on from here. But if for your listeners or anyone, obviously, I’m just always trying to pay attention to what people do at the barricades and otherwise in the country and we can also see what they’re up to and pay attention to what they’re saying. Thanks for giving me the chance to chat at least. I really enjoyed it.
Steve Martinez Still Resists Grand Jury Related To Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle
It’s been nearly half a decade since thousands of indigenous water and land defenders and their accomplices and allies weathered a difficult winter and attacks by law enforcement and private security attempting to push through the Dakota Access Pipeline through so-called North Dakota. The DAPL was eventually built and has already, unsurprisingly damaged the lands, waters and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux and other people native to the area. Resistance has also continued to this and other extractions and pipeline projects across Turtle Island and the defense against DAPL surely inspired and fed many other points of opposition in defense of the earth and native sovereignty.
On one night in November, 2016, as government goons leveled fire hoses and “less-lethal” armaments at water defenders in freezing temperatures, Sophia Wilansky suffered an injury from an explosion that nearly took her arm. An Indigenous and Chicano former employee of another pipeline project named Steve Martinez volunteered to drive Sophia to the hospital in Bismark. For this, he was subpoenaed to a Federal Grand Jury, which he refused to participate in. Now, almost 4 and a half years later, Steve is being imprisoned for resisting another FGJ in Bismark. For the hour, we hear from Chava Shapiro with the Tucson Anti-Repression Committee and James Clark, a lawyer who works with the National Lawyers Guild, talk about Steve’s case, the dangers of Grand Juries, and why it’s imperative for movements to support their incarcerated comrades.
The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourselves to the audience with any names, preferred pronouns, affiliations or other information that pertain to this chat?
Chava: My name is Chava I work with Tuscon Anti-Repression Committee in Tohono O’odham territories, also known as Tucson. And I have done anti-repression and movement defense work for around 13 years, and grand jury support work for the last four or five years. And I use they/them pronouns.
James: My name is James, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild based out of Austin, Texas. And I’ve also been doing anti-repression and activists legal support for about 13 years now, including a number of grand jury support situations.
TFSR: So would you please tell us who’s Steve Martinez and how did he come to be called before a federal grand jury after a brutal night in November of 2016. And what happened with that grand jury back then?
C: Steve started out coming to Standing Rock, really thinking that he was just going to drop off water. And he actually had been working in the oil fields, the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota prior to that, heard about what was happening at Standing Rock, and was really inspired by what he had seen and heard about happening, even though he was also working for the oil fields and the oil company.
He’s Indigenous from Pueblo community in northern New Mexico and also Chicano and grew up in southern Colorado, and just inspired by the Indigenous land resistance and movement happening. And so he loaded up his vehicle with water to come and take it to the camps, and then he never left. And he became really involved in what was going on there. From the point of the summer, all the way up to that night that you mentioned in November. Which a lot of people remember that there were fire hoses used – and, you know, sub freezing temperatures – by law enforcement on water protectors that night in a conflict that lasted, you know, 12 to 14 hours on the bridge in those cold temperatures. And a young woman named Sophia Wilansky was really gravely injured that night, presumably due to law enforcement’s use of so called “less lethal munitions”. She nearly lost her arm.
When she was injured, getting emergency services was almost impossible for emergency vehicles and services to get to that point on this highway that had been blockaded by law enforcement at that point for around a month or more. And in order for her to get to emergency services, she would have to be driven by someone who was on the other side of that blockade. And that person who volunteered to do that was Steve, who was acting as a Good Samaritan doing the right thing in that moment. And then just really, a handful of days later was subpoenaed before a grand jury. And his presence was requested to provide information – they said they were asking for information – related to Sofia Wilansky’s injuries. So any testimony he could provide, or any images he might have taken on a cell phone or anything like that.
Steve didn’t know what that subpoena was when he received it. And so he reached out to a relative that stayed in the same camp that I did at the time – I had gone up there to do legal support for people – and his relative then came to me and said “Hey, can you speak with my uncle? He’s received some kind of subpoena we don’t really know what it is.” And at that time, just pulled his uncle into a tent and that uncle turned out to be Steve, and immediately from that moment that he received that paperwork, he asked for support, and then happened to have one of the best, most knowledgeable movement attorneys on grand juries in camp that day, which is Lauren Regan from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
You know, maybe it’s just pure luck. Maybe it’s, you know, serendipitous, or that Lauren happened to be there that day. But we were able to immediately get Steve talking with an attorney who could explain to him the process. And then also from that exact day, moving forward, it also began a massive outreach with the thousands of people who were staying in camp at that point, about grand jury occurring subpoenas going out, at least one known subpoena at that point. And then also initiated the nationwide education campaign, because many tens of thousands of people had come and gone from the camps. And so that is where Steve was four years ago. But almost exactly four years later, he was subpoenaed to this new grand jury. And he, again, has refused to comply, because he’s acting in immense solidarity with a movement that he believes in, which is a movement for Indigenous sovereignty over lands and waters, and to protect those things, and a deep love and care for his comrades. And so that’s where we are now. And how we got there.
TFSR: Do people feel like they have an understanding of what this grand jury is specifically about? And does that matter?
J: We’re quite confident that it’s about the situation regarding Sofia Wilansky. One sort of important development between Steve’s grand jury subpoena in 2016, and when he got subpoenaed again in 2020, was that Miss Wilansky has sued Morton County over their use of, you know, these “less lethal munitions” that caused her injury. And in, I can’t remember if it was October or November of 2020, the judge in that Civil Lawsuit made a ruling that she could seek to compel the government to disclose evidence, specifically the fragments that were taken from her arm during surgery. And it was just a matter of days after that court’s ruling in the civil lawsuit that Steve was, again, subpoena to this grand jury. So it’s kind of you know, the timing is is convenient, as they say.
C: Yeah, I think you spoke well, to that, James, the timing is is suspect. And I think it’s also interesting to note that throughout the whole course of legal battles related to Standing Rock – both criminal and civil legal battles – there has been some signs of real collusion between civil court and criminal court. There’s been a number of attempts at SLAPP suits and civil suits by ETP (Energy Transfer Partners) that continue even now. And this timing of, you know, this win in Sofia’s case with that judge to compel the government to turn over this evidence – which I’ll just note there were FBI agents lurking outside of her surgery room outside of the OR, waiting to confiscate those items, while her family is like crying in a hallway. I just think it’s important to remember the cruelty of the state in the course of this entire situation. Because I don’t think that’s most people’s experience when they’re in a really scary, dangerous situation that involves possibly losing a limb or use of that limb.
And so the way that it looks like, the government has been able to make sure Sophie’s attorneys cannot get that evidence back from the federal government is by saying it’s part of an ongoing investigation. And so if there’s a new grand jury looking into these facts from, who knows, what, four years ago? Then they can’t turn that evidence over to the civil court, because there’s this ongoing criminal investigation. So it seems pretty well timed and convenient on their part, and really just a continued leverage of cruelty against Sofia, and against other water protectors who were injured and harmed at the hands of law enforcement. And also unbelievable amount of cruelty leveraged against Steve, who, all he did on that night was the right thing. And now, four years later, he’s dragged back before a grand jury in what seems like just using him as if he’s upon, but he’s a real person with a family and a life. And now he’s separated from them while he’s incarcerated.
J: I think the other key portion of this story, and the cruelty the Chava is talking about, is how Morton County has tried to basically twist the narrative, while all the evidence that we know about points to Morton County law enforcement being responsible for Sofia’s injuries and for the use of these “less lethal munitions”, they’ve always tried to either directly say or insinuate that this was actually caused by other water protectors, or potentially even by Sofia herself. And so the sort of victim blaming narrative that they’ve tried to use to tar the movement, kind of like what, you know, what the government did with environmentalist Judi Bari, you know, when her car got bombed, and they tried to blame her for that. And so it’s kind of a continuation of that, bad actors will inflict horrible violence on activists and then try and twist the narrative to blame the activist for that violence that they’re inflicted.
TFSR: So this is a beginning of a long conversation, but can you tell us a little bit about grand juries? They’re a pretty complicated legal tool that is shrouded in mystery. And yeah, just kind of remind us about what they are, how they operate, and sort of their range and uses, from the mundane to political repression?
J: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the uses of grand jury are pretty mundane, you know, speaking here, specifically about federal grand juries, because it can vary a lot from state to state, whether there are grand juries or how they work. But in the federal system, pretty much every felony case goes before a grand jury. And the purpose of the grand jury is to decide whether or not the government has enough evidence to even bring charges against somebody. It’s supposed to be a sort of screening or gate-keeping kind of function, to make sure that people aren’t brought to trial on serious charges without, you know, at least some amount of evidence. That’s sort of the ideological idea behind fair use.
In practicality, it tends to be much more of a rubber stamp. But there’s a famous quote from a judge in New York that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if that’s what a prosecutor wanted”, because the prosecutor controls the entire process. And so, in most grand jury proceedings, what happens is that a federal law enforcement, federal agent of some type, will go to the grand jury, maybe summarize a police report, give some facts, some details, and the grand jurors will decide if that’s enough evidence to constitute probable cause to bring charges against somebody. And it, you know, typically, pretty quick proceeding, you know, the cop says, “Oh, we did this raid, and we found these drugs, and these people were there and we know that this was their apartment.” And so in that way, a lot of the grand jury uses are kind of unexceptional, even if it is a still problematic in regards to how much power and control it gives to the prosecutors in this system.
In a more political context, what we see though, is actually using the grand jury as an investigative tool. As a way to compel witnesses to appear and give testimony, or compel people to turn over evidence of some type. And this is where we see, you know, analogies to grand juries is like a fishing expedition or a witch hunt, or something. Where people are sort of dragged before these legal proceedings and forced to, you know, name names or give evidence, or something of that sort.
And so, the way the grand jury works is that there’s typically, I believe, 24 jurors – so it’s twice as big as what you think of as a typical jury in a trial. There’s 24 jurors, and the only people in the grand jury room at the time are the grand jurors themselves, the United States Attorney, the prosecutor, the court reporter, maybe some clerical staff and the witness who’s giving evidence. There’s no defense attorneys, there’s no judges, there’s no audience. It all happens very much in secrecy.
And the other aspect is that, you know, sometimes we think about how in a jury trial you have the lone holdout juror that prevents somebody from getting convicted. In a grand jury proceeding they only have to decide by a simple majority. So you can’t have a single lone holdout grand juror, because as long as 13 people still vote to charge somebody or to indict somebody, the other 11 people, their votes don’t really matter.
Grand jurors, again, in opposition to what we normally think of in terms of a jury, grand jurors are not screened for bias. There were situations during grand juries that were investigating alleged acts of Animal Liberation, Earth Liberation groups, where people that basically worked in the industries that were being targeted by these Animal Liberation groups, other people in those industries, were actually sitting on the grand juries that were reviewing the cases that were, you know, allegedly targeting those industries. So there’s no screening for bias. It’s, you know, supposed to be a cross section of the community, but it’s kind of random. And there is a long history of discrimination in who gets selected to sit on a grand jury, who gets selected as the foreperson of the grand jury.
And so, you know, what turns into is this, you know, secret of proceeding with almost no oversight or accountability, where the prosecutor has total control over what evidence they present, they don’t have to present contradictory evidence, they don’t have to present exculpatory evidence, they don’t have to present anything that would be unfavorable to the outcome that they seek. They can present the evidence in whatever light they want. And they can also present evidence that, you know, is illegally gathered, or that wouldn’t be admissible in a normal trial. So things like hearsay, rumor, gossip, evidence that was collected as from illegal search or seizure, statements that were maybe coerced or compelled in a way that wasn’t constitutional, all this all this evidence can be presented to the grand jury, in furtherance of what the prosecutor wants to see happen.
Considering the scope of this, another thing that we see in some of these political cases, is, you know, people getting called to grand juries, to testify about things that are sort of far afield of what they directly experienced. There’s one case where somebody was being asked to testify about something that he allegedly overheard two other people saying, at a bar or coffee shop. Not something that he was directly involved in or directly participating in, but sort of this third or fourth hand rumor that he had overhear.
TFSR: As you mentioned, James, the witness that’s being called before the grand jury, is seated before grand jurors, the prosecutors, stenographers, the, you know, court officials, doesn’t have a lawyer present, right? And a lawyer could hypothetically, if they had a role there, challenge some of those things that might be inadmissible normal court setting. But they also can’t really warn someone about safe approaches towards answering the questions or not answering the questions. Are there safe approaches?
J: So, I mean, this is getting into, you know, sort of the difference between political advice and legal advice. I’m obviously not here to give anybody legal advice, and if anybody’s ever called before grand jury, they really need to have a good lawyer that shares their values and their goals to represent them and inform them of all the nuances and implications here. Politically, I would argue that there is no safe way to answer questions at a grand jury. And this is for a variety of reasons. I think one reason is that you don’t know what they’re looking for. People have an idea that like, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, or “I don’t have anything to hide” and I think that’s generally mistaken. I think part of it is the broad expanse of federal law that things that you wouldn’t even imagine are illegal and felonious under federal law, so you don’t know what’s going to incriminate you or incriminate somebody else. You also don’t know what somebody else might be exposed to. Maybe you have a reasonably good idea of what actions you’ve taken and what things might put you at risk, but you don’t know what your best friend or your family member, your comrade, or your neighbor, your fellow organizer, what they might be subject to. Things that might seem supposedly innocuous or harmless can easily cause significant problems for people.
The other thing that we see is, you know, we have this idea of like, back in the Red Scare McCarthyism, people getting dragged before hearings and being forced to name names, and then everybody that they name then also gets dragged before the hearing in kind of this dragnet approach to investigations. And that’s entirely possible with grand juries too, that the mere fact of you identifying somebody else, even if it’s not in a way that criminally incriminates them, could be grounds for them to get dragged in front of this grand jury also. And then they’re faced with this sort of impossible situation where they have to either decide to testify or face imprisonment for contempt.
And I think, you know, again, speaking politically, I think the idea of solidarity and building trust and cohesion and our movements is really fractured when somebody that’s involved in those movements goes before a secret grand jury and gives testimony that there’s no accountability or transparency for. It’s often hard for people to trust one another in that situation. So that’s how grand juries can serve to sort of, sow this distrust and paranoia and discord within movements and really fracture the solidarity that’s necessary for effective organizing.
C: Bursts, you said in the beginning of your question “Is there any safe way to answer questions before the grand jury?” And, James, you spoke really well about all of the reasons they’re not. That question you asked Bursts is sort of a gateway into strategy that we’ve seen be effective in recent years for resisting a grand jury.
There’s essentially four ways somebody can resist a grand jury: you can avoid being subpoenaed, which means you need to know that there’s a grand jury happening, and that’s actually a lot harder to avoid a subpoena than it sounds. But a subpoena for a grand jury does have to be served to you in person by a federal agent, by a federal law enforcement agent. Doesn’t have to be an FBI agent, it could be an ATF agent, or a CIA officer or whatever. But you’d have to avoid that person. And know that they were coming for you.
You could also receive a subpoena and you could just disappear. Some people have used that strategy to varied success, but it’s very difficult. Because it means you have to basically go on the run, you’re avoiding complying with that subpoena. And it means that you would have to leave the place where you normally live, stop talking to people you normally speak to. And that’s a really difficult way for somebody to exist.
The other thing is that you could receive a subpoena and you can publicly refuse to enter the courtroom. And some people have done that very successfully. Because even entering the courtroom, like James said, we don’t know for sure what’s happened in there, right? So all of your comrades, and the larger movement on the outside of this secretive process, we don’t know what’s going on in there. So you run a risk when you enter the courtroom that potentially could leave some room for mistrust amongst the movement.
But we have also seen this last option where you receive the subpoena, you publicly refused to cooperate, but you enter the courtroom and then you invoke your constitutional rights that apply in the situation and your refusal to testify. Which is the tactic that Steve has used and other recent grand jury resistors have used successfully, is that it sets up a great legal precedent for getting you out of the legal consequence that occurs when you refuse to comply with the grand jury. Which is if you refuse to comply, you could be held in civil contempt for up to the length of the grand jury, and that could be 18 months. And that’s a long time, but we’ve seen the use of this legal maneuver, called a “grumbles motion”, which basically appeals to the judge who’s holding you in a civil contempt of court for your refusal to testify and says, “this person has stated publicly that they’re never going to comply, they’re never going to testify, they have continued to not comply or testify. And you holding them in jail or prison, during this grand jury for their refusal to testify, has gone from this civil form of contempt, to something that’s now illegal, because you’re actually holding them in jail knowing that that’s not going to be the coercive tool that you hope it will be, to get them to comply, and to testify before the grand jury.” And it’s not legal to hold someone in prison in that way, because they’ve never committed a crime, and then the state, the government, has crossed the line, right? They’ve crossed their own legal line.
That’s a strategy that’s worked well, but it does require that somebody sets up the infrastructure along with their comrades in the larger movement to support them. And that means being very, very public from the beginning of your situation, which is what happened with Steve the first time that he was subpoenaed to grand jury and what has happened with him the second time that he’s been subpoenaed.
TFSR: So just to belabor the point, because nobody actually said thisI don’t think. You both have mentioned going into the grand jury, and then refusing to speak and getting held in contempt. What happens if somebody invokes their fifth amendment? And why does that make this sort of proceeding so scary?
C: So when somebody goes in, and they’re asked a question by the prosecutor, the prosecutor is going to say something like, “Hey, what’s your name, state it for the record?” So I would say “My name is Chava so-and-so.” And then the prosecutor would ask me, “okay, tell me about what James had for lunch yesterday” and I would say, “you know, what, I’m gonna actually invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights that I might have?” A prosecutor is gonna be like, “Oh, great. Okay, well, what did James have for lunch day before yesterday?”, I’d say “I’m going to invoke my first, my fourth, my fifth, and any other applicable Amendment rights”, and then eventually, the prosecutor is going to be very clear that that’s my entire plan, while I’m present in their grand jury room, and then they’re going to take me before judge, because they’re going to ask for me to be held in contempt. And then they’re likely to request from a judge that I be given immunity. And that immunity means that anything I say can’t necessarily be used against me. And that’s what the Fifth Amendment provides to us, is like protection from testifying things that would incriminate ourselves.
But what we don’t know is how our words then can be used against someone else, or how someone else’s words could be used against us. So it doesn’t protect us entirely, it just protects us in this very narrow way. And the court and the government call it being “granted” immunity, like there’s some fucking fairy godmother that’s coming and waving a wand and giving us this great gift. But it’s not a great gift. They’re actually imposing and forcing something on us, that strips us of our rights in that courtroom – are very limited rights – and takes them away from us. Because that’s the like beauty of the rights that the state has given us, right? They can give them they can take, and that’s all at their discretion.
So they impose immunity on you and you no longer – when you were taken in before the grand jury – can refuse to answer questions based off of your fifth amendment rights, right? And so then at that point, when you continue to refuse, you’d be taken back before a judge, who then would likely decide, “okay, well, we’re going to put you into coercive incarceration. So we’re going to try and compel this testimony out of you by incarcerating you”, and then things move from there. And that’s where we are right now with Steve, is at that point: immunity has been imposed upon him, he’s being held in contempt, and his contempt will be reviewed on a monthly basis by the judge in North Dakota.
TFSR: So you’ll have mentioned that Steve went before the grand jury in 2016. Steve was again called this year, I believe, before a grand jury and then released, is that correct? Like, where does Steve stand at the moment?
J: Right, so when Steve was subpoenaed in 2016 – his appearance date was actually in early 2017 – and he went and refused to testify. And the prosecutor never pursued contempt proceedings against him, they ended up withdrawing the subpoena, before he had to be found in contempt or be incarcerated or anything. When he appeared, when he first appeared in February, just about a month and a half ago, he again refused to cooperate and very quickly was taken before a federal magistrate judge, found in contempt and ordered into coercive custody for contempt. His legal team filed some motions and objections on the grounds that the magistrate judge actually did not have legal authority to find him in contempt or order him into custody. There’s some, you know, complicated and nuanced laws around that. Basically, he was ordered into jail by a judge that didn’t have authority to order him into jail.
And so his legal team filed some motions and objections and they were granted, and he was released from jail after 19 days of being unlawfully incarcerated. But before they released him from jail, they subpoenaed him again, to the same grand jury to appear on March 3. And when he appeared on March 3, and again refuse to cooperate, this time they brought in front of a federal district judge who did have authority to conduct contempt proceedings. And so at that point, he was again, found in contempt and ordered back into custody.
So I think this is a pretty salient example of just how ripe for abuse Grand Jury proceedings can be. That they can illegally incarcerate you for, you know, almost three weeks, and then the remedy for that is that you get released, but then you just get re-subpoenaed and taken back, and the whole thing starts again. And so, you know, the prosecution really gets…in some ways they get unlimited bites at the apple. I think we mentioned earlier that he can be incarcerated up to the length that this grand jury is impaneled, which is, you know, typically 18 months, but can be longer in some circumstances. But if that grand jury expires, there’s nothing that prevents the prosecutor from subpoena him to a subsequent grand jury. In this way, you know, we’ve seen, throughout history, that grand juries, there’s not a whole lot of check on this. And so they can really be used to harass and incapacitate activists and, you know, entire movement communities.
