Mutual Aid Under Attack: a conversation with the AVL Park Defendants
This week on TFSR, we are presenting a conversation with three defendants who are in an ongoing legal battle with the city of Asheville. This group is collectively known as the Asheville Park defendants and is made up of 15 people, three of whom are speaking today. They are all facing felony littering charges in connection with a demonstration in December of 2021 against a targeted camp sweep in a local park adjacent to the downtown district. For this interview, we will talk about their case, the issue of the mistreatment of houseless people generally, camp sweeps and what they mean specifically, how the charge of felony littering is often deployed by the courts, the nationwide crackdown on mutual aid, their own activisms, and how to keep in touch with this situation and support the 15 defendants.
To donate to these folks you can venmo @AVLdefendantfund. The defendants would also like to plug the venmos of another AVL based mutual aid group Asheville Survival Program (link shows an interview with participants of ASP with The Final Straw radio show in October 2021), which is @AVLsurvival, the local Anarchist Black Cross chapter Blue Ridge ABC and their venmo is @BlueRidgeABC, and Asheville for Justice (@ashevilleforjustice on Venmo) which is a mutual aid organization dedicated to combating systemic oppression by offering direct community support.
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Music for this episode is an edited version of:
Eyeliner by American Hairlines off of the Free Music
Eric King Transferred To High Security Prison in VA
[00:04:08 – 00:23:50]
First up, you’ll hear Eric King, anarchist prisoner whose recent legal victory against the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the US was featured on our episodes from the week of March 27th, 2022. Last week, Eric was suddenly transferred out of Colorado toward United States Penitentiary Lee in the southwest portion of Virginia near Johnson City, TN. This is in spite of the fact that Eric should be held at a medium security facility according to BOP standards, unlike the high security and max prisoners at USP Lee. We caught up with him mid-transfer while at Grady County Jail in Oklahoma where many Federal prisoners stop during cross-country transfers. Eric and his supporters are afraid that he’ll be facing time in the SHU, or Secure Housing Unit at USP Lee for no reason other than punishment for his legal case and his supporters are putting together a call-in campaign to raise Eric’s visibility to keep him safe. There is information about this in our show notes at TheFinalStrawRadio.NoBlogs.Org and hopefully soon at https://SupportEricKing.Org .
This is followed by Sean Swain’s segment [00:23:53 – 00:32:42]
Maria of Anarchist Black Cross Kyiv
[00:33:06 – 01:07:52]
Then, you’ll hear Maria, a member of Anarchist Black Cross Kyiv, just returned from Ukraine and currently in Warsaw, Poland. We talk about ABC Kyiv, mutual aid and refugee support, border crossing, some information about anarchists participating in the territorial defense, NATO, non-violent as well as armed resistance to the Russian invasion, Russian forcibly moving Ukrainians from Mariupol into territories they control and other recent news stories. You can find more on how to support Operation Solidarity at linktr.ee/OperationSolidarity and the Resistance Committee of anarchists participating in armed resistance to the invasion at linktr.ee/TheBlackHeadquarter. You can also find a benefit for ABC resistance to the invasion at ABCMusicalSolidarity.Bandcamp.Com, written up at North Shore Counter-Info.
Mira, leftist punk from Kharkiv
[01:09:06 – 01:41:14]
Finally, you’ll hear a conversation recorded on Sunday, April 3rd with Mira, a member of the street punk band Bezlad and a show booker in the hardcore scene of Kharkiv near the Russian Border. Mira talks about his leaving of Kharkiv to L’viv to aid leftist and punk territorial defense fighters getting protective gear, his experience of the devastation of war on the city he loves and the breakdown of solidarity with antifascist and punk communities across the border between Russia & Ukraine since the war in the Donbass and intensifying today. We’ll play a song by Bezlad after this interview and will link them in the shownotes.
Libre Flot’s Hunger Strike Continues
As a continuation of our recent announcement of the former YPG volunteer on hunger strike against unending detention by the French government, there is a call for a day of solidarity for Libre Flot for what is both his 36th day of hunger strike and his birthday. Libre Flot was hospitalized in relation to the hunger strike on March 24th but has continued due to his more than 15 months of pre-trail detention. On April 4th, 2022, the supporters are asked to make some noise at French embassies, consulates and other institutions to raise awareness of his plight. More info at SolidarityToDecember8.wordpress.com
Eric King Call-In
Alongside a recent post showing photos of the scene of Eric’s assault in the broom closet, there will be a post with phone numbers and talking points up at SupportEricKing.Org by Monday. Below are some contacts you are suggested to reach out to to check in on Eric’s condition and talking points to help ask why he’s being treated this way despite his noted security level leading into the embarrassing trial loss by BOP:
Why is Eric King, who is at a medium level according to the BOP, being moved to a high security facility across the country?;
Why is this move coming so quickly after Eric successfully won a lawsuit showing that the BOP was closing ranks to set Eric up for 20 years of additional prison as he approaches his out time?;
What will you, as a public official, do to challenge the impunity of the federal prisons to persecute prisoners and violate their human rights?;
DRAFT MESSAGES / TEMPLATES
Hello Senator _____,
I am writing about my friend who is a prisoner in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His name is Eric King, inmate number 27090-045. He was recently found not guilty on all counts at a trial in the U.S. District of Colorado. Eric was moved from FCI Englewood and is currently being held in a private facility, Grady County Jail in Oklahoma. He has been told he is en route to USP Lee, a maximum security prison in Virginia.
I am writing because I believe Eric should not be sent to USP Lee, and would be in danger if he were sent there. He is scheduled to be released from prison in December 2023, and wants to avoid anything that would infringe on this release date.
There is an active threat against his life. A few years ago, before being sent to Colorado, Eric was held in the Segregation Unit at USP Lee for approximately two weeks. Before that, at USP Atlanta, a white supremacist gang member told him he would be killed at USP Lee if he was released into general population. This was documented at USP Lee.
It is imperative that Eric not be put in harm’s way. I am asking that you not send him into a situation that is so dangerous. The Bureau of Prisons knows this and there is established case law regarding the BOP sending someone into dangerous and life threatening scenarios. See Fitzharris v. Wolf, 702 F.2d 836, 839 (9th Cir. 1983); Gullatte v. Potts, 654 F.2d 1007, 1012-13 (5th Cir. 1981); Roba v. U.S., 604 F.2d 215, 218-19 (2d Cir. 1979).
Additionally, Eric is in this situation because of a bogus maximum management variable on his security profile. This has him erroneously being sent to a facility beyond his actual security level. He has no pending charges and no incident reports. He intends to be released to Colorado to live with his wife and his two children in just over a year. I ask that this management variable be removed so that he can be sent to a medium- or low-custody prison close to home and begin preparing for release.
I am afraid for my friend Eric’s life if he is sent to USP Lee and I am asking that you intervene with the Bureau of Prisons and ask them not to send Eric King into harm’s way by sending him to USP Lee.
His lawyer is Lauren Regan and can be reached at 541-687-9180 or email@example.com. Please help my friend.
TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time and the space to have this conversation with me. First off, would you please introduce yourself to the audience with a name, even if it’s a pseudonym, any gender pronouns, where you’re from, or where you’re at now?
Maria: I’m Maria, from ABC Kyiv, and I’m staying in Warsaw right now, just coming from Lviv where I visited comrades and had some meetings.
TFSR: Can you tell a little bit about ABC Kyiv and the history of the group? What work you’ve done before? What does it look like now? How the invasion has changed it?
Maria: We are a relatively old collective, 10+ years old. We used to mostly help political refugees from neighboring countries who escaped from Russia and Belarus. It’s not that many of them were in jail, but we were helping them with the refugee-seeking procedure and getting into politics in Ukraine. Now we changed because I expected they will go to Warsaw or whatever. But they mostly joined the territorial defense units in Kyiv. So we don’t have clients anymore, you know?
TFSR: Yeah. The history of the Anarchist Red Cross at one point included militant support of combatants too during the Russian revolutions. Right?
Maria: Actually, in the Makhno army, I think it appeared first.
For now, we are trying to do several types of work. First of all, we work with another collective that provides the same kind of help to people who decided to join the resistance, take up arms, and to fight for people and freedom at home. It’s different kinds of support. One is that we need to collect money, we need to buy things, humanitarian aid, medical aid, and different stuff that people who fight need. Another part is taking care of comrades who are relocating or choose not to because not a lot of people lost their jobs in Ukraine. And help with relocating people to other countries, they also may need help with a place to stay, money to live, possibilities to find a job. That’s a lot of work. For sure, we are taking part in it. We are not doing it as a separate collective, but rather with other ABC collectives, and with the group called Operation Solidarity from Ukraine.
TFSR:Awesome. I know that ABC Dresden in Germany has been one group that’s been able to funnel money towards mutual aid and defense funds, which is pretty cool. It’s amazing to see ABC groups – just from the outside, I’m involved with an ABC group here, but we’re still pretty focused on prisoners in the United States – to see the work that groups are doing in Europe is pretty impressive.
What’s the situation getting back and forth with Poland if you can talk about it? Has it been difficult because there is a long wait at the border? How have you been received in Poland at least with the government?
Maria: Surprisingly, with Poland, I crossed already twice, it was no problem at all, both times. In Ukraine, it was much more problematic months ago, but at the moment, it’s quite slow. Transport is late, but it’s not super difficult. I think it is difficult only for male assigned people. In Lviv, it’s also relatively calm, which is the new calm – they have 3-4 air raid alerts per day, which means that they expect air attacks. Sometimes there are air attacks but the air defense systems work well. I’m actually not an expert in weapons because I hate it. But the situation is like it is.
TFSR: Some of the questions that I’m going to be asking are related to either the war or the armed groups because that’s an area I think that a lot of anarchists elsewhere are interested in. But if you can’t answer them and don’t have an answer, I understand totally.
One thing that I’ve been seeing in the news here is that Russia may be pulling back, withdrawing troops, at least in the areas near Kyiv, back across the border to Belarus. Is that a thing that you’ve heard about or do you have an understanding of what’s happening with that?
Maria: I also read today that pulled back some troops, but not all of them. Actually, they say on the news that we expect more intense fights in the next few days. I hope that’s not true. But it can be. Also, they still attack Kyiv and other cities from the sky. With the army, they at least stay somewhere. But with these air attacks, it’s not clear where it will hit next time. Withdrawing troops doesn’t mean that they will stop bombing us.
TFSR: Sure, pulling back the army could actually mean more bombing, hypothetically.
What’s your impression, having been back to Lviv, of what it’s like to try to organize there or to be an anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist group that’s trying to do organizing in the midst of an invasion and a time that almost necessarily leads to heightened levels of nationalism?
Maria: I didn’t see that much nationalism. I was there just for a couple of days meeting with comrades. I was not really in the streets. I know that the Operation Solidarity group there is very well-organized.
There was one stupid small attack by young Nazis on our comrades near a shop, where they were waiting in line to buy stuff for guys from the territorial defense. It was shocking, but they were some small idiots. It’s not that they really hunt there or whatever. I think Nazis are busy, the same as leftist people. We are not very much interested in each other, at this point, at least.
TFSR: What I’m seeing from the Telegram channel from Operation solidarity is that the attacker was from Misanthropic Division, and the comrade had a broken finger out of it.
Maria: He had a broken finger on his hand was wish he was packing medical supplies and other things for the army. It seems very unpatriotic to do it. It’s sabotage, in my opinion. I’m very surprised. I already started thinking about some conspiracy. Maybe they’re paid by Putin because it seems stupid to do it.
TFSR: Well, Nazis are stupid.
In your experience, how is the support from abroad into Operation Solidarity been going? There’s still a need, but they’ve been listing on their social media that they’ve been receiving– They went out and bought helmets, they went out and bought various forms of armor. Is the fundraising still going on? Has that been successful so far?
Maria: I would say it’s quite successful. But it always can be that if we have more money, we will buy better stuff for people, if we have more people, will still need to buy new things for them. Also, most people cannot work, renting rooms in Western Ukraine is very difficult, it is crazy expensive. Because so many people came there. Prices went high. There are still people there, their families and in the worst situation, you can expect that most of the people will lose their jobs. We also help with this part.
With medical things, you need to buy new ones from time to time, and we hope to have much more people. We have more people now compared to two months ago. I hope it will be much more, that is why for sure they still do fundraising and we still do fundraising for them. Other groups also do fundraising. I’m very satisfied with working together with them.
TFSR: I want to talk again about the armed organizing that people are doing, but there have been stories of lots of examples in this conflict of people taking unarmed actions against the war effort, for instance, the mutual aid and the medical support that you’re talking about, or blockades to slow the advance of tanks outside of major cities, massive street protests, including those that have been fired upon by Russian troops, the Belarusian anti-war sabotage on train infrastructure that’s been supplying Russian troops. Are there other examples or any that stand out to you of the unarmed mutual aid that you’ve been impressed with, that people should know about?
Maria: I’m not sure I understood all the points you mentioned. Because if your English is too perfect for me.
With the sabotage in Belarus, it is not militant, but for Belarus, it’s already a lot. For us, I think that we are not concentrated on these points. For me, it’s literally like fascists in the 30’s and 40’s are coming. People want to have arms and to fight back. I would not say that we are working on any anti-militant or whatever actions. We have a consensus that we need to fight with arms.
I know that there are protests in occupied cities. I don’t think that they decided to be very anti-militant, they just don’t have a choice. But the Russian army may actually shoot this protest. It’s only peaceful from one side.
TFSR: One of the groups, to my understanding, that’s been organizing in Ukraine for the armed self-defense is Black Flag (Chernyi Prapor)? Can you talk a little bit about the organizing and training that they’ve been doing that you know of, and as an anarchist grouping, how they’ve been relating to the territorial defense of the Ukrainian military?
Maria: I’m not that much in contact with them, it is a group from Lviv, as far as I know, a relatively small one. I’m not in personal contact with these people. That’s why I don’t really know how they do it.
I think one of the biggest collectives is the Resistance Committee. They’re also groups of people here and there in different territorial defense units trying to organize together, like three-five people. I know this better.
I also know about people from Kharkiv, I knew them before, but I’m not in contact at the moment. I know that there is a group in Kharkiv that is fighting in the territorial defense unit in Kharkiv, which is a hot spot. I also know anarchists who individually went to the army, for example, my friend, who is actually also one of these refugees, a non-Ukrainian citizen, went to fight the first morning, and he is stationed separately from us, but we still support him.
TFSR: Do you have a sense of how it is for them to relate to the fact that the territorial defense has a relationship with the Ukrainian military? How much autonomy they’re able to keep in that or any lessons that you’ve heard about how they’ve been able to try to keep that autonomy?
Maria: From talking to people, it seems it works quite well. They are not pressuring much and it feels like for other people there is a possibility for some autonomy. They are much less hierarchically structured. The army might pay less attention to this. But officially, they are part of the army. But there is actually no other way to organize because if you just take a gun and go to the street, they will think you are a subversive and kill you. Even historically, with the partisan movement, they’re actually always connected to the army to some extent. I don’t think it’s possible to really do it in parallel without any agreements.
TFSR: A few weeks ago, I was seeing stories online about foreigners coming to Ukraine to try to fight and defend it, getting shuffled into the military, or being pressured to sign contracts of service similar to conscription. Have you heard about this being the case for folks that have tried to join anarchist formations? Are they able to get in? Or do they just get funneled into the general military or territorial defense of Ukraine?
Maria: I think the problem you’re talking about is more about people who are going to the International Legion. I heard that people went to join a Belarusian unit, but I was not following the topic. Because I’m trying to concentrate on people I know, comrades, and things I can influence. I came across something like this in the media, but I haven’t heard any people I know who complained about it. But for people from the International Legion, which I think is separate, maybe it’s a problem for them.
TFSR: Another thing that I wanted to ask about, and it’s okay if you don’t have a comment on it or an understanding, but there was a video released recently that appeared to show the Ukrainian military shooting Russian prisoners in the legs extra-judicially. Have you heard about this or heard sentiments from other Ukrainians or people in the region about captured soldiers getting shot in that way?
Maria: I even didn’t hear about it, to be honest. I can imagine it can happen. For example, a friend of mine was telling me that when he was taking part in the evacuation of the occupied and besieged cities around Kyiv. It was the third week of war already and before he was rather in a better mood. But at that moment, he was really like “They are murdering kids. They’re raping women.” He saw the bodies of women on the streets. They [Russian troops] don’t want to fight with the army, they want to fight civilians. My friend was angry and didn’t feel mercy for them anymore. But then you just go out from there thinking and feel that you are a human and you should follow the humane way of thinking and acting. But I can imagine that after everything people saw. But I didn’t hear about what you mentioned.
I’m sad, I don’t want that to happen. But it’s very complicated. When you talk about these things theoretically from somewhere abroad, it’s one thing, but when the war is coming to your place, it’s totally another thing.
TFSR: That makes sense.
You mentioned children being killed. Some stories were circulating, I think they were sourced from the Ukrainian government about Russia importing thousands of civilians and children from occupied territories within Ukraine into Russia. Have you heard of this?
Maria: Yes. Many people from Kherson, which is the biggest occupied city, and Mariupol which is besieged. My friend’s parents were sent from Mariupol to Donetsk or Russia, she lost contact with them. It’s been five days now. They just put them on the bus. The besieged Mariupol and people couldn’t have access to drinking water and food. I think they demoralize them, but the people still didn’t want to go. They just take them to the bus, some of them could call and say, “Your parents were forcefully put on this bus, they will get in touch when they can.” But no one is reaching out these days. Then they’re sending a message that they’re in Russia. Today at the train station, I talked to people from Kherson, they’re telling the same, the few people who managed to escape.
TFSR: You can’t really guess about the strategy or the reasoning behind that, whether it’s to just depopulate areas, to make them easier to occupy, or if it’s about trying to forcibly settle people to new areas.
Maria: They’re not deporting all the people. For me, making the city empty is not the reason. As for Bucha and Hostomel, I heard the opposite – they don’t let people out. They make them too afraid to try to go out by bombing the humanitarian corridor, for example, because they actually want them to stay. Then it is difficult for the Ukrainian army to shoot because they’re inside together with civilians. Maybe there are other reasons, but they also try to use them for propaganda. They are filming people, they’re giving them a text to read. A woman was complaining about Azov and Medusa published several videos, and you see that she’s actually telling the story they forced her to tell because they didn’t do it in one shot.
TFSR: Forcing some of the people that they’re holding to act in front of the camera to say, “Oh, yes, I’m so happy that the Russians are here”, something that the Russian government can show back in the media.
Maria: Mostly they want their people to see that look, here are refugees from bad Ukraine coming to good Russia. Today I heard several stories from people who were going to stay with families in Belarus. If they did it the same day, I think it was something on the media in Belarus, that you should care about your Ukrainian relatives. Relatives from Belarus are calling to say that they should come over. “Here you at least will speak your language, blah, blah, blah.” And people are coming because it’s their families, not because they want to move to Belarus.
Today I met a woman, she said, “My daughter and grandchildren are there. It’s my chance to see my two-year-old grandson.” On the one hand, she is going to this place from which we are bombed, on the other hand, we all mixed, for the older people, it looks fine. And then in the media, they create 100 people from 10 people saying that thousands of refugees from Ukraine are coming from Ukraine to Russia and Belarus.
TFSR: A lot of people in the last six weeks have left Ukraine, and have withdrawn to find other safer places to go to. But I’ve also heard reports that people are coming back to Ukraine for defending it from the invasion or fighting back or trying to collect what they left behind. Is this a thing that you’ve heard about too?
Maria: I know several people who went back because, when they came here, they put them to live in a stadium, and then you leave with 500 people after being shocked and bombed. I think your psychological condition is not very stable. There is already a lack of places. I know that Germany and Poland and today I asked a person who stayed in the Netherlands, she said the same that they actually stayed in barracks or whatever. Volunteers do care about them and give them food, but they cannot live there forever. And they read the same news as me and you.
I know a person who wants to go back to Kyiv to my district and I know that it’s been very loud there the last few weeks. But she has animals, she cannot let them out and she lives in a barrack. She has them in transporter cages. I think it’s very different for different people. But some people just cannot live like this. For some people, it’s better to go with the risk to die rather than stay in a camp.
TFSR: Switching topics a bit, they’re far-right elements, since the Maidan, have been coalescing and doing arm training and participating on both sides in the war in the Donbas. As we’ve talked about, there are armed formations that are anti-fascist and anarchist, and that have been trying to hold that space separate from the far right, and I guess push back against that being normalized and also make safer spaces. But one thing that was happening at the start of the war that I read about was that supporters of the Arsenal Kyiv football club, the Hoods Hoods Clan were starting to support armed resistance. They were known by some as being a more anti-fascist football club. But as I understand, they’ve begun working more with right-wing nationalist formations. I’ve seen pictures of members throwing up the Svoboda three-finger salute. Are you aware of this? Can you talk about what your understanding is among the folks that are staying back and doing armed defense? How difficult it is to hold your ethics in this situation when you’re being shot at?
Maria: I’m not in direct contact with those people, because my comrades are mostly anarchists. There are some anarchists among them, but it’s not an anarchist group. I hope that it is some individuals who are doing it, I don’t think it can be the whole group, but I should check. The group is quite big, and from time to time, new people join. I don’t think they can control people that much. I would ask today, that’s interesting. As I was on the way, and I was in the Lviv without Internet, I don’t know all the news. But it sounds problematic for me is if it’s true, I would not be happy.
TFSR: It’s pretty clear to me that the aggressive invasion of territory and bombing of cities by the Russian military is a terrible thing that should be fought against. I totally respect people defending their territory and defending the spaces they live in, their families, the people around them, and their communities. In the West, it’s difficult for people in countries that are NATO countries to figure out how to relate to this in a way that puts us aside from supporting NATO intervention. I know the weapons that are getting sent in are helping territorial defense fight back the invasion. But do you have any thoughts about how people in countries that are NATO nation-states, besides sending funding, should be helping to resist the invasion without simultaneously working in a way that justifies imperialist Western militaries?
Maria: Sending money is nice. People can go to fight against fascists themselves. It’s an individual decision, but it’s always possible. With this NATO question, I’m very surprised how often I hear it because do you really think that all these leftists have an influence on these decisions?
TFSR: As far as influencing the way that NATO operates? No, but also, in the United States, the position that the US takes is that the Ukrainian government should be supported. It’s not about creating space for an anarchistic society there but those two things overlap in terms of stopping people from dying. The US for instance, where I’m living, and where I’m from uses humanitarian intervention regularly to justify the continued growth of the US military. It’s not just about necessarily helping people defend themselves from an invasion or from a terrorist group or from whatever. But it becomes a part of a larger plan that fuels the big industries of war in this country. That’s what I’m getting at in wondering if you have any views about it.
Maria: Russia openly says on the propagandist TV that they should bomb Washington. I’m not sure that the US TV says something like this, that they should throw somewhere a nuclear bomb. I think was these two, one went much more aggressive, at least with the rhetoric. I think that thinking about geopolitical is just practically totally not useful. Because that’s actually the context they’re given to people to distract their attention. For example, I hear the question about NATO much more often than the question if all the comrades are alive. Maybe it’s because I’m not that good with the theories. But for me, it’s a very strange situation, when people want to talk about this NATO thing that much in a situation where they can actually not really influence it. I think that as anti-authoritarian leftists and anarchists, we should be much more focused on the things we can influence in our lives, and less on the topics given to us from the top, on TV. It is just my opinion, but I feel like this.
TFSR: Super helpful. Do you think it’s useful for people who can take off and maybe a train or whatever to come to join territorial defense and try to support anarchist groups?
Maria: Yes. You can contact all the groups we discussed online, they have websites, Telegram channels, etc. You should ask them, not me. But I think there is a possibility, people who are looking for it can find it without my help.
TFSR: Maria, also would it be helpful to share any information further about how to contact ABC Kyiv, or you’ve mentioned operation solidarity, I can put more information in the show notes and announce that.
Maria: The Operation Solidarity has a chatbot if you need to contact them.
TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to say right now?
Maria: I think we all start to think about how this happened. With Russia, with what is going on? How we have new fascism, because all my life I was asking questions about what happened to Germans in the previous century? I’m asking myself what happened, and how we didn’t see it before they attacked so many countries. Now they also attacked my city, because the country was attacked already eight years ago. I think we should really work somehow that it will never happen a third time, or whatever time is next time?
I hope we will win. I hope my comrades in Russia and Belarus will be released from jails. I do hope we will find a way to stop these things from happening. Because for me, one of the most problematic parts is that actually, the Russian society supports what is going on.
TFSR: I hope for those things, too. Again, thank you very much for taking the time to have this conversation.
Maria: Thank you for asking.
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Mira: Some people know me by the name Mira. I’m from Kharkiv city, which is in the east of Ukraine. Right now, I’m in Lviv.
TFSR: You’ve been in Lviv for a little bit now, like a month or so, right?
Mira: Yes. For the first 11 days of the war, we stayed in Kharkiv. Then we moved to Dnipro using suburban trains with transfers and spent some time in Dnipro and then went to Lviv using an evacuation train. It took like 21 hours to get here. Some of our friends were just staying in the vestibule of the train without a seat because was all crowded. It was a long, long way. We made it to Lviv. Lviv is a much better place to stay because we could do something here. It feels more like a regular peaceful place. We have some air raid alerts from time to time, and sometimes missiles get here too. But for the most part, it feels like a regular peaceful time. From here, it’s easier to coordinate the different types of work, volunteer work, and mutual aid work. It’s more productive and successful to be here, to get stuff, to meet people, and to send all the stuff further to other parts of Ukraine.
TFSR: Kharkiv, where you’re from and where you left is just right across the border from Russia. I know it’s been the center of a lot of really intense battles between the Ukrainian military and lots of shelling and cluster munitions from the Russian military. Is that right?
Mira: Absolutely. Honestly, when a few years ago, in Kharkiv, I and my friends did lots of punk and hardcore shows, including one of the biggest events in our country, Kharkiv Hardcore Fest, which is a few days event, and some bands from abroad that would come to play in Kharkiv were asking, “Aren’t you afraid that you are really close to Russia?” While we already had the military invasion in the eastern part of Ukraine, part of Donbas, it was already occupied, but we still were sure that it won’t go deeper into the country. When people from Finland, and Poland asked us that, we said, “Yes, we are okay.” We didn’t believe that Putin and the Russian military government would really be so crazy to start a full-scale war. Actually, we were surprised to witness what started on February 24.
TFSR: I’m glad that you and your friends were able to make it out. That sounds really, really scary.
Mira: Actually, I just want to add a few words, that since the beginning of the war, the police and army were trying to keep some order at the railway station, because so many people come in, they panic, and the place is too crowded and too many people stayed at the railway station. There were a lot of police and army to make things go smooth and try to keep some order.
That’s why we tried to use suburban train stations because we didn’t want to spend and unbelievable amount of time in the line. Because children, women, and elderly people, go first. If you are military age between 18 and 60, you are the last one to get on the train. We decided not to even try to go to the main station. We preferred to walk with our backpacks and stuff to the nearest suburban train station and get on the suburban trains. One day, we just went to see how it goes, if the trains actually pass by. Just to check it without backpacks, how it goes. When you’re staying on the platform and it’s a pretty open space and you can hear the air raid alerts and the sounds of explosions. It’s not comfortable to stay there, because you never know where the next missiles going to drop.
We made it there, we took one train, we made it to Krasnohrad and spent four or five hours there waiting for another train, and then go to Dnipro right before the curfew time. My friend from Dnipro met us with the car and brought us to the apartments just five minutes before the curfew time. That’s how we made it to Dnipro. Then we took the evacuation train from there for Lviv, 10 days later.
TFSR: You were there after the war started in Kharkiv. And you’ve been to some of these cities before, I would imagine, as a traveling musician, among other things. Can you talk about what it’s been like to see places that you’re familiar with suddenly devastated in these ways?
Mira: That’s really hard to express the feelings, which you get when you see the city you love, the city that you have lots of stuff in common, which you associate with yourself, and you see that everything around is being ruined by the air raids, by multiple launcher systems. To see the historical city center being ruined, and to see regular residential neighborhoods being ruined. You can’t look at it without tears. That’s really tough. Every day, we hoped this will be the last day when they do the bombing and shelling and dropping air bombs. But the following day, it was just getting worse and worse. When we were thinking about how long it could take to rebuild everything which was destroyed, hoping that will end soon, the next day is coming and we see even more destruction. That’s really painful and tearful to see.
Honestly, the first two days we were scared, then the fear changed for hate and anger toward the people who are doing this. We tried to find the ingredients to do Molotov cocktails and stuff like that because we thought they would be in the city soon and we might need that stuff. But actually, the armed forces you’re doing a pretty good job defending the city on the ground. Even those groups of Russian troops who managed to get into the city were eliminated. The main threat was coming not from the troops on the ground, but from the launchers that launched rockets and from the air bombing. The Molotov cocktails wouldn’t really help. We were sitting without any possibility of resistance, because in my group, we have five people, and none of us has military experience. The territorial defense was accepting volunteers only with military experience, so you’d be more useful for the defense. Since none of us had that, we were not accepted. Actually, the territorial defense was pretty full of people, and they didn’t even need more, because a lot of people were willing to defend their city, their land, and their country against the aggressor. That’s why the territorial defense pretty much all over Ukraine is packed with volunteers. They’re not really accepting new applicants for that.
So we were just sitting without really any use. Since every day it was getting tougher and tougher, we decided to go somewhere else, to leave the city until it gets a bit better because the missiles started getting all around the city, not just the suburbs, not just the neighborhoods closer to Russia, to the ring road, but also in the center, all the neighborhoods, including mine, which is close to the city center. There was already some destruction in my neighborhood as well. That’s why we decided to move to be useful in something else, not just sitting in the basement and listening to the sounds of the explosions.
TFSR: What activities have you been up to since you’ve been in Lviv? Is that at all connected to the work that you were doing before the war started in your community? I know some people start off doing, before the pandemic, for instance, were doing mutual aid work of one sort, like feeding people. Then after, in the US at least, have changed. They’ve just modified what they’re doing. Was there any connection between what you’re doing now and what was going on before?
Mira: We are doing totally different things now, because being a booker for shows is not something we would do here, and I had some small business rental for live events, I had my equipment in several clubs, and that is what I was doing besides booking my shows. Definitely, that’s absolutely not timely, nobody needs that. We just do what people actually need. While organizing the shows and the festival in Kharkiv, we have pretty much a big following on our facebook page and Instagram. I know that some people we met in shows, now are in territorial defense or in the armed forces, and I know that some people are lacking protective gear and lots of other items, not just knee/elbow protectors and bulletproof vests, but a lot of other stuff needed to be alive and to be productive in their defensive activity. Right now, the only thing that we are doing is trying to find the stuff our friends need and buy it and send it to them. It is just volunteer work, and it’s definitely not anything close to what we did before the war started.
TFSR: Especially in a war zone, I’m sure it’s really difficult. Here, it’s difficult to find some of that stuff at reasonable and affordable prices. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to source night vision gear or thermal imaging stuff in the middle of a war. From what you can talk about with it, is it just the prices that are really difficult? Or is it getting it off of captured or fallen Russian troops? What does it look like?
Mira: Most all the Russian troops that I’ve seen online don’t have that stuff, either. Since I toured with my bands a lot, I met people in Europe, with whom we stayed in touch till now. After the war started, some people started sending me messages, asking what was going on, and offering some help. That really saves lives now. With these contacts, we managed to work on the logistics of buying stuff, collecting money, and sending that to people who can buy that. Some of the volunteers are coming from Germany, and Poland to Lviv where we meet and get the stuff and send it further. The personal contacts, which I got in peaceful life before the war now really help to get what we need.
TFSR: So you’re mentioning booking gigs and shows and playing shows in the punk and hardcore scene in Kharkiv. Touring. Just looking back to what that scene in that community has been like for you – it’d be interesting to hear what the music scene was like?
Mira: Well, it’s pretty much a copy of a Western scene just on a smaller scale. Since the scene was born here much later than in the US or Europe, it’s younger but it shares the same ideals. I know that in the United States, some micro scenes just don’t care about anything. Some are really political, pay attention to political issues, and some are there just for music. When in Ukraine, they started to develop, it was very political starting in 2005 to 2015. Now, it was getting less, but we always were paying attention to who is in our shows, because we were always against any discrimination practices. We were not happy to see anyone with any Nazi symbols, in 90% of our shows, we specifically mentioned that Nazis are not welcome. Such people even don’t come because in most cases, they understand what views we have, so to avoid conflict, they just don’t come to our shows. There was a lot of physical confrontation in Kharkiv as well, years before, after the Maidan in 2014, actually, the number of confrontations got smaller and since 2014, it’s just calmed down. We didn’t really have big problems. There were some people wearing Nazi streetwear brands and stuff like that, trying to come to shows. They were just turned off at the entrance and didn’t get in. Years before, we had big fights in 2009-12. Sometimes we had fights with 40 people on one side and 50 people on the other side. But it’s calmed down with time.
Actually, at this moment, Nazis have their own hardcore scene developing. The fun fact is that they listen to a lot of good bands, but they do shows and they play and they support ideas, which those bands actually absolutely don’t support. I know some Nazis from Dnipro were traveling to Poland to see the band Backtrack and Agnostic Front, Madball, and stuff like that. When they go to Europe to see these bands, they shut the fuck up and don’t even show that they are right-wing sympathizers. But when they are back in Ukraine, in Dnipro, they have such symbols and T-shirts at their shows. But that’s an absolutely different scene and we don’t cross our paths. They don’t come to our shows. We don’t come to their shows.
TFSR: I saw Stiff Little Fingers once perform. They stopped the performance partway through and just started railing against Nazis and saying that “If any racists are here, you need to understand that you don’t understand the lyrics that we’re singing. Because we hate you. You need to go. You’re not welcome here.” I’ve seen like recordings a few times of Dropkick Murphys in the US also making that statement or going down and beating up Nazis that are in the crowd. I think it’s really important and really impressive when people use that platform to be very clear that that is not what they’re about.
Mira: At our shows frontmen of some bands clearly talk about that. Even if there is some person in the audience who also goes to some Nazi shows. That happens, we don’t know everyone. They just stay in there listening and don’t show who they are. But maybe that will help them realize someday what real punk and hardcore are about and what it is against. Maybe when some people accidentally get to the show with some friends, big shows where you can’t recognize everyone. Maybe these people see how hardcore punk bands play and what they are saying, and what are their views on racism, homophobia, and stuff like that. Maybe they change their minds. The time will show, you never know.
TFSR: Do people at your shows or at the shows in the Kharkiv hardcore scene table literature and stickers and stuff like that?
Mira: We don’t have sticker culture, we don’t have our clubs or something. It could be five shows in five different locations. It’s not really popular to put a lot of stickers around, because people in the clubs don’t like any political stickers, just to avoid losing clients. There is one club that we boycott, and we don’t do shows there. We don’t come there, because they allow right-wing bands to play there. It’s conveniently located. It’s a pretty good sound. But the owner is weird and we had conversations before. He was saying that he’s against any politics and that fascists will never have an event at his club. Then later, we have videos of people doing Nazi salutes there. It is just one instance, he says it is just business, he is doing business and doesn’t care about anything else.
TFSR: That sounds like stuff here.
Mira: I believe that happens, often, everywhere.
TFSR: If people here want to support– In the other segment that we’re airing from Maria, who’s currently in Warsaw, we mentioned Operation Solidarity, and also the Resistance Committee. A lot of their work is based out of Kyiv. Are there any other groups that you would suggest people send money to distribute, to get defensive implements, like helmets and vests out to the Lviv? Or do those groups work with you all in Lviv?
Mira: Yes, Operation Solidarity works in Kyiv and Lviv. We cooperate on some issues. We know each other, but they have a bigger following and more people. They are concentrated mainly on helping left-wing people in the scene whom they know. At Kharkiv Hardcore, we don’t check how left you are, if you call yourself an anarchist, or just if we know the person and if you know this person was at our shows, and you know the person is fighting or is going to fight soon, we help this person. That’s the difference. But we share the same values, we share the same views. We cooperate also on some issues. I think we’ll just develop this cooperation further.
TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to talk about?
Mira: Maybe just the thing that I need to mention is that 10 years ago, I would say before the Maidan 2014, before the Russian invasion, the first Russian invasion started in 2014 when they occupied the Crimea and part of Donetsk and Luhansk Region. Before that, we considered our scene – of Ukraine and Russia – as one scene. I mean the scene in music and ideological terms, the antifascist scene, and the music punk hardcore scene. But after that, our paths started to go in different directions. We have fewer connections and less and less understanding of what’s going on in Ukraine. I had lots of contacts in Russia. After this full-scale war started, I got messages just from a few people from Russia. I understand that they now have a dictatorship, and they’re not allowed to say anything publicly and to voice their opinion if it’s against the official line of the government. But anyway, still, some people have a really weird position. Some people don’t say anything, some people say something that demonstrates they don’t understand at all what is going on in Ukraine, but they still keep trying to hold some position.
I don’t want to name the bands we have some questions to. But the main thing is that, unfortunately, after this conflict, the relations, and the attitudes to the Russian people would not be the same, because officially, 70% of the population of Russia supports their president. I understand they eat a lot of propaganda and are pretty fooled by it. But anyway, the result of it is the real war which we have right now. Unfortunately, all big bands, even in the punk and hardcore scene of Russia, didn’t show any position. They don’t call the aggressor aggressor. That’s really disappointing. I don’t know if we are able to communicate after this war is over.
TFSR: That makes a lot of sense. I guess it’ll take a lot of work on the Russian side, the Russian hardcore and anti-fascist scene to try to– It seems really complicated over there. But that’s not to make any apologies. As you said, they live under a dictator. That’s hard, but I hope that they do the work to recognize and listen to your voices.
Mira: I just want to add that there are bands in Russia, that tour in Europe, and they try to sit on two stools at the same time. They don’t want to call the aggressor the aggressor. They also try to show that they are for peace, but they’re not saying who is ruining the peace. That’s a problem.
When these bands announced European tours, I am afraid that the agenda wouldn’t be correct. Because some people in Europe hate the United States so much that they refuse the right of Ukraine to subjectivity. They call it the concept of the United States and Russia, two empires, and they don’t care about Ukraine. They hate the United States so much that they don’t give a fuck about Ukraine at all. That’s why some people in Europe are supporting and eating it and spreading Kremlin’s propaganda. They’re so anti-imperialist, that they are okay with Ukraine being destroyed.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s a funny way to identify an empire, not as someone going in and invading another place because they say that they have a historical relationship and that that other place actually belongs to them, which Putin has done by saying, “Lenin was wrong. The Tsar was right. Stalin was right. Ukraine is a place for us to make decisions about.”
TFSR: Mira, thank you so much for this conversation and I am excited to share it. Are there any other links, do you want to mention your band name? It’s okay if you don’t. Or anything that listeners might follow.
Mira: Well, if you’re into punk rock, if you like street punk and oi, you should check out the band I am in right now. It’s called the Bezlad. While in Lviv, three of us are here out of five people, and we’ll try to make some new songs about current events. With the help of local folks who will fill in, we will try to record something. Also, we have a plan to play at a bomb shelter. That’s something new that we never experienced. Hope that will work. If you’re interested in punk, check it out, and stay in touch if you feel like it.
TFSR: We’ll be featuring a song at the end of this interview so folks can listen in to one track by that band. All right. Well, thanks a lot. I hope you keep safe and good luck to you and yours. I hope the war ends soon.
Mira: Thank you so much. Thank you for your attention. Thank you for speaking out about this. For spending your time to let people know what’s going on and let them hear Ukrainian voices on what’s going on here.
This week, you’ll hear a chat with California-based activist Victoria from Merced Under Construction, who talks to us about the prisoner hunger strikes at Merced County Jail and John Latorraca Center. Over 40 prisoners engaged in hunger strike for 17 days, fighting for issues like protesting black mold, little food, lack of visitation and other issues. The hunger strike ended Saturday, March 28th, despite the disrespect of the jail administration. You can learn more about how to support and keep up on https://linktr.ee/mercedunderconstruction or MIRA’s facebook page
You can find coverage of the 2016 Merced Jail protests, check out ItsGoingDown.Org
Eric King Trial Ends
Then, you’ll hear from Josh from the Certain Days Calendar and Mookie from the Civil Liberties Defense Center do an update on a roundup of the recent trial of Eric King. Eric was found innocent on charges of assaulting a Federal Bureau of Prisons Lieutenant, a charge that would have added another 20 years to his time in prison, thankfully. More on his case at SupportEricKing.Org, more on Certain Days at CertainDays.Org and the CLDC at CLDC.org
Victoria Espinoza: Alright, great. My name is Victoria Espinoza, and identify as a Child of God. I’m born and raised in Merced, California, and I’m the founder of Merced Under Construction.
TFSR: And could you tell us a bit about where Merced County is? What listeners should know about the county? The economy, who lives there, what it looks like, that sort of stuff?
VS: Well, Merced, man, not a lot of people know where Merced is. When they hear Central Valley. They’re like, “what is that?” They think of like Bay Area, LA, when you think of California. But we are literally the central of the state of California, like the Central Valley area in between Fresno and Modesto, or Stanislaus and Fresno County. Our city slogan is “we are the gateway to Yosemite.” And, you know, we boast about it, or the city does at least. But nearly 25% of our population is living in poverty. So it’s predominantly white, Latino, like Hispanic, Mexican, indigenous folks living here with some other races mixed in. We have like, less than 4% Black folks, we do have a very strong Hmong community here and a lot of other different nationalities, race that are here.
TFSR: And for like, as far as, you mentioned, 25% of the population living in poverty, what are the sort of industries that people are involved in? Is it agriculture? Since we’re gonna be talking about prisons, I’m sure that prisons, and police and military are like big employers for parts of the population.
VS: Yeah, so we are a very large agriculture community. So we do have a lot of farm workers. We have a lot in many of our cities and our outskirts as well and unincorporated areas. So that is one thing that we do have strong here in Merced is the ag. We have some industry, industrial stuff, but mainly we’re known for agriculture, honestly. We do have UC Merced, last university that’s been built in. They’re building on that. UC Merced is growing, obviously. So we are seeing some of that, some things that are happening in our community, with rent controls not happening, people are getting pushed out and it’s not the Merced that it used to be 10 years ago, definitely.
TFSR: I guess I do want to ask some questions about Merced Under Construction later and imagine that that’s, like, gentrification and issues like that are being engaged with that group. Is that right?
TFSR: Jumping off into the main topic, though. So we’re speaking because there’s been hunger strikes among incarcerated folks at the jails in the county. Can you talk a bit about the conditions at Merced County Jail, and also at the John Latorraca excuse me…
VS: John Latorraca, you said it right. It has a nickname called Sandy Mush? I don’t even know that nickname comes from, but it’s its nickname.
TFSR: Yeah, what’s been up with the hunger strike? Can you talk a little bit about what sparked it? And how many folks are participating and sort of like the basic stuff on that?
