Category Archives: Transcribed

Organizing To End Prison Slavery with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun

Organizing To End Prison Slavery with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun

An image with the FAM logo announcing a 30 day boycott of alabama prison labor and spending, with a link to their blogtalk radio show at abolitiontoday.org
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[starts at 00:02:37]

This week, Bursts spoke with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun, co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement and the National Freedom Movement, which is helping coordinate prisoner-led organizing across the so-called US. Bennu just finished a 5 year period in segregated housing for his organizing efforts. For the hour, they talk about the National Network coordination, the continuation of slavery from chattel slavery in which black and brown bodies were private property to the modern slavery of mass incarceration, pandemic behind bars, the importance of platforming prisoners in their struggles, the January Boycott FAM is conducting against prison industries, reform efforts and more.

 

You can learn more and get in touch with Free Alabama movement by visiting their websites at http://FreeAlabamaMovement.Org and https://FreeAlabamaMovement.wordpress.com/, email them at FreeAlabamaMovement@gmail.com and find them on Twitter and Facebook. You can check out some of their radio shows at AbolitionToday.org You can reach the National Freedom Movement via 1NationalFreedomMovement@gmail.com.

Inspirational revolutionaries we wanted to remember at the end of this chat:

  • Bennu describes Richard Mafundi Lake as an “Ancestor, political prisoner and Panther for Life”
  • Bursts mentioned Karen Smith and Rebecca Hensley, who both had memorials written up in the December 2020 SF Bay View Newspaper by comrades.

Sean Swain

Sean Swain’s segment will be at the end from [starts at 01:04:17]

Announcements

[starts at 00:00:00 til 2:37]

Likht’samisyu Village Fundraiser

We’d also like to share a fundraiser being hosted by the Likht’samisyu Clan in so-called Canada for the purpose of expanding their sovereign village construction and to help pay for ongoing maintenance. You can find out more at their GoFundMe.

TFSR Transcription

The Final Straw is beginning to use our Patreon to fund comrades transcribing the episodes. Subscribers to our Patreon for $10 or more a month, will receive an episode a month as a zine in the mail alongside other thank-you’s. For every $120 we raise in donations above $10 we will commit to another monthly episode transcribed up til our goal of $480 in those kinda donations. Transcriptions of our episodes allow for easier searching of content, so our chats will show up in search engines more quickly and completely, it’ll also aid in translation, help folks for whom comprehension in English or audio is difficult and make it easier for abolitionists to send our chats into prisoners for discussion! You can find out more at our Patreon.

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Track used in this episode:

  • La La (instrumental) by Slum Village

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Our conversation with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun of the Free Alabama Movement

TFSR: For the audience. Would you mind introducing yourself

Bennu: My name is Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun, I’m the founder of the Free Alabama Movement. I’m also the founder of a organization we’re putting together now called the National Freedom Movement, where we’re building a coalition of inside-led, inside-based organizations bringing all of those together. And also orchestrated the 2018 Campaign to Redistribute the Pain nationwide, and also laid the groundwork for the 2016 National Freedom Strike, which was the largest strike in US history. And I’m incarcerated in the Alabama Department of Corrections. I’ve been incarcerated for 22 years now and I’m an activist, I’m an organizer, I’m a freedom fighter, abolitionist, whatever is necessary in this fight behind these walls and cages.

TFSR: And could you tell the audience a bit about the Free Alabama Movement, like how it came to be formed, your philosophy, and the methods that you use to struggle—and who participates in it?

Bennu: As I said, Free Alabama Movement was founded inside St. Clair Corrections Facility. I ran across an article in 2012 that I did some research on and it inspired me to come up with solutions to some of these issues we were facing here in the state of Alabama. From that we came with Free Alabama Movement. And it’s a human rights movement. Started out we were civil human rights, we’re moving moreso away from the civil rights aspect and head on with the human rights aspect. We acknowledge that these prisons are slave plantations and that they—their roots trace back over 400 years to the institution of slavery. We are aware that ownership and control of these plantations occurred as a result of the 13th amendment. So the ownership was transferred from private property owners to the state government. And what we know of and called prisons and mass incarceration today are nothing but cover-up for what’s actually going on and it’s a humanitarian crisis. And it is slavery.

Also you asked about our methods and so the methods that we use—because this is an economic enterprise, people call it the prison slavery industrialized complex. So many different names, but at the core it’s an economic system. And so we use economically-based tactics no different from what other laborers use in society. We organize labor, we organize work strikes, we also understand that there are a lot of contractors that are involved such as phone companies, JPay, Access Secure Deposits, incentive package programs, and whatnot. And so we organize boycotts of these companies. Also, there are a lot of industries—private industries—who are getting products and services from this out of prisons. So we organize work strikes in those areas. And so, basically, everything that we’re doing is addressing the economic aspect of it. Because even with private prisons, you see these companies listed on the stock exchange, people are investing in this stuff, people are buying and selling human bodies, human trafficking, and the only way to drive those people away from the table is to dry—is to attack them head-on, point blank, at what brought them to the table. And it’s the profit. And the profit is all centered on the labor and the funding that we spend from the inside. And so that’s how we organize, we organize around that.

We also use protests to build awareness, to show support. We protest at the prisons. A lot of organizations of people like to march in the state capitals and whatnot. But we like to conduct our protests directly at the headquarters of these facilities. For example, the Department of Corrections. We like to protest there. The parole board, we like to protest there. But most importantly, we like to protest at the prison because that’s where the people are. That’s where the suffering is. That’s where the crisis is. That’s where the COVID-19 is killing people. That’s where the drugs, the overdoses are occurring at, this is where the suicides are occurring at, this is where the murders and the police brutality is occurring it. And so this is where the presence has to be. This is where the inside presence is and this is where the outside presence has to show up at to let us know that they support us. And we lead with our own ideas, we lead with our own initiative, and we ask people to support. So that’s how we structure our movement and that’s what the National Freedom Movement that I mentioned earlier is all about. It’s about being inside-led about being inside-based, and it’s about people who are interested in this stuff coming to the table and not so much bringing their own plans and their own agendas, but to bring their resources and skills and apply them to the things that we’re requesting because we don’t have access to a lot of the things that people have in society as far as technology goes. We don’t have the resources simply because of our conditions. And so we actually need to come in to, like, maybe make flyers for us or make posters for us or set of phones or setup—uh, one of the things that we’re asking for from our outside support people is to identify yourself in your state as a certified outside support organization. And what that means is that you set up a phone call, set up a phone line, to accept phone calls, and activities on the inside will share that information all around the state prisons so that when activists are hijack, we don’t have to try to figure out who they want to call, who they want to contact. That designated outside support organization will be right there, the information will be inside the prison, and people will know contact them, call them, and provide whatever resources that we can get staff attorneys and we can get paralegals, people to assist with, you know, the administrative process.

We’re trying to set a structure up that is that is structured from the very beginning around what it takes to assist organizers on the inside. And the reason why that’s important because a lot of people bring stuff to the table that they think is helpful. And a lot of this stuff is not helpful, or is paternalistic. They come and they want to tell us what to do. Well, we’re tired of being told what to do. We’re adults, we’re thinkers, we’re planners, we’re strategists, tacticians, and all of that, too. We just don’t have the resources. And so this is this is our response to that. This is how we’re going to put our structure together on the inside. So if you have an inside organization, and they want to be a part of this and come on and get on board with the National Freedom Movement.

TFSR: Can you say how widespread the National Freedom Movement is? Like, I know that in—the first time that you and I had a conversation years ago, there was representation in the chat also from Mississippi. I know that folks like Imam Hassan in Ohio was a part of the Ohio movement, I’ve heard about it in Illinois. Where is representation right now or—I don’t know how much you can talk about with that for safety’s sake.

Bennu: Okay. Yes, I can talk about it. We want to talk about, we want people to know. As you know, when we started out in 2014, we were just stateside our organization. But the support that we received, the attention we received, was from around the world. The majority of it was in the United States. And so when we received all that support, we started building relationships with people. This is what allowed us to lay the groundwork for even creating the thought about a national structure of bringing people together. So in 2015 I developed something called the six step—the Free Alabama Movement Six Step Plan of Action. And it laid out what organizers could do in their state to do the same thing that we’re doing. Still didn’t know that it was going to turn into what it turned into, but it evolved, it got better, more people got involved. And the next thing you know, we had—we were connected with prisons all around the country. And that allowed us to have the historic 45th anniversary of September 9 Attica rebellion national prison strike.

And the thing about that was, even though we had that network and connections, it was not built as an organization. We just had very loose networks of people and we had asked our organizers—they brought their networks and their organizations, but they didn’t help us build our own. And so when they left and things broke down, they took everything that they had with them. And they even took resources with them. They took, you know, our sacrifices, you know what I’m saying. They capitalize off of it. And so what I started doing in 2017 when I started writing out the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain which was a national bi-monthly boycott campaign throughout the entire year 2018. In a November 30 article that I wrote that was published by San Francisco Bay View, I started laying out what the framework of a national structure needed to be, what it should look like. And I put that in that article and guys from the inside, my brother Kwame Shakur, he reached out, a few more people reached out, few more organizations reached out and, you know, they liked the idea of us doing that.

And so I ended up getting sent to the SHU in Alabama. So that kind of disrupted my ability to continue to do that, because I was limited in what I could do, but I was able to do the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain. I was able to get the message out, I just will not be able to organize it the way I needed to. So now that I finally gotten out of seg after a little over five years, get my feet back on the ground, started by talking to people, now we’re putting the actual infrastructure in place.

We’re in contact with Conrad Lee down in California, we’re in contact with the United Black Family Scholarship Foundation, Ivan Kilgore, we’re in contact with other activists and organizers on the inside from as far away as California. We’re in the Midwest, we have organizations up in Ohio, Indiana, activists in Michigan. We basically have the south of South Carolina—we have South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. And these are all confirmed. People who have been consistently coming our meetings. We’re having people showing up from Pennsylvania now, we’re getting calls out of New York. We have our conference calls every week. And people are just, they’re coming on board, you know what I’m saying. But the main thing is that when we bring people on board, we’re emphasizing to them that this is going to be an inside-based and inside-led organization. And we have a specific way that we want to structure. We have specific issues that we want to address.

And the reason why we’re doing it like that is because some states have different issues. Every state doesn’t have the same issue. But there are certain core issues that every state has. And the national structure will be responsible for directing the movement on these core issues that we all share in common. But the thing that—the glue that brings it all together, is that message. If you have a parole issue, if you have a post condition issue, if you have a sanity issue, or visual affinity issue, mandatory minimum issue, we don’t care what your issue is. Only thing we want to do is we want to bring all of the organizations together at the same time. Like, you may see a protest in California, a couple of weeks later you’ll see one in Kansas, a couple of weeks later, you’ll see one in Texas. Well we want all of those protests will be going on at one time to elevate the issues nationwide.

That’s how we elevate the issues nationwide, we have to coordinate the actions nationwide. And we have four core principles and methods that we use. We use work strikes, boycotts, protests, and like I said, social media campaigns. We use social media. We have YouTube channels, we have Twitter, we have Instagram, Facebook, TikTok. We’re building across all of these platforms because this is how people communicate. And so the National Freedom Movement, we use these four methods to address whatever issues that our coalition members come to the table with. We have some issues that will be on a national scale, other issues that will be on the local scale, For example, this coming up April the 3rd, there was a call out of Georgia by an organizer. He’s on Facebook by the name of Peace Justice—1 Million Men and Women Parole Rally. Well, when I saw that, I know that we have parole issues in Alabama too. There’s parole issues in Ohio, which is one of our main organizers. They’re Ensuring Parole for Incarcerated Citizens—the EPIC organization—they’ve been working on doing that. And so parole is an issue around the country. It’s different, but the fundamental issue is that the parole boards have discretion around the nation, and that they’re using their discretion to keep these prisons full for economic interest.

And so it is in our interest to support that, but not just recorded in words, but to support an action. And so this gave me the opportunity to actually bring this National Freedom Movement structure together around an issue, because you don’t want to just be calling people together telling them, “Hey. we’re trying to put a National Freedom Movement coalition together.” We need thousands of people to show up, because there’s no responsibility being placed on anyone. There’s no duty, there is no obligation, everybody likes to show up and talk. But when you have this issue sitting on the table, this parole issue, and I put it to the members, out it to the people we have the networking with, Like I said, the response has been great. People have been coming in, and we’re letting them know that we’re here—we’re here to build an organization, a coalition, not just to address the role, but to address all of our issues. It’s just that this parole action right now gives us the opportunity to organize around, to bring people to the table, to address that component of this system right now as we continue to build a coalition to address a few more wide-ranging issues.

I know on my last call we had to have at least, you know, twelve, fifteen states on. I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but it’s recorded. People can go on and look for themselves. We have multiple organizers inside and outside of California, multiple organizers outside in the state of Texas, multiple organized inside and out Mississippi, Alabama, our Florida representatives is an outside representative. We’re trying to build up his support base on the inside. South Carolina with representatived, they probably had the most people on the last call—the most from the inside. And now. We also have Ohio organizers on the call.

So just so many people were involved, and more people are getting involved. People come in that, you know, cuz it’s a open session. We’re not trying to be exclusive. We don’t have anything to hide, we’re very transparent. We’re building a media list yo get this information out. We’re trying to build a contact list to build awareness. And we’re just trying to build this thing. But the thing is, we want it to be live from the inside and we have particular duties or responsibilities that we need outside organizations to carry out and we orientate them to that, and we allow them the opportunity to answer, “Do they want to do that?” And a lot of them answered the call. And they’re here.

TFSR: Because I was looking to ask about some specific Alabama questions, but since you’re talking about the national framework and involvement inside and outside, I’ll just ask this last question first. How do people in their various states, whether they’re behind bars or on the outside of bars, whatever that means, like how do folks get in contact with the National Freedom Movement, or with Free Alabama Movement, or figure out if they’re already people doing stuff in their state or how they can get involved? And how do they become a part of those conversations?

BennuOkay, the number one, 1nationalfreedommovement@gmail.com, that is our email address. We’re in the process of getting our website put together, that additional resource will be there. It’ll be available—I think it may already be available, it’s just not all of our information. But that is a freelabamamovement.org, www.freealamabamovement.org. The contact information for Free Alabama Movement right now is freealabamamovement@gmail.com. What people have to understand is that we have very limited access to that technology. And with limited access to technology, we have limited knowledge about technology and what all we can use. And so right now we have a limited means for people to contact us. They can contact Free Alabama Movement on basically any platform. But as far as the National Freedom Movement, it’s something we’re just putting together, we’re getting people to come to the table, we’re having a Zoom call every Saturday. We have organization We Pray for Justice, they’ve come and volunteered to sponsor our Zoom call so they come on, they conduct our Zoom calls, they share our documents, they put our organizing agenda on there, our plans.

Like I said, we’ve got a couple of a Google Sheets put together, we’re building all of that. We’re just now in the early phases of actually building this infrastructure but we had a lot of people to come and we’re receiving a lot of support. And we’re more than pleased with where we are and what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far but we need more people.

But, like I said, when you come, you need to understand what you’re coming for. This is not for you to come and tell people what to do. This is not for me to come and you think it should be this, this, this, and this. This is for you to come to offer suggestions, ideas, but the final decision on whatever is going to be done in your state is going to be made by someone on the inside, as far as the National Freedom Movement goes. And whether or not your organization can be recognized as an official outside support organization will be determined by people on the inside. you know. And so that’s the thing that’s new, I think, that people are going to have to get used to and prepare themselves for because a lot of people, whether they know it or not consciously or subconsciously, they don’t give people on the inside credit for our ability to think either. You know, when they come to the table they think, you know, well we will do this, this is what ya’ll need to do, or this—but the outside ideas have not advanced the call, it has been the inside ideas, it has been the inside work strike, the inside boycott, the inside protesting demonstrations, it has been the inside filming from phones and taking risks and absorbing the punishment that comes with it that has pushed this movement forward. And we feel like that there can be no legitimate movement that does not include people on the inside. And that means in all areas.

We have to be at the table in all areas. And we have issues with that or we have problems—no problem, we’ll create our own table. And we’re going to drive this movement. We’re going to be a part of—this concept of people talking about, “We are their voices,” or “We’re the voice for the voiceless.” All of that is very disrespectful. We have a voice. We have a voice. What we don’t have is people like you, Bursts, and others who are willing to extend their platforms to our voice. Instead, they want to go in there and do the talking for us: call, ask a few questions, and then come and put their spin or their narrative on it. Well, we’re not going for that. We’re going to build our own network, we’re going to build our own media, we’re going to be aligning ourselves with people like Bursts and others who understand the importance and value of our voices being heard and that’s how we’re going to build our network.

We don’t care that the mainstream media doesn’t need this that and the other—no problem. We can create a—we can be just as powerful as the mainstream media if we organize. And that’s what we’re doing, we’re organizing that also as a component of this National Freedom Movement structure. So we’re not dependent on anyone doing it for us. We got YouTube channels, we can publish, we have Zoom, we can do all of that. The live yard, we can do the stream yard. Whatever it is, we just need people to bring those resources to us, let us know what’s available. We’ll let you know what we want to use and we’ll let you know how we want to get it out there, and then we just expand that to us. And that’s how we want to build this National Freedom Movement.

TFSR: Can you talk about the current protests and boycott that Free Alabama Movement is conducting?

Bennu Right, the boycott is a continuation of the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain and what we’ve been doing overall as a whole, as an organization, since 2017. Anyone who wants to learn about the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain, go on the San Francisco Bayview website put in my name the Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun for the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain and you’ll see all those articles.

And like I said, there are two—there are two sides to this economics. The the first foremost is the labor. And after the labor is these contractors, these phone companies, these incentive packages, these people that sell all of the stuff that the canteen goods and stuff. So all—both of these together is where these operating budgets come from, this is where the profits come from. And so this campaign right now, this 30 day economic boycott that was called for by Kinetic Justice Amon, that’s what’s going on now. But more so than that people need to understand: this is a call to action. It is not to say that everything—that everyone has to be involved on the first day. You may join as you learn about it, as you get more information, you may want to join some point later on during these 30 days. You may want to do something different, but you have to attack this stuff at the core, and that’s how we’re different. These are the only actions that we feel like that can make an impact for those of us on the inside. And so when you see us make a call like this, remember, you can contact our family members, they can contact legislator, they can go and get bills passed, they can go and get phones. But while—we can be a part of that. But what can we do in addition on the inside? Because the issue boils down to, “Are you doing everything that you can to get free?” And the answer to that question includes, “Are you working for free? Are you providing free slave labor? Are you providing resources to the state to pay for your incarceration?” And if you’re not addressing all of those things, the answer to that question of are you doing everything? The question is no, because you may be filing all your petitioners stuff, and that’s great. But that’s not the only thing that we can do.

And so we’ve broken this thing down and figured out what can we do on the inside so that when are people go and to talk to legislators, they go and negotiate from a strength of power, and not from a strength or weakness. And the power that we have to empower our people with this is labor because the Prison Legal News did an article, I think was in 2016, and it shows the institutional investors in these power prisons. The top—the top ten institutional investors includes an employee’s retirement system mutual fund here in the state of Alabama. And that system is made up of the judges retirement system, the state employees retirement system, and the teachers retirement system. So these are people who all have an economic interest in this system. These people live to finance their retirement systems off of these prisons. We’ve also got a list of the contractors around the state, state agencies that are going in, contracting out, convict leasing, hiring slaves out from the prison system to come and do a lot of labor, and they’re getting paid market value for, but the people performing the labor are getting either nothing or $2 a day or whatever it is that they’re putting out. And so the only way that we can attack all of that is we got to stop that labor, we got to stop that money stream that money flow coming in. And this is what our role is in this movement. This is our role: is not writing articles and op-eds. That’s part of our role, but everything that we do has to be centered around the economics because when you remove the economic from this system, you destroy about 80% of it.

People talk about wrongful convictions, over sentencing, the mandatory minimum drug laws, and enhancers, all of that is—those are monetary. Those are like rules or laws for people to make sure that their business and profits are more long-term and not short-term. And so when you attack the labor, what makes those laws profitable, then you start clearing out the system, because they cannot afford to keep these system running if they’re not making money off of them. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to cut—we’re trying to set off a money. We’re trying to defund from the inside through direct action until the legislators and others and the administrators figure out that they’re not going to be making money off of this stuff forever. We goin’ stop that. And this is how we do that.

And when we do that, our people go and talk to people, whoever they need to talk to, they sit down at the table with them and they’re not sitting there just begging. It’s not a one-sided conversation. The person is sitting across from them, that state employee, their retirement is in control—is being controlled by that person, our family members that sitting on the other side of that table. So everyone has an interest in those conversations. And this is how we’re trying to empower pour people to increase their standing when they’re sitting at the table, negotiating.

TFSR: I guess to bring it back, like—and not to say that the federal government does right, but sometimes it investigates—it’s forced to investigate in situations where it is pressured to. The ADOC, the Alabama Department of Corrections,nas well as like Louisiana and a bunch of other states, have been under pressure from the federal government for a number of years due to findings of overcrowding, due to terrible sanitation issues, brutality within the prisons, not being releg—like regulated or, you know just for all of these issues. The fact that they’re failing, they’re failing in the “corrections” element of what they’re proposing that they’re providing.

And so because of this the ADOC was supposed to be releasing—they decided to release thousands of prisoners starting in October of this year. And yet the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in July of this year that hundreds of people were being denied parole amongst the, like while the pandemic is going on. And that in this, white prisoners were at least twice as likely to be paroled as Black prisoners. In September, Governor Kay Ivey and the ADOC announced that they were going to be building three more prisons, partnering with private prison industries, including Core Civic and a conglomerate called Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. Where do you see Alabama on the promise to decrease the prison population and their motivations?

Bennu: Right. Well, first thing, first thing we have to remember is that the state of Alabama has been a slaveholder state since it has been in existence. And so even though they’re using the words “new prisons,” they know they’re building new plantations. As far as the federal government, the federal government, has been involved with Alabama prisons since 1865 when the 13th amendment was ratified, and it said that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for crimes shall exist. With that, that made the criminal justice system the place where you’re convicted for crime and the slave and involuntary servitude aspect was carried out in the institutions that were created by the 13th Amendment, which were the prisons.

Now, when you talk about the conditions and whatnot, then you’re talking about the actual practice of slavery. In order for the institution of slavery to go on, you can’t house people in five star hotels and split level mansions and stuff. You have the most deplorable and inhumane conditions because this is the least amount of investment. So everything that we’re seeing here is consistent with the historical practice of the institution of slavery.

Also on the federal government side, the federal government—the Constitution of the United States, is the Federal Constitution. So the federal government has been involved with Alabama prisons since their existence and not once have they stopped the institution of slavery or the slave practices that go on. They always found these prisons to be in violation of the 8th Amendment. In the 1870s they found it as such. The solution, they made Alabama build more prisons. In the 1920s and 30s they found these prisons to be below a human standard. They made Alabama build new prisons. In the 1970s the federal government found these slave-like conditions—plantation slave-like conditions—in federal court. They took the took the prison system over, put it in receivership, made Alabama build new prisons. Every time the federal government gets involved, even a result from that aspect is the same: Alabama ends up building new prisons, everything’s hunky dory, problem solved.

Now, these most recent reports have gone to more simply because of the era and the time that we live in and the magnitude of the microscope that’s on the Alabama prison system. The reason why people are familiar with the Alabama prison system is because of the sacrifices we made with Free Alabama Movement beginning in 2014. Prior to that we very rarely heard anything about the Alabama prison system. Since that time, the Alabama prison system has been the most talked about, has been in the news more than any other prison system in the country. And that’s because we exposed the conditions, the lies, the everything, through our through our methods.

And so, being a Black person in America, the federal government left during reconstruction. The federal government left us during the civil rights era. The federal government has been responsible for the assassinations of our leaders through the COINTELPRO, the Black Power movement, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton Jr., and just recently, the federal government is declining to prosecute these slave catchers, these police officers. They’re not—they just recently announced that they’re not going to do anything about the Tamir Rice assassination. So the federal government has never shown itself to be a friend of the African American people, the brown people, the poor class of white piece of. The federal government is not a friend in this situation. The federal government is part of working hand-in-hand with the state government to create a solution that will become acceptable to the people, but it’s not going to be to solve the problem.

So we don’t see anything. I mean, you think about it. In 2014, the federal government came out with a report to say that the women of Tutwiler were being sexually abused for over 20 years. They didn’t arrest anyone. No one lost their jobs. No one was held accountable. You know what I’m saying? We just saw another report in another state prison system. The federal government has came out with another one of those reports. They’ve came out with two or three reports in the state of Alabama. Murders, cover ups, abusive process, violating oaths, no one is being arrested and held accountable. So there’s nothing about the federal government that we stand here and say, “Our savior has arrived.”

That’s the reason why we continued on with our organize. We got to save ourselves. If you a Black person and you don’t know about COINTELPRO, you don’t know about the things that the federal government has done, you don’t know about the experiments, the genocidal of the federal government has done, if you don’t know about reconstruction and how the federal government left us to be assassinated and slaughtered by the KKK, if you don’t know how J. Edgar Hoover use the federal government tax dollars to carry out a domestic war against Black people rising up from this oppression and you need to do yourself a favor and do research. But you don’t have to go back to the 70s.

You can look at the actions of the federal government, of these police murders, and look at the federal government, their prison system, these laws that Joe Biden and them, these are federal law. These are federal laws. So the federal government is doing the same thing. You know what I’m saying? So these are not, these are not—they’re not here to say today. Unfortunately, they’re here to save America, and the perception of America that’s being put out there as a result of the actions that we’re taken on the inside.

TFSR: I’m wondering, what kind of response do you and—well I know you can’t necessarily speak for other people and I don’t know if FAM has put out like a statement or the national movement—but what sort of response do you have to the proposal by Democrats in the House of, like, a sort of abolition amendment to the constitution that was proposed in early December by Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative William Lacy Clay of Missouri to—that would basically take the loophole—take the punishment clause out of the 13th amendment’s language and fully abolish slavery. Do you think that there’s—do you have, are you kind of hopeful about that? Do you think there’s a possibility?

Bennu: It’s a great start. It’s a great conversation piece. It’s an important piece but remember, they’re only talking about changing the language. But as I pointed out a few minutes ago, when the 13th amendment was ratified, it wasn’t just language that was added on to the books. When the language was added, institutions were built, Department of Corrections came into existence as a result of this language. And then there are practices that were put in place, the Convict Leasing system of the of the 19th and early 20th century came into existence because of this law. The stuff that we see with these district attorneys and the judges and the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”, Prison Litigation format, Mandatory Minimums… All of these laws were put in place because of what they were doing as a result of the 13th ammendment. So simply changing the language of the 13th amendment is one thing. What about the institutions that were built because of it? They’re not talking about taking these institutions down which are the prisons and the practices.

Okay. The fact that the language is removed, how does that translate immediately? We saw the language change in Colorado, we saw a change in Utah, we saw a change in Nebraska. But what has changed about the practice, and what has been the change as far as the institutions? We haven’t saw many. We see the guys in Colorado who have filed lawsuits now, which is great, we have to get behind that. But it’s more than just changing language because the language had a practical effect on this country. It caused the prison system that we know today to be built and it caused a certain type of practice where the labor was being exploited and these people created a monopoly over every dime that we get, they control it at 100%. And so all of that has to change with it. And that’s the thing that we emphasizing in the movement. It’s great to see the language but the language is only a start. Is not the end game and we’re not going to be fooled or deceived.

TFSR: So switching gears slightly, let’s talk about the looming pandemic that all of us are experiencing. How have you experienced the pandemic in the Alabama prison system, at your facility in particular. Did the ADOC release prisoners with upcoming release dates or health concerns such as old age or pre-existing conditions who might be especially endangered by the pandemic? I know that was a claim and a—not only the, like, elements of the federal government brought lawsuits against BOP facilities for that, but I know, state by state, certain states made the claim that they would do this thing in order to respect the dignity and the possibility of human life of people that they were putting in cages.

Bennu: Well, you don’t go from a slave owner to a humanitarian and lover of human beings overnight. This pandemic in and of itself, it gave them an opportunity to be confronted with the issues that they had created as a result of what we call, you know, mass concentrating, over incarcerating, and all of that stuff. And they did not address that. The fact that they may’ve released a few people is good PR. But it’s not, it’s not good for human life. So whatever their claim, how many people that claim, we haven’t saw any of it yet.

Like I said, the slaves—the southern state did not free their slaves. They went to war and when the war was over with the only thing they agreed to was to transfer ownership of it over to the government or to nationalize is, as we say. But today, these promises about releasing people, and—it has not been a reality.

You know, if you go back and look at that conversation about the early release, there was a law on the books in Alabama that called for mandatory parole release of people who were sentenced since 2016. They had not been complying. There was no paperwork explaining it, no one knew how it was implemented, you just had a bunch of people talking about it. And so we started talking about it, because I met a guy named ‘Frog’ at Limestone, he brought it to my attention. And when I got to visit this institution, I started researching it. And I found out that this is a law that entitles people go free and the state of Alamaba is not complying with. And so we started talking about it and I started doing a blog on it, started doing radio show talking about it. And then when the pandemic hit, we did a press statement and we mentioned that again. And that was the first time that we received a response from the state. And then they say it’s supposed to be done to Central Records with a process for. So that wasn’t a result of the pandemic, that was a result of activism form us on the inside.

To our knowledge they had not taken any action will save any lives on the inside. And we’re seeing people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties die every day inside these prisons who shouldn’t be shouldn’t be home.

TFSR: Now, I don’t want this question to make it sound like I have any love for guards. But it seems like, state by state, at least with folks that I’ve talked to in Ohio in particular, more recently, that—and I know that this has been the case in the past in Alabama where there’s been, like, just broiling conflict between the workers in these facilities and the administration’s that are wanting to cut back on staffing, cut back on, you know, health concerns, cut back on things that would increase the safety for guards when they’re in there doing whatever job they’re doing. And I would imagine that it’s been a similar situation for the staff of the prisons during this pandemic, that they’ve also been thrown under the bus by the administration because it’s still about money. And they’re just cogs in the machine. Is that an okay way of looking at it? And has that grabbed any traction?

Bennu: Yeah, I mean, these people, they’re human beings. They got jobs, they got families, they’re not trying to take COVID home to kill anybody in their family. But the fact of he matter is, in order for them to make a living and to afford the lifestyle that they’ve been able to afford with the skills that they have—you know, they don’t recruit correctional officers from Harvard, or Yale, or Moorehouse. They recruit these people out of margins of society with, you know, limited education.

These people come here and they’re told that, you know, you want your debt—credit paid up, you want to get afford to get hair done, you want to get you a house and a car. This job will provide a middle class lifestyle for you with a GED, that’s the only thing that’s required is a GED. So they take the job, benefits, paid holiday, off time and everything. And then when they get inside, they don’t really have to do a lot of work. So from their perspective this is a good financial offer for them. And so we understand what brings them here.

And then for the Black officers, you know, there’s only a limited amount of jobs already available to Black people, and it’s very few of them that is going to allow them to have the lifestyle that they have with the education and socio economic background that they come from. So we not oblivious to all of it.

Be that as it may, when they come inside these places, they know what’s wrong, they see what’s wrong. And they’re not sophisticated enough to even understand the danger to themselves. No one will be walking on. Anyone reasonable, sensible person will not be coming up in here. Like, you know, but it is what it is.

I mean, we’re here, they’re here we’re all in this shit together to a degree. You know, we’re not on the same side of the fence. But hell, if COVID comes they bringing the shit in and we’re getting it and the state ain’t checking us or checking them, then we just transferring it back and forth to each other. So I mean, it’s just, it’s overwhelming. It really is. It’s overwhelming to see that… people!

You know—and we have to have that conversation. We have to educate and enlighten. But all of us are stuck in the damn fishbowl and the people who are making the shots, calling the shots and making the decisions, they’re in downtown Montgomery, they’re in the state capitals or they’re in Washington, DC. They’re insulated and far removed from this shit. And they have enough money to saved up, they wealthy enough that they can take the time off, they can secure themselves.

And so, you know, this pandemic, the way that is being managed, the lack of investment, the lack of legitimate resources, PPE and whatnot, the lack of bleach, the lack of cleaning supplies, the overcrowding, the inability to social distance, is just—it’s a slaughter, you know. It’s a human slaughter, it’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s very underreported, it’s under appreciated. People don’t really understand what we’re up against here, how many people are dying, how many people to sick. I’m pretty sure I had contracted COVID seen it in real time.

And people talking about the pandemic, like, before the COVID-19 pandemic there was already several epidemics. Alabama prisons became the most violent prisons in the nation. The murder rate leads the nation, the suicide rate is one of the leading in the nation, the drug overdose rate, one of the leading in the nation. You know, the malnutrition over a long period of time, with the body causing people to die early, you know what I’m saying? Our mortality rate is like seven or eight years younger than the average person in society just from being in prison. Some people die a lot sooner because of the inadequate health care. We see mental health people who don’t even have the faculty to protect themselves and COVID or anyone else.

And the drugs. See, people are overlooking the drugs in this epidemic. When you have a drug addiction with these drugs that they have today—this Flaka, this Ice, these mind-altering drugs—when you have that, and you have people when they wake up in the morning and they done sold everything they got, they done sold they bodies, they’re prostituting themselves out, they’re doing it—they’re willing to do anything for a high. These people don’t have masks. If they get a brand new mask they gone sell it because they gone sell it to get high. And so now you have this going on in the midst of a pandemic, that’s going to continue to keep the pandemic in circulation. And the drugs? The drugs in and of themselves is already killing people. So we have a drug pandemic going on, we have a violence issue pandemic going on, we have suicide issue epidemic going on, and then you gonna add a pandemic on top of that with a virus that for what we got going on inside the prisons, the way that we’re forced to live, the culture that we’re forced to live in—I mean, there’s nothing else that could—you either gonna—only two things can be done. You can release us and take us out of this hell, or you could stand back and watch us die and they chose the last version. They standing back and watching us die.

TFSR: On the day after Christmas, there was an uprising at McCormick CI in South Carolina that led to some attempted escapes and the taking and eventual release of unharmed guards by the prisoners. It’s a different state. You did mention that South Carolina folks are organizing in this and I was wondering if you had any comments about what you heard about the circumstances of people incarcerated at McCormick, the deprivation caused by the prison cracks. Like, that’s a facility that I know, like, in the lead up to 2018 there had been a situation where the windows had been bolted over with steel plates denying sunlight to people on the inside. People were in a lockback situation. I believe South Carolina like a lot of other states, particularly around the US South, the former slave-holding states—although not limited to that—have to like experience gladiator fights that are coordinated by the guards that are standing over them who bet money on who’s going to survive them. I wonder if you can talk about what you’ve heard about McCormick?

Bennu: Well, we haven’t really got a lot as far as the detail go. We know that those guys are being subject to relentless cell searches, security searches, they’re trying to get their phones out because they don’t want those guys to get the story out. That’s the emphasis that the state has. But when you see something like that, you know, you’re witnessing human survival. These guys are doing what they have to do to survive. You can call it an escape all you want to, but the fact is, if you’re in an environment where you’re threatened with death and the people who have responsibility to protect you are the ones who are also threatened, then you gotta do something to get out, you know what I’m saying? And the fact that they chose that route means that they didn’t see any other way to survive. Because, you know, how we frame it to talk about it, our survival is this thing, and we’re not going to survive the COVID-19 unless something groundbreaking and monumental occurs and people gonna have to be released from these.

A lot of these prisons are gonna have to be closed down. If that doesn’t happen, a lot of people on a die. And whatever anyone does to escape that death, you know, I’m all for, you know what I’m saying? I understand it, I know it when I see it. And those guys are trying to escape death, you know what I’m saying, they’re not trying to escape prison, they’re trying to escape death. And that was what they did, you know, allegedly. And so if that be the case, you know what I’m saying, we can’t blame them and we support them, you know what I’m saying? We don’t blame them, we don’t criticize them, we don’t have anything negative to say about what they’ve done. We support them because everyone has the right to live and the state is taking that away inside these prisons. They’re saying that we don’t even have a right to live, they can create an environment where we can be—our lives can be in jeopardy and it’s okay. You know what I’m saying? They’ve got to release—they’ve got to, they’ve got to alleviate the crowding in these prisons, and if they don’t want to do it for us, then we have to take action to do it for ourselves.

TFSR: I’d be interested in your experience of the uprisings that this year in response to the ongoing killing of Black, brown, and poor people by police, sparked by the broadcast of the murder of George Floyd and by the Minneapolis police, and the resulting swell in calls for defunding and abolition of policing, as well as of prisons. The abolitionist movement in the US recognizes—most of it recognizes police and prisons as an anti-Black settler state—like, in that situation—as being two arms of the same beast.

Bennu: It’s very important, like, I wrote about that in my book and what that means to people because we always want people to understand that these people who are being murdered by the police, over 95, 98% of them, the police are there to bring them to a prison. Breonna Taylor, they was trying to take somebody.

Bennu: George Floyd, they was trying to take him to prison. Sandra Bland, they’re trying to take her to prison. Mike Brown, they were trying to take him to prison. And if you survived the bullet in the streets, then you get inside these prisons and you ain’t surviving that, you know what I’m saying? But all of it is interconnected, it’s all part of the same system. That’s the reason the police are involved. Everyone in prison, the police were involved. So people have to remember, there’s a lot of people in prison who survived those gunshots.

And they survived them at a time and in the climate where you couldn’t get the charges dropped like Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend. A lot of these guys had to carry those charges on through. Think about the charges that Mike Brown would have been facing had he survived: resisting arrest, assault on officer, aggravated assault, whatever the store clerk would have been caller. He would have all those charges. He would’ve had an outrageous bond, so there’s the bail bonding issue. He would’ve ended up having to plead guilty, there’s the plea issue again. And then he would have been sentenced as a violent offender, there’s the violent label again. He wouldn’t have been made parole, there’s that issue again. All of it’s interconnected. All of it’s interconnected. And some of it—some people’s end came on the street, some people’s end are want to be inside of a prison as a result of the rest of the dragnet that they got set up. So it’s all connected now.

Seeing people rise up like that, you know, we see so many things on the news. We here so many things. We don’t really know what’s going on. I can’t—I can speak for myself, I’m not gonna try to—I don’t know what it was going on. I saw all the people out there. I saw them worldwide. I saw them demanding stuff, but the type of changes that I want to see, I didn’t hear them. I didn’t hear the call for Reparations, I hear people saying like, you know, a lot of white people integrated into it, there’s a lot of anarchists… You know, I don’t know what all this stuff looks like, I just hear these names and see all these faces for probation and parole officers get burned up, so. I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know what inspires them to do this. So I really don’t know what I’m seeing, because we hear so many different things like they say that people will come in these situations occur and be behind the scenes hijacking, you know, and all we got into World News and the internet, you know. We don’t really know what all of that was all about, what caused all of that. What we do know is that the manner that George Floyd was killed was gut-wrenching that these people can sit there, in hindsight, and understand just how brutal and barbaric that was.