TFSR: So, how about earlier you had brought up the idea of SLAPP suits. Could you define that for the audience? And also, maybe, I don’t want to take this too far off a focus on Steve, but I’d like to recontextualize this, again, to be within not only supporting someone who has proven himself to be brave and an amazing supporter of other people involved in movement, but besides Morton County law enforcement trying to avoid or state officials trying to avoid possible lawsuits for the damages that they’ve caused to people. How does it relate to the timing right now the operation of DAPL
J: Well to speak to SLAPP suits and what they are, “SLAPP” is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. And it basically refers to lawsuits that…typically it’s large entities like corporations, sometimes governments, you know, powerful people filing against activists or journalists or sort of the little guy, for the purpose of basically retaliating against or silencing their damaging statement. So a lot of times this takes the form of defamation lawsuits, libel or slander. And so maybe a corporation sues this small activist group, and says these statements about us clubbing baby seals are defamatory, and they have to stop saying it and pay us damages. And, you know, a lot of the purpose of these lawsuits isn’t necessarily to win the lawsuit. Because of the power disparity, it’s often intended just to tie up the organization of the people in litigation. That if you’re a big corporation with, you know, billions and revenue and expenditures every year, it’s no big deal for you to spend a million dollars on, you know, a lawsuit. But if you’re a small, scrappy activist group, or citizen journalist or a whistleblower or something, you know, defending this humongous lawsuit can be can be totally debilitating.
And so there are statutes and a number of states that allow procedures to quickly dismiss these types of lawsuits. And that’s, I mean, kind of a whole other conversation. But I would, you know, if people are interested in this topic, the Civil Liberties Defense Center website has a number of resources about SLAPP suits, and defending against SLAPP suits, and things of that nature.
I can’t speak to the situation with DAPL, specifically, maybe Chava can, but I will say that we’re kind of in this moment where a lot of pipeline resistance efforts have seen some success. Recently, there was the pipeline that was supposed to run through Appalachia, they got cancelled. Resistance against line 3, in Minnesota has really been taking off. And so I think there is this sort of moment where, you know, people that are invested in these pipeline projects are seeing the success that resistance movements are having, and are looking for new ways to subvert those movements, undermine those movements and push back against those movements. And so I think, you know, it’s impossible to say like, if there’s a direct correlation between that and what’s going on with Steve’s case, but I do think it is sort of a reminder of what tools the state has against some of these movements, and how those movements should sort of think about making anti-repression and legal support and movement defense an integral part of their organizing throughout their campaigns.
C: I think one of the strategies that Energy Transfer Partners – which is like the larger company that was pursuing the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with many other pipeline related projects across North America – but Energy Transfer Partners goal with SLAPP suits, is not even necessarily to win. It’s a way of industry leveraging the law – in particular laws around RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which a lot of people are have heard at least that term related to, like, “organized crime” type cases – but leveraging those laws as a way for industry to have a chilling effect on movements that are successful against them. And so Energy Transfer Partners kind of famously filed this outrageous SLAPP suit, including Greenpeace as one of the named parties that they were suing, and asking for, like, almost a billion dollars, I think in damages. Which, they knew they were never going to win that award of money in civil court. That wasn’t the point. The point was to make movements and NGOs, or nonprofit organizations that were supporting social movements against ETPs various pipeline projects, to make them have to scramble and exhaust their resources, both financially and as far as people power, real like human labor, to exhaust them to a point where you’re so focused on fighting the SLAPP suit, that you can’t be focused anymore on fighting the people who are suing you.
And that was dismissed in court because it was outrageous, right? But it doesn’t mean that it didn’t have some of its intended impact, which was to distract people’s energies towards this other thing. And ETP continues to do this. But we also know that pipelines are failing as financial projects. And it was known that the Dakota Access Pipeline was only ever going to be financially beneficial in the short term. It’s basically like a big scam to make a bunch of money at the at the beginning, and that it was going to be a financial failure in the long run. But their goal isn’t to make better energy for anybody if they were they would be pursuing other things. Their goal is to make money and at any cost possible, including the costs of human lives and the earth.
TFSR: So bringing it back to support for Steve, how can listeners support him? What are some good places that they can find out more information about his case? Does he need people to write to him? Are there any campaigns on going besides informing people about the resistance to the grand jury that people could join in on?
J: Absolutely. There’s a website supportstevemartinez.com, there’s an Instagram account @SupportSteveMartinez, and there’s a Twitter account SupportSteveNow. All of these are excellent ways to stay informed about what’s going on with Steve’s case, find out more information about grand juries about you know, anti-repression strategies, and to, you know, connect with what’s going on. Another really vital way to support Steve is to write to him. He really appreciates getting letters. And we know that regardless of what the government says about the nature of incarceration, we know that incarceration is always punitive. It’s always extremely damaging, and difficult, and writing letters and staying in contact with people in prison is an incredibly important and incredibly effective way of keeping them connected to their community, connected to their movement, keeping their time and their spirits occupied and lifted while they’re incarcerated. And so yeah, we definitely encourage people to write to Steve. You can find information – the address and sort of guidelines about what what kind of materials you can send – at his website, or on any of the social media accounts.
And also donations. Donations are being used to put in his commissary so that he can get snacks and food and, you know, hygiene items and things like that while he’s in jail. Also to be used for phone calls, so he can stay in contact with his partner, and other family. We know that calls from jail can be extraordinarily expensive. And then also supporting his partner and his family while he’s incarcerated. You know, they’ve lost Steve’s income since he’s now incarcerated. Bills don’t stop, expenses don’t stop, things like that. And so money to support the people around Steve while he’s standing up for his principles, and standing up for the movement, is incredibly important. Because, you know, grand jury resistance is a community effort, and it takes all of us to support the resistor and the resistor’s supporting all of us. And, yeah, it really takes a community in that way.
C: Yeah, I can’t really stress enough how vital people’s community support is. I think there are a lot of people who listen to this podcast that came and went from the camps at Standing Rock and the occupation there. And tens of thousands of people from all over the world did. And Steve is in prison to protect all of those people, at the end of the day. That’s the reality of the choice that he’s making. And so he’s showing some real solidarity to all of us who were present there and who fought against that pipeline, and for Indigenous sovereignty over the land and the water. But it’s our role to support him so that he can support us. And you know, James did mention that his partner is bearing a lot of the brunt. And that’s the reality of what’s happening, you know, anytime anyone is incarcerated: they are separated from their family and removed from their communities and are unable to fulfill the many obligations that they have to people that they love and they care about. There’s a GoFundMe page that’s gofundme.com/SupportSteveMartinez and that GoFundMe is going directly to support Steve, like James was saying, but also really to support his partner. They have a grandson, who is pretty little and I know that it’s really hard on Steve to be separated from his grandson. And that is something that brings a lot of joy to him, to even be able to talk to him on the phone and on a video chat. And so by people donating to that, it also enables Steve to video chat with his grandson and with his wife. And that’s a real lifeline for him right now.
The other thing that I would just say that people can do to support is be really public about your support. Even your banner drop that says, like, you know, “FREE STEVE MARTINEZ”, and “FUCK A GRAND JURY”, or like whatever you want to put on a banner, that’s actually proof, it’s evidence that can go into a motion to compel the court to release Steve. That there is a wide network of humans across the world, of comrades who support him and are enabling him to continue to stand against this grand jury. So if we show that he has that support, that’s also something that can be utilized in like a legal maneuver to get him released from court to compel the judge to do that. So even if you think your banner jobs are silly and they don’t matter, they do matter! And it shows the federal government that that we have Steve’s back, and he is going to be able to continue to maintain his silence.
TFSR: I’d like to ask you all, if you have anything else that I didn’t ask about, that you want to mention while we’re on the phone?
J: I’ll just add that, you know, we’ve sort of tried to emphasize this again and again, but movement support means all of us. It takes all of us to take action, but it also takes all of us to support each other, and care for each other when things get difficult. And so, again, putting that at the forefront of our minds: when we’re organizing it’s not just about the day of action and the days leading up to it. It’s about the days and weeks and years after that, that we have to continue to support each other, continue to help people navigate these legal processes that drag on and on. And the more that we can anticipate that and prepare for that and account for that in our organizing, the more resilient we are when these things occur. And I know Chava and I are both extremely indebted to all of our elders and all the people who have come before us that have helped teach us these lessons and teach us this information and allowed us to share it with other people. And so everybody that’s that’s sort of tread this path before us we’re extremely grateful for.
C: Yeah, I think if people want to learn more about grand jury resistance there’s a lot of great resources online, but I would really encourage people to check out the Freedom Archives, and anything in there related to Puerto Rican independentista resistance to grand juries. Those movement elders really built the model that we see used today successfully against grand juries. And we really just wouldn’t be where we are now, in our ability to resist this particularly nefarious and fucked up tool of the state, if it hadn’t been for many movement elders from a lot of different communities, particularly in the 1970’s and into the early 80’s and their resistance in national liberation struggles.
And I think the last thing I want to say is just that people went up to Standing Rock to, well people went up there for a lot of different reasons, right? But at the heart of it was to protect land and water and to engage in either, like, your own Indigenous resistance or to support those who are Indigenous and their resistance. But ultimately it was about a movement for liberation, which is what social movements are about. And at the heart of those movements for liberation is a lot of like deep care and love for each other. And having lived in those camps for months and lived in a field in the middle of the winter in so-called North Dakota, I can tell you the only thing that keeps you up at night really is like the deep blue loving care of your comrades. And Steve is really continuing to exemplify that deep love and care for his comrades, and for the reasons that he he stayed at camp after he thought he was just dropping something off.
TFSR: James and Chava thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you do. We really appreciate it.
The Security State, Far Right and Media Post-January 6th
This week on the show, you’ll hear two segments: chat with Spencer Sunshine on the far right and the government’s reaction following the riot on January 6th in DC and some perspectives on political content removal and social media from anarchist media platforms ItsGoingDown and crimethInc.
First up, anti-fascist researcher Spencer Sunshine talks about the aftermath of the January 6th putsch attempt in DC, mainstream media and Democrat narratives of concerning domestic terrorism, reporting of participation of law enforcement and military in the riot, anti-fascist research, what the stepping down of Trump has meant for his radicalized base and Spencer’s thoughts on claims of rehabilitation by former White Nationalists like Matthew Heimbach. There was a good article published by IGD on the state’s response to January 6th and what it can mean to anti-repression activists here. Also, a great place to keep up on what’s going on in the far right in the so-called US, check out IGD’s “This Week In Fascism” column, soon to be a podcast.
Then, you’ll hear the main host from the ItsGoingDown Podcast and a comrade from CrimethInc (both affiliates of the Channel Zero Network) talking about implications for anarchists and antifascists of the silencing of far right platforms and accounts and how similar moves have silenced the anti-authoritarian left. We talk about perspectives the media may have missed around “deplatforming” by tech giants like Patreon, Facebook and Twitter and how easily the normalization of ejecting non-mainstream narratives follows the trail of profit and power, and the importance of building our own platforms and infrastructure.
A little housekeeping note. For those listeners able to support us on Patreon with recurring donations, we are still fundraising to pay comrades to transcribe and format our episodes into zines moving forward. We’ve started with January 2021, putting out a weekly transcript for translations, search-ability, access to non-aural learners and those with hearing difficulties as well as making it easier send these interviews into prisons where broadcasts and podcasts may not reach. We are still $120 behind our base goal for this. So, if you have some extra dough you can send our way, it’d be much appreciated. We won’t paywall our content ever, but for those who donate at our patreon above the $10 level, you’ll get a monthly zine in the mail sent to you or a prisoners of your choosing in the US as curated by us, plus some one-time gifts.
Other ways to support the project include sending us show ideas, giving us feedback, sharing us with your friends and enemies, or talking your local radio station into playing us on the airwaves! Get in touch with more questions…
From the Fidencio Aldama Support Fund:
We’re raising funds for Fidencio Aldama, an indigenous Yaqui prisoner framed for murder and locked up in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico, for his participation in a struggle against a gas pipeline. Fidencio has been in prison since October 2016, was railroaded through the courts, and is currently appealing his conviction. Support will be ongoing, but right now we need funds to get a copy of the case file, help pay for communication, and potentially cover some legal fees.
Xinachtli, aka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is an anarchist communist Chicano political prisoner in so-called Texas. His supporters have put together a new website for him that can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net. He’s got a bid for parole coming up this year and could use letters of support! Please check for updates on other prisoners and how to support them in the monthly Prison Break column on ItsGoingDown.
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“Let Me Be The One You Need” (instrumental) by Bill Withers from Managerie – Remastered
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Transcription of Spencer Sunshine interview
The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourself with your name preferred pronouns and any affiliation that are relevant to this conversation?
Spencer Sunshine: My name is Spencer Sunshine, he/him and I have researched, written about, and counter-organized against the far right for about 15 years.
TFSR: So we’re speaking in the days after January 20 2021 and I’m hoping that Spencer, who’s made a name for reporting on far right ideas and organizing from an antifascist perspective, could help break down some, a bit, of what appears to be going on the last two weeks in the US. The mainstream media has been filled with the squishy sound of liberal hand wringing over the broken windows at the US Capitol. As larger portions of the political and economic establishment have chosen to distance themselves from Trump’s claims at the election was stolen, the media has reported on the far right street movements that have been violently engaging not only portions of the population they consider enemies, such as the Movement for Black Lives, or solidarity with immigrants movements, or antifascist and leftist more widely, but increasingly, they’ve also been engaging physically with law enforcement. Can you talk a bit about the framing that the mainstream media and the Democrat Party have been using as a rush to apply terms, like insurrectionaries or terrorists, to what took place on January sixth?
SS: It’s a sort of good and bad thing. They’ve used a lot of language that perhaps doesn’t reflect what I think went on on the sixth, you know, as you said, they’ve used “terrorists”, it’s a “coup”, “attempted coup”, “insurrection”, you know, talking about the “domestic terrorism”, talked about the need to have new laws about domestic terrorism. You know, along with some good things, like a recognition that it’s a violent, antidemocratic movement based on lies, right, or conspiracy theories and propaganda. So there’s good and bad things about how they’ve talked about them. Unfortunately, the worst thing is the way they’re talking about them can easily be applied to the left to and that’s the real, that’s one of the real dangers at the moment.
TFSR: One element that surprised some of the folks and is the swath of groups with competing ideologies that shared space and took action, which, some of which appear to be coordinating. Like, I’ve heard reports in the media that Proud Boys are being accused of having used radios to coordinate certain specific stochastic activities at the Capitol. Kathleen Beleuw, who’s the author of Bring the War Home, has talked about what happened on the sixth, less as an unsuccessful coup attempt, but more as an inspirational flexing by the autonomous fire right, of their Overton window, a la the Early Acts in The Turner Diaries. Is this a helpful landmark, and can you talk about some of the tendencies and groups that are known to have engaged in a coordinated manner around the capital push?
SS: Well, with all due respect, I disagree with Kathleen Belew, as I do on many points with her, I believe this is more a crime of opportunity. And in a sense, the left would have done the same thing if there was a big angry demonstration of 5,000 people and they thought it might be able to storm the Capitol, you know, I could see that happening. Of course, I could be wrong and maybe she’s right, but I think this is a high point for them. It’s true that it was a bunch of disparate groups, but these disparate groups have been acting together under the same banner for quite a while, like really, for the last four years. And at some point, the white nationalists are in or out of it. And there were some white nationalists there, you know, the Groyper’s in particular, but not that many. There were organized groups, I mean, we will find out more, and there’s a lot of wild talk and speculation, and I’m hesitant about a lot of this stuff. So you know, we’ll find out more, how many people were acting in a coordinated fashion, and what they were. Some Oath Keepers were just charged with this. I had no doubt that the Proud Boys were, they have a long, long time street experience and know how to act together as a group. It’s unclear how the actual storming, how many of these people were important in it, and the groups of people driving deep into the Capitol, you know, most people have seen that scene where they’re like, trying to slam the door on a cop and the police are really not sure if they can hold the line against them, like how many organized actors were involved in that?
I think we have to admit that most of the people who went in were not prepared to do this, and were not in organized groups, I think that that’s pretty clear. I don’t think it’s unusual that they’re acting under the same banner, I think the important thing is largely this has been a more moderate group of people, the street actions, the militant street actions have tended towards the more ideological extreme groups, you know, Charlottesville was fascists, and then it’s been largely Proud Boys and to some extent, Patriot Prayer, and now this action, which is you know, an attack on liberal democracy, whatever we think of that, that’s what it is, was done by more moderate political forces. And that’s a really terrible sign. But again, I think it was really a high point for them, they were able to do it because of not their militancy, but a security failure on the part of the Capitol police. Which again, we will find out how much, or to what extent that was intentional, by higher up’s who decided not to put more than the regular police defending the Capitol. It obviously wasn’t true of most of the people on the ground, I mean, one cop was murdered, and the others were clearly engaged in pretty fierce fighting, even though a handful may have, you know, helped facilitate this. So my reading of what happened: I think it’s wrong to call it a coup or an insurrection. If it was an attempted coup, Trump had his chance, they succeeded, right. He could have declared the dictatorship then and should have, and he certainly did not. So I mean, I consider it a takeover or an attack, but mostly a crime of opportunity.
TFSR: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about, like the off duty law enforcement military that participated alongside of civilian Trumpers, and with uniformed police, in some instances, allowing protesters to pass through blockades. Does this, I mean, this has been a long time policy as long back as the Klan’s existed they’ve had affiliations with the police. And I know that back in the 60’s and 70’s, and 80’s, there’s been a push to get more active white supremacists in law enforcement agencies. Does this give a glimpse into a shift in the success of the far right organizing in those institutions? Or is it just kind of more of the same and something that was actually advertised beforehand from the you know, from the Oval Office?
SS: It’s a little hard to say. So first off, the security forces being involved in far right movements is something that happens globally, it’s not special to the US. There’s a huge problem of this in Germany right now. It’s true, there’s been a lot of attempts at recruiting by far right groups, current and former police and military. I think for real, full on white nationalists, they’ve drawn some. I think a lot more have been drawn to the Trumpist movement, and because this was more politically moderate, I would expect more cops and soldiers. Some of these people who are being reported as being arrested are retired, though, I think about half…maybe I shouldn’t say [that], but a number of them that are being reported aren’t current. And if you’re retired, you are in a different position to take part in, you know, further right political activity. And this is pretty common as people leave security forces to move further to the right, or publicly expressed for the right political views maybe that they had before.
It’s always a problem of the alignment between far right forces, and especially lower level police. That’s not new. I don’t know how many really are in these groups. I think the numbers are wildly exaggerated by the groups themselves. Like, the Oath Keepers say that, you know, are specifically oriented towards recruiting current and former police, military and first-responders, but I kind of doubt that they have very many active people from these backgrounds, you know, who are currently serving, who are members of the organization. You can join that organization if you’re just an everyday person, it’s largely a paper tiger. So I’m a little dubious about the claims of how many people are involved or what percentage of police and military are in these groups? I think the opposite is true. There’s a larger percentage of police and military in various far right groups. Clearly, it’s of some substantial-ness because they said a quarter of people arrested are military. This may be a bit of a side effect of who’s been arrested, though, and not the whole demonstration.
I think it’s pretty clear that police and military, it is a speculation, but that they’re more willing to engage in aggressive actions, they’re more trained to do that, and they’re inculcated, military particularly, are inculcated within ideology that it’s appropriate to use violence in the form of political aims, no matter what those aims are, right? I mean, that’s what they’re doing in the military. They’re using violence to forward the US political aims, but they carried that idea over into private life, too.
TFSR: So since the sixth of January, you know, I’ll quit harping on that day, pretty soon, there’s been a lot of chatter about the far right getting doxxed by antifa, as the state was building its cases against participants in that push. Do you know if there have been any antifascist researchers that have been actively feeding information to authorities, or if it’s just the government doing its own work and Hoovering up whatever OSINT from the public happens to be out? Like, DDOSecrets, for instance, has been hosting that trove of Parler content on Amazon servers and putting it out for free, so that’s up for state or non state actors to engage with. I wonder if you have anything to say if there are, quote-unquote, “antifascist researchers” that are actively feeding information to the state, if you think that’s a good idea or bad idea, or what.
SS: I don’t know of and haven’t heard of people who self identify as part of the current antifascist movement who’ve done that. Now, of course, if people out there local far right activists as being there, they show evidence, it is logical that the authorities would use that intelligence to arrest people. And that puts people in something of a bind, like, do you not, you know, out this information, in order to make sure they don’t get arrested. So I think people have largely decided that they’re going to put that information out there, and people can do with it as they will, which has always been the case with doxxing. Um, I don’t know how good the authorities are at at finding stuff on their own. It seems like people who are are outed first and then arrested. I think what’s interesting is a lot of liberals have decided to suddenly do this work, and they’re doing the bulk, I would guess they’re doing the bulk of the doxxing or outing, and they have no qualms about this and they’re definitely feeding information to the FBI. I would guess what you describe is coming mostly from from them.
TFSR: So as the centrist consolidate power in the national government, and the FBI have been knocking on doors and arresting members of the far right, and also some anti fascist and Black liberation activists across the country. For instance, one of the bigwigs in the New African Black Panther Party was visited by FBI in New Jersey recently, and a former YPG volunteer who does community defense work in Tallahassee, Florida was arrested after posting on social media that people should go and oppose any far right armed presence on the 20th. But Biden’s denunciation of anarchists throughout the uprising rings in my ears, does this signal Democrats engaging more actively in a three way fight? And what do you think that that will mean for those of us anti-authoritarian left’s? Could this be like, a way to Trojan-horse in a domestic terrorism claim against antifascists that Trump wasn’t able to get through, alongside of the building up, or ramping up of like, quote-unquote, “Black identity extremist” pushes that his administration was making?