VS: Yeah, so the last count that we had, it was about 44, initially, but since then, we’ve had people probably come out and people probably go in. So I haven’t got an accurate count as to how many that could be from the initial start of the strike. Yesterday marked day 17. I haven’t heard from anybody since noontime yesterday, so I’m hoping privileges were not taken. But they were dealing with a ton. A ton of stuff going on, black mold in the housing units and that’s impacting health, not being given hot meals, even hot water, just simple basic human asks, just necessities to live on.
The grievances for these things that there were issues in administration, they were being ignored, or they’re getting vague responses, that whole system had failed. Losing mail, incoming and outgoing was already a problem before the pandemic. And since the pandemic had started it became even worse. Since they had their visitations taken for over two years with the excuse of the pandemic, and weren’t offered any other means, the mail and the phones became a vital lifeline. Those were basically stolen from them.
That has impacted them in negative ways. I mean, their mental health, inability to make appropriate decisions. So many people that were in the facility the past two plus years were taking deals just to get out of the jails here so they could go to a prison that offers visitation, and that is crazy. That’s like people at there last, at their wit’s end, like “I’m gonna take a deal just so I could get out of here because this is like living hell.” That was a serious thing.
Being discriminated against based on their housing status, the jail uniforms that impacts them when they’re before a judge or the district attorney. A lot of these same asks were things that we saw from the 2016 prison strikes that Merced county jails were also a part of, and it’s nearly six years later, and not much has changed. It’s just kind of kind of crazy. They were on day 17 as of yesterday, and they were in negotiation. So the agreement was actually yesterday for them to end their strike. They were supposed to end it with the hot breakfast, have their hot water.
But then the morning came, and we ran into issues with the staff. They began to be hostile towards them. And when meals came around, they didn’t bring them anything, they didn’t even bring them cold food, they didn’t bring them anything that did not bring them hot water. They were just being cold. When I think about it, it was just evil towards them. So they basically went through all these negotiations for what purpose? They were with the Sheriff’s corrections, they had agreed to this on day 17, that it would break in the morning on these conditions. Those two basic conditions weren’t even met.
So they weren’t accepting any meals from the admin. They weren’t doing any movements at all. So that means their yard time and they’re getting maybe two or three hours a week, if that. Anyway, they weren’t accepting court movements. They weren’t even seeing their attorneys for meetings. They basically weren’t doing anything, any medical, anything like that, they were basically saying, “I’m not moving, I’m not eating until you guys change some stuff.” And the negotiations after noon time yesterday, they said that they had pulled some folks out. We were doing some phones zaps for them on their behalf yesterday to all the jail facilities and the Board of Supervisors. They did pull some of them out to have more talks. But after that, it’s been radio silence. So I’m hoping everything’s going okay.
TFSR: That sounds like a terrible flex, kind of authoritarian flex, that places like jails and the kind of people that staff them would make. When you’re mentioning people taking deals just so they can go to prison, are a lot of the people that are there and who are participating in this in pretrial conditions right now just sort of awaiting their day in court? And also people who’ve gotten county charges who are being held there, too?
VS: Yeah, we do have some people that serve sentences here locally. I think if it’s under two years, one year. It’s at the discretion of our county facility if they want to house somebody for their time, or if they’re going to send them to state prison. They have that ability. But most of the folks that are here are pretrial detainees, so they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime. Some of these are not sight-and-release offenses with the whole bail reform law. Some of these people are sitting in there on bale-able offenses, but yet they don’t have the funds to make that happen.
TFSR: It’s so so inhumane that you expect someone to be able to put their life on hold and also not be able to necessarily access the means to build a defense for themselves because they’re worrying about how their family is doing on the outside. They’re just kind of waiting until the courts have enough time to see them.
You’d mentioned the uniforms too. And I know that in the demands, there was a statement about how the uniforms that were being assigned to people weren’t necessarily respective to like security threat group status that people were in. I know that even the STG [Security Threat Group] type thing, saying that someone’s in a gang or whatever isn’t always applied according to someone’s actual participation in a criminal organization. But can you say a little bit about people’s experience of the of the issue of the uniforms and what that means for access to programs or to things like ability to research in the library? Not that there probably is a library, but you know what I mean?
VS: Yeah, I think a lot of it… the people that are more impacted by this whole uniform thing, are predominantly brown, Latino, hispanic, Mexican, indigenous individuals, because they separate them by the two gang classifications, Norteños and Sureños. Pretty much everybody else gets housed as general population when it comes to the maximum security facility of the Merced County Jail. But mainly these folks are the southern, northern, or the red and the blue, however the classification deems it. They separate them, and since Merced County unfortunately operates on LA County’s informal gang injunction model, a lot of people come into our jails are impacted and being labeled gang members based on familial association, based on where they live. They might live next to somebody that’s a documented or validated gang member. So they get housed, and they say it’s for their safety to house them this way, but then we have people that are not from any of these origins, being classified like this.
So when they go to court, and you see the northern, Norteño, classifications, they’re in green and white stripes, the southern are in a blue and white stripe. And so that takes a big toll on them, when they’re going through the whole process, how the district attorney is looking at them, how the judges are looking at them, and the bias that comes with that. This has been going on for a long time with this facility. We know that other jails, like in Stanislaus County, have a different system. Basically, people are housed as general population, just like they do in prisons, everybody’s pretty much housed together, and they know how to separate folks.
So that’s what the sheriff’s corrections here in Merced, were talking about introducing a bracelet system. But they’ve talked about this before back in 2016 and no changes have been made. So that’s a problem for a lot of people, especially when they’re going through this whole unfortunate situation, with being incarcerated, being labeled as a “gang member” even if they’ve never even been a part of that lifestyle. It’s pretty disgusting that that’s been going on for so many decades. This has been happening for a long time in this community.
TFSR: Do you have a sense of if they are just gonna keep going as long as they can go with it?
VS: So right now, so what they were doing, they were refusing all admin meals, and basically attempting to survive minimally off what they could get on commissary. Commissary is trash. It’s a lot of things that are not even acceptable for the human body. And these are things that people are forced to buy because they’re not getting proper nutrition from the food that they’re getting from the facility itself. The food, they were protesting, part of the strike was protesting the inadequate conditions of the food and improper nutrition. I mean, people’s health being impacted. They’ve been in there for a few months and we got folks losing teeth. I mean, that that’s how bad it is.
So that was pretty much what they were doing, refusing all admin meals. Because they weren’t even getting hot meals like they should have been. At least two hot meals a day. It’s the minimum. They weren’t getting that for so long. And that’s pretty much what they were refusing. It was affecting a lot of them. I mean, yesterday was day 17. They were in the negotiations ready to say, “All right, we will accept if we get a hot meal. Like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a hot meal.” I can’t imagine going 17 days without a hot meal or even hot water. That’s just like the basic things that you need. Right? That was the other thing, is the hot water, being able to have hot water.
TFSR: So there’s the cruelty of not offering these things. You mentioned that administration had made the agreement that after 17 days, they would offer them a warm meal and hot water and they refused that. How have they been expressing themselves and their reasoning for continuing to treat people in this manner in the media? Because I’m sure that they’ve been making statements, the media has been reproducing right?
VS: Yeah, well, initially, the Merced Sun Star had wrote an article, again, without interviewing any detainees or inmates, and without reaching out and speaking to any of the loved ones, or anybody that was involved in the organizing around the strike out here. They interviewed the Sheriff’s Department. Basically, they were just talking about how they’re supposedly meeting and in negotiations with these asks of the detainees and the inmates. Which was not true at that point. So we had sent out a media advisory, challenging, to show us to tell us exactly what’s being done, because the public has a right to know. Public state funds or whatever is being used to fund that facility and all the things that are happening in there.
So I mean, they’re going to paint their own narrative. That’s basically what they’re going to do and they’re going to do that time and time again, I don’t think that’s going to change. But when they were in negotiations and they had clearly stated, “Okay, we will break our strike on day 17 when we get our hot breakfast and our hot water.” At about five, six o’clock, when they’re usually taking out the trays, they came around, nothing came. Not even cold food. Then when they were trying to communicate with the correctional staff, they were being treated hostilely. They were basically taunting, saying, “Yeah, your hot water is out here. But we’re not going to bring it to you.” Well how are they going to go and get it? How are they going to go and get that water? It’s out there. But we’re not bringing it to you. I mean, that type of behavior, it’s just unnecessary.
So yeah, you’re right, it was just kind of like that flex, “we can pretty much continue to do what we want,” kind of thing. They were reaching out to us. So we started, we had put out posts and numbers for phone zaps to try to get something. Then after a couple of hours, they pulled some folks out, to have more communications with them. But that was around noon time yesterday. And again, like I said, we haven’t heard anything from inside as of now.
TFSR: So yeah, as far as the public needing to know about this and you mentioned the taxpayer money and such. But also all the people that are in there, almost everyone is going to have people on the outside who care about them. I’m sure a lot of the people, not just people who have an idea that this is a wrong circumstance, but they have a personal care for loved ones that are stuck behind these bars. How is the outside engagement, then, as far as you could tell, in terms of organizing, communicating, offering support to loved ones, participating in the phone zaps, or showing up in person?
VS: Oh, yeah, I mean, for instance the rally that we had on the 21st, the turnout was low. We had less than 12, like 12 people total. A lot of that right now has to do with the inmates and the loved ones, they’re concerned with the possibility of retaliation, and also the risk of even advocating for somebody, out here, that’s in there, people that are labeled as “gang members,” you run the risk of being labeled a gang member yourself. I mean, and that’s a consequence, that many folks that are impacted face. I might even be labeled as a gang member, because according to a loved one that I had, that was inside the facility, just recently, the end of last year, they were taken out by classifications and asked questions about myself about “we know she’s a gang member, who does she run with?” and these type of things.
I know that this facility has blocked my phone number so that folks in there can no longer reach out to me. That’s unfortunate, because I didn’t know about the hunger strike, actually, until day 10. Somebody from the family members in there had to find me, and search for me, in order to make the connection because I didn’t know my number had been blocked from the facility itself. So I mean, that’s another thing. Folks trying to organize in there trying to reach out for help and they’re literally blocking their means of a lifeline from within the Merced County Jails, for whatever reason. I don’t know why.
That’s pretty much what we’re seeing. There are people in there that don’t have anyone. So we have people in there reaching out, because they need funds, they don’t have any funds for personal care, or to get anything from the commissary line. And it becomes a community within the facility when you have people like that that are indigent, and they should be able to utilize the welfare funds. And when they utilize the welfare funds, when they do get commissary on their book, then all of a sudden, the staff comes and takes that for anytime they went to the doctor, anytime they got a mail package for the one month, what are those four or five dollars if they’ve been in there for a year. Then somebody puts $50, $100 on their books, and all of a sudden administration comes and says, “Oh, you owe us this money,” and then they snatch it. So that’s kind of a problem as well, for those people that are impacted in that way. They don’t have loved ones out here at all.
TFSR: So, if the administration takes the tack of separating people, according to ostensible gang certifications, or whatever, putting them in these different uniforms, have people been able to, despite that, organize across these lines with each other for the hunger strike and the common understanding that we’re all suffering under this?
VS: Yeah, I have seen that this time around as well, that people were joining in solidarity within the facility itself. But yet, it’s just very hard to try to make those connections inside the facility. The Merced County Jail is the maximum security facility. So it’s heavily segregated. But people were still in solidarity with that, trying to say, “hey, we’re having the same issues, let’s join together, let’s band together.” So that was one thing that they were doing in there to try to show them “hey, we don’t have to be segregated, we don’t have to be labeled like this, and we don’t have to work different uniforms. We could be housed together, we can even organize together inside of the facility for change.”
TFSR: Is anyone on the outside raising the alarm, obviously, black mold is a health issue that that is on the books that black mold can cause mental issues, it can cause lung issues, quite obviously. And, not getting your caloric value or your intake of calories every day can also cause mental anguish, as well as starvation basically. Have there been anyone successfully being able to raise concerns about the demands of the folks inside of these two jail from a legal standpoint saying, “this doesn’t follow the California requirements for how a county jail operates?” Has that been a direction that’s been helpful at all?
VS: We haven’t had any support in that area. And I’ve reached out and it just seems like they’re not. I’ve reached out to ACLU, I’ve reached out to other firms for prisoners rights, and a lot of these places, they’re not based near our area and so they just say, “we don’t have anybody that can cover” or, “we’re at our capacity.” So we haven’t seen any relief in that way. But I’m gonna hopefully be getting together with some folks in the next week to draft something up, because we want to have an external review and investigation because I don’t think our Merced County Grand Jury is doing a good enough job, because they’ve seen these conditions for a number of years and they haven’t enforced any type of action to make them correct it on a permanent status. So we’re gonna have to look to like OGI or OIG, whatever the that external government entity that’s over our prisons and our jails is going to have to come and put eyes on this.
TFSR: I See. So could you talk a little bit about MIRA and about Merced Under Construction, who’s getting involved, and what the groups are about, and talk about the difficulties or any difficulties or wins that you’ve seen with those groups?
VS: Oh, awesome. So MIRA, was actually Merced Inmates Rights Association and it is the page that’s ran by the loved ones of the current detainees and inmates of the Merced county jails and the John Latorraca Jail. It’s pretty awesome, and they’re new to all of this stuff. But they’re so passionate and driven to bring awareness. And that’s kind of where I fit in. I’ve been a directly impacted person, right? It’s kind of how Mercer Under Construction all came together.
Right now, we’re just looking for support. Merced Under Construction isn’t officially an org or anything like that. I’m actually, we’re opposed to the whole nonprofit industrial complex. So we’re really looking to folks, to keep it really grassroots and centered around real people, and being able to find funding for the work and whatnot. Hopefully, we can start doing that here pretty soon. But that’s basically what we’re doing. We’re just centered around incarceration, and the impacts of that on people in their families, a lot of work around police accountability, and creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated folks and their families. One of the pillars is to definitely to reach out to the children that are impacted by it as well.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the name Merced Under Construction? Does it concern that the community is not completed? It’s not done? We’re still building it as we go? Or is it more of a like, “there’s money coming in for development projects, we need to make sure that those developments are actually supporting the people that already live here as opposed to larger entities?”
VS: It’s a little bit of both and the fact that we’re just never done. There’s so much work to be done. When we have developers, and we have businesses looking at Merced to build, and we have more and more funding going into suppression and first-responding in our community. Yet, we still have youth that are being impacted, joblessness, homelessness, houslessness, and people that are struggling trying to stretch a food stamp, people that are just falling through the cracks. I just feel like it’s always gonna be undone until we can finally bring that awareness and bring folks together, have this accountability, and figure out where the money is going. Because some of these funds that they’re they’re getting, like the COVID-19 funding, and all the extra grants and stuff that they get for every arrest that they can deem a gang related arrest, or an incarceration they can deem gang related, they’re getting federal and state fund grants on top of that. So is that a reason? Merced is just always under construction.
TFSR: Kind of like a side note, I did Cop Watch when I was living in Sonoma County. This is like the mid 2000s, and we were seeing that the local Gang Task Force, which was made up to some degree, it did have California Highway Patrol participation, but also it’s mostly the county that was coordinating with local police departments. They would all kind of joined together under the auspices of gang issues, would set up checkpoints. They would also get Driving Under the Influence, like federal anti DUI funding, to set up checkpoints in immigrant neighborhoods where people maybe didn’t have the papers for the car that they were driving because they were sharing it among multiple families, or maybe they didn’t have a license because they weren’t legally allowed to because they were undocumented. Just getting the money to go and set up there under the auspices of gangs, or DUIs nowhere near a bar, and taking people’s vehicles who were absolutely being marginalized by capitalism and white supremacy, and selling those and funding their own department out of that. That sounds kind of like it’s par for the course for California’s policing systems.
VS: Yeah. There’s so many. There’s the minor decoy program grants that they get. There’s just so many little things and it’s all fruit of the poisonous tree, in my opinion. It doesn’t really impact anything like what you’re talking about, the DUIs, and the minor decoy. These little grants get a ton of money. but yet, in my community, violent crime is up, murder is up, rapes are up, child murder… We just had a little girl that was killed in our community, her body was found. Nine years old, Sophia Mason, a beautiful black child. These types of crimes are happening. But they’re putting money into checkpoints. They’re putting money into seeing if anybody’s gonna buy a minor alcohol or cigarettes. But we have some dark, unnecessary crime rising here. My mind is blown. Home invasions are up, it’s just crazy. We’re a very small community compared on the scale of the state of California, Merced County is tiny. We’re very small. So again, it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all whatsoever.
TFSR: Well, how can listeners find out more about the strike and support it from where they’re at? Maybe not locally? Or if or locally? If you have some suggestions?
VS: Oh, definitely awesome. So we will continue posting on the MIRA page, the Merced Inmate Rights Association page, and the Merced Under Construction Instagram and Facebook page. But like I said, we’re unofficial org, so we’re asking folks to support. Right now we have a link tree link up. If folks have it in their heart or their conscience to support us, we’ll be accepting donations through ‘buy me a coffee,’ through that outlet. But we’re putting funds together for detainees and inmates directly. So we want to be able to put, fund several people’s, at least a month commissary account, whether that’s $25, whether that’s $50, we want to be able to put money for them to use themselves, for the phone, for food, for personal care, etc. We’re also going to be having some letter writing days, where we’ll be sending them out handwritten letters, cards, and communication with folks that are inside of the facilities themselves. So we have a direct line. There’s a lot of people like I had said before, they don’t have anybody out on the outside, they don’t come from much. We want to be able to support them, and let them know that they are loved. That they’re cared about and that there are people out here that say that they matter.
A lot of other work we’re doing that we need support with, it’s police accountability part of our work. And man, sometimes we have bits of a drive, we have to drive got to take reports, do our own investigations. We also have to request records from whatever government agency that the officer involved works with. So we have to pay for flex or dash cam or other records. And again, we don’t want to be a part of the nonprofit industrial complex, so we’re trying to just keep it grassroots and just real people funding real work that’s really happening in Merced. We’ve never done this before. It’s only always been on our own time on our own dime. And now we’re like really needing assistance because it’s growing. So that’s basically it. Just check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and hopefully we can get our website up here in like the next month or so.
TFSR: Victoria, thank you so much for having this conversation for the work that you’re doing. Yeah, I guess keep in touch. And we’ll keep trying to cover this when we can.
VS: I appreciate you Bursts. Thank you so much.
[ Editors note: The hunger strike ended Saturday, March 28th, despite the disrespect of the jail administration. ]
Transcription (Eric King Trial)
Josh: My name is Josh, I’m based out of Baltimore. And I do a lot of political prisoner support work and abolition work. I’m a member of the Certain Days Calendar Collective, and the children’s art project with political prisoner Oso Blanco. I’m currently also editing a book with Eric King, where we interview political prisoners about their lives inside. I work in communications with the Zinn education project. And I guess I first started writing Eric in 2017 or so and we’ve been corresponding ever since.
Mookie:My name is Mookie Moss, and my pronouns are he and him. I’ve been on the CLDC board of directors for gosh, maybe six or seven years, my day job has been a farmer for the last 25 or 26 years. But I’ve worked in and around a lot of radical organizations, both in the United States and in South America. A lot of the work that I’ve done has been around indigenous farmers down south, and anti-capitalist movements in South America, and here in the United States, environmental activist, that kind of stuff. So that’s who I am.
TFSR: So for listeners who don’t know, Eric, can you say some words about who he is and what he was convicted of?
Mookie: To be totally frank and honest, I have come to Eric Kings’ case pretty late in the game. But I did jump in with both feet based on this opportunity to work with the organization that I work with, which is the Civil Liberties Defense Center. My learning of Eric’s life and his story was kind of a crash course. But just based on my past experience being there for his trial, he came across to me as an incredibly emotionally sensitive guy, and also a really intelligent guy. He spoke really, really well. Obviously, because he’s a political prisoner, my view is that he really looks at his experience, both in jail and the world around him through a very, very strong political lens. So I would just add that.
TFSR: Oh, yeah. And with, with the usage of the term political prisoner in there, that says a lot, not only for what he was convicted for. Right? For that politically motivated property destruction, but also for the way that he’s conducted himself, and also how he’s been treated by administration’s since he’s been inside.
Can you all talk a bit about as sort of background for this case, what has Eric’s treatment been like in prison? How is he related to other prisoners as an antifascist, and as an anti-authoritarian, and also how the staff has related to him for these reasons?
Josh: Sure. So Eric, currently has been in solitary confinement for over 1,000 days, for over three years. He’s been in federal prisons all over the country, in private prisons as well. And he’s been brutalized and attacked wherever he’s been sent, either by guards or by Nazi-type prisoners. He’s defended himself every step of the way. He’s tried to help other prisoners, whenever he’s been given the chance, to to help voice their concerns.
I think it’s also important to point out that it’s not just Eric being targeted, that this happens to political prisoners and prisoners in general, throughout history. It’s currently happening not only with Eric King, but as you know with Sean Swain having his finger chopped recently by guards, there’s several indigenous prisoners being abused now, for the religious reasons, having their sweat lodge destroyed in a federal prison in California. I mean, it goes back all the way, the Attica brothers, Herman Bell being abused years ago before he got out. You know, it goes back throughout American history of guard abuse. It’s it’s pretty endless.
Mookie: I would also add, just to what Josh eloquently put, is that witnessing what Eric actually just went through as an extenuation of that type of torture, and bullshit, and experience that he has dealt with all along the way. Watching how the Bureau of Prisons handled him even just during this court case, where there was obviously a spotlight put upon him and put upon his conditions and experience was mind boggling to watch and to bear witness to. I have been interested in political prisoners and the struggle for a very, very long time. It’s not like I came into this with a blind eye like people are being treated well in prison, but the amount of punitive and destructive behavior from the Bureau of Prisons towards Eric, just during this case, there was something coming up. I can talk about that. Josh and I can talk about that. But it was just it was a microcosm of a much larger experience of let’s turn the screws against the people that are standing up for themselves and for their their belief system. It was really something else.
TFSR: He was speaking of “screws”, would y’all mind talking a little bit about what this trial was about? And what what sort of outcomes Eric was facing during it, and how long it’s lasted? Because it seems like it’s lasted a very long time to get to the phase of actually going before a judge and jury.
Mookie: Yeah, that’s right. So if I’m getting my dates right, the original incident which caused this recent trial, took place August 17, 2018. It was a situation where an assault had happened in the institution that Eric was spending time in and Eric wrote a[n] email to his wife to sort of blow off some steam and describe the situation that had happened in the institution he was spending time in. Basically, he said… I don’t have the email in front of me. So I’m not going to read it word for word, but basically, he was describing and feeling some excitement over the fact that a prisoner had struck a correctional officer. And beyond that, he went on to describe the feeling of wishing that he could be there to witness it, wishing he could have seen it, he said something along the lines of even watching it in virtual reality.
He was pulled out of his pulled out of his cell, because that email, obviously was read by the correctional authorities and the guards. So he got pulled out of his cell under the guise that they were going to do an investigation. He walked himself from his cell down to a place called the lieutenant’s office. And the lieutenant’s office, which really was a long hallway that had four rooms that came off of that hallway. A couple of them were lieutenants offices, one was a property room, I believe it was described as, and then the last room in that hallway was a broom closet. A broom closet full of mop buckets, rakes, tools, all these different things.
What happened next changes a lot depending on which correctional authority you heard the story from but Eric’s story never really changed a bit. What Eric’s story was as he was led into this broom closet. There were two correctional guards, two lieutenants, Lieutenant Wilcox and a Lieutenant Kammrad. Lieutenant Wilcox got in his face, Eric said, “I don’t want to fight.There’s two of you,” essentially, Wilcox kicked out his subordinate, Kammrad. Wilcox started a fight with Eric and he called him a ‘bitch’ he called him a ‘punk’ in this broom closet and he attacked Eric. Eric, decided that he didn’t think that being attacked a broom closet was going to be good for his life or good for his situation and so he fought back and he struck Lieutenant Wilcox in the face three times very in very quick succession. Lieutenant Wilcox was a really big guy, and Eric is not a big guy.
So it was pretty clear that Eric was more skilled in that expression, and he broke Wilcox’s nose. And after he broke Wilcox’s nose the other guards the other lieutenants ran in and you know, Eric had assumed a neutral position after he put wilt Wilcox down on the ground, and then from there, a whole series of things unfolded. Essentially the case was a “he said, he said” case, you know, where Wilcox said one thing and Eric said the truth. Fortunately for this court case, the guards that all had a story to share, the story was so convoluted and and frankly bullshit that that really came out in the trial.
So this turned out to be a self defense case. And it’s pretty remarkable, the legal team for the CLDC Lauren Regan, Sarah Alvarez, and Sandra Freeman, they did an incredible job of not only showing the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the Bureau of Prisons story, but also did a really good job giving Eric an opportunity to speak his truth up on the stand. And we’re lucky enough to be in one of those very rare situations where justice prevailed.
TFSR: Okay, there’s a few things that are heard throughout the course of the last, I guess, three and a half years, including that Wilcox had said, “Oh, you’re in Antifa, huh?” Something about his daughter running into anti-fascists and having a problem with that. He just sort of threw out a bunch of weird, disconnected shit, it sounded like. But it seemed like it must have been some sort of prefigured situation for them to take him into a room that the only room that didn’t have any cameras, which was a bit suspect, and then afterwards to hold him down in restraint for a number of hours, like 14 hours or something like that. Can you talk a little bit about some of that?
Josh: Sure. Yeah. He was held in four point restraint for hours after the incident occurred, after he was beaten. Yeah, there’s parts of it on video. There’s parts of it that were missing on video. I think it’s also worth mentioning, I listen to the trial from afar, but at one point I think they tried to make the case that a black eye that Eric suffered, was actually his Antifa tattoo on his face, which is just another way of showing that it’s his politics that they’re attacking, which I think does go to show what you were saying that it’s intentional and it is planned out. Anything to add, Mookie?
Mookie: You know, Josh is correct. They did at one point try to pin that black eye on the fact that he had a tattoo there. At another point, they were sort of edging towards this reasoning and this was very skillfully shut down by Eric’s defense team, but potentially that Eric either got the black eye when he was brought down on his face by the rest of the guards who rushed into save their buddy Wilcox. It was sort of hinted at one time that maybe potentially he could have given himself that black eye, which is of course ridiculous. Because after this incident, there wasn’t a moment that Eric was off camera.
Luckily, there was a nurse at the facility that Eric was sent to after this attack took place. This was the only Bureau of Prisons nurse that actually checked Eric out in any sort of realistic way and made notes that he had showed up with a pretty significant shiner. If you look at the video of the medical assessment that they did after this whole incident took place. This should shock absolutely no one who has any sort of understanding about how the Bureau of Prisons works, but the nurse who did the initial medical assessment spent about three minutes. Eric complained of a high level of pain in this temple, he had pain in some other places, but really was like, “hey, yeah, I’m hurt, and I’m hurting right now.” And there was never a second look given to him.
It was really something else. She inquired about a potential new tattoo, which he was like, “No, this tattoos not new.” But you could tell that there was a very purposeful, obfuscation of the truth that started immediately following the incident, because my perception was, is that they knew that they were going to have a difficult storyline to defend. And so at every turn where modicum, a little chunk of truth could come out, instead of asking questions and risking documented truth on Eric’s behalf coming out, they just slid right past it.
So the medical assessment, even though Eric, the State, or the government in this case, showed a picture repeatedly of Eric immediately following the incident, but we’re talking minutes after the incident. They’re like, “look, he’s got no black eye. This isn’t true. This didn’t happen.” Because their whole case hinged on the fact that Wilcox never took a swing at Eric, never assaulted him. That Eric sucker punched Wilcox, which is just blatantly not true. But so yeah, so they showed this picture of Eric right after the incident. And he didn’t have a shiner, because as anybody knows, it takes a good chunk of time after you get hit the eyeball to to get a big black eye. So it was really, really, really something.
TFSR: Eric has had a history of negative interactions with authorities and with guards in the past. And if I recall, a lot of those instances were in relation to private communication with his partner, or poetry that he’s written, or drawings that he’s made, and them being eschewed as threats by administration. So for that he’s gotten time in solitary, he’s had his rights to mail taken away, he’s had his ability to receive books taken away, or magazines. Just sort of exacerbating, and just amplifying the academic isolation as well as personal isolation of prison that he’s had to go through over these years.
Usually, he would just face ,as most prisoners… This this kind of crap is not abnormal in the US Prison System, whether it be in a State system, in a county, where someone’s in jail, or in the BOP, retaliation for petty things by petty guards, and all being adjudicated before some sort of internal rules board or some sort of internal court. Luckily, Eric did not have to defend himself before a kangaroo court inside without press and without legal defense from other parties. How is it that this case, why is it that this case, that could have tacked another 20 years onto his sentence, why did this become a public case? And how did the CLDC get involved, as far as you all know?
Mookie: My understanding, Bursts, is this case was brought to Lauren Regan initially by Daniel McGowan. Correct?
Josh: Yeah, believe so.
Mookie: So Daniel, you know, has a long standing relationship with the CLDC, because they did defense for him back in the day when when he was going through his trial, that he had been in contact with Eric for some time and reached out to Lauren Regan, who’s Eric’s lead defense attorney, and was the founder of the CDC, and said, “Hey, there’s this guy who’s serving time, he’s got a really compelling story. He was assaulted. He’s a really good guy and I really believe in him and believe in trying to seek some sort of justice in this case.” Lauren has a very close friendship with Daniel, and they’ve got really good history together.
So I think that really, Bursts, the reason why this happened is because there was a lot of trust. There’s a lot of historic trusts. And I think that’s a really important piece of this case is that. Lauren, and I were talking about this after the trial wrapped up just that. It’s really incredible when you see real true solidarity pay dividends like it does. Daniel felt solidarity with Eric, and because he had solidarity with Lauren, they came together and Lauren was like, “Daniel, if you believe in this person, I believe in you so much that, let’s go.” And that’s how it went forward. The CLDC, this is one of the things that they specialize in is shining lights in the dark corners of the key parts of our judicial system. So, I think that that’s that’s originally how Lauren got the case.
TFSR: What are the next steps in legal process for Eric? Is the outcome of the not guilty finding by that jury, does that does that mean he’s going to get any sort of reduction in his sentence? Or are there grounds for, because they were able to prove in a public court that the claims from the administration were false and that he had been subjected to harm, are there grounds for other lawsuits to sort of go back and point to the other portions of time when he’s been stuck in solitary? Been put in courtyards with giant Nazis? Gotten diesel therapy? Not had the ability anymore to get visits from his spouse in his family, is there anything brewing in terms of that? Or is he just scheduled for release in December 2023 and we’re just hoping to get him out.
Josh: Yeah, I think a lot of that is still to be determined. Like you said, he’s scheduled to be released in a year and a half, in December 2023. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that he’s still locked up in there. As of right now, the end of March, he’s still on a mail ban, he can still only receive mail from his family. Last I heard he’s still in solitary confinement, even though he won the case. I think that there’s a likelihood that he’ll probably be transferred, who knows where that might be. Probably a lot of diesel therapy, a lot more diesel therapy.
But I think it’s also again, important to keep in mind that in the face of all this violence, in the face of all this state repression that he’s met it face on with a sense of humor, and he’s been able to build strong relationships, not only with people, those of us on the outside, but with those imprisoned right alongside of him, even when he’s in the worst possible conditions. He’s organizing them. He’s educating and is sharing as much as he can with those around him.
Mookie: I would also just add, Bursts, to echo what Josh said. I mean, Josh is right on there. And also I do know that the CLDC has a civil case filed on Eric’s behalf. I think that ideally, when somebody is wronged to such a grievous level, as Eric was wronged in prison, that there would be some sort of… I don’t even know if I should say like financial or time served retribution, but my understanding is that based on the law, it would be almost impossible for Eric to benefit in any monetary way from this civil case. I believe that there’s a Prison Act that says that you can’t benefit, even if you’re wronged from something that occurs if you [are in] prison if you’re there. I wish I knew and could speak a little bit more articulately.
But I think what’s really important about this, the civil case is that what I really think that the CLDC, and what Eric’s defense team, and what I would imagine Eric is hoping for is that by bringing the civil case, it’s going to effectively shine a spotlight on his treatment and will be a cautionary tale to any of the psychopaths in the bureau of prisons that decide to make his remaining time the hardest time in the world. That’s not to say that it’s not going to happen. I am just always shocked at the level of depravity that the Bureau of Prisons will go to make people are uncomfortable on the inside.
But having said that, every single night of this case, as it went on through the week, Eric was subjected to some new bizarre turn by the Bureau of Prisons, whether all of a sudden he was getting yanked out of his the cell that he’d been in and got transferred to a whole new facility next door. That happened one night. Another day, his cell flooded and coffee was spilled on his documents, another day, his documents and all of his personal property were removed. That made it almost impossible for him to prep for trial. I mean, it was so bizarre that that even the Bureau of Prisons… I’m sorry, there is nothing funny about this. It’s just unreal.
The Bureau of Prisons story when a cup of coffee was spilled on his documents and made them impossible to read, the BOP story was that a bird flew into his cell and knocked this cup of coffee over on his documents. The courtroom, when this was said, was just like… jaws dropped. And the judge who presided over this case, Judge Martinez, he even at that point leaned back in his chair and shook his head and said, I’m not going to be able to quote him verbatim, but basically the gist of what he said was, “I cannot believe that what’s happening to Mr. King is happening to Mr. King and the Bureau of Prisons better watch itself, because they’re setting themselves up for a civil suit.” I don’t know if he knew that was already in action, but all of those actions are going to be added to the suit. So hopefully, that gives them just the tiniest bit of cover from more torture and abuse. But it’s hard to say.
TFSR: Yeah, I remember seeing tweets about the stupidity of that moment. Unicorn Riot had a nice image for their posting of their coverage.
Were there any other highlights that stood out from the case? Either testimony from Eric or… because he was actually able to speak on his own behalf and had to answer like cross examination, I would imagine, but can you talk about any other elements of how the the case itself went?
Mookie: Sure. Let’s see highlights or lowlights. I guess in a case like this, they are kind of one and the same. It was very interesting to see Lieutenant Wilcox walk into the courtroom for his testimony. I think that was on day one. You know, all the photographs that I’d seen of Lieutenant Wilcox. He’s a fairly large, imposing, hulking figure and that was not the guy who walked into the courtroom. The guy who walked into the courtroom had a cane was bent over. Evidently in his off time, he has now since retired from the Bureau of Prisons, probably related to this incident… But he’s got a ranch and I’m not sure exactly if he was supposedly or actually injured on his ranch. I’m really not sure. But he walked into the courtroom and sort of shuffled down the center like an old man. I was like, “wow, the theatrics just don’t stop” and I’m not I’m not saying that he wasn’t actually injured, but whatever was happening, they did their very best to make sure that he didn’t come in as an imposing hulking prison guard type.
He got up on the stand and I would say what was most interesting to me, and I guess this was written and you could have seen it coming from a mile away, but the government’s case was so incredibly weak that anytime he was asked a question by the CLDC, or by Eric’s defense team, in any way that could impeach a previous story, or a previous statement he had made, it was just one, “I can’t remember, I can’t remember, I can’t remember” after another. Then when the government would come and ask him a similar questions, it was remarkable how quickly his memory sharpened up. So that was really, really interesting.
The other Lieutenant that that got on the stand, Lieutenant Kammrad, his his testimony was really weak. And I think the take home, the important take home of that piece was that the government was really trying to flip it 180 degrees, they are trying to say, “Look how authentic our guys are. It’s been three years since this incident and you can tell that our guys are telling the truth, because there’s variation in the story.” Well, the fact of the matter is, is that the variation of the story was was wildly varied. And it was backed up with video evidence that the defense team had brought that just punched so many different holes in the way that this moment in the broom closet unfolded that it just was absolutely unbelievable. Then the inverse of that is when Eric went up on the stand, he told such an incredibly lucid and cohesive story that matched up to every single one of his previous statements. So that was, I thought that was pretty interesting. How about you, Josh, what am I forgetting? Give me a second to think about those highlights.
Josh: No, no, I think you captured them all. My partner and I were kind of glued to the phone all week, working and listening to this in the background. I think you’ve captured all the major highlights. Eric did a great job while he was on the stand, of course.
Mookie: Yeah. Eric did a great job. I guess I would also just say, Bursts, that I had heard lots of things about Judge Martinez going into this case and I definitely had some concern. I’ve got concern anytime in the same realm as a federal judge, of course, but I have to say that… And of course, my experience as somebody in the gallery watching or Josh’s experience listening and I know a lot of people have listened, we don’t have the same experience that the attorneys do, because we’re not privy to all the sidebars. And I will say that there were more sidebars in this case than I’ve definitely ever heard of. I think even judge Martinez said, “there are more sidebars and objections in this case than he’s ever seen in his career.”
So, it was very clear to everybody in the courtroom that this was not only a very contentious case, like any political case can be, but it was really important to find a passage through this story in a way that didn’t bias the jury either way, and because this case was political in nature, and because Eric chose to do a politically motivated act of property destruction, it was very tenuous in in how they would go after Eric. You could tell that the government, the US Attorney’s, were doing everything that they could open up lines of questioning that we’re going to shock and dismay jurors who might not have the same or even a political analysis as Eric’s. I think that Eric’s defense team did a really skillful job guiding the jury through the story in a way where it didn’t open those doors necessarily.
There’s just lots of different feelings on what the term “violence” means and whether a politically motivated act of property destruction is violent. I have very strong feelings that it’s not, but I think that there was some concern that the jury could grab on to certain terminology that would then bias them and they would lose their ability to see this case for what it really was: One side is speaking the truth and one side is making up stories as they go along.
So I have to say that not having access to what has happened in those sidebars, I feel like there was 100 sidebars, I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but there was so many that I felt like judge Martinez did a pretty darn good job running a clean courtroom. I didn’t see bias in him, what I saw was a judge that actually just really wanted to follow the letter of the law. Luckily, you know, in this case, the letter of the law is on Eric side, he was defending himself and that’s a right that every single person has to do in this country, even if you’re locked up. So I thought the judge did a pretty good job walking that middle path. I have to say that I think that he was impressed with Eric’s defense team. I think that because of the nature of this trial would have been very possible to have lawyers that weren’t necessarily prepared to handle something at this high level. I think they hit it out of the park.
TFSR: I can see how like bringing up the fact that there are political views that are held by Eric, and the nature of his conviction, and pointing to that as being potentially counter to the political views of the guards, and thus, motivating them to act in juvenile and petty manners… Differentiating that from like, “he burned down a politician’s office, and someone could have been hurt!” That seems like a very thin line to walk and it sounds like folks did that very, very well. Do you all have any updates on how Eric’s health is these days? And how are his spirits?
Josh: Due to the mail ban, not many people have heard from him. I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is extremely happy about the outcome of the trial, happy to be getting the few visits that he does, that he is able to get. He’s looking forward to getting everyone’s letters and everyone’s love. Everyone keeps sending solidarity from around the world. He’s looking forward to reading everyone’s letters, responding to everyone’s letters. You can follow him on social media. His support site is SupportEricKing.org. You can send a books now, which is great. If you follow him on social media, or check out his website, you’ll find out when the mail ban is lifted, and you can write to him. But in the meantime, just know that he does appreciate all the support. I think he’s vocalized that as much as possible to those he has been able to speak to.
TFSR: So it’s been mentioned that Eric’s a pretty prolific poet, you can find a bunch of his poems up on his support website. I don’t know if y’all want to share any poetry by Eric that you feel especially moved by? If not, that’s totally okay. But I just wanted to put that out there.
Josh: Well, yeah, I’ll share one, actually, if you haven’t picked up the 2022 Certain Days Calendar, Eric wrote a poem for the month of May. So you’re still in time to get one you can go to BurningBooks.com. They are only five bucks at this point and all the proceeds benefit political prisoners. But in May, Eric wrote a poem, he actually wrote it to me one time before this calendar came out when we were just thinking of the theme. It’s called “Mutual Aid is Friendship.” Yeah, it’s a great piece. It’s very short. And it’s one of the last ones he was able to send out before one of the many mail bans he’s faced.
TFSR: Well, that’s about it for the questions that I had. Are there any other topics that you want to talk about? Otherwise if you could remind folks about how they can support the CLDC, the defense work that they do, and the research and we’ve had guests from CLDC on the show a few times to talk about digital security. We’ve had Lauren Reagan on before to talk about political repression more generally. I’d love to hear more about where to find more about that. Also, Josh has prior been on the show to talk about Certain Days, it’d be good to hear about that, too. But were there any other topics other than shouting out projects that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to touch on?
Mookie: I guess I would just like to throw this in the ring a little bit that I know that supporting political prisoners in this country and around the world is something that I think a very narrow band of people who are politically active do. I just would like to say publicly to anybody who’s listening to this podcast, that it’s very easy to find resources to support political prisoners in this country. You can go online and literally Google that. There’s going to be a ton of different places that sends you to, and I just want to encourage people to take 15 or 20 minutes out of their week and find a different prisoner to write to. I think it can’t be overstated how potent this act is. Not only does it have the potential to change somebody’s time on the inside, but I also think that it creates bonds that can last a lifetime, but it’s also an incredible way to build our movement. So I just want to give a “Rah! Rah!” for that. I think that’s something that’s really worth people’s time.
And just since I have the I have the air right now, if people are interested in supporting the CLDC, which I think is a really great to do. The CLDC, one of the things that I love about working with this organization is the breadth of their work in movement building, and resistance, and support for activists. It’s staggering, really the CLDC goes to where the work is, whether it be in pipeline work, or prisoner support, or environmental, or animal rights work. It’s just a really remarkable organization and anybody can find how to support that at CLDC.org.
Josh: Absolutely. Yeah. I’ll just mirror pretty much everything Mookie said. CLDC is great. Actually, in two days now I guess it’ll be in the past when people are listening to this, but the CLDC is hosting a political prisoner talk with Daniel McGowan, with Linda Evans, Ray Luc Levasseur, Rattler, a few other people. I’m sure it’ll be amazing like most of the other projects are. But also yes, just write political prisoners every chance you get. Just try to learn about them. Eric has really been amazing with that. Every time he’s sent to a new prison, he finds friends that he advocates other people writing to and building relationships. I think it really can be life changing not only for those inside, but for those of us on the outside, too.
I guess besides getting a Certain Days Calendar if you can, we’re coming up with a theme now for 2023. But if you’re heading over to burning books to get a calendar, you could get some Oso Blanco greeting cards. It’s a project called ‘Children’s Art Project’ that he and I and a few other people helped start where greeting cards are made with artwork from indigenous political prisoners and the funds benefit the Zapatistas in Chiapas. It’s a really cool project. Oso Blanco is a fascinating person to get to know. And a shout out to Sean Swain. I hope he’s doing all right, even though he’s one digit down.
TFSR: One digit down, but he’s still two fists in the air.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. We didn’t end up interviewing folks about Certain Days this year, but there was one that some of y’all participated in on, “Millennials are Killing Capitalism,” I saw.
Josh: Yeah, yeah. That was Daniel and I a few weeks ago. That was a good one.
