This week on the show, we spoke with folks involved with Comrade Center, a leftist project focused on accessible education around armed self-defense in so-called New Hampshire. They were formerly known as Southern New England Socialist Rifle Association and while they’re no longer a chapter of the SRA, they are working with groups like that and individuals to purchase and maintaining a space for armed self-defense education outside of the right wing milieu in their area. For the hour we talk about mainstream, reactionary gun culture in the US, the impact of the NRA, the importance and empowerment of education around fire arms and other topics. You can learn more about the project at ComradeCenter.Org
On February 12th, 1994, Ernest Lee Johnson and his ex-girlfriends’ two sons participated in the botched robbery of Casey’s General Store that took three victims’ lives: Mable Scruggs, Mary Bratcher and Fred Jones. Mr Johnson has no recollection of the murders, was in despair and had been drinking and smoking crack in the hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. A Black man with intellectual disabilities and no former, violent convictions, he was convicted by an ill-informed, all-white jury with the help of Boone County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane. Ernest Johnson now faces an execution date of October 5th, 2021.
This week, we spoke with Elyse Max, State Director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty about the life of Ernest Johnson, the media and court situation he faced, his twice overturned death penalty, the links between the lynching of Black people in the US and the current death penalty, intersections of race and class in who are the victims of capital cases and who sit on death rows, the mishandling of Ernests intellectual disability in the case and other topics.
You can learn more about Ernest’s case, including ways to help press Missouri Gov Parson for a commutation of Ernest’s execution and the work of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty by visiting MADPMO.org. You can follow their work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram via the handle @MADPMO.
“Representing Radicals” Lawyers’ Guide from Tilted Scales
Resisting state repression and surveillance is one of the cornerstones of The Final Straw and has been since the beginning of this project. Over the years we’ve featured interviews with support committees, political prisoners, defendants in ongoing cases, incarcerated organizers, radical legal workers and lawyers and others to talk about how power strikes at those who it fears constitute a threat. For those of us caught up in cases, navigating self-defense through the courts, penal system and mainstream media can be treacherous, as we attempt to balance our political and personal goals with our lawyer’s desire to have us do as little time and pay as little money as possible to the courts. Winning in these circumstances can sometimes seem to pit a well-meaning lawyer or legal worker against their own client. Enter the Tilted Scales’ new book, “Representing Radicals.”
This week, you’ll hear Jay from the Tilted Scales Collective talk about this book out from AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, about anti-repression work, and about this book’s attempt to shift the culture of legal representation by intervening with arguments by radical lawyers, more intimately inviting clients and their supporters into the fray and new frameworks for approaching cases.
The Wrong Side Of The Law by Mick Jones from Mick Jones
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TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any names, pronouns, affiliations, or references that would help the listeners orient themselves?
Jay: Sure, my name is Jay, I use they/them pronouns. I’m a part of the Tilted Scales Collection since 2017, and have been involved in anti-repression organizingmore broadly over the last decade or so.
TFSR: Would you talk a bit about Tilted Scales? Who constitutes its membership and what activities it gets up to?
J: Sure, we are a pretty small collective of anarchist legal support workers who have been supporting and fighting for political prisoners, prisoners of war, and politicized prisoners mostly in the so-called United States. Tilted Scales Collective was formed out of the North American Anarchist Black Cross Conference in 2011 and out of the need to build anti-repression infrastructure more broadly, but what folks were noticing was re-inventing of the wheel every time folks in the United States got hit with serious charges. There was a need to pull together or draw in resources and experience to rebuild some infrastructure for providing legal support. So our collective has written two books, the first book is called A Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, which is published in 2017. And we recently published a follow-up book called Representing Radicals. And that’s what I’m going to be talking about a little bit more today. We also have given training and workshops about anti-repression organizing, as well as participated in numerous committees and legal support efforts over the years.
TFSR: Cool. And for folks who are unfamiliar with anti-repression work, a lot of our listeners have heard various conversations on the show about it, and those who have been with us for a long time may even remember a chat with folks from your collective about the Defendant’s Guide when it came out. But could you talk a little bit about the framework of anti-repression work or any of the cases that your collective has participated in, offered support for?
J: I guess the idea behind anti-repression work and organizing is that repression from the State is an inevitable part of making change, or building the new world or destroying this one, etc. Repression of some kind is going to be inevitable, people are gonna get hit with criminal charges. So anti-repression organizing seeks to, at baseline, do some harm reduction around the negative outcome of criminal charges. But also use the fact that folks, maybe one person or group of individuals, are facing charges as kind of a vehicle for movement organizing or building bonds of solidarity and coming out on the other side stronger. Some examples that I’ve been a part of… I was involved with the organizing around the J20 case back in 2017. I know other folks in the collective have participated as individuals, not necessarily as part of Tilted Scales, but I’ve participated in different legal support efforts for different mass mobilizations throughout the years, the Eric King Support Committee, etc.
TFSR: It makes sense to be coming out of the ABC conference, because, as you say, most of the work that Anarchist Black Cross does and has done historically is to give post-conviction support to people that have already been given a sentence, are already behind bars in a lot of cases. And so it makes sense to do the forward-thinking of how we A) decrease the number of people that are ending up behind bars, B) decrease the amount of time that people are going to be serving if they are going to do any time behind bars? And, like you say, with the mobilization and popular education element… What is better to stop people from interacting with Grand Juries than to have regular discussions where Grand Juries are a part of people’s vernacular? And what people are talking about, and you may not be able to totally demystify them, but at least making people aware makes them readier to be able to… Just like how talking about CopWatch, know-your-rights type education stuff is going to hopefully get ingrained in people’s brains that they can refuse to speak to law enforcement, or they can make those interactions as safe as possible or whatever. I think that’s super helpful.
J: Yeah, and I think that the Defendant’s Guide definitely hits on a lot of that. I know much of the guide talks about the different aspects that are involved in various stages of the criminal legal process, like what happens pretrial, what happens if you take your case to trial, what happens if you plead out, what happens if you are convicted, what are your options for sentencing and how to think about that? That’s one aspect of anti-repression work – that demystifying piece, the other aspect of it is helping the folks who are facing charges and their comrades move through that process while still advancing or moving forward with their political goals at the same time. And sometimes that looks like bringing those politics into the courtroom or into the way that legal support happens around a case. And sometimes it looks like resolving the case as quickly as possible so that folks can get back to the other organizing that they’re doing.
TFSR: The approach that was in the Defendant’s Guide, and which also shows up in Representing Radicals, it’s like a bookmark, a “This is the thing that you should pay attention to”. Obviously, it’s a lot more filled out in the Defendant’s Guide, but a Venn diagram of personal goals, political goals, and legal goals, and setting that out and working through the process of what that looks like for you as a defendant, what do you want to get out of this? What damage can you legally inflict, hopefully, on the process of repression to make it not profitable for them to ever try that again, or at least decrease the amount of damage it’s going to do in the meantime? That’s a really cool model that you present. I like the visuality of it.
J: Yeah, I like that model as well. I’m glad to hear that it reads well in the Defendant’s Guide. I think it’s been really useful in conversation with folks who are facing charges. One thing that our collective does is occasionally have calls with groups of friends or support crews who are coming together, sometimes after a big action (this happened a lot last summer) to help them think through the next steps in terms of navigating the criminal legal process. Thinking about options kind of as containing discrete but overlapping goal areas, or overlapping but discrete areas of impact is, at least for me. and seemingly other people, a useful way of being able to visualize what options exist within the context of the system that is fully designed to make you feel like you have no options or the only option is to be out immediately.
TFSR: That’s really well put.
So as you mentioned in 2017, you published a very timely Tilted Guide to Being a Defendant, just as over 200 people were arrested during the January 20, or J20 inauguration of Donald Trump had started building their legal defenses. The defendants from that case were over 200 people. This is not in a vacuum, obviously, following months of resistance at Standing Rock against the Dakota AccessPipeline in which I believe thousands of people participated. And a lot of people caught charges, although it’s notable that the federal felony charges all fell on indigenous people. You and the AK Press bumped up the publication date in early 2017 and got a lot of copies into J20 and I’m imagining NoDAPL defendants’ hands. I guess it’s always a good time for books defending radicals to come out, which is a depressing thing also. But would you speak about the general goals of this new book Representing Radicals? Who your audience is? Is this primarily aimed at radicals approaching legal work such as yourselves or legal workers who are shifting towards radical approaches at defense? Law professors? Should we be sneaking copies into public defenders’ briefcases?
J: I was not involved with the Tilted Scale Collective back in 2011 when the idea for the Defendant’s Guide was first dreamt up. But as far as I understand it, the idea to write this companion book has always been there. As you said, the Defendant’s Guide is written to anarchists radicals who are facing criminal charges and to their comrades and supporters and close people who might be wondering how to help them through that process. And, by contrast, Representing Radicals is mostly written to the attorneys who are representing them. So we tried to balance throughout the book the fact that some attorneys are going to be already quite sympathetic, maybe share a lot of politics with their radical defendants. For example, people at the People’s Law Office in Chicago or the CLDC or movement lawyers who’ve been devoting decades, their whole career to defending activists, anarchists, radicals, etc, Balancing the fact that there might be some people’s lawyers, but other people’s lawyers may not understand at all where their anarchist, radical clients are coming from, are less familiar with anarchists and radicals and concepts like movement perspective, non-cooperating pleas, etc.