SS: I don’t think the way that Trump addressed the antifa movement is going to be carried on by the Biden administration. I mean, a lot of things Trump said just didn’t make any sense, like the domestic terrorism designation, because there isn’t one. It’s true right now that they’re trying to introduce new laws about domestic terrorism, which is ridiculous, even from a liberal perspective, because there’s plenty of laws on the books to do that, as we’ve seen over and over again, used against the left. It’s clear that any crackdown on quote-unquote, “domestic terrorism” is going to at least peripherally affect the left. There’s many reasons for this: Biden really wants to reach across the aisle to the Republicans, and he’s going to want to throw them at least a little bit of raw meat, so they’ll make some arrests, even if the pales in comparison to the far right. Also, once FBI agents, this is a real problem they get when they make busts and convictions, it’s good for their career, and as they run out of far right activists, they’ll want to find more terrorists, and if they can’t do that, produce more terrorists. And that will ultimately turn their attention to the left and Black liberation movements and such.
I don’t know I kind of expect Biden to talk left and walk right about these issues, I think he’ll give lip service to Black Lives Matter. I think they’ll continue to be arrests, especially as you know, if conflicts continue to go on, if there continued to be, you know, military demonstrations in cities after the cops kill more Black folks, as they will. I don’t expect a big crackdown on the antifa movement, especially now, as the antifa movement has sort of gone in a seesaw motion about whether it’s popular with liberal liberals or not, like four or five times, and it’s “in” right now. And unless something really dramatic happens, I think it’s going to kind of stay that way, that after the capital takeover, liberals and centrists sort of have understood in some way that something should have been done about the street forces. And the antifa movement is the only thing to inherit the mantle of having done something about them. So I don’t expect it, I hope not, it is possible. I think there definitely will be some people thrown under the bus just to make an appearance of the both sides-ism by the federal government, though.
TFSR: I guess to correct the question that I asked, because I totally failed to recognize the fact that it was Muslims and people from Muslim majority countries that were the main target following 911, of a lot of anti-terrorism legislation, and a lot of the enforcement was focused on entrapping people in immigrant communities and of the Muslim faith into quote-unquote “terrorism charges”, even if there was, you know, a manufacturing of the situation.
SS: Yeah, sure how much of that is gonna continue? I’m not sure how much of that has happened in the last few years even. But I believe that these techniques of entrapment will continue on for whoever. And it is possible if the whole terrorism thing, you know, domestic terrorism thing amps up that they’ll turn their attention back to the Muslim community. There’s enough of an industry built around that, that they can use that base, and they can always come up with some more people to entrap.
TFSR: So we were promised on January 20, that we would see a day of massive right wing protests at state capitals around the country as well as in DC. Obviously, DC was totally locked down and militarized pretty tightly. What do you think contributed to the relative quiet of the days since the sixth? Was it the drumbeat of the media, the chilling effects of federal arrests, the shutting down of Parler and silencing of other social media, the far right or Trump making his way out of office or conceding as much as he did? And what do you think it says about the future of the movement that he really helped to galvanize and whip into fervor?
SS: Well, I think Trump conceding really deflated them, right? They were inflated by this idea that he was gonna fight to the bitter end or on, and Q-Anon even had this, their last ditch theory was all those military, the National Guard was in DC, because Trump was finally going to arrest the satanist, pedophiles, and that was what the military was actually there for. But I think in general, his concession deflated them, I think the massive turning of public opinion against them, including by non-Trumpist republicans really chastise them. And they realized that was a bad move, that was really bad PR to do that. And to repeat that on a state level, you know, in state capitals was only going to further de-legitimize them. I think, you know, as I said before, their success was a failure of the security forces, and I think statewide, once the government decides it’s not going to allow militant political action, they can control that situation. And that was definitely what was going to happen, you know, in various state capitals.
I don’t know how much the move towards other platforms really motivated that you can always get the word out. So that I don’t think was an important factor. I think people are biding their time, biding, ha ha, their time about what the next move is, but I think their movement’s going to shatter. It’s going to, well, not necessarily shatter, but it’s going to have a bunch of schisms, there’s going to be a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and the non-Trumpists are going to try to take it back. And they’re going to be on good ground to say “Trump lost and so you don’t have the popular ideology”. And then, of course, some people are going to, you know, move out of the movement towards a more radical position and a more anti-current, some people say an “anti-state”, I think this is the wrong thing, anti-current US government position and anti-police position, and we will see more brawls with police, and more turning against even the moderate Republicans then is already there. So there’ll be a splinter amongst the Trumpist street forces that way, between the Back the Blue people and those becoming more and more radical. And the way that Neo-Nazis, long ago, decided to, sort of, move back towards the center about this, but you know, in the 80’s, decided that they were going to take a revolutionary position, and the police and the federal government were their enemies.
TFSR: Kind of on that line, I was wondering, so in the last couple years we’ve seen the dissolution of, the disappearance to some degree, of visibility, at least around groups like RAM or The Base, or Atomwaffen Division. And I’m sure that like, there definitely were some arrests, but I’m sure not everyone just gave up on the ideology. Where do you think that those folks are putting their energy now, do you have any speculation on that?
SS: That’s a good question. You know, by 2018, the fascist groups involved in the alt right, pretty much collapsed. You know, as Richard Spencer’s speaking tour got shut down and Traditionalist Worker Party fell apart in the Night of the Wrong Wives, that was really kind of the end of that being such a big and growing movement. And then the feds decided to smash Atomwaffen and The Base after the El Paso massacre, they finally were like, alright, well, this is a problem. And when they want to disrupt a network, they can really do it. So they have arrested most of those people and that’s put the more radical, well “militant” is the wrong word, the pro-terrorism, part of the Neo-Nazi and related milieu, has scattered it, has shattered it, really.
The biggest group now, this was something that a lot of people overlooked, but American Identity Movement dissolved the day before the election, who were one of the two big remaining white nationalists, you know, fascist groups. And they seem to have entered the Groyper movement, which is the real living part that’s come out of the white nationalists — well almost white nationalists because I believe they do allow in people of color, but run by white nationalists, part of the remaining part of the alt right — and they have done an entryist move to try to move the Trumpist base to the right. And they were, of course, present on the sixth, they had flags, they were present as a bloc. So that’s the main thrust of things. I think people maybe who were involved in 2016, 2018, I think a lot of them have probably given up being politically active. New people, especially tend to cycle through activists who are really active, you know, often cycle through an 18 months, a year. James Mason actually calls it the 18 Months Syndrome, which I like. And there’s a similar thing on the left, where a lot of people get involved in these mass movements, and then burn out pretty quickly, although some of them will remain. But I don’t know, it is actually a good question of where a lot of these people went. I mean, the people who run groups that help ex-white nationalists leave have said there’s more and more people coming to them, and coming through them. So it’s clear a chunk of people have been leaving the movement for the last couple years.
TFSR: Well that’s good news. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Groyper movement? I know Nick Fuentes is the name that comes up frequently with that, but so they identify ideologically as fascist and are entryists into the Republican Party. Is that a fair description?
SS: I don’t know whether they identify as fascist or not. I mean, they’re definitely trying to downplay that. I mean, I think they are, and they originally were trying to enter the Republican Party very openly, and take positions and local GOPs. I think more they’re trying to influence the base more at this point. But it’s not a movement I’ve watched real closely either, to be honest. So I mean, they haven’t been at the forefront of anything, but they’re sort of simmering in the background, but I think they’re in one of the better positions moving forward. They haven’t disbanded. They’re not organizing independently as white nationalists. There’s a question of: do you organize independently as an independent political movement or as an adjunct, and somehow part of a bigger movement, and they’ve picked that strategy. And it seems like a successful strategy as all the other groups have collapsed, except Patriot Front, who are digging down into their sectarianism and their events are decreasing in size.
So I don’t know they’re, I think they’re in a good position, they’re in the best position of the white nationalist style groups. And I think going forward the militias are also going to be in a good position, they can easily pivot towards being anti-federal government, which are their traditional talking points. I was actually kind of surprised they were able to keep up their movement as much as they did under Trump.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess the idea of centralizing your authority, like, it seems like there’s a lot of strains, and I’m gonna forget the names of these specific divisions within a lot of the militia movements, but that sort of align with the idea of a strong Sheriff or like some sort of like constitutional sovereign, Dominionist, I guess, is a term that falls in there. And it seems like having a strong central authority that, to some degree is viewed as imposing, even as much as he didn’t, imposing like Christian values could sort of, like a lot of people were internalizing this idea of Trump as their strong leader, as a representative of America and of masculinity and all these things, so even if he was in the central government, he wasn’t viewed as being of the federal government. SS: Yeah I mean, I think that’s how they viewed him. He was a sort of singular figure and because he was fighting, quote-unquote “the swamp” they could say that was the federal government that they were opposed to. I agree that their basic themes were all reflected in Trump. The there’s an interesting history to this, that backs that perspective up, is a lot of the original militia movement comes out of a white supremacist group called Posse Comitatus, that was founded in 1971. And there was a split amongst white nationalist after the collapse of the segregationist movement by the civil rights movement, and the new laws by the federal government supporting civil rights.
Basically, one wing — and this actually happened specifically in a Christian identity church, a white supremacist church, run by a pastor named Swift — moved towards Neo-Nazism. And the thing with the Nazis is that they want a big government, you know, with total power and an economy that they alter in some ways, they want some control over the economy. And so Richard Butler took over Swift’s church and moved to Hayden Lake and established his compound and move towards Neo-Nazism. Another person in this church, William Gale founded Posse Comitatus, which, you know, became the basis of the militia movement. Instead of wanting more centralization after the failure of the segregationist movement, and wanting to take the government over — or take a government over, establish a new government — he moved in the other direction. And he said, Well, states rights failed, but what we need then is essentially kind of county rights, we need more decentralization, because then we can resist the federal government this way. It’s the same themes as you pointed out, it’s the same themes that are being pursued in two different tactical directions. The militias, I thought they did a very clever thing: all their talking points should have led them to oppose Trump, and they did a very clever move to somehow convince their base that they should actually support all the talking points that they, you know, all the things that they’ve opposed all these years. But I mean, it just shows us that what’s driving them is not a true desire for decentralization, but it’s merely a tactical way to achieve these reactionary goals.
TFSR: Localized, patriarchal, like authoritarianism, sort of.
SS: Yeah, pretty much pretty much.
TFSR: In a recent story in The Guardian, people monitoring the far right Q-Anon conspiracy movement speculated that the vanishing of Q Drops and a loss of faith in the community may lead to a large repelling of former followers. Would you talk a little bit about, because we haven’t really talked about Q-Anon on the show, and I’m sure that listeners have heard tons about it and maybe been doing their own research, there’s lots of podcasts about it. But would you talk about the antisemitic roots of conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, and efforts by white nationalist movements to draw them in?
SS: Yeah, I think they’re being black pilled. They’re already red pilled, right, because that’s like Trumpists. So now there is a real fear a lot of them will move further into sort of fascist circles. And and some of them will, I mean, I’m hesitant to say the majority of them will, but even if a few do that can be a significant gain for fascists in the United States. Most conspiracy theories have a relationship to antisemitism, either they’re sort of washed out de-anti-Semitized versions of conspiracy theories, where they emerge from them, keep the same structure, so often keep the same targets but sort of remove being explicit that they’re being targeted because they’re Jewish. Soros is a great example of this, right? Where as it’s become more popular, it’s not, it’s become unspecific that he’s Jewish. And people will even say, Well, that doesn’t matter. But the whole conspiracy theory was a traditional antisemitic conspiracy theory, and it was specified that he was Jewish and that’s why he was being targeted.
And once you get into these conspiracy circles, they move around. I always see it as a shell game, so you have three shells, and one of them is antisemitism, one is a sort of washed out antisemitism, and one of them is just something else. And the you know, the coin or whatever, the shells are constantly moving around, you have to guess which one it’s underneath. And so as people get in these discussion circles, there’s all kinds of cross pollination, and part of that cross pollination will be antisemitism, because that has created so many of the conspiracies, so many conspiracy theories originated as antisemitic conspiracy theories.
This idea of the global one where a government became the New World Order was antisemitic, all the stuff about the Federal Reserve, that was formed as an antisemitic conspiracy theory, Cultural Marxism, Soros, the list goes on and on. And once you get into conspiracy theories, it’s a narrative. It’s actually a pretty standardized narrative that’s been around a couple hundred years. And once you believe in that narrative, which is a fact free narrative, nothing stops you from moving into bigoted territory, right? You’ve already become dis-attached from facts and reality, you’re already playing around in a fantasy world and often switching around who’s the agent of a conspiracy.
So at some point, you know, the Jews, or specific Jews will become the target of the conspiracy theory. And you’re not epistemologically grounded, you’re not grounded in your sense of what you accept, to resist this anymore. Not for most people. Occasionally for Jews, people will draw a line, and a few other people, at the Jews being named, but, you know, sometimes you may get Jewish people who embrace these conspiracy theories, so.
TFSR: I guess I’m a separate, separate and final note, Matthew Heimbach has been repackaging himself as a former white nationalist. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about his instance, in particular, but I’d be curious on your thoughts of how we as an antifascist movement can assess supposed turns from white nationalism and people who are drawn to the limelight, and what time maybe should pass, and what reparations would look like to prove that someone has actually moved away in more than just words from the activities. Do you have perspectives on when it makes sense to judge that someone has left the far right and can be listened to for useful perspectives?
SS: Yeah, I do. I’ve spent a long time talking to formers and I sort of helped someone who had already left the movement, he had just left, navigate this process over a year or two. I think it takes people a couple of years. A lot of this problem has been introduced by a group called Light Upon Light that’s run by a quote-unquote, “former Islamist” who attracted a bunch of quote-unquote, “former Nazis”. The problem is the group has allowed people to keep what are more moderate, far right views: Islamophobic views, anti-antifa views. And normally, formers or groups of formers, make people go through a process, make them make amends, and expect them to embrace some sort of equality for all, right? At the very least. Not to become left wingers, but embrace civil rights and equality for all as part of the repudiation. And Light Upon Light did not do that.
Jeff Shoep, who came out of the National Socialist Movement, almost overnight, became a former who was speaking out, and while I do believe he in particular, has honestly left white nationalism, I don’t think he’s gone through this process. And then his friend Heimbach, you know, again, suddenly, in a matter of months, declared himself a former white nationalist, and he, I don’t believe at all by his statements has left it in his heart. And now he’s left Light Upon Light and move back further to the right. And I just, I just don’t believe that he has, I think people should take a couple years and go through a process. They need to confront why they were attracted to this movement, they need to publicly talk about the damage they did, and they need to make amends. And, you know, I think this is not an instant process, and anyone who does this in six months or even a year, I wouldn’t necessarily trust.
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t trust that they’ve left the movement and a sense of detaching themselves from those networks and stuff. I just don’t believe they’ve gone through this process. If you’re talking about when should we take their opinions seriously, I think they need to sit down with it. And all the former’s will say this, everyone I’ve talked to, or maybe the Light Upon Light people don’t, but like, they need to sit down and have a real internal dialogue about what it was that attracted them to this movement, and how it is that they’ve moved past these ideas, and if they have. It needs to be a real reckoning with themselves. So people who come out and immediately try to posit themselves, especially as very public formers, you know, I don’t buy it,
TFSR: I think also like, and again, as you say, it’s like not, it’s not to be expected that someone’s gonna move from, you know, from a far right, white nationalist, Neo-Nazi perspective, into an anti fascist or leftist perspective, or whatever. And maybe that’s not to be expected, and that’s fine. But like, Heimbach in particular is an individual who has been trying to hold and build a space that would like draw this third position. And so he’s already had a long time working through ideas of how do I appeal to the people on the left? How do I use language that will appeal to people who are left of center? How do I draw on narratives of identity politics and equality? You’re like a quote-unquote “right wing multiculturalism”, you could almost say, so, you know, that’s not to say that he couldn’t change. But he seems like someone who especially particularly has a prevalence towards being able to being comfortable using language in a way to manipulate people towards an argument that they wouldn’t think necessarily of adopting in the first place. I guess anyone that’s an organizer is going to try to do this sort of thing. But for me, in particular, I look at him and I look at his closest to like National Bolshevism or other projects like that, and it makes me think, like, I want to see for sure that he is doing this other work before I necessarily believe that comes out of his mouth.
SS: Yeah, no, I think the Third Positionists are in a better position to do that, because they tend publicly not to denigrate people of color. That was always his shtick in Traditionalist Worker Party, and tend to say that they want to stand up for the interests of the working class, and they’re interested in environmentalism, and it’s pretty easy to move that and claim it’s just not a racist perspective anymore. And you know, he doesn’t seem to have changed his tune very much. You know, it sounds like stuff he said in TWP. And he certainly hasn’t said what was wrong with TWP, and he hasn’t made any amends, people have to make amends. I believe they do. And he just hasn’t gone through any process. So there’s no reason to believe him.
This is gonna continue to be a problem where people like him say they’re leaving, but don’t seem to be leaving at all. I mean, they may leave the networks, and that does mean something, you know, that does mean something. But that doesn’t mean, I’d rather that they not, I don’t want these people really to join the left, not for a few years. We’re not going to gain that many of them. I think after a few years, and after going through this process, they can, but we’re probably going to have more and more people do that, like leave the networks, but still, you know, still talk far right still have more moderate far right views?
TFSR: Well, I was hoping that you could maybe tell us a bit about where people can find your writing, the publications that you’ve put out. For instance, 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists? Where can people find your stuff? And how can they support you on Patreon?
SS: So 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists is a guide I did with PopMob, the Popular Mobilization group in Portland, Oregon, that’s helped, bring people to the demonstrations out there. It does what it says on the tin, it offers 40 things that are legal, actions you can take to combat a fascist in the violent far right, a lot of options in there for people who can’t get out on the streets for whatever reason, if they’re, you know, physically disabled, or they have to take care of their families, or they’re elderly or whichever they are, that’s available for free on my website, it’s spencersunshine.com/fortyways, there’s printable PDFs there. I encourage people to print them out themselves and distribute them in their area.
My other writings are all available on my website spencersunshine.com, almost all of them are free. If you want to follow me on Twitter, it’s where I’m most active transform6789, on Facebook and Instagram, if you like funny, anti-far-right memes, follow my Instagram. And of course, I am an independent researcher and writer, I used to work for Think Tank, and I have left them and I don’t have any organizational support. So if you like to throw me a few clams on Patreon, you know, just Spencer Sunshine.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?
SS: Yeah, sure. I think it’s a big Pandora’s Box about what’s going to happen for the next year, I think people need to be very aware and stay active for the next year. And I think the anti fascist movement, and monitors, you know, who don’t identify with that term, it goes up and down in reflection of the growth of the far right. And I think what happened last time, because I caught the big boom of the 80’s and 90’s, and then it went down and then it came back up in 2016-17, during that time almost all the structures collapsed. People need to make a plan and people need to make a commitment for having a longer term structure that stays in place in the way, for example they have in Germany and such, because it takes a while to get moving. And that’s a bad thing, because that means the fascist and other movements will move first, and will have to play catch up. And we want to try to prevent that situation from happening again.
TFSR: And I think that like one thing, when people think about anti-fascism in the US is we don’t necessarily have a positive vision towards it. Like, we maybe think or talk about people confronting in the street or doing the ongoing research, which is very helpful for communities to keep themselves safe, maybe training, but I think that there’s other groups, like for instance, PopMob that you wrote that piece with, that are doing above ground discussions and work around other things, and include anti fascism. So maybe this is also a good time for people to find their own, like positive antifascist projects to engage with.
SS: Yeah I think there needs to be like PopMob does, a lot of open grassroots and legal organizing, also, that can sustain for a longer period of time, that isn’t connected to the militant antifascist stuff. That turns too many people off. And it’s not always the best way to deal with some of these problems. If we want to reach a broader group of people, there needs to be a different kind of organizing, it can’t have the label of everyday antifascist, which is what PopMob uses. Or it could have another label, like I take the position of “it doesn’t matter”, you’re doing you know, it’s almost sometimes called The Work, you’re doing work against the far right or you’re not. So we want to make the work accessible to people.
And that can include really positive things, I think people should do — and I’ve covered some of this and 40 ways — a lot of educational work. This is done in Germany and other places where the antifascist movement is much broader. Like one of the things I like is memorial events where people that have been killed by the far right, or there’s been historic massacres, to sort of keep this on people’s minds in the community about what the stakes of this are. And just that this is a political movement that comes and goes in America. And you know, you can have reading groups or other other things, and understand that this is a movement that’s really part of American life. There’s been fascists, there’s been Nazis in the United States since the 1920’s. We’re, you know, coming up, I think 1922 was the first Nazi, so we’re coming up on 100 years of Nazism in America. And these other far right groups go back, you know, anti-Masonic theories were popular in the 1790’s.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency is often looked at as the first, kind of anti-liberal, far right movement that starts this consistent thing, the Klan starts in the 60’s. So we have to be aware, this is a permanent fixture of American life, and it may have a more moderate form, you know, sort of like Trumpist stuff that’s attached to the right wing of the Republican Party, or may have a more vicious form of Neo-Nazis and rather violence, street movements, and this isn’t going to go away.
People need to learn how to pay attention to this. I think the left lost vision, lost a sense that this was here, from 2000 to 2016, or 17, neo-liberalism became the single enemy on the right. And there became a loss of vision that you know, there could be this other populist far right, that was very vicious too.