TFSR: That’s awesome. I’ll link that in the show notes, too. Mookie and Josh, thank you so much for being a part of this conversation and for the work that you do. I really appreciate it
Josh: Thank you Bursts, it was a pleasure.
Mookie: Hey, Bursts, yeah, it was. Thank you so much. And, Josh, thank you so much for your support for me in this case, you were really instrumental in bringing me along and I’m so grateful for the whole team that came to came together to stand with Eric. It was really a group of outstanding people and thanks again Bursts.
Josh: Yes, thank you.
Transcription (Eric King Transfer)
TFSR: Eric, where are you at right now?
Eric King: Right now I’m at a federal transfer facility called Grady County. It’s one of the marshal’s contracts out in Oklahoma City.
TFSR: It seems like a pretty frequently used facility. This is the one that I talked to Jeremy Hammond at a couple of years ago in 2020. What’s the facility like?
EK: It’s usually fucking sweet but right now we’re having a goddamn Ad-Seg thing where we only get out one-two hours a day tops. It went from being super sweet where you get commissary and video visits to goddamn annoying.
TFSR: Did they give you some reason as to why directly after the trial where BOP was found to have abused you that they transferred you across the country from Colorado.
EK: This makes me sick, for real, because everyone at Inglewood [Prison] during the pre-trial shit was telling me, “If you get found innocent, you’re good, you’re gonna go to a medium or the communication unit, things are gonna be better for you. You could just feel the venom in their kindness. So they’re telling me all these lies, and then I go to pack up for transfer and they are “Oh, we’re sending you back to this miserable, horrible dup of a penitentiary out in Virginia.” “Well, that’s not what you motherfuckers just told me.” “Well, it is what it is.” There’s no way for this not to be retaliation, I’m the one that has low security points. I should be coasting with my feet up wearing shower shoes all day, not having to work, wearing boots for the shower.
TFSR: You’re going to USP Lee, as far as I was aware. Is that a max facility? Or what level is that? Have you been there before?
EK: It’s a penitentiary, so it holds high-security people, max-security people. There are big gang leaders there, but then there are also just violent assholes that can’t function in lower securities. Then there’s me and one of the World Trade Center bombers.
TFSR: What are you thinking in terms of what recourse you and your support folks have right now? I know that getting your voice out right now is an important part of it, that people know what’s going on.
EK: The issue is that most likely, they’re going to dump me in the SHU. In the SHU, you have no radio, books, magazines, newspapers, no pictures, no commissary, no food, you don’t even have pens and pencils, they give you rubber pencils. I’m going to be isolated, I’m going to be cut off. People need to know: get a hold of these Virginia centers, get a hold of the Northeastern Atlantic region. I want people contacting those in charge to get a hold of the designation center in Grand Prairie, Texas, the SEC. Call these people, do mass calling. Call 1,000 times and ask them why is a medium or low-security guy being held at this prison again? Why is he back here? Why are you going to take someone’s mail, take someone’s phone calls, say all this communication shit about them, and then put them somewhere where you can’t be in touch with his family and his life in danger. Now, I can’t let anyone know something’s happening to me. We got to have a spotlight on this. We got this big-ass trial victory, people are watching, people are happy. This is the next stage in that fight. I still need support. I still need people. The trial didn’t end the problems. It ended with one big problem. But now we have this other big problem. I still need people to fight for me and let them know that we’re keeping EK safe.
TFSR: This trial ending is pretty enormous. But you do have a year and just under nine months left inside, and since your whole time inside has been a history of provocations, harassment, diesel therapy, violence by the administration…
EK: I said this to my wife. “Not every win is a win.” If we had two months last maybe, but 19 months is more than enough time to get somebody really fucked up. I don’t want any more goddamn problems in the in here. It’s been such a long arduous hassle with these people.
TFSR: You’ve been two years without mail, with mail bans and books bans and stuff like that, right? You just started getting books recently.
EK: Yeah, and they gave me another mail ban. They just put another one on in February. I’m going to land in this new play. I am just getting things back again for one month in January. Then they immediately say “well, we’re taking it again, because you’re circumventing the mail ban.” So I’m going to land at [USP] Lee with five months left on this new mail ban. God damn it.
TFSR: All the way across the country from your family as you said.
EK: Yeah, they took away my phone. I don’t get any phone calls ever. Because of this phoney-public-safety-factor bullshit they made up. I’m just stuck.
TFSR: What do you want to talk about, we have eight more minutes or something. You got to the point already of how fucked up it is and where you’re heading.
EK: Yeah, things aren’t going to be good. That’s really where my mind is, I want people to know my family needs support too. Send them kindness, be kind to my family, my wife is the one that I give all my information to. If I’m scared, if I’m sad, if I’m depressed, I ask her, “Let people know this.” People hear that shit from her. Please, take it seriously. She’s often literally the only one talking to me. Because if I can pay some dude to use his phone, that’s who I’m going to call. If she puts out the word that I’m in trouble, or I’m sad, or I need something, please show me love and listen to that. We did really well at the trial. It wasn’t a flawless victory, we butted heads and there were things I wasn’t happy about, things that they weren’t happy about. But my legal team did fight for me tough. They spent a lot of money and time and they showed up and had me prepared. But it’s not over. I want them to be able to celebrate because they spent a lot of resources to get this win. It is a win, but for me,…
TFSR: …it’s not a win till you’re out. Right?
EK: Right. I don’t get to celebrate yet because they can still put me in there with someone who is getting drugs from SIS to stab me or some shit like that. That stuff is still in the back of my mind because it’s happened so many times that it doesn’t feel– I can’t celebrate, I got to celebrate for a few days after it happened. But right now it’s back to “Alright, we need to focus on the Bureau and focus on keeping me safe.” It’s just such a horrible way to exist. You can’t be super happy and celebrate with your family because you don’t know what the Bureau’s up to.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s real.
EK: It’s on my mouth on this fucking this $8 coffee that we have here. They sell this little bullshit bag. It’s called Maxima. It’s got maybe 20 scoops in it and it is $8.44. That’s other shit my wife’s having to deal with. God!
TFSR: Spaces like Grady really rely on people being in a panic mode and putting too much money in the commissary and too much money on phones, if people have money available because they don’t know how long they’re going to be there. Do you have any sense of how long you’ll be at this middle facility? Or could it just be they’ll swape you out today?
EK: It’s important to acknowledge that this place is a hella exploitative. They know we’re all panicking, all trying to talk to our family as much as we can. The best way to tell this is these phone calls are expensive. That computer that we use over there is expensive as shit. Commissary, I just told you $8 for a bag of coffee and all of us are having coffee withdrawals, needing some coffee. They’re vicious. I have no idea how long I’ll be here. In my mind, I’ll probably leave on Friday, on Friday morning, they’ll probably come and grab us. But if we make it to the weekend, that’s just two more days of spending shit-tons of money. They give you the lowest quality stuff, just bad.
TFSR: Two fewer days of being at Lee at least…
EK: My dream is that enough people contact them for the right, let’s just get this fucking dope bag out of here. Get him moving. That’s what I’m hoping, that they do it in a way that was different than at McCreary. Let’s get this fucking dirtbag out of here. The way to do it is we’re going to set them up to get jumped. Hopefully, at least they do it a different way. They’re just like, “He’s a problem, let’s move him.”
They don’t have goddamn toilet paper, the toilet paper rolls. They don’t give you those, they give you a little folded bundle, and it’s eight squares in a bundle. You get two bundles a week. Think about that. Think about what that means. You learn to make do your 16 squares a week.
TFSR: That’s so fucking cruel and inhumane. Well, if you did have like 20 sheets, maybe you could make a weapon out of it somehow, an explosive or-
EK: [laughs] Those extra sheets could come in handy for violence, for sure. I don’t know if people understand how horrible the SHU’s get. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have pens or pencils there. They give you a rubber pencil. You have to sharpen it by scraping it on the concrete. Then you can’t file grievances with that. You can’t write legal mail with that. When I try to write to one person I can write, my wife or my cousin Deb, who was at trial, God bless her. They can’t read what I’m writing. It’s just a complete way to cut you off from the– They can do whatever they want. No visibility has no accountability or whatever. That’s what they do. They bury motherfuckers there and once you leave, you can cry about it, but you’re going to say nothing while you’re there. They might take away your 16 sheets.
Automated voice: This call will be terminated in two minutes.
EK: Do they have to word it that way?
TFSR: Terminated. “I’m the Terminator, enjoy this call.”
EK: Please, stress my gratitude, but also my urgency. This isn’t a sit like, “Let’s plan, and let’s see what feels best.” This is I need action. If we make a mistake, we make a mistake. I need people mobilized quickly. I’m okay with a mistake. I need them to know the eyes are on me.
TFSR: Yeah, for real. How is it you said that you haven’t shared space with other people in years and you just got moved to an open dorm, general population? Could you describe how that feels?
EK: I’ve been in it, literally a 6×8 box for two and a half years, and before that different SHUs for another year. Going from such a confined space by myself and now I am literally surrounded by people. It feels like a fucking wave of people. There’s also a microwave next to me. When’s the last time I use a microwave? There’s a TV above me. I haven’t seen anything from the Ukraine-Russia war. I just now saw the Will Smith hitting Chris Rock thing. It’s super, super positive. But also, the SHU really damages you. I didn’t realize it until I got out, like right now for this brief period. It feels like someone’s stepping on my chest this entire time. It’s exhausting.
TFSR: Are you able to like find the corner and breathe by yourself? You don’t have to say anything about this. But you know someone who’s in there, right?
EK: I got a bro in here. There are a few other people from the system that we know the same people. Because it’s a small-ass system. There are people here that have been in the same prisons I have, or we know the same people. It’s all respect, there’s no conflict or tension or anything. It’s all just internal.
TFSR: You’ve been someone who’s done a lot of practice and meditation and yoga and instructed other people on these practices. Are you finding that those are helping you right now? Or are you just having to move through it?
EK: Not right now. The meditation, yes, because I can just focus on breathing and focus on my being. There’s obviously no room to sit in the middle of this goddamn open dorm and start doing yoga. I would look like a complete jackass. Justifiably so. But just being in my own space, being centered definitely helps because in the past, when I did long SHU days– Because I always do these goddamn long SHU bids, I don’t know what’s the deal it, it is just a vindication on resistance, I guess. But in the past, when I got the SHU, it would be so suffocating that I thought I could die. Things have improved drastically.
TFSR: Do you have any more updates, any news about when you think you’re getting transferred out? Have you been able to hear from any lawyers or anything like that while you’re at Grady?
EK: I had my legal call, Lauren did get ahold of me. I told her what I needed. She asked, and I told her, and so I trust that it will help. I’ve heard that they are organizing the calling campaign and doing that which I asked for and have been desperate for. I hope people stick with that and continue to put pressure because these people aren’t going to tell me anything. The people at Grady County are not going to tell me shit because they don’t know anything, they are just the county workers. It is just what I’m hoping on and I’ve read some things and heard some things from different comrades. Everything seems like it’s going in the direction that I need. So often we will need something and maybe the people don’t understand how serious it is, or some people don’t. You just need a few to listen to you and believe you and hear you and they can get this ball rolling. It feels like that’s what’s happening right now. I’m really grateful, that makes me feel safe and seen. What this whole thing is about is just making sure that the Bureau knows that people are watching. They’re not going to get away with any sly shit. People are watching, senators will be checking in or whatever we’re able to do with a little bit of pressure. That makes me feel good. Really good.
TFSR: This is a little bit off-topic. But when Josh was on the show the other day, Josh from Certain Days. He was talking about the book that you all are working on. Can you say a few words about that if it’s interesting?
EK: Josh is the perfect person to talk to, he is just such a clever, beautiful person. I started having this idea after reading some IRA books that talked about not just the bombing and killing, but the trauma of suffering and doing suffering to others and what’s left afterwards? What’s left when the ashes and the smoke clears? It’s not glory. It’s internal. Then I had that time with Jaan in his cell and just hearing him talk, and all these stories that I knew, these aren’t documented, no one will ever hear these stories. These stories could change someone’s life, they changed my life. I, Josh, and all of us really honor our mothers and fathers that were in this struggle before us. What they’ve gone through in prison shouldn’t be negated down to a couple of typed-up quotes for some magazine, or their ideas on the struggle. Their lives inside are equally as valuable in the mundane as they are in the extreme. So I didn’t want just to have their stories about how bad they suffered, I wouldn’t want my story to just be about all the SHU time I did. I’d wanted it to be about my life because I still exist. I want that for those that have been through this.
I had that idea and brought it up to Josh, and Josh is just an astoundingly productive person who just wants to help and work, brought it to life. We typed up a questionnaire and he just got to work. I think he’s interviewed some 7000 people so far. It’s actually just 30 or 40 , but it is still a lot. That’s a lot of work. You got a full-time job. This is just comrade work, which – I don’t want to disrespect movement, but I don’t see that all the time. I haven’t seen that in my entire life. I see it a lot, you do it, a few other people do it, but it’s not the most common thing. No questions asked no, “oh, I don’t know, this might be a bad idea.” It was “Let’s bring this shit to life.” And we have, and some of the things I’ve read have been so touching. Something I didn’t know about people. I didn’t know what Kojo [Bomani Sababu] had been through. I didn’t know that Oso [Blanco] was so aggressive. I didn’t know so much about Ray [Luc Levasseur]. So, to me, it’s a project of honoring our existences, not just our suffering, if that makes sense.
TFSR: Absolutely. Recognizing that people aren’t just these two-dimensional struggle machines that are there for putting on a flyer or sticker whatever. That could be a band name.
EK: Yes. It could be title the cover of the book.
TFSR: We have a minute and a half left, these are 15-minute calls. Is that right?
EK: They’ll tell us the two-minute mark.
TFSR: Are there any other things that are coming to mind right now that you want to express?
Automated voice: The call will be terminated in two minutes.
EK: For me, the most important thing is just asking people to please be there for my family. Mutual aid and community support, she is in prison too. I got two little girls, they’re in prison too. Lend us your voices, keep these eyes on me. I’m not trying to be an attention grabber here, like I’m Mr. Big Deal. But this can get very serious very quickly, it could get very dark. That’s all I can think about right now. Help me fight, help me keep an eye on these people so they can’t bury one of us. Don’t let them put the dirt over me right now after we just got this big-ass plan. Don’t let this win turn into a loss. That’s where my heart and that’s where my head’s at right now. And be nice to my wife.
TFSR: For sure. That’s true.
Automated voice: The call will be terminated in one minute.
EK: Bursts, thank you so much. Please give my regards to both Swains, to Lauren and Sean.
TFSR: I will.
EK: Please give yourself a big hug for me.
TFSR: Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it. Take care of yourself, okay? Make some friends.
EK: How are you doing? It’s been a very selfish call. We only got 20 seconds.
TFSR: I’m good. Just got off of work, and got some pizza and a beer waiting for me. Some local IPAs Chicago area.
EK: Oh, IPA is gross.
TFSR: Right. I’m from the West Coast. It’s what I do.
This week, we’re joined again by Aryanum, a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era (ASRAnarshism.Com), mostly made up of anarchists from Iran and Afghanistan. We mostly get updates about the situation of anarchists, atheists and feminists in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in an effort to escape as refugees, but we also get a few updates from Iran as well, including the regime’s founding of a national anarchist group called Iranarshism. At the time of this release, we’ve already got the transcript and a zine available for download, translation, reading and sharing.
Baktash Abtin, poet dissident died of covid in prison which is causing political prisoner hunger strikes in Iran
Ervin prison is where many political prisoners were on hunger strike
Sohiel Arabi is an anarchist political prisoner in Iran who Aryanum describes as an FAE correspondent inside the prisons
BAD News #54
The March 2022 episode of the A-Radio Network‘s monthly, English-language podcast. This month with additions from: 1431 Social Radio in Thessaloniki, Greece; A-Radio Berlin on workers from Gorilla gig delivery app service; A-Radio Vienna with experiences from a queer anarchist in Kyiv right after the invasion by Russia; Crna Luknja from Ljubljana, Slovenia with a Serbian anarcho-syndicalist organizer on the part in the war in Ukraine played by NATO and resisting from within that framework. Check it out!
Eric King Trial
In a surpisingly good piece of news, a jury recently found anarchist and antifascist political prisoner in the good ole USA, Eric King, not guilty of assaulting an officer, a charge which would have given a 20 year hit to Eric who has been slated for release from Federal prison in July of 2023. You can find updates at SupportEricKing.Org as well as ABCF.Net. You’ll hopefully here more about this in an upcoming interview with members of his support crew and you can direct thanks to the amazing folks at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, or CLDC, for lawyering for him.
Rope (طناب) by Toomaj (توماج ) & Biqlb (بیلقب). Tamooj is an Iranian protest hip hop artist released on March 17th 2022. Toomaj Salehi was detained by Iranian officials for propaganda because of his anti-corruption, anti-regime music and Amnesty International had to step in on his behalf, which in addition to popular pressure secured his release from Dastgerd Prison. Tamooj just released a new video on March 17th, 2022: Blind Spot ( نقطه کور) . You can hear more at his soundcloud or watch more videos on youtube.
Year of Famine (Sale Ghahti, سال قحطی) by Fereydoon Forooghi (فریدون فروغی), recorded in 1974 and leading to Fereydoon’s ban from acting for it’s public performance by the Shah’s regime. He released an album by this name in 1977.
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TFSR: So we’re joined again by a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era. Aryanum, who we have spoken to before, will be sharing some responses to some questions that we had from other members of the FAE. Thank you so much for having the time and putting together the energy to have this chat. Would you introduce yourself further for the audience? Do you have preferred pronouns or any sort of other info?
Aryanum: Yes. Hi, this Aryanum, my pronouns are he/him, and I’m a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era. Thanks for having me here again.
TFSR: Of course.
So the last time that we spoke to y’all, to members of FAE, and to you in particular, it was July of 2021, during the expansion of Taliban forces across Afghanistan, as the US military ran for the exit. Simultaneously, the US and other Western governments froze assets in an attempt to stop the Taliban from stepping into full power, which also threw the population into famine.
Can you speak about what you’re aware of that experience and how FAE affiliates in Afghanistan and their communities are doing these days?
Aryanum: Yes, first I think there is a misunderstanding. I don’t think the Western governments have frozen the assets to stop the Taliban because of their actions afterwards: flying the Taliban members to Oslo even though it’s on their a list a terrorist organizations, sending money for pay directly to Taliban. From what Biden did… these action shows that they were not about stopping the Taliban. They just didn’t want to pay any more money. The previous government in Afghanistan was propped up by the US Embassy and government. They were only surviving through the financial aid that they were receiving from these governments. The change of hands, the change of power, that arguably was helped by the Western governments they stopped providing those funds. They just stopped it.
Regarding how comrades are doing… the majority of them are right now, except one of them, could no longer work because of the current regime. Because some of them were journalists that the Taliban has targeted viciously. Their pictures are going around, there are reports of them going around to be tortured severely and being executed and being killed. Either assassinated mysteriously, which all goes back to Taliban, or being tortured and imprisoned. So they could no longer work. A majority of them evacuated from Afghanistan. They no longer are in Afghanistan. Some of their family members wanted to evacuate as well. But the Iranian Government is making it really hard. Even returning some of the refugees back to Afghanistan, extraditing some of the refugees. For Pakistan, even though Pakistan has opened this consulate. It is in so much demand, that right now a visa to Pakistan is $500. With all of the famine happening, people are selling their children to survive, to child marriages. It is a crisis. A complete crisis.
The Taliban government is not even a government. They don’t know what they are doing. They have no experience. They don’t have any staff to even organize and deal with the issues like governing their country. So recently they declared that the labor that people do, for the work they do, they don’t get money. The Taliban government wants to instead give them wheat, just grains, which doesn’t work in the urban environment. There is no way to sustain on just grains. And that’s the thing that the Taliban is doing at the moment including all the suppression execution, assassinations they are doing.
TFSR: Yeah, there was this this massive displacement internal and external to Afghanistan that resulted from the fighting and fear of the Taliban reprisals and from economic destabilization. When we chatted a little less than a year ago, you all were attempting to fund for resistance to the Taliban, as well as to help get anarchists out of the country, since they’re enemies of the state. And it’s very dangerous to to be any sort of like dissident even in areas that were controlled, ostensibly by the Afghan government. But is the resistance still a thing that you need? Or for getting folks out? Is that still something that you’re fundraising for or that you’re trying to aid in some way? Or is that kind of on pause?
Aryanum: When we the last talked, yes we were trying to gather from comrades, because they were requesting, they were thinking of resisting as much as they can. But after a little evaluation on their part, they realized the neighbors and the people around them are not gonna join up. Some of them are part of the previous Mujahideen and they even though they are armed up, that is no way to cooperate. Since we are so few, unfortunately, you do not have the number of anarchists like in Ukraine to have a detachment of your own. So that plan changed into leaving the country. They’re trying to utilize the money that we gathered up til then, which was around $2,000. They plan to take refuge to Iran. But the day that they were planning to leave to head to toward Iran… Nimruz, a province bordering Iran and Afghanistan, that a majority of refugees were using as a crossing between Iran and Afghanistan. That province was taken the same day that they planned. So that plan had to stop.
We were still gathering more money, but it was kind of slow until Kabul fell. When Kabul fell, since we were basically one of the first people raising funds and basically the only anarchist one in this regard, a lot of comrades started helping out then, we managed to raise about $45,000. We were using PayPal. So PayPal took basically $15,000. So we were only left like around $30,000. But we decided that would be enough money for our comrades to leave the country. We managed to get some of our comrades through Pakistan and they were trying to process the asylum status to leave Pakistan. Firstly, it is not easy from Pakistan, you cannot go to India because the dispute between Pakistan and India. Going from Pakistan to Iran, the border crossing, just to travel there is really, really dangerous. Iran has other issues. So if you’re saying Iran, illegally, basically you’re in danger of being extradited back to Afghanistan. So we managed to get some of our comrades in Pakistan. Some are in Iran waiting to process their information. One comrade is in Afghanistan still, but we managed to get most of them out. We are kind of running out of funds because keeping them in Pakistan and trying to get the application process. Just for the visa for one of our comrades to travel to Iran legally just to get the visa and travel, basically took $2,000. Us trying to evacuate our comrades to Pakistan, that took a lot of money. We might start issuing another fundraising, but we haven’t decided on that yet. We still have some money at this moment.
TFSR: Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, their claims of relative normalcy of participation of women in civic, political and economic life seem to have withered. Can you speak about what is known of the realities of life today in Afghanistan, for women, as well as others who are not cis straight men?
Aryanum: They’re were obviously lying from the very beginning, even though as they were taking the provinces, there were videos of them coming up of them flogging women for not wearing their hijab right or not travelling with with a man called mahram. Basically a man which is their father, brother, or husband, basically. Anybody that basically the patriarchy enforced through religious means and through force, basically. So the women started making protests against the regime. Some of them were activists before the regime change during the previous republic of [Ashraf] Ghani and [Hamid] Karhzi. They started protesting during the Taliban’s regime from very beginning. The Taliban started suppressed them as soon as they could. They were assassinated, they were mysteriously killed, they were imprisoned as hostages or for ransom. They’ve were imprisoned. The men basically like the women in Afghanistan, we’re saying, is the chant is “Our war, our fight, our struggle starts from home.” Because basically we have Talib in our homes. The patriarchy and the Islamic patriarchy, it has deep roots in the society, and for them to struggle against the Taliban outside, they had to basically wage war against their own family members that have the same ideology [as the Taliban].
So because of that, men did not support them. Because of that even men did not protest for their own rights against the Taliban and did not protest that much with the government. Recently there was a decree by the Taliban that women cannot leave the country without the mahram. Basically, they cannot leave the country without having a husband, or father, or brother, or any man that is above them in the social hierarchy, approve of them leaving the country, and he needs to leave with them. I know there is an issue with some of the woman activists that want to leave the country after all this oppression but are dealing with some challenges in that regard. We are trying to see how it develops, but at the moment, women get imprisoned if they were protesting, and some cases assassinated, and in some cases we heard from the news that they were raped and then assassinated. There were signs of sexual assault.
Some of the people that we talked to who were talking about, they were like scouting a location just for the graffiti against the Taliban. They were with their fathers and were supporting that. Taliban, scouting the area, having checkpoints all around the area scared them to hell, because they thought they were gonna get arrested right there. Even though they didn’t do anything yet they were just scouting their area for graffiti. But the Taliban was like “Oh, is this woman part of the Woman Justice seeking movement?” They scared the brother and he scared her. So they decided not to do that again.
So it is a big campaign of silences going on. The woman that get arrested, even though they’re released, they cannot talk. They don’t feel safe to talk back anymore. The public movement that are talking directly in the face of Taliban is fizzling. We are hoping it transforms to a more covert form.
TFSR: That sounds really difficult and it’s hard for me to imagine because I haven’t experienced anything like what you’re describing in my life. Just how scary that would be.
Yeah, I wonder, as you say, if things have to go a little more underground and less with the government, and since the patriarchy and the Taliban exist in the households, and the state is empowering, or what there is of the state, is empowering the diffusion of patriarchal violence through the households, and sort of as a reproduction of the state, at a home level… I wonder if people who as imperfect as it was lived under the Republic will see the difference with what they’re experiencing now and will the men, for instance, be more willing to understand, in contrast, the pain? I imagine if the dialogue was more talking about liberation of women and fighting against gendered violence, and then the Taliban is imposed and some strict kind of Sharia is imposed or whatever. If you can compare it to another experience that you’ve had? If that maybe primes you for having a better understanding of alternatives to what’s being imposed. What do you think?
Aryanum: The previous government wasn’t for women’s rights. We had honor killing during the previous government as well. The patriarchy was as strong as it is now. It is just so that the previous government being propped the US was less likely to use it. What achievements women had during the previous government was because of their own making. They worked for it for 20 years to make it happen. It wasn’t just that the previous government was suppressing them. Not because it was actively encouraging them or making their part easier. The woman activist was even active during the previous government.
The path that the Taliban is taking right now is very similar. It is basically they’re using the same tactics that the Islamic Republic of Iran is using. Iran had it’s own moment in the beginning of the revolution opposing the mandatory hijab, but it got crushed. It’s very similar things that Taliban is doing. They were imprisoned, killed, assassinated, either by the militia or by others. The current women’s movements are getting acid thrown at them and get disfigured because of acid. There is honor killing going on in Iran. And the most recent, a woman [Mona Heydari], 17 years old, left her husband. Way way older husband. She went to Turkey because she feared for her life but her father and brother basically forced her to come back and her husband killed her and decapitated her head. Then paraded on the street showing it off. That was one of the most shocking things that I saw. It happened a couple of months ago.
So you just said previous government was not using patriarchy as directly as the Taliban and because of that the women’s movements could move forward and make some achievement for their own autonomy and freedom. But the Taliban is going to use the same tactic as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The patriarchy is going to become worse and more embedded in the society. As it is the patriarchy is so strong that the men do not accompany the women in the struggle. There is no solidarity at the moment. There are some men that are, of course, supporting and they get killed. The treatment they receive is worse than what the captured women receive. Even though they are defending humanist ideal against a fascist organization that is the Taliban. But they get treated worse and they get killed. That scares the other men that are on the fence. They just don’t join. There is no solidarity at the moment.
In the previous government, there are some that want to go back to something like a republic, that they can choose their own, and have a political participation, like men, in the government. Some are saying that Islam is one of the problems that are perpetuating patriarchy and enslavement to our current predicament. Some of them are seeing both state and Islam as a problem. Which is basically our position as anarchists of Federation. I’m not sure if that answered your question.
TFSR: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I didn’t mean to put the agency into the hands of the government. But your point that when the government is not as actively repressing, people get a chance to organize and coordinate as opposed to when there’s direct threat of violence or death coming from the State. That’s kind of what I was trying to get at. The point was very well made.
In ways other than the patriarchy, does the Taliban appear to be ruling any differently than they did until 2001? Like how is life for queer folks or for atheists, or people of other faiths than the brand of Sunni favored by the state, or for political dissidents? Is it just kind of the same as you’ve been describing already?
Aryanum: For the atheists and the members of the LGBT community. They were in the closet and in hiding even during the previous government. They just hold their own hidden communities. Because again, the society is very patriarchal and it hasn’t changed. The struggles are very similar. It was deadly then, it is more deadly now. They are in hiding, some of them left the country and some of them because of a financial blockade, extradition of the refugees from Iran and Pakistan. They are they are stuck in Afghanistan and they cannot leave the country.
How the government is ruling since 2001? It is basically the same but it is more vicious, more ruthless. It is more pronounced in Mazar-i-Sharif. Because in Mazar-i-Sharif, they [the Taliban] have a deep hatred of that city because it was one of the last cities that basically fought until the end during the last takeover. It fought against Taliban. A lot of killings that you see happens in Mazar-i-Sharif area in the province of Balkh, where women are mysteriously getting killed, by mysteriously, the perpetrator without a doubt is the Taliban. They don’t announce it as they’re doing it, they just do it. They either give the bodies to the hospitals and make a reason why they died and they falsified the evidence. Or they leave them somewhere, just leave the body somewhere.
It is the same fascist Islamic government that it used to be 20 years ago. Maybe it just got smarter. It’s using the similar tactics that the Iranian government is using. It is probably getting counseled by the Iranian Islamic state, getting supported somehow because the Iran is gonna benefit from the water rights and its going to benefit from the the mines that Afghanistan has. I believe Taliban is going to give them some rights. I just read the news just a few hours ago that the China wants to cooperate with the Taliban in Afghanistan to drill some oil refineries, drill some oil, petroleum and refineries and a copper mine to get copper for cheap. And I’m sure Russia is not that far off. Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, the governments gave a go ahead for Taliban taking over and they provided support. Mostly Iran, provided support and Pakistan provide their military support, I believe. China just provide political support. The short answer is, it is the same as before, but more brutal.
TFSR: Like you’ve, mentioned women’s protests and protests for gender justice, being repressed pretty heavily. What are the levels of resistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan still that you can tell? Like, protesting Kabul of no longer featured on Western media, and I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not happening or because the Western media has such a short attention span. And the tragedy of the Taliban takeover is such an embarrassing moment for so many people in the West whose governments and taxes went to participate in the occupation and war that lasted 20 years? And what’s the state of resistance information that you can tell getting out of Afghanistan?
Aryanum: Sure. So, there are some militant groups that announced their formations, we are not affiliated with them, and we are watching them from afar. Just observing the situation about them. And majority were previously part of the Mujahideen. There are similar Islamic groups with their belief system that is not that far different from what Taliban is espousing. For example, only one of them is even showing women speaking in their announcement of their formation, the rest of them were just men, and they are just saying how they are defending the country. The language is full of patriarchal Islamic rhetoric. They see the woman as their belonging, their namus, that’s what they are called. That they need to be defended, the patriarchal chauvinism.
So, beyond planning to work with them, we just observing them at the moment. There is another suit in Pancheer province, it was another previous Mujahideen leader basically, that is mounting the resistance in Pancheer province. There are small groups that are forming, but the women’s movement is basically the only radical movement. But it is not militarized because they were not given any weapons. They do not have a chance to have weapons. The military organizations are forming, they had their weapons beforehand from the back when they were part of the Mujahideen organization or another military organization. The new organizations, that were not part of those groups, they did not have opportunity to have a gun. The opportunity to procure a gun, but also experience to do the very covert guerrilla tactics or any other war tactics against the Taliban. Those that do, have a previous experience from, like I said, the Mujahideen or other military groups.
Regarding how the news is getting out, fortunately, there is still internet. Afghanistan during the previous government and even during Taliban, Taliban doesn’t have any expert to oversee censorship on the internet. We can imagine that with the cooperation of China and Iran, they are working to get that capability. But at the moment, the people are using the internet to get the news out. They use Facebook, they use WhatsApp at the moment. With our communication, we try to push into secure communication. Like for example, Telegram, even though Telegram is not that secure, it is more secure to us that WhatsApp. Signal for the best secure communication. But unfortunately, it seems that since the internet is so big over there, the signal processing on WhatsApp is much, much more efficient than Telegram. So our comrades, when they having signal issues, they might be able to communicate through WhatsApp, but they cannot do through Telegram and not through Signal. It’s not as good, unfortunately. Yeah, people are communicating through that. This causes the Taliban to check the phones on every checkpoint. So whoever is sending a message, have to keep clearing their messages, including our comrades that are traveling through, moving anywhere, they just have to keep deleting their messages. Taliban would just show up and force them to show their phone with all the apps open so they can view it. They will check on the phone and see if the name of the person they’re talking to is on a list or database for them to apprehend. So that’s happening, but people still can communicating through internet. The news can get out through there.
There is one news channel which is not related to us. That provides relatively okay news about Afghanistan. That’s Amajnews.com. This seems to be okay for the most part. Some of the language that they use in some articles shows them as very very liberal, statists, it shows the bougie side. But yes, they are getting the news out that way. You can find them on Telegram and their website. But we try to create as much news as we can. We ask the people involved as much as we can, people who we are in contact with and are comrades.
TFSR: Yeah, I know that your networks are very stretched thin. At one point you talked about using satellite networks to be able to produce podcasts or some sort of news or media that could be broadcast in a way that didn’t need to be encrypted but could be consumed relatively anonymously inside of Afghanistan. Is that still an eventual goal?
Are the Taliban still… it sounds like if they’re letting people through with their smartphones at the moment, they’re not doing what they were doing their first rule of destroying technological devices like stereos and whatever else. They’re just sort of dealing with the fact that they’re there now.
Aryanum: Yes, there was one video showing the Taliban member condemning TV to being of the devils and destroying it, but they cannot really control it as much they need. They need phones as well. They try to use phones to infiltrate into groups, and catch the people involved that way. For example, so they arrested 49 people, I think 25 of them were women activists, and they got forced confession from out of them with the promise of them being freed. So when they did that they produced a TV program showing all of these forced confessions. “Oh, yes, we only wanted to leave the country, not fighting for our rights, fighting for self interest… just wanted to leave the country, to go to some country. The people who helped us, lied to us saying ‘hey, we can help you get out of the country.'” Stuff like that.
They put a snippet of conversation between two activists. In which they got a hold of a phone. I believe it was Tamana [Zaryabi Paryani]’s phone. She was arrested with her sister. They got off the phone and extracted conversations. They edited it to their favor and put it in the program to show that “yes, all of this was a ruse for them to leave the country. This had nothing to do with us oppressing them.” It is same tactic that the Islamic Republic of Iran is using with the forced confessions.
They are searching house-to-house. So if they find anything incriminating being shown… well, not necessarily… They just search house-to-house, some take and steal their belongings, they steal whatever people have left. The jewelry, the gold, whatever they find in the house, they steal it. If they find anything showing that the residents of the house had any anti Taliban sentiment, well, they’re gonna get arrested, the men are definitely gonna get tortured. So that’s going on, but there is not a network to intercept the signals midway or record every messages like NSA in the US. I mean, they would like to have something like that.
TFSR: Yeah, what state wouldn’t?
Yeah. So there was, during the war, bombings that were claimed by a group called Islamic State in Khorasan, or ISIS-K. Is this group joining in with the efforts of the Taliban? Or is it waging its own insurgency, or has it sort of disappeared?
Aryanum: That is like Al-Qaeda, maybe it’s inactive. They haven’t done anything recently, and the Taliban may be using it as an excuse for tightening their own security measures and becoming more intrusive and more violent. Using the Al-Qaeda as their legitimation tool. “Yes we are the good government, Al-Qaeda is the bad one. We are not Al-Qaeda so we are good.” That sort of logic is going on. I’m not sure about the ISIS Khorasan, to be honest. I don’t have any information about that.
TFSR: Ok, thank you.
Do any of your federation members have anecdotes or experiences of having to become a refugee, that they shared with you? And if they’ve moved to places where there are anarchist communities, have they been able to integrate or interact with those communities? How have they been received? Finally, are there any NGOs or organizations that are doing refugee support work that you’ve heard are doing a good job and should be supported by general civil society where possible?
Aryanum: We managed to, with the help of a comrade introducing us to somebody, help one of our friend’s families to leave directly to the US. There is another comrade that used their own channels and managed to get their family to the US as well. From their experiences, if I want to start from beginning, after the fall of Kabul and after 12 days, our comrades decided to evacuate because we couldn’t mount a defense. There was no resistance at the moment and he chances of the window of opportunity for us to evacuate was closing.
So some of our comrades try to leave the country, evacuate the country to Pakistan. There are two borders that gets used. And for Pakistan, the one of them is Torkhan, which is near the near Kabul. That was closed in the beginning. The other one was the Chaman crossing. Chaman is the border city in Pakistan. So, it is kind of far away from Kabul, it was 12 hours via the bus to get there and just another hour to get to the border from the city and province of Kandahar. So they arrived there, there were so many refugees just lining up to go to Pakistan. The Taliban and Pakistan, in collaboration with each other were changing the rules every single day. The first day that the comrades tried, they said they’re only allowed the residents of Kandahar and they don’t allow any other residents to cross the border without a visa. Just the Kandahar people. So our comrades basically tried to forge identification that shows that they were from Kandahar so they can pass. The change the rule again! They needed to have a visa now, there needed to be something… they kept changing the rule until they closed the border.
Two of our comrades managed to cross the border. Basically, the rest of them had to be smuggled. There was no path. The only people that could cross the border… none of them could be women or children because leaving the life of your children in the hands of a border smuggler is very risky. The has been horrible news of people missing in the smuggling process. So one of our comrades that came with their family decided that they will not cross a border. One of the times that they crossed that border, the lost their luggage. So they lost their phones, they lost all of their clothes, everything. They only had their identification with them in a bag that they kept with them. In an attempt to cross the border, the last time, the Pakistani border guards really was mistreating the people and every Afghan refugee that was trying to cross the border. They were hitting them, they were hurling insults all sorts of things. One of our comrades decided through a different channel which went to Qatar, then from Qatar, they went to America. In America they reported that they were sent into military encampment, a military base. The building that they were in had no door, just a curtain for the privacy, but there was no door so they could not leave their belongings there because other refugees could come and steal them and they did. They bought their 3 year old kid and some shoes, those shoes that lights up when you step on them so for the three year old to calm her down, to ease her as they keep moving from one place to another. They got stolen. In the refugee camps, there are stealing people. People have needs and people are thinking, “okay, I can sell this for my own thing.” So they steal the stuff.
So, that was happening and one of our comrades was saying the food was really little. I’m not sure why that was, apparently, people were not donating enough and it was hard to divide it, I’m not sure what was the reason, just not allocating enough food and they had to pay their own money that they brought over just to eat. Things were expensive at the camp because they don’t have a choice to go anywhere else. That is only some stores that are allowed to be operating. The choices are limited and they are expensive, because they can gouge people. People had no autonomy to cook for themselves. I think that would have been good if they could cook for themselves. But I guess they didn’t want to give the refugees tools that could be used as a weapon, I guess. I have no idea at the larger military bases, why they don’t give them any things.
In the beginning, they used to be able to eat at their own place. But after that, they were forced to, if they wanted to eat, they had to go to the kitchen to eat. So a family with two kids, yeah, that’s gonna be hard. Like they cannot bring any food out. So they have to all go there and then their belongings getting stolen and stuff like that. They did receive a cell phone so we could communicate with them, which was good, it was paid by some nonprofit organization, I believe. So to help us, one of the groups around Minnesota, they recently met some Iranian family that they became friends with. That is some of their struggles.
Previously, since they are non-believers or atheists, they couldn’t mingle with some of the Afghani groups as well, because some of the Afghani’s are extremely religious. Our comrades are not praying and its really conspicuous, especially if you are leaving your country with basically nothing, your identity is the only thing you have left. For some people, that includes their religious identity, and some people would become extremely dependent on that and if you’re not conforming to that ideal, yeah, it could cause conflict. So, our comrades decided not to intermingle that much. Just with a select group of people, they were not sent to the same place. But they met the Iranian family that are friends with and they are working to a degree to get their legal residence and they are already trying to get a driving license. So they are working on that stuff. None of the other ones are same as this.
Yeah, there was a lot of crazy things that happens in between, but it’s all about them getting out and that’s their experience outside of Afghanistan. For inside Afghanistan, while they were trying to get out, that family was part of a group, but they didn’t go to a safe house same as that group. Because safe houses were not safe and are not safe in Afghanistan. The people who rent those spaces out are not in solidarity with you, with the people who give them money. The people, the neighbors would talk. So, the Taliban would find out real quick, and would come knocking. Some of the people that were in the safe spaces or safe houses waiting to get out of the country to evacuate, they’ve been arrested in the safe houses. Some of these are women activists, they were already in safe houses, but the safe houses were compromised. The owner of the place gets scared if the Taliban comes and just tells them everything. They already got your money so they don’t care, they just tell them everything.
So one of our comrades family decided to take refuge in Iran. He couldn’t get the visa, so they cross the border illegally, but they were shouted by the border guards. And they got into an accident after with another car, which was kind of severe enough to have a broken hand, severe bruises, unfortunately. Not too serious of injuries, but they got caught by the police because of the accident and they got extradited back to Afghanistan. Like I said, the Iranian government keeps sending Afghan people back to the Afghanistan. Land border crossing without visas has a lot of risk. Some of our comrades are trying to process that application for some of the western governments, ut the other government is saying “oh, you need to prove how your life was in danger that made you have to leave the country.” Which is a ridiculous question because it’s very obvious. There’s a famine going on. There is extreme suppression of the religious and ethnic groups in Afghanistan. So, that question is very misguided. But some of our comrades are journalists as well. One of them even had, before the takeover of Taliban, had a lot of sharp critiques of Taliban that everybody in the in the business knew, so their life is in danger. They applied for the French Embassy, they applied for Swiss embassy and trying to see how they can process an application for asylum.
TFSR: Thank you for sharing that.
The one other part of it that I wondered was, and it’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but if there are any NGOs that you’ve heard of from folks that have had to go through this, that seem to be doing a decent job, and who would be worthy of supporting if people had money that they wanted to give or if those NGOs operated in areas where the listener lives that they could consider volunteering with. Or maybe just anytime you find that there’s people being resettled to where you live, going and trying to meet people would be a good idea. Does that make sense?
Aryanum: Yes, there is one organizations that are claiming that they are helping targeted Afghans find refugee and resettle, and there is not going to be any expenses and no salaries, and 100% of the donation would go to helping them. And like I said, personally I just heard of them recently, and I’m not sure exactly how they operate, or when they’re operating. So don’t take this as an endorsement. But then name is Azadi Charity. They have a Twitter account, and the website is AzadiCharity.com. That’s what they’re claiming that I understand. There may be few others, but unfortunately, they don’t come to mind at the moment. And unfortunately I’m not familiar with them If they haven’t helped anybody that we were in contact with. But people can help them and inquire about them.
TFSR: Thank you very much. So it’s a little bit of a shift in topic. But I wonder if members of your network have observations or words for anarchists slipping under States in the former Soviet Union such as Belarus, Russia, or Ukraine, or about the war being conducted by Putin’s regime that they’d like to share with comrades there?