The other audience that we’re hoping might have interest in this book would be law students who are still figuring out who they might represent, or how to bring in some of their ideals about the world into their legal practice. We really wrote this book coming from the idea that it could be something that defendants or a support committee could give to attorneys and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for me.” Or similarly, for supporters of defendants who are locked up pretrial, just to have a tangible resource that you can send to an attorney and say, “Here’s what you need to read to understand how to provide the best representation for my friend, partner, comrade, etc.”
One thing that in my own experience being a part of different anti-repression groups over the years that I run to is that oftentimes, defendants, as well as their supporters, run up against a variety of tensions, even in trying to communicate with and work alongside the most sympathetic attorneys, just because the role of an attorney is quite different than the role of a defense committee or a group of supporters. So, like our first book, Representing Radicals isn’t intended to necessarily be a protocol, a “how-to guide” telling lawyers how to do their jobs, but rather a guide to help people think through what they might want to achieve when facing charges, and how their attorneys can focus on those legal goals specifically, while still helping their client balance other goal areas. Personal and political, and whatever other goals a defendant and their comrades might have.
TFSR: It makes a lot of sense, something that I’ve seen in terms of conflicts come up between lawyers and radical defendants / their defense committees, or support committees is this ingrained – I think you’ve touched on this – this ingrained training in the US legal system: A) the concept of innocence and guilt is a strange one, B) also the idea that individual culpability, for a process when there’s way more dynamics in that and it leaves out the social context in so many cases, and people are often stymied from actually presenting social context to flesh out what was going on. I think that that process of thinking through… Like no incident is going to be exactly the same as the next… But like teasing the lawyer who’s reading it into, instead of just advocating or speaking on behalf of their defendant, to get them the best deal, which might include some sort of plea deal where they’re asked to name other people or whatever to get their charge down. If the lawyer’s thought is “My goal is to get my person as little time as possible and to end this in a timely manner”, especially if I’m a public defender and have like a stack of people to handle. And the challenges that the book poses and the quotes, also, which I want to get to in a bit, but trying to open up this whole world of conversations to lawyers who may be very good at doing their job in the way that they’ve been trained to do it. This might get them to think about the myriad of other ways of looking at the outcomes of a trial besides just what charges, what fees, whatever this individual defendant has to pay. I think that’s really important.
J: Totally. You really hit the nail on the head. Throughout the book, we talk a lot about what “the best possible representation” could mean to radicals, and oftentimes, the training that lawyers get in law school, really hammers home this idea that they have an ethical obligation and a professional obligation to provide their clients with the best possible representation that they can, which in criminal cases often equates to ensuring that they come out the other side relatively quickly and with minimal legal consequences, usually plea deals that are going to minimize prison time, minimize probation, etc. One of the shifts that we try to make in the book, a bit of a paradigm shift, is to help lawyers understand that, as anarchists and radicals who are thinking about facing criminal charges from a movement perspective, we’re gonna want outcomes from a legal case that are aligned with our political goals and principles, even if it comes up at personal expense, or even if that means unsuccessful legal outcomes or negative legal outcome. Also helping lawyers see that those outcomes in cases are in line with lawyers’ ethical obligation to their clients, so as long as their clients fully consent to the terms and have an active role in shaping what their legal defense looks like.
One thing that the book does hopefully pretty well is it includes not just our own perspectives, as of folks who’ve got quite a bit of experience doing legal support work over the years, but also includes the voices of a lot of movement attorneys, who’ve been doing movement lawyering for decades, who really restate that point over and over again… That actually it’s your clients and your client’s supporters and the projects and movements that they’re a part of that really should be driving the bus, and that the lawyer’s job is to listen to their clients and help them meet their legal goals, while still balancing their other priorities.
TFSR: The whole experience of going to court is a terrible thing. It’s meant to be alienating and terrifying and make you bow before the majesty of the representation of legal power and the sovereignty of the State to ruin your life. All that like standing and sitting and all the weird churchy stuff, leftover from the time of kings and queens. It feels really important to find this space to intercede and say, “Hey, you’re supposed to be this person’s… you got their back. So let’s talk about how do you understand what they’re saying?”
Also, I really appreciate the glossary that you provide, and some of the key concepts that you’re trying to introduce or shore up in the legal work. Could you talk a little bit about the glossary and what you put in there and what you’re hoping to achieve?
J: We decided to make the glossary pretty early on in outlining the book. And our decision to do so was partly to include terminology that, unfortunately, may not be familiar to every person who might be reading our books, like different identity terms are included in the glossary. And also, we wanted to break down what we meant by anarchist and other radical tendencies. We wanted to be clear about that. But we also use the glossary to explain a little bit these broader concepts: movement lawyering, collective perspective, politicized prisoners, prisoners of war. In the anarchist subculture, it might be unnecessary to define a glossary, but when communicating with a lawyer who doesn’t have experience working with anarchists, radicals, that particular population, it might be a new territory, very unfamiliar.
TFSR: There are also the quotes that you mentioned, which are interspersed throughout. You mentioned already a few, the People’s Law Office in Chicago and the CLDC. Can you speak to what the hope was by including direct quotes from people who do legal work as professionals and who work in movement and the idea of movement lawyering?
J: I know that we wanted to include the voices of movement lawyers primarily because we have experience doing certain kinds of anti-repression and legal support work, but none of us are lawyers, and so we felt as though there are some things that lawyers would just be more knowledgeable about and to speak to with more experience. We also thought that by including the voices of many attorneys who are movement attorneys and represent radicals every day in their professional lives, we could shift the conversation a bit. So that an attorney who is reading the book, who maybe is not in that world, would feel as though it’s more of a peer-to-peer conversation, as well as the added bonus of hearing from folks with a ton of experience doing legal support. By movement lawyering I really mean… I mentioned PLO and the CLDC. But movement-centered lawyering really happens when a defendant and their legal team take into consideration the defendant’s legal, personal and political goals in relation to the political movement of which the defendant is a part. One definition I read recently says that “movement lawyering increased the power and capacity of people involved in social struggle, rather than the power and capacity of the state and legal system.” I like that. So, movement lawyering, in my mind, is an approach that means not only meeting the ethical obligations of an attorney but understanding a radical client’s legal, personal and political goals fully when creating legal strategies and an overall defense strategy. And it means having some mental context for the case itself and understanding how that case situates in a broader movement and then using that understanding to build a legal representation that is going to align with the client’s goals and principles and interests, and possibly, hopefully, the goals and principles and interests of their supporters and comrades.
The other thing I wanted to say was that movement lawyering, even in cases where there aren’t multiple defendants and even when we’re not talking about collective defense necessarily, movement lawyering really does take into consideration other people who might be affected by the outcome of a particular case. That collective perspective considers the short and long-term political consequences of criminal charges and takes into consideration co-defendants’ affiliated groups and broader movement when making decisions about legal strategy.
TFSR: One of these quotes really stood out and I’m gonna read it at length…. The ethical obligation to the greater good by Dennis Cunningham, Esquire. It’s on page 91. “As lawyers, we have it drilled into us that we owe a duty of representation to each client, the rest of the world be damned. If something would make us hesitate before attacking someone else’s interests, our loyalties are said to be divided, and we’re supposed to avoid taking the case or withdraw. But wait, our political clients want and deserve to be represented on a political basis. If a client to whom we owe such unflinching duty demands it, we owe a broader duty to the client’s community or activist group to receive input from and account to their community, show solicitude for the welfare of others in it, act in ways that promote the esprit and effectiveness of the community, and take care not to undermine its values or the goals of the client’s activism. Call it intersectional lawyering, no adversary has ever tried to pierce the attorney-client privilege, because I met in solidarity with fellow plaintiffs, defendants, or legal supporters. My amazing activist clients have always been my teachers and my comrades and helping me hone this practice. And for it, we have all been the wiser, happier, and freer.” I like that quote.
J: I like that one, too. I think I’ve said it already, but one thing that that sidebar that you read from Dennis Cunningham really hones in on and one thing that we try to repeat throughout the book is, again, this paradigm shift from an individual defendant’s best legal outcome to more of a collective perspective that reimagines what it means to provide someone with “the best possible representation.” And within that thinking beyond the best plea deal, the best legal outcome. Yeah, and Dennis really says it well in that quote, thinking through actually, from our perspective, that is what a lawyer should do. And that is the job that they’re ethically obligated to do for their clients. Many movement attorneys do share at least some or many of the principles and goals of their clients. But even when they don’t, I really do feel as though it is the job of any attorney to be able to meet their clients on that place, and be able to provide your clients representation that takes into account co-defendants, takes into account broader social struggles. And that is their job, and that is doing it well.