TFSR: Thank you so much, Spencer.
SS: Thanks for having me on the show.
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Transcription of Interview with IGD & CrimethInc
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourselves as you see fit and whatever projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this chat?
CrimethInc: For the purpose of this conversation, I’m just a participant in CrimethInc Ex workers collective associated project.
ItsGoingDown: I work on ItsGoingDown.org which is a news media platform and podcasts and radio show, along with CrimethInc, The Final Straw, the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network.
TFSR: Since the right wing riot in DC on January 6, many of the larger social media platforms have begun purging accounts affiliated with far right groups and tendencies present at the Capitol and big data has been de-platforming apps like Parler. Can y’all maybe talk about what you’ve seen with this and how you think it bodes for anti-authoritarian projects on the left that challenge the state?
IGD: I‘ll start off. I think one thing to point out is that there’s a narrative that this is, like, de-platforming censorship. I mean, obviously, we can point out that this is coming from private companies, not the state. I mean, the First Amendment is supposed to stop the state from censoring speech, and people’s ideas. It doesn’t have anything to do with private companies. I think which is interesting, because I would argue that there’s probably more evidence to support the fact that the government has put more pressure on private companies to de-platform anarchist, antifascist and people on the left. But I would say the tendency to remove far right groups and figures from platforms though has not come from like, you know, people picketing outside Twitter or sort of this push from below. Which is sort of how the right portrays it. It’s instead come after large scale incidents, things like at the Capitol, or Charlottesville, where these companies basically have freaked out.
If you read the book Antisocial, which is sort of like a history of the alt right online, I mean, literally, as Charlottesville was happening, the people at Reddit, like the people that run the company, were scrambling because they were terrified they were somehow going to be found legally responsible for what was going on. And they were literally purging all these big accounts. So it really has nothing to do with a personal political stance, or like getting pressure. I mean, from what I’ve heard from journalists and other people that have talked to people at Twitter, or have relationships, they’re very aware that certain people on the far right are literally, for years, have violated the terms of service. But yet they’ve made a decision not to ban them because either they have big accounts or they feel if they got rid of them that that would just cause too much of a riff, or a problem.
I think Trump is a really good example: they finally got to the point where they’re like, okay, we know that he’s gonna be on his way out, we can finally make a decision at this point where, you know, we can get rid of him, and we’re not gonna be in this weird political situation. Like we can successfully do that. And it’ll look fine because he’s just messed up so bad. I think like Alex Jones is another good example. They chose to get rid of Alex Jones at a time when he was facing all these lawsuits for the Sandy Hook stuff. So I mean, they made a good decision to take him off, because if they would have allowed him to continue, they might have been held legally responsible.
So I think that we have to remember that these corporations usually are taking these moves to remove stuff because they don’t want to be held legally responsible. I think the other side of the coin is like the stuff that they’re doing around things like Q-Anon or COVID-19 Truther-ism or stuff like that, there is a lot of pressure for them from different forces to get rid of that stuff. So it’s a little bit different. I think, like in that instance, recently, like when ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc was kicked off Facebook, I think that was very much an instance of people that were tied to the Trumpian state putting pressure on Facebook to remove certain pages. And in fact I think it’s very telling, in that instance, the names that Facebook gave the press when they were talking about the stuff that they removed, even though it was much larger than just several accounts. But it was you know, ItsGoingDown, CrimethInc, and the Youth Liberation Front in the Pacific Northwest. It was like they got a like an Andy Ngô dream list of accounts, especially for what was happening at the time, which is, you know, Portland was like the big story. So it made total sense to get rid of that stuff is very strategic move, and it had nothing to do with stopping violence or things in the street or anything like that. I think that there’s very different dynamics at play, in short, going on in terms of like how people on different sides are getting thrown off, just to start off the conversation.
C: Who they ban is an indication of the balance of power in our society, basically, to build off what what you’re saying. They ban people if they think that they could, that their speech on these platforms could contribute to a legal risk, but the legal risks are also determined by the balance of power, what’s viewed as legitimate, and how court cases would be likely to go. You know, they certainly would not have banned Trump from Twitter if Trump had won another term by a majority of votes and controlled everything. They would have been trying to figure out how to make peace with him because he would be the one calling the shots. They were able to ban him on his way out, and Jack Dorsey maintains that he was compelled to ban Trump by employees at Twitter who were pressing him to do so, that may be true, that may be the equivalent of labor organizing, but it certainly would not have happened if Trump had less power.
So that’s one of the things we’re gonna have to talk about, repeatedly in this conversation, is how the line between who is banned and who is not relates to the balance of power and how groups that are already targeted, and that are already marginal, can engage with that. The other thing that I want to speak to regarding the recent bands of Parler, and Donald Trump from social media platforms, is that this is taking place in a context in which the state apparatus, the FBI, the police, and so on, are dramatically refurbishing their image for the Biden years. And this whole sort of liberal centrist discourse that has been sympathetic to criticism of the police or the federal government over the last four years under Trump is shifting to cheer-leading for these things.
This is part of the shift to the right that is taking place across society even as the extreme right is excised from legitimacy. You know, and it’s taking place in the same context that now we see self-professed liberals calling for people from the Trump administration to go to Guantanamo Bay. Just accepting the premise that there should be a Guantanamo Bay when not that long ago, liberals were calling for Guantanamo Bay to be abolished.
So we’re really seeing state censorship, corporate censorship, and all of these things that previously would have only been endorsed by right wing groups become extended now to to become liberal discourses or even left discourses. And the risk is that whatever corporations, or for that matter governments, do to the far right, they will always use that as a cover to do the same thing to what they perceive to be the opposite numbers of those groups on the far left. So, as my friend said it, it’s not a coincidence that in summer when Facebook announced that they were banning Q-Anon militia groups, that they also banned CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown and dozens of other anarchist and antifascist journalists and publishing groups, that they will always take those steps. And so really, what we’re seeing is a re-consolidating of power and legitimacy in a political center that will absolutely go after the very same people who have been struggling against fascists all this time.
IGD: Just to kind of drive that point home real quick: two months ago, the New York Times did a little video on like New York Times opinion (if you go on to YouTube and type in “New York Times opinion Q-Anon” it’ll pop up) but it’s a short 10 minute video about Q-Anon. But like, two thirds of the way through, what they do is they say, like, conspiracy theories aren’t logical and then they use like several examples: they talk about conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination, they bring up something else, and then they say “look at anarchism”.
And it’s funny, because they have this picture of Noam Chomsky that pops up — which, of course, Chomsky has submitted stuff and had stuff run in the New York Times for years, which is I find ironic — but they say “anarchism has always never worked and always imploded whenever it’s been put into practice”. Which anybody that knows the history of anarchism knows that actually not true, that it’s actually a history of states and outside forces and fascists and Stalinists and capitalists destroying anarchist societies and projects. I think that that example in itself is telling because what they were trying to do is they were trying to create a narrative of that, you know, we’re the center, we make sense, you know, we’re based on facts and reason. And then there are these crazy people outside, whether it’s Q-Anon on on the right, or anarchist on the left, you know, and those are the real wackos, and stuff like that.
I think it’s also telling too that we could do a whole thing about Q-Anon and like, you know, the various forces that support it, and have pushed it, whether it’s people, state actors, or even people with deep pockets, and, you know, moneyed interests and stuff like that, as opposed to anarchism, which is this grassroots movement from below that’s existed for, you know, over 100 years. Wherever poor and working and oppressed people have struggled, there’s been anarchist. I mean, obviously, the two are very different, but they’re trying to really draw that line between them. I think that example, just kind of like really solidifies for me, at least, you know, the coming terrain of how the center sees things,
C: Right, you know, in a phrase, “narrow the Overton window”, they’re not saying “get rid of the far right, because they kill people”. They’re, you know, they’re saying, “narrow the Overton window, consolidate the legitimacy of the center and emphasize the legitimacy of the other groups”.
IDG: Yeah, and I think that’s why, going forward, it’s going to be important to push back, in terms of what we’re talking about here, but also in terms of any attempt by the state to enact new “domestic terrorism laws” that really are going to come back on us much more hard than anything on the far right. I mean, the state has more than enough tools to arrest everybody that’s already going online saying “yes, we will commit the crimes today, and here’s my address, and here’s what I plan to do, and here’s my five buddies I’m talking on discord about it with”. I mean, they’re very apt to go after those people if they choose to do so. What they chose to do over the past five years or so, as we’ve seen an ascendancy of social movements, is instead double down and focus on Black Lives Matter, who they’ve labeled “Black Identity Extremists”.
We know that there’s a “Iron Fist program” that the FBI has developed, this has been documented by outlets like the Intercept, which like COINTELPRO, they’ve only described in documents as a program to disrupt the Black liberation movement. We know through Fusion Center documents, like police and FBI and homeland security agents are looking at things like InfoWars as like legitimate sources.
If you look at things like the BlueLeaks, some of the stuff that’s coming out of that is just incredible, like FBI agents believing that antifascists are being paid by Bitcoin through ads on Craigslist to go to protests. I mean, it’s just batshit. But obviously the state has made a decision over the past couple of years to, surprise, surprise, go after autonomous anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-racist movements from below as opposed to looking at the burgeoning far right threat. And now it’s outside their door. Now, it’s actually at the point where it’s starting to disrupt state power. And cause, you know, Democratic senators and house representatives to go into hiding at the Capitol. Now they want to paint it as this big issue where, you know, they’ve been killing us for years and stacking up corpses, but now they want to paint it as an issue that, you know, has to be dealt with.
TFSR: Well, the whole thing was run by a “Mad Dog” Chomsky, as they say, you know, the whole riot at the at the Capitol on the sixth. Well, I mean, kind of pulling back, you’ve both made the point that the experiences that you’ve had around getting pushed off of social media platforms, or fundraising platforms as years before, with subMedia and IGD off of Patreon, has been an effort by private corporations measuring the balance of power, and maybe the proclivities of the people that run those specific platforms in some instances, but oftentimes, worrying about how it’s going to look to their stockholders, and kicking off anti-authoritarian, leftist and anarchist projects from those sites in those platforms. Can you talk about a little bit about what the impact has been on your projects during that and sort of how you dealt with that?
C: Well, we were fortunate in that people responded immediately to the news that we’d been kicked off Facebook, when we were kicked off over the summer. There was actually a groundswell of support, I don’t think that was about our specific projects, CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown, and the other projects that were kicked off, so much as it was a spreading awareness that, rather than banning groups according to what risks they pose, groups are being banned for political reasons. This is a concern that is going to affect more and more people, I think it’s probable that the eventual endpoint of this trajectory is that it will be very difficult to talk about anything except centrist politics on these platforms at all.
So when we were kicked off Facebook, you know, there’s this open letter that 1000’s of people signed supporting us and directing attention to the situation, it didn’t really impact us that much. Even the groups that we know that we’re not kicked off Facebook were negatively impacted by the Facebook algorithms after this, so I think if we had not been kicked off, it would not have been very much different results in the long run. We’re still seeing the same amounts of traffic to our website, maybe we’d be seeing more if we hadn’t been kicked off?
I think it’s really an issue of what is legitimized, if they make it seem socially acceptable to ban people on the basis of their anarchist beliefs, from being able to communicate on these platforms, that is a step towards being able to legitimize other measures targeting people. And certainly when it happened, we were concerned because we’re like, well, you know, if you’re going to raid a village, first you cut off the electricity to that village, and diminishing our ability to communicate about what’s happening to anarchists and other activists against white supremacy and government state oppression is one of the steps that you’d have to take to be able to increase the ways that people are targeted. And when we talk about the push now to invest more resources in the state, those resources are being put directly in the hands of the same sort of people who did the capital building occupations, so we can be sure that there’s going to be more repression in the future.
But we’ve been fortunate in the dying days of the Trump administration, there was not the political will to carry that out. It’s possible that there still will not be, but we will have to do a lot of organizing, that doesn’t depend on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, to be able to maintain the ties with people necessary to weather the kind of repression that we can expect to see under the Biden administration.
IDG: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, the thing with Patreon was so funny, because originally far right, I believe it was Greg Johnson, and that whole kind of crew — which is, interestingly enough, tied to Matt Gates in Florida — but I mean, they have launched a campaign to try to get IGD kicked off of Patreon. And originally, somebody from Patreon responded like, you know, well, actually, we think it’s really important that antifascists have their work supported and stuff like that. To which they were like, Oh, my God, how could they do that? But when Lauren Southern was then kicked off after she was engaged with a group of white nationalists trying to block and putting the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in danger because they wanted to create clickbait media for you know, Youtube and stuff like that, they were basically forced to do this kind of pound of flesh thing where they had to kick something off. And people like Tim Poole lobbied them to have ItsGoingDown removed.
I think it’s important also to point out that like in the example of Facebook, before they even kicked off, ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc, they really drastically changed the algorithms and the way that pages work. They also made it harder to get certain news sources. I mean, this affected the entire news media industry and anybody creating alternative media was severely impacted. This impacts everybody from Newsweek, down to Democracy Now to us and stuff like that. And that was designed to basically streamline Facebook as a way to generate money, they wanted people to pay to get clicks, basically. Which of course, you know, results in an output, which is that if you have money, you can then pay for more exposure. The end result is something like with the 2016 Trump administration run, where it’s like, they have lots of money, and they can actually pay and flood the internet with lies, and, you know, total fabrications.
You can look at everything that Cambridge Analytica did over the past couple years, in terms of the Trump election campaign. There’s a great documentary on Netflix called the Social Dilemma that’s about social media and the way the algorithms work. But the point is they’ve been slowly kind of pushing off independent, anti-capitalist left wing voices from the platform, since like, 2017, since Trump came into office. I think if you look at the breakdown of the most trafficked sites that basically are on Facebook, like the websites that are news based, that get the most clicks, it’s like The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, Breitbart. It’s like, generally right wing or very far, right Trump-aligned websites.
That’s what basically Facebook has become, it’s become an echo chamber of boomers, talking about Syrian refugees coming to kill them and kick their puppies and stuff like that. And it’s no surprise then that when the pandemic hit, you saw literally like, hundreds and hundreds percent increase in Q-Anon and COVID conspiracies and stuff like that. I think it’s telling again, with the ban of the certain antifascist and anarchist accounts, they literally had to go back and create new rules to kick them off. They were like, well it doesn’t have to necessarily support violence in the speech, but it can kind of allude to it, or the people that are reading it can support it in the comments or something. It’s so vague that literally anything they could potentially kick off.
But of course, it’s just like when police passed a new law against dumpster diving, or like, people smoking outside, or, you know, the homeless people on a bench or something like that. I mean, it’s not necessarily that they’re gonna enforce it all the time, but that gives the police that tool to selectively enforce it, you know, whenever they want to. So it’s a, you know, an invasive instrument, which they can use to attack people whenever they want to. It’s been building I mean, the commons of the internet, if you will, has been becoming more and more policed, and obviously, ideas that attack the status quo, especially that are critical of the state, critical of white supremacy critical of capital they’ve been going after.
TFSR: So it makes me wonder, like, why do, I mean and our project does to some degree engage with social media, and tries to spread our message through it. I fucking hate it personally. But considering all of the downsides to working with social media, considering that there are all these algorithms that you have to constantly try to figure out how to work around, considering getting de-platformed all the time, considering the fact that so many of these social media platforms frequently hand over information or allow backdoors into law enforcement to surveil “extremists”, quote-unquote, in whatever shade you find them, whether it be the far right, or anarchists or autonomists or what have you. How do you all fall on the line of: are we promoting continued use of these platforms by engaging in them? How much are we giving clickbait to law enforcement, who follows who clicks on what? And how much are we actually reaching new audiences? Or are we drawing audiences away from these platforms while still engaging with it?
C: So as we’re talking with people from subMedia about this — because they were proposing that we should organize a campaign to have anarchists withdraw from Facebook, for example — coming out of those conversations, I spoke with some comrades overseas. You know, in some parts of the world, anarchist projects still rely chiefly on Facebook. The occupied social center, Rog, that was just evicted today in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the statement about the eviction is on Facebook, that’s where you have to go if you want to see it. And I said, if we were to make a concerted push to have anarchists withdraw from at least the most compromised social media platforms that involve the most surveillance, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t mean that we lose contact with groups like yours that depended on Facebook chiefly. And they made the reasonable argument the anarchists in their community already are in touch with each other, already communicate with each other through platforms like Signal. But the thing is that they have to be in touch with people outside of their community in order to have the reach that they need to be able to put into effect their ambitious projects to actually change society. And that’s why people maintain presences for radical projects on social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, despite all the compromises.
For us, as anarchists, I think the challenge is always to be in this world, but not of it, to take action in a social context when the terrain itself is against us. As anarchists we’re always fighting not only our adversaries, but against the terrain itself, we’re trying to transform it into something that fosters horizontality, even as it surveils us, even as it rewards those who have the money to buy the kind of media exposure that they need, even as it structures the distribution of information according to existing power disparities. So I think you should never use a tool for the purposes it was designed for in a capitalist society, but at the same time, I don’t think that that always means that the best thing is for us to just refuse unilaterally to use these tools, because for good or for ill, human discourse has largely been fitted to these structures now and the question is more how to subvert them than how to refuse them entirely. I think that we should evaluate the effectiveness of our interventions on corporate social media platforms, according to how efficiently they move people from those platforms to more secure and more reliable formats for engagement. Does your tweet just result in 1000 likes? Or does it actually compel people to form affinity groups and reading groups and to do in person organizing? These are the sort of questions we need to be asking.
The process of determining who will be banned from social media is also the process of establishing what the social consensus will be. I mentioned earlier that it’s determined by the existing balance of power. But it’s not just the result of pre-existing conditions, it also gives rise to conditions. And when it comes to this process of establishing social consensus, what isn’t and is not acceptable, we have to be in that conversation. You know, and actually, we made a lot of progress over the last couple years in helping to shape widespread notions of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, you know, many people now are critical of police, are open to the idea that the entire justice system or the state apparatus, the capitalist system needs to be deconstructed, that our society needs to be reorganized. And we have to establish access to all of these people to be able to have the conversations that need to unfold. We just should never trust that the platforms that we’re using, the ones that we didn’t build, we should never trust that they will do the work for us or that they exist to fulfill our goals.
IGD: Yeah, I mean, I think the question that you’re asking is a big one. And I think we should be definitely talking about it. I think that, you know, there are alternatives being built. You know, right now, there are servers that are on Mastodon that are creating basically an alternative to Twitter. Right now ItsGoingDown has like, I think, coming up on almost 5,000 followers, which is pretty good, considering you know, that project hasn’t really been promoted that much and it’s been slowly building. But there’s a growing community of people. They’re not only building kind of alternative social media infrastructure, but joining and following being part of the discussion.
What have we gained from like being on social media? I mean, the fact that, for instance, the Washington Post is quoting various Youth Liberation Front collectives across the country about certain things happening, or quoting various tweets from ItsGoingDown. I think what’s happened is that as anarchists have become part of the story, our voices then have been harder to basically remove from the conversation. And the fact that it’s out there and people are looking at it, that means that they can’t just brush it aside and say we don’t exist, we don’t have something to say. On the other hand, that means that as soon as those voices are gone, or they’re taken off, or they’re taken away, or even if a corporation can come in and say, “Oh, these people were naughty, and they said bad things, and they’re promoting violence” I mean, we can turn around and quote that and run with that. So I mean, if those voices are taken off, that means that we’re taking away from the conversation, and it’s just as likely that we’ll be quickly forgotten, or people won’t reach out to talk to us.
I think that going to the Biden administration, I mean I would guess that the platform that anarchists have gotten over the past four years is going to get a lot smaller in terms of doing the mass media is going to be willing to talk to anarchists. I think that there’s gonna be some people like journalists, that are anarchists that have developed the following that will continue to write and, you know, continue to get their stuff out there, but I think that it’s probably a good guess that they’re gonna less, and less be willing to reach out and talk to anarchists about what they think about anti-fascism or community organizing or different struggles happening. I mean, then again, we’ll see I mean, who knows what’s going to happen in the coming terrain?
You know, I just think, also, too, we’ve built up a large following in a lot of these projects and hopefully that’s not going to go away. Like ItsGoingDown, I would say that probably right now, we have just as many people, probably more, that listen to our podcasts than maybe go on the website and read the articles. You know, the podcast community, the people that listen to the show is very massive, and like we have a radio presence and stuff like that. But again, like, as the other person brought up, how do we translate that into like real world engagement?
The last big point I’ll make is that I don’t think that just because social media is such a defining element of our daily lives that we just basically have to give up and just say, Okay, this is the terrain in which we talk to people on like, this is it, this is the only way. We should actually really work at going back and remember that we can actually interact with people face to face, like we can actually have a public presence. I think like getting back to being really good at that, and doing that well. And, you know, having posters up, having flyers, tabling regularly outside, producing publications, running physical spaces, I mean, we do all that stuff and we do it pretty well. The fact that we have this network of infrastructure, like imagine if the alt right had the same amount of physical stuff that the anarchist and autonomous movements have, it’d be terrifying! You know, like, in some cities there’s multiple spaces.
The one great thing about social media is that I mean, if you put something out and it goes very far, or if you’re speaking to something that’s happening, you have the opportunity to reach other people in the public that are already involved in the anarchist conversation or projects, stuff like that. So I mean, the exposure to anarchist ideas, over the past four or five years has grown exponentially. And obviously, we want that to continue. But I think we’ve got to plan into that, that we very well may be kicked off a lot of these big platforms. And the way to make sure that that’s not going to stop what we’re doing is to, you know, have the ability to organize our own communities like in the real world.