Aryanum: They fully support our comrades in the countries Belarus, Russia, Ukraine. We condemn the imperialist action of the Russian State against Ukrainian people. We are not in support of the Ukrainian State. I believe Ukraine was the State government that basically put the news and development of the Ukraine airplane crisis that happened in 2020 in Iran. So, during the shooting down of the Ukrainian airplane, the Ukrainian government cooperated with Iranian regime, we still haven’t found out what was the truth. So they helped the Iranian government to hide the truth. There is no file among Iranian anarchists for the Ukrainian state. But we are anarchists, and we support the Ukrainian people against the imperialist forces of Russia and the opportunist, imperialist actions of the West, of NATO.
Because of this, we are really happy about the anarchist detachments, the militaristic detachments that doesn’t necessarily listens to the State directive, and does not side with their fascist group, like Azov. We wish them the best. We hope for an autonomous region, where it’s similar to Rojava, something like that in Ukraine. We are hopeful about that. During the war in Afghanistan, we consulted some of the comrades that fought in Rojava, to see what we can do. Can we make something like Rojava happen in Afghanistan? Unfortunately, since our numbers are unfortunately so little, we could not have even an anarchist detachment, we could not do something that happened in Rojava. We were not prepared for something of the scale. But as the war continues on, this might be an opportunity for the Ukrainian anarchists, the Belarusian anarchists, the other anarchists, joining the defense against Russian invasion, to find an opportunity to create something like an autonomous region just like Rojava. We are really hopeful about that. And, again, we are saddened about all the losses, all the destructions. It is just a reminder of what happened in Afghanistan. That war just took took a month but all the internal displacement all the external refugees, we understand. We experienced that, we are in solidarity with them.
TFSR: Thank you very much. So I can see from the ASRAnarshism website that there have been mobilizations of teachers in Iran against the economic crisis there and also striking mine workers in the Azerbaijan province within eastern Iran. I guess switching to Iran for a moment. To your knowledge, have anarchist been able to participate in these struggles? Are there other social struggles that are worth noting here for the audience? That they may not have heard about within Iran?
Aryanum: Yes, Iran right now is a hotspot of strikes. Not only from teachers, but like you said, mining workers. And also the financial economical crisis is so big that even then prison guards are striking. Which we spit on them because they tortured our comrades for the little money they get, we are not in solidarity with the prison guard’s strikes. But everybody is striking. They are doing it in waves, it comes and goes. It shows deterioration of the Iranian control on the working population. The way they’re trying to get out is by supporting regimes like Taliban, so they can get some benefits, so they can ease their own crisis to a certain extent.
But yes, a lot of workers are striking. And among them are Iraqi’s as well. They’re not specifically from our organization, but we are aware of the dark movement anarchists organizations. Most of them are covert in Iran. Certain groups here and there. During the workers strikes, plenty of them are going to be anarcho-syndicalists. You could see anarchists in every struggle, just they don’t advertise it because in Iran, anarchism, even though it’s growing, the opposition to that from the government is growing as well. They created fake anarchism group, which is a national anarchism called Irananarshism, which is just to divert attention from the people who are looking for anarchism that direction, they send them in the wrong path. They also are approving translation of anarchists books because they want to control the narrative, they approve what is damaging to them, which is the most mellow stance of anarchism that they can. They change the narrative and done and they control and they can see where the movement is going by. Like how many people are purchasing this book? And maybe they can track who is purchasing this book, who goes to the gatherings promoted by authors of this book. So they’re trying. It is a growing part of the concern of the Iranian government.
TFSR: Yeah, I hadn’t heard of the Iranarshism or Iranarshist national anarchist. That’s so weird. National anarchists are a strange abomination.
Aryanum: It is probably created by a government sponsored group just divert people from anarchism.
TFSR: Yeah, I could, I could see that. What can you say about the situation of political prisoners in Iran at the moment. A news services posted information about hunger strikes going on in a few prisons, right?
Aryanum: Yes, the hunger strike is happening because of the death of Baktash Abtin. He was a poet, writer, and a filmmaker. He got imprisoned because of what the government describes as the propaganda against the state, which he got imprisoned. The government in Iran was using COVID as a weapon. The situation in the prisons was so abysmal. The people could contract it, COVID, the political people. But the people that got in there because of embezzlement. They had all the money that they could use to live a good life in prison. They would get out of the prison soon after. The political prisoners that didn’t have any money, the activists, they either injured them, or used COVID as a weapon. So, the people who contracted COVID were not sent to a hospital, they did not do medical procedures to cure them, or ease their symptoms.
So Baktash Abtin contracted COVID. He got it so bad because of the neglect. He eventually had to be hospitalized and while he was in handcuffs in the hospital bed, he died of COVID. We all know that it was because the government wanted him to die and they were using the COVID as excuse. The larger scale prison hunger strikes started because of that. The hunger strike eased off a little bit, but we have recent news as of this week that they are continuing that again. For some reason they are restarting it again. During their hunger strike in Ervin prison, the head of prison, I think we reported on this as well on our website, the head of prison and head of intelligence started assaulting the political prisoners during the hunger strike. Some of them got severely injured. They wanted to give some benefit to one of them, like a shorter prison sentence, and having a right for a family member to visit them, something like that, for them to stop the hunger strike. But they persisted and got assaulted. But they’re gonna continue on.
TFSR: There had been an article recently about women prisoners inside of Iran doing an action…
Aryanum: About the woman. The prison in Iran is abysmal for both women and men. Women get arrested for petty things. If they are pregnant, they are gonna give birth to the child in the prison. The child is going to grow up in the prison. There are a lot of children. I don’t have a number, but there is a lot of children at the moment are growing up in the prison and are in prison because their mother is in prison. They haven’t seen a world outside of the prison as long as they live. And that’s another situation in prisons that are not talked about that much, but it is a reality that we are experiencing. The children are not put up for adoption. The children are not given to a family member that can be responsible for them or who can take care of them. They are living with the mother. And in some cases there is nobody, left alone. The mother and the child are serving a sentence that is cruel and inhumane.
TFSR: Yeah, the idea of raising kids inside of a prison is… I mean, that doesn’t happen in the US, the child would get taken in either put in foster care or sent to a relative. But definitely people give birth in prisons and obviously, in some cases in assigned women’s prisons, people who have been in for a while sometimes get pregnant. And there’s a question of how that happens, if not the guards.
Aryanum: Yeah. There is sexual assault of men and women is rampant in prisons.
Men’s prisons from our report, Sohiel Arabi, who got released from prison, sent to exile for two years. Then after two years, he needed to report back to prison. They didn’t want to let him go. Even though they keep making the same cases for him to keep extending his prison time. I think for some deals, he was allowed to leave the prison, he was part of some deals, regarding BARJAM, the nuclear deal, to leave the prison and be just in exile. But he will be going back to prison and he has multiple stories about prison that there is a sexual assault, it’s rampant. Prison guards would sexually assault you. You are not allowed to masturbate in prison. So there is a lot of sexual frustration there as well. There are people that take advantage of others, and the prison guards do what they can, what they can get away with. It is not like in the US, where they try to keep it on the low. In Iran it’s just not a concern. It just happens.
TFSR: There are there are laws in the US where whether successful or not prisoners can file with the federal government to the PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. I’ve heard about people filing suits against other prisoners or against administration’s or against guards for that. But, yeah.
Aryanum: One thing that I remember is that some of the censorships that happens from Taliban, is that the people that made it out, if they haven’t hidden their identity, their family members are going to experience the same thing that the Chinese people and the Iranian people experienced. Which is the Taliban would go to their family members, and would threaten them, would beat them to tell their family members to stop talking to silence them. Even though people make it out they have to be careful about themselves and their identity because it can be used against their loved ones that are still in Afghanistan, or Iran, or in China. It’s the same tactic. They just learned it from Iran and China.
TFSR: Yet, it’s terrible. That makes sense. So well, Aryanum, I hope that you’re doing well and thanks a lot for having this chat. And I can point people to the social medias and the telegram channel and the website in the end of the episode. But, thanks so much. Solidarity and appreciation to the work that you and your network do. And I’m glad a lot of them have been able to get out despite difficulties.
Aryanum: Thank you very much for having me and having this conversation. I really appreciate that and having a voice within the podcast.
I just want to say sorry to everybody who contacted us this past few months on asking for an interview for a written interview for the voice interview, sometimes from our Iranian comrades, something from our Afghan comrades. We let them down. We either gave them late responses or something like that. Unfortunately, our core outside Iran and Afghanistan is really a small and we are only responsible for dealing with this inquiry for inquiries and questions. We got overwhelmed and we apologize for it. It is not because we are ignoring you. It is because we just can’t unfortunately, we get overwhelmed. Thank you very much for having me on. We’ll be talking again.
This week, we spoke with Petr, a Russian anarchist member of the group Autonomous Action, who is living in Europe right now. For the hour we speak about the invasion of Ukraine, a bit about the resistance inside of Russia to the war drums and the Putin regime, the dangers of a nuclear conflict, the impacts of increased sanctions and anarchists organizing across the borders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus against the war and against tyranny. You can learn more about what’s going on by visiting Avtonom.org and finding the English tab, or using tools like google translate to read articles from the Russian there.
On Tuesday, December 8, 2020, 9 comrades were arrested by the DGSI, the French anti-terrorist police unit, across France. In Toulouse, in Dordogne, in the Paris region, in Brittany, and in Rennes. Anarchists are accused of being “the criminal association planning a terrorist attack”. All but one comrade were released, some after months in pre-trial detention. They are awaiting trial and are placed under the judicial control. The defendants, not all of whom know each other, have been under surveillance for a long period of time, including digital surveillance such as planting recording devices in vehicles as well as physical surveillance.
On March 4th, 2022 it was announced that it was six days since our comrades started the hunger strike. He did so at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine knowing very well that this information would drown in the news about the war. That all efforts would be focused on supporting the resistance in Ukraine and the people fleeing from there. It’s amazing what support for Ukraine has gathered, even thought it also came with shortcomings and contradiction; racist sentiment and nationalist visions for the future to name but two of them. Our comrade would in the same way support people fight for freedom. He is in isolation, the method the state use to deprive us of connection and communication with others. He needs us in the same way we need each other, we can never win alone. A person with their body can resist the repression of the state, but without the access we have on the outside his voice will not be heard.
The following is an update from the now 15 defendants facing charges in Asheville, NC as a part of the city government’s attempt to repress food sharing and mutual aid organizing.
“Since our last statement at the beginning of February, the state has targeted 8 more community members in connection with the December demonstration in Aston Park criticizing the City government’s inhumane treatment of homeless folks. We are now a group of 15 locals facing multiple felony charges for participating in mutual aid efforts in our community.
The city government claims we are each responsible for leaving behind more than 500 lbs of trash following a peaceful protest. APD claims this resulted in a 100 hours of “clean-up efforts”, the use of heavy machinery, and a cost of $2,680.
Over the past three months, the taxpayer dollars and time expended surveilling, harassing, arresting, and now prosecuting the defendants vastly exceeds the damages claimed by APD. How many of the same resources and heavy machinery have been employed by the city and county government to remove and destroy homeless camps in the last year alone?
These actions are not an effort to make our city safer, they are an attack on mutual aid. We remain committed to ensuring all members of our community have a safe place to live, a community around them, and agency over their own lives.
We still need your help as we face state repression and attempts to shut down our networks of care.
“Keep sharing food and care and solidarity with one another. Keep delivering groceries, cooking meals, sharing funds, and showing up in the parks. Keep standing with your community. Keep building this beautiful, transformative mutual aid movement. Keep sharing our story. In solidarity and community, the Sanctuary Camp Defendants”
TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, location, preferred gender pronouns, or affiliations that you can give us?
Petr: My name is Petr. I’m located in Europe, I would prefer not to disclose the particular location. I associate myself with he/him.
TFSR: Cool. Are there any projects that you’re involved with for the sake of this conversation?
Petr: I guess, the most important for this conversation is that I participate quite heavily in what the Autonomous Action is doing. This is one of the largest or maybe even the largest organizations of anarchist, libertarian communists in the ex-USSR countries. I’ve been involved in Autonomous Action quite a lot before I moved to Europe. I am still involved while being here. There are lots of projects going on. But mostly, spreading information, organizing more or less a stream of anarchist views, anarchist analysis of the current events for as wide an audience in Russia and neighboring countries as possible.
TFSR: I’m familiar with avtonom.org as a website where I can occasionally find English translations, updates of stuff, and ideas going on in the Russian language sphere. Would you share a little bit about the history of that group Autonomous Action more widely, the shared values and beliefs, like you said, that most people identify as anarchist or libertarian communists? Where the members are? What stuff do the projects do?
Petr: The Autonomous Action was established quite a long time ago, 20 years ago, in fact, in 2002-2003. It used to be an organization with quite solid, libertarian communist and anarcho-communist platform, based essentially on Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Bookchin. But it was not very picky, meaning that we cooperated with all sorts of the progressive left, but still, our opposition towards the state and towards the statist left was quite pronounced always, all the time. During the first 15 years of its existence, Autonomous Action was quite active on the streets. We really organized hundreds of various street actions. We also were quite integrated with the Antifa movement in Russia, I think the Autonomous Action was a major player in the anti-fascist movement on the streets. But then in recent years, since the state repression is constantly increasing, it becomes more and more difficult to actually organize something on the streets openly by anarchists, which means that we are increasingly trying to become a stream of information. That’s why we nowadays don’t call ourselves an organization anymore, but a media project. We’re on our website. We’re on all sorts of social media networks. Those members of Autonomous Action who are still in Russia — and most of them are — participate in street protests and grassroots initiatives, from environmental to political stuff, like the current anti-war protests.
TFSR: You’ve mentioned that you’re in Europe right now. But I wonder if you have a sense, at least among Russian anarchists and Russian-speaking anarchists that you’re in contact with, what are the reactions to the escalation that the Russian government’s been building, but in particular, the invasion of Ukraine, and the justifications behind it? We’ve heard of several marches around Russia with many arrests and beatings, as well.
Petr: It probably will come as no surprise that all the anarchist organizations or movements or projects that I know about in Russia pronounced quite explicitly their position against this war and against Putin’s regime which started this war, and I guess for us as anarchists, it didn’t come as much as a surprise as, for example, for liberals. We were not surprised that Putin will start another war. Wars accompany capitalism, always. Even more, they accompany capitalism in this flavor, which we observe in Russia, this strange mix of neoliberalism, authoritarian regime, and patriarchal propaganda for the crowds. We were not much surprised. But we were a bit surprised by the scale of it. Nobody seriously believed that Putin would really decide to occupy or at least try to occupy the whole of Ukraine. Our guess was that only the Eastern and maybe some southern parts will be under attack. The scale was surprising, but not the war itself.
There were lots of protests around the country. The protests are still ongoing. People still go out in the streets every day. Anarchists, participated quite a lot in these protests. But the protest is quite disorganized. Because, as I’ve said, it’s really difficult to really organize a real demo in Russia, because, it’s just those who will call people to come to some particular place and time will be probably arrested long before it started. It’s really just the spontaneous organization of people via social media, etc. But still, indeed, in the first days of the war, some groups of anarchists in Moscow, for example, and then in St. Petersburg as well, did manage to gather in crowds with banners and with anarchist slogans, etc. But most of the times anarchists were just part of the crowd without any banners or flags because if you have a banner, or if you have a flag, you will be just the first one to be arrested, of course. But the attitude of all anarchists in Russia is anti-war and anti-Putin.
TFSR: From what I hear in the Western media, the Russian government has criminalized media outlets and organizations that call this an invasion or a war. Do you have the impression of if the population in Russia knows what’s going on with the battles, with the shelling of cities, and the refugee crisis that’s building? Do you get the impression that this will be the new Chechnya to bring the country together into Putin’s arms?
Petr: That’s true. Indeed, in the best spirit of George Orwell, the Russian government criminalized calling this war a war. Officially, it is a special military operation. Indeed, even for carrying, for example, a sheet of paper with the words ‘NO WAR’ in it, you can get a fine, you will be penalized. If you do it for the second time, at least in theory, you can get a prison sentence, which is a significant step towards— Putin’s regime was being harder on anyone who has been protesting all the recent years. But this is a really strong step, even for Putin’s regime. Because it’s especially ironic, given that the state propaganda all these years was based essentially on this memory of World War II, and on declarations that “we are peaceful people, and we don’t want war”, etc. This is the reason why Putin and the authorities decided to ban the word “war” because otherwise, it would sound too crazy for the majority of the Russian population.
The question about whether the population knows what’s going on. It is a difficult question. It’s a difficult issue. The urbanized population, which was critical towards Putin even before the war, more or less have the means of accessing Western media, accessing some remaining independent Russian media, they know how to use TOR, VPNs to access blocked websites, so they definitely know what’s going on. About the rest of the population, I’d say that the majority understands what’s going on because nobody really believes the authorities that bombings are aimed only at military facilities, etc because nobody believes Russian authorities in anything. The trust in the government is really low. But it’s just the case that it’s difficult to leave with a feeling that you are a citizen of an aggressor country because the historical memory of people in Russia is that the Soviet Union was under an attack by Nazi Germany. There is this whole myth about a brave country defending itself from the aggressors, and now Russia is this aggressor. I guess many people just try to close their eyes and forget about this. They happily catch on any piece of propaganda on the TV or the Internet, which says “It’s the Ukrainians who are bombing themselves, or we are freeing Ukraine from the Nazis” or that Ukraine was developing biological weapons to destroy all Russians. This is a real claim by the Russian military. It becomes crazier. I think still, people often try to believe that, just because it’s difficult to see the reality often, unfortunately. I think that the role of anarchists and other progressive political movements is to try to open people’s eyes.
The next question of yours, whether this will be the new Chechnya, the idea of Putin definitely was that it will be a quick victory, which would improve the political situation inside the country because people when the wars are won by an authoritarian leader. But now that there is no quick victory — two weeks have passed, and no significant military success up to now — unfortunately, it seems that it could be the new Chechnya in the meaning that it will be just senseless bloodshed for many months or years, which will be horrible. This is definitely a very grim perspective and future. We should do everything that we can to avoid this. We probably can talk later about what we are doing for this and what anarchists and other progressive left can do for this.
TFSR: Thank you.
The claim about the chemical weapons development is kind of a newer one that I’ve just seen popping up over the last few days. Can you describe what that claim is that’s being made by the Russian military?
Petr: Essentially, they invent a new reason to invade Ukraine every day. And at some point, they claimed that they found some documents with the names of some chemical substances, somewhere in Ukraine, in the conquered cities, and based on this, they stated that Ukraine, with the help of the US and NATO, was developing biological weapons to target Russian people. They even claimed something that this weapon will be specifically aimed at the Russian DNA, which is absolute nonsense from the scientific point of view. But it’s just the case that we’ve observed this for many years that Putin and Kremlin propaganda, just their strategy was always just “say as many crazy things as possible so that the truth is just drowning in the sea of shit essentially”. They don’t care about whether what they claim is consistent because one day they say that we invaded Ukraine because we want to defend the people of the East of Ukraine. The next day they say that we invaded Ukraine because it wanted to become a member of NATO, the next day, they say that it was because of nuclear weapon which was being developed there. It’s just a constant stream of nonsense, which nobody actually believes in Russia, except maybe some hardcore patriots, which are definitely the minority of the population.
TFSR: I also wonder, since we’re going back into reasons for the invasion that have been given… The de-nazification makes sense with what you said about the Russian government playing off— The massive amount of people that died during World War II fighting the Nazis, but talking about this as an extension of the Patriotic War for the Fatherland. The de-nazification — and we know that there are militias that are connected to or integrated into the Ukrainian military that have white supremacist connections or have indeed Nazis within their ranks — I’ve been hearing some other anarchist sources talk about okay, “ there’s Nazis involved in the military of Ukraine. There are Nazis involved in the military of the US. There are Nazis involved in the military alongside Russian troops.” One group, for instance, that’s been mentioned, is the Wagner group? Can you talk a little bit about it, just to even the playing field and to point out that states are bad and Nazis using state militaries? Can you talk a little bit about some of the Nazi groups that are involved in the Russian military?
Petr: Well, the whole business of this de-nazification is of course total bullshit. It doesn’t have anything to do with reality. Of course, there are Nazis in Ukraine, and of course, they are some militias that are somehow associated with the Ukrainian army. But it’s definitely not the real aim of invading Ukraine. Putin doesn’t care at all about Nazis, what he cares about is whether he can order these people or not. Definitely, Nazi mercenaries are fighting on the side of the Russian Army. They were involved in armed conflicts in the east of Ukraine, they were involved in Syria, in many other regions of the world. But actually, it doesn’t matter much that they’re Nazis. They’re much more just soldiers of Putin than Nazis. Because the Nazi groups in Russia have been mostly eliminated or totally subjected to the state about 8-10 years ago. Nowadays, there are no independent Nazi parties or groups that are active on the streets. They are either dead or in prison, or they are part of more or less pro-Putin, pro-regime movements. Nazis are not political players anymore in Russia at all. It doesn’t make sense to even to talk about them. Maybe if you have some, specific questions, I probably can give some answers, but they do not play any significant part in what’s happening in Russia now.
TFSR: Okay, that makes sense. I’ve heard Russian people describe that Nazis aren’t fighting you on the streets. But when you get pulled into a police station, there’s going to be a Nazi with a boot to beat you. It seems like one thing about the way that Putin’s regime operates is to destroy autonomous power that could exist, anything that could destabilize and integrate it into their own power base, which is why it’s hard for Western people sometimes to take a read on Putin’s politics, because they presume it’s left or it’s right or something like that when actually it’s just neoliberal authoritarian.
Petr: I agree. Putin doesn’t care about whether this particular group is left or right, Nazi or Antifa. He cares about whether they pose a threat to him or not, that’s what matters. That was the reason behind crushing the Nazi movement about 10 years ago, and actually, about the same time they started crushing the Antifa movement. Then it was more or less finished by 2014 when it was split along this conflict in the Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine because some part, some members of the Russian Antifa movement went to fight on the Ukrainian side, and others went to fight on the side of this newly-established so-called republics. Both sides considered themselves to be anti-fascists. That was sad to observe. But I guess that’s what you expect more or less in such political conditions.
Putin has made the argument that Ukraine is a part of Russia, we’ve talked about the claims of genocide and Russian speakers and Donbas. Just as a note, war times are a time of increased nationalism. Have you seen the idea of who is Russian changed shape recently within Russia or to your experience? Where does this leave people of Chechen or Uzbek or other backgrounds or African backgrounds who may or may not be considered as Russian as others right now? How does the race work inside of Russia, basically? Do you get the impression that this has changed around the time of the war drums beating?
Petr: This, I should admit, is a very complicated issue. It probably would require a separate interview or a separate podcast to talk about this in-depth. But in general, on the one hand, Putin and his elite would probably want to establish some ethnic Russian domination or something similar to that. But on the other hand, they understand that they rule a country, which is really multinational and multiracial and multi-ethnic, and pronouncing one ethnic group as a dominant one has its dangers. On the other hand, another thing that stops them from going full Nazi or fully nationalistic is that, I already mentioned, this myths of The Great World War and the fighting against German Nazis, and these myths, these sorts of archetype supports Putin because he and the regime as a whole always claim themselves to be the descendants of these brave Soviet warriors who fought Nazis. That’s why they avoid directly discriminating against ethnic groups, or at least stating this explicitly, although, probably personally, they would these to happen. But politically, they are trying to avoid this. We have no evidence that the situation of ethnic minorities in Russia changed a lot since the war started.
There are problems, but it’s not that there is any apartheid or something like that. We know that the Ukrainian citizens in Russia are now often subjected to questioning. They have visits from the police, because citizens of the country with which Russia is at war right now, even when Russia itself doesn’t mean that it is in a war, up to now at least, it was just questioning. Essentially, the police come to a Ukrainian family and ask them: “Are you going to commit any terrorist acts? Do you have relatives in Ukraine?” It’s relatively soft, up to now, but we closely monitor the situation. We don’t know what might happen next.
TFSR: Because we’ve talked about the censorship that’s occurring around the information getting to parts of the Russian population, do you have a sense of what the morale might be inside of the military? Can you talk a little bit about the universal military obligation or draft in Russia and who gets out of it and how they can do that?
Petr: There is a draft in Russia. Every male after turning 18 has to serve for one year in the army, except when he starts studying at the university and it’s a long and venerable Russian tradition to avoid the draft. It’s been like that in the Russian Empire, in the Soviet Union, and it’s still like this in the Russian Federation. No one or almost no one wants to serve in the army. That’s almost universal. That’s why people try to avoid the army, by all means possible, even before the war, by paying money to the officials, by entering the University, even if they didn’t want actually to study, etc. Of course, now, when there is a real danger of being sent to a real war, even fewer people actually want to serve. Since currently, Russia seems to be losing this war, and there are rumors of actually announcing this total mobilization and sending all the conscripts to the war to Ukraine, we expect that there certainly will be protests or at least conflicts concerning this. We are trying to observe this and once we noticed that anything is happening try to help the protesters, help those who are trying to organize against this conscription, etc.
About the morale inside the military. It’s difficult to say because we don’t have any spies in the Russian army. Judging by the news, I guess, you more or less read the same news as us, it seems that the morale is not that high. Also, because as I’ve said, it’s some a mind-blowing fact to any Russian soldier that he is now serving the role of an invader. Because all his life he was taught that his role is to defend his country against invaders. Now he’s the invader. Also because no one actually wanted to really play a part in the war. All these soldiers didn’t want to really risk their lives in real battle. I’d say that the morale is low. There were some rumors about soldiers rioting somewhere near the border against sending them to Ukraine. But there were no independent confirmations about this. It’s still just some rumors. We definitely expect that there will be some riots, some soldiers rejecting the orders, etc.
TFSR: I guess on Telegram loops and on social media I have seen a video of captured Russian soldiers explaining why they’re there. That sounds also like a terrible situation to be in. But I can’t blame someone for capturing an invading soldier. Or a video of older women confronting soldiers and saying, “You should really put some sunflower seeds in your pockets so that when we kill you, at least something good will grow”. I’m sure the vitriol that they’re facing has done quite a deal on them when they’re being told that if anything they’re going to liberate people or to defend people. It makes me wonder if they’re not doing so well in this facet of the war — this is speculation, but if the Russian government might decide to focus more on the aerial bombardment because it’s easier to push a button and kill a bunch of people than it is to go in and face snipers who know the territory.
Petr: I guess that’s more or less what everyone now agrees on. That it seems that indeed, this is the tactics that the Russian army or the Russian government has chosen now. If we can’t win by conventional weapons, then let’s just bomb them. Because I guess they use more or less the same tactics in Syria and Chechnya. It seems to them that it brings them victory. Why shouldn’t it be used here in Ukraine? Of course, Ukraine is a bit different, because it still has its military, more or less, well, not intact, but still in an operational state. Also, unfortunately, the world didn’t pay so much attention to cities being bombed in Syria, the world does pay a lot of attention to cities being bombed in Ukraine. From this point of view, I’m not sure that these tactics will be actually profitable for the Russian army. But they certainly starting to do something that, they’re bombing more and more civilian buildings, residential buildings, etc. Unfortunately, that’s definitely the case.
TFSR: The last few decades, since the end of the Cold War, and since the end of the Soviet Union have brought a few shifts and changes in international arms treaties. I know, in the last six years, the US has stepped aside from anti-nuclear proliferation treaties that included Russia, as a signatory, and now there’s a lot of concerns that if NATO or US (as a more active element within NATO) decided to escalate participation, or actually start participating on the ground that it could spark a nuclear war. Do you have a sense of people seeing that in Russia as a possibility? How do you feel about that?
Petr: People in Russia definitely do see this as a possibility, especially because Putin himself mentioned that in his speech, when he actually announced the start of the war, he mentioned that we have nuclear power, etc. Also, many people, especially those who are older still remember the Soviet times when the expectation of nuclear war was more or less permanent. It’s not something entirely new.
I’d say that many people that I know at least, definitely are afraid of this. Also, there is a lot of evidence that Putin is not entirely in his mind. He definitely has some mental problems, which means that probably there is not much to prevent him from starting a nuclear war if a demon in his head tells him to do so. Or angels? I don’t know what he has in his head. People are definitely afraid of this, they hope that these are still just hollow threats. But you might never know. I personally think that we should be afraid of this, that, indeed, the Russian nuclear power is now in the hands of, first of all, a person who is definitely a bit mentally unhealthy, second of all, his state apparatus, which is fine-tuned to obey its head and to essentially just tell its head, which is Putin, whatever Putin wants. In this configuration, there is not much resistance to possibly pressing this nuclear button. I think that the danger is real, unfortunately.
TFSR: There’s been a lot of talks of NATO states avoiding sending troops so as not to escalate in that way, but sending weapons instead and imposing further sanctions on the Russian economy, including the ending of purchases of oil, or the capping or slowing of those purchases, which is a major part of the Russian economy, the exporting of petroleum products. How does this affect regular people inside of Russia? How much do you think that it actually affects the rich and the bureaucrats directly?
Petr: It definitely affects regular people. Exchange rates just increased twice or three times over a couple of days, which means that essentially people lost half of their salaries. There are already lots of problems with the goods in the shops, with logistic chains, etc. It’s really a large, profound systemic effect on the Russian economy, even if some people do not yet see it immediately, but it’s definitely there. It definitely will affect regular people a lot. They will become much poorer than they were before that.
How does it affect the rich and the elite class? That’s a good question. It definitely affects them to some extent. We see all these boats being captured all around the world, and we see assets, frozen, etc. The businesses that they own also suffer because of all these sanctions. It’s difficult to estimate whom it affects more, the regular people or the rich. I don’t even know how it can be measured. All I can say is that it definitely influences people.
Some of the sanctions, I guess, make sense in terms of stopping this Putinist military machine and essentially, just slowing down the military part of the economy. But other sanctions, for example, this Visa and MasterCard payment systems blocking transactions of Russians abroad, essentially prohibiting them to use payment cards issued by Russian banks abroad. This makes sense maybe from the pure ethical point of view, but from the point of view of at least allowing people to flee the country and then use their money abroad, this is not that good. I know many people who fled the country because they were some anti-Putin activists, but then their payment cards were blocked, and they essentially were left abroad without any money at all. There are very contradictory opinions about sanctions. I don’t have any clear answer, whether they’re beneficial or not, but definitely, people will suffer. They’re suffering already.
TFSR: Do you think that anti-state, anti-capitalist, libertarian leftists, and anarchists are poised to make good use of the momentum against the war and the increased pressure within Russia to bring about some change? Even if it starts from a small place, including the anti-militarist, anti-draft sentiments?
Petr: The short answer is that I would like to believe it. The long answer is that, as I’ve said, there were literally two decades of destroying the protest landscape, including anarchists. There are very few anarchist or libertarian left organizations that are still capable of actually organizing something massive or mobilizing significant numbers of people.
Having said that I still think that the current situation is somewhat promising as well. It’s bad, but it’s there is some silver lining in this cloud. Because lots of people, including those from the anarchist movement, actually think that based on what we see now, the Russian Federation, as we know it, probably will not survive in the next several months or several years. Because, indeed, the economic situation is quite tough now and it’s really catastrophic, because of the sanctions. And because of the war, war is an expensive business as well. also because of purely political things, because, as I’ve said, Putin probably planned to finish this war very quickly, in a couple of days. But he failed in this. And within the circles of his friends and henchmen and military generals, top hats, etc… they do not do it very much when someone fails. It’s not something tolerated. We expect definitely that the power struggles at the top of the Kremlin chair will intensify. Probably, the regime will somehow collapse in this or that way, comparatively soon, we cannot announce any particular date, but there is this feeling.
In this situation, we probably have good chances to establish or at least help to establish something more decentralized and more libertarian on the ruins of this collapsed regime. It’s still a good question to what extent we’ll be able to do anything meaningful. But at least nowadays, we’re trying to spread the word, spread the libertarian and anarchist ideas, and trying to push gently these anti-war vibes, anti-war protests into a more anti-authoritarian channel. To explain to people that to stop the war, it’s not enough to simply get the troops back, you also have to remove Putin from the Kremlin. We also need to make sure that no second Putin arrives there. I’d say that we can make good use of this moment, we have to try.
TFSR: How have Russians and anarchists in particular reacted to the recent military interventions in Kazakhstan and the backing of the Belarus dictatorship?
Petr: Here the answer is simple, we definitely stood in solidarity with the Belarusian protests. Lots of our comrades, anarchists from Belarus participated in these protests, lots of them are jailed for this, some of them for really long sentences. We supported them and lots of Russian anarchists actually went to Belarus to participate in these protests. The events in Kazakhstan are more complicated, meaning that there is still some fog of war there, it’s still not entirely clear what happened in Kazakhstan. Was it a military coup d’etat or was it a folk revolution? Was it something else? I guess we’re still trying to find out. But we definitely supported the protests in the western parts of the country against gas prices increasing. We definitely tried to resist, to protest against sending Russian troops to Kazakhstan. Because this is all parts of the same chain, sending troops to Ukraine, sending troops to Kazakhstan is part of this empire politics by Putin, by the Russian state. It looks at Kazakhstan and Ukraine and Belarus as its sphere of influence, which they should rule. We as anarchists may surely oppose this way of thinking, in general. We do not think that any empire has the right to tell the people what to do.
TFSR: Do you get much of a sense of Russian sentiments from the wider population about those two interventions or are they kind of hard to gauge?
Petr: In Belarus, there was no military intervention. Russian troops did not enter Belarus, or at least officially didn’t enter. Russia helped the Belarusian dictatorship only with money, lots of money. They also sent some TV propagandists, media managers to help the Belarusian propaganda. There was no clear military intervention, although, Russian troops, are now in Belarus, and they actually attacked Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. But that’s just because they signed lots of agreements. Putin and Lukashenko are best friends now. That’s happening all the time, but there was no intervention.
The general opinion of the Russian public about Kazakhstan, people just didn’t have enough time to actually understand what’s happening. It happened in 10 days, or even less. I don’t think that there is any sentiment, which is shared by a large part of the Russian population about this. Most Russians just don’t care a lot about Kazakhstan in general. It’s difficult for me to give any clear estimate about this.
About Belarus, the Russian society was polarized by the riots and protests in Belarus. Those who were more conservative have this nostalgic feeling about Belarus reminding them about Soviet times. They believed that these were protests inspired by the West, which is poised to destroy this island of the Soviet Union. They definitely were against the protests and they supported Lukashenko. Other parts of the society, more liberal, were unilaterally against Lukashenko and they supported the protests by whatever means possible. It’s very polarized.
TFSR: Do you have any words for comrades internationally or who are in Ukraine, who might hear this? How can anarchists abroad support the efforts of dissidents within Russia, and everyone living under the Putin regime who are resisting?
Petr: We are in contact with our comrades in Ukraine. It’s not like we are disconnected, there is a constant flow of information from here to there, and from there to here.
But anyway, the main words that we can send them is that they are fighting not just for themselves, or for Ukraine, they are fighting for Russia as well, because we really believe that, as it happened a lot in historical times, a lost war often meant the fall of the regime in Russia. We definitely believe this will be another case of that. Stay strong. Defeat Putin. We in Russia, or internationally, will help you to do this as much as possible.
About the question how can anarchists abroad support the efforts of dissidents in Russia? The best way to do this is to spread the information, spread the word that it’s not the case that the entire Russian population supports this war, there are dozens of thousands of people on the streets, thousands of those who are arrested. There are political organizations or groups, even if not that large, but still dozens of people who are actively working against war and organizing protests, meaning designing leaflets, printing leaflets, starting websites or groups in social media, etc. All of this is extremely important. If you want to support people with something else, not just with the word, we have several cryptocurrency wallets, I can send you privately the numbers. If someone wants to give money to printing leaflets, paying for websites, paying for the fees which our comrades have after being arrested in the street protests, please do. We will be grateful for that.
TFSR: Yeah. Is there anything that I failed to ask about that you want to talk about?
Petr: I guess we covered all the important topics. The only thing is probably that in the current situation, it’s quite important not to fall victim to propaganda from both sides. Both from the Russian side, and from the Ukrainian and broadly, the general Western side. Unfortunately, we sometimes see in the Western media some anti-Russian vibe, which is probably understandable in times of war. But at the same time, it’s quite dangerous, I think. As I’ve said, it’s really important to always separate the actions of the Russian government, which Russian people didn’t elect, to begin with, and the actions or the opinions of those who actually live in Russia, and who suffer from the actions of the Russian government. The Kremlin does not occupy just Ukraine, it actually occupies Russia as well. I think that is an important thing to remind people about.
TFSR: Absolutely. Petr, how can people follow your work and the work of Autonomous Action?
Petr: We have a website avtonom.org and it has an English section. We don’t have enough resources to translate all the materials into English but we try to translate at least the most important ones. You can also find the links to our social media there. We have all sorts of channels that you can expect, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, even Instagram. You can follow us on whatever channel you prefer.
Petr: VK, you mean this Russian social network VKontakte? Yes, we have a page there. But we do not recommend using it. It’s owned by the Russian state. Don’t use VK.
TFSR: If listeners do speak Russian, or besides the written content on the website and on social media, you’ve also got a podcast on Sound Cloud, right? But it’s in Russian.
Petr: Yes, it’s in Russian, it’s weekly. People definitely can subscribe to it on YouTube, Sound Cloud, or whatever, or just listen to it from our website. We are trying to give a weekly anarchist analysis of what is happening. We see that many people actually subscribe. It seems that the format is convenient for the audience. We’re quite proud of it actually.
TFSR: I see that some of the notes from those are getting translated. I imagine if someone does have those language skills also and wants to contribute offering to do translations of some of the stuff published on the site might be helpful?
Petr: That would be great. CrimethInc. actually, did some translation on their own initiative. But we definitely need translators, so if someone feels they have these skills, they’re definitely welcome to contact us by any means possible.
TFSR: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you and thank you again for taking the time and for all the work that you’re doing.
Petr: Thanks for having me and hope that the war will be stopped.
The Case of Daniel Baker: Online Speech and Community Defense
On January 15th, 2021, two men received a knock on the door of their Tallahassee apartment from someone claiming to be delivering a Postmate parcel. The two hadn’t ordered anything and raised suspicion that someone was trying to break in and rob their home so they said they didn’t order anything and refused to open the door. Moments later, their door crashed open and a percussive grenade ignited as FBI swarmed in with guns drawn, yelling.
This was the arrest of US military veteran, YPG volunteer medic and instructor of yoga and jujitsu Daniel Baker on charges of inciting violence at Florida’s state capital. This may sound like a familiar story of government arrests across the country since the January 6th far right riot to stop the counting of votes that Trump supporters and avowed white nationalists engaged. The difference lies in the fact that Dan Baker wasn’t calling for the storming of anything. The FBI alleges that he made posts online calling for people to resist an attempted coup that elements of the far right had been promoting since the failed acts of January 6th in DC, where armed putschists would take State capitals and public officials hostage. So, why did the FBI targetting Mr Baker? Why has he not been allowed private meetings with a lawyer since his detention? Why was he kept in solitary since his pre-trial time at the Federal Correction Institution at Tallahassee begun?
On October 12th, 2021, Dan Baker was sentenced to 44 months in Federal Prison for “interstate communication of threats” for his facebook posts and his militant anti-fascism, including his time fighting Daesh or ISIS in Rojava. His defense is appealing the ruling, otherwise he’s expected to be released at the soonest in March of 2024.
For the hour, we’re sharing our March 7th, 2021 conversation with Jack and Eric. Both are anti-racist activists, students of Daniel’s yoga and jujitsu instruction and Eric was the roommate that was present at the time of the home invasion by the FBI. You can find links to articles about the case in the show notes at our website and in this podcast and more information on Daniel’s case is at the instagram account, @FreeDanBaker, you can contact support at DanBakerDonations@gmail.com, donate to his support on paypal with that email and find his amazon wishlist on the instagram.
You can write to Dan Baker at: Daniel Alan Baker #25765-509 FCI Memphis FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION P.O, BOX 34550 MEMPHIS, TN 38184
Thanks to the folks who’ve been supporting this project in various ways. You can pick up merch or make donation that support our transcription work with the info at TFSR.WTF/Support. Our transcripts are out a week or so after broadcast and we’re slowly starting to transcribe older episodes. Zines can be found at TFSR.WTF/Zines for easy printing and sharing. You can find our social media and ways to stream us at TFSR.WTF/links and learn how to get us broadcasting on more radio stations at TFSR.WTF/radio! Thanks!
TFSR: Would you all please introduce yourselves with whatever names pronouns or affiliations that make sense for this chat?
Eric: My name is Eric, he/him. I’m a visual artist, and I was Dan’s roommate at the time of his arrest. We had traveled together for a while.
Jack: My name is Jack, I use they/them pronouns. I am studying biomathematics and computational science, and I’m an activist and organizer in the Tallahassee Community.
TFSR: And are y’all on the support crew for Daniel?
Jack: I’d say we’re probably the two main folks on the support group. We were all training jujitsu together at the time of Dan’s arrest, jujitsu and yoga.
Eric: Yeah, we just started a workout group thing that they’re trying to criminalize him for. They came after a yoga teacher.
TFSR: Would you all give listeners a thumbnail sketch of who Daniel is, and your relationships or how him?
Eric: We crossed paths a few times over the years. I think the first time we actually met was around 2013, we had crossed paths in the Krishna Temple in Chicago while I was traveling around, he had just come from a Rainbow Gathering. And he was traveling, visiting some different temples on the way back to the East Coast. We only met for a couple of days. And then we had reconnected on Facebook years later, after he had returned from Syria. I didn’t even recognize him at first. But I reached out to him because I wanted to learn more about his experience, I had already been studying some related Political Science type stuff and I wanted to try to get more insight into what his experience was like. He had also had some training that would be very valuable for all the different protests that were going on. So every once in a while, I’d kick down and send a donation here and there when I could to keep him going. And then eventually, we just decided to take a road trip.
I guess we connected online, maybe a couple of years ago, late 2018, early 2019. We had known each other for about a year just online, we traveled together. He had just been in Tallahassee for maybe five or six months when he was arrested. He had some roots in the community here. We were trying to make friends and network with local activist circles, and participate in the best way we could. Dan had gone through the Combat Lifesaver training with the army and had applied it during his time in Syria, so he was very valuable as a street medic. I’d just been traveling around painting on and off full-time for years, so we both would just fly signs sometimes and do a pop-up exhibition. I would live paint, we saved up to get a room. We were camping for a while. We got off the street and got a small apartment. We’re able to save up and put him through a BMR course. He knew all the material pretty much but he just needed the certification to be able to work in that field. So we were on the way to getting him reestablished here and then dudes kicked our door…
Jack: First they said they were the Postmates Delivery Service. The FBI knocked on the door and then said, “Postmates Delivery”. And then Dan was “We didn’t order Postmates” and shut the door. They kicked down the door, threw in a flashbang, and then said, “FBI”. Obviously, you have Dan and Eric sharing it separately, Dan had a very difficult time being able to communicate with anyone. But I think that the FBI wasn’t expecting the blind landlady who’s 80 years old and was in the room next door to corroborate the story. And so once that came out, she was in the room next door and heard them announce themselves as the Postmates delivery, and was able to independently verify that this happened. And they haven’t responded to that. They didn’t even deny it when it came up in the public hearing. The FBI agent went first and then said, “We announced ourselves and they resisted arrest”. And then Eric was up and he was “They didn’t announce themselves. They said they were the Postmates delivery service”. If you get a knock on the door, and it’s a delivery and you know you didn’t order something I don’t think anybody wants to answer that door. And I think everybody thinks they might think that they might be getting robbed.