And I think that that’s one of the things—I don’t know if that’s the main thing, you know, human psychology, the way that we all connected, I don’t know. But I imagine that just sitting there watching this man having the life snuffed out of him live by a callous, unconcerned police officer who’s doing everything by the book, you know, everything that they were doing was by the book. And this tells you what the book looks like, you know, and that same training from the book that they got is the same training that these officers got in these prisons. And so I mean, it’s just, we connected on a lot of levels but like I said, we connected with the experience that George Floyd went through. I can’t speak for other guys’ experience, I don’t know what they were involved in. I was not conscious, before I got incarcerated, so I was not out in—hadn’t been to no protest. I was locked up when the Million Man Movement occurred and so I have not been a part of any of this stuff. So I’m still an observer and I’m still learning, you know, but I can just speak to my experiences as a Black person and identify with what happened to George Floyd on that day. And I know that there are numerous times where they could have killed me, you know? So. But it was good to see that people cared about that all around the world, that people were paying attention to that all around the world. I don’t know what their narratives were or none of that stuff. But just the fact that that many people paid attention to the murder of another black man, that was good.

But on the flip side, on the inside, you know, these are moments that we are constantly allowing ourselves to be left out of. That’s why I’m talking about building this national coalition led from the inside so we can be connected so when things like this happen, we can we can get involved, you know what I’m saying? We can get involved in a lot of this stuff. When people go out into the street marching, protesting, we can get connected and build a proper coalition.

The second part of your question about defunding police and all of that and all of this stuff as being connected, the abolitionist movement, you know, again, you know, this is stuff that we are getting snippets, snippets of. We want to defund prisons, we want to defund the parole board, we want to defund all of this stuff. But we got some stuff we want to defund too, you know. So I mean, but the thing is, everybody needs to be working together. Everyone who sees and understands that all of these systems are interconnected, we all need to be working together. The hunger strikers—I saw a report that one of the hunger strikers in Alabama was retaliated against, was jumped on by police. And, you know, there’s still. There’s something going on in Alabama, but the things that he just suffered that they beat him for, are going on all around the United States.

So why aren’t we all on conference calls? Or why don’t we all in some type of regional calls talking about this and the other things that are going on? Ice detention facility in New Jersey, the fires being said throughout the Texas prison system. You know, why aren’t we on the phone talking about these things and trying to figure out what is it that we all need to be doing collectively, instead of state by state, you know what I’m saying? Sporadic by sporadic. We got to turn up a whole lot more in order for our problems to go away. So that’s the focus me man. To defund things are great, you know, if the people are talking about in society, but I’m more concerned with what guys on the inside of talking about. We need to make sure that our voices are being heard, the issues that we have. We’re vocalizing those, and that we have a plan of action with methods and tactics, strategies that we can use from the inside. And that’s what’s up with us.

TFSR: Bennu, was there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to address on this episode?

Bennu: I can’t think of anything. Just wondered—I know we have personal conversations and then we have these conversations, just make sure that the personal conversations are separated out from this.

TFSR: Absolutely.

Bennu: And I guess you can delete them or whatever you do. I just want to make sure that there’s nothing like that. And other than that, no, I don’t. What about you? What—is there anything else you want to ask? Are there other things going on that you think I might be—need to know about?

TFSR: Nobody ever asked me questions when I’m the microphone talking to them. This is an awkward position to be in. Oh, hold on one second, will you?

Bennu: Okay. [chuckling]

TFSR: So I haven’t I haven’t asked anyone about this specifically, and we haven’t said a thing on our show about it. But anti-prison activists, activists for liberation, abolitionists—on the inside, especially—are always in danger of dying or do die. And they don’t necessarily get a lot of recognition from the outside. I want to, like, go into this question recognizing that. But there were a couple of activists in Florida recently who passed. Karen Smith and Rebecca Hensley. There were outside activists who had a lot of connections to a lot of folks behind bars and we’re known in their communities for not just advocating but also, like, amplifying the voices of folks on the inside. And I wonder if you want to say anything about either of them, if you had a relationship with them, or since a year did pass, if you want to name anyone?

Bennu: Okay, well always, you know, we like to uplift Richard Mafundi Lake, he’s joined the ancestors also. And he’s the one that’s helped most of us. Taught us conscious. Taught us, you know, taught us struggle, he taught us revolution, you know? He revolutionized our mind. He broke us away from the stuff that was destroying the community and taught us how to be it.

I knew of Karen, I didn’t—I don’t think I’ve had a personal relationship with her. You know, so many mail, I don’t know if I’ve ever recieved mail or anything from her. But Rebecca, I do know Rebecca. We talked several times. She sent me the book, Albert Woodfox’s book. I got it right here with me now. So we talked and communicated with some of—she told me a lot about what she was doing in Louisiana with the guys in the Louisiana prison system and stuff.

And so yeah, I mean, but we got to replace them, you know. This is a long-term struggle. This is a long-term struggle. And these are great people that came in and did great things. And now some other people have to step up and replace those people. And, you know what I’m saying, learn from the examples that they led by, learn from their writings, learn from the relationships that they built, and then apply that and keep moving, keep pushing the movement forward. You know, so other people have to step up, now’s an opportunity for others to step up and fill these gaps that have been left by these people who are passed on. But that’s part of the struggle, too, you know. We have to be resilient. We have to be resourceful. We have to listen to what our elders taught us and pay attention to history. And then we have to apply that to our next move. Like they say in the game, you want your next move your best move. Well when you rely on the experiences of people like that, and what they left behind. In addition to what’s going on today, man, you put yourself in that position, though. We salute to them and appreciate everything they’ve done. Like I say, I didn’t know Karen well but I did know Rebecca and I know that she was beloved in the community.

TFSR: Awesome. Well, thank you so much Bennu for this conversation. And I’ll make sure to plug in all the information so folks can can get in touch with you and I hope this helps the struggle and helps to build that network. Stay healthy.

Bennu: Okay, I appreciate it.

An Anarchist View from Havana: Isbel Diaz Torres

An Anarchist View from Havana: Isbel Diaz Torres

volunteers at ABRA assemble the sign for the space
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This week on the Final Straw, we’re sharing another audio gift from comrades. Isbel Diaz Torres is a participant in the Taller Libertario Alfredo López / ABRA in Havana, Cuba, recorded in late 2018. In this chat, Isbel talks about the ABRA which is the only openly anarchist organization in Cuba at the time, about the LGBTQ movement and abortion rights which are both facing repression due to pressure from Cuban Evangelical and Catholic churches on the Cuban government, political discourse and difference, government co-optation, neoliberalism, animal rights, repression of dissent and the erasure of anarchist history.

In May of 2019, Isbel and his boyfriend Jimmy Roque Martinez were arrested on their way to the annual Conga Against Homophobia and Transphobia, essentially Cuba’s main Pride Parade and detained 24 hours in order to block their participation. As Isbel talks about in the interview, the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) had bowed to pressure from right wing Christian groups and canceled the event so activists were planning to hold an autonomous Conga resulting in several more arrests. A report with updates on the subject can be found at the Rosa Negra / Black Rose Federation website. You can also find an audio statement from Mario from the TLAL space on the subject in Spanish via BRRN.

To learn more about ABRA, they have a website at CentroSocialABRA.Wordpress.Com as well as a fedbook page as AbraCuba and one for Taller Libertario Alfredo Lopez. ABRA is affiliated with the Federacion Anarquista de Centro America y el Caribe, or the Caribbean and Central American Anarchist Federation, which can be found in Spanish at f-anarquista-cc.blogspot.com.

Check our show notes for some useful articles and a link to Frank Fernandez’s book, “Cuban Anarchism”, which you can order online or read for free online at The Anarchist Library. Another book suggestion is “Anarchist Cuba: Countercultural Politics in the Early Twentieth Century” by Kirwin Shaffer.

 

Sean Swain

Sean’s segment runs [00:35:56 – 00:42:36]. More info at

Off-Topic Announcements

We’d like to say a brief hello to our new listeners on Royalton Community Radio in eastern so-called Vermont, where this show will air every Saturday at 10pm following Nocturnal Combustion as well as Tuesday mornings at 5am!

If you’d like to hear two recent interviews with the hosts of the show, check out last week’s FE-Live podcast (audio or video) with David Rovics for Fifth Estate Magazine, as well as the final episode of the SoleCast from the end of 2020, soon to be renamed The Institute for Post American Studies.

. … . ..

Songs from this episode both performed by Eztafilokoko from Habana, Cuba (more by them at eztafilokoko.bandcamp.com):

  • En Mi Puto Barrio [00:00:00] as background
  • Hey Maxim [00:33:16]

. … . ..

Transcription of the interview begins below

The Final Straw Radio: I guess, just tell us who you are and what this space is….

Isbel Diaz Torres: OK, my name is Isbel Diaz Torres and I am a member of Taller Libertario Alfredo López which is, I guess, the only anarchist organization here in Cuba – but it doesn’t mean that we are the only anarchist people – who are organized and public as us from my knowledge. We’ve been working for almost 10 years as an anarchist organization but before that, we were one of the anti-capitalist organizations in general, independent ones, in Cuba. Eventually, we decided that we wanted to form an anarchist group, so we made it. And the space, although it is run by us, by the people of the Taller Libertario Alfredo López, is not exactly an anarchist space only. It’s open to communitarian activities, anything that we like because we feel it is coherent with our view of what life is and what development is, what culture is, etc. The space is ABRA, it’s just a word in Spanish that has about seven different meanings. Over there, you can see the word ABRA. It also means ‘open’, by the way, ‘open the door = abra la puerta’.

We started this place almost a year ago, in May 2018. We made crowdfunding on the Internet because first we were touring in France and Spain and the comrades there had all kinds of different libraries, cafes, physical spaces where they could gather and have meetings. They all the time asked us, ‘Do you have a place?’ We didn’t have a place. So the ideas started there: why don’t we create a physical space for us to meet.

With the help of all the comrades we met in France and Spain, we made the crowdfunding, the got the money and bought the house. It’s not completely ready yet, we are still working and deciding what kind of activities we want to do here. We don’t want to go very past, because we want to be inserted in the community more organically. We don’t want to look like aliens who come here and tell people what they need to think or do. We just want to be neighbors and propose activities, get to know what they need or want. We have pretty much the same needs because we live here, this is what we are trying to do with this space.

TFSR: The first thing that caught my attention was the big, rainbow flag. And also, we went to a sub-cultural event in Santa Clara at Mijunque. I couldn’t tell if it was a gay bar or just had gay nights, but there seemed to be some overlaps there. Is anarchism and counter culture very linked to the LGBT movement in Cuba? What’s the history of the relationship between them?

IDT: I don’t think you can say that anarchism and the LGBT movement have a link. A link in a way are some of us who are gay or lesbians, or queer people. But not because of the history of the movements. If we go to the history of the movement of anarchism in Cuba, it was pretty much anarcho-syndicalism. I wouldn’t say it has any relation to a gender topic or LGBT topic. The only link that I can identify is quite interesting: some of the anarcho-syndicalist groups in the 40-50s of the past century had these naturist groups who went to the wild naked and had this kind of interaction, it was very cool. It has something to do with sex or gender. But this is just something I want to say about, but this is not that they were really thinking in these terms like the LGBT movement or feminism.

The thing is that my boyfriend and I are a gay couple. So we are promoting this topic inside our group. In most other groups, the majority is heterosexual males, so, in a way, that is a process of learning how to break all the paradigms of hetero-sexism. The difference is that we have access, we’ve been in touch with people with different perspectives on it. When people come to the common LGBT movement in Cuba they receive the information that you can see on the Internet, but they don’t know about radical LGBT or queer people, radical feminism, etc. We have a lot of materials like that, we want to promote these ideas. In our library and the stuff that we publish, we have the materials that we want to be promoted. That is something different when you see the LGBT spectrum, you can see right-wing people, leftists, and us – we are more radical about it.

TFSR: What is right wing in Cuba? And also, you talk about being in anti-capitalist groups… what does being an anti-capitalist mean in Cuba? Does everyone think that they live in an anti-capitalist country?

IDT: I guess people don’t think in those terms anymore. That was part of our language 20 years ago but not anymore. People don’t think about it. That’s why we use the word anti-capitalist, and even for a Cuban it’s like, come on, man, what are talking about? Nobody cares about it. In fact, if you ask them, they will say they love capitalism. Although they don’t really accept it, they don’t say it in those terms. But they love consumption, international corporations that come and invest in Cuba, they agree with the credits or the whole economic structure related to capitalism. They don’t have questions about it. In fact, when they make demands to the government, it’s pretty much asking for that kind of economic liberties. So they like capitalism in many ways.

It’s very difficult, cause you have different discourses. On the one hand, you have the speech of the government and they would say that anyone who opposes them are right-wing. You just need to be loyal to the system, not to the idea of emancipation, etc. You have to be loyal to the government and its leaders, that’s the idea of what a leftist person is, of what anti-capitalism is.

On the other hand, all people recognize capitalism as what it is – a system of relations where people are alienated in many ways. From my perspective, everything is there, what social class you are, if you are a worker or an owner, but also your gender, race, the color of skin, where you come from, what part of the island you are, what’s your job, how much money you have. Everything has to do with being anti-capitalist. They don’t want to acknowledge that, of course. For us, we can identify right-wing movement or right-wing persons or collectives here in Cuba, both in the system and independent ones. For example, there is one organization here in Cuba named Estado de SATS, it’s pretty much the most prominent right-wing organization here. Of course, they are against the government, the government represses they as much as they can, and they are like think tanks, they propose designs of the colony?? that has to do with free-market or private property. They want to privatize pretty much everything, including the healthcare and educational systems. That’s obvious that they are right-wing in that sense, but when you try to find out what their position is regarding other topics like abortion, relationship… the position on LGBT people in society or racism, etc., they might have a progressive position about it.

Then you have other sectors in the society that… Maybe they are not promoting this kind of free market, but they have a very conservative position, they are members of very orthodox Christian churches, they are against gay, equalitarian marriage. We’ve been fighting with them last months. So, that’s another part of society. Maybe they are not organized politically, like challenging the government, but they do have the means and resources to promote these ideas.

And then, inside the government. I first mentioned the right-wing opposition, then I mentioned Church and all the families who are gathered around that. And the third place in my opinion, inside the government, there are a lot of people who are promoting the economic activities that include lifting any… Do you call it the opposition of protectionism? No taxes for foreign investors to come to Cuba and do what the want, or no workers unions inside those businesses, international corporations, that kind of design of economic relations – this is what they promote. And in my opinion, they are right-wing.

TFSR And is abortion legal in Cuba?

IDT: Abortion, yes. It is a struggle that we already won. We are afraid that it can be strictly regulated. I’m worried because the government is in constant dialogue with the Catholic church and with protestant churches. Both of them opposed the possibility of gay marriage to be included in the Constitution recently. They made strong statements saying that the people who go to their churches would vote NO to the new constitution if they didn’t change that, regarding the equalitarian marriage. And the government complied, accepted it and changed it. So they know that they have enough strength, to challenge the government, to do what they want them to do. And on the other hand, those conversations are never public. You never know what they are talking about. They have meetings but they are not open to the press. It really doesn’t matter, because the Cuban press doesn’t care what happens anywhere. So I’m concerned in that sense.

TFSR: I want to go back to the history of anarchism before the revolution…

IDT: I will do my best, but Mario is the one who knows it better. I could give some relevant…

TFSR: Yeah, a broad picture…

IDT: First, I recommend reading the book Anarchism in Cuba by Frank Fernandez. He lives in Miami and the book is both in Spanish and English. You can download it or buy it on Amazon. This is a good version of the history of the anarchist movement in Cuba before 1955, before the triumph of the revolution.

As I mentioned, it was mainly anarcho-syndicalist movement and there was this person, Alfredo Lopez, that guy over there (pointing to a poster) who was connected with the liberation movement in Cuba. But, of course, at some point, because of the link of the leaders – Fidel Castro and there were some leaders of the 26th of July Movement – with the Partido Socialista Popular (there was this party in Cuba who received direct orders from the USSR Communist Party), after the triumph of the revolution, most anarchists were sent to prison, were killed or sent to exile. So it collapsed. Mario has the exact date of the last public meeting they held to place maybe one year after the triumph of the revolution, that was the last time we heard about it. And there was no anarchist movement for decades. Maybe you can find on the internet some references to other groups, Zapata Group or something like that. But we don’t have any certainty if they existed during the 80-90s. You can have a look on the Internet, but we don’t have any direct information. As far as we know, we are who took the spirit of anarchism again and tried to make a movement with that.

On the other hand, I can say that the anarchist spirit in a way was present in the common sense of the people of Cuba. That’s part of the work that Mario does: trying to identify the anti-authoritarian structures of people who decided to organized beyond the government or with no relation to the government. For us, it’s a symptom of anarchist feeling. Maybe for you, it has nothing to do, but for Cuba, everything was related to the government for decades: we had no private property, the state checked every single activity you can imagine – economic of even your personal relationship, culture, art – everything was controlled by the government. So when you find something that tried to exist outside those barriers, then you consider it a symptom of anarchist spirit.

TFSR: I read the Frank Fernandez book years ago and it described anarcho-syndicalist unions that had tens and hundreds of thousands of members and wondering, where did they go after the revolution? He talks about some of them that were exiled or killed, but 10’s of thousands of members?

IDT: The activity of the Communist Party, because they infiltrated into those organizations and turned that into vertical unions and communist structures. So when we talk about people who were exiled or killed, we talk about the heads of movements, but common workers were the victims of the Partido Socialista Popular (the name of the previous communist party).

TFSR: That’s a good segue. I understand that the modern Cuban authoritarian state uses a subtle and soft touch in order to exert it’s influence politically, but what does it look like today, how the state influences dissent or alternative political organizing?

IDT: Well, they have an impact. When you are a member, you feel it. If you are just a neighbor, you say, “No, nothing is wrong, nothing is really happening”. For example, you can see this poster here, it was there facing the street. And we received an inspection, not a political one. It said you have no license to put that banner over there, so you have a ticket for 200 pesos and 2 days to remove it. And they inspect the whole house, cause they said that they received an anonymous complaint that we were illegally constructing here, which was a lie, just an excuse to get into the house, inspect the whole house.

For example, the most common thing they do is out of the structure of employment has changed in the last years, but maybe 10-15 years ago, I’ve been working for almost 20 years, all employees were state employees. So if you receive a visit at your workplace, and this political police talks to your boss, like, this guy is having meetings with counter-revolutionary people, you can be fired. My boyfriend has been fired, and he is an optometrist. So that kind of pressure is over us, but that’s for us who have a public face, we consider ourselves anti-capitalists and we have friends and comrades of different movements all around the world. But when you go small organizations (yeah, we are very small), the ones that just started, that have no history, it’s very easy for them to dismantle that, with one phone call they will stop them. It’s very real. And it’s not what they do, it’s also the history that still is in the imagination of people. It triggers something there that says, OK, I cannot say this or that in a public place because it can be repressed. And they say, there is no repression, but the people repress themselves, they don’t express themselves freely, and it will work.

So when you make a comparison, like you say there is repression in Cuba, but we never saw a policeman beating people on the street with rubber, with gas or anything like that. But what I think is much worse is that they don’t even need that. The control is so well-installed in the brain of people, in the common sense of the communities, that they don’t need that kind of stuff.

That’s the reason why people, very few of them have come inside this house. Most of them want to know what is happening, but they are not brave enough to come up here and see what’s inside.

For example, you need to be very careful with the things that we do because they can use anything against us any time. For example, we started this space, we painted it anew, you see the door and the wall here are painted. We did it ourselves, but the kids from the neighborhood, you hear them out there when they already came this morning. They say, “We want to draw something, we are bored, we have nothing to do”. And we were all the time proposing stuff for them to do, and they were involved in painting all these walls. The next day, a security of the state officer came to us and said, “I know who you are, what you are trying to do, and we won’t allow you to do it with the kids. We said, “Why?”. “I know you were taking pictures of the kids”. We were taking pictures of the whole process, because that is part of our history and we want to have a record of that. “Yeah, but you were taking pictures of black kids who are poor”, the officer said. We said, “OK, that’s what they are. I don’t know how you can change the color of the skin, but poverty, you can’t do anything about it”. The next day we printed all pictures and we went to those kids’ families and gave them the pictures as a gift. And everybody loved it, cause they cannot afford to print, to have a photo of their kids. With our money, we printed the photos, took it to parents and informed them that their kid, son, daughter was yesterday with us painting, and we took a picture, here are the pictures, is that OK? Everybody liked it, it was super cool. We have no problem with the community, parents or anyone, but that was a measure that we needed to take in order to face any demand in the future or manipulate using the image of children.

So, it’s there all the time, you need to watch every single step to not make a mistake. This is how repression is expressed.

But there are so many other ways, for example, they can stop you from leaving the country. A lot of people have been stopped at the airport for no reason. They just stop them, wait until the plane leaves and then release the person. What it means to means a flight, it’s a lot of money. They needed to pay for the passport, for the visa, to legalize all the documents, buy the tickets. And you can lose all that money just because of the security stopping them at the airport for no reason.

Or when you come back. For example, the first time I visited the US, I was stopped at the airport. They took Frank Fernandez’s book, I had a copy signed by him. They also took my laptop, all hard drives, pen drives, materials, books. Ten days later they returned everything, except Frank Fernandez’s book and a newspaper. But they checked all my information, my telephone. They kept everything. That’s the way they control and it works.

For people like us, who are a bit trained in this fight, we can deal with that, but for some young university student who suffers that for the first time, he will never come to this place anymore. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to grow in membership. It does work. For example, the environmentalist group “Guarda Bosques,” another group that is connected with this movement here, has approached young people saying that we receive money from the CIA. And they believe it, why not? This is the information they receive all the time on television in Cuba. Then five years later they come to me and say, “You know why I never came back to your space? We received a visit from an officer saying that you received money from the CIA”.

TFSR: How do people in Cuba become anarchists? How do they hear about it, how do they learn besides the CIA paying them? (chuckle)

IDT: (laugh) I don’t know, I don’t think people just become anarchists.

TFSR: Is there anyting about the anarchist movement in University history classes or anything?

IDT: No way. One of the members of our collective is a student at the history and philosophy faculty of the Havana University. Just yesterday we were talking about it. Because they started studying political movements in this course, and I asked him if anarchism was there. He said that his professor didn’t even know what it is.

TFSR: Camillo Cienfuego’s parents were anarchists I think. Cienfuego’s parents were in the CNT in Spain during the Revolution there.

IDT: In Spain, yes. But it’s not in the history. Cuban students don’t know that.

TFSR: Did Che and Fidel kill Camillo Cienfuegos?

IDT: (laugh) How can I tell? You know, Camilo is a very… We really love Camilo. I guess because he didn’t have the chance to become like the others.

TFSR: Like Rosa Luxemburg?

IDT: Exactly. But he was a very plain person, people from the street could approach him. He was not like an intellectual, he was nothing thinking in terms of ideology, I guess. But he was just a fighter, who fought for freedom, liberties, justice, whatever. So in that sense, I’m not saying Camilo was an anarchist, but he was a figure that is very close to the Cuban people, and that’s why we use his image in one of our… Let me show you: it’s a Bakunin, he has nothing to do with Camilo, but anyway. We have those bookmarks, that’s the symbol of Observatorio Critico, so we play with that. And we are in the neighborhood where Camilo Cienfuegos was born.

TFSR: Oh, really? Oh, yeah, La Avenida Cienfuegos is right there…

IDT: But nobody says Avenida Cienfuegos, Dolores Avenida and his house was there, and there was a plaque on the wall that was stolen about six months ago, and nobody cares.

TFSR: The government didn’t just put it on a plane and….

IDT: I don’t know. (laughs). What else?

TFSR: What kind of issues are you and your group tackling in the community? Do you mostly focus on the LGBT community or are there other things? In our communities, often projects focus on prisoner support or anti-fascist work.

IDT: When I say community, I’m talking about this community over here, this block and surrounding blocks, we are thinking in a very small space. We just want to develop the idea that you can do stuff by yourself, you don’t need to ask for permission to do anything. We don’t want them to think in any direction, we don’t want to extend any ideology for them to be part of, we just want to create spaces where they can decide when and where to meet, what to do.

We have a knitting workshop here, both young and adult women, kids of thirteen years old come together and spend time here. Every Friday afternoon we talk and knit. This is an example. They are exposed to everything here, but we don’t invite them to read or take anything. They are just here, we want them to feel free and eventually, they will ask or do what they want.

We also have been working on a corner, because all the trash over there is a huge issue for the community and we have transformed that corner because all that trash that was on the street was where the garden is right now. We built a garden together with the neighbors, so the trash is not inside the block anymore. It really has an impact on people, because they don’t wait for the government to come and fix that corner, we have to fix it by ourselves. Eventually, we are going to do something with it. We will start recycling, reusing. In fact, we used a lot of stuff from the trash, transformed it into something else, and neighbors started to do the same. They also take some herbs that we planted there and use them. Getting them involved in some direct transformation of the environment.

We also have movie, cartoons projections, and neighbors don’t go to movie theaters, most of them don’t have computers, tablets or laptops at home, so they watch what the Cuban television provides. So we provide something new from here. It’s very funny, it’s a huge screen at night, it dramatically changed the logic of the neighborhood. What’s that light? The sound is very loud, and we try to find Cuban films.

We also have the project, ion in here, but with other contents, we have LGBT nights, now we are planning to have another night in the month for anarchist films, or a night for environmentalist documentaries or films. With the space out there we don’t want to go with very political content because that will not attract people, so here come the people who are interested in the topic, member of LGBT community, students of the Havana University, researchers, environmentalists, whatever, they come directly to the film and talk about it.

We also have developed some dialogues or chats on topics related to something that the community feels necessary. For example, the Afro-Cuban religion. We promoted a dialogue between Afro-Cuban priests and environmentalists, animal defenders. Because these people make sacrifices of animals, so we create a space for both sides to talk about it, about the issue of sacrificing animals and placing the remains in the street, in the corner. And that idea of such conversations appeared because the neighbor that works with us in the garden is an Afro-Cuban priest. And we talked about the issue of sacrificing animals, how much we like animals, and we decided to make a serious conversation about it, let’s bring specialists from both sides to talk about it. It was very relevant for the first time in Cuba when environmentalists and priests were talking about animal protection. And then we discovered that there are some priests who made no animal sacrifices. They do the same ceremonies with no animals. It was something new even for some priests that were here, they were not accepting that practice but…

So this is what we are trying to do, to identify topics that have some connection with the community and make conversations. Sometimes they could be here or there.

TFSR: Is there ever a tension… you’re working with the community out here but I’m obviously a gringo, dressed weird. Is there ever a tension between it being a space that brings people who look like they’re not here here and being able to organize with the neighborhood?

IDT: Not that I know. I guess they will talk about but they haven’t told us anything. Nothing has changed, we have very good relations with everybody.

I guess people feel important when they get visitors from other countries here. Like they didn’t know that we were making anything so important, e.g. the garden – everybody goes to see the garden. And they think, ok, it’s important to have a garden, people are interested in that.

For other communitarian projects with a different perspective, sometimes it has really affected the whole point. Because it has become a place to develop something to show to tourists. We have something like that five blocks from here, it was supposed to be a communitarian project with art…

TFSR: Is that the building on the corner with all the art…. I was going to ask what that was…

IDT: That’s a perfect example. And the community is not there, they don’t go to visit or use the space, they just receive foreigners. That’s the danger. But I’m sure it will not happen here because we are very aware of that and we have a political perspective of our own and it’s not the same with those other spaces. They are looking away for survival.

TFSR: Is there ever a dynamic where if you are doing lots of communitarian projects like the garden or film nights, and someone from the government or the party comes over and says “Hey, you’re doing a lot of great things for the community, you should consider becoming the head of your local Comite En Defensa….

IDT: That’s been happening all the time with all the interesting projects. When they see someone who is really active in the community, they try to coopt and make him part of the system. But they won’t even try this with us. But that’s the logic, it’s been happening here forever. In any kind of thing you could imagine, hip-hop, rock, whatever, you will see that.

TFSR: I went to La Madriguerra and thought, I can tell from where this is placed that the government said “Let’s make you a rock club in the middle of a park, far away from houses, over here where you’re not bothering anybody…”

IDT: Exactly, they really know how to do it. They created a Cuban agency of rock, an agency of hip-hop, it killed the whole movement. At first, there were some divisions with some of the bands who wanted to part of the agency, and the others didn’t, they wanted to keep their autonomy, but eventually, they disappeared and the ones that remained are connected with the agency. And all political content, the real stuff in the lyrics was not there anymore. They have a magazine. Having a magazine here in Cuba, it has to be approved by the party. If you have a hip-hop magazine approved by the Communist Party, you really don’t know what’s that. That power of co-opting is always present.

TFSR: For anyone who comes to Cuba or anyone who hears this interview, what can they do to support ABRA and other anarchist initiatives in Cuba?

IDT: The first thing I recommend is when people want to approach the Cuban situation, try to look for personal collectives that they can identify. Because there is this idea of what Cuba is, an abstract idea with a focus on a rebel, an alternative for the world, and it is not. But you can find people who are really fighting, struggling against Cuban and international capitalism. So if you want to support, you need to identify to whom you want to be related.

On the other hand, for us, the best help that we have ever received is to be completely public. Since we are not that group of anarchists, we are not like insurrectionists, we don’t have the power, the number of people, we don’t intend to be violent, so we can be completely public. Because we want a communitarian transformation and do grassroots work. That is our protection – we never hide from the government.

Just tell them exactly what you think, and international comrades, organizations, helped when they also promote the ideas of ours, or any public statement that we publish, or a call that we make for an international event – it’s a very good help for us. It helps to build that shield that is transparency, being public.

TFSR: Are there vegans in Cuba?

IDT: That’s interesting. I’m having a fight right now on Facebook. There are, a few of them. It’s very difficult. In my opinion, in Cuba, that’s an option for only wealthy people. We eat whatever we can find, there is no option, if we want vegetables or… Everything is difficult: vegetables, meat, eggs, milk. If you find any of that and you have the money, you get it. I understand the need for being responsible or coherent with that topic, it’s important for us, as we are also environmentalists, it’s quite important. We promote this idea and for example on any event, gathering, meeting that we have here there are always vegan options. We don’t think that they don’t exist. On the contrary, we say, “There are people who are vegan or vegetarian, they need to have an option here”.

We also develop permaculture. We just started a permaculture workshop, we are learning about it, and most people related to it are vegan. But I don’t think that you can really demand from people to have this position because people don’t have means to have a balance. So we’ve been thinking about it, it’s not the subject that we ignore, but it’s something you need to promote carefully here, not demanding but saying how beautiful it is.

TFSR: On that subject, I was curious, it’s not the same as animal sacrifice but I wondered if anyone does anything about birds in cages? There are a lot of birds in cages, here.

IDT: There is a whole movement of animal protectors in Cuba right now. It’s something new, from the last three years. There are small groups all around the country, and they focus mostly on cats and dogs, also horses. Eventually, birds, but that is not very common. There is no protection for animals here in Cuba. These groups demand a law for protecting animals’ lives, but we don’t have it yet. We recently discovered a guy, who was in contact with an international network of people who torture and rape animals. They video-record them and upload it to the cloud. There was a Cuban doing that, and people in the US identified the person and sent the information to the Cuban protectors. They identified the guy, complained and the policemen arrested the guy and he was free three days later.

About 1-2 months ago, these activists went to his neighborhood and made a public campaign in a park very close to his house. They went to his house, he was not there, they went to the river and found a lot of corpses of dogs and cats in the river, probably killed by this man. And the guy is free. He was not violating any law.

TFSR: When they went to his house they did it as a demonstration to expose him?

IDT: They really didn’t know what to do. In Cuba, there are no real social movements or the practice of that. So they were very angry and decided to go and make this campaign for the protection of animals in the park. And then a couple of them decided, “Why don’t we go to the house of the guy”. They didn’t know what to do, they just went. Another part of the group thought it could be dangerous. Nothing happened, the guy was not there. But it’s a good thing. For the first time, this topic like the LGBT or the animal protection movement is emerging in a way. They are taking positions disregarding what the government thinks about it. So it’s important.

TFSR: It sounds like practicing some form of direct action, going to his house…

IDT: Exactly, but there is no organization yet. They don’t know what to do, they don’t plan anything, but it’s a good thing.

TFSR: When you said that it’s not common in Cuba for demonstrations to happen…. I don’t know if it’s modern Cuba or in Cuba’s past, but that often a practice of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución is that they would organize a staged protest of just CDR members to make their repression look like a community action…

IDT: That’s what they do, but of course, they don’t do it spontaneously. There is an order from the political police, they prepare everything. In fact, we are very close to one of the dissident group, Damas de Blanco, I guess you heard about them, Ladies in White. They are four blocks away from here, they live with a police car in front of their house all the time. They organize demonstrations in front of his house, tiran cosas contra paredes.

TFSR: Yeah, throw things against the wall. But they’re super patriotic, the Damas En Blanco?

IDT: Damas en Blanco is a dissident group. They are mothers, wives, daughters of a group of dissidents that were put in prison, 75 of them. They were journalists, they were writing and put in prison for very long terms. So the women started demonstrating in the street dressed in white with a flower in the hand and walking in a line in silence. That’s all. They were repressed all the time, and now those people were released, some were sent to Spain, but the movement remained. I think they have connections with the US government and that’s the excuse of the Cuban government to repress them. Although what they are doing is just manifest in a peaceful way. But they have support from the US government.

TFSR: It sounds very parallel to the Argentinian Madres de la Plaza de Mayo…

IDT: Also, the Cuban government never recognized that it wasn’t fair for them to be in prison. If there is a similarity with Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, we are at a very early stage.

TFSR: Yah, the government changed there…

IDT: Yeah.

TFSR: Thank you!

IDT: I’m sorry you just had to listen to my opinion about it. Ask people in the street, and they will tell you a different story. You will have a more complete picture of the Cuban reality.

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

image of a cop holding a cellphone
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This week on the The Final Straw you’ll hear me speaking with Cora Borradaile, who sits on the advisory board of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and works around issues of tech security in movements and is an associate professor at OSU.

We discuss the use of phone cloning by US Marshall’s and other law enforcement while engaging protestors in Portland, OR. We talk about UpTurn’s recent report concerning widespread use of cellphone extraction tools to copy and search the contents of cell phones captured during interactions with cops. Finally, we talk about Keyword Searches, where (often without warrants) google hands over information from peoples google searches to law enforcement.

Sean Swain Update

We’ll also be presenting a segment by Sean’s fiance, Lauren, about his current silencing and the injustice of his case. More on president-in-exile Sean Swain can be found at Swain2020.Org and SeanSwain.Org.

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Transcription of the conversation with Cora Borradaile

BOG: So I’m speaking with Cora Borradaile who is on the advisory board of the Civil Liberties Defense Center or CLDC and we spoke before about a range of issues in May of this year, and before the George Floyd uprising and the resulting ACAB Spring. During the uprising researchers, journalists, and activists saw that applications of new, or new to us, surveillance methods were being used by security forces against the populace in the so called US, so I was hoping to pick Cora’s brain a bit about this and see, especially since upcoming months in the US also might get a little spicy with the election and all. Thank you Cora very much for taking the time to have this conversation.

Cora Borradaile: Yeah, it’s great to talk to you.

BOG: So just to list off a few things, like this summer we saw the use of military drones surveilling and sharing information with law enforcement in Minneapolis, lots of militarized gear being brought out in the streets across the US, or for late May at least protests against police violence, and collusion with para-state white supremacists have been ongoing in Portland, Oregon. In July we saw the deployment of federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) including Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent out to fight against protesters in the streets of Portland and attack and kidnap people. Including journalists from that and other cities. the US Marshalls also had their own aerial surveillance to track crowds in Portland, it came out this summer. On the tech side of things, the public got wind, apparently from leaks within the department of homeland security, that DHS had been cloning activists’ cell phones. Could you talk a little bit about this and what cell phone cloning is?

CB: Yeah, from that report their were very few details so a lot of it is guesswork as to what could possibly be going on. I could imagine two different ways in which their cloning cellphones- One which is scarier than the other. The more likely I think, is the less scary version which is if they manage to physically get your cell phone, like if you’re arrested and your cell phone is confiscated from you. Even if it’s confiscated temporarily, then they’re copying everything from your cell phone and possibly making a new cell phone that behaves just like your cell phone. So it would allow them to intercept calls possibly receive messages that you were intended to receive.

The scarier version but probably less likely, is the ability for them to be able to do the same thing without having the need to confiscate your phone to do so. That feels unlikely to me that they were doing that. If it was some sort of remote cloning I would gather that they were just cloning the sort of network ID of your phone, and not the contents of your phone. This would still allow them to do things like intercept calls, and intercept data, but in both scenarios I think end-to-end encryption (E2E) apps that you use like Signal or Keybase or Wire, that enable E2E encryption, I think the messages you’re receiving there would still be safe and that the cloned device shouldn’t be able to have the keys enabled to decrypt those messages that were intended for you. And even traffic that is encrypted – if you are visiting a website on your phone that your accessing via HTTPS, where the S stands for Secure – I think that even they wouldn’t be able to see the contents of that web page either because there is a key exchange that happens between you and the web server that they would have to play man in the middle on. Which is more complicated to do in a way that you wouldn’t be able to tell that something was going wrong.

All that’s to say, it’s still scary and I think if you have poor encryption practices like keeping your phone in an unlocked form, they have access to all of your encryption keys for things like Signal and Keybase and whatever other secure messaging apps you might be using. You should do whatever you need to do to alert everyone you contact with to delete your contact from their messages, groups, and so on. And if you have a phone that is confiscated – and certainly in an unlocked form – I would not trust that phone again. If your phone is confiscated but it was locked at the time and presumably you have a good password so they can’t easily unlock your phone, I would still maybe do a factory reset of your phone and start fresh by installing everything over again.

BOG: So, I’m not sure what the basis of this is, but conversations that I was having with friends when we were talking about the latter of the two instances that you were talking about- the hypothetical that remotely the cloning of the network ID or SIM connection could be done. It would be similar to you getting a new phone but having the same number, and that if Signal was installed on that device and it was connecting to the same phone number, by a Man in the Middle attack via a cloned SIM, it would appear that the interception could still be happening but that everyone would see a notation that there had been a change in safety number. Is that maybe what would happen?