TFSR: Could you talk a little bit about the introduction of concepts and realities of support committees into this? Because it feels normal for me and for a lot of us, I’m sure, to be like, “Yeah, of course, all your buddies are going to show up to court with you.” What sort of conversation are you hoping will come out of this? What sort of understandings are you trying to bring to lawyers around defense committees? I think it’s really useful that you talk about some of the complications that can come up.
J: In the Defendant’s Guide, we do talk a little bit about defense committees, aka support committees. By that, we mean the folks who show up to provide the political, personal and legal support for defendants as they move through the process. And that can look a lot of ways. And there’s a lot of different names for efforts like this, but all are rooted in community care and support in the face of systemic oppression or state repression. Some examples that come to my mind would be the RNC8, the organizing that was done post J20s, Water Protector Legal Collective, and all the other various support efforts that arose around Standing Rock, various efforts for a wide range of anti-occupation, anti-imperialist freedom fighters over the last several decades. We could refer to a lot of different formations or groups as different support committees, and most referred to them as something along those same lines. Sometimes it’s a formal organization that takes the reins with providing support, but often times, it’s like our buddies or friends, and it’s an informal group of friends, comrades, loved ones, tend to cover a lot of the bases when folks are facing charges.
So in the Defendant’s Guide, we talk about what is a defense committee how to form one, what might it do, what are some areas of tension that might come up? But in Representing Radicals, we really wanted attorneys to view the defense committee, or supporters more broadly, as potential assets for them to do their job well. From the mindset that attorneys and supporters can work together, they have separate goal areas or separate lanes that they’re driving on (to use this sad analogy) but to separate track. But really work collaboratively to provide defendants with a solid way of meeting their political and personal legal goals. Because too often, in my experience of doing anti-repression work, lawyers can view, groups especially, groups of supporters as threatening or feel concerned about attorney-client privilege, feel as though political organizing around a case might detract from the legal representation that they’re wanting to provide, might harm a client case, might do more harm for them, politically and legally, than good. And there are certainly legitimate concerns there sometimes, but we really do think that if we could demystify some of what a defense committee does for attorneys, many of them might hopefully be more inclined to work collaboratively or at least communicate about their boundaries and accept that a support committee might take other actions and that’s okay, so long as it’s okay with the folks who are facing charges. Because ultimately, those are the people who are going to be most impacted by how the lawyer participates and helps the support committee.
TFSR: Similarly, the book talks about the strengths and pitfalls of different kinds of media and breaks down different conceptions. I’m really proud that we could be mentioned among movement media in the book, that just delighted me so much. Can you talk about the things that you touch on and some of the suggested frameworks of approaching media that you makein the book towards lawyers?
J: I want to say that the Defendant’s Guide also talks about media and talks about it more from a perspective of if you and your comrades are wanting to produce media around a case, here’s some ideas for doing and some tensions that have occurred in the past in our experience, here are some awesome folks who are doing media already to reach out to, etc. I think about media as one area where often times, an attorney might bristle at the idea that a defendant, even indirectly through a support committee, might put anything out there about a case before a legal outcome is reached on it. And in Chapter 5 of Representing Radicals, we talk about how media engagement might help or hinder legal goals and some tensions that we’ve encountered in our experience, and also some considerations for attorneys who are advising their clients and their support committees on a media strategy. But the point that we’ve really tried to make is that, ultimately, it’s going to be up to a defendant (and potentially to their supporters) about what gets said to the media or what sort of media is produced. And that’s fine, so long as it’s aligned with a defendant’s legal goal and strategy and that a defendant is aware of and consenting to the impact that certain media might have on the legal case.
In fact, in my own experience, for example, I was involved with the support committee for CeCe McDonald, who is a transwoman in Minneapolis, who survived an attack by a white supremacist man at a bar and was charged with murder after he died. In that particular case, we thought media would be tremendously helpful in shifting the public narrative about CeCe, and also, in my opinion, had a tremendous impact on the legal outcome of that case, she was offered a plea that she felt she could live with, ultimately, and one that was, in terms of legal outcomes, substantially better than, in my opinion, what would have happened, had we not taken a media strategy in that approach, in that particular case.
For attorneys who are advising their clients about media, and many attorneys are going to say, “Don’t say anything at all”. And that is a fine way of approaching media if the client’s goal is to resolve the legal aspect of the case as quickly as possible, with very little fanfare. Engaging with unsympathetic media might not be necessary or effective or desirable, depending on the facts or the circumstances surrounding the case. But, however, like I just said, if the client’s goal is to shift public opinion about the political circumstances surrounding their case or, even more broadly, to shift a public opinion around the political circumstances of the case, so that it may have an impact on the legal outcome of the case, engaging with mainstream media or putting out your own media might be strategically necessary, even if it complicates the legal strategy or make the lawyer add stress to the defense preparation. And so we really want attorneys to understand that there are separate spheres that the support committees and attorneys are operating in. Attorneys don’t have to talk to the media, but other people might and that’s okay, so long as defendants consent to it.
TFSR: It’s cool to hear the experience around CeCe McDonald’s case because she was fighting such an uphill battle with that.
J: For real. And the early media that came out around her case was horrible. And she was facing at first one and then two murder charges in Hennepin County. So I do strongly feel that the political campaign and specifically the media strategy part of it really did directly influence the legal outcome of that case. And then more broadly, influence the community, public narrative around self-defense, around the intersections of anti-Black racism and transmisogyny, and the criminal legal system. I really do feel that media work was very successful in terms of meeting its goals. We were lucky in that case to have a very sympathetic attorney who was not involved in the creation of the media but consented to let the CeCe McDonald Support Committee do what we did.
TFSR: In 2013, one of my co-hosts, William, got to interview Katie Burgess from the Trans Youth Support Network about CeCe’s case. That felt really important for us to be able to participate in that. When you were talking about, before you named CeCe, I was thinking about Luke O’Donovan’s situation in Atlanta where he defended himself against young men who were attempting to queer-bash him. Being around for the court hearing, the actual trial, part of the trial, at least… but just seeing the impact.
Folks in his support committee did a really good job of framing some public narrative around the circumstances. Because I can totally understand a lawyer or legal crew deciding, “We just don’t want to engage, we do want to just keep our heads down, get through this and not become a target for either reactionaries or for the prosecutors. For the prosecutors often times try to frame these narratives around prosecutions anyway, because their literal job is to prosecute, not to resolve a situation towards justice. So if they’re gonna frame a narrative anyway, you might as well try to steer it in a different direction.
J: Totally. And I do think where it gets a little sticky, often it is difficult to talk about the context of a case and the politics of it and the ways that power operates within it, without getting into the facts of the case. And so it makes sense that lawyers would bristle about talking to the media before they’re able to do their job, which is to bring up the facts in court or negotiating a good plea deal based on the facts of the case. But I do think it’s possible. And I also think if someone, especially when we’re talking about situations where the charges might be not very serious, maybe it was a pre-planned mass arrest where folks willingly participated in it and are now facing not-very-serious-consequences, it totally makes sense to talk about the fact. It can, it doesn’t always have to, it could totally make sense to talk about the case publicly before a legal outcome is reached. As long as that fits within the defendants’ broader political and legal goals and strategy.
TFSR:To pop back to the quotes that you interspersed throughout the book, I could see it being pretty useful if a lawyer reads this, and they’re just they’re radical-curious, or if they’re going through law school and they’re trying to find a way to become a movement lawyer. It’s cool to think they suddenly have a list of names, a list of organizations that they can either intern with or contact and reach out and say, “Hey, I read this thing. I’m having these thoughts. Can I bounce some ideas off of you?” There are already organizations, for better or worse, that do varying qualities of jobs from ACLU to the National Lawyers Guild and other groups, other networks. There‘re already networks that include movement lawyers, but it seems like a good tool for networking movement lawyers.
J: Right, we hope so.
TFSR: Are there any topics that I didn’t ask about that you want to share on?
J: Well, I already hit on how this book includes not just our voices, but lots of input from movement lawyers, comrades, and also we wouldn’t have been able to write this book without conversations with other legal support workers who’ve been in it with us over the years. And just like our first book, this book is intended to be an experiment. It’s the wisdom collected from people and their networks for decades and in many of them for far longer than any of us entered the field have been doing this work. We hope that the experiment will help people fight back more effectively and better survive the brutality of the legal system. But we don’t intend it to be a definitive, only way to think about these things, but we do hope that it is useful, and we would love it to be a resource that gets used and built upon all the time.
TFSR: Just out of curiosity, though, the idea for this feels very novel, but obviously there have been periods when the struggle has been heightened, and at least in the US, I can think of certain decades or certain periods of time and movement eras when there has been more activity and more agitation and more arrests, whether it be the late 1800s, during massive labor strikes around the country, or the suffrage movement, or movements to end Jim Crow or the civil rights era, the 1920s communist and anarchist and socialist agitation, the “long 60’s”, obviously, or theClamshell Movement. Are there any other private experiments in this vein that you’ve heard of where radicals with anti-repression experience were trying to formally reach out to change the culture of lawyering, to bring more lawyer comrades into the fold?