Eric: As I said, we were trying to start a workout group, we had been traveling and I was trying to pick up some first aid stuff from him. He had also done some training in jujitsu, he had competed a decent amount, he had some gold medals, I think he’s about purple-belt level, he was upper-intermediate. And he was just helping me pick up some of the basics. We’re going to the Ashtanga Yoga primary series for the yoga teacher training. He had the first certification in that. He was working on building up his second certification. And I was going through getting my first. So we started inviting some other people out, and getting some more folks involved, because I would never be able to afford to learn all that stuff without somebody who’s giving that access. So I just really wanted to help him make that available to the community here. Jack was one of the first people who was coming regularly to the groups we were doing and I guess it was helping them move past some recent difficulties.
Jack: When I started training jujitsu and yoga, I have just gotten out of an abusive relationship. Training with Dan and Eric was actually a really healing practice for me. Dan and Eric created a safe space, which sometimes, as a non-binary person, can be really difficult, especially with cisgender white males, but they were both really, really, really compassionate and understanding. Dan and Eric are both really strong feminists. And I just really appreciated how comfortable they made me and how supportive they were while I was going through this process. So that was just really fundamental for me to move past this relationship and the pain that I had gone through. I feel like I owe Dan so much because he was just somebody who is very understanding,
TFSR: There are a few things that I’m noting, in addition to the descriptions of you both talking about how Dan’s been someone who works to create space, who works to build skills in order to share them, those sound like some pretty fundamental parts of who he is, as a person. People would join the military for a lot of different reasons, in part, maybe because they want to further a career, get out of a bad situation, maybe some more nefarious perspectives that people can have sometimes joined the military, but to train up to be effectively a combat medic, or a medic in what could be deadly situations, is a great skill set, and then going on to continue to apply that by volunteering, to participate in the struggle against ISIS is another show that someone is applying this life-saving tool. And the fact that Dan was bringing it back and bringing it into these dangerous protest situations that the far-right and the police create more and more so as time goes on in the US, seems to say a lot about Dan’s character.
Eric: Yeah, at least from what I understand, whenever people come back from Rojava, often they’re briefed at the airport. And a lot of times, they’re just discouraged from getting involved in politics or activism or anything like that. But Dan was very committed to his beliefs and to social justice. And he is one of those rare individuals who are willing to go to prison or put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of protecting others. And I think that’s a fundamental part of his character.
TFSR: And so you all were finding some stability at the time when this raid happened. I mean, being housing unstable is not, sadly, a unique situation these days, but especially during the pandemic is a very difficult time, that must have been very emotionally, impactful, and frightening to have somebody bust through the door and throw a flashbang and suddenly hear FBI with guns drawn out of nowhere. That’s a traumatic experience.
Eric: Yeah, it’s was the last way I was expecting this trip to turn out, although we had a feeling something like this could happen because we had also been previously stuffed by the FBI in Seattle during the time we were there. They had just rolled up to us in a parking lot after this one shooting had happened to question us about things that they had seen online. He just told them that he had already made his public commentary on Twitter. And that was basically all he had to say about it. So they let us continue on. As far as I know, they’ve been observing him for as long as I can remember, I think he got back in like 2018. He said they’ve been pretty much observing him and I’ve seen him post about being stopped a few times already. So it seems like he’s been under regular surveillance for a long time.
TFSR: And y’all were up in Seattle, where he was doing medic work around the autonomous zone period, right? There were a few shootings I know of that it seems to make sense that he would be around when there’s some violence showing up, running towards the trouble in order to mitigate the harm that’s been caused, to help save lives.
Eric: Yeah, I had been stranded out of state when COVID happened and quarantine started, I was homeless at the time, I was staying in a shelter, and I just ended up getting some seasonal work, and then got the stimulus. I sold some paintings also. I was able to get this car. And we had both been following the Unicorn Riot and talking about how we wish we could be there and support. And once we got the ability to do so it made sense to just take a trip.
TFSR: What were the reasons that the FBI immediately gave for the arrest, if they gave any? What has the federal prosecution sent to the US attorney or whoever it is that’s conducting prosecution? What arguments are they giving as to why they thought it was necessary to bust into the apartment and arrest him?
Eric: I’m not even really sure about the justification for breaking in. The justification they’re using for the entire case is just them seeing some Facebook posts and some flyer going around. Apparently, he was indicted on two separate charges. But his public defender is saying that they generally only rule as one charge, if even that, so hopefully, it won’t be as bad as a maximum sentence.
TFSR: So the posts that appear to be the main source of the FBI’s argument were related to after January 6, after the right-wing riot that occurred at the National Capitol in DC. The far-right was claiming that it was calling for people to have similar actions taking over space, damaging property, threatening people at state capitols around the country. Is it correct to say that the posts that you’re talking about are one saying “We as community members need to show up and resist the violence of the far-right and what violence they might bring into our communities while they’re doing that”? Was that the nature of the posts on social media?
Eric: Yeah, allegedly it was a reaction to the situation. It’s not like he was taking some initiative to instigate or harass anybody or anything, it was due to these pressing events and these threads coming up, which a lot of us had been expecting for a long time, at least on some level. We were anticipating that we might not see a very peaceful transition of power. And especially after what we had seen in DC, it was reasonable to assume that something similar could happen at the state capitol as well, especially that the FBI themselves were circulating warnings about what could happen.
TFSR: I think there’s a fundamental difference between somebody going to another place, going to DC, for instance, to protest or to counter-protest, as opposed to saying, “Hey, there’s a very strong danger that militia or some other group or proud boys or whatever are going to be coming to our hometown and bringing some of the same violence that you’re seeing in this other place”. Just to go back, if Daniel is the person who will run towards danger, because he has built the skills and because he’s courageous enough to put himself on the line in order to act as a line of defense as well as to help people who are in harm’s way, it seems a little illogical that the FBI is making a point of attempting to prosecute this individual who was trying to mitigate harm.
Eric: The instinct is you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is just a mistake or something. But I guess by now, there are so many of these cases.
Jack: I don’t necessarily hold the FBI in the highest faith. But then even just the whole thing where they pretended they were the Postmates delivery. What is the rationale for that, what did they gain by pretending they were the Postmates delivery service? One of the criminal complaints against Dan was that he said he was getting funded by George Soros. That he had an Antifa card from George Soros. Then they use that to try to prove that he’s this international “terrorist”. During the public hearing, the public defender asked the FBI agent, “Do you know who George Soros is”? And the FBI agent said, “No”. I laughed really hard, because what the fuck? I was even told to not laugh. And then the public defender said, “Do you really think Dan was getting funded by George Soros”? And then the FBI agent said, “Well, since I don’t know who that is, I’m not sure”. Either he’s really stupid and doesn’t know who George Soros is, or he is really bad at his job and doesn’t know who George Soros is and isn’t aware of the QAnon conspiracy that right-wing extremists ascribe to, or he was lying and playing dumb. Either of these options is not good, for why he doesn’t know who George Soros is. It’s like saying I don’t know who Bill Gates is.
TFSR: Yeah, it’s been coming out more and more, especially in the last few years, but this year, in particular, with BlueLeaks, the amount of information that’s being pumped into the intelligence infrastructure of the US from these fusion centers, that pulls in a lot of conspiracy theories, whether it be about Antifa lighting fires in the Pacific Northwest, or just similar things to that, that the FBI agents didn’t even necessarily need to know who George Soros is, although it does say a lot about their disconnection from popular culture and conspiracy theories. But it’s not surprising if there was pumping in of far-right conspiracy thinking and disinformation to the local FBI chapter. And then they decided to act out of that.
As you say, there’s a history of the FBI attacking anti-racist movements, particularly focusing on Black and brown activists, but also disrupting and incarcerating tons of activists who act in solidarity against white supremacy and against anti-Blackness. This administration has made a point of – as I said, it was during the last administration anyway – but they had the whole statement about the events in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. I think that, especially after they had conducted extrajudicial killings of anti-fascist activists, if they were going to be going after and arresting people on the far-right who had participated in January 6, they probably had to pick up some people who would have been “opposition” to show that they’re not some deep-state, leftist Campbell Soup, whatever conspiracy group.
Jack: Yeah, DemocracyNow! had a really good interview with Benjamin Crump. And then they were talking about the new information that’s come up with Malcolm X, and he was saying that they’re now calling Black Lives Matter protesters “BlackIdentity Extremists”. Have you heard about that new terminology that’s being thrown around for arresting Black Lives Matter protesters?
TFSR: Yeah, they’ve been introducing that more and more since the Ferguson uprising. It makes sense for this not to come up in that conversation that Benjamin Crump was engaging, but they’ve also been using the term “anti-government extremists” to be able to lump in anarchist, anti-fascists & Black Liberation activists alongside white nationalists and Nazis. As opposed to focusing on white supremacists, they say, “Oh, well, the problem is not about the specific ideology. It’s about extremism, that’s extra-parliamentary where they’re going to go and do actions in the streets or attack people or whatever. We’re in a ‘post-racial society’. So we can say that, well, these people are extremists about whiteness. And these people are extremists about Blackness” as opposed to the centrist ideology that the US government is supposed to uphold. So yeah, Black identity extremists are being put on members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club or the Not Fucking Around Crew or the Black Women’s Defense League as armed groups for Black liberation. I disagree with the politics at least one of them does, but they have some sketchy views in terms of antisemitism, but this flattening of any opposition as being a threat to the Democrat and Republican parties basically. Sorry, that was ranty. I didn’t mean.
Jack: No, no, no.
Eric: If they can just pile up a whole bunch of Facebook posts and make the case out of that, that’s bad news for everybody.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely.
Jack: Some of the things in the FBI complaint literally made no sense. In the criminal complaint, they had that Dan had posted YouTube videos showing basic first aid. And we were just “Why is this in the criminal complaint?”. This is not illegal, this is not harmful. This is literally Dan trying to educate people on how to help each other, how to literally heal each other. That was bizarre. There were other things too, in the public hearing, they were trying to “prove” that Dan was a flight risk. And they pulled up Eric’s Facebook and found a status where he said, “Things aren’t looking great in the country, really want to get the fuck out”. And that was back in August. And then they were “They have plans”. And then our public defender was like “When Reagan was president, I said I wanted to get out of this country”. To pull up a post from four months ago, and then have somebody that says, “I want to GTFO [get the fuck out] from this country” and then say, “That’s proof of plans of a flight risk” is just… The number of people who said they wanted to go to Canada, now they’re all flight risks. It’s really grasping at straws at that point.
TFSR: I was gonna try to make some joke about how far of a stretch that was in yoga, but I couldn’t.
Jack: It was so appreciated either way. There’s so much about it. We’re aware that Dan is a white male. So he is somebody who wants to defend Black lives. And he essentially wants to use his privilege to defend Black lives. He’s the type of person to run towards the sound of gunshots, he is the type of person who wants to use his white privilege to protect Black and brown lives from white supremacists. I want to say that just because we’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between the Black Panther movement, Huey P. Newton and a lot of the examples that we’ve been giving describe the FBI involvement has been with Black leaders, Black civil rights leaders. Obviously, Dan is not Black, and it’s still very nuanced and different. But I think that the criminalization of leftist ideology, in general, is still a common thread for all of these movements.
Eric: One of the things that terrify them the most is these types of Rainbow-Coalition- style initiatives that grasp the attention of people from a vast spectrum of backgrounds.
TFSR: Currently, Dan Baker is sitting in a federal prison in Tallahassee. Have you been in contact with him? How are his conditions? How are his spirits?
Eric: I got a couple of phone calls. I got a call the last couple of weeks. And then maybe two-three days ago, I just got another whole bunch of letters that I think had been delayed in transit. It was probably over a dozen letters, some of them are things that he wanted to share about his condition in there and the way he’s holding up.
Jack: Actually, I stepped out to check the mail really fast while you guys were talking, but I realized that I had bought Dan a bunch of greeting cards to give him some color in his cell. And then I see that effective August 15, all incoming general correspondence envelopes, including greeting cards must be white in color only. So now I’m realizing that none of my letters have actually gotten to him. It’s been very difficult to actually communicate with him. He wasn’t able to make a phone call for weeks. And when his lawyers asked the warden about it, the warden said, “Talk to the prosecution”. When they talk to the prosecutors about it, they’re “You got to talk to the warden”. So they were giving the public defenders the runaround. We didn’t hear from Dan for several weeks, it was very stressful. And then the color of the envelope… They scan all of the letters in the first place and then send them copies of scanned letters. So I have no idea why the envelope would matter at all. Because they don’t even send them the envelope in the first place.
Eric: There are a couple of complaints that he sends. They’re inmate requests to staff, he’s just trying to get access to his funds and being able to communicate with everybody. Basically, he’s just trying to request information on how we can access those things and it took him a long time, maybe another few days at least, before he even figured out how to be able to access the funds that he had available. He was trying to get phone calls, he couldn’t even really get phone calls with his lawyers. A lot of times, they had him on a three-man hold. I think it’s the FDOE regulation. They’ll have three people hold them on a chain with a lieutenant there. Every time he has a phone call, or every time he meets with his attorneys…
Jack: He hasn’t been able to have a private conversation with his attorneys. He’s been in the detention center for a month and a half. And he hasn’t had been able to have one private conversation.
TFSR: Because there’s always simultaneously these other prisoners that are being…
Jack: There are these three armed guards with him at all times. And they’re trying to present him as if he’s this evil criminal.
Eric: “Antifa super-soldier”.
Jack: Yeah, antifa super-soldier, evil criminal mastermind. As Eric said, he’s won six gold medals. But that’s training within his level and his division, he’s a purple belt training against other purple belts in his weight class, not somebody who’s a Black belt training against all these other Black belts. He is very skilled, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a ninja.
TFSR: Are they afraid he’s gonna attack his lawyer? They put him into a room with his lawyer, what’s the possible danger except for extracting him from the room afterwards?
And a quick content warning, the next section has a reference to sexual assault. So if you’re concerned, I would skip ahead about two minutes.
Jack: I think they just really don’t want him to be able to have a private conversation with his lawyer. There have been so many sketchy things about this whole thing. The fact that he wasn’t able to make a phone call mysteriously.
Eric: Yeah, we had been trying to make phone calls for two weeks or so before anyone was able to get through and even got in contact with his counselor. And he just hung up on us, we had to pay subscriptions even just to register a phone number in the system. Even then, I think they initially put him in solitary. They were saying it was for a quarantine measure, 14 days of solitary confinement. But then others were saying it was because they thought he was gonna start an uprising or something. Also, I think after he had spent some time in there, he was saying it would be preferable to go out into the general population because he was just a concern for his own safety.
Jack: One of the things that he wrote in his letter is that somebody was raped with a broomstick handle. When you think about the conditions of jail/prison or anything, it’s a place that breeds hostility environment, and the guards encourage it. That was in one of his recent letters is there is a person who is struggling with some mental issue, and the guards are saying that he’s faking it and encouraging the other prisoners to bully him and antagonize him and hurt him. Dan is not sure what to make of it, except that he realizes that somebody is being bullied and intimidated and harassed. And the guards are encouraging this behavior amongst the inmates.
Eric: I just got a couple of these letters from him over the last couple of days, the most recent ones were marked “urgent”, he was concerned because he was rotating his cell. And apparently, when he got into the new cell, it was covered in feces, and there’s blood in the sink and someone used the toothbrush in there or something. He wasn’t sure if somebody was going after him or trying to intimidate him, or what the situation was, but it was extremely unsanitary. He’s not given access to even antibacterial soap or anything like that. Apparently, it was another inmate who is suffering from some mental illness and he’s done this also in other cells. So it doesn’t seem like anyone is targeting him specifically. I think he has gotten threats from other people that he’s mentioned, but I was just discussing this with his attorney the other day, and some of these things are probably pretty common in a lot of these institutions. It’s hard to even tell exactly what action to take short of abolishing them.
TFSR: Can you tell me about the support crew a little bit like how you mentioned like you two are some of the most active people in it? What infrastructure have you been building or how’s it been trying to talk about the case? There’s been a few pretty good articles that I’ve seen online and Jack, you mentioned writing a bunch of op-eds. How’s that work going?
Jack: I think the way that it started is some of our Black community activists, Black leaders, actually reached out to us about trying to support Dan. And they recognized what Dan was trying to do and appreciated that he was trying to fight against white supremacy. Then we grew it to include some more of the different prison solidarity groups across the state, across the nation, actually. We have some people from Philadelphia, New York, Indiana, and then we also have people who are with the Rojava Solidarity Network, they just all reached out. And we were really grateful to have this solidarity. We just talk about different news articles that come out. I appreciate everyone’s perspective, like I said, it’s been really helpful to have Black activists give feedback because this is something we want to be very mindful of.
Eric: So it’s been important, this whole trip to defer to Black leadership.
Jack: Yeah, Black leadership and local leadership, especially since we’re talking about protecting Black and brown lives, we wanted the perspective of Black and brown leaders in the community.
TFSR: I know that during a past interview with Coffee with Comrades, Eric, you talked about using your existing artwork as a platform to talk about Daniel’s case. Is that still ongoing?
Eric: Yeah. Basically, Dan and I had started that project. We would live paint in public spaces. We started a page called the Guerilla Gallery. It’s a common thing that a lot of artists do, a pop-up exhibition. I revived that page because I hadn’t really had it running before. So I decided to dedicate it as an info hub for his case and to use it for future prison solidarity projects. Anyone is welcome to check that out if you want to keep up with it. It’s on Instagram, Guerilla Gallery TLH, it is in Tallahassee. So I’ve been tried to post the relevant addresses mailing addresses, and some of the guidelines for sending mail, any relevant articles, I’ll probably post this article. And then once it comes up, and it’s just like a place where I can, at least until we get a website going, we’ve just been using that. We do have a website in the works. But we got shut down by GoFundMe pretty early on. So we’ve been working with some other groups set up like an independent fundraiser. So hopefully that’ll be online shortly at that one hearing scheduled for I think it was last Monday, it was supposed to be a state case, a hearing for an arraignment for whether he gets to keep his firearms. But instead, they took him before a grand jury and tried him with I think it was just the prosecutor there. And so they ended up getting him with two charges, instead of just the original one, even though the public defender doesn’t think it’ll stick, but his state case is still coming up as to whether he gets to keep his firearms. So I was just able to hire a lawyer just the other day to assist with that case and represent him because I feel like that’s important if they’re also trying to take firearms away from people that they’re harassing in this way.
TFSR: Yeah, particularly people that haven’t been convicted of a crime. One thing about Florida is that Florida is the cousin to the rest of the US South where they give you guns or shove them into your hand when you’re an infant. That’s not fair and not true. But it’s just difficult to consider the idea that the state of Florida is looking to deny someone the right to bear arms when they have “served the country”, and also when they haven’t been charged with actually conducting any violent criminal act, let alone when conducting of criminal acts in which a gun is a part of that.
Jack: The whole thing is bizarre. Exactly like what you’re saying that he hasn’t actually been convicted of anything and they’re already trying to make this decision.
Eric: If we can do some art exhibition pretty soon to draw attention to this, it’ll also show up some of the systemic issues of how these types of laws can be used to take away people’s voting rights, their ability to protect themselves. And there’s just like so much wrapped up in it.
Jack: Also the absurdity of having social media posts be criminalized that were obviously jokes. Another one of the things of the criminal complaint was that Dan had pictures or posts about eating the rich, and these are fucking memes, this is absurd that they’re including “eat the rich” memes as part of a case against him to say that he’s a threat to society.
TFSR: I’m just looking at the statement, the press release from the Northern District of Florida US Attorney’s office right now. It is saying two counts of transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure. So this is one of those instances again, also not only is that, but they’re out of context social media posts, that it’s not even actionable if it doesn’t post some recipe about how to prepare the rich for consumption. But they tack on the interstate commerce because it’s being done over the internet, even though this is about stopping a far-right incursion or attempt to putsch against the government in the town that you live in. The fact that there are communications about how we need to resist violent actors coming in and causing violence upon ourselves and further reducing whatever “democratic government” there is in the world. They’re saying that it’s now a federal charge because it’s over the internet. It’s so ridiculous. Some pretty decent coverage, there was an article on Jacobin that came out in January…
Jack: I think the Jacobin article by Branko Marcetic is probably my favorite of the articles that have come out so far. I encourage everyone who’s listening to read that one specifically. Because I feel like that really captures the absurdity of the case.
TFSR: And I was surprised too, there’s also a pretty decent article “Coming from Prison”, which is a libertarian…
Eric: Yeah, I saw that too. I was about to post that one up the other day.
Jack: Okay, I actually haven’t seen that one yet.
Eric: I was surprised about that, too, to be honest.
TFSR: It’s making some pretty cogent arguments in a legalistic framework of the government attempting to suppress the right to bear arms based on the political speech of an individual. And it probably doesn’t hurt that again, he’s a white dude.
Jack: I’ll definitely have to read on that one.
Eric: It’s easier for the prosecution to go after Dan Baker than it is for them to prosecute Donald Trump.
TFSR: So another coverage’s come up and hopefully there’ll be more, but this situation reminds me of the case of Loren Reed, he’s Diné man in Arizona facing 10 years in federal prison for joking comments in a private Facebook chat during the uprising. Does there seem to be a trend in this application of speech on social media platforms like Facebook being taken out of context and used to criminalize people on the left? I don’t know if any other cases remind you of this thing or if you have other thoughts on that?
Jack: I mean, I would say, absolutely, there is this pattern of taking jokes, taking private messages, I think in the case of Lauren Reed, they’re really trying to slam this arson charge, which, for what I remember reading in the Al Jazeera article about it, it was born out of the Civil Rights Movement as a way of penalizing civil rights activists and these federal charges are almost exclusively used to punish civil rights activists, but I definitely see that there is this pattern. I can’t think of any other cases right now.
Eric: They have these laws ready await, they will pass them under the pretense of preparing to protect against right-wing violence. And then once the public focus dwindles, they’ll use it against leftists as soon as they get an opportunity. There were some other examples listed in that Al Jazeera article, there was Evan Ellis. I think he was a BLM organizer in Evansville, who got a two years probation and psychiatric evaluation and got three counts of felony intimidation for posting a little clip on Facebook of him making a gun gesture.
Jack: Oh, wow.
Eric: He was talking about allegedly some officials or something like that, I don’t know, some policies that he didn’t like. There was a Samuel Amara also. He was charged allegedly for threatening a racist counter-protester. He could get up to five years. Those are felony arson laws that were invoked against Standing Rock protesters that Jack was referring to. There’s also a recent case here in Tallahassee, do where Baker County is? I think it’s somewhat close by to Tallahassee, but there’s another local activist named Kevin Connor, who was arrested recently. They’re trying to present it as if he was acting inappropriately with minors or something like that. He was just an organizer who was helping students, he was invited to speak to them about how they could organize in their schools and their campuses.
Jack: Even just as far as a local example is in Tallahassee, 19 people were arrested for protesting on the sidewalk. And they tried to slam some of them with felony charges. One still has felony charges, which haven’t been dropped. In Tallahassee, we had a man driving a truck through the crowd, no charges were pressed against him because he said he feared for his life. And we had a guy who actually pulled out a gun and pointed it at protesters. And he also had no charges because he said he feared for his life. So this is a counter-protester, just some white dude. But you just have a rainbow coalition of Black and brown and white activists fighting for Black Lives Matter protesting on a sidewalk and a 19-year old get arrested.
It’s just the laws are not equally distributed at all. In Florida, there’s this anti-protest bill. And they’re saying that it’s going to be DeSantis, the governor introduced it during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, it got a lot of backlash. And then he reintroduced it after the events that unfolded at the Capitol on January 6. And he’s saying that as to fight extremism. But the way that some of the speakers at the most recent protests explained it is there are already laws against rioting, there’s already laws against looting. And what these anti-protest laws, these felony charges do is make it more expensive, and keep making the sentences longer for anybody who breaks those laws. And then they are unequally distributed and used primarily against left-wing activists, but most recently, they’re coming out of this idea that it’s to stop right-wing extremists.
Eric: Recently, some courts have ruled that portions of the Federal Riot Act are unconstitutional. So even people who encourage or promote riots are legally free speech currently.
TFSR: I didn’t know about that. I’m looking forward to reading up on that after this. These are really good examples that you’re bringing up that I don’t know about. So I’m gonna do a little research and link some articles.
Jack: It’s also called the Anti-Protest Bill, if you look up Florida anti-protest bill, but the thing is 26 states have introduced bills like this since what happened on January 6, and what’s being introduced in Florida isn’t even the worst one, there are some that are actually trying to make it so that it is a 30-year prison time felony charge for organizing a protest. And then the way that DeSantis bill is defining a protest is a group of nine or more people blocking traffic at an intersection, which would include every demonstration that the Black Lives Matter protest had. And it also tries to make it so that there is no option for bail for people who are arrested for these protests, charges that try to make them felonies, which, in addition to stripping people of the right to vote, also makes that they can’t work state or federal jobs. The way that felony charges are used against people in Florida is just really disastrous. Many bills like this have sprung up in over half the country as a result of what happened on January 6, but they’re going to be disproportionately used against leftist activists versus the right-wing extremists that they’re claimed to have started from. Oh, actually, Eric just pulled up a good infographic.
Eric: Also the bill protects anyone who does bodily harm to protesters. So they’re already willing to make allowances to protect property. But if anyone tries to protect another person, that’s terrorism. Really, what he was doing is counter-terrorism. But If they admit that, then they’ll have to admit that Trump is a terrorist. And he appointed that. But also damaging a statue can be punishable for up to 15 years. And it also allows the state to override any municipality that wants to decrease police budgets.
Jack: Yeah. So the way that they have it is if a municipality votes to decrease their own police budget, it has to be approved by DeSantis, in order to defund the police, which when you think about it, there’s this whole argument about states rights and civil rights and local rights, and then suddenly, no, just kidding, we have a dictatorship where we have one person that gets to decide this decision for everybody. If there is a protest, and if damage happens, the state of Florida can sue the municipality for not adequately supplying their police officers. So if anything is damaged, they can say that the city needs to increase its police force. It’s a very problematic bill. And it’s not even the worst one that’s out there.
TFSR: If January 20 popped off the way that it was threatened to, for instance, and if this had passed, then police standing by and letting right-wingers go and do whatever they were going to do could be a reason for the police to just get more funding.
Eric: And in a sense, the real coup is just them seizing control of or trying to ram through all this anti-protest legislation. And ramping up all these surveillance programs.
TFSR: It’s not really a coup if they’re already in control, though, right?
Jack: Yeah. I wish I could find more specific info about that last bit that I was saying, I’ll have to look it up later.
Eric: Well, there’s also the federal level measures that are also being passed by Biden and Pelosi, as far as I know.
Jack: Patriot Act Two.
TFSR: Yeah. Aren’t we on number three by now? Yeah, definitely. All the security state discussion is in discourses, at least a lot of people are recognizing it for what it is that it’s just using whatever political capital they were able to… I’m sure that some individuals and employees were quite frightened on the 6th when the windows were getting smashed and people were coming in and fighting the cops and everything. And that sucks for cleaners or employees or whoever was working up there. But the fact that January 6 has been framed as another September 11. It is just so ridiculous, par for the course.
Eric: It doesn’t address the fact that the only reason they’re able to get in there is because all the cops and military were complicit and politicians.
TFSR: As far as supporting Daniel, how can people find out more about the case? How can they support the work that the crew is doing? How can they support him personally?
Eric: So far, it seems like his attorneys are doing a good job, they’re really well-known here in the community. I think they’ve also worked with other activists, so we lucked out in that regard. We’re focusing right now on letter-writing as much as possible. All of his information is on the @GuerillaGalleryTLH Instagram.
Jack: I also want to emphasize, as far as letter-writing is that the paper must be white in color, envelopes must be white in color. And they can only use blue or Black ink, it makes no sense because like I said, they scan the letters anyway.
Eric: There are screenshots of the guidelines and on there as well. And some links to the website with more information.
TFSR: Well, Eric and Jack, thank you so much for this conversation. Get at me with some of those links and I’ll definitely include them in the show notes about related cases. That’s a lot to think about and I really appreciate the research that y’all are doing. And the support work that you’re doing for Daniel, it’s super important even beyond him as your friend, as you said, these tools that are being turned on him are ones that are often turned on other people and are in danger of being used against all of us.
Eric: He’s so upset about his situation right now. He said he’s about to start a vow of silence, except for his allies. So I still have to find out if he’s following through with that, but it’s really crucial that he gets letters and that he just feels supported and that people are following his case and watching his case so at least that he’ll be less likely to suffer some abuse or something while he’s in there, at least they can be held to account for already what he’s been experiencing in there.
TFSR: To reiterate, as has been said, a lot of times on this show and in other discussions around supporting prisoners, sending letters to a prisoner is not just a kind act or a way of making a friend, but it literally is a measure in prisons of how much support or how many people are paying attention on the outside. And it literally means that not only Daniel, but the people that are around Daniel, for guards or administration to fuck with them, they have to know at that point, that all these people are, who are on the outside are going to have concerned about this, is it worth me messing with this guy, or the people around him if these many people are going to make a ruckus on the outside?
Eric: That’s what I’m really trying to focus on right now is creating some situation for him to be able to reenter, potentially even maybe in a better situation than he started. And just now that people have a better idea of who he is and what he stands for I hope that more people in the community will come together. And I’m trying to get him set up maybe with some platform to continue his yoga and jujitsu training and groups, and I’m hoping, you can hit the ground running when he gets out. And we can hopefully leverage this network to create some opportunities for him as well.
TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?
Eric: Coming to that place is serious, it’s a class war against all of us, we’re all potentially at risk here. So, I feel like everyone needs to show solidarity in their different communities to connect where they can and then to unify whatever groups are able to get together because that’s the only way that anyone will be able to protect themselves or each other.
The Russian Political Landscape and Anarchist Prisoners
This week we’re featuring 2 guests speaking about Russia. First up, John spoke with author and journalist Dmitry Okrest about the state of anarchist and antifascist movements in Russia, the politics of Putin’s United Russia party, nazis and the far right in Russia and successes of the Communist Party in electoral politics. Then, Moscow Anarchist Black Cross member-in-exile, Antii Rautiainen, adds some more detail on repression in Russia, including the hunger strike of Network Case prisoner, Victor Filinkov, calls for solidarity from mathematician Azat Miftakhov and others.
In a quick announcement, we want to note that The SF Bay View National Black Newspaper editor Nube Brown just published an article showing that Keith Washington, aka Comrade Malik, admitted in a letter to a prosecutor in 2011 (while throwing a prisoner seeking legal support to the wolves) that he had and would gladly work with law enforcement and the FBI to snitch on inmates or whoever as a source or informant. Malik was then incarcerated in Texas and became involved in organizing with the New Afrikan Black Panther Party and participated in the 2016 nationwide prison strikes, gaining notoriety. Malik came to play a prominent role in the prison movement and was in 2020 released to a halfway house in San Francisco after a surprising parole from Texas and brief stint in Federal prison. Malik helped to run the SF Bay View upon release but has since left. I think a lot of facts on this still need clarification, but some things just don’t add up with Malik’s situation. Check out the piece by editor Nube Brown with an addendum by former editor Mary Ratcliff at SFBayView.Com and likely in the print edition of the paper.
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Set Adrift On Memory Bliss (Extended) by PM Dawn from eponymous single
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TFSR: Hello and welcome to the Final Straw. My name is John and I’m going to be conducting an interview today with Russian independent journalist Dmitry Okrest about the recent repression of leftists and anti-fascists in Russia. Welcome to the show, Dmitry.
Dmitry Okrest: Nice to meet you.
TFSR: Nice to meet you. To start with, could you give our listeners some context on yourself and the work you’ve done as an independent journalist in Russia?
DO: Just a few words, I have been a member of a punk hardcore scene in Moscow for the last 15 years. I had been more involved like 10 years ago, and I made my fanzine, organized freemarkets, music label, a book publishing house, and discussion forums. There was one generational change, I tried to work at first in a historical publishing house, and then I moved to work in the media. And as a journalist, I worked for a long time in a society department. I write more about street politics, human rights, police, prisons. And I have also written about a lot of political radicals, including Nazis, jihadists. I’m now a co-author of two books about how the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc moved from their version of socialism to capitalism. The books are in the spirit of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and I’m also the author of a book about Rojava, where different researchers, activists, fighters talk about this project and their own experience. I’m currently preparing a book about the anti-fascist movement in Russia. We’re looking for an opportunity to translate some of it into English.
TFSR: That’s great. Those books all sound really fascinating. You said they’re only in Russian currently.
DO: Unfortunately, only in Russian. But we wanted to translate it into English, too.
TFSR: That’s really interesting. All three of those sound fascinating. And just for context, as most of the listeners live in the United States, and we’re ignorant about the world in general, or at least many of us are. How old are you? Where does that place you as far as your experience with the Soviet Union, and the years in between? Do you recall that experience of the Yeltsin years and all this?
DO: I was a child when the Soviet Union collapsed. So I really don’t remember anything. But I remember a lot of details after the Soviet Union crashed. So it was the time of economical crisis, most of the people didn’t have any money at all, no jobs. There were a lot of local wars. But on the other hand, there was much more freedom, freedom of speech, freedom in politics, and there was no big punishment for any activity. Now it’s a nostalgia war about what was it? Was it a good time, or not a very good time? And now, there are much more political wars over this period. Most people have a very selective memory for it. So now, it’s a very political question.
TFSR: Interesting. When you’re saying more like freedom of expression, you’re saying as in contrast to today, right?
DO: Yeah, because Putin has been the president for 22 years. He became prime minister in 1999. So we had like nine years of so-called freedom, and then a 21-year period of the so-called stability, but in fact, there is no stability, it’s just a mask, imagination.
TFSR: A question I wanted to sort of start off with: Could you, to the best of your ability, give us a brief overview of recent anarchists and anti-fascist movements in Russia, and the repression that has been facing them? Because I’m aware of a bunch of trials in the last 10 years or so of supposedly anarchists terrorists or whatever.
DO: Maybe the most well-known case is the so-called Network terrorist group. It started four years ago before the World Cup Championship. Activists were kidnapped, beaten, tasered, forced to sign a piece of investigation evidence. These are 11 men from different cities, and secret services incriminated them with the participation in this mythical terrorist organization. There were a lot of accusations of them being terrorists, but no real evidence. In this case, the political police made a lot of work. A lot of people moved from Russia because there was a dangerous situation.
There are also other terrorist cases. Three years ago, a 17-year old anarchist went into a local political police office with a bomb, but he killed only himself. And he said that he tried to support the Network case defendants. And after that, more than 200 people were arrested, cases started against them. They commented that he was a hero to do it. Some of these persons are anarchists or anti-fascists. That played badly against the anarchist movement. Also the people in Kaliningrad, in Crimea, that used to be part of Ukraine, there were also terrorist cases. So now a terrorist case is the best way to put anybody in prison because no one really wants to support terrorists. Because, you know, it sounds like they wanted to kill everyone. But now people understand that it wasn’t really a terrorist, but something that political police called like that.
TFSR: I see. I know that there is or was a big-ish movement of anti-fascism in Russia. And in my mind, that was a response, I assume, to a rise of hard-right violence on the streets. Is there… it’s hard to say a brief history of that because that’s many years. But in my mind, the reason I could assume that the far-right gained power or popularity in Russia in the last…
DO: Fortunately not now, but 10 years ago, hundreds of migrants and ten street anti-fascists were killed. But when the Nazis tried to seize the monopoly of power and become the power themselves, all violence was stopped pretty quickly. There was quite a lot of information about provocateurs in the Nazi movement. Now, there are a lot of Nazis in Russian prisons and they wanted to do something like Aryan Brotherhood, but most of them just cooperate with the prisons administration in exchange for any help, indulgence. On the other hand, a lot of right-wing football fans became demonstratively apolitical last year in exchange for opportunities to control their territories. Some of them attacked political opposition actions and now, they try to be very silent, especially before and during the World Championship in Russia four years ago.
Now it’s not a really big problem but last summer, political police arrested three groups of neo-Nazis. It looks like they became more popular, the memory of those events pops up amongst the younger generation, but the intensity of passion is not the same at all. So, police forced these Nazis to admit on camera that they renounce nazism, but I think they were not ideological, it was rather street violence, nothing more. But they will be in prison for the next 10 years or so. So in my mind, now we can expect a consistent evolution of the right into the people hate – open misanthropy. Some Nazis hope for disparate revenge, and therefore they can commit terrorist attacks. But I think they will inevitably be crushed by the state and police.
TFSR: I know that this conversation is sprawling, but that brought up an interesting point for me. I personally don’t really understand what Putin’s and United Russia’s politics are. I think a lot of American liberals see them as being right-wing, but in my mind, it seems like they just work with whomever against whomever. I don’t really understand what United Russia’s politics are, other than just like power.
DO: I think that nobody knows, in fact. It’s something quite conservative. But inside Russia, the state just uses different political science and young politicians. When they need, they use Nazis. But in this case, they’re not a Nazi state, they just use it for several years. For example, they tried to communicate with the left-wing movement 10 years ago, but nobody wanted to do it. And they said, okay, but they tried to do it. Now they say a lot of things against tolerance, about transgender, etc. They seem to be much more right-wing, but in fact, in the next five years, it could change again.
TFSR: It’s just cold power or something like that? Interesting. I guess, speaking of politics, more macro politics in Russia, we saw really large protests last year, in theory, in support of the opposition political figure Navalny. And the United States media and liberals championed him as a liberal democratic icon, but some of what I’ve read is that he’s somehow a Russian nationalist, or has sketchy racial beliefs of other groups in the Russian Federation. I guess I’m curious about how leftists and specifically anarchists engaged in those protests, and also what your take of Navalny as a political figure is.
DO: As I said before, the Russian government doesn’t use any political terms. And usually, people in Russia also don’t use any political terms. Most people really don’t know the difference between a liberal, democratic, authoritarian, etc. When you talk about liberal, Western, etc., usually people don’t understand what it means. Navalny originally was known as a blogger who writes about corruption. He is was originally from the Democratic Liberal Party, but he tried to cooperate with nationalists. He tried to communicate with them when they were popular 10 years ago, but Nazis and other nationalists didn’t accept him. So as a result, now Navalny tries not to answer this question, he tried to ignore it. And for a long time, he was out of danger, although he had several criminal cases, then he was poisoned last year, he was taken to Berlin, then he returned despite a prison term. Now he’s in prison.
His arrival was a strong sign that inspired many people, not only his supporters. Navalny’s actions look rather like a civil protest in which anarchists also took part and two of them ended up in prison. One guy is still in prison, there was a case with policemen. The current protests are connected with the name of Navalny. Now he’s been recognized as an extremist organization. And nobody can say that he supported Navalny without a punishment. There were mass actions against putting Navalny in the prison but then the most massive repression began this January, and now most of the employees of Navalny’s campaign team have immigrated. Many media outlets are in crisis and under sanctions, and a lot of people are in prison because it’s very easy to be in prison for being detained several times at a legal demonstration. And now we don’t have any legal demonstration because of the pandemic, it’s illegal to make any demonstration at all.
Another thing, economic conditions have been deteriorating in Russia. Lately, Navalny has made it visible how officials are living richer and richer. So people were really angry in this case, because they don’t have a lot of money, but they see a video with officials and their palaces. So for me, it’s a good position when we can see the result of such corruption. But as I said before, most people don’t use any political terms. They don’t have any political education. And in this case, the main problem is that they don’t know what is going to happen afterward. And there is no opportunity to understand what will happen after this government.
TFSR: So there are recent elections in Russia. And I know that something that came out of them was also this law against foreign agents or something like this. That that has led to the repression of journalists and other people, but specifically leftists. Could you speak about the most recent wave of repression? As well as stories that I’ve read about people leaving Russia for Georgia or other areas, having to flee basically, based on the repression.
DO: It’s true. Since the beginning of 2021, the Ministry of Justice has added 11 media outlets, 42 journalists, and 9 NGOs to their register of so-called foreign agents. Every Friday someone else gets on this list. Now there are 223 foreign agents. If we think in terms of liberal democracy, it is an act of state pressure on the media or public organizations, because there is the destruction of any infrastructure and control by authorities. We’re talking about projects controlled by the Russian authorities. These organizations get grants from different funds – from the US, from United Nations, and the European Union. But the problem is that these organizations, these NGOs, and these media are the only ones that try to do anything with corruption, protests, or tortures in the police departments. The danger of criminal liability constantly hangs over foreign agents – from fines to imprisonment up to five years. It led to really big fines and bankruptcy of organizations. You can go to prison for five years if you don’t do good paperwork for the ministry, but no one knows how to prepare it. And society understands it. People sign a lot of petitions against this foreign agent law. So now it’s 150,000 signatures. But as usual, there are no street actions because people are afraid. As I said before, detentions at a rally can lead you to prison. So people try not to be in this area.
TFSR: I’d seen an article about specifically Russians fleeing to Georgia. And I imagine it’s because Georgia is aligned with the United States.
DO: Russia and Georgia, there was a war between them 12 years ago, so we don’t have any diplomatic contacts. There are a lot of American NGOs that are based in Georgia. 20% of Georgia’s territory is under the control of the Russian army. This country is relatively safe, sorry for such a comparison, but it looks like an American activist would go to Cuba, for example. But basically, everyone connected with politics in Russia is going to Georgia now: journalists, human rights activists, supporters of Navalny, liberal activists, leftists, anarchists. During the pandemic, there are not a lot of states where we can go. The border with Georgia is closed, we can go to Armenia, and then from Armenia, which is a friend of Russia, we can go to Georgia, but most states now are closed for Russians. So Georgia became a state where it can be maybe safe, maybe not, I don’t know exactly.
TFSR: I see. Along the lines of talking about Georgia, and then also right-wing violence that we were talking about earlier. Has there been a lot of repression of queer and trans activism and life in Russia, or how that has been because you mentioned that anti-trans stuff had been popping up?
DO: It looks like no people – no problem. Now a lot of such people are invisible, because of the law against the so-called “gay propaganda.” So most people prefer not to say about themselves, for example, most gay people I know, I really don’t know if they’re gay or not, because there is no one coming out and sometimes I hear about someone, but usually people prefer not to say anything about it. So most people prefer to be “normal” because if you say that you are gay, it will be not a very good situation in prison if you get arrested and there is a lot of homophobia. Most people, including gays and trans persons, prefer not to show themselves in many cases, especially in a demonstration, etc. So there are no open street manifestations or something like that. Most people show their sexual orientation only in talks at home. And in Georgia, it is the same situation. In Georgia and Belarus, in Ukraine, the situation is a bit better. But in fact, there are a lot of Nazis also, so most people prefer not to show themselves during ordinary life.