TFSR: Yeah, I totally agree. And the work that we’re doing online needs to be a first step, or a part of a conversation, that draws more people into those real life engagements, because we’re not gonna find liberation, we may find comrades on the way, but we’re not gonna find liberation through these platforms. And I know both of the projects that the two of you work with are in and of themselves alternative platforms with so many different facets to how they communicate and the range of voices that they contain within them, which I think is really awesome. I’d like to finish up by asking sort of, are there any like interesting discussions that you think or platforms or directions that people could be taking, where they think about how we diversify the way that we get our voice out, as we’ve faced, either silencing through platforms shutting down or shutting us out? Or, for instance, the other day when signal was down for a good long period of time, I think people started exploring other encrypted applications. I know that CrimethInc, for instance, is also recently engaged with an app called Signal Boost, which I think is interesting to use a new tool to create encrypted phone trees. I don’t know if you had any closing thoughts and examples that you want to bring up.
IGD: Yeah, I think Mastodon is great. The downside of course, is that there’s not a huge amount of people that are on it that are outside of you know, the anarchist space. But you know, I’d remind people that like, for instance, on Twitter, we’re probably the largest anarchist presences, I think it’s like 1% of the US population is on Twitter, and it skews more towards celebrities and journalists, politicians and stuff. It’s definitely not an accurate representation of, you know, the proletariat, the United States or something like that. So, again, even these social media platforms are somewhat limiting, and that I think the real work remains to be done on the streets. And if we can build a visible presence there, I mean, it doesn’t matter if they’re going to kick us off of some social media. I mean, obviously, it’ll matter, but we’re still going to have those connections to people where we live, and I think that’s ultimately what’s what’s really important.
But yeah, I would encourage people to check out Mastodon, if you go to itsgoingdown.org, there is a link right on the site where you can go and check out our Mastodon. There’s basically, the way the Mastodon works is, there’s all these different groups that have servers and they all federate together, it’s pretty cool. It’s definitely anarchy in action on the internet.
I would also encourage people to check out the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network, which is growing. We just included the Indigenous Action podcast, and Sima Lee’s Maroon podcast, it’s growing all the time, there’s great shows, there’s just an amazing network of content that’s been produced. It’s just you know, anarchist politics across the board, from a variety of different groups and perspectives, and also just topics that people are talking about, whether it’s people talking about tenant organizing, or stuff that’s going on in the prisons, or anti-fascism or news or theory, there’s a whole breadth of stuff that’s going on, that people are covering.
C: Just to conclude, from our perspective, as an anarchist collective, that’s now more than a quarter of a century old, we proceeded the social media era. You know, when we got started, we’re mailing each other packages of raw materials to make zines, basically, via cut and paste, we were talking to each other from payphones, you know, and the different kinds of media platforms that we’ve had to use to communicate have shifted dramatically since the mid 1990’s. We’ve won battles and lost battles on each of those fronts, but the terrain keeps changing and the struggle continues, you know.
The good news is that the same forces, the same dynamics and tendencies that are driving us off of some of these corporate media platforms are going to erode the relevance of the platforms themselves. Facebook is not going to be the most important communications platform for the generation that is coming of age right now. And we won’t have to reach them on Facebook, we may have to figure out how to make Tiktok videos in which we lip sync to songs in order to get our ideas across. Which is terrifying for people like us, we’re basically boomers, you know, but the struggle continues; we just have to adjust to a new context and knowing that that won’t be the final phase either.
Throughout all of this, as my comrade said, the engagement in the real world, IRL, on the streets ,is going to be one of the most important things. Even if they ban us from every platform, if there are stickers, if there are posters up in public, if there are dramatic actions that speak for themselves, other people are going to report on those and the word will get out there. My hope is that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people start to feel at ease coming back together again, that there will be a renaissance of embodied in person social life, and that people will want to be around each other at gatherings. And that we will see people forming reading groups, hopefully establishing new info shops, and that over the past year, we’ve gotten to experience the limitations of having our entire social lives take place through zoom, you know, for those who even have computer access. And there will be an eagerness to return to more embodied in person projects and relationships. For me that that is the foundation of the most effective politics, because the ties that you can create there and the things that you can do together are more intimate, more deep rooted and more powerful.
TFSR: It was such a pity that the together space that happened earlier this year and through a lot of the summer couldn’t very easily be followed up with a continuation of that, and like a deepening of relationships with all the people that I met in the streets.
TFSR: It was definitely like deadened residence afterwards. I want to echo what you said, like, let’s hope for this year. Let’s make it happen.
C: Yeah, exactly. Let’s make it happen. And this is a good time right now for anarchists and other ambitious creative people who have everyone’s best interests at heart to be brainstorming what kind of projects we could kick off this summer that will draw people together, that will involve being in physical space together. Maybe this is a time when people could get their hands on spaces that could host some of these mutual aid projects that have gotten off the ground, and then we could be watching films or reading zines and discussing them together or whatever the 2021 version of that would be.
TFSR: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. And yeah, I’m so glad to engage in similar projects to you and get to share space and call you a comrade.
ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation
The following is a conversation with ShineWhite. ShineWhite is the former spokesperson for the National White Panther Organization, a part of the United Panther Movement. There was quite recently a split in the UPM and ShineWhite is now affiliated with the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party.
In this conversation, ShineWhite talks about the White Panther Organization that he was representing at the time of this chat, how he became politicized in North Carolina Prisons, the terrible conditions amidst the covid pandemic and beyond, anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing in the NCDPS system, the use of the Security Threat Group status in NC prisons and reprisals he’s faced for his call out in 2018 for NC prisoners to participate in a Prison Strike which dovetailed well with the Nationwide Prison Strike of that year as well as other organizing.
You can write ShineWhite at the time of this publication at the following address, using ShineWhite only on the inside of the letter:
Joseph Stewart #0802041
633 Old Landfill Rd,
Taylorsville, NC 28681
You can hear the Sean Swain segment, read with the help of Nichole of Pynk Spots podcast (member of the Channel Zero Network) starting at [00:45:43]. More info on the subject can be found at KilledByPolice.Net
Social Media & Transcription
Just a brief announcement. TFSR is continuing it’s Patreon push to pay for transcription work of our episodes to allow our guests voices to get further. If you want to help in the process and have some extra moneys, for every recurring donation of over $10 we get we are closer to paying for another week a month of transcription. You can learn more at our Patreon. For people that donate at that level and above, we’ll be sending a zine a month, plus other thank-yous.
We are also going to experiment with a couple of new social media platforms. While we don’t suggest people join the Telegram Platform for organizing on, if you’re already on there you can find our telegram channel to find our episodes, found at T.Me/TFSRadio. Soon, we will be starting to post to Kolektiva video platform, similar to our youtube account.
TFSR: For the listening audience, would you please introduce yourself with your name, location and how you came to be there?
ShineWhite: Foremost, All Power To The People! My name is Joseph Stewart, but I am known by my komrades and others as Komrade ShineWhite. I am the national spokesperson for the White Panther Organization.
I am currently being held at Alexander Correctional, one of North Carolina’s worst prisons due to the racist and prejudiced beliefs that are espoused by the Administration all the way down to the slave patrol guards who patrol the concrete fields of this razor-wire plantation. Alexander Correctional is located in a rural area of North Carolina, the radio of whites to people of color who are employed here is 8 to 1. The environment is very hostile.
I was emergency transferred here a couple of months ago during this pandemic despite the courts ordering prison officials to halt all transfers to prevent the spread of the corona virus. I was transferred from Central Prison due to my political organizing there. Within the past four years I have been transferred from facility to facility, which is a tactic used by prison officials to stifle my advocacy efforts, to impede me from organizing prisoners, which is vital if we intend to redress and ameliorate the living conditions within these prisons
TFSR: How did you come to be politicized and what is the nature of your current endeavor?
ShineWhite: I am a firm believer that poverty and repression compels one to become politicized. But there was an incident that occurred while I was in the county jail awaiting trial for the charges I am currently incarcerated for that was the catalyst of my politicization.
It was in 2012. I had assaulted a guard that was employed at the county jail that had been antagonizing me for several months. It wasn’t an average assault, I had taken it to the extreme. For this I wasn’t placed in a Regulatory Solitary Confinement cell, I was placed behind the wall which is a cell that’s secluded from everything and everyone.
Placed in the cell with nothing but the jail uniform I had on there was nothing to do but reflect on life and what the future would look like if I continued living the way I was, engaged in lumpen activities failing to realize that imposing the oppression I was subjected to on others made me a proxy of those I claimed I hated…
As the days passed, boredom began to set in. I decided to get down and do some push ups. As I was on the ground I happened to look under the bed and noticed a book in the far corner. Crawling under the bed, retrieving the book I noticed the words “Blood In My Eye.” Assuming that it was an urban fiction book that was based on the Street Formation I was representing I quickly got back on the bed and attempted to read the book.
I say attempted because at the time I was unable to read or write past the 6th grade level. I spent most of my adolescent years in and out of state-institutions. An education wasn’t the primary focus of those who ran these reform schools, group homes, etc…
Unable to read or comprehend the book, I became frustrated and threw it to the side. By this time I had been told by the guards who would bring me my three meals a day that I wasn’t leaving that cell unless I made bond or was sent to prison.
My days were spent trying to read George’s book. Weeks had passed and I was still unable to read the majority of the book. I began to write all the words I could not pronounce or understand on the walls of the cell. This went on for two months before anyone noticed. One morning a Sergeant of the jail who I have known my entire life brought me my breakfast tray, noticed the walls covered in writing, questioned what I had going on. I explained that the words on the wall were out of a book I was trying to read, I wrote the words on the walls to memorize them so once I had access to a dictionary I would look them up. He asked me what I was reading, I showed him the book that had been thrown across my cell many times, bent up and been cursed by me out of frustration stemming from my inability to read it.
Weeks had passed before this same Sergeant came back to visit with me. Bringing me my breakfast he had two books in his hand and a note pad. He said if I agree to stop writing on the walls and clean off what I had written, he would give me the books and the notepad. Quickly agreeing, I was handed over a Websters dictionary, “Soledad Brother” and a notepad.
Neglecting to eat my tray there was a word that I was dying to look up the meaning of.
“Revolutionary: one engaged in a Revolution”
Quickly moving on to search for the word Revolution.
“Revolution: a sudden, radical or complete change”
I asked myself “Am I a Revolutionary? What am I changing?” Not fully comprehending what revolution was at the time, I moved on to other words, but the question “Am I a Revolutionary?” continued to enter my mind. I wanted to make a change, I wanted to be a Revolutionary because George had been a Revolutionary and he spoke highly of other Revolutionaries. A Revolutionary is smart, I wanted to be smart. Revolutionaries fought, I wanted to fight. I had to become a Revolutionary. I didn’t fully understand what a Revolutionary was, but yet I knew to become one I had to become smart. The dictionary became my best friend, reading George’s books were painstaking in the beginning. I had to stop every other word to look up its meaning.
Komrade George changed me, he Revolutionized me in a small cell secluded from everyone for 9 months. I had become politicized! Sentenced close to twenty years, I’ve been feeding my consciousness ever since. I don’t tell a lot of people but I have a learning disability that becomes discouraging at times. It’s difficult for me to grasp what I’m reading the frist time, I have to read it over and over before I am fully able to comprehend it. I am self-educated, the past four years of my life was spent in solitary confinement. I have recently been released to general population thanks to the support of my outside network coordinating a national campaign to have me released.
Solitary confinement compels me to either grow or die mentally. I used my time to further my education in areas that would benefit the movement. Being that I am incarcerated and will remain incarcerated for at least the next seven years, my primary focus is to build up the White Panther Organization within prisons nationwide. For a Revolutionary or liberator of the people who is incarcerated, our primary focus should be to transform these razor-wire plantations into schools of liberation. Thus, upon their release, prisoners can return to their communities armed with an education that would enable them to transform their communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. This is the necessary first stage of the Revolutionary war.
TFSR: Would you tell us in some detail about the White Panther Organization, it’s philosophy and it’s activities as you can?
ShineWhite: The WPO serves as an arm to the peoples vanguard, the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP) whose primary purpose is to lead the fight against national oppression and link this to the international proletarian revolution. Our ideological and political line is Pantherism. The politics of Pantherism is Revolutionary nationalism and internationalism illuminated by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Our strategy for Revolution is a national and international United Front Against Imperialism.
Our job as White Panthers is to put in work among the white masses and poor white communities, winning them over to support the Panther 10-point program. The 10-point programs of both the NABPP and the WPO. Both can be read at ShineWhite.Home.Blog or email email@example.com and request a copy of each.
As White Panthers, we are more than a white support group of the NABPP. History has shown that white support groups advance the Revolution. We as White Panthers recognize that we must be all-the-way Revolutionaries that work diligently to organize and build anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and other progressive consensus among poor whites who are also subjected to class oppression.
As I already mentioned, it is our primary focus to transform these razor-wire plantations into “schools of liberation” and the oppressed communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. To do so, it’s imperative that we re-educate our white brothers and sisters as well as our non-binary komrades who have been deluded by racist, White Supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interests.
With the help of my Anarchist Komrades and my partner, Nadia, we have started a WPO newsletter. A dope newsletter, I must say, that serves as an educational tool used to teach and popularize the history of our ancestors who recognized the need for Resistance against slavery and recognized the need of Class Struggle such as John Brown, Bill Blizzard, Marilyn Buck, Mother Jones and many more.
Prisons are seedbeds. This is where the Revolutionary is grown. Our newsletter prunes and nurtures the reader, enabling them to blossom into all-the-way Revolutionary thinkers.
We have a Toy Drive for the children of prisoners. We understand the importance of family and the need of a father in the lives of these children. At this time we are limited to what we’re able to do to ensure relationships between prisoners and their children remain strong and continue to grow. We did this toy drive to show prisoners as well as their families that the Panthers have their back. The first 30 prisoners who wrote to us with their child’s name, age and address got toys sent to them with a message from their father . You know we are just trying to serve the people. We have plans once this covid-19 mess clears up to provide transportation for the families of prisoners who are unable to visit their incarcerated loved ones due to lack of transportation. Strong family ties create strong community ties, both are vital to advancement of our struggle.
We have a couple different endeavors in the works such as an STG / SRG campaign to address the draconian policies that those of us who have been validated as an STG / SRG are subjected to. This is something I will expand on later in this interview.
But I hope I am able to provide the resources needed to have Ruchell Magee released from prison. I intend to exhaust every avenue to have this done. Several of the elders have been released, most recently Jalil Muntaqim.
Ruchell is one of the longest held political prisoners, he has been incarcerated since the 1960’s, people, it’s time that all put forth effort to have Ruchell Magee released. We, despite what political ideology you espouse, must work diligently to expose the use of the criminal [in]justice system as an instrument of political repression and demand amnesty for our imprisoned elders. Those of you who desire Revolution, it’s essential that you defend the imprisoned Revolutionaries. This is an essential part of building for Revolution.
TFSR: You have received push-back from the NCDPS for your political organizing, including your call in 2018 for NC participation in the Nationwide Prison Strike. Can you talk about the repression you’ve faced?
ShineWhite: As our Minister of Defense Kevin Rashid pointed out, “Nothing is more dangerous to a system that depends on misinformation than a voice that obeys it’s own dictates and has the courage to speak out.” Since gaining the support of my komrades on the outside who amplified my voice, I’ve been working diligently to report and pursue public exposure and redress of the brutality, torture and abuses taking place within these razor-wire plantations. As I mentioned earlier, the past four years of my incarceration were spent in solitary confinement. After calling for for NC prisoners to participate in the 2018 national prison strike I was sent to NC’s only supermax unit at Polk Correctional. On this unit, the cells are secluded from everything and everyone. You don’t leave your cell for nothing, a cell that’s smaller than the average parking space at your local Walmart.
While being held there I witnessed prison guards wantonly murder prisoner Freddie “Barn” Pickett. I exposed those involved as well as their claim that he had committed suicide. This got national attention and some of those involved were fired. This is when the reprisals really intensified. On January 14, 2019 (my birthday), shards of glass were found in my food. A call to action was put out demanding that I be transferred. During my transfer, all of my personal belongings were lost, this has taken place several times.
After organizing a hunger strike and my outside support network coordinating a phone zap to address the living conditions at Scotland Correctional, prison guards entered my cell and physically attacked me, fracturing my ribs as well as my right hand.
I’ve been subjected to many forms of reprisals at the hands of my overseers and continue to this day to be subjected to harsh mail censorship. Correctional officers spread propaganda that I am a snitch. I’ve seen it all and at times I almost allowed it to deter me. But the words of Komrade George would always enter my mind when I was weak, “If we accept Revolution, we must accept all that it implies: repression, counter-terrorism, days filled with work, nervous strain, prison, funerals.” You can always tell how much of a threat you are by the intensity of the repression or the actions taken to suppress your advocacy efforts. Wait until we kick off this SRG campaign.
TFSR: There are all sorts of organizations inside prison walls and the WPO and affiliated New Afrikan Black Panther Party organizers have received persecution by authorities with the claim that these groups are SRG’s, or Security Risk Groups. What is an SRG, how do you answer the charge of the accusation of being essentially a gang inside NC prisons, and how does it’s membership relate to other groups determined as SRGs?
ShineWhite: Prison officials claim that a Security Risk Group (SRG) is a group os prisoners that set themselves apart from others, pose a threat to the security or safety of staff or other prisoners, or are disruptive to programs or the orderly management of the facility.
Our Minister of Defense, Komrade Kevin Rashid, recently wrote a piece on this, titled “How the pigs abuse gang levels,” explaining how a majority of the SRG investigations and their staff are white and have been trained into a hostile doctrinaire view of the so-called ‘gang culture.’
I can’t speak about other states and how a prisoner becomes validated as a member of an SRG, but here in NC the slightest thing can get you validated such as having tattoos of stars or associating with prisoners who are already validated.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) does not have an SRG policy in place to outline reasonable due process rights to dispute being validated or to present evidence that would prove that the claims being made against you are false. I know several prisoners who have been validated that are not affiliated with any group. They are subjected to repressive sanctions and discriminatory treatment which have no reasonable purpose or justification. Some of these sanctions are, but aren’t limited to:
longer solitary confinement terms than non-validated prisoners for rule violations that are not ‘gang’ related;
restricted to two 15 minute phone calls a month, please tell me how a father can maintain a healthy relationship with his child with only two phone calls a month…;
harsher and often unreasonable censorship of mail, both incoming and outgoing. SRG staff use the claim that my mail is being denied due to it being SRG related. I deal with this at least 4 times a week. They use this to impede and disrupt my correspondences. Everything coming in from my partner Nadia is denied. She knows how harsh the censoring of my mail is, she has been dealing with it for over a year and a half now. She isn’t going to write anything out the way. But, yet Hitler’s helpers find an excuse to deny her mail often. My mail is being held for weeks at a time before it is sent out, if it even IS sent out. The incoming mail is held for weeks before it is given to me. SRG feels as if they can do as they please and until their arrogance and pompousness is checked they will continue to do as they please. This is why it is imperative that we coordinate a campaign that we not only expose these SRG sanctions but also compel public officials to redress the violation of our Constitutional rights. This isn’t just happening here in NC, this is taking place across the nation, people. And as advocates inside and outside of prison, a campaign addressing the draconian policies that prisoners nationwide are subjected to, we must put our resources together and organize against this;
Prisoners who are validated are only permitted visits with immediate family members when there is no evidence to prove that visiting with someone beyond an immediate family member would be a threat to the safety of the facility;
prisoners who are validated are being denied access to any type of educational or rehabilitative programming;
on February 5th of 2019, Prison officials incorporated a policy that prohibited prisoners from receiving financial support from anyone that wasn’t on the prisoners approved visitation list. As I have mentioned, Prisoners who have been validated can only receive visits from immediate famliiy members. The majority of the prisoners who ARE in gangs come from broken families or have been raised by aunts and uncles. This restriction targets poor, Black and Brown prisoners. If one has been adopted, or if their mother, father, sister or brother has been convicted of a felony, they are unable to apply for visitation. This restriction has created an environment within these prisons that makes it hard on the average prisoner due to all of the strong-arming and extortion taking place from prisoners unable to receive financial support due to their SRG validation. But by creating such an environment, it solidifies the request for more funding to solve the so-called ‘gang problems’, it solidifies the 23 hour a day lock-downs.
As far as the WPO or NAABP being recognized as an SRG in NC, that danger doesn’t currently exist due to my relentless advocacy efforts to have both removed from the list as an SRG. This was done with the help of Senator Jayce Waddell who sits on the Senate Select committee for Prison Safety, as well as with the information provide by Komrade Malik Washington.
You see, the US Supreme Court has long held that “minority”/ dissident groups such as the WPO and NABPP have the same First Amendment right to engage in political expression and association as do the two major political parties.
The NABPP and the WPO are above ground Communist, Non-violent, Anti-Racist, predominantly New Afrikan and white organizations/ political parties. In no way do we promote anything illegal, or gang related. The courts outlawed censorship and discrimination against Communist groups by goernment officials long ago. By pointing this out to prison administrators and showing ase laws such as Brandenburg v. Ohio, I was able to have both the NABPP and WPO removed from the list of recognized security Risk Groups. But this still hasn’t decreased the political intolerance shown by prison officials.