J:This is a big on-me, but I can’t remember them. To my knowledge, there have been other publications that are similar to the Defendant’s Guide, but I’m not aware of anything like Representing Radicals that speaks to the way of representing radicals directly. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
TFSR: I didn’t know there was an inspiration where you’re like “Well, this is sixty years old at this point, so not really that applicable, but it is a cool idea”.
J: I would defer to other members of Tilted Scales Collective who are more involved in lawyering.
TFSR: So you are pleading the Fifth?
J: Yeah, I don’t know.
TFSR: How can folks get a hold of the book and keep up on the work of Tilted Scales?
J: The book is available through AK Press, it offers a discount on books sent to prisoners and bulk orders if you contact them about it. We really appreciate that folks from the AK Press and The Institute for Anarchist Studies are putting effort into this book to be more accessible. About the Tilted Scales Collective, you can learn by checking our website, Instagram, and Twitter with the caveat that we are not super active on any electronic platform, mostly because none of us really likes them, but we do try to make it easy to find out resources and we hope it will help people in their struggles. Our website, for example, does have a link to chapter 2 of the Defendant’s Guide, and direct links to other media we produced in the past, as well as templates that may be useful in you getting to work with a lawyer and specifically around navigating collective defense.
TFSR: Thank you so much for having this conversation and thanks for all the hard work and amazing stuff that you do.
J: Thank you, it’s really nice to talk with you and we are excited to see how this book impacts our movements more broadly.
On this special midweek release, you’ll hear Swift Justice, incarcerated Abolitionist in Alabama affiliated with the Alabama Resistance Movement and Unheard Voices OTCJ. Swift talks about some current situations in the Alabama Department of Corrections, legislation ongoing around prison slavery due to the exception clauses at the state and federal level (specifically the 13th Ammendment), covid-19 behind bars, groups doing well in the struggle and organizing that needs to go further and actually engage with incarcerated comrades and updates on the recent attack on Swift’s mentor, Kinetic Justice. Check out some of Swift’s writings on his supporters blog at SwiftJustice4Freedom.wordpress.com.
You can hear our past interview with Swift here as well as our interview with Kinetic and Bennu on the founding of the Free Alabama Movement. For more Alabama prisoner perspectives from over the years, you can search Alabama on our site.
Protesters will take action against increasingly torturous and fatal conditions at the prison in Green Bay (GBCI) at noon on Saturday, August 28, 2021. The protest will include a march to the prison, speeches from advocates and people who’ve done time at GBCI, and relaying messages from people currently held there. The demonstrators will use large banners, loudspeakers and noisemakers to attempt to reach and express solidarity with people confined in the prison.
WHERE: Green Bay CI, 2833 Riverside Dr, Allouez, WI 54301
WHEN: 12:00 Noon on Sat August 28, 2021
Conditions at prisons across Wisconsin have deteriorated in recent years, and GBCI is one of the worst. Money that was intended to repair and improve the 123 year old prison is instead being used to create more solitary confinement cells and control units. People held there describe it as a conversion into a supermax style prison.
Staff at GBCI frequently neglect medical emergencies and drive their captives to self-harm and suicide. Those held in the restrictive housing unit (RHU) often express fear for their lives. When summoned to investigate deaths or litigate suits against the prison, local law enforcement and judges support the prison, enabling continued atrocities.
The demonstration at GBCI is part of the national SHUTEMDOWN2021 mobilization called by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a prisoner-led organization. The goal of SHUTEMDOWN2021 is to raise awareness of the prison strike JLS plans for next year, and their 10 demands to end slavery and improve conditions in prisons across the US. Wisconsin organizers are also planning educational events in Milwaukee, and a large demonstration at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) on September 9.
Unity And Struggle Through The Bars with Mwalimu Shakur
This week on the show, you’ll hear our conversation with Mwalimu Shakur, a politicized, New Afrikan revolutionary prison organizer incarcerated at Corcoran prison in California. Mwalimu has been involved in organizing, including the cessations of hostilities among gangs and participation in the California and then wider hunger strikes against unending solitary confinement when he was at Pelican Bay Prison in 2013, helping to found the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, Liberation Schools of self-education and continues mentoring younger prisoners. He was in solitary confinement, including in the SHU, for 13 of the last 16 years of his incarceration.
For the hour, Mwalimu talks a bit about his politicization and organizing behind bars, his philosophy, Black August, the hunger strikes of 2013, the importance of organizing in our neighborhoods through the prison bars.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Jonathan Jackson at the Marin County Courthouse, the assassination of his brother George at San Quentin in California and the subsequent uprising and State massacre at Attica State Prison in New York. Black August has been celebrated at least since 1979 to mark these dates with study, exercise, community building, sharing and reflection by revolutionaries on both sides of the bars. In the last decade across Turtle Island, you’ve seen strikes and protests and educational events take place around this time of the year as we flex our muscles.
This year, as you’ve heard us mention, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is calling for weeks of action for Abolitionism under the name “Shut ‘Em Down 2021”. You can find out more at JailhouseLawyersSpeak.Wordpress.Com and follow them on twitter and instagram, linked in our show notes, alongside links relating to this weeks chat. You can hear our interview with a member of JLS from earlier this year about the “Shut ‘Em Down” initiative, or read the interview, at our site and in these show notes. Also, check out our interview with the remaining member of the Marin Courthouse Uprising, possibly the oldest living political prisoner in the US, Ruchell Cinque Magee.
Shaka Shakur Hunger Strike
New Afrikan prison rebel, co-founder of the New Afrikan Liberation Collective and IDOCWatch organizer, Shaka Shakur has been interstate transferred hundreds of miles away from his support network to Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia (recognize that name?). There was a call-in campaign this week focused on VA Governor Northam, director of VADOC Harold Clark, VADOC central regional director Henry Ponton and Warden Woodson at BKCC. This was in support of Shakur’s hunger strike in protest of the transfer, his time in solitary prior in Indiana for having his prescription medication, being moved into solitary at BKCC with minimal hygiene and no personal materials. As noted in the transcript about his hunger strike at IDOCWatch’s website, the transfer interrupts civil and criminal litigation Shaka Shakur had pending in Indiana and has caused him to be halfway across the country after his own surgeries, the loss of his family matriarch and another aunt, the hospitalization of mother and other health hardships.
TFSR: Hi, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself for the audience, maybe like your name, your location, if that’s useful, any pertinent information that will help the audience understand you.
Mwalimu Shakur: My name is Mwalimu Shakur, and I’m in CorcoranState Prison, where I’ve been for the last 17 years, 13 of which were in solitary confinement. But, you know, due to our massive hunger strikes in challenging this legislature inside of prison, the bureaucrats decided to let us out to the general population.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about some of your background, where you came from, how you became politicized, and how you identify politically now?
MS: Yeah, well, I came from Los Angeles, California. You know… gang violence was a problem in every neighborhood around the whole LA County area. As well as most of Southern California, but I grew up in a gang neighborhood, and not having really no political education, and only knowing the street way of life. You kind of navigated through court cases, you know, cases that put you in prison. But once you come inside of here, you have older individuals from your same community and other communities around the country who became politicized. And they became politically mature, so they can re-educate others that come in.
And for me, landing in prison, or what the drug mentality, gang mentality, criminal mentality all together. It put me in a situation where I was always involved in physical combat with others. You know, people I knew from my area, and then we have race riots. So those types of things that put you in solitary confinement. And when you go to solitary confinement, or you catch an infraction, those in SHU term, they’ll place you around more politicized individuals, who’ve educated themselves, studied their own history, study, politics, economics, a vast array of things. And being around those guys, that was the program on the inside. So I was able to start educating myself. I educated myself, so much so that I developed it into my practice. And it gave me a discipline, that became second nature to me. And once my mind started opening up to this new reality, I started seeing things more clearly, and I realized and understood why my community was the way that it was.
It wasn’t because we wanted to do these things, it was by design by those who oppress us and control us so that they can put us in their prisons and enact a modern day slavery type practice. Being in prison, that’s exactly what it is. So that’s what happened to me. And now, the more I still learn, the more I’m able to teach, and hopefully stop others from making those same mistakes. And if my teaching is correct, the way it was with me, then we can stop this school–to–prison pipeline which is what we say when you have a lot of people from inner city coming to prison, not knowing what to do with their self, they usually end up here. And we’re trying to break, break that curse, break those habits.
TFSR: A lot of people in the listening audience may not understand what you mean, with talking about how the situation was set up, particularly at this time, like you went in during what could be called like the heyday of mass incarceration in the United States. And if you could maybe break down, since you’ve been in for a while and some things have changed greatly, somethings have stayed the same. There’s this guy named Biden, I’ve heard about that has a still pretty prominent politics, that was pretty prominent. And some of the political decisions that put a lot of people in particular, Black and brown folks behind bars at that time. Can you talk a little bit about that context?