TFSR: That’s pretty grim.
Speaking of Belarus, maybe a week or two ago on The Final Straw, we aired an interview with several Belarusian anarchists about the uprising and repression by the Lukashenko regime there. And I was wondering, because, in our talks, we discussed Belarus and Belarusian anarchists quite a bit. And I was wondering, without making this a conspiracy, how much interaction and solidarity is there amongst anarchists in former Soviet and Eastern European countries? Because I know that there’s been a really strong anarchist movement in Belarus for as long as I’ve been reading the Abolishing Borders From Below magazine about Eastern Europeans. So I was wondering what influences go between these countries?
DO: Belarus is the closest country to Russian, in linguistic and cultural terms. I’ve never been to Canada and US, but it looks the same. So the before the beginning of the war in Donbas, Ukraine was the same country. But now, xenophobia is unfortunately on both sides. So there were many common organizations in post-Soviet space, and activists always went to each other during demonstrations or gatherings. A lot of people from Russia helped local activists, for example, many of my friends are banned from entering the territory of Belarus for the next 10 years. The reason was that they participated in street actions, and now activists left for Russia when the repression started in Belarus because neighboring Poland didn’t open any humanitarian escapes.
At the same time, the territory of Russia is not very safe for the Belarusian people. For example, one Belarusian journalist was detained in Moscow and brought to Belarus, and now he’s in prison. An anarchist from Belarus is in jail in Moscow, he took part in so-called mass riots in Belarus and the Belarusian state wants to extradite him. But he’s still in Moscow. Right now, over 1000 people are in the prison for political reasons in Belarus and about 30 anarchists and anti-fascists are among them. Some of them were tortured by suffocation, electricity. We don’t have any quality communication with them, because it’s a big problem with lawyers now. They can’t share information about the case. I think that same situation will be in Russia in the next maybe two-three years because usually, Belarus looks like a [testing ground] where the state tries to do something and to understand if it works or not? A lot of people think that now we will have a similar situation in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
TFSR: Has that happened in the past where forms of repression… Have authoritarian government policies happened in Belarus and then later happened in Russia in the past, or is that just a fear?
DO: The most updated information, you can read on abc-belarus.org. It’s the website of the Anarchist Black Cross Belarus. But what I see now, most people don’t do any street action, but they are still angry, they stayed, and they try to help people in prison, they try to support each other, there was a lot of solidarity between people, they help each other in medical cases, in cases of mental health. So in my opinion, it is the best option for people now to help each other and try to support each other in this dangerous time. So the best time is to save their resources.
TFSR: Thank you for that. I mean, it’s just a horrible situation.
Well, this isn’t really related to the anarchist movement or anarchy at all. You sent me an interesting article in Jacobin, about the recent elections and electoral gains by the [Russian] Communist Party, and also that article was posing that there is a shift within that party towards a more social-democratic opposition, and I was curious about if that in itself could lead to a resurgence in leftist politics in general. And also, if the recent gains in the election are significant, or if it’s just a weird apparition?
DO: Well, there was a very interesting case of Mikhail Lobanov, he is a professor. He’s a mathematician. He took part in a trade union, he’s a real good activist. And he is not a typical communist from this party but in fact, this Communist Party is not a real communist party. It’s not a Marxist party. It’s more conservative, they think about how the Soviet Union was a really great state. And for them, it’s more important to know that the Soviet Union was Imperial than an actual communist state. So the campaign of professor Lobanov, I think was the best thing that left activists have been doing for a long time in the entire post-Soviet space because the degree of penetration of leftist ideas, slogans, problems to the masses was unprecedented. People really were surprised that there is someone who could say anything smart about society without any problem. He didn’t say he is a communist or a socialist, in fact, he looks like a left-wing democrat. But for a lot of people, it was really surprising, because they usually see people who are more Stalinist than communist. So in Lobanov, they just saw a very smart person who can tell smart things about society, about taxes, about different repressions with a left-wing optic, and in this case, it was really interesting to see the reaction of people. He won the election, but in fact, now he’s not a deputy in the Parliament, because the state preferred to change the results. In this case, it was interesting how he made a political machine. There are a lot of left-wing activists who decided to help him. He preferred to be a mouthpiece of a lot of people. He preferred to be not like a typical parliamentarian, but a man who takes a recommendation from people to the state, and for the political system in Russia, it’s looks really exotic. So maybe for people in the US, it looks like nothing special, but for the Russian political movement, it was special, like “Wow, how did that happen?!” People were really surprised, and that’s why a lot of people helped him.
TFSR: Do you think in some ways that his popularity or the popularity of the things he was saying shows that there is some left-wing or more liberatory desire in Russian society? Also, do you think he’s actually speaking to material needs? Do you think there is a left potential in Russia?
DO: I think that it shows the request for left-wing ideas because people see the crisis, economic crisis, political crisis, ecological crisis, electoral crises, but people don’t see any solution. There is no way to protest. A lot of people went to this election because they just wanted to show they don’t agree with the state, they wanted something to change. But they’re really afraid to do anything, to take part in any street action, in any organization, because a lot of organizations now are under punishment, under repressions. So, I think that it could be a good chance to show that there are such ideas that they can be popular, but no one knows how to use that effect.
TFSR: Have there been any sort of attempts from more autonomous or anti-authoritarian left groups to, not piggyback, but exploit the fact that these ideas are becoming more mainstream, or work on spreading those?
DO: In fact, we don’t have any polls to understand what people really think. And we don’t have time to grow politically or to raise any activist, because it’s a really big risk for such people. Only in their kitchens [in private] do people say what they really think. And in this case, we have a lot of informal networks between people. But there is no real formal actions and formal organizations for any movement, and most people prefer to put their ideas, their activity in a secret.
TFSR: Does it feel like when there are large-scale demonstrations, that’s the only moment when people can be open politically? Like when there are enough people in the streets, that it’s hard for the police to pick off individuals?
DO: I think that really nobody knows the answer to this question. Because there is no data, no information. And it’s really hard to make any researches and now the state tried to do something with independent researchers, with independent education, with people who know how to make a study. We don’t have any tools to understand what we can do in the next year, in the next five years. There is a very good term to describe this. It’s “forced helplessness,” people don’t know about their power, and there is no opportunity to check it. The same situation is for the left-wing movement and anarchist movement because they don’t know what power they have and how to use it. There is no space for practicing it.
TFSR: I assume you probably didn’t listen to it, but in an interview, my colleague did with the folks from Belarus about the uprising there, was interesting, because while so many of their comrades are in prison and facing really horrible odds, they also seem somewhat more positive about potential future stuff in Belarus. It takes me by surprise, the attitudes of those folks being hopeful about the future. Whereas it seems like in Russia, it’s not so hopeful at the moment, which is just the reality, obviously. But it was interesting to hear the differences, obviously, it’s very different countries in different contexts.
DO: I can’t say that I am an optimist because I think I’m more realist. I really don’t think that it will be better after Putin, because I really fear that different police departments, Nazis, etc. can use their power. But on the other hand, I see people around me, I see a lot of good vibes between people. I hope that it will be better because people can say something without being repressed. But it’s just a hypothesis, I really don’t know.
TFSR: I wanted to first thank you, and really appreciate you being in touch with me and doing this. But I also wanted to ask, is there a way that you can think of that anarchists or anti-fascists in the United States could show solidarity with their comrades in Russia that are facing repression right now, or any kind of meaningful solidarity?
DO: There is the Anarchist Black Cross Moscow, which supports the repressed activists, and Russian and Belarusian anarchists often call for solidarity. So the best way is to make any demonstration or help. So you can check like Avtonom.org or Rupression.com for any information in English because these organizations provide legal and material support, medical care, food parcels, etc. I know that the Russian state really doesn’t like to see any solidarity in different states they get very angry. And for us, it was really interesting to see how American anti-fascist and anarchists took part in different demonstrations last year or two years ago, it was really exciting for us. But my recommendation is that everyone needs to know how to support each other, like to know how to take medical care, how to sustain good mental health, and how to be in a good healthy condition because when we had that street violence 10 years ago, only training with guns and knives helped people from the anarchist movement to survive. So in my mind, it’s really good knowledge how to protect yourself, and I hope that people from the US also know how to help themselves and to protect each other.
TFSR: I like you mentioning that you need to do mental health stuff but also learn how to shoot guns. I didn’t expect it to go there but it makes a lot of sense. I really appreciate you talking with us. Where can people find work that you’ve written and stuff that are translated into English?
DO: I have some publications on OpenDemocracy.net. It’s a site with a lot of materials on the situation in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in English. We made a podcast in English about Russian prisons, and we called Russian Limbo. We usually don’t have any possibility to make articles in foreign languages, unfortunately.
TFSR: No, that’s great. We will put these different websites you’ve mentioned, and podcasts in the show notes so people can click on those. And that podcast about the Russian prison sounds fascinating. I appreciate it. Thank you for negotiating the time difference with me.
DO: Thanks a lot. And thanks for your questions and interest. It was really nice to talk with you.
. … . ..
TFSR: Can you identify yourself for the audience with any names, pronouns, or affiliations that make sense for this conversation?
Antti Rautiainen: Yeah, my name is Antti, I’m working with ABC-Moscow. Even so, I’m in exile currently, haven’t been able to visit Russia for almost nine years.
TFSR: So I was hoping that a chat with you could accompany the interview that we just heard with Dmitry Okrest, about the situation for anarchists and anti-fascists in Russia by making space for more specific updates from Moscow ABC. So thank you so much for making yourself available for this. Off-mic, you had mentioned that there was a hunger strike of Viktor Filinkov. Could you tell us more about his situation, remind us of his case, and how he’s doing?
AR: Viktor Filinkov was in prison as a part of the so-called Network case, which was started around 2017-18. It was a number of anarchists and anti-fascists, and just their random friends from the city of Penza and the city of St. Petersburg, who were framed up to be some underground terrorist organization. I was a part of a support campaign for them which united many different people all around Russia and also internationally, but it didn’t succeed to have this case collapse, and everyone was sentenced. And Viktor Filinkov was one of the people sentenced, they started doing their terms this year and the previous year they have been appealed without any changes. And now they have been sent to prison colonies. Viktor Filinkov arrived in his colony in August. It’s in Orenburg, close to Kazakhstan. And they have been putting huge pressure on him in this colony. He’s been basically sent to the hole more than 10 times, he hasn’t been a single day in the general prison population, maybe he was in some common cells for a couple of days, but in general, he has been kept in complete isolation.
And currently, he started a hunger strike on the 30th of October. This is a traditional day of political prisoners, of first Soviet dissidents, and then political prisoners in the Russian Federation since the 70’s. There were hunger strikes of political prisoners already in the 70’s. So Viktor joined this tradition, but also, he is stating his own demands, which are that he wants to be released to the general prison population to escape the isolation. And he also demands to get written materials, like books, papers, and materials of his own case, because currently, he is not even allowed to read his own case. This is an ongoing thing, the hunger strike has been on for around one month and Victor is struggling for some basic things. Probably, it’s the prison administration who wants to frame him up, every time he is sent to a hole for a minor violation, like laying down in his bed, which basically is not allowed in the Russian prison colonies in certain hours or not dressing completely, according to prison form rules. Just general bullshit things. And probably the goal is to railroad him to higher security prison called EPKT, which is basically the highest security prison.
TFSR: A hunger Strike is a really intense method of struggle that can cause extreme deterioration of some of the body’s systems, long-lasting effects after the actual hunger strike. It’s a choice of the last tactic for people. Is there much history recently of the prison administration’s responding to this? Or is there much discussion in Russia right now about Viktor’s case?
AR: Filinkov’s case doesn’t seem to be super high profile. But it’s not only anarchists but also some human rights defenders or liberals supporting him to some extent, especially the Novaya Gazeta, which got the Nobel Prize in literature, they are covering his struggle. So I wouldn’t say that he’s completely isolated but also these demands are super moderate. He’s not demanding Putin to give up power or something. So I think there are certain chances for him. Quite a prolific hunger strike was around 2018-19, Oleg Sentsov, one of the Crimean prisoners, together with Alexander Kolchenko were accused of organizing underground activities against the Russian occupation of Crimea. Sentsov himself was not an anarchist, but his co-defendant Kolchenko was, and Sentsov was in some very long hunger strikes, and eventually, he was released as part of the prisoner exchange. Of course, not only because of the hunger strikes, but I think the hunger strikes may have played some role that he was included in the prisoner exchange, which was originally meant to be just prisoners of war. So, I think hunger strikes are pretty popular in Russia, even with some liberal and environmental struggles, maybe even too popular, if you asked me, but I wouldn’t say that they are completely useless. They also can achieve some results. Sometimes it might be that risks are heavy, but also sometimes you don’t have so many other options. I hope Filinkov’s strike will succeed.
TFSR: Yeah, me too. Are there ways for people outside of Russia to support his case?
AR: I asked about this for people who are more closely involved in supporting Filinkov. Our group, the ABC Moscow, we have been diminishing during the years, and half of our group has been forced to migrate for different reasons, as I was deported and others have become refugees. There are still people in Russia involved but we are not, in this particular case, super active. But there are people in, for example, in the Rupression campaign for the Network prisoners, and they are currently organizing letter-writing, but they have only resources to organize this in Russian. And of course, you have to send the letters in Russian but I think in the show notes, we can share the links to online forms in Russian and a petition text. With Google Translate people who might want to contribute can try the join this campaign, but also, as usual, just in general information coverage would be needed and letter-writing. On ABC-Moscow’s site, you can find Viktor’s prison address. Of course, if you send mail to prison, it doesn’t necessarily reach Viktor. Actually, as far as I know, around one month ago, he hadn’t received any mail. Everything was just stored somewhere or trashed but at least the prison administration knows that is not being abandoned, that people are following the situation. And also the support campaign has to pay the lawyer bills and so on because if they put this heavy pressure on Viktor, he will be in constant need of lawyer support for all time he serves in prison, which will be the following four years. There are also instructions on our website on how to donate to the Network case prisoners.
TFSR: I know that that website has a lot of information about other people in the Network case and also other prisoners that are being supported. Are there any individuals or cases that you’d like to mention that should be particularly or generally supported by listeners?
AR: I think all the cases are important, especially the network has prisoners because they have very long sentences. A number of them have more than 10-year prison sentences, but also the Network case was at least lucky that it managed to get good international support and attention of many anarchists and anti-fascist, but there are obviously many other cases.
For example, there was an anarchist couple from Chelyabinsk who just got crazy two-year sentences for a simple banner drop, which was done in solidarity with the Network case. Also, there is artist Pavel Krisevich who is an artist and not an anarchist, but he was doing many actions to support the Network case and for one of his performances, he is now in this famous Butyrka prison in Moscow, where many anarchists were jailed even before the Revolution. Also, a very important case is the case of Azat Miftakhov, the mathematician. He was sentenced for another support action for the Network case prisoners to six years in prison, for just breaking a window of the ruling party office. And he’s been put on pretty heavy labor condition, but at least he can receive mail. So it’s important to support him by letters at this point. And also, there is an international campaign to have the International Society of Mathematicians involved. So if any of the listeners are working or enrolled in mathematics departments in any of the universities, you can check on our website how to join the efforts to have the International Association of Mathematicians support Miftakhov, because, in Russia the support campaign is actually mostly organized not by anarchists, but by the community of mathematicians. Because that’s Miftakhov’s profession.
TFSR: Dmitry also mentioned in the prior interview dropping banners and posting solidarity images is something that embarrasses Putin’s administration and has a deep impact. Are there other methods that come to mind, like you’ve mentioned the mathematician society and supporting them and applying pressure? But are there other methods that come to mind that folks can engage with from abroad to show solidarity with anti-fascists and anarchists, as well as oppressed identities in Russia, particularly well, not whitewashing the repression and cruelty of our own governments that are repressive institutions?
AR: A very important thing is just to spread information. Also, many of the campaigns, especially before the sentences, need to pay the lawyer bills, which can be quite expensive, because there are not really many activist lawyers in Russia. Occasionally, especially if there are no terrorist charges, you can have some human rights organizations sponsor lawyers but this is not always the case, if there is some radical politics involved, that doesn’t necessarily happen. I will say also that basically maintaining horizontal contacts, I think it’s very important to be involved in the local struggles but I think the anarchist movement is not only about the local struggles, it’s also about international solidarity. And in Russia, and even more so in Belarus, the movement is now in a pretty difficult situation so it’s good to just maintain contact and discussion not only on the repression work but general strategies and perspectives. So especially when this COVID era is beginning to end, it’s more important than ever also to have international meetings and discussions and not only meet in some discussion forums, social media or Twitter or whatever, but also to have face-to-face meetings and to create more solidarity.
TFSR: Awesome. Is there anything else that you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?
AR: This was pretty much what I wanted to say on this. Avtonom.Org website is hosting the ABC Moscow news, but we can put all the relevant links and so on to this episode information.
TFSR: Does it make sense to mention the podcast project that you work on since it does bring a lot of opportunities for international understanding of situations?
AR: Yeah, I could mention it. I have my own podcast, but it’s mostly in Finnish and dealing with some local discussions, but I will also put in Russian episodes, and occasionally, there will be also English texts. I hope to have an episode this week or next week about a project called FemDatcha, a feminist shelter for burnout activists that was organized by feminist activists in the Moscow region. So this was an example of a creative and positive project in Russia because it’s not only suffering and repressions, people also have some new and interesting concepts and ideas and I would also like people to pay attention to these things. You can find my podcast with my own name Antti Rautianen, which is a bit tricky for an English speaker I didn’t figure out any fancy name and also wanted to keep my content eclectic, I don’t have any special topic. It’s just basically for my own rants about various stuff. But we can link it to the episode description so people can find it. I have a couple of English episodes and in the future, there will be more. This one about a feminist cottage FemDatcha will also be in English.
TFSR: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for having this conversation, Antti. I really appreciate it.
Antti: Thanks. This is my favorite podcast because others in the States don’t seem to have so much international perspective. I think it’s very important that you are pushing this direction because America is so big that people often tend to watch mostly inside.
TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really easy for us to just think about ourselves as the world. Thanks so much for the kind words and take care of yourself.
AR: Okay. See you I guess in five years, we will have a third podcast.
TFSR: Anarchy will reign by then, so it will be a less depressing conversation.
Support Ryan Roberts and #KillTheBill Bristol defendants!
On March 21st, 2021, thousands entered the streets of Bristol in the UK to vent their anger at deaths in police custody, police violence on the streets, as well as a slate of repressive laws including the SpyCops Bill, increasing impunity for government officials breaking their own laws, as well as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and CourtsBill, or simply The Bill, targeting Roma people, Travelers, lengthens youth prison sentences and criminalizing dissent and protest amidst some of the harshest Covid-19 lockdowns the UK had seen. What became known as the Kill The Bill riot led to running fights with police, burnt cop cars, a dizzying disinformation campaign by police centering themselves as victims, and over 80 people arrested to date, with more being detained and some facing years in prison. From Monday the 25th & Wednesday the 27th of October 2021, defendant Ryan Roberts will be facing trial and is calling for international solidarity.
For the hour, Tom and Nicole of Bristol Anarchist Black Cross talk about the #KillTheBill, police violence in the UK, the radical scene in Bristol, anti-repression work of Bristol ABC & Bristol Defendant Solidarity, the legacy of former Bristol resident Anna Campbell, the cases of the Colston 4 as well as that of Toby Shone, prison expansion in the UK and more. To learn more about their work and how to support and write to Ryan Roberts and other #KillTheBill defendants, visit BristolABC.Wordpress.Com, and to you can search that hashtag on social media for a demo in your area to join in on or to advertise your solidarity action! If you happen to be in Manchester, there’s a demo on the 27th at 5pm at the Crown Court. And check the ongoing fundraiser for the defendants at GoFundMe!
Check our show notes for more links, including our conversation with Dónal O’Driscoll from November of 2020 about the SpyCops case. There’s also a new podcast out called SpyCops Info that includes folks who had been part of groups infiltrated by undercover pigs in the UK in past decades talking about individual cops and the ongoing inquiry that’s worth giving a listen to: https://tfsr.wtf/spycops
We’re releasing this interview a bit early so as to get word out about Ryan Roberts’ trial, so it’ll be a little longer of a wait between episodes.
New Eric King Solidarity Poster
There is a really cool poster available in solidarity with anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Eric King, who is facing trial in a Denver court on a frameup right now. The poster was produced by Radix Media and here’s what they had to say:
To support Eric King, we are releasing a limited edition of 35 posters carrying one of his revolutionary poems. All profits generated from the sale of the broadside will be sent to Eric’s support fund.
The print is approximately 12.5″ x 20″ and was letterpress printed in multiple passes on our vintage Vandercook proofing press.
Sean Swain is in danger of being out-of-state transferred again, to who knows where. His support crew are asking that folks call Ohio State Senator Teresa Fedor and Ohio State Representative Lisa Sobecki to express concern about Sean’s safety, access to his legal counsel as well as family and support network in Ohio, and to question the legality of sending Sean out of state without the legally required hearing with Sean attending, (which they skipped when he was sent to Virginia in 2019).
A reminder that if you’re in the Asheville area on October 30th (and vaccinated) and want to participate in the annual Prison Books & Tranzmission Prison Project halloween cover band show, it’s taking place at the outdoor and covered venue, Sly Grog! There’s a door fee and the list of bands is extra-ordinary! Check it out:
Nicole: I’m Nicole. I use she/her pronouns. I’ve been living in or around Bristol for nearly 30 years. And yeah, I organize with Bristol Anarchist Black Cross.
Tom: I’m Tom, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a relative newcomer to Bristol. I’ve been a defendant in trials myself and have I’ve done anti-repression work for comrades for quite a few years, too. And part of Bristol Anarchist Black Cross.
TFSR: Thank you both so much for coming on and being willing to talk, I really appreciate it. Could you tell us a bit about Bristol? Maybe where it’s at and its measurements? Who lives there and what it’s like? And what it was like in the run up to the Kill the Bill demos?
Nicole: Yeah, so Bristol is a city in southwest England. So under half a million people live there. It’s pretty diverse in terms of class and race. So, over a quarter of the people in Bristol are not white, there’s a really large Afro-Caribbean community. And there’s a really long history, like there’s a long history everywhere of police violence. But there’s quite a long history of rioting and resistance and community organizing in Bristol. It’s the 11th biggest city in the UK. And [ha!] thankfully, the Times dubbed it as one of the best places to live in the UK. But that means there’s been increasing gentrification every year. People are attracted to the city because there’s quite a lot of underground music scene, street art, this like alternative culture. But it sits in like a very rural region of England.
And I guess, just in terms, of the historical context the city was built on the slave trade. It’s by the sea on the west coast. So there’s a long history of slavery in the city. And yeah, in terms of local riots… we’re going to be talking about a recent riot that happened in March this year. But there is this historical context to that in terms of riots in the center of Bristol, in places like St. Paul’s, which have happened after police have really abused stop and search powers, where they’ve killed people. There was a famous riot in 2011, after a big squat eviction in the city. Just in terms of what we’re talking about today… so if people aren’t aware there was a riot in March…. March 21, against some some new legislation that we’re going to be talking about. A lot of people have been arrested. 81 people so far, 41 people have been charged and there’s already 10 people in prison. But we’ll go into that more over the next hour.
TFSR: Cool. And would you want to talk a bit about Bristol ABC, about Bristol Defendant Solidarity, and the anti-repression work that those two groups do?
Nicole: So there’s two groups. So, we’re representing Bristol Anarchist Black Cross and there’s also a group called Bristol Defendant Solidarity (BDS). BDS was started after this riot in 2011. But before then there’s always been ongoing informal support and solidarity for people that are arrested. BDS mostly focuses on defendant support work, and ABC focuses more on the prisoner side. But recently, with all the repression we’ve been working really closely together. In terms of Bristol ABC… if people aren’t aware of the Anarchists Black Cross… It’s debated how it started, but there is evidence that it was active in 1905 in Russia and there’s ABC groups all over the world that are active, supporting people in prison. So I’ve been doing ABC for about 10 years now. How we’ve been supporting people, practically, financially, politically, not just in the UK, but also around the world.
So yeah, Bristol was fortunate with the riots that there was a lot of infrastructure that was already established that could respond to this situation. There was also groups that got started in the midst of it all. So there’s an action medic crew that was set up and legal observers independently organized to attend the demos. And so what happened was there was obviously this mass arrest of people. And some people were known to us, were comrades, were in our communities already, and other people weren’t. And so, BDS had to really publicize the fact that support is available. There was lots of postering in the city, lots of outreach on social media, word of mouth, and encouraged defendants to get in touch so that they could be supported with different things.
BDS help with legal work. So going through the police footage, helping people prepare for court, liaison with solicitors [lawyers], attending court hearings. And you know in that moment, they’ll also do police station support, and support people if their house has been raided by the cops and they’ve lost their phones and stuff like that. And ABC will offer…. like it’ll do like pre-prison chats with people, because I did some time inside when I was younger. So, you know, few of us and ABC have been in prison. So we like to help people prepare, practically and emotionally.
We’ve also been doing fundraising and sharing details of people in prison who’ve consented and asked to have their detail shared so that they can receive letters, and solidarity and stuff like that. And there’s also an element of supporting people’s families, quite a few defendants have been separated from their kids, for example. And ideally, when we’re a bit less overwhelmed we really want to play a role in supporting prisoner resistance and organizing from the defendants who are inside. So, at the moment between ABC and BDS, we buddy people. Someone gets assigned, and you make sure that you’re bottom lining the support for that person. You’re checking in with them regularly, you’re going to court with them, you’re making sure that they have access to to what they need.
But beyond those two groups, there’s also a lot of autonomous organizing in Bristol. So, people have been organizing fundraising, bar nights and organizing letter writing events and stuff like that. And, at the moment, there’s a defense campaign in the making. We want to do something a lot more organized with defendants and their families and their supporters, and counter some of the State narratives and the mainstream media narratives about the riot and what happened. That’s what’s been going down.
TFSR: So Bristol has a history of radical leftist resistance, at least that I’ve been aware of, such as a chapter of the IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, those anti-repression projects like Bristol ABC and BDS, an anarchist bookfair that actually my co host William and I were able to attend a few years back, which was awesome. It’s also been host to sabotage actions claimed over the last decade by insurrectional anarchists of the Informal Anarchist Federation/International Revolutionary Front FAI-IRF against police and capitalist infrastructure. So it’s like a wide gamut of stuff that’s come across my radar as things that are interesting about Bristol and exciting about Bristol. It seems like a hotbed of anarchy. Can you talk about what what the anarchist scene is like in Bristol?
Nicole: Sure! So, I think to the outside world, it seems like a hotbed, but I think when you’ve lived there a long time It feels like a retirement home. But that’s probably a bit cheeky. There is a lot of stuff going on. I think there’s different theories. My personal theory is that I think Bristol is big enough to have a diversity of anarchist tendencies. So there’s these insurrectionary currents and then there’s groups like the IWW and people that are doing community organizing, around housing or wages, things like this. But it’s not as big as cities like London, it’s like intimate enough for people to know each other. And also, there’s been really long term anarchist infrastructure, Base, which is the local social center. You know, it got established in 1995. So it’s part of the furniture really, in terms of contributing to the local resistance in the area, or there’s something in the water.
TFSR: I want to get some of that water.
Yeah, that seems to make a lot of sense. And that’s a thing that I’ve heard from other people in cities where there’s a long standing activity and maybe even varied. But having that sort of infrastructure that people can plug into, and the collective community memory really makes the ability… it’s something to build off of, which I think is really cool.
So, folks may recognize the name of Anna Campbell, Feminist and anarchist who had been active organizing in Bristol, who fell šehid (martyr in Kurdish Kurmanji) while fighting in the Women’s Defense Units, or YPG, in Rojava, also known as the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. She was killed by a Turkish missile strike, as I understand. I wonder if y’all would talk about Anna, who had been involved in the IWW, as I understand, and also BDS and Bristol ABC and a bit about her legacy.
Nicole: Sure, so yeah Anna was… I think she was probably involved in every group of Bristol at some point or another. She was, like, really well known locally, really active. She was active in Bristol ABC and BDS. And yeah, she really believed in solidarity and self defense in militant resistance. She definitely wasn’t a pacifist. She was really inspired by what was going on in Rojava and she lost her life for that.
We’ve all been talking about her a lot with the repression because she would have just fucking loved it. She would have been all over it, coming to court and doing demos and painting banners and spelling them wrong and all sorts of stuff that she used to do. So yeah, we really, really miss her. It’s really hard that she’s not around. But you know, she was doing ABC just before she left. So I think it shaped her a lot politically.
I think she could see the strategic value of supporting prisoner resistance. She organized quite a lot when there was the big prison strikes in the US in 2016. She was doing info events about that and banner drops. She was really inspired by that. She wasn’t technically from Bristol, she was from the other side of the UK. But she she definitely made an impact in the city.
Tom: Yeah. Anna was a friend and comrade when she lived in that other part of the UK, in Sussex. I remember from other struggles, from anti-militarist organizing and organizing in solidarity with the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle, organizing against the G8 summit… There were just so many struggles that she was involved in. Thinking about how those struggles can move in a more revolutionary direction… And also as Nicole mentioned, the importance of self defense and people’s self defense were things that led her to join the revolution in Rojava.
TFSR: Thank you for sharing. So I guess switching topics a bit. Could you talk about how lockdowns were experienced during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic? What they were like around the UK and maybe in Bristol in particular.
Tom: Yeah, so in Bristol, as in lots of other places around the UK, anarchists were involved in mutual aid organizing, supporting people through the Coronavirus lockdowns. So in Bristol we have a project which was established at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic called BASE and Roses. It was established by the anarchist social center in Easton delivering boxes of food to people who needed it because of the Coronavirus lockdown and for any other reason. And that’s still going on as a piece of mutual aid infrastructure in Bristol. There are also solidarity funds set up by mutual aid groups to help people survive through the lockdowns. So yeah, there was this mutual aid response to to the pandemic and to the fact that people were struggling because of inability to work because of the pandemic and the lockdowns.
Then there was the the police’s authoritarian use of the Coronavirus legislation to repress dissent and mass mobilization. So in Bristol, for example, the police, Avon and Somerset police increase the use of technology like drones to surveil the population, to spy on people gathering during lockdowns, just use it as an opportunity to roll out the use of that new repressive technology which they’ve been wanting to use for a long time. They were using it before the lockdown but there was a double in the use of that technology after the start of the Coronavirus lockdowns.
During the Coronavirus lockdowns, you had the the murder of George Floyd in the US and the global response, Black Lives Matter response, people coming together in anti-racist demonstrations… Bristol had a really vibrant movement and people are still organizing. Bristol have been consistently organizing and they organized the protests last June, where 10,000 people, one of the biggest demonstrations in recent memory are gathered at College Green and marched through the city. As they came to the statue of Edward Colston, who was a local personality who was involved in the slave trade, and who has many things named after him in the city: streets, schools etc. People had been campaigning, petitioning for the removal of this statue for… well, for decades. As the march went past the Colston statue, people put ropes around the statue and it was pulled down by the mass of the people and eventually was carried to the river Avon and thrown in the river.
The pulling down of the Colston statue was an important backdrop to what happened on March 21, which was when the riot that we’re going to be talking about happened. So, as the statue was pulled down, police stood back and didn’t make arrests at that point, and chose instead to try to identify people later on and to make arrests later on. And the police chief, Andy Marsh, said that was to avoid a riot taking place. He thought that if the police had intervened at that point there would have been a riot. And they were rebuked really harshly by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. They were told that they should have intervened, they should have stopped what was happening.
And what happened was copied around the UK, other statues were removed. The government was pissed off about that and wanted a more authoritarian response by the police. So, that provided the backdrop to what happened on the 21st of March because the police were geared up to respond in a more authoritarian way to the next, big, mass demonstration which was against the policing bill. I guess the backdrop to that demonstration was the it came during the UK’s harshest Coronavirus lockdown. Some of the other lockdowns had included clauses which said that political protests would be exempt from the terms of the lockdown, whereas in March, those clauses weren’t in place. The police were were acting as if protest was completely illegal.
TFSR: In the United States, and in North America in general, there’s been a lot of back and forth about the Right-wing having cornered a lot of the anti-lockdown sentiment around the idea that the government is using this has an opportunity to clamp down on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of expression, or ability to defend themselves. And I was talking to a comrade in Germany the other day, we were talking about how anarchists have engaged in responses to lockdowns or repression against demonstrations by using public health language in France in a different way than he had seen in Germany and I’d seen in the US.
I don’t know if you had any thoughts you wanted to share about the framing of public health measures being used as a way to… and maybe the importance in the framework that we’re operating in to decrease the spreading of COVID-19 while still living under capitalism… But, the use of the of those things to repress people’s ability to live safely and push back against government authoritarian measures. Does that make sense?
Nicole: Yeah, should I come in there Tom?
Nicole: I think it’s been quite complex in the UK in the sense that a lot of people that have been anti-lockdown have been either open fascists or anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theory-esque with quite strong links to Right-wing world-views and to fascist ideas and ideologies. But, I don’t know if there’s been like enough critique of the State with the lockdown. I don’t know, it’s difficult isn’t it? Because obviously we want our communities to keep each other safe and if the State actually gave a fuck about anyone’s lives, they would shut down the factories and the Amazon warehouses outside Bristol that are hotspots for the virus.
But I do think it’s also exposed a huge amount of ableism like in anarchist scenes. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was really like “suddenly, let’s look out for people with chronic illnesses who were previously pretty displaced from our communities.” Like if you get sick, or you burn out, or you have a health issue, or a caring responsibility, it’s quite difficult to participate in certain struggles because of people’s ableism. So I think yeah, BASE and Roses has been a nice example of how that’s been responded to proactively.
I think the pandemics just been this microcosm of class war, right? In terms of how the legislations used and all their repressive strategies and stuff. I think, as time went on, and people understood the virus more, there was more willingness to take to the streets and do demos and not be as pacified, thinking it was like a way of harm reduction. I was really nervous when all these big demos were happening because I live with someone who’s shielding and that just like made me very nervous. But it was also really clear that people had to be on the streets and stuff.
I know anarchists everywhere have been thinking about this stuff. And I probably haven’t answered your question [laughs]. I think there’s like tensions in Bristol basically between opinions about this. But obviously everyone is against the State violence and the State surveillance and the State repression.
TFSR: Yeah, that’s totally fair, and I appreciate you. Perfect answer: “It’s complex and here’s some of the perspectives that people are coming from.” I appreciate you also pointing to the the ableism that was present, continues to be, but at least it’s like visible around folks immune-compromised and and related issues. So thank you for letting me interject that question. Can you talk a bit more about what context the the Kill the Bill protest emerged from? And what did the protests look like?
Tom: The context that the March 21 protests emerged from was immediately because of the policing bill. But the wider context is around policing in general and State repression, State authoritarianism in general. So, for instance, you had that huge mobilization in Bristol in 2020, and the toppling of the Colston statue. But police attacks on communities in Bristol and in the UK, a constant policing which is racist and racialized in Bristol. If you’re Black, for example, you’re seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you’re not.
In the context of this history of what Nicole was talking about there, the resistance against against racist policing in Bristol, and in the UK. Earlier that year, and in 2021, at least two people have been killed in custody close to Bristol. In January, a 24 year old man called Mohamud Hassan died after having been detained in Cardiff Bay police station, not so far away from Bristol. Five weeks later, another young man called Mouayed Bashir died in police custody, this time in Newport in South Wales. That that’s the norm in terms of police violence. Since 1990 around 1,800 people, and this is recorded cases, have died in police custody or or directly after being in police custody in the UK.
The backdrop is this really harsh Coronavirus lockdown where where protest is illegal. And at the beginning of 2021 the government passed the SpyCops Bill. At a time when it was very difficult for people to express dissent because of this lockdown that was going on. And the SpyCops Bill, basically, was the State’s response to the ongoing legal cases that have been brought by women who’ve had intimate relationships with undercover police officers who posed as people that were involved in the radical Left and had relationships with them on this false pretext. There’s currently an inquiry going on about the undercover policing tactics that were used, but the SpyCops Bill made it expressly legal. Legal, not illegal, for State agents working for the police or for other State authorities, it could even extend to things like local authorities to break the law. It was essentially passing a piece of legislation which will make it legal for police officers to break the law in the future if they were on undercover duty. So, the State had done this and under the cover of the Coronavirus pandemic and lock downs.
The next thing that the State wanted to push through Parliament was the Police Courts and Sentencing Bill. It was, I would say, the most repressive piece of legislation since the the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of the 1990’s. Again, it was being done at a time when political dissent was very, very difficult. And the bill itself criminalizes the livelihoods of Gypsy-Roma and traveller communities, gives the police some increased powers to seize vehicles and also creates a criminal offense of trespass which is an attack on the livelihoods of Traveling people and a further attack on on squatters and generally on freedom in the UK. It introduces longer sentences which can be imposed on people and particularly for young people, it allows younger people to be sent to prison for longer. The bill gives police more powers to shut down and to impose conditions on public protests and processions, it widens police powers to arrest people for causing a public nuisance, it allows cops to impose conditions on protests if the cops think that the protest is too noisy or disruptive and it allows them to shut down protests encampments, too.
So it has a massive effect on protests in the UK. The other side of the coin is the State’s new prison expansion program to create 18,000 new prison places in the UK. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, Nicole?
Nicole: Yeah, so a major part of the bill which I think hasn’t had as much attention as the other areas of harm is that the British State wants to build 18,000 new prison places through a series of mega-prisons, which will most likely be run by private companies. And this legislation gives them the opportunity to criminalize more and more people and also to keep people in prison for much longer than they already are. So yeah, it’s pretty significant in the context of the prison industrial complex more broadly in the UK
TFSR: It seems like, outside of the shape of the bill, part of the context or one of the sparks that really would have lit people and sent them into the street was the the situation of Sarah Everard. Would you mind talking about that?
Nicole: Sure, yes. So, quite an inflammatory situation in the UK that was creating a lot of rage and despair in people was that police officer in early March was arrested for murdering a woman called Sarah Everard and I don’t know if people know the case at all or had seen it on the news, but he was a police officer called Wayne Couzens and he showed his badge and use the Coronavirus legislation to get Sarah into his car. And then he later raped and murdered her.
This was a really big deal. And there quite shortly after there was a huge vigil organized in London. And in this vigil there were 1000’s of people protesting. And, again, using the Coronavirus legislation of the police to try to repress the demo, including holding women down and assaulting them, which in the context was like pretty horrifying. It’s only one week after this vigil in London that the big Kill The Bill March took place in Bristol. So, there was a lot of anger about the police in the air.
In terms of the you know the actual demo and the riot, I actually had like a 38 and a half degree (Celsius) fever at home so I thought I had COVID. So I wasn’t there. But obviously the footage got shared all over social media and all over the world. There was a really big march and then people started moving towards the police station, towards evening time. The police stations is right in the city center. Police officers attack the crowd with batons, riot shields, pepper spray was used, people were charged with police horses, some people were bitten by police dogs. People really defended themselves, seized riot shields, grabbed helmets and batons to defend themselves.
By the end of the night windows of the police station had been smashed, there was like various vehicles on fire, police vehicles. There was also some famous very Bristol related photographs shared of one kids skateboarding next to this burning cop van, which went pretty viral. Yeah, it got it got pretty wild west.
Tom: And I think it’s important to understand what happened from the perspective of the community’s self defense against authoritarian policing and the police itself, which is constantly attacking the community in Bristol and all of our communities. The legal system tries to understand self defense in a much more limited way. If you argue that you are defending yourself when you’re being attacked by the police in a court of law, it’s going to be all about whether or not you were threatened at that point.
But I think we should understand self defense in a much more broad way. that we need to defend our communities against State oppression. I have to say, I’m really proud to live in a community where people did defend themselves in that way. And yeah, that’s one of the points that we’ve made as ABC and BDS is that we’re proud of the defendants and their resistance.
TFSR: Another unscripted question, just out of curiosity… I know in the so-called US, one thing that was experienced and has been growing over the last few years, but last year really sort of blew up the idea of or made it super visible and part of discourse, the idea of Abolition in general, but abolition of the police. I know that within the US context and the white supremacist anti-Black former more-recently-slave-State that’s still pretty contested, especially around the structure of prisons and racialization in the US. That’s a lot of terms sorry.
Abolition has a weight to it I think that in a lot of other places it would not. But around this time when it becomes all the more blatant what the State is doing, whipping out its police forces and these clear instances of police murders like those ones in January in the area and also Sarah Everard in the the impunity of the pig in that instance… Has abolitionism, or has just getting rid of the police, moved from outside of subcultural discourse? Have people talked about this? Have they said like, “Oh, this is a clear sign that this is what the police do. We’re just seeing it right in front of our faces right now?”
Nicole: Yeah, I think there’s been this Abolitionist tendency that’s been growing and growing, last year definitely escalated everything. I remember doing one webinar about resisting prison expansion with a group called “Community Action on Prison Expansion.” And there was 400 people watching it, it was pretty wild how many people got interested in it. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a sensation of like “abolition is the flavor of the week.” If that makes sense. I don’t know how many people will continue to do consistent prisoner support, for example.
But I think the interesting thing about the COVID time was that for people who through privilege hadn’t experienced State violence. Suddenly, everyone was witnessing the power of the State, if that makes sense. So, working class communities, people of color, other people that have historically experienced State violence, who like a lot more on side about criticizing the police… suddenly you just had the general population thinking about it. And I think there definitely is still quite a strong anti-police energy. It’s easy to be in a left wing echo chambers, but I think there really is a sensation now in UK of where people are talking about abolition, like a lot more weightily, as you said.
Tom: I also went to Zoom meetings that were attended by many, many people during the summer of 2020… and talking about abolition. But just linking it back to the riot. One of the most beautiful things about the riot was that one of the last police cars to be set on fire, before it was set on fire, had the words “defund the police” written across the bonnet [US: hood]. And so, clearly the people who were fighting back against the police on that night did have those ideas and those visions in the minds.
TFSR: So with the folks that caught charges… I think one of you had mentioned that folks are still being charged. But can you talk about the defendants? Can you talk about what charges and times that they face? What stages of conviction are they in. Also, most of our audience is based in the US and the criminal justice system has a specific shape to it here in terms of how the court process goes, and I’m wondering if you could sort of highlight some differences or some instances that would enlighten us to what the defendants are facing in Bristol courts.
Tom: Yeah, so 81 people have been arrested so far. And of the people arrested, the vast majority are pretty young, mostly in their early 20s. And, as Nicole said, some people have been involved in our movements, but many hadn’t so it was a challenge to get in contact with people and to establish connections with them for BDS and ABC. 41 of those 81 people have been charged now.