CB: Yes. That is perfectly said. Right, so for them to be able to both clone your phone and intercept messages without those “safety number has changed” messages happening would be very, very difficult. So yeah, certainly if there are reports of anybody who’s had a confiscated phone and then all of a sudden all of their contacts are noticing that their safety number has changed with them, that would be super interesting to find out. —

BOG: –Or they stopped getting messages.

CB: Also horrifying.

*Laughter

BOG: Yeah. You know, they noticed that they stopped getting messages, everyone notices that the safety number changed, then that means that hypothetically the cloned phone or whatever would now be in those chats.

CB: So I don’t know if it’s as simple as that, because when you add a new device on Signal all the other devices get a notification of that.

BOG: Oh I see. So if I had a desktop and at least one cell phone that was getting messages… Yeah, but if that device was no longer getting new messages because the traffic was being routed to a different device, you wouldn’t like –

CB: Right so, your contacts should at the very least get the notification saying that the safety number has changed. If it’s a remote clone I think the only way in which the cloned phone would be able to read the messages in preexisting groups, for example, would be if the device was physically confiscated and copied. Because there are encryption keys that are used to start those conversations which are needed.

BOG: Do you mean the messages that were in loops before?

CB: No, to continue to receive messages from conversations that had already been going on. If someone started a new conversation after the cloning then the other people in the conversation might not be able to notice, but if you were continuing a conversation that had started before the cloning I don’t think you would be able to get that information without having physical access to the device and being able to copy over the encryption keys that were used to start those conversations.

BOG: Because they’re being stored on the phone and not on the server.

CB: That’s right, yeah. So for example, when you add a new Signal device part of what happens is copying over the encryption keys needed to continue conversations. And there’s a QR code that, say if you have Signal on your phone and you start using Signal on your desktop, you link those 2 devices so that both devices are able to receive and decrypt messages that go to you as an identifier.

BOG: If you know that if someone in your group or one of your friends has changed their number, whats a good verification?

CB: Don’t message them on Signal, and ask them, right? Because who knows who’s answering. Try to find a different form of communication even if its via friend or via a regular phone call, but ideally via email or some other band that is unrelated to your phone would be perfect to ask them, ‘Hey, I noticed your Signal safety number’s changed, what went on?’ Most of the time, or every time this has happened to me, the answer’s been ‘Oh, I had to reinstall my operating system on my phone’ or ‘I dropped my phone in a pool and had to get a new phone’. That’s usually the reason for a safety number changing, but definitely what you want to do is find a different way to ask that, other than using Signal and ideally other than using the phone. Especially if we are worried about cloned phones. Because if you just use a normal SMS text message to send to your friend and your friends phone has been cloned, then it could be the cops responding saying ‘Oh, yeah I had to get a new phone’.

BOG: I’ve seen some people do a thing where they ask someone in a group, when their safety number changed, ‘Hey could you leave a voice memo with your name and current time that you’re recording the memo and send it into the loop?’ And that way everyone hears this person’s voice, and it’s the time when they specifically get asked to record the memo so it’s outside of Enemy-Of-The-State-level NSA level operation that’s probably not somebody compiling an automated voice message in that person’s voice.

CB: Yeah, that’s a pretty good method for doing that. As you point out, synthesizing peoples’ voices can be done, but taking into account what your threat level is – are you someone who they’re going to be throwing everything at and be able to synthesize your voice in a very short time? For the protest movements we’ve seen, probably not. However if you are the leader of a protest group, hmm… If you are someone that they’re really going to be going after because they think that going after this one person will completely destroy the movement – which I don’t think is the kind of movement time that we are in right now which is good, to avoid those specific people who could really destroy a movement – that’s a pretty good method.

BOG: If you could speak to that prior scenario, is that actually copying the contents of a phone? I think that was the subject of the recent article by Upturn called Mass Extraction —

CB: That’s right.

BOG: If you could talk a little bit about what the findings were there. I was kind of surprised yet kind of not surprised to see the local law enforcement here in Asheville spent at least $49,000, according to their studies, on cell phone extraction tools. But what are mobile device forensic tools, and what do you know about them, how widespread and what kind of stuff do they do?

CB: So these things have existed for a long time. We’ve been talking about them at CLDC for a long time but this Upturn report is really wonderful for just as you say, how widespread they are. Small police departments have them, medium police departments spend hundred of thousands of dollars on access to this over the course of 5 years, and some of the capabilities were actually, I suppose, not really surprising. But reading them all in one place and knowing how low cost access to that technology is was sobering.

So these cell phone extraction devices, they come in different forms but the kind that is most popularly seen is a small stand alone device that you plug a cell phone into and that stand alone device either tries to break into that phone if it’s locked or otherwise just copies all of the content of that phone for later analysis. Some of the things that were surprising to me was how much was available even when the phone was locked and encrypted. There’s a lot of data that is existing in an unencrypted form on your phone.

For example say your phone is locked, you receive a phone call and the name of your contact still shows up, right? It’s not the name that your contact is sending you, its not metadata associated with that contact. if your mother is calling you, it probably shows up “Mom” in your phone, and the reason it says that is because your address book has an entry with that phone number and the name “Mom” attached to it. So your address book entries are existing in an unencrypted state, for example.

Some of the other things that were sort of surprising that were pointed out, that exist in this unencrypted state even though your phone was in a locked condition, were Telegram files and Discord files, and files associated with Google mail. I think a lot of this stuff could just be from bad decisions that the app developer made. Like Telegram is not necessarily focused on security, and so for convenience or speed they may just not be hiding that information behind the device encryption.

There was definitely some reporting in that Upturn report about being able to brute force guess passwords and so there are some things that you can do to protect yourself from that, which is to have a long enough password. Or if you have an Apple device you can enable your phone to self-wipe if you have 10 incorrect guesses, for example. Which if you have a small child at home maybe you don’t want to do because I almost guarantee you will end up with a wiped phone by the end of the week.

BOG: With encrypted files, if there are messages or what-have-you that are saved in an encrypted section on the phone would that just get copied and saved, and tested against decryption later? Is that the idea?

CB: I think what’s happening in most cases is they’re taking a copy of encrypted information, possibly in the hopes that they could decrypt it later or in the hopes that they would be able to get the unlock password from you by other means, like a court order for example. You know, they did point to instances where they were still able to bypass security features like encryption because of security flaws, which is very common. If your phone is badly out of date and you haven’t been keeping up with installing security updates, always install your security updates. That’s a common thing in computer security, that there are flaws that can be taken advantage of that can allow bad actors to break through otherwise strong encryption. But I think if you’re keeping an up-to-date phone, I think that’s the best that any of us can do.

BOG: Another point that was interesting in the article, and I’m glad that they pointed it out, was the sorts of instances when this is being applied to people. You hear about Apple being pressed to give up encrypted information or give a back door when there’s a mass shooting, or a sort of incident that may involve multiple conspirators and the loss of life – something very serious. But in the Upturn article they talk about how through their research and requesting of records it showed that a lot of law enforcement agencies, even local law enforcement agencies, are attempting either to pressure people whose devices they get a hold of or apply for warrants to copy peoples’ contents of their phones for minor things that they’re being accused of.

Like if it’s something like shoplifting or graffiti or public intoxication, petty drug charges, sex work, these are a few of the examples that they give. Considering the way that policing works in the United States, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone in the listening audience, police tend to focus their attention on poor and racialized parts of the population. So if law enforcement gets people’s data, whether by asking for it and pressuring people into it or by using devices, and then saves it for a later investigation and there’s no sort of oversight of this, it seems very likely that the sorts of data that they’re collecting could be used to build future cases or for building profiles on people for things they haven’t actually been accused of so far.

CB: Yup. Phishing for data. Maybe they’re just trying to justify the purchase of this stuff. In Oregon they spend half a million dollars on cellphone extraction technologies, Portland alone spent a quarter of a million in a period of 4-5 years. That’s a lot of money to justify, right? If you’re only using it 3 times a year for homicide cases then maybe you can’t justify actually spending that money and you would just farm out, whenever you do need it for something like that, either to a fusion center or a pay-per-service from one of these companies. So it might just be they’re partially covering their asses and saying ‘Oh yeah, we use it 10 times a week’.

But we’ve also seen examples of law enforcement agencies that just collect so much data, almost for the purpose of just having data. The LAPD famously uses Palantir which is a horrible company, to do all sorts of data analytics for their region collecting data on pizza purchases and parking passes and all sorts of things that don’t seem relevant at all to law enforcement, but it’s almost a compulsion to just collect the data and see what they can do with it.

BOG: Another thing that I had seen was Google was recently in the news when court documents were unsealed in Detroit relating to witness intimidation and arson by an associate of R. Kelly, and this in regards to keyword warrants. Are you familiar with this case and could you talk a little about keyword warrants and what they are?

CB: Yeah, so keyword warrants. I hadn’t heard about them before this news story came out earlier this month, but it’s not surprising. I certainly was familiar with just how many requests for data Google gets and responds to, affecting hundreds of thousands of user accounts every year in the US. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Google, instead of just getting requests saying ‘Hey, I’d like to have all of the emails associated with email address thefinalstraw@gmail.com’, which seems to be the more straight forward type of request related to a specific account that might be included in a law enforcement issue… probably not though. To expand that to ‘Hey, I want to know all of the information you have about people who searched for ‘The Final Straw’ ’. So that’s the keyword warrant or the keyword search request that happened in this case. We’ve seen examples of Geofencing warrants happening for Google Maps asking for anybody who has searched for an address within a given region, that there were a few stories about over the last year. So yeah of course, the data is there why not ask for it? Google is not going to say no, why would they?

BOG: Basically, again by collecting information based on its availability then attempting to apply it. So in this case with the arson, they asked for people who had searched for the address of the house where a car got set on fire within a certain period of time and then cross-referenced that to a Geofence of what phones were in the area within a period of time, and were able to pinpoint and place charges. And not all of the information came out from that, some of the court records are still sealed. It’s kind of a frightening application of technology and as you say, a very happy-to-oblige industry.

CB: Yeah. I think the potential for false arrests and harassment of people, like say you happen to find someone in that area who you don’t like for one reason or another you can arrest them and hold them for a while even if you have no evidence. Harassment arrests are used all the time by law enforcement and have been for decades, centuries probably.

BOG: So I guess… use DuckDuckGo if you’re going to be committing an – – – – ?

*Laughter

CB: I would avoid Google, I definitely use DuckDuckGo. I prefer DuckDuckGo for selfish reasons, I find the personalized search aspect of Google to be somewhat infuriating. When I search for something I don’t want to find what Google thinks I want to find, I want to find the documents related to my search. It’s hard to avoid these tools, but I think DuckDuckGo, anything but g-mail for email please, and there are alternatives to Google Docs as well. Cryptpad seems to be getting better. Every month there are improvements. It offers collaborative online editing to documents, all E2E encrypted.

BOG: I am going to presume with this question that you are not a lawyer, am I correct in that?

CB: I am not a lawyer, no.

BOG: It seems things like intercepting phone calls, peoples text messages, or getting deep into their cellphones and all of the information that’s collected in them for arguably unrelated topics, might overstep into the realm of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), or might overstep into the realm of one of those amendments that protects our rights against unfair search and seizure. That just doesn’t seem to be the case? Or in these instances is it that these methods haven’t been brought before courts to be challenged?

CB: Everything I know about the law I learned from CLDC, and Law & Order in a previous lifetime. So what I do know about these from reading various news articles and conversations with CLDC is, as pointed out by Upturn, a lot of the extraction of data from cellphones was based on consent and not a warrant. It was about a 50/50 split depending on jurisdiction. So this was probably the case of intimidation by a cop to a person with a cellphone, to say ‘Oh, well let us check your cellphone”. I’m not sure if they give full disclosure of what they mean by ‘let me check your cellphone’, right? (laughs) ‘Let me copy everything there is on your cellphone off your cellphone, if you’re not guilty of this minor misdemeanor’. You know, they’re just asking permission.

That’s one of the things CLDC shoves down the throats of everyone at their trainings, which is don’t consent to searches. Just don’t do it! Even if they’re going to go ahead and do the search, even if you’re not consenting to it, say over and over again ‘I do not consent to this search’. Have a sticker on your phone that says ‘I do not consent to this search’. Because then it can’t be used in the court of law at least. The other thing that we’ve seen over the years is, parallel reconstruction. I don’t know if I’ve seen a well researched example of this but certainly people have hinted that this a common practice, where they’ll find out something via methods that wouldn’t be admissible in the court of law and then they figure out a way to reconstruct what they know using admissible methods.

BOG: Oh like in The Wire.

CB: Yeah, exactly. So that’s something that might be why they’re getting information that they can’t necessarily use. The other part is just general intelligence work. It’s not necessarily going to be used to arrest anyone, it’s not necessarily going to be used in a court of law, but they just want to know what’s going on, and so are going to collect as much data as they can. Unless you find out about it and unless you prove harm in a court of law, then how are you going to stop it from happening? Which is why this report about the Google keyword searches and Google Geofencing searches is so important. If we can find out about that and we can get a case brought forth and have it deemed unconstitutional to do this kind of search then that would stop those kinds of requests from happening. Then you could put pressure on a company – even a company like Google – you could put public pressure on them to say ‘Don’t respond to these requests, they’ve been deemed illegal’.

BOG: There are a couple of other, I guess not insights but points in that Upturn article that I thought were useful. Like if someone deletes information on their phone, are they actually deleting information off of their phone, and are there appropriate or useful, good tools for actually wiping data off of phones or does it just kind of sit there?

BOG: –MAGNETS–

CB: I don’t know of a good tool. I think that if you do a factory reset of your phone that’s most likely to help make that data inaccessible. Even then, is it actually getting completely deleted? It might not be. You have memory on your computer or on your cellphone, and when you delete something it just kind of takes the index away… I’m trying to use an analogy that people would remember. Do people remember libraries and card catalogs? (laughs) All of my analogies are too old.

BOG: I think it’s fair, go ahead.

CB: You think people will remember?

BOG: I think so, or they’ve heard the analogy enough they’ll recognize what a card catalog is.

CB: They’ve seen a movie with an old-timey library and card catalogs?

BOG: Ghostbusters

CB: So. you have a big library with books on all the shelves and the way you know where to find a book is to go to the card catalog. You look up the book that you want and you find its listed location on the shelf and then you go to the shelf and you find the book. Well now, when you delete a file from a computer, really all you’re deleting is the card from the card catalog. So when it comes time to put a new photo in the memory of your computer or cellphone, you go to the shelf and you find out ‘Oh, there’s supposed to be space here because according to the card catalog there’s nothing stored here, so this old data must be something that I don’t need anymore, now I’m going to delete that old stuff.’ Right, ‘I’m going to remove that book from the shelf whose existence was deemed not there anymore by the card catalog, I’ll throw it away now and put my new one in.’ So it’s not until you use the memory again that the old information actually gets deleted.

BOG: At least on computers there’s – for instance I had to reinstall my operating system recently. And when I installed it I went to encrypt the home folder and the file system and it asked ‘Do you want to overwrite everything else on the hard drive?’ Is that what you’re talking about?

CB: Yeah, so that would be the equivalent of actually going to all the shelves of the old library and removing all of the old books. So that’s pretty common when you’re setting up on a computer but I’ve never seen that option on a phone. I’m wondering, does a factory reset actually delete all of that information? I haven’t noticed that myself.

BOG: Microwaves. I mean I saw –

*Laughter

BOG: Yeah, I got nothing.

CB: Drop your phone in the pool, start over.

BOG: They invented this thing called rice though, where if you put your phone into a bag of rice it extracts the water… and the data…

*Laughter

BOG: Well are there any other things you’d like to share with the audience concerning digital tech or any insights?

CB: I did want to share one thing. You asked about them getting this data, and is this illegal search and seizure. There are still strange laws that date back to the 80’s, for example e-mail can be accessed by law enforcement form somewhere like Google with just a subpoena and not a warrant, necessarily. For a law enforcement agency to get information that would otherwise be deemed illegal search and seizure, they need to get a warrant from a judge that proves probable cause for them to get that data or that physical item. But if it’s email on a server held at Google then they don’t need to prove probable cause and they just need a subpoena which is essentially just a ‘Please can I have this information’. I think that’s where these keyword searches are coming in, I’m not sure that they actually need to have a warrant for those. So that’s maybe one extra detail on that front.

BOG: In those instances it’s in one centralized place, although if your doing a keyword search… Yeah I don’t know– I guess I don’t know how Google works on the inside and if it’s just constantly categorizing what people are typing into its different services for later use and then providing that in easily digestible pills to law enforcement. If you’re sending email and it’s unencrypted, it’s probably getting Hoovered up somewhere and fully readable anyway.

CB: Depends on who your adversary is. I don’t think the Portland police department has access to a big Hoover of data on a global scale, but they certainly can ask Google for all of the emails of the activists whose email addresses they’ve extracted from the phones they confiscated during protests.

BOG: Cora, thank you so much. Cora is an associate professor of Computer Science at Oregon State University with a focus on Security State and The Adoption of More Secure Apps, and also is on the board of the CLDC. Thanks again for having this chat.

CB: It was wonderful talking to you, as always.

 

The Intertwined Histories of Queerness and Anarchism; Guest Interview with Kristian Williams about his new book on Oscar Wilde

The Intertwined Histories of Queerness and Anarchism; Guest Interview with Kristian Williams about his new book on Oscar Wilde

book cover of "Resist Everything Except Temptation" by Kristian Williams
Download Episode Here

This week we are pleased to present a guest interview with author Kristian Williams about his new book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde which was released in June 2020 from AK Press.

I found this interview extremely illuminating, perhaps like many other people who might not have strong ties to either academia or popular education models of learning, I had sort of written Oscar Wilde off as this kind of white dead rich guy who carried little to no relevance apart from a model of queerness that we could look back on. This interview very much proved that this isn’t the case, and that he and the circumstances around him very much influence how we as queers and as anarchists can sense historical threads that pull on our lives very tangibly today. Thanks a million to Scott for researching and conducting this interview!

You can learn more about the author, Kristian Williams, who is most known for his book Our Enemies in Blue, which is a critical history of American policing and police, at his website kristianwilliams.com.

Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!

One announcement before we begin from our comrades at the Charlotte Uprising, Charlotte Jail Support has been getting extremely targeted harassment for some months from CMPD and the sheriff’s department. In times of rebellion or revolt, it is the support infrastructures that are often the most vulnerable to repression and violence. All of their supplies have either been seized or destroyed by the police, if you would like to support them re upping their much needed materials, you can Venmoing them @Ashwilliamsclt or Cash App $houseofkanautica.

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Music for this episode:

Hustler – Retro Beatz (loop by William)

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This is a slightly edited transcript of Scott’s interview of Kristian Williams on Kristian’s book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, published in 2020 by AK Press. Thanks to Jim of the MKE Lit Supply for all the work!

Kristian Williams on The Final Straw

 

First aired on 9/12/2020 at https://TFSR.WTF

Scott (TFSR): I’m talking to Kristen Williams, who just published the book Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Kristian, would you please just introduce yourself, your pronouns, your name and any information that you think would be pertinent to the listeners of the Final Straw?

Kristian: Sure. I’m Kristian Williams, author of a handful of books, probably most famously Our Enemies in Blue, which is a history of the police in the United States. As you mentioned, my most recent book is Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, which is probably the book that has taken me the longest to write. I started working on it about 13 years ago.

Scott (TFSR): Oh wow. Is it nice to have it out? Was it a big passion project for you?

Kristian: Yeah, it was the thing that I was always working on, never finishing, and had a surprisingly hard time interesting publishers. I think everyone I approached about it, their first response was, “that sounds great, but no.” Eventually AK [Press] asked to take another look at it, and I don’t know, here it is.

Scott (TFSR): Well, that’s exciting. And I’m glad [for] that. The shadow of Oscar Wilde kind of loomed large for a long time on anything that was related to him, so I’m glad that’s not still persisting, and they published the book. I also just incidentally, as an aside, I was writing my dissertation with a chapter on Wilde and got super sick during it, writing about Dorian Gray. And I ended up in the hospital, and I couldn’t finish that chapter, so I don’t know if there’s like a curse with writing on Oscar. I always thought about that. All right. Well, I’m really excited to talk to you about Oscar Wilde and anarchism. The main argument of your book is that to really understand Oscar Wilde, or at least to understand Oscar Wilde as a political thinker, we need to think about all of his art and philosophy through the lens of anarchism. And it’s really exciting to read the book and see how Wilde kind of intersected with anarchism and anarchists at the time. To read about the history, like the fear of anarchism that we’re [still] presented with today, and then just like getting another perspective on Wilde as a person, his relation to the aesthetic movement, the beginning of the queer movements, and all of these things I think still are pertinent today. I think a lot of people have heard of Oscar Wilde, maybe read a little bit or heard his epigrams, but do you think you could just give a quick overview of who he was as a figure and a person?

Kristian: Sure. Let me see if I can do this at all efficiently. So, Wilde was born into the Irish aristocracy, educated at Trinity College in Dublin and then in Oxford, where he excelled in classics. Immediately, [he] became of sort of an early example of a person who was famous for being famous. Having developed a kind of celebrity and notoriety before he had really accomplished very much, [he] then leveraged that notoriety into a year long, a little bit more, lecture tour in the United States on the aesthetic movement. After that, he went on to publish a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then really rose to prominence with a set of four society plays, which were sort of nominally comedies about the manners and dramas of the elite of English society. At the peak of his popularity he became embroiled in a dispute with the Marquess of Queensberry, because Wilde was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Queensberry’s son, which led Queensberry toward more and more public and offensive behavior toward Wilde, which then led Wilde to file a ill-advised lawsuit for libel, which Queensberry very aptly turned back on him and produced criminal charges for gross indecency, which was the criminal term for homosexuality. That led Wilde to prison for a couple of years. He lost his family, lost his fortune, lived the short remainder of his life in exile in France and died virtually penniless.

Scott (TFSR): Thanks for that overview. And I want to touch on a few of those elements that you brought up just, [but] because this is an anarchist radio show podcast—I [want to] to start with anarchism in particular—did Wilde identify as an anarchist?

Kristian: There are two occasions when he did. One was an interview in which he said, “once I was a poet and a tyrant, but now I am an artist and an anarchist.” And another, in a separate interview, he said, [when] asked about his politics, he said, “I’m a socialist, but we’re all socialists nowadays, so I must be something more. I think perhaps I’m an anarchist.” There were other occasions where he sort of flirted with the term, and probably my favorite is in a letter. He tells the story of being on a sailing trip with these two young men, and them getting caught in a storm, and it taking hours for them to get back to port. And when they got there, they were freezing cold and completely drenched and they rushed back to their hotel and ordered brandy. And the hotel proprietors sadly explained to them that because it was after 10 o’clock on a Sunday, the law prohibited him selling brandy. But given the circumstances, he decided he would just give them the brandy. And Wilde’s comment was along the lines of, “Not a bad outcome, but what utterly stupid laws” and then he finishes by saying that, “the two young men are, of course, now anarchists.”

Scott (TFSR): If I knew that that was the way to convert people, I’d be taking more sailing trips with young men. I’m always wondering. So, he used the term sometimes, but clearly anarchism and anarchists were out and about in Wilde’s time. I’m wondering a little bit what the common conception at the moment was of anarchism, and anarchists, and how it might have changed since then.

Kristian: At the time, it was considered practically synonymous with terrorism, and in particular of a foreign Eastern European sort of conspiratorial, random blowing things up kind of terrorism. That reputation has in different forms haunted anarchism really since the beginning. And while the sort of bomb throwing aspect has always been very much a minority affair of what anarchism is about, it wasn’t entirely baseless. I mean, there was a tendency called propaganda by the deed, which had this theory that a spectacular attack against the symbols of authority would reveal authority to be both artificial and vulnerable and inspire the masses to an uprising. In fact [though] it never worked out that way. It was a theory that was partly developed under the circumstances of autocratic rule in Russia, and then exported into Western democracies. In Russia, where it was basically illegal to even speak about anarchism, there was a certain rationality to moving to direct attack. And that was also in a way legible to the population who was also suffering under this kind of censorship. But when it moved into the Western countries, really the effect was to baffle the population and to largely turn them against anarchism, as it became synonymous with things randomly blowing up. Wilde, in fact, in one of those interviews that I quoted earlier immediately followed his statements that he must be an anarchist with, “But of course, the dynamite policy is quite absurd.” Meaning that even at the point where he was embracing this term, partly for its shock value, he also felt like he needed to distance himself from its more extreme and somewhat bloody elements.

Scott (TFSR): And that’s interesting. Do you think that there’s a way that he uses the term specifically for it’s just like surface level or superficial subversiveness or, as you said, the shock value?

Kristian: I think that he always wanted to be just shocking enough to be interesting, and not so shocking as to actually get himself into trouble. Which was a line that he was not always successful in judging, obviously. And so yeah, I would suspect that some of his rhetoric about that was chosen, like in those particular instances, [it] was chosen for the way he positioned himself outside of the mainstream. When he said, “well, I’m a socialist, but we’re all rather socialists nowadays. So I must be something more,” it suggests that he’s looking for the position, which is just slightly too far. Interestingly though, in his most directly political writing, which is called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” what he describes is a socialism without the structures of coercion or authority. And he’s very explicit about that. He doesn’t use the term anarchism anywhere in the essay. And in fact, he begins one paragraph by saying “Communism, socialism or whatever we choose to call it,” sort of signaling that the particular distinctions may not be that important and that in any case the word is certainly not the thing that matters.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because there’s a strategic way to use the word anarchism to get people interested, to get people to talk about things, and to use the way that it’s presented and represented in media. But then attachment to the word doesn’t necessarily help it if people are sort of doing their own thing. That was really illuminating to me to hear you put it that way. Since you brought up “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” kind of the central argument of your book is that this provides a key to give Wilde’s whole body of work a certain kind of cohesion through the lens of anarchism. I was wondering if you’d talk a little bit more more about some of the ideas that he presents in that essay. And then if you want to move on to how it shows up in other writings of Wilde’s.

Kristian: He begins the essay by saying that the main value of socialism is that it would free us from the burden of living for other people. Basically, in a society where everyone’s needs were being taken care of, it would be possible for people to pursue their own interests and to develop what is unique about themselves in a way that the burden of earning a living and the responsibility for taking care of your family, your dependents and all that sort of thing really limits a person’s ability to freely explore whatever it is that they find fascinating, both in the world and of themselves. And so he starts right at the beginning by arguing that the purpose of socialism is that it would make a kind of individualism possible. And in his conception, these two notions of socialism and individualism are tightly bound together. And that it’s possible for certain extremely privileged people to exercise a kind of individualism under capitalism, but for the vast majority of humanity, their lives are too taken up with drudgery and the struggle for survival. And a socialist economy would relieve them of that set of burdens, and therefore makes individualism a universal pursuit. He argues that when that becomes available we’ll see this whole renaissance of culture and art and science and intellectual and an aesthetic sort of blossoming of the human spirit. And then at the same time, he argues that any kind of authority or coercion is corrosive of that entire project, and that therefore no authoritarian socialism would be acceptable. What’s needed is socialism as this kind of voluntary association between free and equal individuals, which I’m not the first person to note is basically the anarchist conception.

Scott (TFSR): Right. That’s interesting, the emphasis on individualism. So in the way that puts him in a different place than some of the other aesthetic aesthetes and decadents. It made me think of that famous line [from the] Goncourt brothers about, you know, living our servants do that for us. The way that Wilde talks about some people, the people who are allowed to live some version of individualism are [enabled] to create beautiful things or even to think like that. Profound thoughts are relying on the work of others to do that. So his his individualism isn’t like a kind of selfish, narcissistic individualism, but one that is trying to extend that privilege to everyone.

Kristian: Exactly. And what I argue in the book is that if we take Wilde’s political writing, and in particular, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” seriously, it helps us understand a lot of his other work, and that you see [that] marriage of individualism and socialism (and that version of individualism that should not just be the special property of the aristocracy) show up in other respects. And maybe the place where that pairing is clearest is in those lectures on aestheticism that he delivered in the United States. Where in addition to talking about the importance of sort of surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and treating life itself as a kind of art, meaning making the process of living as beautiful as possible. He also talks surprisingly much about labor and about investing in the skill and the craftsmen of the workers, such that the process of work becomes a creative pursuit and is pleasurable and then also produces beautiful things. Rather than everything being simply judged by its commercial value, and the worker simply being this kind of cog in a giant capitalist machine, where all of his initiative and all of the creativity is removed from the process in order to maximize the efficiency of profit.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that was really exciting to me to read your argument in the book. One line that that especially stood out to me. You make the claim that while socialism is more aesthetic than economic, because, “ it takes as its model the artist, rather than a proletarian, and as much concerned to free the repressed bourgeois as the oppressed worker.” And that sticks out to me because I think you can [take as model the artist], just thinking about anarchism today. But I was wondering if you maybe would elaborate a little bit on this idea of shifting the revolutionary subject away from the traditional understanding of the workers, that kind of disciplined [and] manly person, and maybe that can also verge onto a critique of work, too. There’s a lot of anarchism goes away from this kind of idolizing of the worker as the person that will lead us to freedom. So, yeah, if you could talk a little bit about what this shift in thinking allows us to see for revolutionary politics.

Kristian: Yeah. I don’t know if he had an idea of a revolutionary subject, as you put it. Like, I don’t know that he thought that there was a particular class of people who were going to be responsible for the transformation of society, or at least not a particular economic class. What I meant in that passage was that rather than seeing the proletariat as the class that would become all of humanity, and therefore the model of how human beings would be, he looked to the artist. And so part of that, I think shows the influence of William Morris, who considered himself a Marxist, but whose politics are pretty hard to fit into any current conception of Marxism. And Morris largely thought that the purpose of socialism was to—rather than sort of a standard Marxist conception where industrialization will produce a particular class of worker who will then take over society—Morris thought that the purpose of socialism was to destroy industrialization, that he wanted to get rid of the factory system and its rigid division of labor, and in particular, this conception that there was a class of people who sort of designed and created and imagined the products of the world, and then there was this other class of people who were basically just like hired hands, who just did the work by rote without any input into the process. Instead, he wanted production to take the form of skilled artisans, bringing their full creativity to their work, and also therefore experiencing the work as an expression of their creative selves and finding joy and pleasure in the process of creation. And Wilde basically took Morris’s conception on the whole, which suggests that under socialism, rather than society being organized on the factory model with this mass of proletarians, who basically just like have the position in the assembly line and do the same rote task over and over again, that society would be organized as this free collective of artists and craftsmen, who would be able to express their individualism in the creative process while also providing for the needs of the society. So I don’t know that it’s a question of the revolutionary subject. It’s more a question of like: Under socialism, is the world populated by proletarians or is the world populated by artists? And the hope was that under conditions of freedom and equality, work would be more like art and therefore the individuals doing it would be more like artists and less like assembly line workers.

Scott (TFSR): Right. And that’s interesting these ideas, like you said [with regard to] industrialization, modernization. I mean, in Wilde’s concept of socialism there are machines that do the kind of dirty work so that people don’t have to and they kind of replaced that class of people. But this isn’t to enable some hyper-modernization, but to enable a kind of smaller scale of life that allows people to engage in the pursuits they want rather than this larger idea of driving civilization on, or something like that?

Kristian: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.

Scott (TFSR): There’s another thing that they’re brought up for me that is interesting because, you know, when you think of aestheticism, you think of Wilde and Art—art with a capital A—there’s already a kind of class distinction that’s assumed within. High Art versus other forms of art, but Wilde maybe through Morris and also Ruskin, [who] I know was like a teacher of his, isn’t making this big distinction between high art and crafts or other forms of creation. So then he’s also kind of envisioning a classless art world—would you say that’s right?

Kristian: I would say at his best, that is right. I think he was also prone to a certain amount of snobbery and ready to claim certain privileges of an Artist—with a capital A—that may not extend to everyone in society. And both sides of that showed up in his trial, where on the one hand when they tried to cite his writings as evidence against him and brought in The Picture of Dorian Gray and a set of aphorisms he had contributed to an Oxford magazine and that sort of thing, and they would ask him things like, “well, what is the interpretation that an ordinary person would put to these lines?” And Wilde would say something to the effect of, “I know nothing of the opinions of ordinary people, I’m only concerned with the opinions of artists.” And so he was willing to fall back onto a sort of special status for the artist, and in particular that artists could only be judged by other artists. At the same time, though, the prosecutor was absolutely outraged that the young men that he was associating with were often men of the lower classes. They were servants of various kinds or people who were just frankly out of work. And though nominally the court was concerned with the sort of homosexual nature of these relationships, the fact that he was bringing these servants into polite society was as much a focus of the cross-examination as any sort of sexual relation. And so the prosecutor would repeatedly ask questions like, “is this the sort of young man that a gentleman should associate with?” And Wilde would respond, “Absolutely—if the young man is interesting.” And he said over and over again, “I recognize social distinctions, not at all.” Meaning he didn’t care about their origins. He didn’t care about what they did for a living. What he cared about was their personal beauty and their radiant personalities. And that in particular was outrageous to polite society, in a way that [with regard to] mere same sex relations (there was a lot of that sort of thing at like the British public schools and then at Oxford and Cambridge) the men of Wales class were somewhat ambivalent about that. But the cross-class nature really was outrageous to public opinion and ultimately to the law.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that’s something that you elaborate [on] a little bit in the book in a way that I found very interesting. That people at the time, [some of whom] were anarchists and some weren’t, were kind of thinking about the cross-class same sex relationships as a sort of liberatory engagement. And that made me think that there’s sort of seeds of the radical gay liberation or queer liberation movements already in place in the end of the 19th century when these things were kind of being defined. I mean, I don’t know if any of these thinkers would go so far, but I was like reading into this this idea that men across class having relationships would be a sort of undermining of capitalist society. Could you talk a little bit about how the ways of this kind of cross-class relationship were being fought by the queer and anarchist thinkers at the time?

Kristian: Yeah, [and] this wasn’t just an anxiety on the behalf of the aristocracy. The men engaging in these relationships often did sort of theorize that it was going to destroy the class barrier and thus crash the social hierarchy, and that for them that seemed like an advantage. Of course, in retrospect, that all seems very naive, right? Like the ideas that wealthy aristocrats paying young men of the lower order for sex would destroy class relations just seems sort of fanciful. But it was a popular notion among radicals in those circles at the time. And I think to understand that, we need to remember sort of the difference between the traditional British class system and the sort of emerging capitalist system, where they still had the trappings of an aristocratic hierarchy, so that class position wasn’t simply a matter of who had money and who didn’t. And the divisions between the classes weren’t simply a question of one class being an employing in class and one class being a laboring class. The differences were also cultural, and it was possible to be kind of a destitute aristocrat, and it was also possible to make a fortune and yet remain ultimately sort of a middle class person. That [it] was a matter of both of the culture and the expectations and the values that people in those positions would have. But it was also a matter of how they would be regarded socially. So that in some way would even be more respectable to be an impoverished aristocrat than it would be to be a wealthy merchant. So there was this element where simply having kind of intimate contact with people of other social classes seemed subversive, seemed destructive of the barriers that kept them apart. And in particular, Wilde’s interest in the culture of the lower classes, and then also his interest in exposing them to what we would call High Art seems deliberately like trying to erase that cultural line between the upper and [the] lower. Though interestingly, he had basically no interest in the middle classes at all.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, which I guess makes sense. So there’s something interesting there, too, because you know, Wilde initiated a libel suit against the Marquees of Queensberry because he left this card at the hotel, where Wilde was staying. [And] that at least one reading of it, you say in the book of that card, posing as a sodomite reads like a misspelling. So he is being accused of posing as a homosexual. So this just made me think about how the class positions weren’t necessarily tied to actual wealth. But you could kind of portray the image of an aristocrat. And I wonder to what extent that relates to an understanding of aestheticism, like the kind of the idle dandy and the aristocratic bend to that. But you’re arguing that even though that’s one understanding aestheticism, it actually has a kind of anarchist political and ethical value or valence or something. So, yeah, I’m kind of thinking [and] wondering about this idea of posing, posing as queer [or] posing as an anarchist, and how Wilde uses these different positions.

Kristian: So artificiality was, in Wilde’s schema, a value rather than a vice. And part of that was that he had this idea that the purpose of life was this kind of self-cultivation, [this] sort of self-creation, which means that to a certain extent it is going to be an artificiality, that is going to be an element of artistry to the life that you create for yourself and the character that you develop in yourself, and also the presentation that you make to the world. And Wilde very deliberately created an image of himself early on as this sort of idle genius, and also as this person who in some ways was outside of the categories of conventional society. And he relayed that with his sort of flamboyant dress. He created that image by making a habit of saying outrageous things as he matured, the outrageous things that you said tend to have more of a subversive undercurrent to them. But especially early on, [it] seems like he was often just reaching for the thing that was going to outrage public opinion. So there was always this matter of posing. And one of his aphorisms is that it’s only shallow people who don’t judge by appearances. One of the things he meant by that is that it is the appearance that we choose for ourselves. That is the way that we decide to present ourselves to the world. And that that’s important, right? And that, you know, it’s like you can tell a lot about somebody from what they choose to show you. So there was always this self-consciousness to Wilde’s presentation, especially publicly, and there was connected in that a gendered element where he presented himself as the sort of foppish, flamboyant aesthete, which was always interpreted like the dandy, [which] was always understood as sort of an effeminate character. But it actually wasn’t really until Wilde’s scandal that it was fully identified also as a homosexual character. And so he was often seen and sometimes mocked as this living affront to the ideals of masculinity. And this is hard for us to kind of imagine now, but at the time that wasn’t necessarily associated with homosexuality. Which makes Queensberry’s claim that he was posing as a sodomite, a little bit complicated. And part of the work that the trial did was to construct this notion of what a sodomite is like, such that a person could be posing as it. And this gains a kind of circular momentum, where the image that it constructs is partly the negation of the ideal of a respectable middle class family man, but partly just the reflection of the image that Wilde has been projecting all along. And so in the course of the trial, what a sodomite is, the figure of the sodomite, is built so that Wilde will resemble it. Then once that equation takes hold, Wilde really becomes the icon of sort of what a gay man is expected to be like. I’m borrowing here from the work of Alan Sinfield, who wrote a book called The Wilde Century, which makes this argument in about 250 pages. So if you’re interested in that, and how exactly that happened, that is the place to look.

Scott (TFSR): It seems really important, and something maybe a lot of people don’t know, is that we’ve inherited a kind of gay male type or stereotype that can be traced back to Wilde, and these trials. That even over over 100 years, a lot of that hasn’t changed that kind of identity type that Wilde embodied, or even like the lampoon of Wilde’s identity still marks understandings of gay male effeminacy and campness, how Sontag talks about him. So I think you bring that out really interestingly. But like in your book, the thing that I think is really important that you add is that in the aftermath of Wilde’s trial, the queerness of Wilde sort of has an influence on anarchist thinkers at the time. In a way not only is Wilde’s queer identity becoming politicized and codified, but also there’s an anarchist element to that, and I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that—about the trial and how his sexuality became influential for anarchist thinkers.