MS: Yeah, well, in the inner city, they flooded it with cocaine. You know, as if to say that the little progress we’ve made in the 70s, from the 60s revolutionary era, would quiet us and stop us from progressing as a people and as a culture. So you flood all the inner cities with this cocaine, okay? A lot of us partook in selling it, not knowing or really having a vast understanding and just further destroying our community and our people. So we became hustlers in the drug game. Gangs were rapidly building and growing. And then they put guns on the streets.
So now with the gun wars, and drug wars… basically the administration, I think and believe, had it set up that way so that they can take taxpayers money to build more prisons and create more laws to put us in and clearly show you the problems that are happening in those inner cities. And they created it, you know, and when you study it, you see it unfold that way because the only ones being hauled off into these prisons is Black and brown people. And the sentences are outrageous. Without a murder just for like selling small amounts of cocaine, you can get a lot of times – double digits, Okay? And then they enacted other laws, like the three strike law and made it seem like we were the worst people on planet Earth.
And in all actuality, that’s not really true. If you wouldn’t flood the inner cities with that cocaine and had made it possible for us to have better quality education in our schools, made it affordable to go off to college and learn a higher field of study so we can be successful in this country, we would have had more success. But the ratio, you know, people Black and brown playing sports was very limiting and that was the only ticket that I see out if you weren’t being a drug dealer. So that’s why I say it was by design, when you studied you see that mass incarceration boom, is still in effect right now, right? And what we’re doing is trying to challenge some of those laws and get them out of here. Because we recognize what they did. And with some of the laws changing, it’s like they’re admitting it, that they did do this and now it’s time to make it right. So that’s what I see.
Awesome, thank you so much for sharing that. Part of the context that I have for you and was excited to have you on the show is because you have a long history of struggle alongside of other prisoners against unethical situations, against cruelty, against mass incarceration. One of the points in the struggle of prisoners that I’ve heard you refer to was participation in the hunger strikes against basically unending use of the SHU or solitary confinement. Can you talk a bit about it? People may have heard of the term SHU or secure housing unit? How does that differ from solitary confinement more generally? Is there a difference?
Well, no, there’s no difference. I mean, we refer to solitary confinement is to AD-SEG, administrative segregation, which is what they first put you before you get the SHU term. The situation is the same. 23 hours locked down. Except for once you once you go to the SHU, that’s when you can have appliances like a TV or radio, okay? In AD-SEG, you can’t have those two things, but you can have everything else. You still go to yard every other day for a few hours. And you’re in a dog-like kennel-type cage, where they put a urinal, so that you can use the restroom. But you have no contact with another human being. You can see from cage to cage, but you can’t contact them, you can’t touch them.
The only human contact you have is if you have a celly. So the practices are the same. The length of time, in AD-SEG is not as long as it is in SHU. Like I said AD-SEG is like a pit stop before you get to Security Housing Unit. And within a Security Housing Unit. You can’t have the type of things you can have on in the general population. You can’t take college courses, you can’t go to school. You can’t take a vacation. You can have a few books. You can have no tennis shoes. Just like, some type of shoe that’s not really designed to protect your feet, you can put on like a shower shoe, but with a little bit more support. You could have no athletic shorts, no T-shirts. We took like two pairs of T-shirts to make a long sleeve T-shirt in case it was cold. So you couldn’t have sweat suits, thermals, beanies, nothing like that, to keep yourself warm.
It’s a real inhumane practice to have. You pretty much break a person down to nothing. And you put them in a cell, like I said, confined for 23 hours a day. And it was just because of those conditions: the small portions on the trays, the lack of quality healthcare, always being handcuffed every time you do come out of the cell to go to a shower, which is like five minutes. If you’re in Pelican Bay, then you’re not in a dog cage, you are in a little cage right behind your cell so you see nobody.
So yeah, we all came together talking through the doors, talking through the toilets, to each other and decided to come up with a strategy to get out of here. To get released. It worked because, united we stood on a hunger strike. And then we started challenging the injustice that puts you in there, like the gang validation. And then we start challenging the practices that they use to keep you in there. Like, if you talk to another inmate who’s a gang member, then you get another point, and it keeps you in there longer. And mind you, you are going through a classification every six years to get considered to be released. So it was really inhumane, the practices were. We just came up with the hunger strike strategy as well as challenging the rules in order to get up out of here. And for the most part, it worked.
TFSR: You talked about participating in the hunger strikes against SHU containment. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the administration and gang status? There’s a term, you’ll be able to come up with it, but, basically where if you’re assigned a gang status, because somebody else pointed at you, the only way in a lot of cases to get out of the SHU at that point was to basically claim that someone else was a gang member, and give false testimony in a lot of cases, to be able to reduce SHU time. Is that Is that a fair description? Is that what happened?
MS: Yeah, well, what it is, is the administration, they look at who they feel is against them as far as political-ness. Like for us New Afrikans, I could speak on that. We’re not a gang, but being a politicized, conscious, New Afrikan means you can challenge the conditions and wake others up to that knowledge on how to do so. And what they do is they’ll put that gang label on you, because they put the gang label on the other ethnic groups, and it will stick with the other ethnic groups, if you’re a gang member that came from society, and you come up inside of these prisons and you group together, and you form your structure.
So what they do is they put that label on you. So they can get away with the type of law book that they write. They come up with these rules, just like the bureaucrats and society come up with rules and different laws to get legislation passed, okay? The bureaucrats in prison do the same, they get a book where it gives them the rights to whatever they consider gang practice: like reading certain types of books, certain type of cultural literature, a certain type of drawing depicting that literature. Anything you read, study, or practice, if they consider that gang participation, they’ll slap you with that label.
Okay? And if you rack up… they give you points for everything you do. Okay, if you speak this Swahili language, they say you are communicating in code. Okay, so that becomes a gang point. If you exercise a certain way, in military form, that shows unity. They look at that as gang participation with other gang members. So it’s whatever the rules they can try to come up with to make stick on you, which gives them their little right to hinder you. And once they have enough points, like three to four points, they then can put you in solitary confinement indefinitely. And what it does is, they give you an indeterminate SHU, which is only six months. But every six months, they just keep stamping it. So then you stay in there for years and years and years and you only go to committee every six years if you have an indeterminate SHU. So that gives me the right to keep you in there. And then when you go to that committee, they stamp you again. Saying, “well, we see them talking to another gang member, he hasn’t denounced his association”.
So, you know, those little things keep you in solitary for that length of time, and the only way to get out is parole. And if you debrief, go through the little process of dry snitching or telling on others, informing on others and work for them, or you die. You know? And we wanted to take that power back. So we all got together and decided, you know, let’s come up with these strategies to do so. But it’s a flawed system. We challenged it, it worked because we didn’t have the political maturity to understand that in order to beat their system, we should unite. But once we develop that, we found those strategies to be significant in winning our freedoms from behind that wall. So now, they can only use this SHU practices, if you catch a SHU-able offense. You know, whatever they deem a SHU-able offense by getting caught with a weapon or participating in some type of a riot or melee, assault on the staff, anything that will warrant SHU placement?
TFSR: Mwalimu, just to make a point, on the on the gang jacketing, and the files, and the debriefing and everything. Like, if you get paroled out… and like a lot of people are going to end up staying with their families because they don’t have money. So if they can go anywhere, they’ll try to stay with their family. Oftentimes the ways that the California government defines gang membership, there’s a relationship to… they say like, “Oh, it overlaps with family.” So it seems like it complicated it too, when you go and you stay in your cousin’s house or whatever, they are then associating with a known gang member and this kind of thing. I’m not sure if it still is the case, but I think in 2013 this was still the case, gang injunctions would then come into play where maybe if because you’ve been communicating with your cousin, who’s on the outside. When you get out maybe you can’t go to the neighborhood that your your cousin lives in, because they’re considered to be gang associated through family connections or whatever. Is that right?
MS: Well, it’s true still because yeah, they can gang jacket you. But once they do background checks on your family, and they see that they’re not involved with the street gang or anything like that, they will back up but they will still watch you. Most people, the family already knows about them, and what to expect in case they parole to a loved one’s house. Now, if you go to your neighborhood, and you are a member of a street gang, then the parole department is going to watch a lot more, because if the street gangs is under any type of surveillance for any type of activities that they have, they’re going to see if you’re participating in things like that. And that’s also avoidable. It’s all about you and what you want to do to integrate back into society.
For me, I was working, went back to school, and living a productive life, where they couldn’t pinpoint me for doing things with known gang members from my area, or anybody else I might have ran into that I knew, because while they’re watching me, they’re seeing that “Okay, he may be speaking to people, but he’s not doing anything that we consider illegal or gang activity.” So, they won’t push on you so hard, they’ll gives you a little leeway. But for those that do go back out there and do anything like that, you’re just setting yourself up for failure, you know? Surveillance capitalism, you see it all over now they got cameras on telephone poles, and certain community areas where they can watch the neighborhood and see what they’re doing, and things of that nature. So the community is under surveillance, you know, normal people under surveillance. I mean, so they’re watching everything you do. But it’s up to you, that individual, on how well they want to be productive out there and what they want to do while they’re out there.