So what happens when you get arrested in the UK, is you get arrested taken to the police station, and you might be charged at the police station, or you might be released on police bail, or released under investigation. So if one of the latter two happens, it means you haven’t been charged yet, the police are still considering whether to charge you and to prosecute you. Almost everybody wasn’t arrested on the evening of the 21st of March. So, after the riot happened the police release photographs of people. They trolled through CCTV footage and they released photographs of people who they said had been involved in the rioting and there was lots of snitching that took place. So, the footage and the photographs of people that were wanted were put on the TV, they were also released on the front pages of national newspapers. And there was some snitching that happened where people called the cops and said “Oh, my neighbor was involved in the rioting.”
And, yeah, it has to be pointed out the complicity of the mainstream media, in doing the police’s work for them in putting out the photos of people in order for them to be repressed by the State. So, 41 people have been charged, and they’ve been being brought to court over the last month since since March. 3 people are currently on remand in prison. Being on remand means that you’ve gone through a court hearing, and the judge has refused to give you bail, and you’re in prison awaiting awaiting trial. People can wait for a year or more for their trial to take place and remain in prison for that entire time.
10 people have already been sentenced for the riot. So, those who’ve pled guilty to riot have received sentences of between three and five years in prison. And the remaining people have all pled not guilty. And so their cases will be between now. The first case is next week with a guy called Ryan Roberts, he’s in court in Bristol Crown Court on the 25th of October, and his case last until the 27th of October and he’s charged with Riots and Arson. Riot carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The judge in the cases is saying that the starting point for sentencing is 6 years. And Arson carries a variable sentence, depending on the level of the arson, it can be a very serious charge also. So it’s a serious case. And Ryan has called for solidarity and he wants to make the case as politically as he possibly as he possibly can and he wants demonstrations outside the court.
We’re calling for people to pack the courtroom to show that there’s support for people to fighting back against police violence and defending himself against against the police. So, that’s next week. There’s also two demonstrations planned next week on the 25th and 27th in solidarity with Ryan.
The rest of the trials are scheduled between January 2022 and July 2022. People are still being charged so the people who are currently released under investigation are still going on people going on being charged. And unfortunately people are still being arrested also. The police are saying that there’s many more people that are wanted, unfortunately. We can see that it’s a long slog in terms of anti-repression work and in terms of supporting our comrades going through this process of the State trying to repress them.
The narrative which has come out in Bristol actually is, so far, really the State’s narrative. So when people have been sentenced in court after they’ve pled guilty, the judge has ruled out a long list of injuries sustained by the police a long list of Statements by the police saying that they were traumatized by people fighting back against them. At the same time, when the riot happened, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, again, made Statements to the effect that the people who rioted were thugs. Avon and Somerset police called people a pack of wild animals. The mayor of Bristol also condemned people for rioting.
Nicole: I quite like that wild animals quote, we should do a T-shirt with to the effect of that.
TFSR: Good fundraiser.
Tom: I think it was a mob of wild animals.
Nicole: Yeah. We could have all the West Country wildlife. All the foxes and badgers. [laughs]
Tom: Aw nice! So what we have is a narrative really set at the moment, unfortunately, by people with the most power. You know, what we need to do is to put forward our own narrative, to show the people in Bristol support people for fighting back against the police, that we’re proud of these people who fought back. And we also need to talk about the police violence on the 21st of March against the people who surrounded Bridewell [Bristol Central Police Station]. Not only on the 21st of March, but afterward, the police attack people as Nicole was saying, they smashed right shields over people’s heads. They attack people with batons, attacked people with dogs, and that police violence needs to be centered too.
We hope that will come out through the different types of anti-repression work that we’re talking about. Through the work of BDS and ABC, but also through the defense campaign and through the evidence of defendants in court cases. Ryan, as I said, wants to make his case as political as possible and that means talking about the police violence and talking about the violence leveled against people on the evening.
I alluded just then to what happened after the 21st of March. So that’s probably worth talking about. So there was a series of demonstrations, which happened after the 21st of March in Bristol. So Kill The Bill demonstrations continued two or three times weekly. And for the first few weeks at least, we were met by an army of riot police who were intent on revenge for the 21st of March. A few days after the 21st of March there was a gathering by supporters of Gypsy, Roma and Traveler People on College Green that was violently attacked by the cops. A line of riot police charged the entire gathering of people in tents etc. And slammed riot shields down on people’s heads. And that set the scene for the policing over the next weeks and months where the cops really tried to exact revenge for what had happened on the 21st of March by using the maximum amount of violence against people when they were coming out on the streets in Bristol to resist against a bill.
Nicole: Yeah, maybe I can add one thing. I think it’s worth saying with the defendants that, again, t’s quite mixed in terms of class and race but the people that are getting smashed with the hardest sentences are working class people who have had previous convictions, or who weren’t in touch with us who went guilty due to terrible legal advice, and they thought they were only going to get a couple of months, and instead they got four or five years.
So, I think that the riot itself was politically motivated in lots of ways but defendant support always crosses into different terrains. It’s a class issue and a race issue and the people who will get smashed are those that don’t have the same level of mitigation. And part of the defense campaign goals are to support people so that they don’t make cutthroat defenses. So they don’t set up narratives of good protesters and bad protesters.
We recently had a film screening of the Sub Media film about the J20 Resistance and while it’s quite different contexts, I think it did inspire quite a lot of the defendants of how maybe without that sort of political support and education, they might have gone down the route of being like “I’m a good protester. I’m a good citizen. I didn’t mean anything by it.” And and I think it’s nice to see people collectively becoming a bit more empowered and radicalized through this process. And I’m hoping, long term, that it will just backfire against the State. Bristol is already a very radical place and now we’re going to have people organizing prisoner resistance on the inside that we can support. We’re going to have an army of young people that have been dragged through the court system who want to fight back. I think the defendant work is quite interesting in that way.
Tom: Yeah, and just to say in terms of the number of people sentenced… 10 people have received sentences now to a total of 29 years in prison between them. I just wanted to say another bit of the context of all this against the backdrop of the riots across the the UK in 2011 [in the aftermath of the police murder of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in North London], which were really widespread by working class communities, predominantly, and people of color. I think one one criticism of the response by anarchists to those riots is that we really, really failed to provide infrastructure and support to the people that were arrested. There was a really strong State narrative. You had Boris Johnson going out with his broom and saying that “everyone should be part of this riot clear up.” So there was a strong State narrative that was saying that the rioters weren’t political, that it was thuggery or whatever. Sadly, I think actually people bought that a little bit I’m afraid.
With what’s going on now with building infrastructure for supporting the people arrested on 21st of March, I really hope that we can do better in supporting people than we did back in 2011. That’s not to say by the way that nobody organized back in 2011. There were some good attempts at defendant solidarity organizing but what was really needed was unconditional solidarity for those in court on a really, really large scale, and that didn’t materialize.
TFSR: It’s I mean, it’s refreshing to hear people taking those sorts of lessons, though and saying “We lacked then, we’ve learned, we were trying to do this now.” And being able to take the examples of international situations or situations in other countries. That’s really impressive.
You had mentioned that Ryan was calling for people to come out and demonstrate. There’s demonstrations on the 25th and 27th. And folks are going to try to pack the courthouse. For folks that can’t make it, whether because they’re abroad or ability or what have you, can you talk a little bit about other ways that they can offer solidarity, both to Ryan’s case and upcoming ones? Ways that folks can donate towards legal costs or survival needs of the defendants moving forward? Or, I don’t know, dropping banners in front of embassies and such abroad if that’s helpful?
Nicole: Yeah, sure. So, there is there is an international call for solidarity. we’d just appreciate any crews, any groups, any organization’s making that stuff happen. It could be writing Statements, it could be doing banner pictures, it could be dedicating actions to him. Also, things like letter writing. There’s a bunch of people in prison now and they’re new to prison. So ,this is a critical time for support of getting loads of posts. A lot of the defendants have felt a bit of shame about their involvement, maybe they’ve had shame from their family, in the media. But showing them inside that loads of people on the outside support them and have their back is really important.
So yeah, we’ve got a list of prisoners and their addresses on the ABC site. We do circulate graphics as well, but it’s always worth checking the site because people get moved to prison a lot and stuff like that. And yeah, funds are constantly needed. We send every prisoner at least 50 pounds a month, money’s going people’s families, to books, to clothes, and sometimes for legal costs, as well. Bristol Defendant Solidarity have a crowdfunder for legal costs. And ABC also has a crowdfunder for prisoner support funds. Yes, so there’s definitely loads of ways that people can can offer support.
Tom: And maybe it’s worth saying I think the response to those crowdfund is really encouraging. It shows the level of support from people in Bristol and people outside for the defendants. We’ve raised over £45,000. But, the amount of money that’s needed to provide financial support to people in prison and all the different types of support that Nicole mentions is really considerable, especially over the length of time that some people might be serving in prison. So, we’d really encourage people internationally to donate to those crowdfunders.
TFSR: Like I mentioned, it’s heartwarming to hear about y’all taking lessons from cases of repression and people resisting and organizing and other places. What are some lessons or some takeaways that you’d like people listening to this to come back with and that you’re learning right now through this process?
Nicole: I think one of the key takeaways is that it’s worth building infrastructure now. Obviously repression and State violence is ongoing in every community, but I think Bristol… we had a slight advantage on other cities in the UK, for example, because we’ve got that infrastructure like ABC and BDS. Lots of challenges come up when organizing, right? And if you’ve already got an established group in affinity with each other, and systems. That really helps. There’s a zine about how to start an Anarchist Black Cross group, It’s got advice and resources if people are interested in starting an ABC.
And the thing is, I think we haven’t mentioned it much, but repression really takes its toll on people and that support does need to be holistic. It’s not just doing legal work for people. It is also offering emotional support. So there was an emotional support group, which has transformed a little bit now because I think defendants prefer to talk to people one to one. So, we’re paying for counseling and therapy for some comrades and that’s really helping people. And even in terms of people’s health and stress and herbal support, things like that… I think it’s really good to really humanize people and realize that the defendants are experiencing a really stressful time. They don’t know what’s going to happen with their lives. They don’t know if they’re going to get eight years in prison or two years in prison. They don’t know if they’ll be able to get a job in the future. Their relationships are getting trashed, maybe their children have gone into care. There’s so many effects of State violence that we invisiblize. And I don’t want us to come across that we’re rubbing our hands as anarchists like “Ah, yes, theres this uprising in Bristol, and it’s really politically exciting!” Actually, it’s been really awful and traumatic for loads of the defendants. Especially people that already experienced domestic violence who are then getting beaten by male police officers, for example.
So I think having that broad overview is really important. And then if people do not know the film, there is an absolutely ridiculous, highly problematic, but hilarious film called Hot Fuzz. So if you want to take the piss out of Avon and Somerset police, it’s based in the West Country in England, you should watch it. It’s the best film in terms of laughing at our local cops.
Tom: I was just gonna say about the effects of repression, the emotional effects of repression. When I was going through a trial 10-12 years ago. The tactics that the cops used in the run up to the trial, were designed to separate us from our comrades through bail conditions, saying that we couldn’t speak to people, and were designed to make life as difficult for us as possible, through house raids, through arrests intended to come up with reasons to remand us in prison, etc. And I guess that really impressed on me the need for for prisoner solidarity.
The thing that really impressed on me, the need for solidarity for people going through repression, was just seeing several comrades really go through hard times. Even a couple of those comrades aren’t with us anymore. Just seeing the needs to have that infrastructure there, to have the backs of people that are going through this State repression. I think that’s a real motivation for for a lot of us.
TFSR: So in relation to the Bill and the Black Lives Matter protests, there was also the swim that statue of Edward Colston decided to take. I wonder if you could please tell us about the the 4 folks that are facing heavy charges and repression for alleged involvement in that.
Tom: Yeah. 4 people are facing charges for the toppling of the statue, and there’s been a massive campaign in Bristol to support them. One thing I didn’t say in relation to the Bill is that one of the parts of the policing bill makes the damaging of national monuments, punishable by 10 years in prison. And so that was specifically in response to the toppling of Colston and the toppling of other statues around the UK. That’s part of the State’s repressive response.
So, there’s a massive campaign in support of the 4 people who arrested after the toppling of that statue and they’re going to be in court for several weeks from the 13th of December. There are demonstrations being called at the start of that court case and there’s fundraising fundraising taking place and public events taking place in Bristol, which you can find out about on the Bristol Defendants Solidarity Twitter account. That’s also a focus of solidarity work this this year.
TFSR: Finally, another case of repression that’s been in the news recently is the prosecution in Bristol of Toby Shone who the State has identified as the web admin, I believe, of the anarcho-nihilist website 325.NoState.net – It was taken down alongside other insurrectionary and counter-info anarchist sites from around the world by pigs in the Netherlands. Can you all talk about Toby’s prosecution the level of international collaboration between police forces in different countries and how people can support Toby?
Nicole: Sure. So it’s worth saying that the terrorism charge that Toby was arrested on was dropped due to lack of evidence, so it’s all alleged in terms of like his alleged role in that website. But yeah, he was raided quite violently and remanded earlier this year in prison, and was recently sentenced this last week to 3 years & 9 months for drugs charges, relating to mushrooms, and I think other drugs that he uses to self medicate around cancer and depression and things. The terror terrorism related charges were dropped mostly but he’s happy for his details to be shared. I know it’s his birthday on the 20th of October so people can send some birthday cards to him. We’ll put his address in the show notes.
TFSR: Nicole and Tom, unless there’s anything else I really appreciate the conversation that we’ve had and the work that you all do.
Nicole: Oh, thank you for all your hard work like putting out this really consistent, amazing show that people should support.
Tom: Yeah, thanks so much for inviting us and, and yeah for for making the amazing podcast.
The annual American Renaissance conference, or AmRen, a gathering of vile ethno-nationalist hucksters is slated to occur in Montgomery Bell Park at the Inn and Conference Center, outside of Burns, TN, from Friday, November 12th to the 14th. Opposition is being organized from all over and you can participate with your crew. For a good intro to what’s expected this year, check out the link in our shownotes or visit the calendar at OnePeoplesProject.Com: https://tockify.com/idavox/detail/136/1636722000000
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Johnny Ryall (instrumental) by Beastie Boys from Dub The Boutique
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself so the audience with whatever names, gender pronouns, locations, affiliation, or other info that could be useful for this conversation?
Maria: I might go first. I’m Maria, I go by she her pronouns, and I am speaking on behalf of the anarchist black cross Belarus chapter here. So I can’t expose my location at the moment. But at the moment, I’m outside of the country.
Vasili: And my name is Vasili, an activist from Belarus, who is not in Belarus right now. He him, and I’m involved in some anarchist organizations from Belarus.
TFSR: And Maria, can you tell us a little bit about Anarchist Black Cross Belarus, the kind of work that you all do and some of your history?
Maria: Right, the Anarchist Black Cross Belarus started, I think, around 2009. in Minsk, which is the capital. First, it was like, rather an informal kind of network of people who would just make random donations, just not really doing anything other than collecting money. And back then, before 2010, when the first wave of repression hit the anarchist movement in Belarus, the group was not really needed, because the state didn’t look so much at the anarchists as the enemies let’s say, but after 2010, the group was formed and you and now it has membership. And it’s a collective that has been running since then. And over time, we’ve evolved into a stable group that is doing fundraisers for us and supports anarchist and anti fascist prisoners in Belarus, and sometimes also people who have Belarusian citizenship, who have problems in other countries, because of their anti-authoritarian activity. We’re also trying to expand the support not just for material side of providing financial support, but also psychological support, not that we are providing that but we are like, open to pay for that or to look for either professionals or like self help groups and so on. Because we see like activist trauma, like post-repression trauma as like as a consequence of repression that needs to be dealt with, especially also after release from prisons. Yeah, so we’re trying to work on that.
And we’re also quite interested, and I think we were quite successful, in creating a new security culture in the movement, like trying to agitate for like not talking to the cops and giving a lot of trainings and seminars, producing brochures, about what you should expect once you get caught. And what’s the best way to behave and also showing some light at how the police is preparing themselves for psychological pressure, like what methods they use in order to actually make you speak. So this is what we’ve been doing. And I think this last year was a catastrophe for the collective because previously, we had to deal with like, let’s say, 3-6 prisoners a year, let’s say, and maybe also throughout the years would be like the same people who would just be in prison for longer terms, but this year, at the moment, there’s already like 26 people who are either behind bars or have already been convicted after the protests. And a lot of people had to flee the country, and this is also like our Congress that we will we need to help with like migration issues and also like settlement support and stuff like that. So yeah, this is why at the moment we have a lot of work and we also need a lot of support from the outside of the country as well.
TFSR: It feels like, we can also go back and touch on this in later questions too, but since we are talking about ABC Belarus right now, could you tell us of any ways people can find out about your work and any sort of like international organizations or movements that you participate in, like the week of solidarity or the Anarchist Defense Fund. Like that sort of stuff?
Maria: Right. I mean, ABC Belarus is like part of this probably shrinking network of ABC groups here in Europe. We have some connections to also ABC groups in the US, but not so much. But in general, we try to participate in any effort of solidarity here in this continent. And basically, you can find information about the group and also the news on like Belarusian prisoners, or general repression in the country on our website, which is ABC-belarus.org. And we are now trying to publish monthly updates on repression in the country in English. So it’s not only about fundraising, but also like you can forward or like repost, share messages from there, if you have an English-speaking website somewhere. Yeah, so basically, that’s it.
TFSR: Last year, I spoke with a comrade around November of 2020, about a year ago, about the uprising in Belarus, which had already been going for some months at this point. For listeners who somehow missed it, could one of you give a really brief overview of the uprising, at least up until that point and just sort of bring us up to date so that we can, we can move on from there?
Vasili: So, if you missed what was happening in Belarus in 2020… In August, after the elections of the president, pretty much the biggest uprising in the modern history of the country happened with first, dozens of 1000s of people go into the streets, and afterwards, hundreds of 1000s of people are going to protest against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. This lasted for several months. One of main the reasons that actually this whole thing was possible was the Corona-virus, but also dissatisfaction with the economical problems of the country and so on. And the protests had different momentums. Like in first days, it was really intensive and with a lot of clashes with the police and with a lot of repressions, and at least several people killed by the police. Later on, transformed in some kind of peaceful demonstrations marches every Sunday, however it never managed to grow to the extent that would destroy the governmental power and eventually put an end to Lukashenko’s rule in the country. By the end of 2020, most of the protests were over all around the country, a lot of people were repressed. I think, in this four months from August to December, over 30,000 people were prosecuted. 30,000 people in the frame of 9.5 million people living in Belarus, which was like super big amount of people. That means that everybody knew someone who was eventually repressed. Apart from that, over 1000 people were detained and put on holds for prosecution. 30,000 people were prosecuted through administrative codes, which was like a smaller violation of the public disorder, which would give you like 15 days in prison or fines. And this over 1000 people were arrested and are now awaiting or were prosecuted or waiting for trial for the criminal offenses, which would be, I don’t know, one year in prison up to 25 years in prison.
So the protests were crushed. And at some point, we thought that maybe the Belarusian government would go crazy for the next couple of months, and will calm down as it was happening normally, through the history that if there would be like a protest, there would be some repressions, but then the government would stop. Over one year, since the protests, the repressions are still going on and people are still getting arrested. The police are still processing the videos and photos that they made during the protests. And they are still like catching the protesters and charging them with the more serious charges than they were doing in autumn 2020. Also, apart from that, there is a big wave of migration that started with the mass repressions. Depending on the country, there are also dozens of 1000s of people left, mostly in direction of Ukraine and Poland, which are the nearest countries and some parts went into this mania. And the others went all around the world basically. But the biggest diaspora is right now are concentrated in Ukraine and Poland and trying to organize politically there in any way to undermine the Belarusian government’s politics in the region.
Right. So, at this point, right now, most of the political organizing is actually smashed so all the political organizations were destroyed. Most of the media that is not affiliated with the government is banned or got their license revoked, and journalists actually massively left the country because of the threat of prosecution. The human rights organizations are also en masse leaving the country. And there are several human rights defenders, like big ones in the political sphere, who are sitting in prison. And most of also non governmental NGOs not affiliated with the Belarusian government, are also getting shut down and people who are working for those NGOs are leaving the country to go abroad, under threat of prosecution as well. Yeah, so everything looks pretty dire.
Apart from that, it’s also worth mentioning that when we came to the elections in 2020, Lukashenko was quite close to the Western countries, to European Union, but also to US, and he was getting funding from those countries. But as the protests escalated, and as Lukashenko was making more and more political mistakes, the European Union was kind of cornered into reacting to his bullshit. And now, the regime is under sanctions of the European Union and the US, and that kind forced Lukashenko to the search for another allies. And now his main ally is Putin who, well, doesn’t care about that people are blood flowing on the streets, as long as you are loyal to him. So Lukashenko’s regime is now heavily based on Russian support. And this was happening historically. All in all, Lukashenko managed to survive, because Putin or Yeltsin back then were supporting him economically, but also politically, on the bigger political arena.
TFSR: Are people going to those two countries, in particular, because of those country’s current relationship with the Russian regime of Putin? Or is there other reasons?
Maria: Yeah, I think the reasons are so simple. Just because for Ukraine, you don’t need a visa. So basically, you can just get out as quickly as possible, even if you don’t have any documents. And you can stay there up to 90 days without any reason. This is what people actually did. And also in Ukraine, people speak Russian. And this is like this kind of post USSR, mentality or culture that people are sharing. For those who don’t really speak English or other languages, is the best way to just change the surroundings without actually changing the context, let’s say. Also, because people are feeling more secure than, for example, going to Russia because Russian and Belarusian authorities and the police have like unified databases of people who are like dissidents, let’s say, and they actually can arrest you. And this has been done massively in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they have face recognition surveillance system in the streets. So people do not feel safe in Russia. That’s why they flee somewhere else. So, for Ukraine, it’s like that. If you speak about Poland and Lithuania, these are the two countries that were the first to react. I think, in October or November, they said they’re going to provide any assistance to people who have to flee the country and they started giving that so-called humanitarian visas. So that’s basically a National Visa that allows you to stay longer than a tourist visa, and you don’t need grounds, like having to work or like some studies and so on. So you can just basically get proof that you have been repressed and you’re going to be issued this visa and you can stay in the country and later apply for like a refugee status or production status. And also because the EU now, I think it’s effectively denying extradition requests from Belarus even via Interpol. So basically, this is where people feel more safe, in terms of not getting extradited. The I think these are the easiest options for people to go to.
Vasili: I would like to point as well that although Poland and Lithuania are giving this humanitarian visas and they’re openly accepting Belarusian refugees, the other EU countries are not that open, although they’re condemning the violation of human rights. It is way more complicated to move to other European Union countries like going to Germany or going to France, Spain, wherever you want to go. It is quite complicated. So for the people who want to, well, leave Belarus and have a secure, safe place, those are like the easiest places to go like you were in within the European Union. Poland and Lithuana in that case.
TFSR: Yeah, so Lukashenko is still in power, people are still having to go abroad, and still organizing resistance against the regime from abroad. If it’s… this is a strange way to put it, but this is like common parlance in the US, at least in English… There was a lot that seemed to come out in the uprising that my understanding and having spoken to a few people from Belarus, there were parts of the movement that seemed kind of unprecedented and sort of unexpected, like, for instance, the running battles with the police, the extreme violence that the police and the jails enacted on individuals when they arrested them from sexual assaults to like literal torture. I think there were some disappearances of people. And this is the thing that police do wherever because they’re police to, you know, at different times. But this is exceptionally cruel and concentrated, the apparent attempt to infect as many people with COVID as possible by cramming them into cells in the middle of the pandemic. And it seems like elements of the Belarusians nation were chipping away from what had been a sort of toleration of the administration to actually… You know, police quitting their jobs in instances, people targeting where police lived to try to pressure them to leave… Workers threatening strikes… This was a massive, massive moment.
And I guess the English term that I was going to point to is called a “post-mortem”. What sort of lessons do you take from that like, what worked, what seemed not to and and why the administration has continued to be able to stay in power.
Maria: My idea is that, actually it went the way it was supposed to go, let’s say. I mean, of course, all all the things you’ve mentioned, like the new expressions of like solidarity and new ways of protests, and actually like attracting masses of people to the protest was something new. And this was new for all of us. And for the people also, what I mean that it was supposed to end like this is because the state knows best tactics on how to suppress the protest. Because you have to understand that for many people in Belarus, it was the first time that they were actually politically interested, and were trying to promote or like, defend their rights, or let’s say, whatever, or a protest against anything. So these people have never been detained. These people have never seen an aggressive policeman beating up someone else in the street. These people have never been arrested, or detained at their workplace. These people have never been harassed, and threatened with taking their kids out of their family if they’re going to continue protesting. So these people have never experienced, like, cunning repressive mechanisms that the state has. And like, for example, for me, they’re not new, because I’m in the movement for 15 years. And like many of them have been used against me or against comrades or against like other people, just because I’m involved. And so many of them didn’t work for me. But people who went to the street in August and September, were in the streets it’s as long as it was safe for them. Like, as long as they could just be in the streets think that they’re going to change something peacefully… And here comes also the question of lacking the political analysis, or like the political history of let’s say, revolutions or like successful protests, or coup d’etat’s so and so on. So people like really thought and they believed that they even if they’re going to be a lot in the street for some time, Lukashenko will just leave. And this has never happened in in history. But for them it was the first time and they didn’t listen to anyone, that it should be like, okay, more offensive, let’s say. At the same time, there was also no one powerful enough in the media, who would actually call them to be offensive. Like everybody in the political sphere, was speaking about the fucking peaceful protest, like this protest was going on because it was supported and promoted.
And so when I was under arrest in October, I had a few women and myself who were at their door, taken to like a car with a black bag on their head, just to be arrested for 15 days. For me, it was clear that the police is just using this as a threatening mechanism. Like before it was really safe, you just go to the protest, you go home, nothing happens. And suddenly, you’ve realized that they know where you live, they come for you, and they bring you like as a hostage, in I don’t know, Afghan movies, or something like that. And they take like 1000 people like that. And these 1000 people is telling their neighbors, what’s what’s happening, and the neighbors starting to be afraid that they’re going to be the next. So like, for me, I knew that they were using it just for that to intimidate the population, and they were really successful in that. So, having this as a picture of like repression, or some kind of exemplary cases, it worked for people. And many people just left the streets as soon as they realized that they can’t post pictures of them in peaceful protests on Instagram, because now police is looking at the Instagrams and checking out the people.
Yeah, so basically, people were quite active, as long as they felt that they could be supported by others. In the first days, like you said, a lot of people quit the state managed jobs, the police, the national television, and so on and so on, like the athletes who are supported by Lukashenko and so and so on. So as long as people saw that everybody else is doing this, they were doing it as well. And they were also like, seeing a lot of solidarity coming. But then when they saw that, actually, nobody else is doing it anymore, and it’s just kind of you against the system, basically, or you and like crazy people like you who are still brave enough to show, this is when people started realizing that, okay, like, I’m just ruining my life because of that.
And also the solidarity structures were crushed. Because special solidarity structures were installed outside of the country to collect, I think they collected like 8 million bucks for solidarity from all sorts of businesses and like from individuals. So basically, they were promising that people are going to have that. If you are going to be repressed, you’re going to have it, for sure, if you’re going to be fired, you’re going to have like money, or salary, like in three months or something like that. And at first it worked, but then also these solidarity structures couldn’t actually process so many requests. So it ended up being super slow, like people who were fired would not get support, like in two months. And these are people with families, you know. And then, of course, everybody’s talking about that they are sharing that, “Okay, this solidarity is just bullshit, I asked for the money, but they’re like, verifying me for ages. I’m being arrested, I’m asking for the lawyers fees. And they’re verifying me for ages. And, like, my mother needs the money to get the food parcel to the prison today, but the money is going to be there after like half a year.” And also the more people got arrested and put behind bars, the more money they needed, right? Also, what they did is basically trying to transfer money in cash inside the country, and there were specific people who would like process tons of cash to pay for fines and to pay for lawyers fees, and so on. And these people were persecuted, they’re now in jail. So that’s why when, when other people who did the same saw that, okay, just for helping out others, I can get in jail, I’m going to stop doing it, you know? Like, I’m going to run out of the country. They weren’t showing some exemplary cases of how something you’re doing could ruin your life. And people were just thinking, Okay, so when we believed in victory, we could do that, but now, we’re doubting victory, now we don’t really believe in it anymore. So I think this is how it works like this, let’s say the morale it was destroyed. And it was like really effectively destroyed. This is why now people do not believe that there’s going to be at any moment a critical mass so they can join. A lot of people wants to join, but they feel like they’re alone in this.
Vasili: And I think, for me, the Western politics or, let’s say, Western Liberal politics played an important role in the way the protest develops. And it started not in August 2020, but historically if we look at the development of the liberal opposition in Belarus, we can see that through the money through like political support, Western liberal powers can control the narrative inside of the country. So, if you would have like really militant opposition leaders in the 90’s, who would be, you know, rioting or calling for riots participate, really confronted with demonstrations… Slowly this narrative change to a peaceful demonstrations, peaceful change of power, peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. And this became like a dogma that it was not possible to change anymore, that it should be always peaceful. And when we came to 2020, the people who were participating in the protests and people who were, let’s say, a political leadership of this whole mobilization, were still insisting on the peaceful protests for the first days, but also like afterwards. Although some of the people had clear understanding of the clear possibilities of clashes with the police. Like there were leaks for example of Tikhanovskaya talking to some allies in the smaller towns where they would be talking about possible clashes and what should be done and so on and so forth. But this cannot be publicly done, as if you start calling for riots, if you start calling for like a militant overthrow of the dictatorship, then you will have issues with those people who are eventually supporting you and do not support this kind of narrative. As the revolutionary agenda is spreading that if you if you start calling for revolution in Belarus, people start asking like “oh, we will so when changes so what are we going to do?” And I think for a lot of liberals in Western European Union or in US right now this narrative is really dangerous taking account the Corona-virus, dissatisfaction and all this stuff.
And of course, a lot of media that is in opposition to Lukashenko is still financed by some grants from the European Union or by some foundations that are also not accepting this kind of narrative, this kind of idea of a revolution happening. No, there could be a peaceful protests and like it was I don’t know when in their heads, and that’s it. And this played a really important role in during the mobilizations. Like a week since the protests started, there was this peaceful march that mobilized hundreds of 1000s of people and this was like a moment of euphoria, where we thought “okay, now the whole thing is over.” And there were a lot of people who were reproducing that narrative. So there were so many people that Lukashenko is like a political corpse, right? And I think like within maybe a German political context, he would be gone, like this is not what you do in a democratic country. But for dictatorship, killing a couple of people, sentencing or arresting 6000 people, this is not a problem. So Lukashenko was going on. But people started getting this idea of, okay, peaceful protest, everything is fine, we are winning. So nothing should be changed. We keep on going with this peaceful marches, and that was a certain moment of blocking. As the bigger crowds started, like doing only that, just Sunday marches.
And the people who were doing the mobilization had the problem that they cannot say to this bigger crowds, “Hey, let’s go and take over the fucking police station, or the City Council,” and stuff like that. And this was done because of the financing. We had as organized anarchists in Belarus, conversations with the media activists or bloggers who would say “We need like anarchists, we need some radicals who would call for radical actions.” But this was already like happening a month too late or something like that. And they started, like there were situations where anarchist calls for actions would be reproduced by the bigger media channels. But this was like too late because the repressions were hitting so hard that there was no mobilisational potential anymore, outside of the Sunday demonstrations. So I think this is the thing that was really important for Lukashenko to maintain his power that the Liberal thought is incapable of overthrowing the dictatorship not only conceptually, like bringing alternatives and saying, “Hey, this is a great idea, maybe jeans and bananas are not selling so well anymore.” But physically, like they cannot call in their liberal ideas for revolution for revolutionary changes. So liberals became a shadow of the liberal movement of the 19th century they were they were like, “Fuck yeah, we are going to free the population and so on and so forth.”
And yeah, so this was like it should show that was somehow happening inside of the country, but also happening outside of the country. And I think like, with what Maria said, people didn’t have experience in protests, people didn’t have experience with all this repressions. And they were searching a lot from outside as well. Like, “Who can help us who can explain this thing happening to us?” And who was explaining things were those liberal bloggers from Russia, or from some other countries that also didn’t have any fucking clue. But they would be so convincing that everybody will be like, “Oh, yeah, that person knows what he’s talking about, or she’s talking about” and so on. Yeah.
Maria: Can I add something?
Maria: I think also, like another part… I’m in two minds about what I’m going to say, but I’m just gonna mention it. I think one problem or like, one obstacle towards this kind of, like more radical revolution was also in the way that people didn’t know radical methods, like they didn’t know how to implement them, let’s say. And it was the first time people saw smoke grenades or tear gas exploding around them or something. And like basically people, the biggest like bloggers, or like telegram channels with like a massive readership, were advertising all the time “clenching hands.” Like “Clench hands, every time you see the police, because the police is going to take your comrades away, and you shouldn’t let them detain you.” And so people were trained to just be in a row clenched hands and like what I saw in the first days of like, post election protests, people like would just clench hands in front of the police trying to I don’t know, tear gas them or shooting them or something. People like really didn’t understand it’s, it’s a different method now, and you don’t protect yourself against detention, but it’s like a street fight, in a way, you know. Like, this kind of urban guerrilla is not something that people were familiar with. And I think those who understood were a minority group, it’s people who actually either participated in protests demonstrations in Europe, for example, like football hooligans, or some anarchists, and maybe people who just saw it in the media before. So they kind of knew how it should look like, but not really, what exactly they need to achieve with that. Like what would be the strategy with cops.
And I think that is one thing. People really didn’t understand. They wanted to hold a position. But why? They didn’t understand if they wanted to move cops away, or like to be offensive towards cops, they just wanted to be in one place. And that’s it. And of course, that doesn’t change anything, like okay, paralyzes the city for some time, but not really moving you towards a coup d’etat. And, on the other hand, a lot of people like you mentioned, the bloggers who are calling people to kind of go and smash policemen’s houses and, I don’t know, ruin their cars… And this is what people did. Like, they basically went there with their faces uncovered, disregarding the surveillance cameras, disregarding the fact that they were already other cops waiting for them there on the spot, because they were expecting attacks. So people were just doing like really stupid things without thinking about any security culture connected to the radical action or direct action. And they needed to know that but the bloggers didn’t care, like they would just call people do something really stupid, or like maybe smart, but you should be smart in all spheres with direct action. And people would just do it, because they were very emotional. And then they were put in jail and then they would realize that there’s not actually any solidarity because all the human rights organizations are supporting only the peaceful demonstrators and not recognizing political prisoners, those who have, I don’t know, smashed cops’ cars or smashed cops’ faces. So, that was a real kind of contradiction. Because on the one hand, people are getting a lot of information about the fact that they should be more offensive, but they were not explained how and they didn’t have any support after that.
So I think that was also like the biggest mistake and a lot of people after this, the change of the narrative that Vasili was mentioning, this kind of peaceful narrative when it came in… A lot of radical groups just left the streets because there was no place for them anymore. Like, because these groups knew they have to be in their neighborhoods, they know exactly. Together with people they know, instead of going and showing your face on a Sunday morning march, or something like that. So this audience was kind of lost, or it was waiting for some action, you know, like, was waiting for a good moment to step in.
And another problem was that at the same time, there was this split between like radical and peaceful. And the radical ones, or people who just wanted to use them, started organizing online in open chats. So they were basically forming chats, calling them “I want to smash cop cars in the street,” or whatever. And like just discussing it online, without actually protecting their accounts. It was really easy to identify people behind those accounts. And this was what is what cops used. So they were effectively identified a bunch of participants of these chats, and they just punished them, or they were just actually trying to organize actions together, and they would detain them in this in the scene, you know. So basically, people who wanted to be radical did really stupid things. And of course, I mean, anarchists is tried to change this narrative, tried to explain that you should only do a direct action with a person you really know, not just your neighbor you’ve seen for the first time or not that person from online. But anarchists didn’t have this kind of wide influence. We couldn’t spread the message as wide as possible.
So I think that was also something that people saw. Like, “Okay, I’m peaceful, a peaceful demonstrator, maybe I would like to use something else or like use another tactic, but I don’t know how, I don’t know, with whom, because these connections are not built. I know, some neighbors who are protesting, but I’m not sure they are up for it, you know? And I see that what happens with people who try.” So either they are getting caught by the cops, or they are just I don’t know, and then yeah.
But at the same time, why I said, I’m in two minds about that, because I don’t think that revolutions should be like, prepared and people like 100,000 people have to, like really be good at security culture and direct actions. Because usually, successful protests happen, like everywhere, where people are emotional enough, angry enough just to go and smash it. And, of course, in the Arab Spring, people also didn’t know how to do it. But somehow it worked in some cases. So, what I’m saying is that that was totally an obstacle, but I’m not sure that it’s a matter of just learning, and then it’s going to be successful. No.
TFSR: It’s fair to note that, that the Belarusian state had, like 25 to 30 years to figure out, not that they came out of nowhere, but they had decades to figure out how to repress public uprisings. And like y’all had been saying, if people are just suddenly coming to the like, if they’re getting this information, pumped at them, these images of what a revolution looks like, you know, or what’s acceptable, then it seems pretty hard to expand your imagination past that.
Vasili: I think that what is also important in terms of imagination as well, is that the internet is not as it used to be [laughs]. And that means that all the regulations that are passed in, let’s say the US or in some European Council, or whatever, are actually to regulate the internet to prevent terrorism or extremism distribution or whatever shit they have in their hands are affecting what is happening in the other countries. And a lot of bloggers and a lot of people with like media power had fear that if they, you know, start posting pictures of burning police cars, or they would put how to make Molotov cocktails on their channels, the channels would be blocked, because there are regulations that can be like, you know, activated to block this kind of terrorist content. And this was happening, like there were channels, there were groups all around the internet that were blocked by that. This was like the result of not what we were doing in Belarus rather that what the legislators were doing outside of the country, and this is like a fucking circus. Imagine, you know, like the Soviet Union invades Finland, and then Molotov cocktail distribution is banned by the German state or by some crazy fucker sitting in US and saying like, “No, no, this is really bad what you’re making, like, try to stop the Soviets with your bodies and with your mind.” And this was what was happening in Belarus a lot. And this was, I really find it really problematic and most probably it will shoot back in coming years for sure.
TFSR: I was hoping to put opinion that the discussion of Telegram and the mass usage of it and the fact that both of you pointed to people’s anonymity being compromised in the way that they were organizing. Because there were people from the uprising after the execution… er the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in, I want to say 2015 in the US, there were people… youth using snap chat and Instagram and all these other apps to document what they were doing and that came back to bite them afterwards. In Hong Kong, people were using a lot of online apps to communicate back and forth that also, I don’t know how much that came back to bite people but Telegram… You know going back to the Arab Spring Uprisings, Youtube or Facebook and Twitter were things that the media at least has pointed to as being important tools for organizing, Vasili, the point is well taken that the internet is not what it used to be and all of these regulations, but there’s also… We now have micro computers in our pockets that are often registered to our names and that can track our movements around and data capture is a really easy thing. And I wonder if you could talk about any sort of lessons learned about Telegram, in particular, as a platform that was used so widely and efforts that people have made once they’ve seen the danger of that platform in particular being used to organize potentially illegal activities. What sort of educational or cultural interjections that people have made?
Vasili: I think the whole thing is a huge topic with Telegram, right? Because you can start with the person this who started Telegram, Durov. He’s like Russian businessman who went to US, who actually before that started VK and which was like an alternative to facebook for Eastern Europe. And he was selling his app as the security solution for all the activists, everybody. This was marketed great and he was really aggressive. He has money, he was advertising that, and one of his main audiences is like Eastern Europe to see him say “Oh, I’m so great, I’m going to stop actually any work with Russia over with Belarus. I am really together with people fighting for freedom.” And I think people started buying that and the further you go, the more this narrative is actually getting sold really, how would you say, successfully. And forgetting the fact that VK for really long time, under Durov as well, was cooperating with the Russian government in also repressing the anti-Putin movements in Russia. So Durov is not like an evangelist of freedom, who’s going to give voice to everybody, doesn’t matter who, and this is something that’s just a commercial application, which doesn’t earn a lot of money to the person who made it. And Telegram is really hardly connected with the phone number, which is a horrible idea, as in some countries, I think in US you can still buy sim cards without registration to your passport. In Belarus you can’t do that, in Russia you can’t do that, and this is basically like you get an ID that is connected with to your passport, to your ID, to your name, to everything that is attached to that. This is an incredibly horrible thing, because it is also something that you can’t just drop out of. It’s like your whole contact list is connected to that. Your whole social network is connected to it. Imagine Facebook is doing that from time to time that you need your passport to prove blah blah blah. But imagine you have to register with the Facebook by just sending them your passport and sending your phone and all the shit. Then the phone connected to all of the geo-location data. That’s what happens with Telegram and that’s what happened exactly with Telegram during the protests. All the phones that were used to register people who were protesting were connected with it to their IDs, to their passports.
Of course, if you’re like a turbo anarchist, you could find a way to register a Telegram without using a sim card with your name, but most of the people aren’t turbo anarchists. So most of the people had their like passports already speaking into Telegram to get arrested. And some people had can hide and there is this thing and this thing, but at the end of the day there is there’s dozens of ways to figure out the people’s ID’s and that’s what happened. People were prosecuted for the fucking stupidest shit that can happen. Like there is news of a police officer and when he is home and what he did in the last like two months and then someone writes out “this fucking bastard is a swine dog!”, right? “He’s a pig dog!” That’s what happened to one of the people I know. And he got like two years in, ah, I dunno, house arrest or something like that, right? And this was connected with the fact that this person couldn’t be anonymous to write that that cop is a fucking pig, or pig-dog or whatever he wanted to say in his creative mind.
So the infrastructure of Telegram played an important role in repressing the movement through giving this kind of a platform at the beginning, but also in the long run played an important role for the state to repress people. And I think this is also like a, you know, a poisoned apple that you’re like jumping on it and really eager to eat, but then you’re ending up with I dunno, like diarrhea or five years in prison. And as we see right now, what is happening is that Telegram blocked in Russia, we’re not talking about Belarus just jumping to right now, yesterday, the elections in Russia and Telegram blocked the bot for smart voting that the opposition was trying to organize in Russia. Basically, by signing up with the Russian state in repressing this opposition attempts to create some, I dunno, some system that would give people possibility to vote in a different way than Putin organized. Telegram is already giving their, let’s say, open mind to helping repressive apparatus to destroy the efforts in bringing down the dictatorship, and this is going to go further and further. Mmm, yeah. I mean it’s a it’s a huge problem that we are still facing and we have no fucking clue how this will be in the next years. For sure people will switch to another app in, like, three or four or five years, but right now it still goes on and there are people still getting arrested constantly because of their phones once having been connected to their Telegram and Telegram exposing their phones to police and shit like that. Yeah.