Kristian: Sure. This went in a lot of different directions and had several different elements. But maybe the clearest is that Emma Goldman. Other American anarchists as well, but Emma Goldman in particular was initially extremely sympathetic with Wilde, but simply as an example of the puritanical hypocrisy of the legal system, and as a victim of state oppression, it wasn’t until later that she became exposed to the sort of sexological literature that was elaborating the theory of homosexuality, where she realized that it wasn’t just a particular case of the state doing what the state does, but there was also an element [of] Wilde’s trial was intimidating and terrorizing for an entire group of people. And that it wasn’t just a matter of individual suffering and individual persecution, but that there was a group element to this. And so it became important to her to specifically stand up for the rights of homosexuals, sort of as a class rather than simply opposing the state putting people in prison, because of course we’re against the state putting people in prison. Another direction that that developed was that in Great Britain and in the US, the anarchist sexual politics at that time were already interested in sexual liberation, but mostly in the framework of a critique of marriage and free love and advocacy around issues of legitimacy, meaning really the rights of children who are born out of wedlock. And so adding to sort of queer element to that, they were already kind of primed for that development. And then what that meant was that it wasn’t just that Wilde’s trial affected anarchist’s sexual politics, it meant that a particular kind of sexual politics came out of that, that [they] were interested in gay rights as an expression of sort of sexual freedom overall. There was a natural affinity between the way anarchists were already thinking. And the sort of challenge and rethinking posed by the Wilde trial. Another direction that developed was that in Europe, and especially in Germany, individualist anarchists took a somewhat different lesson from the Wilde trial, and were less interested in conceptions of group identity and more interested in understanding it simply in terms of sort of individuality, individual rights and [an] individual person’s ability to express themselves and find pleasure in whatever way they chose, regardless of laws or social convention, or religious or moral precepts. And that, curiously, also circulated back into the United States, partly through Benjamin Tucker and his paper Liberty, which reprinted some of the European coverage of the Wilde trial, and also editorialized on its own, and very much in a more sort of individualist, libertarian kind of approach. So there were a couple of different developments from that in terms of how Wilde’s persecution shaped anarchist politics in the generations after.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, that’s interesting. This is a still a kind of problem and paradox within queer liberation—the idea of an identity and a group type or a minority group demanding rights, and then [the] kind of queerness that critiques and wants to do away with identity. And obviously, the way you were outlining Wilde’s understanding of posing and artificiality is already showing kind of ambivalence to that, even as he’s being put in the position of defining this type. So it’s interesting to see these things that [still] are. Anarchists today are always fighting identity politics as well, whether or not they’re queer. So I think it’s interesting to see that these things were already happening at that moment.

Kristian: Wilde himself directly addressed this question in a short story called The Portrait of Mr. W.H., which the story itself is complicated, and I’m going to do my best to sum it up quickly. Basically it involves a relationship between two men, one of whom has a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by and devoted to a young boy actor named Willie Hughes, the W.H. of the title. [He] then persuades the other man of this. The other man then goes and engages in a relationship with a third man and also tries to persuade him of this theory. And the whole thing is in some ways an excuse to make this argument about the history of homosexuality and its influence on culture. So it looks at the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece. I mean, there’s no way to talk about this that isn’t anachronistic. I should say that, first of all. Like, Wilde never used the term homosexuality, but the presence of homosexuality in ancient Greece, the importance of homosexuality in the Renaissance, the importance of homosexuality for Shakespeare, and then more recent examples. The thing about the story is that they have this argument about the sonnets, but there’s no proof for it. And in order to try to persuade each other, each of the men engages in this fabrication of evidence [of] different kinds. The evidence itself, including the portrait of the title, is a beautiful work of art, but it’s also false. It’s also a fraud. And each of the men, once he persuades the other one of the importance of the theory, is then fatally compromised and dies–one of them by suicide, one of them by consumption. And at the end, you’re left with, on the one hand, this exercise in the construction of a homosexual genealogy, like a cultural genealogy of homosexuality. And on the other hand, the story itself exposes that construction as this kind of artifice and draws into question the wisdom of sort of latching your identity onto anything exterior to yourself. And so it’s both this exercise in the creation of a gay identity, and it’s also this deconstruction and critique of that exercise at the same time.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah, and that seems like it could also be like a fitting parable for the attempts to naturalize or biologize sexuality and gender towards increasing rights for so-called gender or sexual minorities. Like these stories that we’re telling ourselves here in that essay or whatever you want to call it, like a story essay.

Kristian: Yeah, it’s a little hard to know how to characterize it. It queers our categories.

Scott (TFSR): I mean, it’s all just part of the seduction anyway. I think that you’re reading of that is really interesting. One of the things that [is] still kind of going on, this idea of identity. The thing that stood out to me after reading your book was that the legacy of Wilde, in a way, entangles these three groups, the people that are are kind of unwanted or undesirable anarchists, the aesthetes or the dandies or decadents or whatever, and and whatever was being defined at the time as homosexual, we might say queer now. And thank you for pointing out that we’re talking pretty anachronistically. But, yeah, just these three types. Right. Anarchists, aesthetes, and queer people even at the time were sort of confused in people’s minds and had this sort of like specter haunting people as like unwanted types. Could you talk about how that sort of legacy still persists today? [How] these entanglements of these different positions politically, artistically and sexually persist today?

Kristian: Yeah. Well, I mean, some of it I think you’ve already hit on. Anarchism, as it existed circa 1895, was already a sort of hospitable environment for a gay politics to emerge in a way that most other sort of political realms were not. Because anarchism already had this critique of sexual morality, it already has its critique of the family structure. It was already advocating for birth control and the rights for children who were born out of wedlock and the equality between men and women and free love and all of that kind of stuff. So it was ready for the addition of the concern of homosexuals. And I think once that took root there, of course, gay politics have then expanded far outside of anarchism and even arguably outside of the left. But it’s now just very infused with the sort of culture of anarchism and also the values and those sort of self perception of what anarchists do expect ourselves to be like. The fusion between aestheticism and queer politics has developed somewhat differently, but it also remains there, right? Where on the one hand, this becomes an annoying stereotype, and on the other hand, it’s also something that gay men especially sort of celebrate about their shared culture, such as it is. Where it’s like there’s an expectation that there are going to be these sort of fabulous creatures with good style sense and immaculately decorated houses and an interest in music and theater and that sort of thing. And also for the same reason, it’s always a little bit suspicious when an adolescent boy takes too strong an interest in painting or poetry, right? So there’s a weird kind of both good and bad aspects to the two of those things coming together and forming a type, or a stereotype. The connection between aestheticism and anarchist politics is in a way more complicated. On the one hand, it means that on a shallow level it has helped inform the attraction of anarchists to sort of the artistic avant-garde, which has shown up really throughout the 20th century from Dada to the beats to punk, really. Greil Marcus territory there. And on a deeper level, though, I think that the notion that life should be the sort of splendid adventure, and that the way individuals live should be reflective of their character and personality, rather than bounded by convention and predictable and productive, but not necessarily very creative or interesting. I think that this has done a lot to maintain sort of the spirit and attraction of anarchism. And that puts us more in the lineage of the situation as to crime think, right. But then there’s also this this paradox, where especially in the last couple decades anarchism has taken a very moralistic and sort of puritanical turn that has also always been sort of a feature of it. You know, at sometimes if you look at a figure like the early Alexander Berkman, his ambition toward martyrdom and his sense of asceticism and his harsh judgment of other people is just annoying. So there’s always been that kind of puritanical element to anarchism as well. But at our best, that is counterbalanced by this free and flowing and urge toward the beautiful. At the moment, it feels like the sort of purist and puritanical element is more to the surface. And the notion that the life should be anything other than, [or] something more than, just the political struggle and the urge to purify oneself and the group of people around you. It seems to have receded. I worry that we’re at the moment insufficiently aesthetic, and I. I wish we could bring that back more to the surface.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful idea. I really like the way that you politicize Wilde’s aestheticism because I mean, it is such an old argument in a way that’s kind of like tedious and boring. That, even like Sartrean committed literature is against the art for art’s sake, because that is like amoral or even elite. But your reading of Wilde’s shows that even within the stuff that isn’t explicitly political, there’s like an ethical and political understanding that we can get. You say one line that I really liked—your reading [of] the plays is that Wilde’s evasions often hide the seeds of subversion. So there’s a way of reading Wilde that when he’s not saying, like, I’m an anarchist and let’s smash the state, he’s not saying that, but there’s something that happens in his work that allows the subversiveness of his thinking to come differently, [while] not hitting you over the head.

Kristian: Let me run with a couple of points of that. One is that I think that had his politics been more direct in his writing, probably his work would not have survived as well as it has. And while I think that there is even something which on the surface just seems like this exercise in silliness, like The Importance of Being Earnest. If you read carefully, it’s actually shot through with political concerns. Concerns about legitimacy, concerns about the rights of women, concerns about Irish independence and Fenian bombings, right? There’s all sorts of political elements, political themes, political subtext, political references in what at first seems like just this almost Dadaist banter about nothing in particular. But I think [that] had Wilde instead taken the approach of like a movement writer or a message writer, then the work would seem dated and less interesting and wouldn’t remain as fresh as it actually does. The other thing I wanted to say, and this goes back to aestheticism, is that my argument about Wilde’s aestheticism is that it’s not just the places, especially early in his career where he said things about, like the importance of labour and re-conceiving labour, conceiving of labor as a kind of art. It’s also that he pushes the sort of values where beauty doesn’t have to justify itself. And that’s really what art, for art’s sake means. It doesn’t have to have a moral message. It doesn’t have to have a social use. It doesn’t have to be commercially viable. That just the fact that something is beautiful and gives you pleasure is itself important. And I argue that that is an implicit critique of the values, especially of Victorian capitalism, and what Max Weber would later articulate as the Protestant Ethic. Which was supposed to value sobriety and hard work and thrift, and that every moment of every day was supposed to be invested with this improving moral weight, which meant making yourself a better person, but chiefly meant making yourself a better person through hard work. While aestheticism is just like a torpedo in the hull of that ship. Interestingly for us, I think it is also a good corrective to the more stoical and dour and sad faced parts of left wing thinking, the kind of Marxism that thinks that we should sacrifice everything for the party, or the kind of anarchism that thinks that the main purpose of politics is to morally cleanse ourselves of anything that may be socially compromised. That kind of puritanism, that kind of stoicism, that sort of often workerist, but also often workaholic element, I think need something to temper it. And I think the Wilde’s work, if we take it seriously, and also if we are willing to accept it as lightly as he produced it, can help us to avoid some of the temptations, if you will, of that kind of puritanism.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah. And the way you elaborated that is really helpful because we see how, you know, anarchists then and other people who might identify as leftist or Marxist are replicating some of the kind of capitalist mindset of that work and seriousness. And Wilde, [with his] emphasis on pleasure and pleasure as a kind of perversion, I think is specifically queer and specifically helpful in a way as a corrective, as you said, to those tendencies. While you were talking, I was thinking a little bit also about like James Baldwin, who makes similar kinds of arguments [yet manages an] avoidance of being explicitly political in his fiction, [and how] he still he speaks to anarchists, as another kind of queer figure. These people who value the ambiguity of art, are also evading that Protestant ethic that goes along with the kind of capitalist path of individual development. I’m just really grateful for the way that you you expand on that in the book. There’s a bunch of a bunch of things that I can bring up. But one thing that we haven’t really spoken about, but that also I think resonates with today’s anarchism is Wilde’s experiences in prison. And so I wonder, he was incarcerated for two years and then his final writing was on prison. And I think that a lot of people are coming into anarchism specifically now through the abolitionist movement. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Wilde’s experience in prison, his relationship to prison and how that fits into his writing, and what he gives to us today as current abolitionists?

Kristian: Yes, I guess the first thing to say is that Wilde was against prison for his entire career. He thought that the whole notion of punishing wrongdoing was self-defeating and also barbaric. And in The Soul of Man Under Socialism in particular, he predicts that in a future society, there will be no need for crime, because there will be equality and there won’t be either the desperate need to resort to fraud or violence in order to meet one’s needs, nor the kind of resentment that results from being in the lower position of an unequal relationship. And that whatever traces of criminality remain, he argues, would just have to be the product of some sort of mental illness which should be treated by a physician, and not by the courts. So from early on, he was arguing a kind of abolitionist line. He also, partly from seeing the example of Irish nationalists who were being imprisoned, thought the prison could also be the sort of heroic and elevating kind of experience. And he had almost a Thoreauvian line that they could jail your body, but your spirit would remain free. What he learned when they put him in prison was that that was completely wrong. And he should you really should have known better based on what he already understood about the degrading nature of menial work and about the elevating possibilities of beauty and beautiful surroundings versus the degrading and oppressive nature of ugliness. And then he was put in this environment, which was really just designed to concentrate ugliness with the idea of breaking the prisoner’s spirit. And it was anticipated when he was put in prison that he would not survive the two years, that a man of his age and his class would not be up for the hardship and the deprivation, and were it not for the political intervention of some of his friends and the agitation of especially anarchists in Europe, who were demanding his freedom all together, he likely wouldn’t have survived those two years. And instead he was offered a number of privileges that were there to avoid the government’s embarrassment of him dying in prison. And he was very aware that that was the thing that was keeping him alive and that he was receiving this kind of special treatment. Much to his credit, he did his best to extend those benefits to the other inmates around him. [Mainly in that] he was allowed to request books and was allowed additional books from outside the prison. And reading his letters, you can see that among the books that he requested, there are books that he doesn’t particularly have an interest in, but he knows that the other prisoners would. And then for a while, he got the job of taking the library cart around to the cells to give prisoners the books they wanted, which importantly gave him the opportunity to talk to other people, because at that point, the prison system was entirely on a solitary confinement kind of basis. And then also gave him the opportunity to learn about the interests of the other prisoners, and again, sort of facilitate their intellectual pursuits. And then once he was released, he immediately set about agitating to improve the conditions for the prisoners and wrote a couple of long letters to the Daily Chronicle about conditions in the British prison system. In particular centered on the case of a prison guard named Thomas Martin, who had been fired essentially for being too kind to the prisoners. Martin’s specific offense was that he had given ginger cookies to very small children who were locked in prison for poaching rabbits. Wilde pursued both publicly and also less directly, through writing public officials and that sort of thing, the reform of the prison system, noting specific things that could improve the conditions for the prisoners, while also insisting that no amount of reform was ever going to be adequate, and in fact [stating] that the entire basis of British justice was badly founded and needed to be scrapped. This sort of reached its peak with his last published work (during his lifetime anyway) which was the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which I also think is his best poem, which his correspondence makes clear really intended as both a great work of art and also as the sort of political message that we were talking about earlier. It was intended as a pamphlet that would outrage the public against the prison system as a whole. And for what it’s worth, his agitation had some effect. There was a parliamentary commission that was investigating prison conditions at the time, and it took up many of the reforms that Wilde had suggested in his letters to the Chronicle. And just in terms of literary genealogy, The Ballad of Reading Gaol in particular became this almost scripture for anarchists talking about prisons in the decades that followed. So you you find references to it over and over again in the anarchist literature about prison, really all the way up into the 60s.

Scott (TFSR): That’s really interesting. I mean, there’s part of Wilde that is like the “Be Gay Do Crimes sort, romanticizing the prisoner. But then there’s this seriousness, and it’s especially after his two years of hard labor imprisonment, where he is specifically acting against the prison system and going outside of the romanticism of the like criminal type or something like that. In your going over that history, another thing came to me that you show really well, there are somethings, like Wilde just seemed like a good person, like someone you want to hang out with and be friends with. And in that way, there’s [almost] another aspect of like Wilde the person and his actions that I think are worth reflecting on, [and] not just as a figure, thinker, a writer, but that he embodied this anarchism in his relationships with people, even about the way that he engaged in relationships, whether they’re like intimate or just in passing.

Kristian: Yeah. For a person who is renowned or notorious for being extremely individualistic and extremely sort of egotistical, he was also very, very generous. And he was generous with his wealth when he had wealth, and he was generous with other people’s wealth when he did not. Toward the end of his life, he was practically penniless and living on the generosity of his friends. And yet when people that he knew in prison would get released, he would send them money. And one of his friends and benefactors got kind of annoyed with him about this, because here they are giving him money, so that he can keep body and soul together, and here he is just giving it away. And he said, but if my good friends like you take care of me, how could I not take care of my prison friends? Which I think really captures both something of his spirit and also something of the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. Friendship for Wilde was not a trivial matter. He didn’t think of his friends as just like people that you happen to know, he saw friendship as this deep and complicated ethical commitment, this kind of like practice of life. Which I think goes back to his reading of the classics, and probably Aristotle in particular. And so it’s also interesting that, lacking the vocabulary that we have now about like homosexuality and queerness, he described those relationships and the possibilities of those relationships in terms of things like passionate friendship and really saw them as, in addition to the sexual component and the political implications, also saw them as this tight interweaving of two people’s lives, and a sort of practice of generosity and engagement. Like a way that people could relate that was in a way deeply ethical, and in another way unconcerned with the conventionality and what at the time was was viewed as morality. So, yeah, I think there’s was something very anarchic about how he looked at that. And again, it was that very generosity that turned out to cause him so much trouble in the trials. Like had he just been hiring prostitutes and paying blackmailers, it wouldn’t have had the, I mean this is somewhat bizarre from our point of view, but it wouldn’t have had the outrageous moral implication that it had—that he was like taking these young men to expensive dinners, and buying them champagne, and taking them to the opera, and buying the suits, giving them silver cigarette cases with personalized inscriptions on them. All of that was like… You know, prostitution and blackmail was just old hat for a Victorian aristocrat. But that kind of intimacy with people of the lower classes and that effort to sort of extend to them the benefits of the society was politically very troubling and morally outrageous.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how all of these things sort of overlap. I don’t know, like reading your book, I’ve always loved Wilde and had an affinity for Wilde and in a way Wilde has explained to me my gayness, my queerness. But then reading your book, I’m like, oh, my affinity for Wilde also has something to do with my anarchism that I’ve had over my whole life. And I just think the way that you tie those together and show them through going through his letters, his the biographical details, [and] the anarchists kind of response to him. And his work is really compelling. I guess the final question, you know, going back to talking about the role of art and the kind of corrective that we can bring to the sort of dour anarchist politics. The other aspect of him, maybe the term we could say is a utopian, and he uses that in The Soul of Man Socialism. Is there anything that you can say about Wilde bringing a sort of utopian anarchist politics or any way really you want to kind of send us off with, like, how Wilde speaks to us today? Because I think that this book is something that we can learn from in our current moment. So, yeah, any anything in that line that you want to kind of send us off with on Wilde, the utopian anarchist.

Kristian: Yeah. You know his utopianism makes sense, given his aestheticism, given the emphasis on the imagination and on sort of the fanciful and the artificial and the the creative possibilities. And therefore, he didn’t see Utopia as this thing that we achieve and preserve, which might be more of the Puritan model. Instead, he saw Utopia as this this aspiration of humanity that was always just past the horizon. And so it kept us moving. And so he says in The Soul of Man Under Socialism that all the progress is a realization of past utopias. And the utopia is a country where once we land, we immediately set sail looking forward again. And so there’s the idea that in order to achieve progress, we have to be able to imagine the better world. That once we achieve the world that we think we want, we’re going to imagine a better worlds still. And that, rather than that being a frustrating Rosero problem, in fact [it] is this beautiful hope that we can always be doing better. And, you know, right now I think we are pretty desperately in need of some utopian imagination, you know, with the pandemic really throwing our our usual social practices into question, and revealing the threadbare nature of many of our institutions, and the failure of hierarchical leadership structures to address the crisis in any sort of meaningful way, along with the increasingly present effects of climate change and the existential danger that that poses. And then also with the bizarre and perverse political culture that we inhabit in the United States, with the kind of polarization that makes every position a point of conflict and makes any sort of like of, I don’t know, reconciliation or even notion that we will arrive at an understanding of shared humanity, seem increasingly remote. We really need to be able to imagine something better. The alternative, I think, is a very bleak nihilism that just sees the future as only an extension of the present. And I think that from that view, nothing good can come. I saw a picture of some graffiti that said, “another end of the world as possible.” And I think that that that captures pretty well the need for utopian thinking right now.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah. That even the dystopian stuff has dried up, I think. Yeah. I mean, you just said it pretty beautifully, so I don’t really have anything that I really want to add. I really love spending time with Oscar Wilde’s thinking and writing, and just thinking about him as a person. And you do, I think, a really important thing in kind of bringing him out as an anarchist thinker and bring him to us right now. And maybe it’s just like something worth living for. Like that in the end is like something, you know, he, sorry, my mind starts going in all these different directions…

Kristian: Oh, good! That’s what I’m aiming for.

Scott (TFSR): Yeah. I mean, going from like living up to the blue China to dying so that he doesn’t have to see his wallpaper. But I think Wilde actually took things seriously in a way that’s instructive, even for all this kind of humor and artificiality. So, yeah, I don’t know. Again, I’m like really grateful for the book and for the chance to talk to you. And if you have any last things you want to add or also any other places you want listeners to go to the to access your work or whatever you’re up to at the moment.

Kristian: Yeah, I have a modest website it’s kristianwilliams.com, Kristian spelled with a K. Whenever I have a new article or whatever, I put something about it there and put a link to it. And then there’s some sort of category-based archives that you can look and see what I’ve written about the criminal legal system or about literature or about comics. And yeah. So if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve done, that that would be a good place to start.

Scott (TFSR): Cool, and yeah I recommend people pick up this book, Resist Everything Except Temptation, and of course, Our Enemies In Blue is super important too. But yeah, I’m grateful for the time that you gave to talk about Wilde with me.

Kristian: Yeah, well, I appreciate the invitation. It was a good conversation.

“Every Day!”: A View on the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

A View on the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

Map of the Autonomous Zone from June 10, 2020 on wiki-commons
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In the past few weeks since the uprising in response to police killings of Black and Brown folks around Turtle Island, amazing chances have presented themselves and folks have seized opportunities. One great and unfolding circumstance is known as the CHAZ or CHOP, an autonomous zone and occupational protest surrounding a police precinct in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The area was opened to community redesign after nights of intense battles with the police leading to the department evacuating the East Precinct to crowds of people chanting “Every Day”, meaning they would continue surrounding the police building. In many ways, the ability of the community, including anarchists and other radicals, to be able to respond to the situation was possible because of the mutual aid work that had been being developed during the covid-19 pandemic and years of building relationships.

In this podcast special, you’ll hear a fresh conversation with D. D is a Black Anarchist who grew up in and around Capitol Hill district in Seattle. He talks for this chat about that neighborhood and adjacent Central District’s rebelliousness and conflictual history with the Eastern Precinct that the Seattle Police abandoned, about his knowledge of the protests of past weeks and the retreat of cops from their pen. D talks about the foundation of what has been called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, aka CHAZ, aka Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (or CHOP), or as D calls it the Chopped City CHAZ. You’ll also hear a tiny bit about the history of occupations during protests in the city, engagement with the zone and indigenous communities in the area, the idea of monolithic Black Leadership, self-defense against the far right, the reproduce-ability of the auonomous zone model and other topics. We’re going to try to bring you more stories from this place soon and are super thankful to D for sharing his perspectives.

note: I was informed by my cohost William that in fact the retaining wall in front of the fourth precinct in Minneapolis that I was referring to was actually constructed by the Minneapolis PD, hence why it looks janky as shit.

A few of the resources that D suggests folks pay attention to include Converge Media,

Some of the occupations that D mentions include:

The website for the Duwamish nation is DuwamishTribe.org

And for the Suquamish nation’s website can be found at Suquamish.nsn.us

Political Prisoner Oso Blanco’s statement on the CHAZ can be found at FreeOsoBlanco.Blogspot.Com.

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Music from this podcast:

Liquid Liquid – Cavern – Discography (1981-1984)

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Transcription:

// Note from the transcriber: I got rid of some conversational language on part of the speakers, words ‘So, like, well’ and so on. This has created a text that reads a little more formally than the interview itself. The reason for this is that I want to make this as clear as possible to folks who want to read it but are still developing a fluency in English. Apologies for any loss of tone or voice on part of the speakers. If you are studying English and find that it works for you, you may enjoy reading along to get a better feel for the interview.

I put special emphasis on removing words that can be used for approximation when they were being used as placeholders, such as ‘like’ and ‘kind of,’ since without hearing the flow of the conversation meaning might be obscured. I also cleaned up some sentences where the speaker backtracks and corrects themselves, or broke up long flows of speech into shorter punctuated sentences, to give the reader an indication of where an idea wraps up. For example “ …Where I doubt any of the white officers have any roots in Seattle. And Seattle, they’re like cutting edge on shit like community policing and community engagement.“ //

TFSR: Would you be able to identify yourself, maybe what political tendency you identify with, your relationship with Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, maybe whatever name and pronouns you prefer?

D: Sure. My Name is D, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a Black anarchist born and raised in Seattle, I grew up at the bottom on the east side of the Capitol Hill so I’m really familiar with the history of the area.

TFSR: Thanks for taking the time to chat, I really appreciate it.

D: Yeah, no problem.

TFSR: So there’s this occupation, this autonomous zone that was formed in the Capitol Hill district. Can you talk a little bit about what the protests were like in Seattle following the police murder of George Floyd and other Black folks, and what it looked like in Capitol Hill?

D: It started off with the Friday night protest, the Friday following the burning of the third precinct. I had actually just got back into town and went in not knowing what to expect. It was kind of directionless, some targets were hit that made sense for people, like an Amazon Go store was hit which reflected the sheer hated of Jeff Bezos. Then it was a very confrontational atmosphere in the crowd but also [it was] kind of not knowing what to do or where to go and nightfall happened the demographics of the crowd got very younger and much more Black and there was a newfound energy.

People were going around downtown Seattle and made their way up the hill until like 2am in the morning. The following Saturday were more organized protests that were in the heart of the shopping district in downtown, and before the organized event could really get underway the confrontation with the police occurred and things got really wild throughout the evening. That’s where you see the burning cops cars and the Nordstrom’s getting hit and the different looting occurring downtown. That Sunday, the next day, there were hundreds and hundreds of people out on Capitol Hill marching around and the cops wouldn’t let people downtown. Groups would break off in like groups of 100 and try to find a different way downtown while another group would stay behind at each police line that would be formed.

Over the course of maybe like seven hours people finally made their way downtown in different, smaller groups. Simultaneously with that happening, on the east side of Lake Washington in Bellevue, Bellevue Square Mall got hit and looted with seemingly a coordinated group of people there where the police didn’t know how to respond. All they could do was watch a they got hit and looted. I wasn’t there for any of that, I have no idea how that even happened or came about. It was cool to hear about.

Then, on the following Monday, somehow the line, the gathering point for the protest and the goal was the East Precinct on Capitol Hill. That’s kind of where the siege began and it kind of just stayed there.

TFSR: Can you talk a bit about Capitol Hill: the dynamics in that neighborhood, who all lives there, and what standing conflicts are like with the police? Just to name a reference that I have, I was in Seattle for the protests in ’99 and I remember some rad shit happening in that neighborhood. I think that’s where there was a RCP bookstore or whatever. There were a lot of marches, a lot of burning dumpsters in the street and I remember the difficulty of transiting between downtown and neighborhoods like that because those roads that go over the highway are really easy choke points to block off for the police.

D: Yeah, I can give you a quick rundown. I want to say it was like in the ’50s they got all this funding to build I-5 and they basically cut the side of the hill and built the freeway. In doing so the built these overpasses to get to downtown that you were just talking about, which creates these choke points. I think there’s four main ones on Capitol Hill, popular ways, then there’s maybe two more a little bit north in what people call the hospital district or Pill Hill. It’s a pain because you could go from like one overpass to another and if you have a crowd to take the streets it’s kind of hard for the cops to navigate around to get to the choke point. But I feel like they’ve got really good at spreading out their force and being ready for it and not getting stuck.

The population on Capitol Hill, for me in like the ‘90s and the late ‘80s up to the 2000’s was a very counterculture scene. Capitol Hill is also on the edge of the historically Black neighborhood so there was always this counter-culture/Black-culture mingling that’s existed on Capitol Hill. Grunge came out of there, a lot of punk kids, D.I.Y. people, and the hipsters were a really big thing. Especially post ’99 the hipsters moved into Capitol Hill a lot, and at that point I think Capitol Hill had cemented it’s neighborhood legacy as being like the queer neighborhood. So the hipsters started coming in and started changing a lot of the demographics, it became more hip, more expensive to live on the hill.

TFSR: More white?

D: Yeah, more white, for sure. And even the whiteness changed, it wasn’t like counterculture white anymore, it was conformist but like indie. It’s kind of hard to describe. I always use this reference of being in New York and going to a talk learning about how the hipster culture was bad and that was the first time I realized what a hipster was. I realized they were the ones destroying Capitol Hill, it was weird to go all the way across the country to get a name for what was happening to my town. Now it’s a really interesting demographic because there’s definitely a lot of tech money and a lot of single, or young couples. They’re very liberal and progressive and from those ranks you get a lot of ‘allies,’ a lot of people who want to be down, but you also get those who aren’t at all. The contest-ability of the neighborhood is lost, or i thought I was lost up until recently.

But it was always known for protests. Occupy was camped out there, a lot of the more confrontational protests post-Ferguson were up there and the East Precinct in particular was the police precinct which oversaw the Central District, which is the historically Black neighborhood so there’s a very deep-seated relationship, bad relationship, with the Black community in Seattle and that particular precinct. Like gang unit used to operate out of there, one of the more powerful Black churches is like three blocks away from there. So it’s very dynamic but it’s a very controlled neighborhood.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit more about your understanding of who the cops are and where they come from? Like are they folks out of Tacoma, are they out of like Bellevue or other suburbs, or are they people – if you want to call them people – who lived and grew up in Seattle?

D: I don’t think any of them grew up in Seattle. I’m probably wrong, there might be a few. A lot of them are from surrounding areas. The cops that I know of what area they live in, most of them are from like Sammamish, which is east of Bellevue, and Bellevue is east of Seattle across the lake, so like up almost into the mountains and passes there are little towns up there and bougie enclaves up there. I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them live as far south as Tacoma or as far north as Everett or even further north, in some of the areas you could get some land, rural areas or whatever. I doubt very few come from Seattle, if any at all. I feel like some of the higher-ups maybe will have their kids in some of the more bougie private high school around, but that’s about it.

TFSR: That’s a pretty common trajectory in a lot of cities police departments. Particularly if there’s concentrations of people of color or communities of color and then you’ve got a mostly white police force that comes in from the suburbs and has absolutely no connection to their lives that their work has.

D: Yeah, Seattle’s interesting. I don’t know about other locations regarding this, but I think the cops of color are probably the ones who are most rooted in Seattle or have the most history and relations to Seattle. Where I doubt any of the white officers have any roots in Seattle. And Seattle, they’re like cutting edge on shit like community policing and community engagement. So like when Trayvon Martin died there was a Black officer, her name is officer Cookie, she had just taken over a community started chess program. Basically by like getting the library where it was held to not hold it anymore, and then took city funding to start her own chess club in the same place and talked to all the parents and had the kids come to her chess club.

So that had been going on for a few months and then when Trayvon Martin died she took photo ops holding a bag of skittles and an iced tea can and stuff like that. And this is a Black woman. And this is a few years back, and even now it’s Carmen Best who’s Chief of Police in Seattle, a Black woman who can hit the talking points like “my grandchildren are out in the protest” and “my son/daughter in law is out in the protest” and that type of stuff. But it’s there’s always been like, even in the neighborhood I grew up with, there was the Black officer who responded to every single call that was every made in the neighborhood. He was the first one there because he was the community liaison and so Seattle’s good for that – their community policing’s cutting edge.

TFSR: Some people in the listening audience may have heard the term ‘community policing’ in a positive way as like it’s a way to de-escalate situations and to decrease the likelihood of use of force through that way by officers, and cement conversations in neighborhoods or whatever, the smiling face of cops. When in fact it’s notably a counterinsurgency method.

D: Yeah, in Seattle it came directly out of Weed & Seed funding. Weed & Seed was a Department of Defense project [transcriber’s note – I checked, it’s Department of Justice] and it was literally like weed out the bad and seed the good. I experienced that growing up in the ‘90s, basically it was like they would send these community police officers or whatever into neighborhoods to build relationships with community councils, which were often grassroots organized, and would build these relationships and convince neighbors to snitch on each other. In doing so people, families, lost their homes. They literally get their homes taken away from them because their kids or families members were breaking the law, and they’d be turned in by neighbors. It was a very insidious program. And community policing was not the like…you know, I never once played basketball with a cop. But the cop would be sitting there staring at all the kids who were playing basketball at the park nearby and would know whose parents were who so it would make rounding up people easier for them, if anything. It created more divisions in our community if anything. It was insidious but it was also that happy, like shake hands, I’m here for you, here’s my direct line, give me a call if you see anything sketchy. Then as new neighbors came in and the gentrification picked up it was the white neighbors who were calling the cops on kids for doing what kids do.

TFSR: Well, to sort of switch gears back to the narrative of what happened in the runup to the police retreat from the east precinct, can you talk about that siege that you mentioned, what that looked like and how that panned out?

D: The police precinct’s on an intersection, so it’s a corner building. Basically a block down from the precinct the cops set up barricades, basically in every direction and the western barricade is where people gathered first, and they kind of kept gathering. It was pretty amazing, one chant that really stuck out to me was “Every Day” and people chanted it all the time, they would just chant “Every Day.” At first it made me chuckle, like, okay, we’re not gonna be out here every day. But people just kept coming and kept staying and they’d be at that barricade which wasn’t a super hard barricade, it was like a metal bike rack. People would be there for hours and hours and then the cops would find some excuse or just get worn out or find some excuse and throw like a flash bang or pepper spray people, people would retreat maybe twenty to 100 feet, then you would hear the chant “Every Day” and people would go right back to the front line again. It was that over and over for a few days.

One of the things, the anarchistic intervention in that, there was a call to build a vigil for all the people who had been killed since the uprising started and we built one and it gave the crowd a place to be emotional and process everything. It was about halfway down the block from where that main front was against the police barricade. I would see people leave the crowd, go and kneel in front of these candles and flowers or light a candle and process everything, and then go right back into the crowd. The crowd size would fluctuate, be small in the morning and late at night and then throughout the day it would get bigger and then into the evening it would get really big and more confrontational. It just got to a point where people were sick of the barricade so they removed it. That led to a pitched street battle and the cops pushed the crowd back three blocks but every time they’d try to make a new line you’d hear the can’t “Every Day” and people would re-form. It was different for me ‘cause I’d never been in a situation like that, it wasn’t a march where you were playing cat-and-mouse with the cops. It was like, they’d throw their flash-bangs, people would try and throw them back or try and retreat, and then if you got shrapnel or stuff in your eyes you’d go to the side and you’d get the care that you’d need and then you’d go right back into it.

So they pushed us back like three blocks, then something really strange happened: they started conceding territory, it was like maybe forty-five minutes where they slowly backpedaled all the three blocks they had pushed us. After they had re-established the barricades and got on the other side of the barricades, then it was like we were right back in the same position we had been in for days. Maybe I missed something but over the course of those days people started setting up mutual aid tents because we had a consistent place. So there was a ton of medics everywhere, as soon as someone would be hurt you’d turn around and scream for the medic and they’re there instantly, probably already taking care of the person who wounded. There was snacks, there was water, there was people consoling – like a mental health tent that was set up early on. People were willing to take care of those places and man those places. The medics had a whole area set up and were rotating shifts and were everywhere. So that helped sustain the siege.

The day after we got pushed back those few blocks, the next day when the crowd got pretty substantial and it got to be kind of late but not quite sunset yet, maybe like 7:30, people completely removed the barricades and passed them through the crowd that time, and inched closer and closer to the police. Every time the police would yell a warning over the blowhard it would either be “Fuck the Police,” a loud “Boo,” or the “Every Day” chant again.

TFSR: [laughter] It’s so ominous.

D: Yeah, it was great. A lot of chants I feel like are used to help us rejuvenate our own spirits and keep our own morale up whereas I feel like this “Every Day” thing was like we’re going to ruin the morale of the cops. It was a siege. I think it was effective.

Yeah, so that day they get really close to the cops – they’re now like a foot away from the cops, the frontline of the crowd. Like directly under the spotlight, directly next to the sound system. There’s basically no more room for the cops to give up, no more space that they could relinquish to us. Then they came, and the day before the day before the mayor banned tear gas. I think the police were a little more on edge and trying to be a little more restrained in their tactics. At that point all restraint went out the window, they started using flash-bangs and tear gas. This time the National Guard was actively with them, not just being behind them but actively in their lines and their ranks and they pushed us back down the street and in doing so split the crowd on two sides. Immediately when that happened all the old police barricades got repurposed to protect our flanks and the backside, and I heard that there were other people at the other police barricades that were set up at different areas. We regrouped under the chant of “Every Day,” people took care of themselves and were able to maintain the siege even though we were divided a little bit. And that went on I think until two or three in the morning, and then the next day there was all these reports of the cops preparing to abandon and the news was publishing photos of moving trucks, and then the cops ceded the precinct, they boarded it up and left. I don’t think a lot of people realized on the ground was that those barricades we had created in order to protect our flanks and our sides became the boundary of the zone immediately after. It kind of just happened.

I don’t many of the anarchists in town were ready for it, or prepared. I don’t think many of the activists or the radicals that had been on the street for years were ready or anticipating that by any means. I think it caught a lot of us off guard in the best possible way.

TFSR: Yeah, I don’t think we have many examples of something that feels like a success or a win when confronting the police. They basically are out there usually out there to distract us and tire us out or injure us. I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Chile during the uprising there and they were talking about how a lot of people on Turtle Island don’t realize this but this is something they saw in so-called Chile, there are bodies in those uniforms and that will tire out and they will give up. They put up this visage of being never ending sources of power and determination and whatever else but ultimately they will tire out and there’s more of us than there are of them. It must have been a crazy thing to see like suddenly the footprint of your self-defense became the outline of this little space.

D: Yeah, and the composition of the crowd was like – it’s weird because everyone’s in masks, so it’s even hard to find friends. I think it was also because the crowd had seen what had happened that Saturday when things were on fire and being looted and they saw the precinct burn in Minneapolis and they saw looting occur other places, that there was a level of militancy that didn’t necessarily line up with people’s political ideology. Like Bernie Bros with gas masks. It was just absurd to see what was going on, how people came, you had like sorority girls in training with like White Claw at the front-line screaming at cops, for the good and the bad that that makes. It was a completely heterogeneous crowd and that might be an understatement. It was so different.