I am validated as a level 3 Blood, the only white person in NC validated as such. This stems from when I first entered the prison system back in the early 2000’s. With this label on me, SRG staff use it to suppress my advocacy efforts claiming that I am organizing gang members.
To be completely honest, it’s vital that we gain the support of the street formations. Their support is essential to redressing not only these SRG restrictions but society as well. Both the government as well as these prison officials are aware of this, this is hwy they’re diligently working to create situations and environments to keep the members of these street formations at each others’ necks.
For example, the J-Pay Restriction policy I mentioned earlier that was incorporated on February 5th, 2019. By prohibiting prisoners who have been validated as an SRG from receiving financial support from anyone beyond immediate family, the policy has drastically increased the violence between the street formations within NC prisons. Poverty breeds violence. Not only has this policy increased the gang on gang violence, but also has fostered a very dangerous environment for those who are not affiliated with any of the street formations. Prisoners I’ve known for years are now joining these street formations just so they can enjoy the Canteen they’re able to purchase. The miscreants who incorporated this policy claimed it was done to prevent the strong-arming and other criminal activities that take place within NC prisons. This policy has done the opposite.
These are not tactics only being used in NC prisons, it’s taken place nationwide. We as Panthers are working to build a Clenched Fist Alliance, that would united all the street formations toward a common Revolutionary alliance that would address the oppressive living conditions within all prisons. I‘m aware this is a colossal task, but it can be done and should be done.
The members of these street formations relate to us and the Panthers relate to them, not relating to their lumpen tendencies but along the lines they are brothers and sisters who are from our communities, who are subjected to as many forms of oppression as the next person. Before I came to be a Panther myself, I was of the lumpen strata. Just as each and every member of both the NABPP and the WPO were.
The lumpen are not a class in the fullest sense but part of the lower strata of the proletariat. Lumpen means broken. The lumpen proletariat are those who exist by illegal means or hustle. The street formations are made up of the lumpen proletariat. They’ve been conditioned to believe that they only way to survive is by illegal hustles and in some of their situations this is true.
Some of them cannot be reached, but there are many who can. By showing them patience and that we are dedicated to redressing issues that affect them we’re able to Pantherize them, gaining their trust as well as their support. I’m in the trenches with these guys daily and many are my close komrades, their struggle is my struggle.
There’s other self-acclaimed prison activists within NC prisons who consistently write about gang violence and how they are being affected by it and how the street formations are retaliating against them because of their advocacy efforts. I’m sure some of the listeners have read about this recently. I want to clarify something quickly before we move on to the next question. I’ve been on the frontlines of this prison movement here in NC for the past six years and have organized many demonstrations which had the support of the street formations, not once have any members of the street formations attempted to retaliate against me. So for the prisoner who has been writing to those of y’all on the outside who publish and support our advocacy efforts here in NC, telling the people that he was attacked by gang members because he had exposed the prison officials where he was being held at, it is falsehood. I myself personally investigated his claims and found them to be untruthful. By lying, it only help s those we’re supposed to be fighting against. I know this doesn’t relate to the question you asked, komrade, but I wanted to put that out there because this movement is very important to me. I have sacrificed so much and I’m willing to sacrifice it all to assure the movement continues to thrive here in NC.
But, as far as the relationship between myself and those of the street formations, I stand in solidarity with them and will continue to work diligently toward building a Clenched Fist Alliance amongst them.
TFSR: Race in the US is a major schism among the working classes that is used to pit us against each other, as is pretty standard in settler-states founded by Great Britain. And prison hierarchies and organization reproduce and often improve upon those divisions. Can you talk about the importance of white folks, and white prisoners in particular organizing in anti-racist formations like the WPO? And do you feel there is a danger to organizing along the lines of racialization rather than class lines?
ShineWhite: As Komrade Kwame Nkrumah pointed out to us, “racist social structure is inseparable from capitalist economic development. For race is inextricably linked with class exploitation, in a racist-capitalist power structure, capitalist exploitation and race oppression are complementary. The removal of one ensures the removal of the other.” We White Panthers, and any other whites who are anti-racist, anti-capitalist, etc… have a special opportunity and responsibility to counter the influence of racist ideology and organizing within the working class and poor white communities by re-educating. Those who have been deluded by racist, white supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interest, enabling them to uphold proletarian internationalism and the unity of a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class against national and capitalistic exploitation and oppression.
The WPO recognizes this class struggle but before we’re able to organize as a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class, it’s our duty to make whites see themselves “as they really are, instead of who they think they are” to quote Karl Marx.
The WPO refutes the concept of White Power as well as the ideology of white supremacy. As Komrade Spidey, the original spokesperson for the WPO recognized, “White Power not only fails to empower poor white people, it is a psychological trap that masses of people fall into that renders us politically impotent. We become unwitting tools of our own oppression. It blocks our only avenue of advancement which is through class consciousness and unity. It makes us the unwitting tools of oppression of not only non-white people but ourselves as well.”
When trying to educate white prisoners on the truth about race and why racism keeps us oppressed, the majority of them reply “Why don’t you never write or talk about Blacks being racist?” And, yes, I agree that there is such a thing as reverse racism. But as a white person, it’s my duty to re-educate the whites and it’s the duty of any New Afrikan komrades to educate the New Afrikans.
How much success would I have if I attempted to talk to New Afrikans about why they shouldn’t e racist, that’s not my place, my place is to re-educate the whites. The United Panther Movement recognizes that there’s only one race, the human race. But if we’re going to successfully combat racist oppression, we must recognize that discrimination comes down different on different groups of people and that it is important to organize within each group of people in accordance with the way they are perceived in society. That’s why there’s a Black Panther, a White Panther and a Brown Panther to carry out the task.
TFSR: There has been an outbreak of covid recently at Alexander CI, where you are imprisoned. I hope you have been able to avoid it. How has the NCDPS and your facility in particular handled the pandemic, how have prisoners reacted to the pandemic and what, if anything, have you seen from outside supporters and the wider public ala covid-19 and prisons?
ShineWhite: Thank you for asking, Komrade, in my opinion supporters on the outside here in NC fail to realize how grave the current living conditions are right now for prisoners during these unprecedented times.
Those of us who are currently imprisoned are utterly at the mercy of the miscreants who patrol these concrete fields. With there already being issues with overcrowding in NC prisons and prisoners being corralled in small housing areas, we’re unable to maintain social distancing, to control our exposure to vectors for disease transmission, to choose the quality of type of mask we wear, unable to seek independent medical treatment, overall unable to protect ourselves from the corona virus.
This is in spite of several health experts having suggested that prisoners with upcoming release dates and at high risk of medical harm be released from the custody of DPS. They explained to prison officials that by doing so it would address the crowded living conditions that have led to numerous constitutional violations and has been a cause of several covid outbreaks within NC prisons. Prison officials claim that if they were to release these prisoners, it wouldn’t really make a difference. I’m inclined to disagree with this, to date several prisoners who reside in the same block as I do have release dates within the next two months, but yet are being held and impeded from earning any extra gain days that would enable them to be released as early as tomorrow.
This isn’t unknown to prison officials, to keep it plain and simple they just don’t give a damn. The death of Ms Faye Brown proves it. She was a female prisoner who was held at the women’s prison in Raleigh, NC. At the age of 65 she died of covid earlier this year. What is sad about this particular case is that prison officials had trusted Ms Brown enough to permit her to ride the city bus five days a week to Sherrill’s School of Cosmetology where she was employed as a teacher, unsupervised. It was evident that she wasn’t a threat to society but being that she had been convicted in 1975 for participating in a bank robbery in which her co-defendant killed a state trooper, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee denied her an early release which led to her death.
I contracted the virus myself. It could have been avoided but prison officials failed to take the proper steps that would have prevented this and would have saved the life of Jenny Combs. There was a prisoner housed in the same block as me who was showing all of the symptoms of covid, often complaining to the guards. He was able to get one of them to escort him to the nurse’s station, he registered a temperature of 102 degrees. Instead of having him placed in a block that had been set up for quarantine, he was allowed to return to the block to move around, spreading the virus for three days before his test results had come back positive.
By this time, several prisoners out of the 48 who lived in B-Block were showing symptoms of covid. On Novemeber 2nd, prison administrators had the block locked down and all 48 prisoners were tested for covid. It was 21 prisoners who had tested positive. Mr Jerry Combs as well as myself were not of those 21 prisoners, but being that prison officials compelled us to remain in the block with those who had tested positive, those who hadn’t tested positive eventually did. Mr Jerry Combs contracted it, complained to medical staff and prison officials that he needed medical attention beyond some non-asprins, prison officials allowed his please to fall on deaf ears. Two days later he was found dead in his cell.
Prison officials quickly claimed that he had committed suicide by overdosing on his medications. I know thi sto be untrue, they are only trying to cover their tail as they always do. Despite three prisoners dying of covid here at Alexander, the precautionary steps that should be taken to prevent this are not being taken. They continue to move prisoners around, the guards fail to wear their masks and we are not being given the needed disinfectants to disinfect any living spaces.
This will continue until supporters intensify the struggle on the outside. I will be honest, this is my opinion. NC movements on the outside need to step it up on all levels. I know what I’m about to say will ruffle some feathers but I’m speaking the truth. The inhumane living conditions prisoners in NC are forced to endure could be ameliorated if outside supporters would take the advice of certain prisoners who have proven to be able to organize those within the walls. This struggle is one that requires much work and dedication, this isn’t a weekend thing.
We all have to be on the same page, if we are going to compel prison officials to make changes that would enable prisoners to successfully rehabilitate themselves. NC prisons are among the five states across the nation that don’t have tablets. We are forced to remain locked in our cells, no access to educational programming or rehabilitation programming. The primary objective is to rehabilitate the prisoner, correct? Well, that isn’t the case here.
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set forth by the United Nations, says “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” One of the “rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration “ is the right to education, as stated in Article 2t6. Yet prisoners here in NC are denied higher education because our states of incarceration. This is blatant discrimination. Y’all on the outside are being told that we are being offered educational opportunities. This is a lie.
What does this have to do with covid? Well, I just wanted to point out that it shouldn’t take a pandemic for those on the outside to organize to redress these living conditions. It should be taken serious at all times. As I already mentioned, I am working on an SRG campaign that would address the draconian policies prisoners are subjected to. If you would like to know more about it and how you can help, write to me:
Joseph Stewart #0802041
633 Old Landfill Rd
Taylorsville, NC 28681
Or email my support network at firstname.lastname@example.org and someone will contact you. 2021 is upon us. Let’s make this the year of intensifying the struggle on all levels. Bridges have to be built, meaningful working relationships have to be built. It takes both the prisoners and those on the outside.
Prisoners have to see the fruit first before they are willing to put the work in that’s needed to ameliorate the situation. It’s sad but it’s true. You must keep in mind that many of us have been abandoned by family members and other loved ones. So, they find it hard to believe that there are people on the outside that care about their well being when their own family doesn’t. By showing prisoners that you are willin gto struggle with them, you gain their trust and support, which is necessary if we aim to mobilize and organize.
TFSR: How do you see the struggle against racialized capitalism in the so-called US developing moving forward into a Biden presidency and what suggestions do you have to organizers on either side of the razor wire?
ShineWhite: As Mark Twain pointed out to us ,”If voting could change anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.” It doesn’t matter who is the president, because they all share the same objective: expanding the dominance of capitalism.
As long as the masses maintain constituent allegiance to the parties such as the Democratic and Republican parties, racial capitalism will continue to thrive and expand. A vote for any representative of either party is a vote of confidence in the reform-ability of capitalism and a vote against the need for socialist revolution. If we’re going to advance the struggle against racial capitalism, we must stand in implacable opposition to the dual parties of capitalism.
If the overall objective is to create a mass-oriented socialist system of mutual cooperation, fair and equal distribution that would benefit us all, certain methods will have to be adopted in order to be compatible with the newer systems which we the people are trying to establish. The primary method should be eradicating racism and taking an empathic stand against the false ideology of white supremacy. Both allowed capitalism to be sustained. Dividing the working class along racial lines is key to maintaining capitalist rule in the US conscious of the social power that the proletariat would attain through unified struggle. The ruling class utilizes divide-and-conquer strategies that have proven effective for over 400 years now.
The most important factor in the advancement of our struggle is action. We must begin to put our thoughts and strategies into action. Komrades, without action there is no mobility. Moving forward we must intensify the struggle at all levels. This includes lines of communication between prisoners and those of you on the outside.
We musn’t continue to operate from old strategies that are not effective, it is a waste of time and energy. Those on the outside must do more to support the prison movement here in NC and across the nation. Changes don’t happen without reason. People must become the reason.
TFSR: Well, we thank you for your time and I really appreciate this interview. Before we wrap up, do you have anything else you would like to share with the listening audience?
ShineWhite: Yes, it’s imperative that I thank my support network. Without their support and love I would be one of the many prisoners here in NC whose screams for help fall on deaf ears.
Dria, my komrade out on the West Coast. I love you deeply, friend. You have stuck by me throughout it all. I have so much to thank you for I don’t know where to start nor where to end. Just know I am grateful and I cherish our friendship.
Professor Victor Wallis: Thank you for all the educational material and for taking the time out of your busy life to educate and mentor me from many miles away and through this razor-wire and concrete. You deserve to be acknowledged even though I know you don’t desire it. Thank you, friend, I am grateful.
Penelope: even though all the work you do is unknown and behind the scenes, it’s imperative that you know that without you and the desire you have to support the struggle any way that you can, our newsletter may not have made it off the ground. When you are absent, you are missed. Thank you for all you do.
Leah: In a short matter of time I have so much to thank you for. You go to the extreme to make sure I know you care about meas well as my well being. Even though our political praxes are somewhat different, you are dedicated to ameliorating the living conditions prisoners are forced to endure. Thank you for all you do for me on a personal level and the love you give. You are loved.
Nadia: I know the listening audience can’t see the smile I have on my face, but thinking of you causes the biggest smiles. I want to thank you for your willingness to compromise. I know you are a serious anarchist and you’re against organizations and uplifting the names of them. I just want everyone listening to know that you helped me revamp the WPO, it was dead within these razor-wire plantations. With you at my side I was able to bring it back to life. You dedicate so much time to both our Newsletter as well as the New NABPP Newspaper. I know you would disagree with this but you are a Panther, may it be an Anarchist Panther, you are still a Panther. I love you endlessly and you are my best friend.
Also big salutes to Komrade Rashid, Keith Malik Washington, Jason Renard Walker and Kwame Shakur. I see your vision, Komrade. I’m with you, let’s make it happen. And I would like to thank Final Straw Radio for giving us a platform and for amplifying our voice. Thank you. All Power To The People.
This week on the show I’m speaking with three folks engaged in organizing in the rural Alamance County, North Carolina, and it’s capital of Graham. All three work with the 501c4 political non-profit, DownhomeNC which in Alamance has been working on a range of engagements including running local candidates for office, doing get-out-the-vote work, sparking conversations with rural residents of the county, running a bail fund and working on bail reform, rent relief and operating food distribution. Dreama Caldwell, one of our guests, ran on a platform of bail reform to be the first Black woman elected to the County Commission, though she was not elected, is a mother, and as an Abolitionist has been working to abolish cash bail and change the condition for people of Color and poor folks as relates to the Alamance courts and jail. Sugalema is an organizer, a mom, and the daughter of undocumented parents from Mexico who’s been living in Alamance for the last decade. Gwen is a mother from a white, working class background who has also worked to support Alamance organizers through Downhome on a number of campaigns. You can learn more about the organization at DownhomeNC.org and their various social media pages.
As a side note, the folks who produce The Final Straw do not endorse electoralism as a strategy for lasting change or community power. We are anarchists. There are plenty of places you can go to find anarchist critiques of engaging in electoral politics, sometimes with anarchists or anti-authoritarians advocating limited engagement in elections but usually calling for abstention. Even though DownhomeNC is not an anarchist organization, we do feel like the experiences of Sugalema, Dreama and Gwen are important to share because they talk about the work of changing minds and building relationships in the rural south where an autonomous left or anarchist movement doesn’t exist… like most of the world. They are intelligent and impassioned women doing hard work to grow community resistance and engagement. Abolition also includes the complicated work of decreasing the harm caused by systems of oppression like the police, courts, borders, white supremacy and capitalism while simultaneously building discourse against those institutions that impose harm. We really hope that listeners will get a lot from this conversation.
Eric King updates
Anarchist and antifascist prisoner Eric King caught covid at FCI Englewood, alongside over a hundred other prisoners, thanks to the ineptitude of his captors at the BOP who have been moving staff between Englewood and FCI Florence where an outbreak had been ongoing. His trial for defending himself from an attack by a prison officer has been pushed back to April of 2021. In good news, his mail ban appears temprorarily lifted and his website hosts his book list again. He’s been able to receive letters, magazines and books for the first time in years. Check out the update at SupportEricKing.org and send Eric some love.
To hear our interview with Eric from last year, visit our website.
Xinachtli Parole Support
“Xinachtli,” as. many of you know, means literally in English, “Seed,” or, as Comrade “X” likes to phrase, it from a prisoner’s perspective, “Germinating Seed” and s/n Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is a Chicano/Mexicano-Anarchist Communist and Anti-Imperialist Internationally-recognized Political Prisoner, has suffered long enough from a (50-year) bogus Aggravated Assault conviction rife with racist civil rights abuse and judicial misconduct.
The contrived & trumped-up Aggravated Robbery charge brought by Sheriff McDaniel without the authority of a warrant, was thrown out later at trial, but through prosecutorial chicanery, allowed the assault charge to stick being a paroled felon.
The so-called Aggravated-Assault charge, which should’ve amounted to a ‘misdemeanor,’ occurred with his near-term pregnant wife nearby in their own front yard, as he, showing no demonstrative violent aggressive behavior, correctly disarmed the Sheriff as he drew his service revolver in anger as “Xinachtli” challenged his authority to attempt an arrest in a situation that could’ve proved lethal for all three, mother, baby, and most surely “Xinachtli” himself. The local authorities hated him and his family and his labor organizing in Brewster County, Alpine, Texas.
Many of you already are familiar with this abuse of authority yarn, but, does bear repeating, as he is still held captive for this injustice in ‘STG’ (Security Threat Group) status, studying law and assisting other prisoners with their appeals, while continuously sharing, and germinating his revolutionary thoughts and ideals in cocoon-like solitary confinement, at the repressive TDCJ-CID James V. Allred Unit, ‘Supermax’ Gulag, in Iowa Park, Texas, marooned in the North Texas’ Red River Valley. Texas prisons are now one of the nation’s COVID-19 virus’ ‘hotspots,’ and the courts are refusing to intervene, WHILE PRISONER DEAD BODIES PILE UP IN LOCAL MORGUES. “XINACHTLI” is an elderly person, with his life in danger.
Presently, “Xinachtli” is preparing for his (1st) upcoming ‘Parole Review Hearing,’ on July 18, 2021. We are in need of help with a groundswell of support from the Prison Abolitionists, Human Rights, Indigenous, and Prison Activist Movement communities. TBPP suggests that FEW, clear & concise letters are preferred, to place in his case-file for review; lazy eyes is a disguise with TBPP Parole Panels. So, let’s blast ’em with a barrage of letters to help us ensure that his ‘Review’ is an impartially-heard (Hearing?) by traditionally ‘parole-stingy’ Texas Board of Pardons & Parole Commissioners; and is a successful one.
Try to include in the letter, that”Xinachtli,” though, he has tested ‘COVID-19 – negative,’ and in recent months received a ‘flu shot,’ he has hypertension that’s medicated, and is ostensibly cured of Hep-C, he nonetheless will be 69 years old next May 12th, 2021; so the Corona Virus danger rages on!
Also include, a solid confirmation that there’s a solid support system waiting, available opportunities of employment, residence, and transportation, as well as psychological/coping support and a period of adjustment, are all important – he’s been in a solitary ‘time-capsule, the worldwide ‘spider’ web has exploded on the social scene since his conviction in June of 1997.
Please address all your Letters of Support for “Xinachtli” with his registered name, ALVARO LUNA HERNANDEZ, and prison number, TDCJ-CID#00255735
You can mail the letters to his lawyer:
Allen D. Place
Attorneys at Law
109 S. 7th Street
Gatesville, TX, 76528
To hear Xinachtli telling his story in his own voice, check out our website.
The following is a conversation between folks involved in anti-repression work in 5 parts of the so-called US. The goal was to present a zoomed out vision of scope and patterns of repression since the Floyd Uprising of this summer, particularly as the US sits in a period of heightened tensions around the elections and continued killings by police. Please consider sharing this chat around. We need to be ready to push back against repression and support the mostly BIPOC folks facing heavy charges for hitting the streets against white supremacy.
In the conversation, we hear about a few cases of folks attacked and/or killed by police in the communities our guests come from and whose memories contributed to the Uprising where they were. These include:
Rodney J. Freeman (killed by Dane County Police in Wisconsin);
Elliot T. Johnson (killed by Monona Police in Wisconsin);
Jacob Blake (brazenly injured by Kenosha Police);
John T Williams (killed by Seattle Police);
Charleena Lyles (killed by Seattle Police);
Kevin Peterson, Jr. (killed by Clark County Sheriff deputies in Washington State);
Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal (killed by Salt Lake City Police);
Atlanta: Rayshard Brooks (killed by Atlanta Police);
I found this interview extremely illuminating, perhaps like many other people who might not have strong ties to either academia or popular education models of learning, I had sort of written Oscar Wilde off as this kind of white dead rich guy who carried little to no relevance apart from a model of queerness that we could look back on. This interview very much proved that this isn’t the case, and that he and the circumstances around him very much influence how we as queers and as anarchists can sense historical threads that pull on our lives very tangibly today. Thanks a million to Scott for researching and conducting this interview!