Maria: I got to just answer their primary question [laughs] about what people did. Because Vasili didn’t mention that one other thing is that not only identifying people by their phone, but also trying to break in, like hacking the accounts by just cloning sim cards. Because the authorities have the right… well they don’t have that right, but they can. So basically cloning the sim card receiving the SMS with a code, like putting it on their computer and, I don’t know voila, they found an admin of the chat, they found an admin of another channel, of a protest channel. And this is what has been done a lot. And I think, of course, Telegram offers now all layers of whatever security. But the thing is that these layers are not switched on automatically when the person is logging in for the first time, everything is open. And like you need to go through all smallest details until you’re kind of protected. Like if, say nothing of the number, but just to switch on this two-factor identification and la la la everything is so that it’s actually not so easy for the people. We have to also realize that a lot of elderly people like people over 40, 50 and so on, they are not so good with apps. Like they can’t just go, and I don’t know, like manage the VPN and connect to the Telegram in a way that always works when the Telegram is on. I don’t know, like track their traffic, check their IP’s…
So, basically, you can provide some security with Telegram but you’re like needing to be like knowledgeable about this. And people weren’t… It’s too much for a Belarusian person who does the protest for the first time. They need to learn about the security, they need to learn about the facial recognition system cameras, need to know how to speak to cops. Now they need to know how to use Telegram. Everything we had to learn like in ten years of political organizing, they now have to learn in like two months or even less. So, I think answering your question about what was done to education was done by also bigger bloggers, or owners of Telegram channels that where calling people to make the [messages] less unsafe, let’s say. But the problem with Telegram that hasn’t been solved is that people still use it. I think one of the reasons why it’s popular is because it combines a messenger and the news. So, if you want to read the news feed, it’s really easy for you to just change the tab and go and chat with someone. And I think all the options like, let’s say Signal or whatever, that could be a little bit more secure, did not offer you this opportunity. So you, like can’t really read news on Signal or like Facebook is not at all protected in this way. I think there were calls for people using something like Briar or some apps that would be be not tracking the IP or like, but they are quite marginal like that people yeah, it doesn’t catch. Like, people would still use something that is easy to install that their friends are using because everybody’s communicating to each other, where it’s easy to create a chat and so on. So I think yeah, like I said, I agree that this problem has not been solved. I think now, just more people know how to make their settings a bit more secure, that’s it. But people still continue communicating on Telegram.
And I think one of the things they’re trying to do now is like spreading bots. Pretending that they’re making secure bots that are not logging anything but again like how can people check it? If I don’t have knowledge, I can’t really trust it. If my friend is not like an IT specialist or whatever, we don’t know what the servers are and there have already been cases when some oppositional structures were gathering some information from people by bots, and then this information was hacked and like the cops have like all the numbers and all the users who submitted information. And I just wanted to mention that one of the, let’s say, hopes of the protest at the moment is the creation of a bot that is called “Victory Bot” and it was started by Tikhanovskaya and by Pol, which is Belarus police in exile. So, they have created the bot, where you are supposed to register, provide information, including where you’re living, like basically the actual location, where you work, like what is your profession, in which way you would like to help the revolution? Are you ready to be like more radical or not and so on? And so basically they say as soon as they get like enough users, they would later use the bot to send instructions. Like, let’s say they collect five hundred people in one factory who are using the bot and are ready to act, they would just send them the instruction to like block the production or something. But these are promises. I think they started the bought in May and I don’t think there are enough people there to for them to start using it. So yeah. I think, for the moment this problem has not been solved.
TFSR: I can’t imagine what could go wrong?
Maria: Yeah yeah?
Vasili: Actually, the cops already created a bot that has kind of the same name, having just one letter different and people mistakenly would go to that like Belarusian cop bot and they would register there and the data will go to the police and the police would go and arrest people who just wanted to join the Victory bot, but the wrong Victory.
But I think what I forgot as well is the comparison to Hong Kong. And I think for a lot of us was there was kind of a moment of hope that we knew experience from Hong Kong, where people were using Telegram and they were using this kind of chatting, quite intensively, to organize for Belarus, it didn’t work out at all. Like if we would have a chat with five ten thousand people, this is just the garbage like you can talk to people there. It’s just basically like a flow of thought, everybody’s just writing what they think but nobody’s reading what is going on. This is a complete chaos. As for going on the streets with Telegram, the internet works when there is internet. You know this is like a really simple rule, and what Belarusian government was doing is that it was fencing, basically, the zone of demonstration and switching off the internet there, like mobile internet and stuff. This was playing an important role in actually like preventing this, you know, fast communication that Telegram or Signal app or other apps. And it was working pretty well, and people were sometimes quite confused because they were counting on this kind of like coordination through Telegram, they would end up on the street and they wouldn’t have any idea what to do next, like “Okay, we didn’t read the Telegram what are the next steps, so we are not going to self-organize and do some stuff. Rather, we are going to be searching for the internet for next half an hour somewhere where there is no internet.”
TFSR: We’ve talked a bit about what repression has look like with, after the fact, people are being surveilled or having their prior images being put into databases and then they’re getting arrested for stuff that they were videoed participating in months before. Or joining up on, apps like the victory bought and kind of turning themselves in. But there are a few instances of the international reach of repression of the Belarusian state that I wanted to point to and see if there are other things… Because, obviously, this is an international concern, this is why I wanted to and very happy to have you both on on the phone, because we resistance struggles in different countries against repression and against capitalism and and hierarchies have to be able to learn from each other, and we also have to be able to offer support to each other. We have an understanding like there’s so many people, as has been mentioned, who have who are now living in exile in Poland or in Ukraine or in other places. So, it’s not just an issue for Belarus and the same repressive apparatuses that are used in all these different places like in Hong Kong or in Belarus are similar they’re controlled from outside. They there’s a lot to learn anyway, blah blah blah. You get the point!
Two examples of the kind of international reach of the Belarusian regime in trying to grab back Belarusian rebels that I can think of that sort of caught my eye: the downing of the Ryan Air flight over Belarus when the plane was forced to land by the Belarusian government, basically saying that there was a bomb on board which resulted in the whisping away of Roman Protasevich, a blogger who ran some of these Telegram channels. And there was also, in the recent past of the last couple of months, the attempted arrest of Alexei Bolenkov in Ukraine. Can you talk about these and other examples that the international audience might want to know about?
Vasili: So the plane story was one of the major mistakes of Lukashenko and what happened there was that for Protasevich was coming from Athens to Lithuania and when you fly back then from Athens to Lithuania, you would pass Belarus if you fly directly. For Lukashenko, somehow he got this awesome idea, or maybe his KGB or maybe his analyst or maybe his fucking dog got this idea “Hey, let’s arrest this guy!” Although his main enemy, Tikhanovskaya, was actually flying on the same flight the day before, which they do didn’t do any kind of arrest. But they decided that they’re going to do him like they’re, going to arrest him. And what happened was this idea that the bomb and then the Belarusian state [started] trying to play the stupid face with [saying] “Oh, this was actually organized by… Hamas” and they showed the email [claiming to be from Hamas]. And for them, it was a thing from one side [of the Belarusian state saying] “Oh, we are going to show all the position that we have control over your body over your freedom and we can snatch you at any point we want!” But at the same time, what they did here is their they actually attacked the power of the European Union in in the world politics. Because Ryan Air is part of the European influence, European property. Let’s say like that. And that arrest pushed quite a lot of action from the European Union, like the the biggest sanctions and the biggest pressure started happening actually after this airplane action of Lukashenko’s. This is not something that happens quite a lot. I think this was the first and only time when Lukashenko did this kind of crazy action. But they are trying to use the, for example, InterPol databases quite often to get the people back or to try to build up pressure. And that was happening as well with the case of an anarchist from Belarus, Bolenkov, about whom Maria will be talking.
Maria: Alright, but don’t you want to the consequences of this downing of the plane?
Vasili: In the sense of what happened to Protasevich, you mean?
Maria: No, no, like in general for the country, politically. It basically was the beginning of all the sanctions that were imposed and also the prohibition on flights from European countries and to European countries? So, basically at the moment, you can’t fly out of Belarus, I think, apart from Russia or like Kazakhstan, something like that. And all the tourist planes have to make a curve around Belarus to even go there or land there.
I think if we speak about anarchists who are persecuted by the State… So, in Belarus at the moment, a lot of anarchist have been arrested because of some prior actions or there prior affiliations, let’s say. Only a few anarchists were arrested just after the protests and in connection with the protests and there’s a case of an
international anarchist criminal organization. And it’s international because they have found one anarchist organization, it’s called Revolutionary Action, that existed in Belarus. Then I think they opened a chapter in Ukraine and they [the Belarusian State] also claimed that ABC-Belarus is also a part of this network according to the police, because the Anarchist Black Cross is supposed to kind of finance all this criminal activity Basically, probably providing solidarity means financing criminal activity. What happened is that they arrested a few groups of people in different cities and, at the moment, they’re all in one big case of this “criminal organization.” And they face think up to 10-12 years, I don’t remember exactly. They are accused of participating in anarchist actions in previous years, so like not really connected with the protests, but they just use the protest and the use the momentum of repression to persecute everyone who could be at some point active in anything in the future.
And the cops also issued a list, I think it was like a 25-person-list, with names of people who are potentially involved in this case or need to be questioned as witnesses and Bolenkov was one of them. He lived in Ukraine for like 7 years now, and basically the local security services came to him and tried to give him the special document that they issued (not the court, but they just issued it from their office) saying that he has to leave the country. So, they didn’t really extracted him, but there it was clear that they have like cooperation with the security service in Belarus and they don’t want these kind of person in Ukraine. They offered him to just leave the country voluntarily. Basically, now, he’s been like trying to appeal it for 4 months. Recently he got the court decision that didn’t up happy did not uphold this order, so he can stay in Ukraine, but the cops appealed again. So now he’s gonna go to the Supreme Court, so the case is not closed. And here we see, like when I was talking previously about safety of Ukraine for people who flee the country, it is safe as long as you’re not an anarchist are not someone who is also being persecuted by the Ukrainian State. So I think the example of Bolenkov is clear about that. This is basically how instrumental cooperation can be between different security services and that you can’t really run away from the State, can’t really run away from the capitalism or from cop’s view. I’m not sure how the case is gonna end, because the pressure from the NGOs and all this kind of concerned public, this is not useful for their Ukrainian police. Probably he’s gonna stay but, anyway, I wouldn’t imagine my life if I was Bolenkov. It would be really weird to just continue living somewhere where you know the [security] services are interested in you and following you and following what you’re doing. It’s it’s a bit hard.
And also, like you said about the other examples… I was already mentioning a few examples of arresting people in Moscow and Russia, so that’s like a kind of the clenches of the regime are there and one of the antifascists from a regional city [Brest], he was persecuted in Belarus for mass riots and he ran away to Moscow. Now he’s been in jail for like half a year. The decision was to extradite him, but his lawyer appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the court said that Russia can’t do that because he could face threats to life or health. So, basically for the moment he still is in Moscow, but we don’t know like what will happen because Russia can also disobey and doesn’t give a shit about this European court decisions.
TFSR: Please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I think I recall that last July, the [Belarusian] administration released a bunch of long-standing political prisoners that they were that they were holding onto…
Maria: When you said last year, July, I think you mixing it up in with 2015. There were a lot of people arrested in 2010, anarchists included, and also people who protested the 2010 presidential elections. And, back then, the last pack of people was pardoned in 2015, including Mikola Dziadok, and Igor Oliněvič, who are anarchists and who are in jail again at this time. They were arrested in November of last year.
So, what’s happening now, just to mention the pardoning tendencies, Lukashenko is trying to do it again. Although it’s really, really, weird because what’s happening is that he has a person who was previously a political prisoner and then he was set free, probably on the pretext of cooperation. So now he has formed like, kind of a party or a movement for like democratic change or something like that, and his organization is sending out letters to all the political prisoners and asking them to write a petition for mercy, and some people do [this]. I think it has now about twenty people who has been pardoned starting from March, but either it means that not so many political prisoners are actually writing these petitions for mercy or it means that not all of them get pardoned.
Getting back to prisoners that ABC supports, at the moment, like I said, there is the group of the “international criminal organization”, around 9 people I think. [There are] 4 people from that is called “Anarcho-Partisans”. These are people there who were arrested in the forests on the border between Belarus and Ukraine, and they are accused of setting fire of cop cars or or some prosecutors offices or police stations in the region, in the provinces. And Mikola Dziadok, he turned out to be a blogger recently. So he had a anarchist Youtube channel or something, and he was decided to stay in the country and he was arrested in a [supposedly] “safe flat” (safe house). They found him by surveillance cameras and face recognition system. And there’s a few groups of former football hooligans of the antifascist football clubs that were also participating in the mass riots or attacking cops and stuff like that. So, there are some more individual people who were arrested really recently, because in the late July and August, cops actually attacked like everyone they had on a list or everybody who was even like in contact with anarchists. And some of the people were arrested for fifteen or thirty days, but some actually got to criminally charged for just being in the streets participating in marches. Not really mass riots, but just having a picture of you standing on the roadway is already blocking the traffic or something like that. These are people who now come to my mind but, like I said it’s about like it’s a little bit less than 30 people.
And just to mention it, there’re up to 4,000 people that day prosecution reports about as being prosecuted for mass riots, all for offending the State, offending the president, offending cops online. And a little bit over 1,000 of them are behind bars. So among them are 30 anarchist and anti fascists. And if you realize that the anarchist movement is not so big in the country, the anti fascist movement doesn’t really exist at the movement. So, there’re pieces of some groups, leftovers of like this antifa hooligan scene, let’s say who are not like really organized. We are speaking here about 300, 500 people max, like you are just affiliate themselves with the ideas. And having like 30 of them behind bars out of this number and 1,000 of the millions of Belarus who were protesting means that’s our part of the movement got repressed quite a lot, if we speak about like percentage.
TFSR: Can you talk about the upcoming crowd-funding to the ABC Belarus is going to be enacting, how much funds are needed, where the money would be going and how people can and get involved in supporting that?
Maria: Right. So, basically, like I said previously, we are trying to help people financially in the first place with legal fees and care packages to prison. But also with paying for therapy sessions or providing money for people who have spent like a month in jail, for example, but they couldn’t work at, but they have to still pay for their flats. Or people who have migrated and need some support, at least in the first 3-6 months. And that’s a lot of people. We don’t really receive a lot of the nations in Belarus because there’s almost no one left, everybody is either in jail or outside of the country. Also, it’s not safe to have a personal account where people could donate in Belarus. So most of our donation channels are like electronic wallets or bitcoin, Paypal, or European bank accounts. Which is not to really useful for people in Belarus, because Paypal doesn’t work there and European bank account would require a lot of fees. So most of our donations are coming from abroad and each case costs us like around 5,000 Euros or $6,000 – $7,000. And these are ongoing. Like, people are going to stay in jail for like 5-10 years if nothing changes. And in order to provide assistance on an ongoing basis, once a year we’re putting on a big crowd-funding campaign trying to attract funds. So, it would be really cool if people could spread it, and I think the link was going to appear somewhere in the description to this episode. It would be really cool if you could spread the word, because this is something we really need now.
TFSR: Were there any other things that you wanted to say before we ended this interview?
Maria: Maybe I just wanted to mention that it does sound like a failure and I think it is a failure in a way if we just think about it as that the aim was to change the regime. Let’s say that for me, as a participant in all these process of transformation of the society that used to be totally apolitical and totally not interested (also a little bit anti-anarchist, let’s say), I saw a lot of good things about it. And I think actually, I’m happy that it didn’t change in like a month that people just have another president now and think they leave in democracy. I think it’s perfect that people had to go through this process. Of course it’s painful for them and it’s like maybe doesn’t make sense for many of them, but in general it feels that the next time when something like this happens- and it will happen at some point- we’ve got like a lot of people in the country with experience, with the anger, and with probably not so much illusions about the peaceful protest or whatever. And also people who have experienced solidarity, who have organized solidarity by themselves or who got to know their neighbors, tried some kind of self organizing methods and so on. And especially now they’re got really interested in… not really anarchist ideas, I would say, but… Anarchists became people that everybody likes, let’s say, without knowing what exactly they’re doing, but I think the anarchist movement got like this kind of credit of trust and I think it’s important for us.
Vasili: And I think that for me, what is also important is that for a lot of people in the so-called First World, anarchism is some kind of an abstraction that may be leads to some bizarre utopia, but it doesn’t have connections to the reality. While for us in the east, it is a reality. We are not just, you know, fighting for some utopia on some island or on some other planet, but rather we’re trying to push the anarchist revolutionary ideas towards the society and the moment that we had in 2020 was the moment when the society was transforming as well, under the anarchist influence and under anarchist ideas of horizontal organizing and self-organizing in the neighborhood assemblies and so on and so forth. So, it is really important to remember that we are not standing for some thing that will never happen, rather that we are standing for revolutionary transformation of society that will happen if we believe in that, if we are fighting strong enough. And Belarus is still fighting, and we hope that we will, well, destroy the fucker’s regime and we’ll live not only in the beautiful new Presidential Republic, but will live in the country that is giving an example to the rest of the world, how to be free, how to organize, how to smash the authoritarianism!
TFSR: Thank you, Maria and Vasili both for participating in this conversation and sharing your experiences and perspectives, and I look forward to sharing this with the audience.
“Representing Radicals” Lawyers’ Guide from Tilted Scales
Resisting state repression and surveillance is one of the cornerstones of The Final Straw and has been since the beginning of this project. Over the years we’ve featured interviews with support committees, political prisoners, defendants in ongoing cases, incarcerated organizers, radical legal workers and lawyers and others to talk about how power strikes at those who it fears constitute a threat. For those of us caught up in cases, navigating self-defense through the courts, penal system and mainstream media can be treacherous, as we attempt to balance our political and personal goals with our lawyer’s desire to have us do as little time and pay as little money as possible to the courts. Winning in these circumstances can sometimes seem to pit a well-meaning lawyer or legal worker against their own client. Enter the Tilted Scales’ new book, “Representing Radicals.”
This week, you’ll hear Jay from the Tilted Scales Collective talk about this book out from AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, about anti-repression work, and about this book’s attempt to shift the culture of legal representation by intervening with arguments by radical lawyers, more intimately inviting clients and their supporters into the fray and new frameworks for approaching cases.
The Wrong Side Of The Law by Mick Jones from Mick Jones
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any names, pronouns, affiliations, or references that would help the listeners orient themselves?
Jay: Sure, my name is Jay, I use they/them pronouns. I’m a part of the Tilted Scales Collection since 2017, and have been involved in anti-repression organizingmore broadly over the last decade or so.
TFSR: Would you talk a bit about Tilted Scales? Who constitutes its membership and what activities it gets up to?
J: Sure, we are a pretty small collective of anarchist legal support workers who have been supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners mostly in the so-called United States. Tilted Scales Collective was formed out of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Conference in 2011 and out of the need to build anti-repression infrastructure more broadly, but what folks were noticing was re-inventing of the wheel every time folks in the United States got hit with serious charges. There was a need to pull together or draw in resources and experience to rebuild some infrastructure for providing legal support. So our collective has written two books, the first book is called A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which is published in 2017. And we recently published a follow-up book called Representing Radicals. And that’s what I’m going to be talking about a little bit more today. We also have given training and workshops about anti-repression organizing, as well as participated in numerous committees and legal support efforts over the years.
TFSR: Cool. And for folks who are unfamiliar with anti-repression work, a lot of our listeners have heard various conversations on the show about it, and those who have been with us for a long time may even remember a chat with folks from your collective about the Defendant’s Guide when it came out. But could you talk a little bit about the framework of anti-repression work or any of the cases that your collective has participated in, offered support for?
J: I guess the idea behind anti-repression work and organizing is that repression from the State is an inevitable part of making change, or building the new world or destroying this one, etc. Repression of some kind is going to be inevitable, people are gonna get hit with criminal charges. So anti-repression organizing seeks to, at baseline, do some harm reduction around the negative outcome of criminal charges. But also use the fact that folks, maybe one person or group of individuals, are facing charges as kind of a vehicle for movement organizing or building bonds of solidarity and coming out on the other side stronger. Some examples that I’ve been a part of… I was involved with the organizing around the J20 case back in 2017. I know other folks in the collective have participated as individuals, not necessarily as part of Tilted Scales, but I’ve participated in different legal support efforts for different mass mobilizations throughout the years, the Eric King Support Committee, etc.
TFSR: It makes sense to be coming out of the ABC conference, because, as you say, most of the work that Anarchist Black Cross does and has done historically is to give post-conviction support to people that have already been given a sentence, are already behind bars in a lot of cases. And so it makes sense to do the forward-thinking of how we A) decrease the number of people that are ending up behind bars, B) decrease the amount of time that people are going to be serving if they are going to do any time behind bars? And, like you say, with the mobilization and popular education element… What is better to stop people from interacting with Grand Juries than to have regular discussions where Grand Juries are a part of people’s vernacular? And what people are talking about, and you may not be able to totally demystify them, but at least making people aware makes them readier to be able to… Just like how talking about CopWatch, know-your-rights type education stuff is going to hopefully get ingrained in people’s brains that they can refuse to speak to law enforcement, or they can make those interactions as safe as possible or whatever. I think that’s super helpful.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Defendant’s Guide definitely hits on a lot of that. I know much of the guide talks about the different aspects that are involved in various stages of the criminal legal process, like what happens pretrial, what happens if you take your case to trial, what happens if you plead out, what happens if you are convicted, what are your options for sentencing and how to think about that? That’s one aspect of anti-repression work – that demystifying piece, the other aspect of it is helping the folks who are facing charges and their comrades move through that process while still advancing or moving forward with their political goals at the same time. And sometimes that looks like bringing those politics into the courtroom or into the way that legal support happens around a case. And sometimes it looks like resolving the case as quickly as possible so that folks can get back to the other organizing that they’re doing.
TFSR: The approach that was in the Defendant’s Guide, and which also shows up in Representing Radicals, it’s like a bookmark, a “This is the thing that you should pay attention to”. Obviously, it’s a lot more filled out in the Defendant’s Guide, but a Venn diagram of personal goals, political goals, and legal goals, and setting that out and working through the process of what that looks like for you as a defendant, what do you want to get out of this? What damage can you legally inflict, hopefully, on the process of repression to make it not profitable for them to ever try that again, or at least decrease the amount of damage it’s going to do in the meantime? That’s a really cool model that you present. I like the visuality of it.
J: Yeah, I like that model as well. I’m glad to hear that it reads well in the Defendant’s Guide. I think it’s been really useful in conversation with folks who are facing charges. One thing that our collective does is occasionally have calls with groups of friends or support crews who are coming together, sometimes after a big action (this happened a lot last summer) to help them think through the next steps in terms of navigating the criminal legal process. Thinking about options kind of as containing discrete but overlapping goal areas, or overlapping but discrete areas of impact is, at least for me. and seemingly other people, a useful way of being able to visualize what options exist within the context of the system that is fully designed to make you feel like you have no options or the only option is to be out immediately.
TFSR: That’s really well put.
So as you mentioned in 2017, you published a very timely Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, just as over 200 people were arrested during the January 20, or J20 inauguration of Donald Trump had started building their legal defenses. The defendants from that case were over 200 people. This is not in a vacuum, obviously, following months of resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota AccessPipeline in which I believe thousands of people participated. And a lot of people caught charges, although it’s notable that the federal felony charges all fell on indigenous people. You and the AK Press bumped up the publication date in early 2017 and got a lot of copies into J20 and I’m imagining NoDAPL defendants’ hands. I guess it’s always a good time for books defending radicals to come out, which is a depressing thing also. But would you speak about the general goals of this new book Representing Radicals? Who your audience is? Is this primarily aimed at radicals approaching legal work such as yourselves or legal workers who are shifting towards radical approaches at defense? Law professors? Should we be sneaking copies into public defenders’ briefcases?
J: I was not involved with the Tilted Scale Collective back in 2011 when the idea for the Defendant’s Guide was first dreamt up. But as far as I understand it, the idea to write this companion book has always been there. As you said, the Defendant’s Guide is written to anarchists radicals who are facing criminal charges and to their comrades and supporters and close people who might be wondering how to help them through that process. And, by contrast, Representing Radicals is mostly written to the attorneys who are representing them. So we tried to balance throughout the book the fact that some attorneys are going to be already quite sympathetic, maybe share a lot of politics with their radical defendants. For example, people at the People’s Law Office in Chicago or the CLDC or movement lawyers who’ve been devoting decades, their whole career to defending activists, anarchists, radicals, etc, Balancing the fact that there might be some people’s lawyers, but other people’s lawyers may not understand at all where their anarchist, radical clients are coming from, are less familiar with anarchists and radicals and concepts like movement perspective, non-cooperating pleas, etc.
The other audience that we’re hoping might have interest in this book would be law students who are still figuring out who they might represent, or how to bring in some of their ideals about the world into their legal practice. We really wrote this book coming from the idea that it could be something that defendants or a support committee could give to attorneys and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for me.” Or similarly, for supporters of defendants who are locked up pretrial, just to have a tangible resource that you can send to an attorney and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for my friend, partner, comrade, etc.”
One thing that in my own experience being a part of different anti-repression groups over the years that I run to is that oftentimes, defendants, as well as their supporters, run up against a variety of tensions, even in trying to communicate with and work alongside the most sympathetic attorneys, just because the role of an attorney is quite different than the role of a defense committee or a group of supporters. So, like our first book, Representing Radicals isn’t intended to necessarily be a protocol, a “how-to guide” telling lawyers how to do their jobs, but rather a guide to help people think through what they might want to achieve when facing charges, and how their attorneys can focus on those legal goals specifically, while still helping their client balance other goal areas. Personal and political, and whatever other goals a defendant and their comrades might have.
TFSR: It makes a lot of sense, something that I’ve seen in terms of conflicts come up between lawyers and radical defendants / their defense committees, or support committees is this ingrained – I think you’ve touched on this – this ingrained training in the US legal system: A) the concept of innocence and guilt is a strange one, B) also the idea that individual culpability, for a process when there’s way more dynamics in that and it leaves out the social context in so many cases, and people are often stymied from actually presenting social context to flesh out what was going on. I think that that process of thinking through… Like no incident is going to be exactly the same as the next… But like teasing the lawyer who’s reading it into, instead of just advocating or speaking on behalf of their defendant, to get them the best deal, which might include some sort of plea deal where they’re asked to name other people or whatever to get their charge down. If the lawyer’s thought is “My goal is to get my person as little time as possible and to end this in a timely manner”, especially if I’m a public defender and have like a stack of people to handle. And the challenges that the book poses and the quotes, also, which I want to get to in a bit, but trying to open up this whole world of conversations to lawyers who may be very good at doing their job in the way that they’ve been trained to do it. This might get them to think about the myriad of other ways of looking at the outcomes of a trial besides just what charges, what fees, whatever this individual defendant has to pay. I think that’s really important.
J: Totally. You really hit the nail on the head. Throughout the book, we talk a lot about what “the best possible representation” could mean to radicals, and oftentimes, the training that lawyers get in law school, really hammers home this idea that they have an ethical obligation and a professional obligation to provide their clients with the best possible representation that they can, which in criminal cases often equates to ensuring that they come out the other side relatively quickly and with minimal legal consequences, usually plea deals that are going to minimize prison time, minimize probation, etc. One of the shifts that we try to make in the book, a bit of a paradigm shift, is to help lawyers understand that, as anarchists and radicals who are thinking about facing criminal charges from a movement perspective, we’re gonna want outcomes from a legal case that are aligned with our political goals and principles, even if it comes up at personal expense, or even if that means unsuccessful legal outcomes or negative legal outcome. Also helping lawyers see that those outcomes in cases are in line with lawyers’ ethical obligation to their clients, so as long as their clients fully consent to the terms and have an active role in shaping what their legal defense looks like.
One thing that the book does hopefully pretty well is it includes not just our own perspectives, as of folks who’ve got quite a bit of experience doing legal support work over the years, but also includes the voices of a lot of movement attorneys, who’ve been doing movement lawyering for decades, who really restate that point over and over again… That actually it’s your clients and your client’s supporters and the projects and movements that they’re a part of that really should be driving the bus, and that the lawyer’s job is to listen to their clients and help them meet their legal goals, while still balancing their other priorities.
TFSR: The whole experience of going to court is a terrible thing. It’s meant to be alienating and terrifying and make you bow before the majesty of the representation of legal power and the sovereignty of the State to ruin your life. All that like standing and sitting and all the weird churchy stuff, leftover from the time of kings and queens. It feels really important to find this space to intercede and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be this person’s… you got their back. So let’s talk about how do you understand what they’re saying?”
Also, I really appreciate the glossary that you provide, and some of the key concepts that you’re trying to introduce or shore up in the legal work. Could you talk a little bit about the glossary and what you put in there and what you’re hoping to achieve?
J: We decided to make the glossary pretty early on in outlining the book. And our decision to do so was partly to include terminology that, unfortunately, may not be familiar to every person who might be reading our books, like different identity terms are included in the glossary. And also, we wanted to break down what we meant by anarchist and other radical tendencies. We wanted to be clear about that. But we also use the glossary to explain a little bit these broader concepts: movement lawyering, collective perspective, politicized prisoners, prisoners of war. In the anarchist subculture, it might be unnecessary to define a glossary, but when communicating with a lawyer who doesn’t have experience working with anarchists, radicals, that particular population, it might be a new territory, very unfamiliar.
TFSR: There are also the quotes that you mentioned, which are interspersed throughout. You mentioned already a few, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and the CLDC. Can you speak to what the hope was by including direct quotes from people who do legal work as professionals and who work in movement and the idea of movement lawyering?
J: I know that we wanted to include the voices of movement lawyers primarily because we have experience doing certain kinds of anti-repression and legal support work, but none of us are lawyers, and so we felt as though there are some things that lawyers would just be more knowledgeable about and to speak to with more experience. We also thought that by including the voices of many attorneys who are movement attorneys and represent radicals every day in their professional lives, we could shift the conversation a bit. So that an attorney who is reading the book, who maybe is not in that world, would feel as though it’s more of a peer-to-peer conversation, as well as the added bonus of hearing from folks with a ton of experience doing legal support. By movement lawyering I really mean… I mentioned PLO and the CLDC. But movement-centered lawyering really happens when a defendant and their legal team take into consideration the defendant’s legal, personal and political goals in relation to the political movement of which the defendant is a part. One definition I read recently says that “movement lawyering increased the power and capacity of people involved in social struggle, rather than the power and capacity of the state and legal system.” I like that. So, movement lawyering, in my mind, is an approach that means not only meeting the ethical obligations of an attorney but understanding a radical client’s legal, personal and political goals fully when creating legal strategies and an overall defense strategy. And it means having some mental context for the case itself and understanding how that case situates in a broader movement and then using that understanding to build a legal representation that is going to align with the client’s goals and principles and interests, and possibly, hopefully, the goals and principles and interests of their supporters and comrades.
The other thing I wanted to say was that movement lawyering, even in cases where there aren’t multiple defendants and even when we’re not talking about collective defense necessarily, movement lawyering really does take into consideration other people who might be affected by the outcome of a particular case. That collective perspective considers the short and long-term political consequences of criminal charges and takes into consideration co-defendants’ affiliated groups and broader movement when making decisions about legal strategy.
TFSR: One of these quotes really stood out and I’m gonna read it at length…. The ethical obligation to the greater good by Dennis Cunningham, Esquire. It’s on page 91. “As lawyers, we have it drilled into us that we owe a duty of representation to each client, the rest of the world be damned. If something would make us hesitate before attacking someone else’s interests, our loyalties are said to be divided, and we’re supposed to avoid taking the case or withdraw. But wait, our political clients want and deserve to be represented on a political basis. If a client to whom we owe such unflinching duty demands it, we owe a broader duty to the client’s community or activist group to receive input from and account to their community, show solicitude for the welfare of others in it, act in ways that promote the esprit and effectiveness of the community, and take care not to undermine its values or the goals of the client’s activism. Call it intersectional lawyering, no adversary has ever tried to pierce the attorney-client privilege, because I met in solidarity with fellow plaintiffs, defendants, or legal supporters. My amazing activist clients have always been my teachers and my comrades and helping me hone this practice. And for it, we have all been the wiser, happier, and freer.” I like that quote.
J: I like that one, too. I think I’ve said it already, but one thing that that sidebar that you read from Dennis Cunningham really hones in on and one thing that we try to repeat throughout the book is, again, this paradigm shift from an individual defendant’s best legal outcome to more of a collective perspective that reimagines what it means to provide someone with “the best possible representation.” And within that thinking beyond the best plea deal, the best legal outcome. Yeah, and Dennis really says it well in that quote, thinking through actually, from our perspective, that is what a lawyer should do. And that is the job that they’re ethically obligated to do for their clients. Many movement attorneys do share at least some or many of the principles and goals of their clients. But even when they don’t, I really do feel as though it is the job of any attorney to be able to meet their clients on that place, and be able to provide your clients representation that takes into account co-defendants, takes into account broader social struggles. And that is their job, and that is doing it well.
TFSR: Could you talk a little bit about the introduction of concepts and realities of support committees into this? Because it feels normal for me and for a lot of us, I’m sure, to be like, “Yeah, of course, all your buddies are going to show up to court with you.” What sort of conversation are you hoping will come out of this? What sort of understandings are you trying to bring to lawyers around defense committees? I think it’s really useful that you talk about some of the complications that can come up.
J: In the Defendant’s Guide, we do talk a little bit about defense committees, aka support committees. By that, we mean the folks who show up to provide the political, personal and legal support for defendants as they move through the process. And that can look a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of different names for efforts like this, but all are rooted in community care and support in the face of systemic oppression or state repression. Some examples that come to my mind would be the RNC8, the organizing that was done post J20s, Water Protector Legal Collective, and all the other various support efforts that arose around Standing Rock, various efforts for a wide range of anti-occupation, anti-imperialist freedom fighters over the last several decades. We could refer to a lot of different formations or groups as different support committees, and most referred to them as something along those same lines. Sometimes it’s a formal organization that takes the reins with providing support, but often times, it’s like our buddies or friends, and it’s an informal group of friends, comrades, loved ones, tend to cover a lot of the bases when folks are facing charges.
So in the Defendant’s Guide, we talk about what is a defense committee how to form one, what might it do, what are some areas of tension that might come up? But in Representing Radicals, we really wanted attorneys to view the defense committee, or supporters more broadly, as potential assets for them to do their job well. From the mindset that attorneys and supporters can work together, they have separate goal areas or separate lanes that they’re driving on (to use this sad analogy) but to separate track. But really work collaboratively to provide defendants with a solid way of meeting their political and personal legal goals. Because too often, in my experience of doing anti-repression work, lawyers can view, groups especially, groups of supporters as threatening or feel concerned about attorney-client privilege, feel as though political organizing around a case might detract from the legal representation that they’re wanting to provide, might harm a client case, might do more harm for them, politically and legally, than good. And there are certainly legitimate concerns there sometimes, but we really do think that if we could demystify some of what a defense committee does for attorneys, many of them might hopefully be more inclined to work collaboratively or at least communicate about their boundaries and accept that a support committee might take other actions and that’s okay, so long as it’s okay with the folks who are facing charges. Because ultimately, those are the people who are going to be most impacted by how the lawyer participates and helps the support committee.
TFSR: Similarly, the book talks about the strengths and pitfalls of different kinds of media and breaks down different conceptions. I’m really proud that we could be mentioned among movement media in the book, that just delighted me so much. Can you talk about the things that you touch on and some of the suggested frameworks of approaching media that you makein the book towards lawyers?
J: I want to say that the Defendant’s Guide also talks about media and talks about it more from a perspective of if you and your comrades are wanting to produce media around a case, here’s some ideas for doing and some tensions that have occurred in the past in our experience, here are some awesome folks who are doing media already to reach out to, etc. I think about media as one area where often times, an attorney might bristle at the idea that a defendant, even indirectly through a support committee, might put anything out there about a case before a legal outcome is reached on it. And in Chapter 5 of Representing Radicals, we talk about how media engagement might help or hinder legal goals and some tensions that we’ve encountered in our experience, and also some considerations for attorneys who are advising their clients and their support committees on a media strategy. But the point that we’ve really tried to make is that, ultimately, it’s going to be up to a defendant (and potentially to their supporters) about what gets said to the media or what sort of media is produced. And that’s fine, so long as it’s aligned with a defendant’s legal goal and strategy and that a defendant is aware of and consenting to the impact that certain media might have on the legal case.
In fact, in my own experience, for example, I was involved with the support committee for CeCe McDonald, who is a transwoman in Minneapolis, who survived an attack by a white supremacist man at a bar and was charged with murder after he died. In that particular case, we thought media would be tremendously helpful in shifting the public narrative about CeCe, and also, in my opinion, had a tremendous impact on the legal outcome of that case, she was offered a plea that she felt she could live with, ultimately, and one that was, in terms of legal outcomes, substantially better than, in my opinion, what would have happened, had we not taken a media strategy in that approach, in that particular case.
For attorneys who are advising their clients about media, and many attorneys are going to say, “Don’t say anything at all”. And that is a fine way of approaching media if the client’s goal is to resolve the legal aspect of the case as quickly as possible, with very little fanfare. Engaging with unsympathetic media might not be necessary or effective or desirable, depending on the facts or the circumstances surrounding the case. But, however, like I just said, if the client’s goal is to shift public opinion about the political circumstances surrounding their case or, even more broadly, to shift a public opinion around the political circumstances of the case, so that it may have an impact on the legal outcome of the case, engaging with mainstream media or putting out your own media might be strategically necessary, even if it complicates the legal strategy or make the lawyer add stress to the defense preparation. And so we really want attorneys to understand that there are separate spheres that the support committees and attorneys are operating in. Attorneys don’t have to talk to the media, but other people might and that’s okay, so long as defendants consent to it.
TFSR: It’s cool to hear the experience around CeCe McDonald’s case because she was fighting such an uphill battle with that.
J: For real. And the early media that came out around her case was horrible. And she was facing at first one and then two murder charges in Hennepin County. So I do strongly feel that the political campaign and specifically the media strategy part of it really did directly influence the legal outcome of that case. And then more broadly, influence the community, public narrative around self-defense, around the intersections of anti-Black racism and transmisogyny, and the criminal legal system. I really do feel that media work was very successful in terms of meeting its goals. We were lucky in that case to have a very sympathetic attorney who was not involved in the creation of the media but consented to let the CeCe McDonald Support Committee do what we did.
TFSR: In 2013, one of my co-hosts, William, got to interview Katie Burgess from the Trans Youth Support Network about CeCe’s case. That felt really important for us to be able to participate in that. When you were talking about, before you named CeCe, I was thinking about Luke O’Donovan’s situation in Atlanta where he defended himself against young men who were attempting to queer-bash him. Being around for the court hearing, the actual trial, part of the trial, at least… but just seeing the impact.
Folks in his support committee did a really good job of framing some public narrative around the circumstances. Because I can totally understand a lawyer or legal crew deciding, “We just don’t want to engage, we do want to just keep our heads down, get through this and not become a target for either reactionaries or for the prosecutors. For the prosecutors often times try to frame these narratives around prosecutions anyway, because their literal job is to prosecute, not to resolve a situation towards justice. So if they’re gonna frame a narrative anyway, you might as well try to steer it in a different direction.
J: Totally. And I do think where it gets a little sticky, often it is difficult to talk about the context of a case and the politics of it and the ways that power operates within it, without getting into the facts of the case. And so it makes sense that lawyers would bristle about talking to the media before they’re able to do their job, which is to bring up the facts in court or negotiating a good plea deal based on the facts of the case. But I do think it’s possible. And I also think if someone, especially when we’re talking about situations where the charges might be not very serious, maybe it was a pre-planned mass arrest where folks willingly participated in it and are now facing not-very-serious-consequences, it totally makes sense to talk about the fact. It can, it doesn’t always have to, it could totally make sense to talk about the case publicly before a legal outcome is reached. As long as that fits within the defendants’ broader political and legal goals and strategy.
TFSR:To pop back to the quotes that you interspersed throughout the book, I could see it being pretty useful if a lawyer reads this, and they’re just they’re radical-curious, or if they’re going through law school and they’re trying to find a way to become a movement lawyer. It’s cool to think they suddenly have a list of names, a list of organizations that they can either intern with or contact and reach out and say, “Hey, I read this thing. I’m having these thoughts. Can I bounce some ideas off of you?” There are already organizations, for better or worse, that do varying qualities of jobs from ACLU to the National Lawyers Guild and other groups, other networks. There‘re already networks that include movement lawyers, but it seems like a good tool for networking movement lawyers.
J: Right, we hope so.
TFSR: Are there any topics that I didn’t ask about that you want to share on?
J: Well, I already hit on how this book includes not just our voices, but lots of input from movement lawyers, comrades, and also we wouldn’t have been able to write this book without conversations with other legal support workers who’ve been in it with us over the years. And just like our first book, this book is intended to be an experiment. It’s the wisdom collected from people and their networks for decades and in many of them for far longer than any of us entered the field have been doing this work. We hope that the experiment will help people fight back more effectively and better survive the brutality of the legal system. But we don’t intend it to be a definitive, only way to think about these things, but we do hope that it is useful, and we would love it to be a resource that gets used and built upon all the time.
TFSR: Just out of curiosity, though, the idea for this feels very novel, but obviously there have been periods when the struggle has been heightened, and at least in the US, I can think of certain decades or certain periods of time and movement eras when there has been more activity and more agitation and more arrests, whether it be the late 1800s, during massive labor strikes around the country, or the suffrage movement, or movements to end Jim Crow or the civil rights era, the 1920s communist and anarchist and socialist agitation, the “long 60’s”, obviously, or theClamshell Movement. Are there any other private experiments in this vein that you’ve heard of where radicals with anti-repression experience were trying to formally reach out to change the culture of lawyering, to bring more lawyer comrades into the fold?
J:This is a big on-me, but I can’t remember them. To my knowledge, there have been other publications that are similar to the Defendant’s Guide, but I’m not aware of anything like Representing Radicals that speaks to the way of representing radicals directly. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
TFSR: I didn’t know there was an inspiration where you’re like “Well, this is sixty years old at this point, so not really that applicable, but it is a cool idea”.
J: I would defer to other members of Tilted Scales Collective who are more involved in lawyering.
TFSR: So you are pleading the Fifth?
J: Yeah, I don’t know.
TFSR: How can folks get a hold of the book and keep up on the work of Tilted Scales?
J: The book is available through AK Press, it offers a discount on books sent to prisoners and bulk orders if you contact them about it. We really appreciate that folks from the AK Press and The Institute for Anarchist Studies are putting effort into this book to be more accessible. About the Tilted Scales Collective, you can learn by checking our website, Instagram, and Twitter with the caveat that we are not super active on any electronic platform, mostly because none of us really likes them, but we do try to make it easy to find out resources and we hope it will help people in their struggles. Our website, for example, does have a link to chapter 2 of the Defendant’s Guide, and direct links to other media we produced in the past, as well as templates that may be useful in you getting to work with a lawyer and specifically around navigating collective defense.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation and thanks for all the hard work and amazing stuff that you do.
J: Thank you, it’s really nice to talk with you and we are excited to see how this book impacts our movements more broadly.