TFSR: I want to ask about what you think about where folks who were there were coming from, and the impacts of cohesion being formed in the neighborhood a little bit later. Since the police actually pulled out their stuff there’s a lot of discussion in media like “Are they going to burn it?” The socialist City Council member was talking about turning it into a community center, there’s been a lot of discussion about what would happen and it’s been a while now since the space has been there. Can you talk about immediately after the cops had left and the cops realized what had happened how the space transformed? There have been gardens built, right, for instance?

D: Yeah.

Yeah, so initially I wasn’t on the ground that morning, I showed up later in the afternoon. But it seemed like people were a little bit unsure what to do and a few people who had been kind of like chosen by the city as “leaders” didn’t want it to burn down and other people were unsure if it should burn down or if we should even there the premises. So just like nothing happened. Which the next day kind of made a weird split, the first split between the Chief of Police and the Mayor because the next morning the Chief of Police went out and made a video directly to the rank and file saying that it wasn’t her decision to withdraw from the precinct and kind of throwing the Mayor under the bus when talking to her rank and file cops. It seems like they were expecting it to burn down and they were preparing for that because all the press conferences and talking points the next day said that, that they had got word from the FBI that there were plans to burn it down. Weirdly it might have been a strategic advantage to not do it, we’re really gonna know the answer to that later, like after this all unfolds.

In terms of the area it was cool to see because there were already mutual aid tents set up, the vigil was set up, the medic tents were set up, people immediately started to use this cop free zone to do what they wanted, and started taking care of each other. The zone is attached to a pretty big park on Capitol Hill, Cal Anderson park, so people immediately started setting up tents on the soccer field that’s there. Just past the soccer field there’s a small grass hill and people immediately started building a garden that grows every day. Around the garden now a tent city kind of popped up around it, and just past that area is an even bigger grass field and people started woking on that field, growing mushrooms I believe. Then some people planted nut trees along the sides, the full length of the park. Every surface became a canvas, basically. I think on that first day when the zone was established someone came in with white paint and wrote “Black Lives Matter” really big across the length of the whole block. The next day local artists came and each one got a letter and they did their own art in the letter. It was all local artists who did it for free as far as I know. It’s a beautiful sight, you see art everywhere, people helping each other. It continued to grow in that manner to the point where last time I was there, they call themselves the ‘No-Cop Co-Op’ or something. There were people doing shopping, get toiletries, fresh produce, snacks and water, Gatorade and juice. They were handing out tote bags so people could do their shopping, it was unbelievable. Then directly in front of the precinct was a stage area, sometime there would be a literal stage there and bands performing. It became a place for speak outs and other organized events that continually tried to ground the space in the Black struggle, to make it so that identity was trying to staying there. I think it’s yet to be determined if that was a success or not. It definitely became like a tourist attraction on weekends. There’s a nightly rotation at the barricades and crews that are doing that, who maintain that.

TFSR: In terms of like the barricades and defense of the space, I’ve heard about community patrols to stop white supremacists attacks. Can you talk briefly about this fear and say what you can about what security’s looked like? Do you have an honest impression of – like, the right wing has all these talking points (and probably a lot of centrists and liberals) about ‘lawlessness’ and ‘violence being created in the space’ and I have no sense from out here if that’s an on the ground reality or if I just have my ideological perspective that people tend to take care of each other if they have the ability to.

D: One thing I can’t stress enough is that the on-the-ground-reality is constantly in flux there, but in terms of your question, the barricades themselves were a response initially to street battle with the cops and then became more fortified, but they’re very modular so people can open them up for cars that need to come in for whatever reason. There’s no checkpoint, anyone could just walk in. I think the difficulty with that is that the heterogeneous nature of the crowd, there were a lot of liberals and a lot of progressive types who were still very adamant about free speech and so as the right-wingers and the alt-right and the white supremacists have been trickling in to see what’s there, confronting them has often leads to a couple of people from the crowd trying to defend their right to be there and their right to free speech, often because they don’t understand who these people are or the history or the violence these people enact. So that’s very difficult. I think once you get enough people who know that or are with it they can get them out of the zone, but I’ve also witnessed some conservatives, maybe not alt-right or people who flirt with that, come to the space and are kind of like disappointed. One person vocalized that they felt lied to by the conservative media and they don’t know what to think anymore. Which was very interesting.

It’s hard, security, there’s different formations that I think if we knew ahead of time what was gonna happen we would have been more organized and maybe politicized those barricades a little bit more. I think again it was like, woah, we were just given this zone, we didn’t expect it. But I think because of the history of Seattle and the radical organizing over the last 15 years in that town people kind of fell into natural roles that they knew needed to be done, maybe natural is the wrong word but it just fell into place.

What safety means in that that space is very different in that space than the rest of the city, for sure. I’ve had multiple like femme bodied people who have mentioned that for them it’s harder to actually confront people who are being inappropriate or touching them in that space because they’re surrounded by liberals, whereas if they were just on the street they could actually do something. They would actually feel a little bit safer defending themselves, which is interesting. Not having police is a very big thing and I don’t think a lot of people who go to that zone are ready to deal with that reality. And it became especially difficult during the weekends when it was such a tourist zone, you’d get a lot of well-off drunk people, or well-off liberals who are coming to see what it’s about and don’t understand a lot of the politics of the alt-right and the white supremacists factions. There’s the video of the armed Black man with his crew running around on the night when we thought some Proud Boys were coming to town. They were kind of behaving like police, they never like physically kicked anyone out but you do have a machismo or a macho culture that’s associated with that crew that’s problematic. It’s hard to describe.

TFSR: It seems like a conversation. I think the way that people keep themselves and their communities safe is imperfect and shifting, and like you said stuff on the ground is shifting. If you’ve got like a peace police instance, not saying the crew with guns are peace police, where people are experiencing getting inappropriately touched or getting attention they don’t want or they can’t just defend themselves and be like “Get out of my space, get out of my business, leave me alone,” because you’ve got liberals who are like “Woah, woah, woah, peace peace!” That’s weird.

D: Yeah, everything’s strange. I wish there were more conversations about the difference between peace policing and self-defense, and more time and avenues to have those conversations with people. I think most of the people who were really invested in the space were having those conversations but I think the overall appeal as a tourist attraction made it hard to really figure out solutions to these problems.

TFSR: Yeah, it sounds kind of like some sort of Exarchia situation where they have to deal with a bunch of drunk western tourists wandering in and being like, “I hear this is a cop free zone.”

D: Yeah, exactly.

TFSR: So at different point’s there’s been talk of there being demands from the commune or from the autonomous zone. Are you aware of any decision making forum in the neighborhood and if so can you talk a little bit about the process and the makeup of it?

D: There was an attempt, they tried to do a general assembly to help facilitate some kind of way to make decisions and breakout groups so smaller groups could figure out what they wanted to do. It seemed like it was going somewhere after a couple of days, but again just the flux of people all the time made that model really hard to implement and people who were on the ground were making autonomous decisions, the people who were really invested in the space. In terms of the demands it seems like three demands came out of the city of Seattle as a whole, or the communities of Seattle as whole which were: defund the police, fund the communities, and then basically amnesty for all protesters or rioters, so, free ‘em all and drop all charges. It seems like ‘Defund the Police’ is a national call, so it seems that that was really popular, and the idea of funding community police was also really popular. I think a lot of people were down the third demand of amnesty for all but maybe when they talked wouldn’t push that line or that would be the one that kind of got left out sometimes. There was one speak out early on in particular where someone was really attentively listening and compiled a list of I think 19 demands out of the while speak out that’s like pretty exhaustive, everything form like free college to like closing the juvenile detention center, no kids in jail anymore, increased diversion plans, defunding the police, I think releasing nonviolent offenders, decriminalizing sex work and all drugs, it’s like pretty exhaustive. That’s really the only demands I’ve seen that come out of the zone.

Right now we’re in an interesting spot because there are certain people who are working with the city and small businesses and they’re working with I think like the Department of Transportation, the Fire Chief and like some of these small businesses nearby and one person from one of these mutual aid tents. They’ve opened up the zone basically, that’s currently underway right now. It seems like they’re trying to make it like a pedestrian zone area. They are allowing the garden to still exist, I think the tent city still exists as of now. But these leaders have been picked out of people who have been on the ground. I think they’re often picked out in the morning when there are very little people around but I’m not 100% sure about that. To me it’s interesting because the city didn’t roll in the mayor or the city council or the police, it was like the fire department and the transportation or department of utilities or something, the aspects of the city that people don’t have a hostility to naturally, they were the ones that came in and made these negotiations to open it up for emergency vehicles, which is I think for the most part and for the average person a really hard thing to fight against. It’s hard to tell the fire department, “No you can’t have the street to put out fires,” or you don’t think of the department of transportation as being, um..

TFSR: ..nefarious.

D: Yeah. Or doing the work of the mayor or the police. So that’s happened but it’s also increased some people’s antagonism again which is great. There are certain barricades that people are trying to keep erected and some people are feeling duped, honestly. They’re feeling like they got played by these department heads.

TFSR: Are people staying in conversation about that? It sounds like it, if you’re hearing it, people aren’t just trowing up their hands and walking away.

D: Yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like the anarchists and other radicals have maybe been a little burnt out and are exhausted to a degree. I’ve felt this way a bunch, where I’m kind of like “okay, that’s the end of that” and then something happens and brings the energy back. So I’m hoping for something like that. The precinct is still there, there’s an underground tunnel to the precinct so every once in a while you’ll see a cop in the building doing stuff. But figuring out what to do with that building beforehand or making sure it doesn’t get back into the hands of the police is a big priority for a lot of the people. The zone is one of these areas where some people are really, really invested with it and are going to hold it down til the last dying breath. Where other people might just be like, so much energy is going to this and our demands aren’t really being discussed with the city or leveraged.

TFSR: Well someone could always just like liberate a cement truck or whatever and fill in that tunnel pretty easy. [laughter] I saw pictures of a precinct in Minneapolis that just got a bunch of cinder blocks sealed up in front of the entrance in front of it.

D: That’s hilarious.

What’s been nice is that here people are like ‘how moveable are these things?” Anything in the zone people are like ‘we could do with it what we want’ which is really cool, that mentality is still there, it’s just how the energy turns. I’m personally waiting for the “Every Day” chants again.

TFSR: Weird question but is it CHAZ or CHOP? What’s the difference?

D: Uh…man, I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m up for either really, I also just don’t really care. The CHAZ thingI think was like a media branding more than anything. I want to say it came out of the Stranger because it sounds like something that they would do. The Stranger is the local, weird independent press that goes in-between being friendly with anarchists to despising anarchists. It seems like a very corporate brands so CHOP was the response to that. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about the CHAZ, the name. So the argument for the CHOP was that it’s like Capitol Hill Occupied Protest is somehow less offensive to the Duwamish people. Which from what I’ve heard the Duwamish people didn’t really care what this area was called. The Duwamish people are one of the indigenous people who were the original caretakers of what is now Seattle. There’s another argument I heard where someone tried to say that ‘occupied protest’ is more part of the Black radical tradition than autonomous zone, but I couldn’t follow the logic or history they were presenting. I think part of it was that some people felt like the name CHAZ came from the outside and they just wanted to re-brand it for that reason. Some people talked about CHAZ sounding super white and wanting to re-brand it for that reason. I’ve been referring to it as Chopped City CHAZ just to kind of like laugh at the name. But yeah, it’s interesting. I feel like the name being contested is reflective of the on the ground scene where there’s this contact flux and people are having identity problems, I don’t want to go as far as to call it a crisis but the space is still trying to figure out what it is.

TFSR: And the people that you – Suquamish, is that what you were saying?

Duwamish.

TFSR: That’s the S-U-Q-U-A-M-I-S-H?

That’s Suquamish. Duwamish, so yeah, the area of Seattle from the history I know, totally could be wrong, was a shared space from a lot of tribes: Mukilteo, Suquamish, Duwamish, Snohomish, I’m forgetting a bunch probably, maybe the Puyallup. The treaty as far as I know was signed with the Mukilteo people but I could be wrong*. I’m just gonna stop talking about it because I don’t want to mess up anything.

The Duwamish people are, the government considers them a part of the Mukilteo tribe but they’ve been fighting for federal recognition for a long time and they have a longhouse in west Seattle that was actually where the original settlers landed. Oftentimes the opening of an event you would recognize the Duwamish and Suquamish people as the original caretakers of the land. So those are the two that are often recognized as the original caretakers.

*transriber’s note – the treaty was signed in Mukilteo by a number of tribes

TFSR: We had someone come on the show and present an interview that they did with someone from up there who was talking about this community center that I think had an art collective – it was like Rising Star, I think was the name of the indigenous community space.

D: Was it Daybreak Star?

TFSR: Daybreak Star – yeah, I think so.

D: Yeah, that came out of the occupation of a military base. Seattle has a real strong history of occupations and getting those spaces. So Daybreak Star was one, I forget the name of the organization that runs it now.

TFSR: Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center…

D: Oh, okay. Then there’s El Centro De La Raza which is a Latinx community space that was occupied by Roberto Maestas and his crew back in the day, I dunno the full history very well but they have like a huge building, they have low-income apartments now, the area where it is is kind of a cultural hub for the Beacon Hill neighborhood in South Seattle. And then the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), it came out of an elementary school building occupation that lasted for years, I think it’s still considered the longest occupation in US history minus the government US itself occupying all the territory of whatever. But it was a couple Black people who held down the school building for years and it was weirdly taken away from them and given to another Black group to then create the African American Museum and it has apartments above it. The people who were holding that down in the original occupation have occupied three other buildings in recent history and have been violently removed from them all. But there’s a radical history of people occupying stuff, I believe in ’99 that was a thing too, there were two or three apartment buildings that got taken over during the WTO thing

TFSR: I didn’t hear about that, that’s awesome. I’ll make sure in the show notes to link to some of these projects and spaces that you’re mentioning. I was wondering about the Suquamish folks because the political prisoner Oso Blanco put out a public statement saying there should be coordination and communication with Suquamish folks since it’s on occupied territory so it’s cool to hear that there is some dialogue and back and forth going on.

D: Yeah, there’s a lot of networks in Seattle that have been established over the years and I feel like a lot of those networks have moderate to pretty deep intimate connections with the CHAZ. I think figuring out how to turn that intimacy into a level of accountability is very, very difficult and takes a lot of energy that I think because people are doing so much stuff in this time they’re not, I dunno, the capacity isn’t all the way there. But I think on the second day of the occupation being established I overheard a phone call with the Duwamish tribe just getting clarification and I haven’t checked, they might have already put out their official statement. For the first week at the CHAZ there was drum circles, indigenous people were leading prayer and ceremony throughout the day at different times. It was indigenous people from tribes all around the region. I think there definitely could have been more connection and it could have been done much better but I think, again, people just not expecting this to happen. I think we were a little underprepared for that.

TFSR: Kinda ad hoc.

D: Exactly

TFSR: Well, also, this is all a process, and accountability requires like you said, intimacy and so hopefully if nothing else this is sparking people to deep their relationships with each other and such.

D: Yeah, I really hope so.

TFSR: Well I just have a couple more questions. Rates of infection and death from the COVID-19 pandemic are rising nationally as states “reopen their economies.” I know Washington was one of the places hit really hard and really early. People aren’t getting public assistance or the public assistance they were offered was pretty paltry and ran out , so people are feeling forced to go back to jobs and maybe are in danger of losing their unemployment if they don’t. These protests nationwide have been expressing rage and challenging disproportionate rates of death at the hands of police of BIPOC but also have presented a dangerous vector for infection, is a fear that I have. Are people in the sustained spaced of Chopped City CHAZ keeping up harm reductive measures around the pandemic, is that a conversation folks are having? Cause I know it’s easy to be like ‘we need to stop Black death in this way’ that’s a demand that’s 400 years old.

D: I think, in terms of conversations I haven’t participated in too many besides like a couple of my friends who thought they maybe got exposed and they went and got tested and they found out it was negative so they came out. But there’s hand sanitizer everywhere, everyone’s wearing masks for the most part, it’s hard to maintain social distance but I feel like if you want to step away, people will let you step away if you want to practice it. I was trying to find the numbers particularly for Seattle and it looks like 1% of everyone who’s gotten tested who’s been at the protest has been infected, so weirdly enough the numbers haven’t risen yet, I dunno if that’s because of the incubation time, I don’t really understand biochemistry very well. I don’t really know why.

I think people are taking the measures that they can take. It’s been interesting for me to see that now racism is being talked about as public health crisis. So I’ve been seeing a lot of talking heads from the medical field who are saying like, this COVID thing’s a thing but we also have to talk about this as being a public health crisis. I’m curious how that conversation continues to grow.

TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. For me too. I’d heard inklings among activist communities and occasionally public health officials about – I mean, are you referring to rates of infection being higher because of disproportionate access to resources and stressors throughout lifetimes among communities and individuals that are affected by immediate racism?

D: Yeah, and I think also it’s like how the medical field itself is governed by white supremacy, so like Black women given birth have a much higher rate of death than white women, or any other category of women. How white supremacy affects the health of Black people and non-white people. I saw someone on I think it was CBS News, a corporate news channel, push back against – I dunno what they’re called, the talking heads, journalists – the guy from the medical field was pushing back saying yeah the COVID thing is a crisis, too, but racism as a health crisis has been affecting people for hundreds of years and we should now acknowledge it and talk about it. I think part of it is related to COVID and the disproportionate infection rates among different communities of color, but it’s also pushing this conversation to a point where we are talking about white supremacy as a public health crisis beyond just COVID, or Corona.

TFSR: I’m really glad people are digging into the roots of this and bringing it up. So I guess the last thing I was gonna ask was folks have been talking about trying to create autonomous zones following the model of Seattle, and it seems like if I understand the situation was kind of ripe in a lot of really material senses for the CHAZ with a lot of neighborhood unity around hated of the police, police stepping back, momentum from the protests, talk about police abolition, and amidst collective traumas of grieving the murder of Mr Floyd and countless others and on the back of months of the pressures of quarantining in this slow strangulation of capitalism, to create autonomous zones it seems like the means to live, like access to water, food, shelter and a wide shared sentiment of solidarity kind of need there for it to sustain itself. I know Asheville had a very, very short lived attempt a few nights ago at an autonomous zone on auto-zone or whatever. It did not stick, it did not plant roots.

D: Yeah, the solidarity point I think is crucial. The goal was never to build an autonomous zone as much it’s its ever a goal to build an autonomous zone. It was a siege, and that’s what we got out of it. It definitely wasn’t the intention of most people that I know, to manifest an autonomous zone. It was just kind of a siege and I think that’s the interesting point, it was a siege and it exhausted that precinct. I haven’t got to the point where I can image we have the capability to force a tactical retreat, I just think it was a siege. I think they were just exhausted and I think the chief of police and the mayor were playing a media game, and not really making their decisions based on what was happening on the ground. I could be wrong. I dunno, I’m not in those halls of power. But the “Every Day” thing – that was huge, just people saying they were gonna be here every day and then living up to that.

I was just watching about, I forget where it was in the country, they were setting up tents and camping outside of a precinct. I think that might lead to something. I think the siege tactic was what got us the zone, not any intention to go out and build the zone, if that makes sense.

TFSR: Yeah, . think so. Were there any things I didn’t ask about that you have a burning desire to talk about or any other pointers that you think people should take with, or good sources for keeping up on this?

D: Sources for keeping up on it? There’s a media outlet called Converge Media, they’ve been on the front-line live-streaming everything. When we were in to confrontation with the cops they were literally on the front-line filming everything. They’re they’re whenever the Proud Boys – when a crowd forms around someone, they tend to get really good video and the guy doing the filming asks pretty good questions for the most part. But there’s even a couple videos on their YouTube where they find someone new to the zone. It’s a Black media outlet, too, but a Black person would come into the zone, really curious and they would meet this person who’s filming, his name’s like Amari. He would give them a nice tour of the zone, there’s like two or three videos where he would do that at different times so you can see how the zone progresses over time.

But just, yeah, keep at it. And the “Every Day” thing, I can’t stress how powerful that was. I think just getting people to say they’ll be there and then just keep coming back, and keep coming back, and keep coming back. I think for anarchists and other radicals just being smart with their interventions and thoughtful and maybe creative, being prepared for the unexpected and hopefully being able to communicate and move together pretty rapidly. And just recognize face-to-face communication is so much better than any kind of text thread or email chain or signal group, and meeting people where they’re at and realizing the people are a little bit more open than they’ve been in the past to typical anarchist talking points.

TFSR: Actually I did think of another question that I didn’t script out, and if you don’t want to tackle it it’s totally fine. One of the things people had passed for me to bring up, was I had written down ‘liberal co-optation’ and that kind of felt covered by the talk of the bureaucracies coming in the mornings and looking for representatives to talk about the demands of the community, or sort of chipping away at the edges of it. I don’t know if you have any views you want to share about the call for taking Black leadership. I know there’s this conflict around this idea of monolithic Black leadership or any kind of community representation and people, like well meaning white folks wanting to be allies or accomplices or whatever word they want to put on it, showing up for things and then in some instances the loudest voice or the voice that has the most amplification from power as it exists, as in institutional power, gaining the mic and directing folks. Do you want to say anything about this?

D: Yes, man, that’s a heavy question. I think it’s important as a Black anarchists who are up in the city and who has been pretty active mostly for like the last 12 years. I’ve seen people who I grew up with who regularly sit down and are in a negotiation with the city and other projects like that, specifically Black capitalist milieus and the Black church and a lot of those people who I know intimately, who I grew up with, who are typically positioned to suck the energy from any Black radical uprising or divert the energy into what they’re doing. When they abandoned the precinct they came up to me and were very congratulatory, like “Good job, keep it up,” things I would never expect to hear from these people. We’re all for Black liberation but our understandings of how to get there are in opposition to each other and we both know it, are now saying “Good job.” They’ve been pushed a little more radical or at least is an opening for them to be amenable to these more radical things happening. I think there’s examples of that of some of the discourse between the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement, but I’ve never experienced that in my lifetime. I think that’s something that’s important to understand now, that the terrain’s different, especially with the recuperative measures from the Black bourgeoisie class or the Black Popular class or whatever you want to call it, and I think for specifically white radicals and white anarchists it’s important to understand that these so-called allies are coming out because they saw a precinct burn. In their mind they’re saying it’s for Floyd, which it may be partly, it may be in their heart. But they’re also responding to a precinct burning it’s not just the death of black bodies that’s bringing people out, it’s the action taken by those brave souls in Minneapolis. The discourse is a little different, that’s not to say these people have been pushed all the way radical but the conversations in Seattle – early on, it was oh this is kinda like Occupy except all the conversations are good.

TFSR: [laughter]

D: You know, you’re not banging your head against some person stuck in their liberal politics or whatever.

TFSR: Or jet fuel burned down the third precinct or whatever.

D: Yeah. I think it’s worth nothing that, and it’s understanding that the Black community is definitely not monolithic. Nuance is very important, but people have changed, this has changed people to some degree and it’s worth acknowledging that. So even though you might have a past history with a certain group, the dynamics have changed so the conversations are going to be different than they might have been in the past, at least in the context of Seattle. I think in terms of following Black leadership I think you’re always going to hit that contradiction like you were saying of the person whose voice is most amplified is probably going to resonate with the same logic of the people who govern over us. So it’s going to be difficult to navigate that, but I think there was initially at least, hopefully it’s still there, an underlying hostility that’s bubbling to the surface. I think things are different, people are different. I think it’s important that formations like John Brown Gun club or any anti-fascist formation or any anti white supremacy formation need to be clear about their politics and what they’re doing, especially when confronting people who are white supremacists or known fascist. And willing to share simple ideas with people they find around them, like: bring an extra t-shirt and if you do something wearing that shirt get rid of it, no souvenirs. That kind of stuff. I think people are really open to hearing it if you just tell them. I think one thing we could have done better is help the people we’ve seen on the ground organize themselves in non-hierarchical ways and faster. I think that would have been very useful. It sucks because it happens but it’s an anti-police uprising and it sucks because there are still some liberals who say we need to dialogue with the police. Or will try to become the peace police, but in Seattle there are a lot less than there used to be. I don’t know in other places how they’re dealing with or facing that. I know personally for me every time I met a Black person who was like,“we need to be peaceful,” it was really easy to be like, “You want to abolish the police, right?” and they’re like “Well, yeah.” To get them to acknowledge that policing is bad in some way, and then to be like “Well, look at Minneapolis. This is what they’re doing and their city council is already trying to figure out how to disband the police. So the simple fact is burning a precinct works.”

I kept going back to that a lot, in my conversations with Black people. I’m also Black so I don’t know how that would work with white people engaging with liberal Black people. I would say maybe don’t do, maybe find people whose ideas are resonating with you and figure out how to move together and be effective and safe.

TFSR: I really, really appreciate that. When you said “Burning a precinct works” makes me think of this artist in the Bay Area who, I was still living out there when the Oscar Grant riots were happening. They put out a poster, just black and white stark, this was their style, with a picture of that cop that killed Oscar Grant behind bars. It just said “Riots Work” in big letters on it. This Overton window, shit is shifting like you say, and without people pushing on it it wouldn’t shift. Sorry to speak over you.

D: Oh, no, no, you’re fine. I was just gonna reiterate what you were saying, like, “Hey, this tactic works” whatever it is. That it’s rioting, burning a police precinct, whatever. It’s something the state does, the state knows that. I once went to a talk during Occupy times. It was shortly after that May Day that the courthouse got hit, that Niketown and some other businesses got hit, and banks got hit.

TFSR: It was 2012.

D: Yeah, I think it was 2012. I went to a talk and there was this person called Connie Rice who’s actually first cousins with Condoleezza Rice, and her job is to basically go to different towns and help them, I dunno if she still does this, but at the time her job was to go to different towns and basically sit in a room with the cops, the fire department, city officials and Uncle Toms and Aunt Sallies and other Black recuperative forces, and explain to them what their job is and how they need to move to recuperate the energy. One of her big lines was “A million dollars of damage,” like once a million dollars of damage is hit you have to concede certain efforts and once that point is made it’s the job of the Uncle Toms to get involved instantly, to immediately be there with the politicians who are making the concessions. That was her thing, they do that, they know that. They know that at a certain level of damage they have to give concessions, and that if the Uncle Toms and Aunt Sallies are there the concessions can be very minimal, and that’s all they need to do to quench the fire, or at least that’s all they used to do to quench the fire. But now it’s a little different, I think. We could use that on our side, at least, explaining to especially Black and Brown folks, “Hey, look, this tactic works, we get what we need, we could live a better life if this happens.” I think specifically anarchists are positions in a way where we can also talk about the repression that comes later and add that to the conversation. I dunno if any of that makes sense.

TFSR: Yeah, absolutely. Well D, thank you very much for taking this time to chat. I really appreciate the candor and you sharing your perspectives. I know you’re super busy, I think people will get a lot out of this.

D: Shit, thanks for having me. Also I dunno if you want to cut this or not, I think it’s worth maybe trying to reach out to one or two other people because I feel like there are so many perspectives to how this all unfolded.

Hotel Sanctuary in MPLS

Hotel Sanctuary in MPLS

modified image of the Sheraton hotel that was taken over and used as shelter in Minneapolis
Download Episode Here

This week we got to connect with Rosemary, who is an organizer in Minneapolis, about the liberation of a former Sheraton Hotel in that city and its slow but steady transformation into something that is becoming so much more than a housing cooperative. They speak about how this resocialization came to happen, some of the circumstances involved, about how this is a very deep collaboration between un-housed folks in Minneapolis and people involved in doing care work, the power of George Floyd who was profoundly involved in doing that same kind of care work with un-housed people, and many many more topics. Check out their new website up at SanctuaryHotel.org and their fundraiser at GoFundMe.com/f/SanctuaryHotel

In this episode, you’ll also hear a statement by anarchist prisoners, Comrade Malik and Sean Swain.  We invite you to stay tuned for mid-week as we release a podcast special for the June 11th day of solidarity with Marius Mason and longterm anarchist prisoners. We hope to feature the voice of a longtime supporter of Marius with updates on his case, and that of anarchist prisoner, anon hacker and Federal Grand Jury resistor, Jeremy Hammond. More about June 11th on June11.org.

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Further resources from Rosemary:

Sharing from the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel FedBook page, hoping a website and crowdfunding link will be up soon so stay tuned!
Greetings community. We hope this long post finds you as safe and well as is possible during a righteous uprising. We wanted to provide you some updates and opportunities to plug in.
The Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel is a community-led sanctuary space for over 200 displaced and homeless people who needed safety from the military occupation that occurred following the murder of George Floyd. We center values of autonomy, harm reduction, community care, mutual aid, and abolition.
1. First! This page, started as a space to boost all kinds of different work related to COVID, homelessness, and community care, is transitioning to become the Minneapolis Sanctuary Hotel Facebook page. Look for changing name and photos shortly!
2. We are overwhelmed with support. This is a good problem to have but we’ve had to rapidly scale up our infrastructure to meet the needs. Here are some ways to plug in:
> If you are media with interview or press release requests, please email: sanctuaryhotelmedia@gmail.com
> If you are a restaurant, catering company, or are interested in providing hot meals, please contact Kimberly at 612-203-2779
> If you are a new volunteer looking to get connected or are a previous volunteer with a special skill set we don’t know about, please fill out this form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScy9VNQ1Xnamf6pUC-kphgXrnI3OwakUucW4YAfYNVz7o5cBg/viewform
3. A few boundaries to set for resident safety, capacity, and COVID reasons:
> Please DO NOT show up at the sanctuary hotel if you are not signed up to work a shift.
> Please NO MORE *non-perishable food* donations.
> Please DO wear a mask when on-site
Please continue to watch this space for more updates as we continue to learn and grow in the work of building a sanctuary.

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Vigil For Fallen Comrades 6/7/2020 everywhere

From anarchist BIPOC & accomplices: Since the George Floyd rebellions began on May 26 2020, following his horrific murder by police, at least a dozen more lives have been taken by state and vigilante violence in the struggle for Black freedom. We wish to honor them by making space to say their names, commemorate their lives, and celebrate our own resistance. By acknowledging the risk we all take when we move into the streets, we remember the martyred and continue to fight for the living.

Calling for vigils everywhere, Sunday 6/7 at sundown.

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Music for this episode by:

Ratatat – Loud Pipes

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Transcription:

This week we got to connect with Rosemary, who is an organizer in Minneapolis, about the liberation of a former Sheraton hotel in that city, and it’s slow but steady transformation into something that is becoming so much more than a housing cooperative. They speak about how this re-socialization came to happen, some of the circumstances involved, about how this is a very deep collaboration between some of the un-housed folks in Minneapolis and people involved in doing care work, the power of George Floyd who was profoundly involved in doing that same kind of care work with un-housed people and many more topics.

And now some words from Comrade Malik, held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Comrade Malik: Peace and blessings, sisters and brothers, peace and blessings. This is Comrade Malik, reporting in from behind enemy lines at the federal penitentiary in USP Pollock, Louisiana. I’m sure y’all have been observing the news. There is a war on black men in america. From Central Park Karen in New York to the mom who drowned her autistic son in Florida, who do they label the perpetrator of those crimes? Who is the usual suspect? The black man did it.

Like I said last year, it is not just bald headed white males with swastikas tattooed on their bodies who embrace these ideologies of hate. The millions of white women in america who embrace and practice these divisive and hateful white supremacist ideologies. [mocking voice] “Oh my god, this (?) man filming and stalking me! Someone call the police now.”

In 2020, we still ain’t free. I ain’t one of those house negroes y’all done bought. It’s me, Comrade Malik, a servant of the people.

Police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, we all see it on national TV. Yet we have to plea and beg for justice. You call that free? Oh say can you see, I don’t feel like I’m free, locked down in a cell shackled from ankles to feet. Another day in the pen, you now hang from a string. The oppressors would love it if I hung it up, but I ain’t gonna do that.

Ahmad Arbery murdered by vigilantes in Brunswick, Georgia and now our brother George Floyd murdered by the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A close friend recently said that I shouldn’t mix anger with my messages. They said that you give the oppressors power when you talk about them. I don’t agree with that line of thinking. There is something horribly wrong happening right now in America. We don’t see images of young white men being pinned to the ground by police with kneeled pressed to their necks, the young white man screaming “I can’t breathe! Help me!” We don’t see that on TV.

Why do police in America feel as if it is okay to abuse, mistreat and torture back citizens in America? This is a pervasive and systemic problem. Black men and black women have feelings of anger and hopelessness when we see these images. However, violence against the police is not going to solve our problems. It may feel good for a moment, but it will only make our situation worse. We need justice and we must demand it. And we can’t allow the victimizers to tell us what justice should look like. The Minneapolis police department fired the police who were involved in the murder of George Floyd. That ain’t enough. These police should be tried for murder, they must be tried for their crime against humanity. We should never be allowed to allow law enforcement to do this to us again. However, even if they are tried and sent to prison, that will not solve our problem which is white supremacy, racism and police brutality against black men in america.

As each day passes I am drawn closer to anarchism, and it is our belief as anarchists that we the people must abolish police departments. To some, this abolition of the police may sound like a radical ideal. But please, for one minute, look at things from my perspective. Ingrained in my memory is over twelve years of abuse and torture at the hands of the Texas Department of Criminal Injustice. Ingrained in my memory are the systematic and systemic murder and executions of literally hundreds of unarmed black men and people of color by law enforcement in America. Ingrained in my memory are the children in the state of Texas, thrown into cages by ICE and Border Patrol agents, and ingrained in my memory is the bloody stain and legacy of slavery in America.

I keep saying that we want free, and like Meek Mill, I ask, ‘what’s free?’ I can tell you now, free is not what we have right now.

This is Comrade Malik, reporting in from the federal USP penitentiary at Pollack. Dare to struggle, dare to win. All power to the people.

Announcer: At the time of this recording, Comrade Malik had not heard of Breonna Taylor, and we know that there are plenty of sisters who are being cold-bloodedly murdered all across this country. We say her name, Breonna Taylor.

More of Comrade Malik’s thoughts can be found at ComradeMalik.com

Rosemary: My name is Rosemary, I use they/she pronouns, I live in Minneapolis on occupied Dakota land and I have been part of the efforts here to make a new place to live for about 250 people now, at the former Sheraton Hotel near Lake and Chicago. This was something that was made possible because of George Floyd. He gave us the power to be able to have this building. It’s hard for me to know exactly how to characterize it because it’s so new and it feels weird because we are winning and I wasn’t expecting that to happen quite so rapidly, but all thanks to George Floyd for giving us the power to carry on his legacy of supporting people experiencing homelessness by housing so many people.

TFSR:Absolutely, thanks for that. The whole really not understanding how to interface with winning is really resonating for me right now. Would you speak about your general experiences on the ground in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd?

Rosemary: So, I can really only speak to things in my neighborhood. I know that there have been things happening Northside, Midway and around the Twin Cities. In south Minneapolis there’s some pretty tight knit community and there’s just been so much happening. So there’s uprising that seems to have spread really far at this point and part of that is complicated so, there’s been a lot of property destructions for miles. Miles of buildings that have been burned and business that have been looted – or whatever – and it went on for days, it’s just very widespread. The landscape right now feels really different and still evolving, it’s hard for me to process what’s going to be happening during the day. There’s just a lot of energy going into a lot of different directions right now. And so during the day people would be out with brooms and trash bags, bringing out a grocery store’s equivalent of food donations by the side of the street, and people biking and driving up and down to see what was going on, and then go out at night and do it all over again.

There’s a lot of excitement that has come with things like burning the police station –

TFSR: I can only imagine.

[laughter]

Rosemary: Yeah, and like, multiple banks and large corporate retail outlet stores. And it’s complicated, there’s a lot of consequences from that in terms of food security, and family-owned, immigrant-owned, black-owned businesses and clinics and pharmacies and lot of disruption to basic needs things for people. The fires were affecting things in a major way for residents as well, and so a lot of people had to evacuate their houses in the night. There’s a number of people who lost their homes, especially if they were living above businesses. Everything has changed. I’m just trying to think about what it’s going to look like next, to think a few steps ahead. This in an area that has already faced a lot of speculation and gentrification, it’s very possible that this could accelerate that if there isn’t some organizing to address some of the land issues that we’re facing right now.

I think that the effort with commandeering this hotel will really help with propelling that in the right direction, it’s building on other tenant’s organizing that’s been happening with being able to get tenant ownership and cooperative control of the buildings that they’ve been living in so there’re been some good victories with that. In general some very strong organizing has been happening around housing issues that’s been uniting tenant’s organizing with people that have been organizing around homelessness, and un-sheltered homelessness, harm reduction work and public housing. I’m very, very excited about the ways these different communities and movements are coming together in a way that I’ve never seen. Historically it’s been hard to have housing organizers and homelessness organizers together, and particularly in the realm of homelessness, a lot of that happens through nonprofit-type, professionalized setting, and a lot of us work in that industry and that can be a limiting factor when it comes to being able to imagine more radical changes.

Right now we’re in this moment when our imaginations are all being challenged in some really new ways. We have to build back up from the ground and there are things happening that just did not seem possible. There are things happening because of the Covid pandemic that seemed impossible. The kinds of acts that I would have thought of two weeks ago seem super mellow now so being able to push ourselves to think of a horizon that seemed farther out than I realized…it’s good to be challenged in that way.

TFSR: That’s really amazing and I think that this is something that this country has not seen probably in more than a hundred years, so feeling your way forward, building up from the ground – I feel very resonant with that as well, thank you for going into that. Could you talk about how this liberation of the hotel happened, what is some context for this event; what do you see as some catalyzing moment or moments?

Rosemary: George Floyd was the catalyst. I don’t know how widely this is known but George Floyd worked at the largest homeless shelter in town for years, so there’s a lot of people that are living in the former hotel that knew him. This wouldn’t have been possible without him. He didn’t sign up to advocate like this and I don’t know how to characterize this in the right way at this point, there’s no way this would have been possible without the power that he’s given to all of us. There’s a lot of things that have happened spontaneously and I want to embrace that. This is something that we had been thinking about, and looking at, and dreaming about and thinking it would be kind of too hard to pull off for a while now. So it became possible this week and so we’re doing it, we’re just doing it and it keeps working out, I keep being surprised by all the things that are falling into place. All that’s a bit vague, I’m happy to get more into specifics if you like.