TFSR: Yeah, what you’re describing, though, with, like the inside / outside affiliations, and the constant surveillance is counter-insurgency. Right?
Right. Right, right. And they do that in here as well as out there. I learned that firsthand by being in the SHU and being investigated by ISU officers and IGI who are supposed to work with gang members in prison. But they’re going out there in society and work on parole agents, and other Sheriff departments and patrols certain gang neighborhoods. And that’s how I got arrested, actually, on three violations that I obtained. I was arrested by them, you know, and I didn’t commit a crime. But one of my violations, they put me back in prison for being out past curfew because I stopped at a gas station before I got home, and then they were the one’s harassing me! Okay? Then I’m at home, you know, it’s a decent hour, but they came to my house, saying “Well, you are living above your means.” You know, just little chickenshit things like that. It’s the thing that they do when you have their gang jacket on. And like I said, it gives them that right, because of their flawed law book that they put together, that they target us. You know?
TFSR: During the last portion of our conversation, you were talking about the the prison strikes, the hunger strikes across California prisons that actually spread way beyond that, around concerns of solitary confinement. And you talked about when people realize that when they were unified, they have a lot more strength. Can you talk about that sort of organizing. That inspirational moment and the hard work that you all put into create negotiations and some sort of like, de-escalation between different crews, whether they be specifically racialized crews, like the Aryan Brotherhood? That sort of stuff that inspires people still from the Lucasville uprising and from Attica before it?
MS: Yeah, yes. When you show a person your purpose, and you can sometimes take race even out of it, and just show the love for humanity. When you take a stand for others who are being oppressed. And you show them the conditions in which they’re being oppressed, they can understand and say “That makes sense.” So what we was able to do was, let them know that there’s a bigger picture than this little bickering that we had going on for generations and generations. And when you show them that bigger picture, and they see that “if we unite with you all, whether our interests are the same or not, and we can reach the objective by doing so, then let’s do it.” And then the whole time, while you’re doing that, you still show them your correct views, your correct ideology, what you proceed. You show them the incorrect ways in which they’re being treated by the government. You show them that it’s a class struggle, and not a race struggle, and you use these teaching moments, you know, to show them that it’s the race caste system was devised by the two party government system. To show you that “look, if you divide yourself from the Negros and the Indians, then we will give you special privileges,” but they’re not getting as those privileges. So now you show them that, “look, you’re serving their interests as much as we do, or we are. And if you believe in American values, you’re going to lose because they’re not going to treat you the way you think you deserve to be treated.” And you can clearly see that with people that go off to war. So when you show people where they’re wrong is that and who is responsible for the wrong they’ll lean more towards you.
And that’s what we were able to do with the other ethnic groups in California, as well as when we got the word out to society, and had a lot white people, a lot of Mexican people, a lot of other ethnicities join forces with us, in solidarity, to help us overcome the challenges that we were facing here. And we had a lot of people from other countries like maybe Europe, you know, where there was a lot of civil unrest, and a lot of organizations who established themselves, they were poor people organizations. They realized that it was a class struggle. And that’s how you win the masses over. You know a lot of times people just, they have a feeling, they have a thought, they just need to be pushed to exercise that thought and give into that feeling. And when you show him that you’ve got that love and support for them. And they feel that strength, they tend to latch on, too.
TFSR: What were some outcomes actually, of those strikes. I know it led to higher court responses and admonition of the state of California for its practices. How have things changed because of that mass movement of people, and how has that peace that was brokered, and reflection, that it was a class struggle, and not a race struggle… Where does that seem to fit in the California system to you now?
MS: Well, now that they let us all out of solitary confinement, you know, that was one win. And then they can only use solitary confinement or the SHU for if you catch a SHU term. You know, it would have to be a criminal infraction, just like if you’re on the streets, and you catch a case and you go to prison. They have to utilize it the way it was designed. So they can’t use those practices no more. Also the guard union took a hit, because a lot of them can’t work in the SHU no more and get that hazardous pay, which is like triple pay. So they lose out. The Board of Prison Terms has said “You know what? We’re going to have to start letting some of these people out of prison and back into society.” So the laws have been changing.
Since we’ve gotten into the general population, and utilize our practices, and shown them, you know, this revolutionary way of doing things. When they implemented their own self-help groups, which are like robotic programs to teach you how to have common sense the way they want you to, you see how they’re doing it, and you change that narrative and create your own self-help groups. Things that you know will really work. And you’re working together with other ethnicities, and you’re increasing the peace and showing this younger generation “You’ve been misled, you’ve been misguided. You know, we’re the ones who made mistakes, and had the faults, it’s time for us to change that.” And when you do that, you see legislature saying “Okay, well, they know the truth now. They know what really happened. They know how the Three Strikes were devised. They know who pushed the crack cocaine into the neighborhoods.” we’re taking the power back by realizing that there’s a peaceful way to get things done, there’s a peaceful way to bring these changes.
And if you keep telling the truth, you take the power out of their 1% class of hands, and you win more of the masses over. Because you make people who didn’t know, understand, you know, by teaching them those truths. And then they research those facts on their own and they’re more willing to want to help you. So a lot of changes are still needed, but we got the ball rolling. And that’s one thing that I can say is happening right now throughout the California prison system.
TFSR: So this year, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, which is a coalition based around and in prisons around the US and a lot in the South, is calling for days of action, solidarity and education on the outside with folks struggling on the inside on August 21, and September 9. And I’d like to hear later about Black August and about education and the 50th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination, and how people participated in the Attica Uprising also. But I’m wondering if you can say a little bit about the importance of having people on the outside acting in solidarity and understanding the unity between inside and outside as well as the differences. And just to sort of like point to that trajectory of activity… the inspiration of the hunger strikes in California that spread the movement in Georgia, in the early 2010s, the Free Alabama Movement and the strikes that were happening in Alabama and Mississippi around that time and the sort of like chronology of struggle. Could you talk about the importance of the inside / outside solidarity and the upcoming dates of the action and education?
MS: Yeah, well, the inside outside solidarity is of paramount importance because we don’t want separation. We don’t want the 1% class to think that people in society look at us as bad people, you know? They need to understand that it’s important to support us on the inside because we are the ones who will be fighting once we get out, we’re the ones who are going to fight with them, to help them challenge different conditions out there that are still oppressing them out there is as it is in here. You know, it should never be a divide. It should always be unity.
You know what we sparked in California by recognizing our conditions, we’re glad that it trickled over into the other states because they were up against the same type of oppressive slave conditions. I mean, they didn’t start in California with the three strikes, for example. They started in California, and that actually spread to other States, and they just call it something different, but the condition is still the same. So the importance of knowing that, will build that unity, and people outside will see the importance of this, to stand in unity with us on the inside to get things done because t takes us all in order to beat back Capitalism and Imperialism.
What we would love to see more of, is a lot more changes being done in the Constitution, like Ammendment 13. Keeping those clauses there allows them to still keep those practices, those slave practices. And people on outside needs to really understand a lot more of what they’re up against. And if they are working with anybody in here, we can always show them to look at Liberation Schools. It teaches you something that the American public school system didn’t teach you. We teach the truth based on all cultures, how they’ve been oppressed, economically, politically, militarily. And the need to eradicate those backwards ways of thinking and doing,because you know who established them. And if you know that, then you can fight them a whole lot easier. So we look forward to continuing our Liberation Schools and winning the masses over that way. We look forward to supporting you all out there. As well as I know, you guys will look forward to helping us on the inside. And yeah, we can talk about it a lot more than next time I get a chance to call.
Working inside and outside is the best thing possible so that we break away from that dividing line, that they try to put there because they want to keep you separate. Unity in the masses is of paramount importance, if you want to go forward in this class struggle, because we need to unite, helping each other with whatever we got going on, that reaches a positive objective of change. You know, and like what you’re doing now, this right here builds unity of the masses, builds solidarity, this reaches people so they can see their purpose. And if they need help with anything, and there’s others who might have a semblance of how to make it happen for them, then, you know, by all means you should always assist. You know, and that’s what will keep the unity strong. People always want to be able to lean on their comrades and loved ones and sometimes other people have better programs or something else is working, that they might not have working. And you always want to help people so that they can achieve their goals, just like how you want to achieve your goals.
TFSR: So we’re talking right now, in August, that’s the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising as well as the assassination of George Jackson, which, as I understand in 1979 began being practiced mostly by Black radical prisoners, and then by others in solidarity, the practice of Black August. Can you talk a little bit about the practice, it’s important to you? And also a bit about the education and the Liberation Schools?