You can learn more about the author, Kristian Williams, who is most known for his book Our Enemies in Blue, which is a critical history of American policing and police, at his website kristianwilliams.com.
Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!
One announcement before we begin from our comrades at the Charlotte Uprising, Charlotte Jail Support has been getting extremely targeted harassment for some months from CMPD and the sheriff’s department. In times of rebellion or revolt, it is the support infrastructures that are often the most vulnerable to repression and violence. All of their supplies have either been seized or destroyed by the police, if you would like to support them re upping their much needed materials, you can Venmoing them @Ashwilliamsclt or Cash App $houseofkanautica.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Scott’s interview of Kristian Williams on Kristian’s book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, published in 2020 by AK Press. Thanks to Jim of the MKE Lit Supply for all the work!
Kristian Williams on The Final Straw
First aired on 9/12/2020 at https://TFSR.WTF
Scott (TFSR): I’m talking to Kristen Williams, who just published the book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Kristian, would you please just introduce yourself, your pronouns, your name and any information that you think would be pertinent to the listeners of the Final Straw?
Kristian: Sure. I’m Kristian Williams, author of a handful of books, probably most famously Our Enemies in Blue, which is a history of the police in the United States. As you mentioned, my most recent book is Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, which is probably the book that has taken me the longest to write. I started working on it about 13 years ago.
Scott (TFSR): Oh wow. Is it nice to have it out? Was it a big passion project for you?
Kristian: Yeah, it was the thing that I was always working on, never finishing, and had a surprisingly hard time interesting publishers. I think everyone I approached about it, their first response was, “that sounds great, but no.” Eventually AK [Press] asked to take another look at it, and I don’t know, here it is.
Scott (TFSR): Well, that’s exciting. And I’m glad [for] that.The shadow of Oscar Wilde kind of loomed large for a long time on anything that was related to him,so I’m glad that’s not still persisting, and they published the book. I also just incidentally, as an aside, I was writing my dissertation with a chapter on Wilde and got super sick during it, writing about Dorian Gray. And I ended up in the hospital, and I couldn’t finish that chapter, so I don’t know if there’s like a curse with writing on Oscar. I always thought about that. All right. Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about Oscar Wilde and anarchism. The main argument of your book is that to really understand Oscar Wilde, or at least to understand Oscar Wilde as a political thinker, we need to think about all of his art and philosophy through the lens of anarchism. And it’s really exciting to read the book and see how Wilde kind of intersected with anarchism and anarchists at the time. To read about the history, like the fear of anarchism that we’re [still] presented with today, and then just like getting another perspective on Wilde as a person, his relation to the aesthetic movement, the beginning of the queer movements, and all of these things I think still are pertinent today. I think a lot of people have heard of Oscar Wilde, maybe read a little bit or heard his epigrams, but do you think you could just give a quick overview of who he was as a figure and a person?
Kristian: Sure. Let me see if I can do this at all efficiently. So, Wilde was born into the Irish aristocracy, educated at Trinity College in Dublin and then in Oxford, where he excelled in classics. Immediately, [he] became of sort of an early example of a person who was famous for being famous.Having developed a kind of celebrity and notoriety before he had really accomplished very much,[he] then leveraged that notoriety into a year long, a little bit more, lecture tour in the United States on the aesthetic movement. After that, he went on to publish a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then really rose to prominence with a set of four society plays, which were sort of nominally comedies about the manners and dramas of the elite of English society. At the peak of his popularity he became embroiled in a dispute with the Marquess of Queensberry, because Wilde was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Queensberry’s son, which led Queensberry toward more and more public and offensive behavior toward Wilde, which then led Wilde to file a ill-advised lawsuit for libel, which Queensberry very aptly turned back on him and produced criminal charges for gross indecency, which was the criminal term for homosexuality. That led Wilde to prison for a couple of years. He lost his family, lost his fortune, lived the short remainder of his life in exile in France and died virtually penniless.
Scott (TFSR): Thanks for that overview. And I want to touch on a few of those elements that you brought up just, [but] because this is an anarchist radio show podcast—I [want to] to start with anarchism in particular—did Wilde identify as an anarchist?
Kristian: There are two occasions when he did. One was an interview in which he said, “once I was a poet and a tyrant, but now I am an artist and an anarchist.” And another, in a separate interview, he said, [when] asked about his politics, he said, “I’m a socialist, but we’re all socialists nowadays, so I must be something more. I think perhaps I’m an anarchist.” There were other occasions where he sort of flirted with the term, and probably my favorite is in a letter.He tells the story of being on a sailing trip with these two young men, and them getting caught in a storm, and it taking hours for them to get back to port. And when they got there, they were freezing cold and completely drenched and they rushed back to their hotel and ordered brandy. And the hotel proprietors sadly explained to them that because it was after 10 o’clock on a Sunday, the law prohibited him selling brandy. But given the circumstances, he decided he would just give them the brandy. And Wilde’s comment was along the lines of,“Not a bad outcome, but what utterly stupid laws” and then he finishes by saying that,“the two young men are, of course, now anarchists.”
Scott (TFSR): If I knew that that was the way to convert people, I’d be taking more sailing trips with young men. I’m always wondering. So, he used the term sometimes, but clearly anarchism and anarchists were out and about in Wilde’s time. I’m wondering a little bit what the common conception at the moment was of anarchism, and anarchists, and how it might have changed since then.
Kristian: At the time, it was considered practically synonymous with terrorism, and in particular of a foreign Eastern European sort of conspiratorial, random blowing things up kind of terrorism. That reputation has in different forms haunted anarchism really since the beginning. And while the sort of bomb throwing aspect has always been very much a minority affair of what anarchism is about, it wasn’t entirely baseless. I mean, there was a tendency called propaganda by the deed, which had this theory that a spectacular attack against the symbols of authority would reveal authority to be both artificial and vulnerable and inspire the masses to an uprising. In fact [though] it never worked out that way. It was a theory that was partly developed under the circumstances of autocratic rule in Russia, and then exported into Western democracies. In Russia, where it was basically illegal to even speak about anarchism, there was a certain rationality to moving to direct attack.And that was also in a way legible to the population who was also suffering under this kind of censorship. But when it moved into the Western countries, really the effect was to baffle the population and to largely turn them against anarchism, as it became synonymous with things randomly blowing up. Wilde, in fact, in one of those interviews that I quoted earlier immediately followed his statements that he must be an anarchist with, “But of course, the dynamite policy is quite absurd.” Meaning that even at the point where he was embracing this term, partly for its shock value, he also felt like he needed to distance himself from its more extreme and somewhat bloody elements.
Scott (TFSR): And that’s interesting. Do you think that there’s a way that he uses the term specifically for it’s just like surface level or superficial subversiveness or, as you said, the shock value?
Kristian: I think that he always wanted to be just shocking enough to be interesting, and not so shocking as to actually get himself into trouble. Which was a line that he was not always successful in judging, obviously. And so yeah, I would suspect that some of his rhetoric about that was chosen, like in those particular instances, [it] was chosen for the way he positioned himself outside of the mainstream. When he said, “well, I’m a socialist, but we’re all rather socialists nowadays. So I must be something more,”it suggests that he’s looking for the position, which is just slightly too far. Interestingly though, in his most directly political writing, which is called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”what he describes is a socialism without the structures of coercion or authority. And he’s very explicit about that. He doesn’t use the term anarchism anywhere in the essay. And in fact, he begins one paragraph by saying “Communism, socialism or whatever we choose to call it,” sort of signaling that the particular distinctions may not be that important and that in any case the word is certainly not the thing that matters.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because there’s a strategic way to use the word anarchism to get people interested, to get people to talk about things, and to use the way that it’s presented and represented in media. But then attachment to the word doesn’t necessarily help it if people are sort of doing their own thing. That was really illuminating to me to hear you put it that way. Since you brought up “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” kind of the central argument of your book is that this provides a key to give Wilde’s whole body of work a certain kind of cohesion through the lens of anarchism. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more more about some of the ideas that he presents in that essay. And then if you want to move on to how it shows up in other writings of Wilde’s.
Kristian: He begins the essay by saying that the main value of socialism is that it would free us from the burden of living for other people. Basically, in a society where everyone’s needs were being taken care of, it would be possible for people to pursue their own interests and to develop what is unique about themselves in a way that the burden of earning a living and the responsibility for taking care of your family, your dependents and all that sort of thing really limits a person’s ability to freely explore whatever it is that they find fascinating, both in the world and of themselves. And so he starts right at the beginning by arguing that the purpose of socialism is that it would make a kind of individualism possible. And in his conception, these two notions of socialism and individualism are tightly bound together. And that it’s possible for certain extremely privileged people to exercise a kind of individualism under capitalism, but for the vast majority of humanity, their lives are too taken up with drudgery and the struggle for survival.And a socialist economy would relieve them of that set of burdens, and therefore makes individualism a universal pursuit. He argues that when that becomes available we’ll see this whole renaissance of culture and art and science and intellectual and an aesthetic sort of blossoming of the human spirit. And then at the same time, he argues that any kind of authority or coercion is corrosive of that entire project, and that therefore no authoritarian socialism would be acceptable. What’s needed is socialism as this kind of voluntary association between free and equal individuals, which I’m not the first person to note is basically the anarchist conception.
Scott (TFSR): Right. That’s interesting, the emphasis on individualism. So in the way that puts him in a different place than some of the other aesthetic aesthetes and decadents. It made me think of that famous line [from the] Goncourt brothers about, you know, living our servants do that for us. The way that Wilde talks about some people, the people who are allowed to live some version of individualism are [enabled] to create beautiful things or even to think like that. Profound thoughts are relying on the work of others to do that. So his his individualism isn’t like a kind of selfish, narcissistic individualism, but one that is trying to extend that privilege to everyone.
Kristian: Exactly. And what I argue in the book is that if we take Wilde’s political writing, and in particular,“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” seriously, it helps us understand a lot of his other work, and that you see [that] marriage of individualism and socialism (and that version of individualism that should not just be the special property of the aristocracy) show up in other respects. And maybe the place where that pairing is clearest is in those lectures on aestheticism that he delivered in the United States. Where in addition to talking about the importance of sort of surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and treating life itself as a kind of art, meaning making the process of living as beautiful as possible. He also talks surprisingly much about labor and about investing in the skill and the craftsmen of the workers, such that the process of work becomes a creative pursuit and is pleasurable and then also produces beautiful things. Rather than everything being simply judged by its commercial value, and the worker simply being this kind of cog in a giant capitalist machine, where all of his initiative and all of the creativity is removed from the process in order to maximize the efficiency of profit.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that was really exciting to me to read your argument in the book. One line that that especially stood out to me. You make the claim that while socialism is more aesthetic than economic, because, “ it takes as its model the artist, rather than a proletarian, and as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker.” And that sticks out to me because I think you can [take as model the artist], just thinking about anarchism today. But I was wondering if you maybe would elaborate a little bit on this idea of shifting the revolutionary subject away from the traditional understanding of the workers, that kind of disciplined [and] manly person, and maybe that can also verge onto a critique of work, too. There’s a lot of anarchism goes away from this kind of idolizing of the worker as the person that will lead us to freedom. So, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about what this shift in thinking allows us to see for revolutionary politics.
Kristian: Yeah. I don’t know if he had an idea of a revolutionary subject, as you put it. Like, I don’t know that he thought that there was a particular class of people who were going to be responsible for the transformation of society, or at least not a particular economic class. What I meant in that passage was that rather than seeing the proletariat as the class that would become all of humanity, and therefore the model of how human beings would be, he looked to the artist. And so part of that, I think shows the influence of William Morris, who considered himself a Marxist, but whose politics are pretty hard to fit into any current conception of Marxism. And Morris largely thought that the purpose of socialism was to—rather than sort of a standard Marxist conception where industrialization will produce a particular class of worker who will then take over society—Morris thought that the purpose of socialism was to destroy industrialization, that he wanted to get rid of the factory system and its rigid division of labor, and in particular, this conception that there was a class of people who sort of designed and created and imagined the products of the world, and then there was this other class of people who were basically just like hired hands, who just did the work by rote without any input into the process. Instead, he wanted production to take the form of skilled artisans, bringing their full creativity to their work, and also therefore experiencing the work as an expression of their creative selves and finding joy and pleasure in the process of creation. And Wilde basically took Morris’s conception on the whole, which suggests that under socialism, rather than society being organized on the factory model with this mass of proletarians, who basically just like have the position in the assembly line and do the same rote task over and over again, that society would be organized as this free collective of artists and craftsmen, who would be able to express their individualism in the creative process while also providing for the needs of the society. So I don’t know that it’s a question of the revolutionary subject. It’s more a question of like: Under socialism, is the world populated by proletarians or is the world populated by artists? And the hope was that under conditions of freedom and equality, work would be more like art and therefore the individuals doing it would be more like artists and less like assembly line workers.
Scott (TFSR): Right. And that’s interesting these ideas, like you said [with regard to] industrialization, modernization. I mean, in Wilde’s concept of socialism there are machines that do the kind of dirty work so that people don’t have to and they kind of replaced that class of people. But this isn’t to enable some hyper-modernization, but to enable a kind of smaller scale of life that allows people to engage in the pursuits they want rather than this larger idea of driving civilization on, or something like that?
Kristian: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.
Scott (TFSR): There’s another thing that they’re brought up for me that is interesting because, you know, when you think of aestheticism, you think of Wilde and Art—art with a capital A—there’s already a kind of class distinction that’s assumed within.High Art versus other forms of art, but Wilde maybe through Morris and also Ruskin, [who] I know was like a teacher of his, isn’t making this big distinction between high art and crafts or other forms of creation. So then he’s also kind of envisioning a classless art world—would you say that’s right?
Kristian: I would say at his best, that is right. I think he was also prone to a certain amount of snobbery and ready to claim certain privileges of an Artist—with a capital A—that may not extend to everyone in society. And both sides of that showed up in his trial, where on the one hand when they tried to cite his writings as evidence against him and brought in The Picture of Dorian Gray and a set of aphorisms he had contributed to an Oxford magazine and that sort of thing,and they would ask him things like, “well, what is the interpretation that an ordinary person would put to these lines?” And Wilde would say something to the effect of, “I know nothing of the opinions of ordinary people, I’m only concerned with the opinions of artists.” And so he was willing to fall back onto a sort of special status for the artist, and in particular that artists could only be judged by other artists. At the same time, though, the prosecutor was absolutely outraged that the young men that he was associating with were often men of the lower classes. They were servants of various kinds or people who were just frankly out of work. And though nominally the court was concerned with the sort of homosexual nature of these relationships, the fact that he was bringing these servants into polite society was as much a focus of the cross-examination as any sort of sexual relation. And so the prosecutor would repeatedly ask questions like, “is this the sort of young man that a gentleman should associate with?” And Wilde would respond,“Absolutely—if the young man is interesting.” And he said over and over again, “I recognize social distinctions, not at all.” Meaning he didn’t care about their origins. He didn’t care about what they did for a living. What he cared about was their personal beauty and their radiant personalities. And that in particular was outrageous to polite society, in a way that [with regard to] mere same sex relations (there was a lot of that sort of thing at like the British public schools and then at Oxford and Cambridge) the men of Wales class were somewhat ambivalent about that. But the cross-class nature really was outrageous to public opinion and ultimately to the law.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that’s something that you elaborate [on] a little bit in the book in a way that I found very interesting. That people at the time, [some of whom] were anarchists and some weren’t, were kind of thinking about the cross-class same sex relationships as a sort of liberatory engagement. And that made me think that there’s sort of seeds of the radical gay liberation or queer liberation movements already in place in the end of the 19th century when these things were kind of being defined. I mean, I don’t know if any of these thinkers would go so far, but I was like reading into this this idea that men across class having relationships would be a sort of undermining of capitalist society. Could you talk a little bit about how the ways of this kind of cross-class relationship were being fought by the queer and anarchist thinkers at the time?
Kristian: Yeah, [and] this wasn’t just an anxiety on the behalf of the aristocracy. The men engaging in these relationships often did sort of theorize that it was going to destroy the class barrier and thus crash the social hierarchy, and that for them that seemed like an advantage. Of course, in retrospect, that all seems very naive, right? Like the ideas that wealthy aristocrats paying young men of the lower order for sex would destroy class relations just seems sort of fanciful. But it was a popular notion among radicals in those circles at the time. And I think to understand that, we need to remember sort of the difference between the traditional British class system and the sort of emerging capitalist system, where they still had the trappings of an aristocratic hierarchy, so that class position wasn’t simply a matter of who had money and who didn’t. And the divisions between the classes weren’t simply a question of one class being an employing in class and one class being a laboring class. The differences were also cultural, and it was possible to be kind of a destitute aristocrat, and it was also possible to make a fortune and yet remain ultimately sort of a middle class person. That [it] was a matter of both of the culture and the expectations and the values that people in those positions would have. But it was also a matter of how they would be regarded socially. So that in some way would even be more respectable to be an impoverished aristocrat than it would be to be a wealthy merchant. So there was this element where simply having kind of intimate contact with people of other social classes seemed subversive, seemed destructive of the barriers that kept them apart. And in particular, Wilde’s interest in the culture of the lower classes, and then also his interest in exposing them to what we would call High Art seems deliberately like trying to erase that cultural line between the upper and [the] lower. Though interestingly, he had basically no interest in the middle classes at all.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, which I guess makes sense. So there’s something interesting there, too, because you know, Wilde initiated a libel suit against the Marquees of Queensberry because he left this card at the hotel, where Wilde was staying.[And] that at least one reading of it, you say in the book of that card, posing as a sodomite reads like a misspelling. So he is being accused of posing as a homosexual. So this just made me think about how the class positions weren’t necessarily tied to actual wealth. But you could kind of portray the image of an aristocrat. And I wonder to what extent that relates to an understanding of aestheticism, like the kind of the idle dandy and the aristocratic bend to that. But you’re arguing that even though that’s one understanding aestheticism, it actually has a kind of anarchist political and ethical value or valence or something. So, yeah, I’m kind of thinking [and] wondering about this idea of posing, posing as queer [or] posing as an anarchist, and how Wilde uses these different positions.
Kristian: So artificiality was, in Wilde’s schema, a value rather than a vice. And part of that was that he had this idea that the purpose of life was this kind of self-cultivation, [this] sort of self-creation, which means that to a certain extent it is going to be an artificiality, that is going to be an element of artistry to the life that you create for yourself and the character that you develop in yourself, and also the presentation that you make to the world. And Wilde very deliberately created an image of himself early on as this sort of idle genius, and also as this person who in some ways was outside of the categories of conventional society. And he relayed that with his sort of flamboyant dress. He created that image by making a habit of saying outrageous things as he matured, the outrageous things that you said tend to have more of a subversive undercurrent to them. But especially early on, [it] seems like he was often just reaching for the thing that was going to outrage public opinion. So there was always this matter of posing.And one of his aphorisms is that it’s only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. One of the things he meant by that is that it is the appearance that we choose for ourselves. That is the way that we decide to present ourselves to the world. And that that’s important, right? And that, you know, it’s like you can tell a lot about somebody from what they choose to show you. So there was always this self-consciousness to Wilde’s presentation, especially publicly, and there was connected in that a gendered element where he presented himself as the sort of foppish, flamboyant aesthete, which was always interpreted like the dandy, [which] was always understood as sort of an effeminate character. But it actually wasn’t really until Wilde’s scandal that it was fully identified also as a homosexual character. And so he was often seen and sometimes mocked as this living affront to the ideals of masculinity. And this is hard for us to kind of imagine now, but at the time that wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. Which makes Queensberry’s claim that he was posing as a sodomite, a little bit complicated. And part of the work that the trial did was to construct this notion of what a sodomite is like, such that a person could be posing as it. And this gains a kind of circular momentum, where the image that it constructs is partly the negation of the ideal of a respectable middle class family man, but partly just the reflection of the image that Wilde has been projecting all along. And so in the course of the trial, what a sodomite is, the figure of the sodomite, is built so that Wilde will resemble it. Then once that equation takes hold, Wilde really becomes the icon of sort of what a gay man is expected to be like. I’m borrowing here from the work of Alan Sinfield, who wrote a book called The Wilde Century, which makes this argument in about 250 pages. So if you’re interested in that, and how exactly that happened, that is the place to look.
Scott (TFSR): It seems really important, and something maybe a lot of people don’t know, is that we’ve inherited a kind of gay male type or stereotype that can be traced back to Wilde, and these trials.That even over over 100 years, a lot of that hasn’t changed that kind of identity type that Wilde embodied, or even like the lampoon of Wilde’s identity still marks understandings of gay male effeminacy and campness, how Sontag talks about him. So I think you bring that out really interestingly. But like in your book, the thing that I think is really important that you add is that in the aftermath of Wilde’s trial, the queerness of Wilde sort of has an influence on anarchist thinkers at the time. In a way not only is Wilde’s queer identity becoming politicized and codified, but also there’s an anarchist element to that, and I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that—about the trial and how his sexuality became influential for anarchist thinkers.