TFSR: Yeah, what I’m hearing you say is the groundwork for this thing that is unfolding before our eyes with the former Sheraton is that organizing had been laid brick by brick slowly over the years and then the catalyzing moment was George Floyd and his work and his like, people wanting to honor his memory and honor his life in this way. I’m wondering about the initial moments of the hotel takeover, are you willing to speak about that at all? I’d be really interested to hear how it happened blow by blow.

Rosemary: Yeah, and it’s weird, ‘cause there were no blows, too. I do want to make sure that it’s understood that it’s something that we’ve been organizing toward for a while and that organizing work was based on really deep relationships that people have with people that are experiencing un-sheltered homelessness in particular. And the relationships between particularly care workers and people who are experiencing un-sheltered homelessness, so people who work in the industry and have a radical analysis, people who are part of (?) Harm Reduction or other rad harm reduction outreach efforts, responses in the past to encampments in the area, native organizers since in un-sheltered homelessness here there’s just massive racial disparities – that just has to be very named and clear. So these were deep relationships that were made and expanded upon through the mutual aid organizing efforts that people have been doing all over the place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s this really, really smart groundwork laid where we use mutual aid efforts as a deliberate response to be outside of state control, to provide sort of a wedge to force public sector, nonprofit sector to pay attention to un-sheltered experiences. So with a stay at home order closing transit, libraries and public spaces, the shelters are full, there’s nowhere to go, people’s hustles dried up, money’s tight and by sort of really strategically mobilizing the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic and expanding the base of who is involved to be more than industry workers made this possible. It created conditions for people to have true, real relationships with our neighbors. I’m saying our…I don’t know exactly how to talk about these different kind of relationships right now, it’s complicated and I’m going to mess it up as I’m talking about because the reality is there are class and race and other divides between people who are doing care work and showing up in support of housed neighbors and people who are un-sheltered.

So those relationships were worked on really deliberately and around the country there’s been efforts. There’s empty hotels because the industry is failing due to the pandemic but there are people who don’t have a place to live. In Minnesota there are 82,000 hotel rooms and 20,000 people who are homeless – it’s obvious there’s no resource scarcity problem when you do the math, it’s an issue of distribution and choice and will and what we’re willing to do. And so around the country that’s an obvious thing and there’s been a lot of effort to reduce the concentration of crowded shelters, to reduce the spread of COVID. There have been a lot of institutional responses and it was never enough, it was systematically discriminating against people who were un-sheltered and weren’t part of a coordinated, formalized entry system. Like a poverty management model, this technocracy of how we deal with this problem of homelessness. So that’s the model that we’ve all been trying to challenge and that we’re also socialized into working and thinking in. The mutual aid work not only allowed for more people to have real relationships with unhoused neighbors, it also allowed those of us who have been working in the industry for a long time to shift the way we think about things and expand the imagination.

I want to make that clear, it’s not like these things just happened. You gotta do the groundwork, you gotta have relationships with people. You need to have actual relationships with people. That being said, the play-by-play of how we pulled this off was we tried to be really deliberate about exhausting all of our options and then moving someone in here and refusing to leave. It was exactly the right moment because the need was really obvious. The first night we had someone come in here the community paid for the room, above board. It was really necessary, the curfew had just been instituted, the national guard was invading the city as we were moving them the guard was approaching with a massive platoon of hundreds of guardsmen and armored vehicles, it was super surreal, we were very close to the third precinct and then just moving a mile down the way near Chicago and Lake to the former Sheraton hotel.

That night that intersection got real burnt, like hellscape burnt. There really were no other guests in the hotel other than journalists at that point, but there had been some families here because there’s a hospital nearby, who were here staying in the hotel because they had sick loved ones nearby. We had been looking at this site as a target for a while and were reluctant to do anything because we didn’t want to displace anyone who was staying here because they had sick family members. You know, do no harm. Then the hotel manager realized it was unsafe to be in the building with everything that was going on around, and planned to evacuate all the hotel guests out. So once we realized we wouldn’t be displacing anybody, we just went for it and crossed our fingers to see if it would work.

So we divided up roles in a way that would suit people’s talents. I got to be the talent of stubborn and just stay in the room, while other people who were more talented at negotiating with the owner did a very good job of that. The approach was just that we were trying to get another block of rooms for people who were still left behind and un-sheltered and displaced, and really just inform him that we were going to be here now. And then the owner said “Yeah”.

I mean, it took a lot of convincing and some of that convincing was having like ten of fifteen people, not even that many, who were waiting outside ready to come sit in the lobby when needed. He was inspired to say yes, and he’s still saying yes, and we now have an entire hotel, we have master keys to all the rooms, he trained volunteers in the system to make the keys so he can go home and sleep. It’s been a really interesting sort of relationship to have with the property owner. He is a motivated seller, the industry is tanked and in now the neighborhood around us the property values have tanked. We’ve essentially shamed the system into having to do something about un-sheltered homelessness in a better way and showing them what a better way is, and it’s worked.

We have a lot of support offered though county, state and city and different foundations. It’s complicated because those things can come with strings attached so we’re in a really powerful position right now and we know it. We’re taking our time and are really adamant the residents will be the ones who decide how this land will be held, and are letting things take the time that it needs to do that. It’s been a lesson in stepping into power and it’s still sinking in. People are here and are still worried about getting kicked out or this and that, and it’s sinking in now. At resident meetings (it’s majority native and black residents) people are saying things like “I used to be homeless.” There’s a woman who was saying the other day “We got our land back.” It’s not about having rooms, at really deep and fundamental level housing people is how we can redistribute land, housing is land, and we’re in need of some massive land and resource redistribution and this is one way of putting into pragmatic practice land repatriation. I’m hoping we’re able to shore up support in a way that lets that be the analysis that comes to fruition and doesn’t get sidetracked. We’re all conditioned to have constrained imaginations around this, it’s just a very unique thing.

TFSR: Thank you so much for going into that. Is there anything more you wanted to say on that topic?

Rosemary: I think we’ve been inspired by other work and I hope to learn more about what other people have been working on that we don’t know about but we’ve been inspired by Moms for Housing and the Homefulness community in Oakland who sent us a message of solidarity and support, that was really rad. There have been some actions with COVID organizing around commandeering hotels that have been limited to taking a room for a day and having some tight symbolic action with that, like some of the stuff Street (?) in LA has done, that has been cool. But like, we got an entire hotel and I think we might get another one, we got a long waiting list, and I just want that to spread.

TFSR:Absolutely. Just hearing you talk about it, I feel so activated and inspired in a good way, about what you all are doing and definitely sparking ideas on this end. We also live in an extremely hotel and tourist driven economy is that is pretty much going down the toilet right now and I’m just wondering about parallels we can draw.

Rosemary: Housing people keeps us healthy and safe. COVID has forced people to think about the impact of and connection between them because they’re afraid of getting sick from like the masses, and this is a different way of thinking about it. It has taken the awareness that I am affected by you and you are affected by me and our neighbors, and that housing people is a way of boosting people’s health and community health. This is a way of providing for health and safety in our community, not just for now but for the long term, we need to be thinking really carefully how we are responding, not just to COVID and not just to the aftermath of riots or the uprising but to this global economic depression we’re entering. How are we going to mobilize a community? If the economy in your area is failing, what are the resources and assets in the community and how can you make those community assets versus a privately held entity.

The other thing I’m exited about now is the union workers who used to work in the hotel here when it was a Sheraton, they’d been laid off I think about a month ago. And today the union workers came. The relationship between how we use our labor, how we’re grounded on the land that we’re on, all these things – it just feels really deep right now. We have the power right now, things just keep coming together.

TFSR: That’s really amazing. So the union workers came back to work at the hotel?

Rosemary: The union workers came back to see what we’re doing here, and see how they can offer support for what’s happening. I’m hopeful there can be an ongoing relationship about how organized labor and the workers who work here can be working together with the ongoing efforts here. Just as a connection point, too, shelter workers like George Floyd – it’s not like a high income job. One of the shelters in town, the starting wage is like $12/hr. Meanwhile just spitting distance from here, is a building that was not burned, a new condo building with these tiny rooms with murphy beds for like $1400 a month. So shelter workers can’t afford housing, so the connection between unionized work in a place that is now housing and what is happening in the homeless service industry is an important one to be making and is inspired by the disparate movements and communities that are coming together to learn from each other. I am learning so much right now, I feel silly being the person talking about this because there are so many people who are really solid strong organizers who have laid the groundwork work this or have been integral in making this happening. People are working their butts off to keep this going, it’s not easy, there’s a crisis around every corner but it’s happening.

TFSR: Since we only have a few minutes left I would love to ask how people, our listeners can best support y’all and are there ways folks can help get your back and send support and resources if that’s desired?

Rosemary: Yeah, the number one way would be to organize in your own community. Getting those messages of solidarity and support from other places is really really hopeful and hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can do the same for other communities as well. We’re pretty overwhelmed right now with trying to build everything up from the ground, so we’re still trying to get the infrastructure in place to handle an influx of volunteers and donations, and how to have a good system for responsibly taking in donations. I’m happy to pass on more information because I think it’ll be coming together soon here.

TFSR: Yeah, I would love to include that in the show notes. Just finally thank you so much for your time and your willingness to speak to us.

Rosemary: Yeah, thanks so much for sharing this story and I look forward to seeing what other people are doing.

Anarchist Resistance In Prison: Jennifer A. Rose and Comrade Z

Anarchist Resistance In Prison: Jennifer A. Rose and Comrade Z

Jennifer Rose
Download This Podcast

On this podcast minisode, we feature the voices of two incarcerated comrades: Jennifer Amelie Rose and Comrade Z. Both chats were conducted through the mail and are voiced by comrades in the Channel Zero Network.

 

Jennifer Rose

[04:07-12:12]

First you’ll hear Jennifer Rose. Jennifer, formerly known as Jennifer Gann, is a member of the Fire Ant Collective which just released it’s 6th issue and is due to put out another very soon. She is a trans woman who came up in the southern California punk scene, became politicized and began organizing inside of prison since the late 1990’s. Jennifer Rose has a parole hearing that she could use support letters for coming up on July 28th, 2020 and also more letters in support of her commutation application. You can learn more about Jennifer Rose’s case by visiting BabyGirlGann.noblogs.org where you can find out how to donate to her legal fund. You can read issues #1-5 of Fire Ant Journal up at Bloomington ABC’s website & #6 at Blue Ridge ABC’s website.

And you can write to Jennifer at:

Jennifer Rose E – 23852
Salinas Valley State Prison D3-1250
P.O. Box 1050
Soledad, CA 93960

You can find out how to format support letters, you can email her lawyer, Richard Rutledge at RLaw@RutledgeAttorneys.com or write to Mr Rutledge at:
Richard Rutledge, Attorney At Law
7960 B
Soquel Drive #354
Aptos, CA 95003

You can write letters of support to the Board of Parole Hearings on behalf of Jennifer by addressing them to the following address:

Board of Parole Hearings
Post Office Box 4036
Sacramento, CA 95812-4036

And you can write to the CA governor, Gavin Newsom on Jennifer’s behalf by addressing them to:

Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Comrade Z

[13:17-33:49]

Since this was conducted in writing, Jennifer’s words are being voiced by Margaret Killjoy, the host of the podcasts ‘Live Like The World is Dying’ and ‘We Will Remember Freedom’, both members of the Channel Zero Network.

Then, we’ll hear from Comrade Z, aka Julio Alex Zuniga, an anarchist prisoner in Texas, about the situation at the Darrington Unit. Comrade Z was mentioned by Jason Renard Walker at the end of our interview that we aired on April 19, 2020. Although all three conversations cover some hard to listen to subject matter, we want to give a special warning to Comrade Z’s portion, which talks in detail about terrible conditions at Darrington and discusses suicide and death of prisoners. You can read another interview with Comrade Z that appeared recently on ItsGoingDown.org and you can check out and/or purchase his artwork on instagram by viewing @julioazunigaart. Thanks to Matt Brodnax for helping us set this interview up and his support for Comrade Z.

You can write to Comrade Z at:

Julio A. Zuniga #1961551
Darrington Unit
59 Darrington Rd.
Rosharon, TX 77583

Jason Goudlock

As a closing note, I had hoped to share recent words from Jason Goudlock, currently incarcerated at Toledo CI in Ohio, give a brief update on his situation and how the ODRC is not handling covid-19 however technical difficulties got in the way. Suffice to say, prisoners were still being transferred into Toledo CI shortly before April 15th, prisoners were not given any significant protective gear nor cleaning supplies and folks were starting to get sick. Learn about Jason’s case, watch the documentary about him and find out how to support him at FreeJasonGoudlock.org. You can reach Jason via jpay email or write him at

Jason William Goudlock, #284-561
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608

. … . ..

Transcription of Jennifer Rose interview

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself for the audience? Who are you and where are you?

Jennifer Rose: I’m glad to hear from you and happy to have this opportunity to participate in The Final Straw Radio.

So, to introduce myself, my name is Jennifer Rose. I’m a a trans woman incarcerated in California and currently held at Salinas Valley State Prison, a men’s facility.

TFSR: Can you tell us a bit about where you came from and how you came to be incarcerated?

Jennifer Rose:I’m from Southern California, born and raised in Riverside, and spent my teenage years living in Huntington Beach (Orange County). I was in the 1980’s punk rock scene around the L.A. area doing a lot of drinking and drugs which led to my involvement in an attempted robbery and another armed robbery for which I was jailed, convicted and sent to prison for seven years.

TFSR: How did you become politicized?

Jennifer Rose: While I was serving my time at Folsom Prison, I became involved in prison protests and abolitionist struggle, for which I was targeted, placed in solitary confinement and beaten by guards.

This is how I became politicized as a prison rebel, resisting brutality and torture, sabotaging and breaking a dozen prison cell windows in the inhumane ‘Ad-Seg’ unit. I was involved in the gladiator fights where guards encouraged racial violence and then shot at us with 9mm assault rifles using live ammo. There were additional charges brought against me for attacking a pig officer, for weapon possession, and for two assaults on a state prosecutor and associate warden. For these I was given a 25 years-to-life sentence under the ‘three strikes’ law. This was around 1995 and 1996.

TFSR: Can you talk about the struggle of being a woman in a male-assigned prison? What sort of support have you received and what sorts of hurdles?

Jennifer Rose: To answer your question about being a transwoman in a men’s facility, we have faced the most adverse circumstances imaginable. From the discriminatory harassment and brutality of the pigs, to the hatred and violence of other prisoners, and even rapes and murder! This has began to change more recently, at last in California with many legal reforms and court victories.

I have been able to find widespread support from outside groupls like Black & Pink and TGI Justice project, among others. Also, lots of support among abolitionist and anarchist collectives, and the extended family of LGBTQ prisoners. The main hurdles we face continue to be our unsafe housing conditions, exposure to homophobic and transmisogynist violence from gangs, domestic and sexual violence. We are in a very disadvantageous situation facing the various types of gender violence on a daily!

TFSR: Is there anything else you’d like to say about how you discovered anarchism and what inspires you about anarchy?

Jennifer Rose: I became politicized during the 1991 Folsom Prison Food Strike, which was a protest against proposed visiting restrictions that cut our visiting days from four times a week to twice (weekends and holidays). Just prior to this, I was given a copy of the anarchist zine Love & Rage by another prisoner and had also been influenced by Jailhouse Lawyers to educate myself about so-called legal rights and remedies for which I became a strong advocate.

Eventually I would learn the hard way that the pigs don’t give a fuck about the law, or peoples rights. It’s only used at their convenience as a tool of social control and criminalization of marginalized people and communities. The people thing that inspires me about Anarchy is the simplicity of the idea, of abolishing the State and it’s illegitimate Power. They claim their Authority from God and Natural Law… and originally as white male property owners under colonial government. That’s crap! I love the basic concept of Anarchy, which is Freedom! It’s basic principles of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, non-hierarchy and autonomous collectives, internationalism and solidarity, etc.

TFSR: Have you been able to do much organizing within prison? If so, around what sorts of issues and how did it go?

Jennifer Rose: I’ve done a lot of organizing within prisons, including legal advocacy and ‘jailhouse lawyer’ work, as former leadership in Black & Pink and working with TGI Justice Project to change discriminatory policies and improve living conditions for trans women in the men’s prisons. We’ve had a lot of success and made progress over the past 12 years or so, including betteer access to basic trans health care (e.g. hormones, surgery, etc), access to and inclusion in prison programs and job assignments, accommodation of women’s clothing and cosmetics and more awareness of and prevention of sexual abuse among other things. I am currently awaiting an approved gender affirming surgery and transfer to a women’s facility sometime this year!

TFSR: You mentioned in a letter with me that you organized briefly with Maoists. Are you now or have you ever been a Maoist (that’s a Senator McCarthy joke)? But, really, how did that happen? What was that like?

Jennifer Rose: As for Maoists, yes, I did work with MIM-Prisons for a while which offered study group sand worked directly with prisoners on many projects. I carried on a dialogue with them via correspondence, often debating with them over my anarchist sympathies and their political line on gender and State power (their ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’). I did think I could work within that Maoist framework at one point, but eventually had to reject the ideological bickering sectarianism of Maoists. I’ve always been an anarchist at heart, even when I went through this stage in my personal development. Eventually I came in contact with insurrectionary anarchist writings from Greek comrades in the FAI-IRF and CCF, which I was strongly influenced by, and developed friendships with like-minded comrades.

TFSR: You’re a collective member of Fire Ant. Can you talk about the project and what part you play in it?

Jennifer Rose: I’m extremely proud of my involvement as a member of the Fire Ant collective. The project started as a concept I was discussing with several different comrades via regular correspondence, including Robcat, Michael Kimble, Sean Swain and Bloomington ABC. We all had similar ideas of trying to organize and faciliate a national or international anarchist prisoner conference where we could bring together the collective voice of imprisoned anarchist rebels, perhaps publish a paper, start a support fund to raise funds and material aid, and generally build anarchist prisoner solidarity in a way we haven’t yet seen!

We’ve always had ABC and National Jericho Movement mainly focus on leftist ‘political prisoners.’ Many imprisoned anarchists are not recognized as ‘political.’ In point of fact, we are anti-political! However, we believe that ALL prisons are political. Anyways, the part I played is pulling all these comrades’ ideas together, and putting them in direct contact about this exciting project.

Once Robcat offered to facilitate a zine, Bloomington ABC offered to provide printing and distribution free! And they also halready had a support fund set up. So we all pulled together and formed the Fire Ant collective. Robcat came up with the name and we all contributed to the zine connecting our individual and collective struggles from prisons across the U.S. and internationally! I’m proud to be an accomplice in this seditious conspiracy toward worldwide anarchist insurgency.

TFSR: There have been some victories of recent in your sentence. Can you talk about what happened?

Jennifer Rose: As far as my recent sentence reduction on October 28, 2019, this only affected one of my sentences for assault and battery on the prosecutor, a ‘non-serious’ felony, which was knocked down from 25-years-to-life to 8 years. Yay!

TFSR: Similarly, you were telling me of improvements in the conditions of your confinement as relates to gender, right? And what are next steps for you and what can listeners do to support you and try to hasten your release?

Jennifer Rose: My next steps are getting my surgery, transferring to a women’s facility, and a parole suitability hearing on July 28, 2020 with the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH). The greatest support comes in the form of letters to the Board and/or the Governor advocating for my release, and any amount of commissary funds which I can receive via jpay.com.

TFSR: I’m not sure if you’re much of a reader, but do you have any book suggestions for the audience?

Jennifer Rose: As for recommended reading, I would strongly suggest the Emma Goldman autobiography and Assata Shakur autobiography, Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow’, and anything by Butch Lee, Sean Swain or Greek insurrectionary anarchists of CCF!

TFSR: Any comrades you want to shout out on the show?

Jennifer Rose: Shoutouts to Robcat, Breezy, Michael Kibmle, Sean Swain, Eric King, Marius Mason, Jeremy Hammond, Sacramento Prisoner Support, Nashville ABC, Nadja in Bloomington and Chelsea Manning! And in case I missed someone, solidarity to all anarchists and antifascists! Thank you for your efforts in the struggle. To The streets!!! Thank you!

. … . ..

Transcription of Comrade Z interview

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself for the audience? Who you are, where you are, how you got there?

Comrade Z: Hello Everyone, Thank you for having me on The Final Straw. It’s an honor. My name is Julio A. Zuniga. Alex is what everyone calls me, or Comrade Z for those who are standing with me 10 toes down in solidarity.

I am a survivor of B-Line solitary confinement at Dirty Darrington Unit and currently trying to reach out to activists and anarchists in the area who can help me organize a statewide work stoppage. Enemy of the State and of the Dirty Darrington administration, my whole heart and soul is hellbent on bringing the attention of the entire nation to the administration and it’s human rights violations, cruel and unusual punishment, physical assaults by staff, mailroom policy changes, inadequate law library, commissary price gouging, infestation of roaches, mice and spiders, sewage leaks in the cells, constant power outages, the list goes on and on. The torture tactics are of primary concern because it’s driving people to die by suicide. So far it’s been 1 suicide per year since I’ve been here. How I got here was because abolitionists in East Texas rose up against Telford Unit, for Housing Administrative Segregation inmates at that facility without telling the surrounding community about it. They were against it. People of New Boston, TX and Texarkana found out about TDCJ housing G4 and G5 offenders because an Officer Davison was murdered by a solitary confinement offender who was being tortured by Telford Unit by withholding his mail and refusing him basics he needed, like food. This caused the entire town to begin the takedown of wardens and the torture of all inmates by using lockdowns for 90 days or more, then by stopping all hot meals for an entire year in 2017. So, since that officer died in 2015, it was the people who brought forth change to that unit. It is now a pre-release unit, no administrative segregation offenders and no solitary confinement. I was not blessed with any kind of support, so I intentionally got into trouble just so they could ship me off. Best move I ever made, so I thought. However, that is how I ended up here.

TFSR: What can you tell the listeners about Darrington Unit and your experience being held by the TDCJ?

CZ: The Dirty Darrington Unit is a hub unit. Thousands of inmates pass through here weekly, transferring to other units, coming off of UTMB Medical Branch at Galveston, or Psyche Unit Jester 4. Some of them are bleeding, soiled in feces and urine. All mentally ill persons coming off Jester 4 have had no kind of hygiene for over 3 days. All these lay over cells are so unsanitary it takes a healthy person 24 hours to get sick by sleeping in one of these cells. There is nothing humane about that. They usually house people with wrong custody levels, endangering lives at will, resulting in physical and sexual assaults. It’s Dirty Darrington’s specialty.

I encourage you to ask administration how many lives Dirty Darrington has claimed because they refused to help suicidal inmates. Also, how administration uses offenders to snitch on others with a false hope of beating a disciplinary case, then throw them back into population, leaving them to kill themselves behind the dishonor. On the 2nd week of November 2019, a guy killed himself after spilling the beans on others. When he asked them to help him because he felt suicidal, they ignored him. This is the suicide I witnessed that really proved verbatim the words Sean Swain voices in Last Act of the Circus Animals. When Rico killed himself, the show was like Cirque de Soleil. You had every basic need availed to you – blankets, mattresses, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, cleaning materials, officers serving trays like they do in population with full portions. They even gave us light bulbs. It was disgusting to see it. You saw paint crews, utility crews, the works. For a week the unit experienced humanity, but once the coast was clear and the administration got away with murder, it was back to torture tactics, a pattern I have seen one too many times on Dirty Darrington.

Overall my experience has been depressing, lonely, stressful, painful. I’ve seen this administration use psychological torture for 23 months straight, for this is how long I’ve been held in solitary confinement. Only recently was I magically released and placed in E-Line (G5) administrative segregation – the filthy administrative segregation area that is notorious for roach infestations, no lighting in showers, no restrooms on the rec yard so if you have to urinate or have a bowel movement you are going to on the same area men play basketball. Fecal matter is all over the floor and people wonder how they got sick. Easy – as soon as you come in from outside rec, they serve chow. If you have been playing basketball then munch on your baked chicken, then suck the grease off your fingers. You just sucked on chicken flavored fecal matter and urine. Dirty Darrington knows exactly what it’s doing. Environmental disaster, B-Line, E-Line, G-Line, A-Line, C-Line, D-Line are all torture areas. In the winter it’s cold showers. In the summer they heat your water for you. No coincidence. There is so much more. There are over 200 men in administrative segregation and solitary confinement on Dirty Darrington. Some men are going through it worse because they believe this is normal prison policy. It’s not. I’m here to expose this unit and it’s human rights violations. I appreciate you hearing me out.

TFSR: It’s hard to imagine that the staff and administration aren’t aware of the conditions there. Are they showing any signs of working to fix the situation?

CZ: I knew something was terribly wrong with this unit when it runs through 4 wardens in less than 2 years. They are aware of every single atrocity. They personally handle all grievances and it’s rare an inmate ever wins on Step 1. They have to go all the way to Huntsville with their grievance to get fair treatment. By that time it’s been 60 days solid since the claim was made.

It’s designed this way to ensure we never win any kind of grievance claim. Another way, as it is now, that they refuse us grievances all together on Dirty Darrington because they also are aware that if they hand them out they will be reading grievances for years. They know this place is crumbling to pieces. If it rains outside it rains inside too. The guards look like underwater welders when it rains. They wear rain coats indoors to stay dry. Nothing is being done except punishment and enslavement. I am on a mission to learn from outside sources how to organize, to create a psychological warfare on this administration in the name of all the dead that could not deal with their torture chambers and for the mentally ill who cannot speak out against them who are, as we speak, living in horrible conditions on Major Pharr’s solitary confinement. It’s only a matter of time before another death by suicide. We can thank Dirty Darrington’s Administrative Segregation ringmasters for imposing torture on the already weak men by starving them, by withholding their mail, by refusing mailroom to give them pictures of loved ones or birthday cards, or by sending their shakedown team to physically abuse them and confiscate their property. It’s all designed to break you. It’s happening every day.

TFSR: How do the conditions you’ve described above affect the health of prisoners? What’s the condition of physical and mental healthcare available at Darrington Unit?

CZ: Personally I don’t get sick easy, but since being on Dirty Darrington I’ve had a serious sinus infection, primarily from the mold in the showers and the dust that carries all kinds of germs. As far as psyche at Dirty Darrington goes, it’s got potential. As far as physical, you’ve got the infamous Nazi doctor Speer, extorting everyone, but not giving adequate care to anyone. If you get sick they still allow this idiot to practice. Nothing gets done about his childish outbursts. He once tried to do a rectal exam on me, He said it was my yearly check-up. This was the first time I met him. As he stood up and slapped on a latex glove my spidey-sense told me to ask a simple question, “What’s the name on the computer, sir?” He said “You’re Contreras #… blah blah blah” I was like “I’m out!” I’ve had problems with this doctor ever since, namely because retaliation is a trend on Dirty Darrington when you file a grievance. I tried to explain to everyone what this man tried to do. No one tried to help. He’s still here. All my medical treatment was taken away by this man for no reason other than I am or was chronic care hypoglycemic. If you have heat restrictions, work restrictions, anything that will make your ailment easier to handle Dr. Speer will terminate it and then send you into a Twilight Zone of sick calls, just so he can charge the co-pay. Others – he refuses to treat simply because it’s not life or death.

TFR: Can you talk about the suicides that you’ve been aware of during your time and are there any in particular you’d like to reflect on? Are there any strings that tie the circumstances together?

CZ: Well, I’ve been on Dirty Darrington for two years, going on three. I got screwed out of my legal work, got all my medical restrictions taken away, basically because I am indigent and I have no one on the outside to call here and raise a fuss, which is the only time you see inmates get what they need.

So, B-Line 3rd row, 15th cell, 2018 – A young man hung himself. The image of a nurse chest compressing this man never left me. It really caused me a lot of anger. It was senseless. It taught me just how they break men’s minds. It would disgust you. I remember this older man who would wake up screaming and just slowly, losing all reality, these torturers left him in that cell with a stack of trays, full of food with dead mice and roaches that he would just stack up toward the end of his sanity. Inmates could smell death. They tried to talk to him but couldn’t stand the stench of death. So, they brought Captain Lance the kitchen boss to remove the trays, stacked 20 high. But, you cannot talk to a broken man. He was a vessel, nothing more. After 2 canisters of pepper spray, still nothing until finally Captain Lance had the courage to tell administrators that he was no longer right. It was his voice that forced them to send him off that night, never to be seen again. For months they left that man in this condition. It’s happening now. This is normal? I’m not trying to hear that.

For these men, I ask to be armed with support, to feed the torturers a taste of their own medicine. I opened my eyes all the way at this past suicide in November 2019. I’m done talking. We need a bombardment of activism, protest, support. We need an uprising so this administration will be forced to take responsibility for all their fuckery.

One thing I know is we have nothing to gain for staying in good standing. “Good time credit” is not counting toward parole. “Work time credit” is another tool they have to control prisoners. Only the prisoners that still believe in the tooth fairy are too scared to accept this fact. People have tried for years to have these laws passed. Republicans are not interested in helping us. With a statewide work stoppage we will bring all these men’s dreams to fruition. We need to spread these facts to the entire state and shut it down. Stop slaving for your ringmasters. You want a real change, stop doing your slave jobs. Stop putting money in politicians pockets and ask them to put it your account to pay for the work you do. Slave days ended over 150 years ago – Why do you volunteer to work for the oppressor? Those of you who have no one, wouldn’t you like to support yourself in prison instead of risking solitary confinement for stealing food to sell in your living areas for hygiene. I can go on and on.

TFSR: What are working conditions like the prisoners incarcerated by the TDCJ as you’ve experienced? What sort of privileges come along with work, what sort of pay (if any), and sort of work is it?

CZ: They work these guys to exhaustion. They do not pay. The work is back breaking. No one will receive as much as an extra portion of food. These units are still slave plantations, only the name has changed. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Research “The Sugarland 95” – You’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s time to bring this slavery to a screeching halt.

TFSR: How have you experienced support while you’ve been on the inside? What would you like from folks on the outside?

CZ: I had to go to extremes again to have the support I have today. I never conformed to prison culture. I love tattoos, motorcycles, art, hunting, fishing, boats and the only way I was ever going to see or hear about that is by reaching out. As a result of picking up a contraband cell phone I met “Mongoose Matt” by calling a random tattoo shop. Haha! It was awesome. Fineline Tattoo NYC is Matt’s workplace and it took all but 60 seconds to make one of the best friends I’ve ever had. It makes me so proud to say that. Shortly after getting pinched for contraband Matt has been there through all my solitary confinement, sending in anarchist literature, commissary bread for hygiene and art supplies, and in 7 years now on a 15 year sentence for a so called “murder” it’s his solidarity and support that saved my life and sanity.

Dirty Darrington had officers from the McConnell unit come hit us for shakedown and those creeps took all my property and left me with nothing. This was my breaking point. I just felt like giving up, but Mongoose comes flying in with letters and powerful words of encouragement and because of him I am fighting today. They tried to break me intentionally. I know this for a fact. Only problem is I survived. TDCJs “Cease to speak or cease to breathe” motto doesn’t scare me. I have nothing to lose. Now, I’m asking for you to stand with me until we punch a hole in this darkness and make it bleed light. Sean Swain is the other reason I fight. How you doin Sean?

Here’s the deal – folks out there, my only weapon at the moment is this here pen. I want surrounding activists to contact me so we can get started. This is still far from over and I believe that it’s only through the voice of the people that we can bring this down on a statewide level. I could use all the support available in my fight against the state. Things are slowly changing for me, so I will be allowed more visitors on Dirty Darrington Unit. Soon I will be allowed to call out. In the meantime, anyone can write me. There is so much to learn and prepare. No doubt that without your direct support places like Dirty Darrington and surrounding plantations will continue to thrive, rubbing it in the community’s face.

The Texecution state is also a slavery state. Shut em down. Nobody is gaining a thing. It’s a slap in the face when the officials of the state come here to lie to everyone that they are doing everything they can to change these laws so that we actually become productive. The only laws passed are laws to make it harder on us to get home to our families. For the oppressed indigent offenders who cannot afford hygiene products, organizing a hygiene run to bring forth relief, peace of mind, and a sense of compassionate care. I’ve seen exactly how good this place could be, but as long as we have ringmasters like these hypocrite wardens, coward-ass majors and captains, vindictive supervisors who love to use cowardly acts and body slam people while in restraints such as Sergeant Akinsonu, Sergeant Williams, Sergeant Estrada, Sergeant Baker, who writes her own rules when it comes to keeping people down. All these cowards and a few more on my shit list need to be burned at the stake for their inhumane treatment of human beings. We need to give them a little perspective. We need to all come at them via phone calls, media, advocacy centers, anyone that can hit them where it hurts, to show them that we are not alone. We are not going to accept this kind of abuse and pretend it’s normal. It’s policy. Policy is made up as they walk to the pisser. It’s a shame the population is in love with their ringmaster.

As a survivor of these gulags, food is still the #1 tool used to break solitary confinement offenders. Many months I went hungry and many months I eat the unwanted veggies inmates discarded just to survive. Sometimes portions were almost a smear of meat on tray. We need to end this today.

TFSR: What inspires you these days? What brings you joy?

CZ: Oh that’s easy – Defiance from Detritus Books is my inspiration. I’ve gotten very close to Comrade Mongoose and against the peace and dignity of the Texecution State I’m in constant contact with Comrade King and Comrade Swain. I wish them the best in the struggle and hope to see them soon, for I am coming up for parole soon. It’s a crap shoot, but optimism is helpful in situations such as this. I get my jollies by sending Matt handcrafted portraits of all kinds of cool, weird characters. Y’all are actually owners of one of my pieces. Thank you.

TFSR: Is there anything I failed to ask you about that you want to talk about?

CZ: You all can check out my Instagram @julioazunigaart or contact Matt to place an order for a handmade portrait. I only have No.2 pencils to work with because this unit will not allow my supporters to send me art supplies. Anything that makes people happy like greeting cards and pictures are slowly being taken from us as well. Go figure. This is Bible seminary college too. This is the unit that pumps out “field ministers”. Unbelievable, huh? Bass-akwards, I tell ya! I gotta let ya go for now. It’s been an amazing and liberating experience. You all are amazing. Please allow me to send hugs to Sean Swain, Eric King and to all the comrades who are in the trenches fighting their ringmaster. Thank you for setting the example. I hope to be in that position soon. Thanks y’all. Hope to hear from you soon. I would like to close with a quote from Benjamin Tucker:

Power feeds on its spoils and dies when its victims refuse to be despoiled. They can’t persuade it to death; they can’t vote it to death; they can’t shoot it to death; but they can always starve it to death.”

If you would like to contact Alex, please send a letter to:

Julio A. Zuniga #1961551
Darrington Unit
59 Darrington Road
Rosharon, Texas 77583

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Tracks heard in this podast:

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me (instrumental)

RZA – The North Sea (instrumental)

Harm Reduction in Pandemic and Jason Renard Walker

Harm Reduction in Pandemic and Jason Renard Walker

Steady Collective ambulance in West Asheville
Download This Episode

This week we feature two segments, first up we got to chat with Hill Brown about Asheville’s response to the pandemic in terms of public health, drug use and the houseless communities. Then, Jason Renard Walker talks about his journalism, activism and troubles in the Texas prison system.

Harm Reduction in Asheville during Pandemic

First we got to sit down with Hill Brown who works with Asheville’s Steady Collective doing harm reduction outreach to people experiencing homelessness and addiction. We talk about a lot of topics, including how the current health crisis has affected Steady’s operation, how the city of Asheville is mishandling its resources right now, and how folks can plug in and have solidarity with this work.

If you are concerned about hotel access for oppressed populations, you can call:

  • The Tourism Development Authority (TDA) at 828-258-6111,
  • The County Commissioners at 828-250-4066 and leave a message,
  • and the City of Asheville, who funds the TDA, at 828-251-1122

You can also find ways to support the Steady Collective by visiting their website TheSteadyCollective.org. Visit our blog or show notes to see an interview Bursts did with Hill back in 2018 which was done at a time when the city was threatening to close Steady’s operations.

Incarcerated Journalist and Organizer, Jason Renard Walker

Then we’ll be hearing from Jason Renard Walker, an incarcerated journalist and activist at the Clemens Unit near Amarillo, Texas. Jason is the Minister of Labor for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter) and his writing is frequently featured in the SF Bay View National Black Newspaper. Mr. Walker’s answers will be read by his girlfriend, Noelle. You can find more of Jasons writings at his blog, JasonsPrisonJournal.com, including a link to his recently published e-book “Reports from Within The Belly Of The Beast: Torture and Injustice Inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice” available from Amazon.com and hopefully soon in paperback. He also just published this piece on his blog about the coverup around covid-19.

Jason Renard Walker #1532092
Clements Unit
9601 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107

You can hear our chat from 2018 with Kevin Rashid Johnson (co-founder of the NABPP and Minister of Defense for the Prison Chapter) which is also transcribed in that post, or printable as a zine here.

Jason Renard Walker also mentions Julio Alex Zunigo, aka Comrade Z, who is rustling up resistance in Darington Unit. Comrade Z was interviewed by ItsGoingDown and we will be airing a recording of an interview with him coming up this week.

Comrade Malik’s Covid-19 Update Update

The elder, politicized prisoner that Comrade Malik references in Texas as Alvaro Luna Hernandez also goes by the name Xinachtli, which you can use in personal communication. You can hear a recording of Xinachtli telling his story in his own words here. For the envelope or dealing with administration you can write to him at:

Alvaro Luna Hernández #255735
James V Allred Unit
2101 FM 369
NorthIowa Park, TX 76367 USA

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Tracks heard in this episode:

AwareNess (from calm.) – No Regrets

Wu-Tang Clan – It’s Yourz (instrumental)

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Jason Renard Walker interview

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself for the audience? Feel free to include any details about your background, political affiliation or current circumstances you think will give a good context for the conversation.

Jason Renard Walker: My name is Jason Renard Walker, Minister of Labor for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, Prison Chapter. I consider my political stance as a reflection of our party’s rules of discipline, principals, adherence to our ten point program and platform and our goals for the future.

For clarity, please feel free to learn about what I mean by reviewing the United Panther Movement section of my website at www.JasonsPrisonJournal.com . Just for the record, I don’t see myself as Democrat, Republican, Anarchist, Communist, or Socialist. I know this seems contradictory to the circumstances, but I’m all about positive change for society and the future of those to come. The New Afrikan Black Panther Party’s effort to carry on the legacy and goals fo the original Black Panther Party is my higher calling. And regardless of not holding an official political stance, my ability to execute my duties and help build the party would be the same if I did have a political stance. Though I’m certainly anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.

TFSR: Would you mind telling us about your past, the case you caught and an overview of the conditions of your incarceration in Texas?

JRW: Just like a majority of our comrades and party members, I am a product of my environment. The streets of Est Oakland, wehre I grew up, is riddled with drugs, street gangs, violence, prostitution and so on.