Yeah. Well the purpose of keeping the practice going of Black August is what the month means to New Afrikan revolutionaries and fought and gave their life to win freedoms that we have in here. They put their life on the line to challenge these conditions. So, the Liberation Schools, from the onset is to teach that, about our history, our cultural practices, because this is something that we didn’t learn in school. And when you learn through the Liberation Schools, it allows you to go out there and not compete in the capitalist market, but understand what Capitalism is all about and utilize your finances for socialist practices. You know, helping grow Black–owned businesses or other oppressed ethnic groups in the communities, businesses, and building that unity and solidarity. Because what you learn is that we all have shared cultural practices. In Howard Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States you learn how divided line was established and by whom. You learned the importance of solidarity and unity and how to help each other, you know “Each One Teach One” practices come to mind. And you see the importance of doing so. So yeah, this whole month, we pay reverence to those who paved the way for us, basically, and continue with this study. And practice the exercising, something we do in unity. Just to feel strength.
TFSR: So you mentioned, like the practices and the importance of sharing this, learning and mentoring, and study, and focus, during the period of Black August, and also like redirecting funds back into socialistic endeavors. Could you talk a bit about sort of the legacy for you of some of the big ideas, and some of the big thinkers. George Jackson obviously comes to mind. His struggle, his writings have been like greatly influential to folks that are doing study behind bars. I know that you’ve done work on projects that have collaborated with George Jackson University. And also, I would like for you, if you if you’re okay with it, to break down the term New Afrikan, which you’ve defined yourself as. I think some listeners may be unfamiliar with that term and some of its lineage.
MS: Well, the New Afrikan term is your ideology. You know, we consider this our New Afrikan being as we’re descendants of our ancestors who came over here as slaves. So we don’t use the term African American or Black or… We try to refrain from those terms, because those are the terms that the oppressor wants to call you and to see things in his way is just not the correct way. So that’s why we call ourselves New Afrikans, it’s an ideology. And all ethnicities who are revolutionary nationalists should always refer to their self in a way that they feel comfortable, not in a way like the oppressors feel like referring to them. And you know, most of my role models, so to speak: yeah, George is one; Mao; Marx; Engels; Amílcar Cabral; Patrice Lumumba; Kwame Nkrumah; Jomo Kenyatta. All those who took the liberation stands, Che Guevara, to challenge oppression, and unite the people, and challenge the conditions that were oppressing them, not just the people. Those who sacrificed their life, paved the way for us. The spirit lives on in the hearts and minds of all of those who continue to do the same, because, as you can see, the problem still exists.
I do like Huey’s concept as well, because, creating a party, which Lenin spoke about, a party or self-governing organization of the people. You know, that’s basically what Communism is. And Socialism is your economic practices. So it works in hindsight, as long as you’re always keeping the People in mind. When you create programs for the People, they are programs designed to help further the people along, and keep them thinking about self sufficiency. Because that’s what it’s all about. You don’t need to compete in the capitalist market, work your way up the capitalist chain, because you’ll never make it to the top. In understanding that, you want to wake up the minds of others who don’t yet know that. And that way they won’t be running around like dogs chasing their tail, so to speak. Lost and caught up just trying to make ends meet. They’ll make things better for themself. Okay?
TFSR: You were just telling me about the liberation Schools. Can you talk a bit about what y’all do and what the idea is?
MS: Okay, with us, it’s always about need. So, as far as like the Liberation Schools, we try to bring the material, the cultural material, historical material, where we read it and studied it, and we practice our way of life like our ancestors did. And every program we create, is a program of need. So when we grab the certain books, by for instance, Chancellor Williams has a book called The Destruction of Black Civilization, and it tells you how it was destroyed in Africa. Okay, Then he tells you, he does a sequel, part two: The Rebirth Of African Civilization. And that tells you how to build these self sufficiency programs that are designed to allow you to implement socialist practices that are programs of need that people have, so that they can continue to raise healthy families. You know?
Like for instance, we created one program, I have to use a pamphlet so you can get the in depth details of it. But like for instance, one of them was like building a community grocery store. And let’s say for instance, I have enough finances to rent a space and build a grocery store. I use a comrade or friend in the community that has their own construction company, and I spend money with them who is not going to charge me a lot to build the grocery store. Okay, the grocery store, all the stuff that I’m selling in a grocery store, let’s say or instance there are four or five people on my street who have organic fruits and vegetables. The soil is ripe for planting and growing foods and vegetables. So I take all their groceries, all their stuff, I pay them what they want for this, reasonable price, and I turn around and sell it to other people. And what you see is the practices of implementing that. And everybody has enough. Everybody is not in need. And the concept continues.
And you can use it with other things like a clothing store. I have a friend of mine who’s a good artist. So I might want to go to another friend of mine who has a linen shop, and buy some linen, and then take my other friend’s art and transform the art onto the clothes and start a clothing line. You know what I mean? And go to another friend of mine who owns like a store similar to Walmart, and put my stuff in his store and have him sell it for price. So that everybody has enough money. Everybody is working and contributing to each other’s businesses, and we’re growing and thriving those businesses and living off of that. Those socialist practices are what’s missing in the communities. And if there is a lot of, you know, what we call a mom and pop spots, the community businesses, thriving those businesses allows for a safe environment in a thriving community. And that’s one of the things we teach in the Liberation Schools. One of the ways that we’ll be able to implement socialist practices.
People get other things out of it. Because we don’t just study New Afrikan history, we study all oppressed people’s history. Mexican history, First Nation peoples history, which they call them Indians or Native Americans, because that was all of Central South America. We study American history. When you study other culture’s history, you fill in the gap that’s left out of American history, where all of us played a part in history, and we fill those in. We study theology, break down the different religions, show how cultures worship God in different ways. Some comrades are Muslim, so they can talk about that. Some comrades are Christian, Hebrew Israelites, Judaists, you know, I’ve heard all different types. We just study all the sciences that we can and some of the arts. And there’s people who are more well versed in languages and in other forms of study than a lot of others, so they study on an advanced level, and then some study on a beginning level. And as long as you can grasp the concepts, and implement them into your practice it will change your way of thinking and how you relate to each other. When you see that each other has a need, and you learn about core value systems, and you try to complement those needs based on their core value system.
TFSR: So, to go back to the example that you gave, of both starting markets and trading with each other and using each other’s resources and such, how does the socialist approach not allow for the re-creation of a bourgeoisie within that community? Certain people have access to certain resources? And if they continue to hold on to it, doesn’t that just reproduce the class dynamic?
MS: Yeah, if you can’t show people the importance of the socialist practice, then yeah, they’ll stay with a bougie mind. And that’s middle class mainly because they try to reach for that 1% class. A lot of them don’t make it. So if they want to continue to reach for it like that, then you have to just let them do what they do. You know, but for those who see the importance of the socialist practices, you continue to welcome them in and show them the importance of sharing those resources. Because you don’t want to be materialistic, if you if you become too materialistic, then the capitalist mind has as engulfed you. You continue and you start thinking like the 1%, which is what they they want. You see it on a TV screen all the time, the lavish lifestyle. They want to showcase that so that you can see that that is success. And it’s really not. You know?
I was in the streets, and I was a hustler and I used to think that that was the way to be successful. When I realized, after studying my history, when I came to prison, that all I’m doing is stepping on my own people, hurting my own people and creating genocidal practices as well as menti-cidal practices by destroying people’s mind. Making them think that this is the way to be, and it is not. So you have to use a practice that we call “eradicating backwards and unprogressive ways of thinking and behavior.” And when you read and study more, you see that that’s the most important thing to do. You know? And when you apply that mentally, you have to encourage others to do the same. But yeah, if you can’t reach everybody, so if you can’t, you just got to let them pretty much fall to the wayside.
TFSR: I’d love to hear more about your ideas on, for instance in Corcoran, in your study group where, like people have limited access to material resources, there’s… literally the institution is there to keep people separate from each other and monitor their relationships. Sharing knowledge is definitely an aspect of socialism. But is there are there other practices or or ways that people relate to each other that sort of reflect on this socialist practice you’re talking about?
MS: Us who come from the inner city, you know, we’ve swallowed a lot of our differences. And we see that there’s a common goal. And that common goal is keeping it peaceful on the prison yards, and not let anyone disturb that peace so that we can make it back to society where our families and our community needs us. So we can undo the damage that we did with the selling of drugs and the gang banging and the, you know, things like that. So we pretty much understand our conditions. And we know that we are our own liberators. So we fight to do just that. We’ve already, because of our agreement to end all hostilities, we’ve already got football tournaments going, basketball tournament, softball tournaments, handball tournaments, things like that. We share in the practices of implementing the self-help groups. We know how to build better men. We know how to interact with each other to help each other thrive and overcoming any injustices that come our way. So we help each other with law work and stuff like that, filling out 602’s, medical forms. Anything like that to show and build unity, which helps with the solidarity.
So coming across those lines, youngsters coming in here who have a different mindset, they see that, and then they realize “Wait a minute, we thought it was like negative and violent!” And we show them “No, this is why it was violent at first, it was CO’s behind it starting all that.” You know? Then of course when there is bloodshed, it’s hard to stop it. But we show them the importance of building that unity, and why we’re resorting to a different way of doing things. And they’re starting to relate to that more. So it is a lot of action. And we were trying to take the hands out of these CO’s, slowly but surely.