Kristian: Sure. This went in a lot of different directions and had several different elements. But maybe the clearest is that Emma Goldman. Other American anarchists as well, but Emma Goldman in particular was initially extremely sympathetic with Wilde, but simply as an example of the puritanical hypocrisy of the legal system, and as a victim of state oppression, it wasn’t until later that she became exposed to the sort of sexological literature that was elaborating the theory of homosexuality, where she realized that it wasn’t just a particular case of the state doing what the state does, but there was also an element[of] Wilde’s trial was intimidating and terrorizing for anentire group of people. And that it wasn’t just a matter of individual suffering and individual persecution, but that there was a group element to this. And so it became important to her to specifically stand up for the rights of homosexuals, sort of as a class rather than simply opposing the state putting people in prison, because of course we’re against the state putting people in prison. Another direction that that developed was that in Great Britain and in the US, the anarchist sexual politics at that time were already interested in sexual liberation, but mostly in the framework of a critique of marriage and free love and advocacy around issues of legitimacy, meaning really the rights of children who are born out of wedlock. And so adding to sort of queer element to that, they were already kind of primed for that development. And then what that meant was that it wasn’t just that Wilde’s trial affected anarchist’s sexual politics, it meant that a particular kind of sexual politics came out of that, that [they] were interested in gay rights as an expression of sort of sexual freedom overall. There was a natural affinity between the way anarchists were already thinking. And the sort of challenge and rethinking posed by the Wilde trial. Another direction that developed was that in Europe, and especially in Germany, individualist anarchists took a somewhat different lesson from the Wilde trial, and were less interested in conceptions of group identity and more interested in understanding it simply in terms of sort of individuality, individual rights and [an] individual person’s ability to express themselves and find pleasure in whatever way they chose, regardless of laws or social convention, or religious or moral precepts. And that, curiously, also circulated back into the United States, partly through Benjamin Tucker and his paper Liberty, which reprinted some of the European coverage of the Wilde trial, and also editorialized on its own, and very much in a more sort of individualist, libertarian kind of approach. So there were a couple of different developments from that in terms of how Wilde’s persecution shaped anarchist politics in the generations after.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a still a kind of problem and paradox within queer liberation—the idea of an identity and a group type or a minority group demanding rights, and then [the] kind of queerness that critiques and wants to do away with identity. And obviously, the way you were outlining Wilde’s understanding of posing and artificiality is already showing kind of ambivalence to that, even as he’s being put in the position of defining this type. So it’s interesting to see these things that [still] are. Anarchists today are always fighting identity politics as well, whether or not they’re queer. So I think it’s interesting to see that these things were already happening at that moment.
Kristian: Wilde himself directly addressed this question in a short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which the story itself is complicated, and I’m going to do my best to sum it up quickly. Basically it involves a relationship between two men, one of whom has a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by and devoted to a young boy actor named Willie Hughes, the W.H. of the title.[He] then persuades the other man of this. The other man then goes and engages in a relationship with a third man and also tries to persuade him of this theory. And the whole thing is in some ways an excuse to make this argument about the history of homosexuality and its influence on culture. So it looks at the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I mean, there’s no way to talk about this that isn’t anachronistic. I should say that,first of all. Like, Wilde never used the term homosexuality, but the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece, the importance of homosexuality in the Renaissance, the importance of homosexuality for Shakespeare, and then more recent examples. The thing about the story is that they have this argument about the sonnets, but there’s no proof for it. And in order to try to persuade each other, each of the men engages in this fabrication of evidence [of] different kinds. The evidence itself, including the portrait of the title, is a beautiful work of art, but it’s also false. It’s also a fraud. And each of the men, once he persuades the other one of the importance of the theory, is then fatally compromised and dies–one of them by suicide, one of them by consumption. And at the end, you’re left with, on the one hand, this exercise in the construction of a homosexual genealogy, like a cultural genealogy of homosexuality. And on the other hand, the story itself exposes that construction as this kind of artifice and draws into question the wisdom of sort of latching your identity onto anything exterior to yourself. And so it’s both this exercise in the creation of a gay identity, and it’s also this deconstruction and critique of that exercise at the same time.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that seems like it could also be like a fitting parable for the attempts to naturalize or biologize sexuality and gender towards increasing rights for so-called gender or sexual minorities. Like these stories that we’re telling ourselves here in that essay or whatever you want to call it, like a story essay.
Kristian: Yeah, it’s a little hard to know how to characterize it. It queers our categories.
Scott (TFSR): I mean, it’s all just part of the seduction anyway. I think that you’re reading of that is really interesting. One of the things that [is] still kind of going on, this idea of identity.The thing that stood out to me after reading your book was that the legacy of Wilde, in a way, entangles these three groups, the people that are are kind of unwanted or undesirable anarchists, the aesthetes or the dandies or decadents or whatever, and and whatever was being defined at the time as homosexual, we might say queer now. And thank you for pointing out that we’re talking pretty anachronistically. But, yeah, just these three types. Right. Anarchists, aesthetes, and queer people even at the time were sort of confused in people’s minds and had this sort of like specter haunting people as like unwanted types. Could you talk about how that sort of legacy still persists today? [How] these entanglements of these different positions politically, artistically and sexually persist today?
Kristian: Yeah.Well, I mean, some of it I think you’ve already hit on. Anarchism, as it existed circa 1895, was already a sort of hospitable environment for a gay politics to emerge in a way that most other sort of political realms were not. Because anarchism already had this critique of sexual morality, it already has its critique of the family structure. It was already advocating for birth control and the rights for children who were born out of wedlock and the equality between men and women and free love and all of that kind of stuff. So it was ready for the addition of the concern of homosexuals. And I think once that took root there, of course, gay politics have then expanded far outside of anarchism and even arguably outside of the left. But it’s now just very infused with the sort of culture of anarchism and also the values and those sort of self perception of what anarchists do expect ourselves to be like. The fusion between aestheticism and queer politics has developed somewhat differently, but it also remains there, right? Where on the one hand, this becomes an annoying stereotype,and on the other hand, it’s also something that gay men especially sort of celebrate about their shared culture, such as it is. Where it’s like there’s an expectation that there are going to be these sort of fabulous creatures with good style sense and immaculately decorated houses and an interest in music and theater and that sort of thing. And also for the same reason, it’s always a little bit suspicious when an adolescent boy takes too strong an interest in painting or poetry,right?So there’s a weird kind of both good and bad aspects to the two of those things coming together and forming a type, or a stereotype. The connection between aestheticism and anarchist politics is in a way more complicated. On the one hand, it means that on a shallow level it has helped inform the attraction of anarchists to sort of the artistic avant-garde, which has shown up really throughout the 20th century from Dada to the beats to punk, really. Greil Marcus territory there. And on a deeper level, though, I think that the notion that life should be the sort of splendid adventure, and that the way individuals live should be reflective of their character and personality, rather than bounded by convention and predictable and productive, but not necessarily very creative or interesting. I think that this has done a lot to maintain sort of the spirit and attraction of anarchism. And that puts us more in the lineage of the situation as to crime think, right. But then there’s also this this paradox, where especially in the last couple decades anarchism has taken a very moralistic and sort of puritanical turn that has also always been sort of a feature of it. You know, at sometimes if you look at a figure like the early Alexander Berkman, his ambition toward martyrdom and his sense of asceticism and his harsh judgment of other people is just annoying. So there’s always been that kind of puritanical element to anarchism as well. But at our best, that is counterbalanced by this free and flowing and urge toward the beautiful. At the moment, it feels like the sort of purist and puritanical element is more to the surface.And the notion that the life should be anything other than, [or] something more than, just the political struggle and the urge to purify oneself and the group of people around you. It seems to have receded. I worry that we’re at the moment insufficiently aesthetic, and I. I wish we could bring that back more to the surface.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful idea. I really like the way that you politicize Wilde’s aestheticism because I mean, it is such an old argument in a way that’s kind of like tedious and boring.That, even like Sartrean committed literature is against the art for art’s sake, because that is like amoral or even elite. But your reading of Wilde’s shows that even within the stuff that isn’t explicitly political, there’s like an ethical and political understanding that we can get. You say one line that I really liked—your reading [of] the plays is that Wilde’s evasions often hide the seeds of subversion. So there’s a way of reading Wilde that when he’s not saying, like, I’m an anarchist and let’s smash the state, he’s not saying that, but there’s something that happens in his work that allows the subversiveness of his thinking to come differently, [while] not hitting you over the head.
Kristian: Let me run with a couple of points of that. One is that I think that had his politics been more direct in his writing, probably his work would not have survived as well as it has. And while I think that there is even something which on the surface just seems like this exercise in silliness, like The Importance of Being Earnest. If you read carefully, it’s actually shot through with political concerns. Concerns about legitimacy, concerns about the rights of women, concerns about Irish independence and Fenian bombings, right? There’s all sorts of political elements, political themes, political subtext, political references in what at first seems like just this almost Dadaist banter about nothing in particular. But I think [that] had Wilde instead taken the approach of like a movement writer or a message writer, then the work would seem dated and less interesting and wouldn’t remain as fresh as it actually does. The other thing I wanted to say, and this goes back to aestheticism, is that my argument about Wilde’s aestheticism is that it’s not just the places, especially early in his career where he said things about, like the importance of labour and re-conceiving labour, conceiving of labor as a kind of art. It’s also that he pushes the sort of values where beauty doesn’t have to justify itself. And that’s really what art, for art’s sake means. It doesn’t have to have a moral message. It doesn’t have to have a social use. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. That just the fact that something is beautiful and gives you pleasure is itself important. And I argue that that is an implicit critique of the values, especially of Victorian capitalism, and what Max Weber would later articulate as the Protestant Ethic.Which was supposed to value sobriety and hard work and thrift, and that every moment of every day was supposed to be invested with this improving moral weight, which meant making yourself a better person, but chiefly meant making yourself a better person through hard work. While aestheticism is just like a torpedo in the hull of that ship. Interestingly for us, I think it is also a good corrective to the more stoical and dour and sad faced parts of left wing thinking, the kind of Marxism that thinks that we should sacrifice everything for the party, or the kind of anarchism that thinks that the main purpose of politics is to morally cleanse ourselves of anything that may be socially compromised. That kind of puritanism, that kind of stoicism, that sort of often workerist, but also often workaholic element, I think need something to temper it. And I think the Wilde’s work, if we take it seriously, and also if we are willing to accept it as lightly as he produced it, can help us to avoid some of the temptations, if you will, of that kind of puritanism.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. And the way you elaborated that is really helpful because we see how, you know, anarchists then and other people who might identify as leftist or Marxist are replicating some of the kind of capitalist mindset of that work and seriousness. And Wilde, [with his] emphasis on pleasure and pleasure as a kind of perversion, I think is specifically queer and specifically helpful in a way as a corrective, as you said, to those tendencies. While you were talking, I was thinking a little bit also about like James Baldwin, who makes similar kinds of arguments [yet manages an] avoidance of being explicitly political in his fiction, [and how] he still he speaks to anarchists, as another kind of queer figure. These people who value the ambiguity of art, are also evading that Protestant ethic that goes along with the kind of capitalist path of individual development. I’m just really grateful for the way that you you expand on that in the book. There’s a bunch of a bunch of things that I can bring up. But one thing that we haven’t really spoken about, but that also I think resonates with today’s anarchism is Wilde’s experiences in prison. And so I wonder, he was incarcerated for two years and then his final writing was on prison. And I think that a lot of people are coming into anarchism specifically now through the abolitionist movement. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Wilde’s experience in prison, his relationship to prison and how that fits into his writing, and what he gives to us today as current abolitionists?
Kristian: Yes, I guess the first thing to say is that Wilde was against prison for his entire career. He thought that the whole notion of punishing wrongdoing was self-defeating and also barbaric. And in The Soul of Man Under Socialism in particular, he predicts that in a future society, there will be no need for crime, because there will be equality and there won’t be either the desperate need to resort to fraud or violence in order to meet one’s needs,nor the kind of resentment that results from being in the lower position of an unequal relationship. And that whatever traces of criminality remain, he argues, would just have to be the product of some sort of mental illness which should be treated by a physician, and not by the courts. So from early on, he was arguing a kind of abolitionist line. He also, partly from seeing the example of Irish nationalists who were being imprisoned, thought the prison could also be the sort of heroic and elevating kind of experience. And he had almost a Thoreauvian line that they could jail your body, but your spirit would remain free. What he learned when they put him in prison was that that was completely wrong. And he should you really should have known better based on what he already understood about the degrading nature of menial work and about the elevating possibilities of beauty and beautiful surroundings versus the degrading and oppressive nature of ugliness. And then he was put in this environment, which was really just designed to concentrate ugliness with the idea of breaking the prisoner’s spirit. And it was anticipated when he was put in prison that he would not survive the two years, that a man of his age and his class would not be up for the hardship and the deprivation, and were it not for the political intervention of some of his friends and the agitation of especially anarchists in Europe, who were demanding his freedom all together, he likely wouldn’t have survived those two years. And instead he was offered a number of privileges that were there to avoid the government’s embarrassment of him dying in prison. And he was very aware that that was the thing that was keeping him alive and that he was receiving this kind of special treatment.Much to his credit, he did his best to extend those benefits to the other inmates around him. [Mainly in that] he was allowed to request books and was allowed additional books from outside the prison. And reading his letters, you can see that among the books that he requested, there are books that he doesn’t particularly have an interest in, but he knows that the other prisoners would. And then for a while, he got the job of taking the library cart around to the cells to give prisoners the books they wanted, which importantly gave him the opportunity to talk to other people, because at that point, the prison system was entirely on a solitary confinement kind of basis.And then also gave him the opportunity to learn about the interests of the other prisoners, and again, sort of facilitate their intellectual pursuits. And then once he was released, he immediately set about agitating to improve the conditions for the prisoners and wrote a couple of long letters to the Daily Chronicle about conditions in the British prison system. In particular centered on the case of a prison guard named Thomas Martin, who had been fired essentially for being too kind to the prisoners. Martin’s specific offense was that he had given ginger cookies to very small children who were locked in prison for poaching rabbits. Wilde pursued both publicly and also less directly, through writing public officials and that sort of thing, the reform of the prison system, noting specific things that could improve the conditions for the prisoners, while also insisting that no amount of reform was ever going to be adequate, and in fact [stating] that the entire basis of British justice was badly founded and needed to be scrapped. This sort of reached its peak with his last published work (during his lifetime anyway) which was the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I also think is his best poem, which his correspondence makes clear really intended as both a great work of art and also as the sort of political message that we were talking about earlier. It was intended as a pamphlet that would outrage the public against the prison system as a whole. And for what it’s worth, his agitation had some effect. There was a parliamentary commission that was investigating prison conditions at the time, and it took up many of the reforms that Wilde had suggested in his letters to the Chronicle. And just in terms of literary genealogy, The Ballad of Reading Gaol in particular became this almost scripture for anarchists talking about prisons in the decades that followed. So you you find references to it over and over again in the anarchist literature about prison, really all the way up into the 60s.
Scott (TFSR): That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s part of Wilde that is like the “Be Gay Do Crimes” sort, romanticizing the prisoner. But then there’s this seriousness, and it’s especially after his two years of hard labor imprisonment, where he is specifically acting against the prison system and going outside of the romanticism of the like criminal type or something like that. In your going over that history, another thing came to me that you show really well, there are somethings, like Wilde just seemed like a good person, like someone you want to hang out with and be friends with. And in that way, there’s [almost] another aspect of like Wilde the person and his actions that I think are worth reflecting on, [and] not just as a figure, thinker, a writer, but that he embodied this anarchism in his relationships with people, even about the way that he engaged in relationships, whether they’re like intimate or just in passing.
Kristian: Yeah. For a person who is renowned or notorious for being extremely individualistic and extremely sort of egotistical, he was also very, very generous. And he was generous with his wealth when he had wealth, and he was generous with other people’s wealth when he did not. Toward the end of his life, he was practically penniless and living on the generosity of his friends. And yet when people that he knew in prison would get released, he would send them money. And one of his friends and benefactors got kind of annoyed with him about this, because here they are giving him money, so that he can keep body and soul together, and here he is just giving it away. And he said, but if my good friends like you take care of me, how could I not take care of my prison friends? Which I think really captures both something of his spirit and also something of the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. Friendship for Wilde was not a trivial matter. He didn’t think of his friends as just like people that you happen to know, he saw friendship as this deep and complicated ethical commitment, this kind of like practice of life. Which I think goes back to his reading of the classics, and probably Aristotle in particular. And so it’s also interesting that, lacking the vocabulary that we have now about like homosexuality and queerness, he described those relationships and the possibilities of those relationships in terms of things like passionate friendship and really saw them as, in addition to the sexual component and the political implications, also saw them as this tight interweaving of two people’s lives, and a sort of practice of generosity and engagement. Like a way that people could relate that was in a way deeply ethical, and in another way unconcerned with the conventionality and what at the time was was viewed as morality. So, yeah, I think there’s was something very anarchic about how he looked at that. And again, it was that very generosity that turned out to cause him so much trouble in the trials. Like had he just been hiring prostitutes and paying blackmailers, it wouldn’t have had the, I mean this is somewhat bizarre from our point of view, but it wouldn’t have had the outrageous moral implication that it had—that he was like taking these young men to expensive dinners, and buying them champagne, and taking them to the opera, and buying the suits, giving them silver cigarette cases with personalized inscriptions on them. All of that was like… You know, prostitution and blackmail was just old hat for a Victorian aristocrat. But that kind of intimacy with people of the lower classes and that effort to sort of extend to them the benefits of the society was politically very troubling and morally outrageous.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how all of these things sort of overlap. I don’t know, like reading your book, I’ve always loved Wilde and had an affinity for Wilde and in a way Wilde has explained to me my gayness, my queerness. But then reading your book, I’m like, oh, my affinity for Wilde also has something to do with my anarchism that I’ve had over my whole life. And I just think the way that you tie those together and show them through going through his letters, his the biographical details, [and] the anarchists kind of response to him. And his work is really compelling. I guess the final question, you know, going back to talking about the role of art and the kind of corrective that we can bring to the sort of dour anarchist politics. The other aspect of him, maybe the term we could say is a utopian, and he uses that in The Soul of Man Socialism. Is there anything that you can say about Wilde bringing a sort of utopian anarchist politics or any way really you want to kind of send us off with, like, how Wilde speaks to us today? Because I think that this book is something that we can learn from in our current moment. So, yeah, any anything in that line that you want to kind of send us off with on Wilde, the utopian anarchist.
Kristian: Yeah. You know his utopianism makes sense, given his aestheticism, given the emphasis on the imagination and on sort of the fanciful and the artificial and the the creative possibilities. And therefore, he didn’t see Utopia as this thing that we achieve and preserve, which might be more of the Puritan model. Instead, he saw Utopia as this this aspiration of humanity that was always just past the horizon. And so it kept us moving. And so he says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that all the progress is a realization of past utopias. And the utopia is a country where once we land, we immediately set sail looking forward again. And so there’s the idea that in order to achieve progress, we have to be able to imagine the better world. That once we achieve the world that we think we want, we’re going to imagine a better worlds still. And that, rather than that being a frustrating Rosero problem, in fact [it] is this beautiful hope that we can always be doing better. And, you know, right now I think we are pretty desperately in need of some utopian imagination, you know, with the pandemic really throwing our our usual social practices into question, and revealing the threadbare nature of many of our institutions, and the failure of hierarchical leadership structures to address the crisis in any sort of meaningful way, along with the increasingly present effects of climate change and the existential danger that that poses. And then also with the bizarre and perverse political culture that we inhabit in the United States, with the kind of polarization that makes every position a point of conflict and makes any sort of like of, I don’t know, reconciliation or even notion that we will arrive at an understanding of shared humanity, seem increasingly remote. We really need to be able to imagine something better. The alternative, I think, is a very bleak nihilism that just sees the future as only an extension of the present. And I think that from that view, nothing good can come. I saw a picture of some graffiti that said,“another end of the world as possible.” And I think that that that captures pretty well the need for utopian thinking right now.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. That even the dystopian stuff has dried up, I think. Yeah. I mean, you just said it pretty beautifully, so I don’t really have anything that I really want to add. I really love spending time with Oscar Wilde’s thinking and writing, and just thinking about him as a person. And you do, I think, a really important thing in kind of bringing him out as an anarchist thinker and bring him to us right now. And maybe it’s just like something worth living for. Like that in the end is like something, you know, he, sorry, my mind starts going in all these different directions…
Kristian: Oh, good! That’s what I’m aiming for.
Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, going from like living up to the blue China to dying so that he doesn’t have to see his wallpaper. But I think Wilde actually took things seriously in a way that’s instructive, even for all this kind of humor and artificiality. So, yeah, I don’t know. Again, I’m like really grateful for the book and for the chance to talk to you. And if you have any last things you want to add or also any other places you want listeners to go to the to access your work or whatever you’re up to at the moment.
Kristian: Yeah, I have a modest website it’s kristianwilliams.com, Kristian spelled with a K. Whenever I have a new article or whatever, I put something about it there and put a link to it. And then there’s some sort of category-based archives that you can look and see what I’ve written about the criminal legal system or about literature or about comics. And yeah. So if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve done, that that would be a good place to start.
Scott (TFSR): Cool, and yeah I recommend people pick up this book, Resist Everything Except Temptation, and of course, Our Enemies In Blue is super important too. But yeah, I’m grateful for the time that you gave to talk about Wilde with me.
Kristian: Yeah, well, I appreciate the invitation. It was a good conversation.