If members in my family weren’t drug dealers, addicts, pimps, cons, prostitutes and so on. They held impractical religious views, empty of practical solution, coupled with the preachings of prayer and blief under the banner that this alone would make me a successful member of society.

The latter did little to persuade me from following the footsteps of people I admired; which were drug dealers and crooks that had more than their fair share of wealth and stability. While the so-called true believers toted the transit bus to spend their welfare checks and food stamps. Not only did I witness these contradictions within my neighborhood. I witnessed them within my own family.

By the age of 14 in 1994 I had dropped out of school, became a full time criminal and began experiencing the consequences of my actions. After spending two years in detention centers and a group home in Gilroy, CA called Advent group ministries. I moved to Garland, Texas with my grandma to stay with my aunt and cousin in 1998.

This was supposed to be my transformation from a criminal to a productive member of society… All this did was transfer a career criminal from committing crimes against the poor to committing crimes against the unwitting rich… There was no plan to rid me of my thoughts and behavior so I brought them with me to places no one knew such incivility existed, making these people easier and more fruitful targets of burglary, scams, drug sales and armed robbery.

I received an 18 year sentence in 2008 for robbery and have done 12 years on it so far, since then my outlook on life has changed. From my own experience and from what I read, conditions in Texas prisons are far worse here than most prison systems in the U.S. What gives Texas the edge is that it’s an overtly for-profit-only system. Prisoners undergo unpaid forced labor, grow, harvest and tend to the food we eat, and work and operate everything short of running the cell blocks.

I give a vivid account of the conditions on my kindle ebook on amazon.com called “Reports From Within The Beast: Torture and Justice Inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice”. I recommend that all your listeners get a copy. The writings span the years 2010-2019, including some of my work during my seven year stay in solitary confinement.

TFSR: We’ve seen your journalism featured in the SFBay View National Black Newspaper. Can you talk about your publishing, feedback you’ve gotten and repression you’ve faced for your expression?

JRW: The San Franscisco Bay View National Black Newspaper has been a big supporter of my writings. If they weren’t publishing journalism by me they published journalism about things concerning me and the bad conditions prisoners are facing in Texas. This includes our organizing and supporting the 2016 and 2018 National Prisoner Work Stoppage. And the reprisals we faced for doing so.

Not only have my journalism in the Bay View drawn the hatred of some guards, it has drawn negative feed back from white supremacist groups that conspire with these same guards to smuggle illicit drugs into the prison namely the deadly drug, k-2.

In the October 2018 issue of the Bay View I wrote an article called “Prison Assisted Drug Overdoses”. This forced Texas officials into giving guards more scrutinized searches before entering the prison, including the use of drug sniffing dogs. Guards have used my article as a manipulation tactic to raise smuggling fees by suggesting that my article in particular has made smuggling riskier. In turn I’ve been confronted by random individuals and groups about the article. These same individuals admit not having read the article so they are ignorant to the message I deliver. I’ve even tried suggesting they read the article to no avail. It only exposes ignored prisoner overdosing.

They are completely reactionary and tend to gravitate towards what guards tell them. Like I’ve been confronted about being a child molester, racist, terrorist, CIA operative and instigator with evidence supposedly the information. Combating this has been quite easy.

I’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback from other journalists and Bay View readers in the U.S. and Europe who have become supporters of my work and who have chosen to investigate the conditions I describe in my articles.

TFSR: You recently published a book entitled ‘Reports from Within the Belly of the Beast: Torture and Injustice Inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice’ that, among other things, compiles some of your writings you previously published. Can you talk about your method of organizing your writing, who your audience is and what you hope the book achieves?

JRW: I really don’t have a method of organizing my writings. I tend to first document times and dates on things I see or learn of. I seek witnesses and victims, who are always willing to let me write about them. Sometimes I’ll ask a guard about something. Most of the instigators and abusers will openly brag about what they did. At the time they aren’t aware that an article will be written and who I am. After the hammer comes crashing down, they face me with looks of betrayal as if I’m not supposd to expose them because they may have given me extra food or recreation time in the past. Guard Darius Reed stole a Bay View, it mentioned him.

I have a large audience that includes Bay View readers, the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Tribune, SolitaryWatch.Org, the Anarchist Black Cross group, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and hundreds of people who have never written me but have sent me books and magazines like Sheri Black and Sam Rosen in Great Britain. Or those who send words of courage but fail to provide a reply address.

The message in the book speaks for itself. I hope and wish that it sets in the hands of as many readers as possible. I haven’t found a book by a Texas prisoner of this magnitude like it. It also includes unpublished articles, a forward by Maggie Ray Anderson, a 2011 Central Washington University graduate who got a B.A. in law and justice and a B.S. in social services and Kevin Rashid Johnson.

TFSR: Do you have any plans to publish your book in physical form so it can be available to people in prison?

JRW: Actually we are in the process of publishing 500 copies of the paperback version, specifically so that prisoner supporters can have a copy sent to an incarcerated loved one or friend. These copies will be available on amazon.com as well only costing $5 per copy. Before the paperback version is released we will have it available for pre-release ordering so we’ll know if more copies and how many more will need to be printed. The ebook and the paperback version have come to fruition by the funds and work of me and my girlfriend. But we could use the help of an underwriter or independent publisher.

TFSR: A year and a half ago we had the pleasure to speak with Kevin Rashid Johnson of the NABPP about the organizing he was doing, about the prison strikes, organizing on the outside and his organization. Would you talk about how you came to join the NABPP, what your position in it is, and how organizing in Texas has been as a member of that group?

JRW: Given the circumstances, it would be difficult for me to answer this question without this entire questionaire being banned by the mailroom. Not because of the content but to delay the radio interview entirely under the false pretext that it containes security threat group information. Some insight can be caught by viewing www.RashidMod.com.

TFSR: Are there any other groups you have organized with that you’d care to mention? For instance, you received punishment in the aftermath of the Nationwide Prisoner Strikes in 2016 and 2018.

JRW: Yes, during the 2016 and 2018 National Prison Work stoppage I had the joy to work with the IWOC, different branches of the ABC, the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) and a group in Colorado that published The Fire Inside Zine, which I wrote a piece for. The Fire Inside related to the 2016 work stoppage.

TFSR: A common concern raised around incarceration in the US is a lack of medical treatment, the high cost and low quality when it is available, overcrowding and under-staffing leading to medical and health emergencies. I’ve noted on the outside that the conversation is raised more frequently recently during ecological disasters like hurricanes or when people protest the use of solitary confinement in lieu of mental health resources. Now, with the panic and obvious lack of preparedness around Covid-19 (novel caronavirus), can you talk about health and preparedness in terms of incarceration in the US and what the public on the outside can be doing to support the folks in cages?

JRW: I’m glad you brought up the coronavirus. I just recently wrote a short piece on the lack of care we are provided in the midst of this and the prisoners failure to receive care to avoid paying $13.55 medical co-pay fees.

Since I wrote that piece five prisoners were moved to this prison with Corona Virus. They received it form a sick guard during transportation. Now guards at this prison have been confirmed to have it. It is spreading. My request to be tested, because I’m showing signs of illness, have been ignored. I submitted my request four days ago. Today is April 5th. Nurse Ms. Spencer came to see me. I was told I didn’t have a fever so no further care was necessary.

There is no obvious plan in place to prevent further spreading. Guards are wearing masks and there are notes posted about staying six feet away from others. Thus we are confined to our cells with another prisoner and have no way to read any postings that are located places beyond sight-and-walking authority.

I’ve learned that taking vitamin c supplements and driving citns flavored electrolite drinks slow down the manifestation of the germ, along with limited physical activity, lots of sleep and staying warm.

The key thing people on the outside can do for us is to constantly contact the prisons warden about the number of confirmed cases, requesting our medical records, as to monitor their response time to our sick call requests, our diagnosis and the tpe of treatment we are receiving. Sending us updates on how it’s spreading in our particular area and any info they have that can help prevent spreading and exposure. Hair scanning is the only prevention plan being implemented here (whatever that is).

We are being given false info on self diagnosis and testing. One thing that has to be a public conern is how nurses use our blood pressure results to determine if we are sick, hurting, having a stroke and whether we have a common cold or the common flu. I actually describe one instance in my book concerning a stroke victim who was denied hospitalization for over twelve hours based on his blood pressure results. He is now paralyzed and had to undergo brain surgery because of the long delay. No staff were held liable, they actually brought him back from the infirmary on a gurney and laid him on his cell floor, where he remained until we convinced the next shift that he was dying. This incident occurred here at the Clemens Unit. My advice to prisoners is to take matters into your own hands. If you feel you are sick and in need of medical care, keep trying to get it. Don’t let nursing staff suggest your blood pressure is the factor whether you are sick or not. Don’t let medical copay fees factor in either…

TFSR: Are there organizing efforts in Texas around prisoner issues that you would like to highlight or needs that need to be addressed that are particular to the TDCJ or any of the units you’ve been kept in?Where do you see the efforts in the US around prisoner issues? Similar to the prior questions, do you have any inspirations or challenges you’d like to pose to either those on the outside or the inside?

JRW: The only organizing efforts I’m aware of are the ones involving the NABPP, the IWOC and scattered anarchist prisoners in Texas. Since I’ve been in close custody (two man solitary) I haven’t had the chance to use the phone, limiting my access to information.

In fact, incarcerated anarchist Julio A Zuniga (aka Alex) is at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas organizing. His focus seems to be on conditions, medical care, filth, the treatment of the mentally ill and gladiator fights.

Final Straw listener, Matt Brodnax, did an interview with Alex that is published online. But there are many organizing efforts by unknown Texas prisoners who too face unwarranted acts of repression, including the destruction of ongoing / incoming mail and personal property. I’ve met several during my stay at the Ellis Unit, Michael Unit and Allred Unit. Their lack of firmness in the face of reprisals have kept their efforts to organizing limited to filing grievances and complaining amongst each other. In these circles I’m viewed as radical and going too far. Though they wonder why they can’t win false disciplinary cases.

We need more isolated and groups of prisoners to take their organizing to the next level. If using un-radical forms of organizing was effective, not one prisoner would need to take things to the next level. These groups must form bonds of unity as well. For example, a lot of prisoners chose filing civil suits challenging the 13th Amendments clause on legal slave labor. This was in response and following the 2016 work stoppage. Their focus was on losing commissary privileges, dayroom time and whatnot. So to circumvent foreseeable retaliation and applying some serious action, they used the governments recommended channel, getting each of their claims claims dismissed as frivolous, wasting both time and their own resources.

In a few instances some prisoners did file civil suits and participate in the work stoppage. But even the civil suit filers learned a valuable lesson, I hope they are building on.

TFSR: Where do you see the efforts in the US around prisoner issues? Similar to the prior questions, do you have any inspirations or challenges you’d like to pose to either those on the outside or the inside?

JRW: Efforts to organize in the U.S. around prisoner issues are scattered, contradicting and often misunderstood. You have some prisoner writers out there labeled activists, though their writings and disinterest in foot work reveals their Black Capitalist / White Capitalist / Brown Capitalist interest and agenda. You have others still engaged in the sale of drugs that hold a street mentality called revolutionary but gangsta. Allowing them to engage in some activism while holding the same criminal mentality and world view their activism supposedly opposes. It’s the do as I say not as I do thing.

The challenge to prison activists inside and on the outside is to stay firm at what you do. Continue learning how to strengthen your organization and or support circle, educate those around you about your program and be a positive representative in your community upon release.

For instance the NABPP has transitioned to the outside. Comrade, Chairman Shaka Zulu and others have created our outside headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. Giving us the opportunity to create and expand our community service programs. This includes our Black August BB9, No Prison Fridays protest, and Free Food breakfast and lunch program that occurs Saturdays between 10am and 4pm. These programs are sponsored by Panthers and service community volunteers. Shaka Zulu helped bring this to life upon his release from prison.

As it shows, the NABPP is among the most firm in regards to In-Prison activism, organizing and carry this on in the oppressed and impoverished communities. The role of the NABPP is not to pose as a rescuer of the people but to uplift, inspire and teach them. Through their own cooperation and collective power, they can solve their own problems, meet their own needs and free themselves from this racist, exploitative and oppressed society.

TFSR: Are there any subjects that I failed to ask about that you’d like to speak to?

JRW: No, there isn’t. But I’d like to take time to thank everyone that has helped me with my progress, education, development and needed support. Too many to name here. And a $1 donation will be given to the San Francisco Bay View for every paperback issue of my book sold!

Jason Renard Walker #1532092
Clements Unit
9601 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107

No Evil Foods Union and PLAN Line 3

No Evil Foods Union and PLAN Line 3

Union Busting At No Evil Foods

No Evil Foods Union Busting Flyer
Download This Episode

This week on The Final Straw, we’re presenting two conversations. The first was a chat with workers from the local, plant-based protein company ‘No Evil Foods’. The company has been getting flack for using social justice imagery while working to undermine unionization efforts at it’s factory here in Asheville, NC. The workers talk about strategies they took in organizing attempts and experiences they had with disinformation about collective bargaining from the management and the union-busting consultants in their employ. In order to protect the anonymity of the workers, we’ve replaced their voices with our own. See our show notes for a script of the chat.

Although not affiliated with the unionizing effort, the fedbook page for Asheville Solidarity Network hosts some of the flyers in support of workers unionizing No Evil Foods and Mission Hospital. It’s also acting as a hub for posts about mutual aid responses to the Covid-19 and the Corona virus crises in the Asheville Area. For more resources in different places around solidarity and mutual aid in this intense time, visit ItsGoingDown.org.

To see a few pictures of the propaganda distributed to No Evil Foods workers, check our show notes. Here are also a couple of links to flyers against the union busting found on social media (1, 2) as well as a post about a Zapatista school complaining of misrepresentation by No Evil Foods in their marketing and a collection of links including audio recorded from one of the forced anti-union meetings.

PLANning for Anti-Pipeline Action

After that, you’ll hear a conversation with Garrett, an anarchist involved in Pipeline Legal Action Network, based in so-called Minnesota. PLAN has recently published a legal workbook for people planning around resisting pipeline infrastructure expansion, in particular with the Line 3 pipeline. The guide also brings together a lot of other useful resources for any crew or affinity group and is available for free at PlanLine3.com alongside a lot of other material.

Announcements

Share Your Words For Our 10 Year Anniversary Show

Basically, we’re opening up the lines to hear what you have to say to us. Send us a message about the show, any memories you have, what you’d like to see or how it has affected you.  Instructions for signal voice messages, voicemails or sending us mp3’s can be found here.

New Free Community Meals in Asheville

On Sundays at 4pm near 644 Haywood, just around the corner from Firestorm Books, a project calling itself Hot Potatoes is offering free, hot meals from reclaimed and donated ingredients to the community as well as free produce when available.

Grand Jury Resistance

Grand Jury resistors Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond have been ordered released from the Arlington, VA jail where they’ve been held while refusing to participate in Federal Grand Juries concerning Wikileaks and the attempted extradition of Julian Assange. This came days after Chelsea self-harm or suicide in her cell under the stress of nearly a year in prison and after only about a year after being released from an military prison. Amazingly, although the government was imposing a fine of a thousand dollars for each day of her incarceration for refusal, within a few days of her release the fines a crowd source fundraiser paid off the remaining $267,000 in fees she was facing upon release. Jeremy Hammond, meanwhile, is being transferred back to Federal prison where he will resume the last few months of his incarceration. His time was put on hold during his resistance of the grand jury. More on his Jeremy’s case and how to write him a letter of support can be found at FreeJeremy.net and more about Chelsea is up at ReleaseChelsea.com.

Prisoner Corona Virus Hotline

Starting Monday, IWOC and Fight Toxic Prisons chapters will be opening a hotline that prisoners in the so-called US can call into to report outbreaks, denial of adequate medical care and other circumstances related to Corona Virus. To allow for the calls to be free for prisoners, fundraising is happening now. You can learn more at bit.ly/covid19prison

Update on Eric King

Anarchist and antifascist prisoner Eric King is fighting a possible 20 year charge added to his remaining time. In recent disclosures he talks about his targeting by prison staff at FCI Englewood, who threatened him and his family during visiting time, including consciously sitting his partner and their two kids near to the sex offenders during visitation, rather than in the separate family section. In his statement to the court, Eric says that when he attempted to use the prisons own complaint mechanisms he was further targeted for assault and harassment by staff, including continued harassment about his family, threats that fall under the protections afforded by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, interferences with his ability to communicate with his family and his lawyers, removal of his personal and legal items and more. You can read the whole thing up at SupportEricKing.org, where you can also find the fundraiser for his legal defense to fight this 20 year hit he might face. The fundraiser is also up at fundrazr.com/e1cKo1. You can also find our interview from last year with Eric at our website.

Month in solidarity with Bomani Shakur

Finally, for the month of April, 2020, the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and others will be trying to focus attention on the Lucasville Uprising death row case of Bomani Shakur, aka Keith Lamar. He’s been held for almost 18 years for charges related to the uprising and has been denied the ability to effectively challenge his death sentence even though the state recognizes that it withheld potentially exculpatory evidence in his initial conviction. You can learn more about his case and how to get involved in the month of action for Bomani at revolutionaryabolition.org , more about his case at KeithLamar.org and our past interview with Bomani at our website.

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playlist
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Script of chat with workers at No Evil Foods

TFSR: Would you care to introduce yourselves for the purposes of this conversation and what your relationship with No Evil Foods in Asheville is?

No Evil Foods Workers: All of us work in the production area of No Evil Foods. This means that we are directly responsible for measuring and mixing the ingredients, running the mixes through the machines, cooking the mixes into the product, cooling the product, portioning the product, and boxing the product so it can be shipped out.

TFSR: Can you talk about the situation? What were the working conditions like at No Evil Foods when active talk of unionization started, how was response from workers?

No Evil Foods Workers: Active talk of unionization began at least as early as the summer of 2019. At that time, one of the shift supervisors on second shift was spearheading the campaign, and was very vocal and open about it. He had even apparently gone directly to management asking them to recognize the union. At that time, employees had no health care, and there was no shift differential for second shift. Those were two major concerns that were eventually addressed, but the biggest reason for desiring a union was simply for the production team to have a seat at the table when it came to future changes. The company is going through a huge growth period right now, and the production employees that make up the vast majority of the workforce are caught up in the undertow, so to speak. In response to the initial unionization campaign, management gave a speech about how they felt unions weren’t right for the company. Mere weeks later, they changed the production schedule from a four-day work week to a five-day work week with monthly mandatory Saturdays. Dozens of production team workers quit in response, and the unionization campaign seemed forgotten. However, reps from the union reached out to workers who had signed cards, and slowly we began to seek out more signatures and discuss the ongoing need for representation. The response from workers varied of course, but there was no hostile conversation about it among employees before the union busting tactics started. Some weren’t sure what a union actually did and the protection it offers. Others had only heard negative things. But the more it was discussed between production workers, the more we felt as though we had a decent chance of bringing everyone together for this cause. The open dialogue was almost always positive, and many employees were excited and curious about the possibility of being able to have a greater say in their working conditions, pay, benefits, etc.

TFSR: How did No Evil Foods respond to talk of workers organizing themselves or joining a union. Who did they hire to bust the effort and what has that looked like? What union were you working with?

No Evil Foods Workers: We really have no way to know for sure when management found out that we were attempting to unionize, but we have theorized that it was probably around December-January. It’s likely that their first attempt to deter a “need” for a union was to find out what we wanted and attempt to give it to us. In January, they gave night shift a pay differential, they made sure night shift was getting out on time and not staying late – as had been the trend. They even added an employee award program to give us each a free gift. This was the start of what would be a serious manipulation campaign.

When management was officially informed that we had filed with the NLRB, the first poster we were handed was about union cards. The word “dues” was mentioned nearly 10 times. “Union authorization cards are LEGAL documents” it reads. “Do not sign a union card unless you are willing to accept all the possible consequences of unionization…” (“Consequences of unionization”) “Union representatives are salesmen…” “Collective bargaining involves give and take, and is a risk…” Ironically, this flyer started out by assuring us that No Evil just wanted to give us all the “facts” to help us make an “informed” decision. This theme of wanting us to make an “informed” decision was a consistent talking point throughout the entire campaign, even though what they were actually doing was trying to drastically misinform us.

It didn’t stop there.

On top of the flyers, the main response by management was to bring us into captive audience meetings. These meetings were mandatory and involved each shift being corralled into dimly lit rooms and subjected to various power point presentations about unions. The topics varied, but the information was always slanted, with a lean towards either being anti-union or being neutral – never positive. One meeting went over the legalities of the union constitution, which felt like an attempt to just confuse everyone with an hour’s worth of legal lingo. Another meeting was about the UFCW and how much those at the top make. (Curiously, nothing was mentioned about how much those at the top of the No Evil food chain make.) Another meeting was all about collective bargaining. Demonstrating just how biased these meetings were, an employee at the collective bargaining meeting asked if there were any benefits and the speaker had nothing positive to say. The very last of these meetings was about the investors of No Evil and how the owners (Mike and Sadrah) “can’t control” what they might do in response to a union. This was the meeting that essentially scared the piss out of everyone, and many of us believe that this was the meeting that really tipped the scale. People walked out of that meeting truly fearing that they would lose their jobs and the warehouse might shut down if the majority of eligible voters voted ‘yes’.

Essentially, either by design or by coincidence, these meetings were all designed to play on very specific fears of the workers. Fears about sexual harassment and how the union might make it harder to get rid of stalkers. Fears about not understanding the union constitution and its legalities. Fears about collective bargaining. (“You may get more, you may get less.”) Fears about job security and how the warehouse might close down if we end up moving forward with unionizing because the investors might not like it.

To answer the question about who they hired, the lawyers names are Leigh E. Tyson and Jonathan Martin, both from the firm Constangy Brooks, Smith, and Prophete.

From their website:

“We can help you realistically assess the employee-relations atmosphere in your workplace environment. And we can help you build and foster the kind of workplace environment in which a union is irrelevant. We know it doesn’t always pay to be the proverbial bull in the china shop. Even as we advise management on union organizing drives and decertification efforts, we have maintained professional relationships with the unions. We are not known as “union busters” – nor do we want to be. The firm has particular strength in collective bargaining and negotiation experience. We take pride in knowing the subtle differences, like when to be tough – and we can be extremely tough – and knowing when a non-adversarial approach is in the best interests of clients.”

They’re not “union busters” and yet coincidentally, they specialize in “union avoidance campaigns”.

To answer the other question about which union, it was the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union, aka, the UFCW. This was Local 1208, based out of Tar Heel, NC.

TFSR: Can you talk about some of the rumors management and the lawyers have been fostering about unions, including the weaponizing of fears of sexual harassment at the workplace?

No Evil Foods Workers: One of the very first rumors was about drug testing – specifically, about the union coming in and drug testing everyone. No Evil does a fairly noble thing and hires felons. It also doesn’t drug test. So between those two things, the fact that a rumor was started about the union deciding to randomly drug test everyone (which would not happen unless we voted for it to happen or the company pushed for it to happen) could be a coincidence – or it could be evidence of management playing on the fears of its workers.

TFSR: So, management offered to get No Evil Foods living wage certified. What does that mean? How does that measure to the cost of living index for Asheville and is there a significant difference with what a union might help with?

No Evil Foods Workers: No Evil Foods is determined to be “living wage certified” by Just Economics (a regional membership organization based in Asheville that has a voluntary certification process to determine if an employer pays what is considered a “living wage” in the area). When you look into the requirements to be living wage certified according to Just Economics, it’s very interesting what that actually means. The way this is determined is through what’s called the “Universal Living Wage Formula”. To be brief, it is based on the idea that one employee, who works 40 hours a week, should not have to spend more than 30% of their gross income on housing. While No Evil Foods pays better than most places in the area, anyone who has or currently lives paycheck to paycheck can tell you that this formula does not account for utility bills, expensive emergencies, monthly payments for necessities like a car or phone, or childcare. It’s not to say that No Evil Foods isn’t taking a step in the right direction in this regard, but it would be naive to assume their “living wage certification” accurately reflects the living cost of their lowest paid employees.

A union could have drastically changed the lives of all Production workers at No Evil. The mere opportunity to get a say in wages and benefits is something that EVERY workplace should strive to achieve. While the idea of using a formula that assumes everyone fits into the same box when it comes to living expenses isn’t a bad place to start, no arbitrary certification program or employer knows what their paycheck to paycheck employees truly need to be paid in order to thrive in today’s economy.

TFSR: This push to counter or bust unionization among the workers at No Evil Foods seems to fly in the face of the ethical image they push as not only a producer of vegan, alternative proteins and their leftist imagery. How does that feel and how have you seen this conversation happening?

No Evil Foods Workers: Being vegan means something different to everyone, but at its core definition, it should be about maximum harm reduction to all living beings – animal or human. Even the No Evil Foods mission statement reads:

“No Evil exists to empower people to make positive changes for themselves, the environment, and the welfare of animals through awesome food. Do No Evil is the crux of what we do and the center from which all good emanates. We’re family founded, majority women-led, human centered, and purpose-powered, and we’re determined to bring people closer to the origins of their food while addressing issues like food insecurity, economic justice, and climate change. At The Axis, No Evil Foods’ homebase, we cut through the noise, speak our truth, and attempt to change the world one bite at a time.”

Empowering people should include empowering their workers – and empowering their workers should be about more than monthly team meetings and a suggestion box where we leave mere suggestions. The truest way they can live up to their mission statement (and it’s still not too late to do the right thing) would be to empower their workers and allow them to unionize. It would mean allowing their workers to have a collective voice in day-to-day decisions. Back that mission statement up with radical actions to prove it.

No Evil Foods Workers: A common business model in Asheville these days, at least among breweries, seems to be to build a brand and sell it off to a bigger company once it’s out of debt and expanded. There’s been speculation about why the ownership / management might push so hard back on attempts to structurally raise standards for the workers at No Evil Foods because of a fear of spooking the investors. Speculating, does that seem like a possibility in this case and how would leveraging for working conditions differ between a locally owned versus larger employer?

A: It’s absolutely a possibility. Leveraging with employers whether they be a small, family owned company or a massive corporation will never be a simple task if the position of management is to put the bottom line above all else. Historically though, large corporations are notorious advocates for nothing but profit at the expense of their employees. Having a solidified contract in place at this stage would protect us from this if in fact this is their plan for the future. It’s worth noting that at one of the captive audience meetings we were told by Mike (one of the two owners):

“It’s a very real risk that having a union at No Evil Foods would greatly impact our ability to continue raising capital, which risks the survival of our business. To be frank, I had one of our current investors say this week, ‘I’ve seen hundreds of companies come across my desk, and I have never seen an investment in a unionized startup, especially not at this stage. If I was looking at this business for the first time, I would run the other way.'”

Why did he say this? Because if this speculation about the inevitable selling of No Evil Foods is true – if a large corporation were to buy them out – this large corporation would have to listen to it’s employees who already have a solidified contract of employment that directly benefits the workers.

TFSR: Word on the street is that workers are talking union at the local healthcare system called Mission, which is a huge employer around here and was recently purchased. What would you say to your coworkers at No Evil Foods or workers at Mission or elsewhere who might be considering a struggle for a workplace union?

No Evil Foods Workers: Do a Google search for the Union Busting Playbook and inoculate your coworkers to the tactics and talking points that they will inevitably be subjected to. Maintain solidarity with your coworkers and constantly find new ways to draw more people into the “organizing committee” – or the primary core of people responsible for the drive. Organize casual get-togethers outside of work. Strong bonds between workers are the best defense against any nonsense management decides to pull. Be resilient, be calm, and do your research. Know the ins-and-outs of the union and be able to answer questions people will inevitably have. Be ready to be yelled at. Be ready to be threatened. Be ready to be manipulated and gaslit. There is no bar too low that management won’t stoop to in order to get people to turn away from unionization, as many of us found out. Communicate to coworkers that your struggle to organize your workplace has far reaching effects for workers in the region. You aren’t just empowering yourself, you are taking part in a historical struggle that’s been waged for years; you’re fighting for our collective future.
And one more piece of advice to current/future organizers: Record your captive audience meetings!!!

It’s a safeguard, and exposing these union busters and showing the public how all of these talking points and strategies are the same in so many ways is incredibly important.

TFSR: Will you continue working and struggling at No Evil Foods even after this vote against a union? Why?

No Evil Food Workers: We said this many times during the campaign, but this is not the worst job we’ve had. There are some really awful places out there to work and while this one definitely has its problems, it’s not among the worst. Unfortunately, this was often used against us as an argument by management – i.e., “Even union organizers have said themselves that this isn’t a bad place to work, so why do we need a union?” They didn’t really understand why we wanted a union. North Carolina being Right to Work was one of them. (In the month since the election concluded, four people were fired.) It’s also fair to say that about 98% of production workers haven’t been there for more than a year, a telltale sign of a company where job security isn’t really something prominent. On top of that, management often makes decisions rather willy-nilly; the top-down approach creates a lot of problems. Yes, there are ways for us to “suggest” different ways of doing things, but suggestions are suggestions, and management always has the option to ignore us. Collective bargaining would have given us a voice that couldn’t be ignored, and management proved by hiring “union avoidance consultants” that they’re not really interested in taking what we have to say seriously.

So to answer the question, yes, I think a lot of us will stay there and continue fighting for this. But I also think that for many of us (including some “no” votes who are slowly coming around and realizing they were misled) there’s not a day we walk into work and don’t expect to be fired for something trivial.

Management has fallen back into the same patterns that brought the union in to begin with. The firings only prove that we don’t have job security. The random, day-to-day changes in new policies and procedures only prove that we need collective bargaining and ultimately a union.

For a company that markets itself like No Evil Foods does, union busting shouldn’t be the kind of problem that it was during our campaign. Either the company takes off the mask and stops pretending to be revolutionaries who care about their workers, or they step up, do the right thing, and help their workers form a union.

Social Justice and Struggle in Lebanon and Syria: Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami

Social Justice and Struggle in Lebanon and Syria: Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami

Photo taken from Al Jumhuriya

Download This Episode

This week on The Final Straw we’re featuring a chat with Joey Ayoub and Leila Al-Shami. In this conversation, Joey tells us of some of the history of Lebanon, since the civil war that ended in 1990 and up to the current demonstrations against the clientelist warlords in power in that country. Intertwined with this, Leila speaks about the sparking of the resistance to Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the tumult of the civil war, and the state of anti-authoritarian and social justice organizing and media work in that country. Then the two talk about the experience of countering disinformation, conspiracy thinking and poor solidarity in the so-called Left in the West and ways to combat ignorance.

This is another long conversation, covering a lot of the last 30 years in these two neighboring nations.  The guests proposed speaking about the interrelations across that border because of the similarities, differences, and shared experiences between the two places.  Lebanon has Syrian refugees, it was occupied by Syria until 2005. Both spaces share Palestinian refugees, experienced war with Israel, are politically influenced from Hezbollah, mostly speak Arabic and even the flames of the recent wildfires that ignited anti-regime sentiment in Lebanon last fall crossed the border between Lebanon and Syria. We hope to have future chats that play with borders in this way to explore ways we can bridge these borders in our understanding in hopes of increased solidarity.

Joey Ayoub is a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, editor and researcher. He publishes frequently on https://joeyayoub.com/ as well as on the blog https://hummusforthought.com/ and the related podcast by the same title.

Leila Al-Shami is a British-Syrian activist and co-author of ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War‘, a founder of the international solidarity site, TahrirICN and writes on http://leilashami.wordpress.com/ .

Below are links to some resources that Joey and Leila suggest interested listeners check out to for perspectives by folks on the ground in the region:

Lebanon links:

Syria Links:

Timestamps:

  • Sean Swain [00:02:32 – 00:09:34]
  • Intro to Lebanon & Syria [00:09:34 – 00:21:35]
  • Lebanese Protests of 2015 & 2019 [00:21:35 – 00:31:40]
  • Syrian Revolution to Civil War [00:31:40 – 00:41:34]
  • Current Social Justice Struggle in Syria [00:41:46 – 00:45:56]
  • Daesh / ISIS and Syrian Civil War [00:45:56 – 00:49:56]
  • Solidarity with Syrians in Lebanese Protests [00:49:56 – 01:05:38]
  • Leila on Tahrir-ICN [01:05:50 – 01:09:18]
  • Educating Ourselves on Syria and Lebanon [01:09:18 – 01:23:07]
  • White Helmets and other Conspiracy Theories [01:23:07 – 01:32:59]
  • Syrian Diaspora and Western Left [01:32:59 – 01:37:19]
  • Rojava and the Syrian Revolution [01:37:19 – 01:41:56]
  • Better Practice in Solidarity with people in Syria and Lebanon [01:41:56 – 01:53:38]

Announcements

Michael Kimble Benefit

Last week we announced a fundraiser for Michael Kimble.  Because of issues with the platforms, the fundraiser for Michael Kimble’s legal benefit to help raise money for his fight to get him released from prison has been moved.  Now you can find it at ActionNetwork.org/Fundraising/Support-Michael-Kimble . Because the fundraiser had to be moved a couple of times, some of the initial push to get word out and initial donations may be irreplaceable. So, folks are asking for an extra push to help rasie this money to get our comrade out and organizing on the outside after 33 years behind bars.

BADNews February 2020 (#31)

This month, the A-Radio Network released it’s monthly, international English-language podcast featuring voices from anarchist and anti-authoritarian radio shows, pirate stations and podcasts from around the world. The episode is up at A-Radio-Network.org by clicking the B(A)DNews. If you’re interested in joining the network or learning more, info’s up on that site.

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Playlist

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Transcription

The Final Straw: I’m very happy to be joined by Leila al-Shami and Joey Ayoub. Joey is a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, editor, and researcher; he was the Middle East and North Africa editor at both Global Voices and IFEX until recently, and is co-editor of the book Enab Baladi: Citizen Chronicles of the Syrian Uprising. Currently he is doing a PhD at the University of Zurich on postwar Lebanese society. Leila is a British-Syrian activist and the coauthor of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.

Thank you both very much for taking the time to chat with me.

Leila al-Shami: Thank you.

Joey Ayoub: Thank you.

FS: I thought we could talk about anti-authoritarian aspects of popular movements against the regimes in both Lebanon and Syria and for new ways of living, and what solidarity can look like, within that region and from outside, with those popular anti-authoritarian movements. This is a really big conversation, and I’m very excited for the information that y’all are going to present.

First can y’all lay out a thumbnail of the post-colonial development in the respective countries—in Syria and Lebanon—including a bit about the interrelation between those neighboring countries, at least up until those anti-corruption and anti-authoritarian protests known as the Arab Spring?

JA: The primary thing to remember when it comes to the relationship between Syria and Lebanon is that historically they are the same region, “Greater Syria.” With regard to contemporary events, what’s important to understand from a Lebanese perspective is that the Syrian regime was one of two military occupiers of Lebanon—the other being Israel—between 1976 and 2005, when it was essentially forced out after a popular uprising.

Since then, the relationship between the two countries is extremely complicated, to say the least. On the one hand there is a major Lebanese political party that is active in supporting the Assad regime in Syria—I’m talking about Hezbollah. On the other hand, when we speak of Syrians in Lebanon we have to differentiate between the Syrian regime and Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees are effectively powerless and living in pretty bad conditions—I’m phrasing this lightly. It is really bad these days. They are often the victims of scapegoating by xenophobic sectarian parties that have played the same card against Palestinian refugees in the past—they are just using it against Syrian refugees today.

Any relationship is very complicated; there are historical links, but there are activist links as well. But other than that, the two countries are fairly separated due to this power dynamic.

LS: From my side, I think it’s important to understand how the Syrian regime, the current regime, came to power. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963 through a military coup, and it was founded upon an ideology which incorporated elements of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism, both of which were witnessing popular resurgence in the wave of decolonization. Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 through an internal coup within the Ba’ath Party. It was under him that the totalitarian police state was built, which repressed all political freedom. Any opposition or dissidents were dealt with very severely under Hafez al-Assad, and what became known as the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ was built. People were not able to express themselves politically.

Bashar inherited the dictatorship from his father in 2000, and when he came to power, Syrians were hoping for an opening—that they would have more rights and freedoms. But really he continued the policies of his father in terms of political repression, and the prisons were full of Muslim Brotherhood members, Kurdish opposition activists, leftist activists, and human rights activists. And there was also a very desperate socioeconomic situation: a wave of liberalization of the economy under Bashar which really consolidated the wealth in the hands of crony capitalists who were loyal to or related to the president, meanwhile subsidies and welfare that the poor relied on were dismantled.

It was these two factors, both the political repression and the very desperate socioeconomic situation, which led to the uprising which broke out in 2011—which of course arrived in the context of this transnational revolutionary wave that was sweeping the region.

FS: I think a lot of people in the West get confused with the term socialist in the expression of Ba’athists, and don’t have a specific understanding of what that term means in that instance. Can you break it down for those of us who are confused about what socialism refers to in terms of Ba’athism?

LS: The Ba’ath Party advocated socialist economics, but rejected the Marxist conception of class struggle. The Ba’ath believed that all classes among the Arabs were united in opposing capitalist domination by imperial powers, proposing that nations themselves, rather than social groups within and across nations, constituted the real subjects of struggle against domination.

So when they came to power, they pursued top-down socialist economic planning based on the Soviet model. They nationalized major industries, and engaged in large infrastructural modernization to contribute to this nation-state building enterprise: redistributing land, erasing the land-owning class, and improving rural conditions. It was these kinds of populist policies which brought the party a measure of cross-sectarian public support.

But at the same time, leftists were purged from the Ba’ath Party right at the beginning. Hafez al-Assad’s coup within the Ba’ath Party was against the leftwing faction. And later, all left opposition was either co-opted or crushed. Independent associations of workers, students, and producers were repressed, and para-statal organizations said to represent their interests emerged—a kind of corporatist model.

And like I said, under Bashar there was an increasing liberalization of the economy; it really moved away from any kind of socialist economic model towards a model which created a great deal of wealth disparity within the population.

FS: Joey, I wonder if you could set up how, after the civil war and occupation in Lebanon, power was distributed through the state structure there.

JA: It’s been thirty years since the end of the civil war. The postwar era, as we call it, started in 1990, when the civil war officially ended with the signing of the Taif agreement—Taif being the city in Saudi Arabia where they signed it. So it’s been almost exactly three decades since then.

The postwar era is defined by a number of things. The primary two components relevant to what is happening today are the format in which this so-called peace happened, and what happened after that. The format can be symbolized through an amnesty law that was passed in early 1991, which pardoned most crimes which were committed during the war—the only exception being the killing of other important people. If you had assassinated a prime minister or something like that, you might be exempted from the amnesty law. Other than that—if you were involved in kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, murder, all of these things—all of your crimes were wiped clean overnight.

Warlords who made their names during the war became the warlords who entered government in the nineties. They removed their military uniforms, put on their business suits, and became the government. The people we’re dealing with today for the most part are the exact same people who were the warlords during the civil war. The two very easy examples I can give are the current president, Michel Aoun, who was a warlord in the eighties, and the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who was also a warlord in the eighties.

These people have each created clientelist networks—we call it wasta in Arabic—and the result is we don’t really have one state. We do in theory—but that state is subsumed within these sectarian networks.

The second thing that happened in the postwar era which is also important is what you might describe as actually-existing neoliberalism. There was a rabid form of capitalism, the “shock doctrine” scenario that Naomi Klein famously coined in her book, wherein all the ruins of the war were further demolished. The most symbolic example of that is downtown Beirut, which saw a lot of the violence. Large parts of it were completely demolished instead of being renovated and public spaces being made accessible again, and everything was privatized.

Fast forward three decades: what we’ve been seeing since October 17, 2019, this symbolic date when the current uprisings started, are attempts by a number of protesters to reclaim this public space that has been privatized, and to reclaim a sense of identity that transcends these sectarian limits which were implemented in the postwar era.

They were always there—they have been part of Lebanon’s de facto legal reality. Sectarianism is institutionalized. Political confessionalism is the official term for it. In the postwar era there have been quite a lot of protest movements trying to move beyond sectarianism, calling for some kind of secularism, some kind of trans-sectarian identity, with the knowledge that sectarianism isn’t just a social ill in itself (as in, it’s bad to be sectarian) but also understanding that sectarianism is used in a specific way in Lebanon that benefits those who are already at the top.

That’s a simplistic summary, of course, but that’s essentially what we’ve been seeing since October 17. And this time there is a momentum that is explicitly anti-sectarian, and an awareness that as soon as sectarianism wins, the movement immediately loses. There’s an extreme sensibility towards remaining anti-sectarian.

FS: Would you mind talking a little bit about how the clientelism and expectations of social infrastructure, and the lack of following through on these expectations, led to the October protests, and how clientelism stands in opposition to the idea of a social contract?

JA: It is very difficult in Lebanon to do anything unless you have the connections. Education, healthcare, basic services like electricity and water—people tend to rely on private networks for all these things. I went through a private education. Most people in Lebanon have to pay two electricity bills, one private and one public, because the public one is not 24/7. For water, technically you pay three different bills, because there’s public and private running water, and separately there is bottled water because the tap water is not potable. This is a small example of how the clientelism functions in Lebanon.

It really precedes the civil war, and going all the way into that would require a different kind of analysis which I’m not the most capable of giving. But what we saw in October—and in the months and years preceding October 17—was this lack of social contract becoming even more painful. Before then, there was always a way for a percentage of the population—I can’t even say for sure it’s a majority—to sort of get by. There was always a way to make ends meet, so to speak, one way or another. Living conditions were never extremely good, but they were decent enough for you to have an okay life. Especially, obviously, if you’re middle class. That has declined in the last decade or so.

The 2011 uprisings had an impact on Lebanon. Cutting off Syria economically from Lebanon impacted business locally. It also reduced significantly any kind of Gulf investment, which had been reliable up until 2011-12. That’s what has been breaking down slowly in the last decade, and that’s part of the spark that led to October 17, 2019. But that week, that same week, there were very bad wildfires that ravaged through the country and even reached parts of Syria; it was over forty-eight hours before they were fought off through a combination of luck—it started raining—and airplanes that were donated by foreign governments.

And just a day later, the government decided to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls, which are obviously free and used by virtually all Lebanese because actual phonecalls are so expensive due to the corruption and clientelism. That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

On the night of 17 October, the day the WhatsApp tax was proposed, people spontaneously went to Beirut, to Nabatiyeh in the south, to Tripoli in the north—people went out in cities across Lebanon. In the first couple of weeks, the momentum was so overwhelming. It was on all levels across all regions of Lebanon, with almost no exceptions, touching all socioeconomic classes (there were even protests where I live; this has never happened before), and there was a very explicit anti-sectarian component.

This is remarkable because sectarianism in Lebanon has created a reality where it is virtually impossible—in practice it just never happens—that if you are from a certain region and you’re just used to seeing people from a certain sect (with the exception of the big cities like Beirut), you don’t really know much about other parts of the country where a different sect has a majority. If you come from Mount Lebanon you don’t necessarily know much about the south or the north, unless you have family connections.

That’s been our reality for three decades. And nonetheless in the first month or so, it was very common to see people in Tripoli (the Sunni-majority city in the north) sending their solidarity to Nabatiyeh (the Shia-majority area in the south) and vice versa. In Jounieh (which is Christian majority) and Beirut (which is very mixed) and Mount Lebanon (which is Druze majority), there were always explicit statements of solidarity from one region to another, from one sect to another, saying, essentially: we have this thing that unites us beyond our sectarian allegiances.

The other extremely important component is summarized by the chant kelon ya’neh kelon, which means “All of them means all of them.” It’s very simple. Every single politician that has participated in this postwar status quo has to go. It’s a complete rejection of every single political leader of the postwar era, basically, whether they are currently in government or not.

That’s very important, because there have been a number of sectarian parties that were previously in the government and currently are less so—they still have MPs but they are not the ruling parties—that have been trying to ride the wave of the revolution by presenting themselves as opposition parties, trying to play with the binary that is the March 8 and March 14 movements.

What are these two? March 8 and March 14 are the names of two coalitions that were formed on those dates in 2005. Following the assassination of then-prime minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005, there were mass mobilizations on these two dates with different orientations towards the Syrian regime. On March 8 was the pro-Syrian regime protest, led by Hezbollah and Amal at the time. On March 14 was the anti-Syrian regime protest, led by the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Phalangists, and the Progressive Socialist Party and other parties. Since then they have created a power-sharing agreement following the model of the postwar era, where it’s one coalition or the other that’s ruling, always fighting with each other but always finding more things in common than things that distinguish them—especially when there are independents trying to run against both of them, that’s when they close ranks.

Because the current government, for various reasons, is a March 8 government—Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement—there are parties that were traditionally associated with March 14—the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalangists—that have been trying to place themselves in the position of opposition against the March 8-led government.

The protesters are rejecting that. No. All of them means all of them; you will not be able to ride the wave of the revolution. In five days it will be the four-month anniversary of these protests, and the momentum has changed, but it is still firmly anti-sectarian.

FS: Let’s turn and rejoin Leila in the chronology of how anti-corruption movements had been developing in Syria and then come back to anti-corruption in Lebanon. Leila, Joey had mentioned Syrian refugees being present and the way the forest fires crossed the border; these two countries have had a lot of interaction between each other. I’m wondering if you could talk about how the anti-corruption and reform movements and revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring effected and impacted Syria, with the Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war.

LS: People in Syria were generally quietly against the regime prior to 2000. The last major uprising had been at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, and started off as a broad-based movement against the regime but ended up becoming very dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood due to the severe repression of those who were participating in it. It culminated in the massacre of Hama, when thousands of people were killed and much of the old city of Hama was destroyed by Assad’s forces. In addition to that, thousands of people disappeared into regime detention; many of them were never seen again. This experience of such brutal repression had kept Syrians quiet since that time.

But when the Arab Spring, as it came to be known in the West, emerged in 2010-11, people in Syria were seeing what was happening in Egypt, what was happening in Tunisia, and the governments being brought down there, and they began to ask, “Why not us?” This gave people—a new generation that hadn’t directly experienced the repression that had occurred before—the strength to go out onto the streets and start demonstrating themselves. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, though, people in Syria didn’t go out into the streets calling for the fall of the regime, initially. What they were calling for was reforms: things like a multi-party system, the release of political prisoners, a free press.

These were demands which had been taken up in 2000 when Bashar first came to power, and people thought there was an opening for change. There was a small movement—it wasn’t a popular broad-based movement like we saw in 2011, but it was a movement among intellectuals and human rights activists that started to call for reforms when Bashar came to power. That movement, again, was severely repressed, and all hope for change under Bashar died at that point—until 2011, when what happened in Tunisia and Egypt really reignited the hopes of a new generation.

So they came out onto the streets calling for reform, but the brutality of the response by the state—which immediately began meeting peaceful, unarmed pro-democracy protesters with gunfire, massive waves of detention, and repression—radicalized the movement. It caused it to spread rapidly across the country, and it encouraged people to start calling for the fall of the regime and even for the execution of the president. It was the regime’s repression which really catalyzed the movement’s spreading and becoming a revolutionary movement.

I think it’s very important to recognize that when this happened in 2011, it was a broad-based, inclusive movement. It included many women from all different backgrounds, a diversity of Syria’s religious groups and ethnic groups, all united around the demands for freedom, for democracy, and for social justice. The social justice element is often not focused on very much in the West. But it was a large component of the revolutionary demands.

Many people went out on the streets and chanted against the crony capitalists who had amassed a great deal of wealth under the current regime. For example, Rami Makhlouf, who is Assad’s maternal cousin, was estimated prior to 2011 to control some sixty percent of the Syrian economy through his business interests—in real estate, mobile telephone companies, etcetera. There were large chants against him on the streets and against other crony capitalists.

There was a strong element of awareness and strong social and economic demands as part of the revolutionary movement, but those were not focused on very much in Western reporting.

FS: In your book Burning Country that you coauthored, y’all made a point of saying when people took up arms to defend themselves against the government, the inclusivity of the popular movement started to dissipate. That’s how I remember reading it, at least. Can you talk about what the integration of armed struggle into the movement against the government did to the dynamic of the revolution, and how it became a civil war?

LS: Taking up arms was a response to the massive repression by the state against peaceful protesters. At the beginning it was still inclusive—this wasn’t an organized military or army. This was people taking up weapons in their communities to defend their communities and their families from assault. People were being taken from their homes and detained; there was also a mass rape campaign carried out in oppositional communities by Assad-affiliated militias. So people took up arms to defend themselves in loosely-coordinated defense brigades.

By the summer of 2012, we started to see the Free Army label being used. Now, the Free Army was never really an organized army; it was never centrally controlled or centrally funded, although there were failed attempts to do so. It was an umbrella which different groups and different militias could come under with two main aims: one was the fall of the regime, to force Assad out of power, and the other was to see some kind of democratic transition take place. The people who signed up to the Free Army label were people who were united behind those aims.

But as time went by, the armed opposition became more and more fragmented, due to external pressures on them. They couldn’t get the weapons that they needed to really defend themselves and their communities from regime assaults. There were light weapons going in, but the anti-aircraft missiles which people desperately needed were not being provided. Aerial assaults were the main cause of destruction and main cause of death, and it was Assad who was controlling the skies—later alongside his Russian ally.

We also saw, around December 2013, an increasing Islamization among armed groups in Syria. The main reason for that was the failure of the democrats of the Free Army to attract funding and support from the Western states that they were reaching out to. Some brigades started Islamizing their rhetoric in order to attract support from Gulf donors specifically.

So there was an increasing Islamization of the opposition groups, and an increasing fragmentation of armed opposition groups. There were so many different armed brigades that were present at that time, and we see now that most of the armed groups operating in Syria do have an Islamist leaning and have eclipsed in strength the democrats of the Free Army.

But while there was this fragmentation of the armed opposition—which was due in large part to this competing struggle for weapons, competing struggles for military dominance and political dominance in areas they were controlling—there was also, in parallel, a continuing civil movement which was committed to the original goals of the revolutionary struggle and remained an inclusive and diverse movement.

FS: Fast-forwarding now into what has been nine years of one of the most deadly civil wars of the twenty-first century so far, I’m sure what a lot of people are experiencing on the ground in opposition areas at this point is simply a struggle for survival against this genocidal regime. But can you say anything about what exists, as far as you’re aware, of democratic movements for social justice in Syria?

LS: There are plenty of Syrians who are still committed to those ideals of the revolution, and there are plenty of Syrians working today within their communities trying to keep things functioning; plenty of civil society organizations that are continuing to do media work, continuing to assist the displaced, trying to keep hospitals functioning. But it has become a matter of survival, a struggle for survival. Today the main area which is outside Assad regime control, or still in the control of rebel groups, is Idlib. Idlib today is facing an absolutely relentless assault, a war of extermination against the civilian population there.

Since the assault on Idlib began in April 2019, over a million people have been displaced, nearly 700,000 since December alone—just gone. There have been massive attacks on civilian infrastructure; dozens of hospitals put out of action. People are fleeing for their lives. It’s very hard in such circumstances to talk about any kind of organized movement, because people are really just struggling to survive. People are fleeing outside of Idlib city or to the north of Idlib, and there’s no place left to go, no remaining safe haven for people. Many of these people had already been displaced multiple times, when their communities came under attack or were forced to surrender and recaptured by regime forces. And the borders are not open. The situation on the ground today in Syria is completely desperate.

In areas that have come back under regime control, whether we’re talking about Dera’a in the south or the Ghouta around Damascas, there have been massive waves of repression against the population who stayed. Anyone who is seen to have been in any way affiliated with the opposition has been arrested and detained. Young men have been rounded up and sent to the front lines to fight, basically on missions from which they are not going to return.

But we have also seen that resistance has continued. There have been waves of protests happening in Dera’a. Extremely courageous people in regime-controlled areas have still been protesting, calling for things like the release of prisoners, protesting against the desperate economic situation. Just in the last couple of weeks in Sweida, which is a Druze-majority area, people have been out on the streets protesting against a very desperate economic situation, protesting against the corruption they’re seeing.

In Dera’a, we’re seeing waves of assassinations against regime forces as well. So while the organized resistance movement and organized civil society has been very much crushed over recent months as the regime has taken control, we see that those desires for freedom, for justice, for this regime to end, have not gone away. And when others have a chance to organize, they’re still trying to organize—they’re very clear that they’re not going to accept this regime. There’s no life for people under this regime.

FS: This is a subject that I’m sure gets brought up a lot in conversations about Syria with Westerners, but it seems like the democratic social movement had a few different fronts on which they were being attacked, including with the uprising of Daesh as a movement across Iraq and Syria. In your experience, is Daesh still a threat against social movements, or has it been crushed, as it’s been presented in the Western media?

LS: Daesh hasn’t been crushed. There’s this idea that you can defeat an ideology militarily when the conditions that fed that ideology are still very preset, when the chaos which allows such extremist groups to thrive is still there. Daesh has certainly lost a lot of its organized power, but it has the ability to regroup and re-form—we’ve seen that in Iraq, and in attacks that have been carried out in Syria in recent months.

It’s not just Daesh which is a threat. If we look at Idlib—I said that Idlib was the main province still under rebel control. The group in control of a large part of Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra, which is a very extremist Islamist militia. They have repeatedly tried to wrest power away from the democratic opposition structures which were established in Idlib following the liberation from the regime, and have tried to impose their own extremely authoritarian religious strictures upon a population which overwhelmingly rejects them.

This is something which is not spoken about much in the West. People often say Idlib is an “al-Qaeda enclave” because this group HTS was formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda. What they’re overlooking is all the people protesting against the group. We’ve seen continuous demonstrations in Idlib, up until now, people calling for HTS to leave their communities and hand over power to democratic opposition structures.

So yes, Syrians have had a battle on two fronts. They’ve had a battle against this fascist tyrannical regime which is committing genocide against a population which demanded freedom, and a struggle against extremist Islamist groups such as Daesh and HTS and others.

The third battle, of course, has been against people in the West, often people who identify as being on the left, who have continuously slandered revolutionary Syrians, have equated revolutionary Syrians with groups like al-Qaeda, and have in fact thrown their support behind the Assad regime. Free Syrians have found that they have very few friends. But they retain their desire for freedom, and they continue to maintain that they are not going to accept one tyranny being followed by another.

FS: Joey, on an episode of the Arab Tyrant Manual from November 2019, you and another guest, Timour Azhari, were talking about calls for solidarity with the Syrian people that were coming up in the chants of Lebanese protesters, and I wonder if you, or both of you, could talk a little bit about solidarity against authoritarian structures across that border, between Lebanon and Syria, and between the popular mobilizations against sectarianism that you’ve seen.

JA: The anti-sectarian component of the protest movements in Lebanon essentially appeals to some kind of national identity. It’s one thing to have my religion as a Christian, as a Shia, as a Sunni, as a Druze, and that’s fine, but there should be something that unites us further than that—we’re all Lebanese. Of course that’s a double-edged sword: nationalism can unite people across sects within one nation-state, and it can also otherize people who are not Lebanese.

That’s a very common thing, and it’s a reality that anti-authoritarians, progressives, radicals, lefties, and others in Lebanon have to contend with: the overwhelming presence of xenophobia. Much of it was created during the civil war; the Syrian regime was an occupier, so many Lebanese, especially those of the older generation, equate Syrians with the Assad regime. This is very ironic and self-defeating, because obviously Syrian refugees in Lebanon are fleeing a conflict that was started by the Assad regime; there could have been opportunities for cooperation and unity. But what is happening is xenophobia and nationalism.

In the same way as in Hong Kong, where there is a segment of the population which is anti-China in the ethnic sense rather than being anti-Chinese-government, there is in Lebanon a segment of the protesters that is anti-Syrian, not just anti-Syrian regime. There are even Lebanese who oppose the Syrian regime, who oppose Hezbollah, who still share the same xenophobic, racist attitudes towards Syrian refugees.

And this power dynamic is worsened by the fact that the economic situation in Lebanon is already shit. It’s really bad. It creates the opportunity for scapegoating Syrian refugees, modeled after the scapegoating of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since the Nakba: they faced this type of attitude, especially during the civil war because there was an armed Palestinian faction, but that’s a different story.

To try and counter that, there is a segment of Lebanese protesters, most notably the feminists, who are trying to create a movement that is more inclusive. They are openly intersectional and speak about class struggle, and about gender equality beyond the confines of citizenship—which is already very restrictive in Lebanon. You cannot become Lebanese other than by marrying a Lebanese citizen or inheriting it—and even then it is only passed on by a man. You can inherit citizenship if your father is Lebanese, but you cannot inherit it if only your mother is Lebanese. So there is a percentage of the population in Lebanon that are “not even Lebanese” but who are in fact Lebanese. What the progressives are saying is that if someone can be Lebanese and not Lebanese at the same time, we can also accept that there might be more than one way of being Lebanese. This is why I insist on calling myself Lebanese-Palestinian, to refuse to relinquish my grandfather’s identity. It’s not even considered something that can be a reality. You’re either one or the other, and that’s it.

Something being called a “revolution” or having revolutionary momentum does not automatically mean that everyone participating in that uprising has the best politics in the world. Even in Syria in 2011-12, there were conservatives who would take part in the protests. That’s completely normal. There’s more than one way of expressing opposition to illegitimate authority. If we’re talking about the Assad regime, there are multiple ways of opposing it. There are even Islamists who oppose the Assad regime. As a progressive who would not want to have an Islamist regime either, you still can’t automatically reject everyone who doesn’t share every single one of your politics. It’s complicated.

In Lebanon it’s complicated in different ways. In the beginning, there were sectarian people participating in the protests. There were members of Hezbollah, members of the Lebanese Forces, and members of other sectarian political parties among us. Even to this day, there still are, but to a lesser extent. They were in fact going against their own parties, without renouncing their parties. What happens in that space, within that momentum, is a sort of negotiation. Chanting kelon ya’neh kelon made lots of people uncomfortable. Calling out certain specific politicians by name made certain people uncomfortable. That alienated some people, whereas other stuck around. Some people were “converted.” Other people still participate without chanting these specific chants.

So there’s an ideal: kelon ya’neh kelon, anti-sectarianism, a vision of a fair society. And within that ideal, there are multiple ways of negotiating, because at the end of the day, if I want a society that is better than the current society, I have to face the contradictions of that society. Those contradictions, whether we’re talking about sectarianism, xenophobia, nationalism—all of these things exist everywhere in Lebanon. They exist within your own family, within your community networks. It is very difficult just to say, “Screw all of you, I am going to create something without all of you.”

FS: Leila, the reason I first heard your name besides Burning Country was in reference to Tahrir-ICN coming up in the 2010s. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what became of it, how it developed, and what impacts you saw it have?

LS: Tahrir-ICN was an attempt to address the issue of a lack of knowledge of anti-authoritarian struggles in the region, outside of it. A group of activists came together, myself included, with the idea to build this network among anti-authoritarian activists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. It had two components to it. The first was an information-sharing platform, establishing a blog and social media accounts. The second was to build a physical network where we could work on practical actions and build solidarity together, sharing experiences.

The first aspect of it was quite successful. It started in 2012, just after the revolutions in the region broke out. Different collectives from across the region and in Europe started sharing information of what was happening in their country. This was a time when there were lots of uprisings across the region and also in Greece and in Spain: the Occupy movement, a lot of exciting things were happening. It didn’t have one vision. It was trying to learn from a wide variety of experiences and struggles loosely labeled anti-authoritarian. We had quite a wide readership for our blog, and I think it was very useful for people outside, in Europe or in America, to find out more about anti-authoritarian struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, and vice-versa..

The second aspect, building a physical network—we had a number of discussions about having an event to bring people together. There was certainly a lot of interest in that. But then the counterrevolutions broke out very strongly. People became very bogged down in what was happening in their countries. People started losing a lot of energy, and the network kind of fizzled out. I myself decided that I had to prioritize what was happening in Syria due to my connections with Syria. People got very caught up in their own stuff, and it kind of died out. But I think that for the time when it was operative, it provided a useful source of information to learn about each other and to see the wide variety of struggles that were occurring.

FS: For the sake of us staying informed and educated about what’s actually going on in this region of the world, can y’all talk about maybe some resources that we have, particularly in English, that we could be relying on to get a better grasp? And also maybe some resources that you think are trash and we should avoid? That would be very helpful.

LS: I would encourage people to look for resources which are produced by people who are living in or connected to the regions themselves. It’s very important to try to go to native sources where possible, to people who have a very real understanding of the issues because they’re directly affected by them. We’ve been very privileged that there is so much information available in English. There are so many activists who are very active on social media across the region who we can connect with on Twitter, on Facebook, who are telling their stories. From Syria, there are so many great independent media initiatives. There is Enab BaladiJoey worked on producing a book of some of their texts—which was established by women in one of the main revolutionary towns known as Daraya. There were some amazing experiences of self-organization in that town. There is al-Jumhuriya, which was established by Syrians, which is great for analysis of the region.

I would encourage people to find out a bit more and to go to these sources, and to try to educate themselves. The first and most important aspect of solidarity is correcting the information. There is so much disinformation circulating about what is happening in the region. It’s so exhausting for activists who have much more important struggles than focusing on correcting the narrative. It would be great if some of that work could be done from the outside. It would certainly free up Syrian activists to focus on other more practical things that they need to address.

JA: On the Lebanon side of things, I can start by recommending a podcast that’s called The Lebanese Politics Podcast. Starting with the episode which was released just after the October 17 revolution started, they’ve put out about an episode a week, in English, in which they go back to the events of that week and interpret them and talk about them. It is as objective as you can get, from an archival perspective. Both of them are on the left and are analyzing from the anti-sectarian angle.

Other than that, most good media in Lebanon is in Arabic. Recently, especially since 2015 when there was another uprising—which was not as successful but laid the groundwork for what was to come—there were things like Megaphone News, which is mostly in Arabic but sometimes has English stuff; they are really good. There is the Public Sourceagain, these are mostly in Arabic but occasionally have some English stuff.

A lot of the voices of anti-authoritarian Syrians are present in mainstream Anglo media. Just recently there was For Sama, the documentary that was nominated for an Oscar and won many film festival awards. There was the White Helmets documentary from 2017. There are a bunch of really good war-related but more personal-narrative documentaries popping up. All of these are available with English subtitles, and are very easy to find these days.

The main thing to challenge, really, is disinformation. The decision is whether people want to believe what they are seeing with their own eyes. For Sama is literally just footage put together to tell a story. You can think whatever you want, but if you’re starting to doubt what you see with your own eyes, the bombing that you’re literally seeing in front of you, then we’re entering a world that has not just implications for Syrians and Palestinians and Lebanese and others, but indeed implications for everyone else.

The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote and the so-called wave of far-right populism (which is a nice euphemism for fascism a lot of the time) didn’t really surprise a lot of us who live on this side of the world and have been involved with anti-authoritarian politics. Some of the signs that we were going into a dangerous international moment were already present in Syria as early as 2013, with the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta, among other things. The reactions to that started signaling that we’re slowly moving towards a normalization of blatant violence against civilian bodies.

What progressives in Lebanon are trying to do right now is create a different media landscape outside the norms, a counternarrative to the dominant narratives in Lebanon, because they are very influenced by the sectarian status quo. Many of them are owned by the sectarian parties. With Syria it was very different at first, because there wasn’t really any independent media before 2011. But an explosion of creativity came after 2011 (Enab Baladi, the project I worked on, is one of the examples of that), so now it is very easy to get very decent, advanced, sophisticated information. The question is how much energy people are willing to put into it.

It’s always good to inform yourself as much as possible about what’s happening in the rest of the world, just as a general rule, and there tends to be enough information these days. But the other thing is calling out disinformation when you see it online. To do that convincingly, you do need to arm yourself with quite a lot of knowledge, because the disinformation campaigns, especially since Russia decided to intervene militarily in Syria, have been pretty extraordinary. We’re not just dealing with RT and Sputnik. There are horrific takes being taken for granted which if they were on Palestine would be the abode of the far right, but for some reason when it comes to Syria, lots of lefties repeat basically the same things that rightwing Zionists would repeat on Palestine—the same takes! They just go with that narrative instead of looking at the facts on the ground and reading the books by Syrians who have been writing for decades now, many of whom are translated into English.

Information is power, and it can be used for good. But we have to deal with all of the disinformation around us. It’s been exhausting. Many of us have experienced months of burnout. Most activists I know, including those who were in Aleppo until recently, or in Ghouta or in Idlib or in the south or wherever, have completely given up on trying to challenge anyone online, or are just working locally. Some still spend entire days sometimes arguing with mostly Westerners online about their own country and their own homes that they just had to leave.

Westerners are not going through fascism in the same sense that Syrians are. There is definitely that threat, especially these days, but it’s still not at the level of the Assad regime controlling everything and dropping barrel bombs, and having foreign militaries invited into your country. I don’t know how to say this, but privilege is a responsibility. Having privilege means you should do something with it. Use the access to knowledge that you have and inform yourself on what’s been happening in Syria, especially since 2011, or since 1982 with the Hama massacre as Leila mentioned, or wherever you want to start, instead of just getting stuck in these echo chambers which have been so common, unfortunately, with the Western left.

FS: I’m wondering if either of you have the energy to talk really briefly about that or touch on some of the conspiracy theories we need to challenge? You don’t have to answer if you don’t have the energy.

LS: Very briefly, the White Helmets are volunteer first responders, men and women, people who are often the first on the scene to assist victims of Assad and Russia’s aerial bombardment, taking bodies from the rubble, taking people to makeshift hospitals for treatment. I think it’s because they are first on the scene to record and witness these state crimes that they have come under vicious attack. A lot of the assault on the White Helmets does originate in Russian state media; the Russian state has carried out a massive disinformation campaign against the White Helmets. We’ve seen them being accused of being al-Qaeda operatives; we’ve seen them being accused of being behind chemical weapons massacres. There have even been reports that they are engaged in organ harvesting. All sorts of horrendous and malicious accusations have been thrown at them.

The problem is that a lot of these accusations, which are starting in Russian or Syrian state media, are then being propagated and spread by people who identify as being on the left. We’ve seen a lot of these disinformation campaigns carried out by purportedly leftist activists, and these kinds of conspiracies also find their way into the mainstream. It’s very difficult now to even mention the White Helmets. I spend quite a lot of my time traveling and giving talks about Syria, trying to build solidarity for Syria, and even when I come across people who are generally sympathetic to what I’m saying—they’re not supportive in any way of the Assad regime; they seem to want to stand in solidarity with free Syrians—they’ll come up to me at the end of the talk and say, “Well, what about these White Helmets? We’ve heard this, we’ve heard that.” So this campaign of disinformation has been very successful in polluting the public space in such a way that really makes any kind of practical solidarity with revolutionary Syrians almost impossible.

It’s so dangerous at the moment in a place like Idlib, where international aid agencies have all pulled out. We’re seeing massive targeting of residential infrastructure and survival infrastructure—hospitals, schools, water supplies. It’s the White Helmets who are there, who can provide any kind of lifeline to people who are facing that kind of assault. They are maligned and slandered, when they are really the people who we should be standing behind and supporting—they are in desperate need of funding to continue their work. It’s very difficult to constantly face these kinds of attacks.

JA: Russia’s online disinformation campaigns have been widely studied by now. The discourse that Russia appeals to, or that pro-Assad or pro-Hezbollah folks appeal to, is identical to the War on Terror narrative that was popularized by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. The whole “You’re either with us or the enemy” mentality was literally almost quoted verbatim by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, just a few weeks ago. This discourse has been reinforced and rendered hegemonic in some circles of the broader left, especially (but not just) the Western left. Russia has an obvious interest in people believing that the White Helmets are terrorists, because under the War on Terror, terrorists are fair game. You can shoot them. It’s really that simple.

The Russian embassies on Twitter (some particular embassies, like the one in South Africa, have a particular notoriety for some reason) post disinformation against the White Helmets, and against the documentary about the White Helmets—they posted a photo of Osama bin Laden receiving the Oscar. All of these things are Islamophobic smears that have been widespread especially since the aftermath of 9/11. Russia has utilized this in the past, in Chechnya. Chechnya is particularly important to mention here because one of the Russian embassies also tweeted at one point some years ago, during the fall of Aleppo, a before-and-after picture of Grozny—eradicated by Putin and rebuilt—and the message was, “This could be Aleppo.”

If those among us who call ourselves anti-authoritarians do not understand the consequences or the connotations of this, then we’re basically saying that we do not really care about groups of people that are vulnerable in our own societies, let alone in other societies or in the wider world, including Syrians in this case. The disinformation campaigns don’t just tell you something—they also tell you what not to think. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. It’s that sort of mentality. It stays in the back of your mind, it just festers there, and that alone is enough to reduce any momentum towards solidarity. What it does is discourage people from looking further.

That is the success of the disinformation. You pollute the media sphere. If you just google the White Helmets, on the first pages you will find a lot of horrible things being said. If you go on Twitter it’s dominated by Russian disinformation campaigns. When I say Russian disinformation I don’t just mean RT and Sputnik, but anyone who hovers around that world. That is extremely dangerous in a situation where these people are literally being murdered as we speak. They have even been targeted by al-Qaeda. Calling them al-Qaeda is not just a horrific, racist, Islamophobic smear—it actually puts their lives in danger.

FS: We haven’t really touched on the Syrian diaspora. I didn’t think about how a lot of this conspiracy theory stuff plays into the rightwing xenophobic rhetoric about people escaping the civil war there or escaping war in Libya or other parts of the world that the West often views through an orientalist and Islamophobic lens: that they are bringing this contagion of terrorism with them or whatever.

JA: Leila’s coauthor Robin Yassin-Kassab observed that before Syrians arrived on the shores of Fortress Europe and were being demonized by the far right as terrorists and demographic threats and all of these slurs, they were already being demonized and treated with hostility by large segments of the left. That scapegoating was already there—it’s not just that suddenly Syrians started appearing in Europe and there was massive reaction against them by the right. Of course there was that as well. But the stories of Syrians arriving in Europe (most are not in Europe, obviously; they are in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan and so on) were canceled, deleted, smeared, and demonized in advance, accelerating the process of dehumanization.

Understanding what’s happening, the context of a country, especially one in “conflict” like Syria, also means supporting the refugees that come to your shores.

FS: A lot of the coverage that this show has done on war in Syria has been specifically focusing on the struggles in northern Syria, particularly as relates to the Kurdish-majority areas and the PYD and the PKK-affiliated Kurdish movement. This is partly because there’s a better infrastructure for communication and discourse in the West, but also a lot of anarchists and leftists have been for a long time in very active solidarity with PKK-related struggles.

Leila, as someone who’s covered the war in Syria and the revolution before that, could you talk a little bit about how the PYD has related to that?

LS: That struggle has certainly gained much more solidarity in the West, and you touched on the reasons for that: the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the US has been there for a long time and has been able to build solidarity networks that take a long time to build, and Syrians living in other parts of the country had not had that. They didn’t have so much connection with the West. It’s very difficult, obviously. Even prior to the revolution it was difficult for Syrians to travel, to get visas, to be outside. So there wasn’t that much exchange built up for people to know what was happening in other areas.

Some of it also comes down to a Western orientalism that often likes to focus on minority groups as being the most persecuted, combined with Islamophobic racism towards Sunni majorities in Syria and elsewhere. This does tend to have a disproportionate impact on the way minority groups are able to attract solidarity.

That said, there are lots of very inspiring things happening within the Kurdish movement in northern Syria which are directly attractive to anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the West, and I see why there’s an appeal. But there have also been plenty of very inspiring things happening in other parts of Syria. One of the untold stories of the Syrian revolution is how in the absence of the state, when the state collapsed or was pushed out of the majority of the country, people came together and began to build alternative structures for self-organization within those areas.

For example, when the state withdrew and pulled out services, people realized that they needed to build forums to keep their communities functioning. The model that they looked to was developed by a Syrian anarchist called Omar Aziz, who advocated for the establishment of local councils, grassroots forums in which people could come together to discuss the needs in their community and self-organize to keep services functioning, such as electricity supply, hospitals, water supply systems, education systems. That model spread throughout Syria, leading to the establishment of hundreds of local councils throughout the country.

These experiences of self-organization and autonomous politics that happened as a direct result of the Syrian revolution should have been something that people outside were looking at and learning from, and that was a missed opportunity. Possibly some of that was on us, on our inability to communicate effectively what was happening. But also we had a lot of other priorities. It should have been people on the outside looking at what was happening inside Syria and seeing how they could find access to better information.

FS: To close, where do you think the people’s more democratic movements in these two venues are going? Are there any things to keep an eye on? Any direct ways, other than countering disinformation, that folks in the listening audience can support people who are struggling for autonomy and to uplift their dignity in Syria and Lebanon?

LS: I would love to talk about all the opportunities for political solidarity, to build the free Syria that we all want to see. But Syrians are facing a war of extermination right now. The situation on the ground is so absolutely desperate in places like Idlib that any immediate call has to be a purely humanitarian call, to try to pressure a ceasefire, to stop the assault by Russia and the regime on residential communities, to stop this humanitarian crisis from spiraling absolutely out of control, which it is doing at the moment.

I would encourage people to look at some of the Syrian-led organizations which are providing support to these internally displaced people on the ground. The Molham Volunteering Team is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work. Violet Organization, Kids Paradise—the immediate needs for survival take precedence over any other call I think of right now.

And then I’ll reiterate what we’ve been saying about being more informed—there are still many Syrians working to try to hold this regime accountable, to try to keep going with their desire to live in a free country. I encourage people to find out who they are and to see which ways they can stand in solidarity with them.

JA: As for Lebanon, what’s been happening in the past almost four months is often described as a rebirth. There is a lot of very new momentum. Some of the media outlets that I mentioned before were literally launched in the past few weeks. A few of them are the offspring of the 2015 movement, but others are really much newer than that. There are websites that only have half a dozen articles and they are just building on that.

That’s the exciting part. We’re having an emergence. There is an emergence of a civic-society mentality—though that has a lot of limitations. Sometimes it’s limited by a liberal paradigm. But it creates a space. It’s a moment to push for ideas that are more progressive. That’s what folks like me are trying to do. I am just a writer. Other people are doing much more direct work on the ground. There are soup kitchens that have popped up in places like Beirut and Tripoli. There are independent unions being formed because the current unions are either co-opted or useless. There are independent media workers—while there are good people working within mainstream outlets, they tend to be limited by those outlets’ priorities.

At the same time, in the same way as in Syria, there has been an outburst of creativity. Arts and music genres that hadn’t been explored before are now being explored, like metal and rap and hip-hop. Lebanon is freer than Syria as a society, there are fewer restrictions. There is a lot of self-censorship, but not as much of the overt censorship that there is in Syria. You can pretty much say whatever you want, within some limits sometimes, and that has allowed us a little bit more breathing space compared with what Syrians have had, to create some of this infrastructure that is now booming. Currents like environmentalism, feminism, queer rights, and so on are also finding momentum in the ongoing revolutionary upheavals.

The only limitation so far is refugee rights, and migrant domestic worker rights. The revolution hasn’t really addressed these issues as much as it should. But hopefully the more we continue and the more progressives and others manage to steer the revolution in a certain direction rather than in a nationalist direction, that might be possible in the near future. I personally think it’s going to be extremely difficult, but there is hope in that matter.

LS: One other area that I’d like to draw attention to is the prisoners’ struggle. The prisoner issue is something that everybody should be supporting. There are thousands of Syrians in prison, and we know the horror stories of how widely practiced torture is within regime detention. Those are our people. Those are the peaceful pro-democracy activists who were struggling against this regime. They are the people who are inside prison who we should be supporting.

There are some fantastic organizations that people can get behind. Families for Freedom is a women-led movement set up by Syrian women: the mothers, wives, sisters of political prisoners. It is a movement that was inspired by Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and by a similar women-led movement looking for the disappeared in Lebanon. They’re doing as much work as they can trying to keep the issue of prisoners on the international agenda, calling for the release of not only those detained in regime prisons but also those detained in prisons by Islamist groups.

That’s something that everybody should be getting behind and finding out about and seeing how they can support, because it’s never on the agenda even though for every Syrian, it’s one of the most important issues because we all have family members or friends who have disappeared in regime detention.

We spoke a lot about how exhausted and traumatized Syrian activists are right now because of the strength of the counterrevolution and what they’ve gone through over the past few years. But one thing that has given us so much hope and strength and inspiration is seeing the protests happening in Lebanon. Also in Iraq, where people have been out on the streets and going through extremely challenging circumstances—this is also very inspirational in the way they are using anti-sectarian slogans. Also what’s happening in Iran with the protest movement there. All these movement have given us a lot of hope and courage.

Syria has been used to silence people across the region as a kind of bogeyman: if you raise your voice and demand freedom, this is what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to end up like Syria. The revolutions and uprisings that happened in 2010-11 have been crushed, they’re over. But they haven’t been crushed. This is part of a long term process. Although each country has its own specific situation, there are a lot of similarities: the authoritarian regimes, the corruption, the bad socioeconomic situation. And people are not being silenced. Something changed in 2011, and despite the massive repression these protest movements have faced, something has changed within people. That’s going to have a massive impact on the future. There’s going to be a lot of change happening in the region, and we’re only at the start of that process.

FS: Thank you so much for having this conversation, I really appreciate it.

LS: Thank you for inviting us.

JA: Thanks a lot.