I mean, we’re up against the California Guard’s Union. It’s real big and powerful. But, you know, we’re not going to let that discourage us. We’re going to keep doing the best that we can, so that we can overcome this and get these laws to change, get these Parole Boards, hopefully, with people from the community on them, that would have more sympathy towards us. And let us out instead of believing in Capital Punishment. But yeah, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s working. It’s working in a good way. So much so that the governor is letting people off death row, and letting them transition into prison, so they can function in a normal environment. So hopefully they can get a Parole Board date or win their case in court. You know what I mean?
TFSR: So I guess the specific question, again, about the place that you’re being held, or at least the state. So in terms of the demonstrations that are being called for by JLS that we’ve talked about, or mentioned before, between August 21 and September 9, asking for folks on the outside to spread the Abolitionist message and work with comrades and connect with comrades behind bars. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the issues that are specific to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system, where you’re currently being held. And any sort of insights on what you would like folks on the outside to be working on, or programs that they could be coordinating with, based on the conversations that you’re hearing and the reality on the ground, where you’re at.
MS: Well, where we’re at, if comrades on the outside were building Liberation Schools, that will be of paramount importance, because now they’re educating themselves on the need and the importance of transforming the inner cities into positive places, getting rid of all the negative things. And that’s mainly what we’re doing in here, because our self–help groups, we’re finding needs, and trying to meet those needs. And what the state does is they want to create self–help groups that the prison board will accept. So they can transition back into society and be a robot basically, for them. And we don’t want that, that’s not therapeutic programming. Rehabilitating is people who want to change. And they know what they want to change. And if you create certain types of programs that help that change prosper and thrive, then that’s what’s needed.
And that’s what we’re trying to do. What outside comments can also do is work with organizations that are already doing things in prisons, whatever it may be. If it’s creating newsletters, newspapers, podcasts. Whatever it is, so that people in here can let you know what’s going on. And you can find ways to help that, to bring about those changes, that’s what’s needed. We really would like to see people from the community on these Parole Boards, instead of ex-police, DA’s and people in the legislature who only want to control us all. We don’t want to see them because they don’t really want to help you. You know? If they help you transition to society, then they don’t have a job. They have a job when all these prisons stay full. So that’s basically what’s needed.
TFSR: Are there any sort of organizations that you want to name that folks would get involved in? Like, you were one of the founders of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Commitee? So I don’t know if that’s one that you’d want to name or Oakland Abolition or any other sort of groups?
MS: Yeah, IWOC is always… whatever state you’re in, whatever city you live in, there’s a chapter, and we’re trying to create more chapters. But yeah, IWOC is a good group to get involved with because their Abolitionists and activist, and a lot of them have other professional fields where they can utilize those tools to help transition us out into society and create safe space for us to be involved in community work. They challenged legislature. Initiate Justice is another organization that they really challenged legislature and try to get… They’re guiding Senators and State Council members to pass certain laws that will let us get out of prison earlier than what is expected. You’ve got Critical Resistance, they’re pretty big, and they work to abolish prisons altogether. But a lot of them are activists. You got California Prison Focus. There are some other organizations out there in society and different states. I can’t think of them all right now, but any organization that’s working with inside people to make conditions better on the inside, as well as transform those communities into positive places like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the South. You know, those are organizations you want to be a part of. We have a lot of organizations that we’ve established like the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panthers Party. That’s an organization that deals with racial schools. Prison Lives Matter is a new organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, where we’re trying to continue to connect ourselves to these other prison plantations throughout this country, where we continue to develop consciousness through our education, and our revolutionary theory. We can apply that to practice so that we can continue to grow and thrive as a class, not just as a nation, but as a class of all ethnicities, and struggle to win our freedoms.
You have to liberate the mind first before you can liberate the body. That’s something that I always tell people. That’s something that people can get involved with, and if they’re not working with anybody on the inside, they can always go to my website and contact me, go to other comrades who might have websites and contact them directly. So that that way we can help them get that extra push they might need to get involved in something.
TFSR: Can you say what the what website publishes your writing?
MS: Yeah, I got two different websites. One’s a penpal website and it’s called Wire of Hope. You can go to wireofhope.com/prison-penpal-terrance-white and you’ll see some of my writings on there. My comrade she put that that website together in order to establish relations, not so much as romance. If that happens, that’s a good thing, but to get us a voice out there as well as have people in the community connect with some of us on the inside so that they can work with us with doing positive things out there. And then I got my own website is ajamuwatu.wixsite.com/ajamuwatu
Ajamu means “he who fights for what he wants” and Watu means “people”. So if you put that together, it’s saying “he who fights for the people”, a Swahili word. And you’ll see a lot of my writings. My writings are mainly about education. How to build and create self–sufficiency programs, how to develop political thought, how to apply revolutionary theory to practice.
And one thing I always tell people is never be embarrassed if you go through the political immaturity stage, because that’s a given. You have to develop your own way of doing things based on your understanding. There’s no big me’s there’s no little you’s. But as long as you are studying cultural history, politics, economics, African history, you will see the holes in American history. And you’ll be able to see the lies that they put out there. You know, a lot of the reading material that we read is like, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America which shows you how the 1% class divided the rest of us in the 99%, and how they’re continuing to exploit us through their Capitalist system. The more you read, and learn, and study, the more your mind will open up. So you’ll see where there’s a problem, and you want to challenge that problem any way you can, as long as it warrants success. I would always encourage people to do that.
TFSR: And Mwal… Mwalimu… *laughs* Sorry, I’m still learning, you know? I guess we are all learning right?
MS: Yeah, well we’re all alive and learning. It took me a while to pronounce them all right too. You know, it’s funny because in Swahili dialect, the A’s are pronounced like “e” and the I’s are pronounced like “e”. So it’s backwards for the English vowel sound. The U was pronounced “oo” The M is pronounced “oom” you know, so it takes a while, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll flow like water. *laughs*
TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s just about practice, and praxis. Comrades, thank you so much for having this conversation. I really appreciate it. And I really value you taking the time and making the effort to get in touch and be in touch about this. I wish you total solidarity and take care of yourself. Keep in touch.
MS: Well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you for having me, man. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, comrade, people of like mind, in order to go forward is always a beautiful thing. You know, I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy working with people and helping them out as best I can. “Each one, teach one” is something that we have to continue to do. And “can’t stop, won’t stop” is something we have to continue to be mindful of. So yeah, I’m always here for you all as well. Thank you. Appreciate you all so much. It’s always a pleasure.
This week, we’re excited to (re-)present a 2015 conversation with Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, editors and authors of their book out from AK Press entitled “Dixie Be Damned: 300 years of Insurrection in the American South”. The book is a study of Maroon, Indigenous, White, Black, worker, farmer, slave, indentured, women and men wrestling against institutions of power for autonomy and self-determination. All of this in a region stereotyped to be backwards, slow, lazy, victimized and brutal. The editors do a smash-bang job of re-framing narratives of revolt by drawing on complex and erased examples of cross-subjectivity struggles and what they can teach us today about current uprisings in which we participate.
Throughout the hour we explore some of the examples that became chapters in the book, critiques of narrative histories and academia and what new ways forward might be towards an anarchist historiography.
Asheville-based punk collective called Bandits Never Die, in conjunction with the DIY-Bandits label, is doing an online fundraiser for Pepe, the founder of DIY-Bandits who is doing time in Federal prison. We interviewed Pepe before he went in in 2019, you can find a link in the show notes about his reflections of preparing for prison and what he’d learned about the realities of families of people serving time in the BOP. The benefit is a limited time print of a t-shirt and or poster and 100% of proceeds will go to support Pepe while he’s in prison (https://banditsneverdie.bandcamp.com/merch/i-want-to-believe-t-shirt-poster-combo). You can also see Q&A’s and some videos of Pepe before he went inside at his blog, https://preparingforfreedom.org
Anarchist bank robber and prison rebel in Greece is still healing from the attack he suffered at Domokos prison at the hands of guards under the New Democracy administration. G. Dimitrakis was held for a period in solitary confinement after the attack rather than be transported to a hospital to help treat his serious wounds, likely as an attempt to inflict permanent damage or kill the rebel. There is a new letter from Mr Dimitrakis that was kindly translated into English by comrades in Thessaloniki available on June11.org that we invite listeners to check out and will link in our show notes, alongside the original Greek. You can also find his firefund to raise court costs to argue for a quick release for Giannis Dimitrakis at firefund.net/giannis. Our Passion for Freedom is Stronger Than Their Prisons!
As a quick reminder, you can find transcripts of each weekly episode of our show at our website by clicking the Zines tab, as well as on each episode’s page. We also have choice past episodes transcribed and available for easier reading, translation, printing and mailing.
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TFSR: We’re speaking to the editors of a new history book out from AK Press “Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South” – Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley come on down. Thank you so much for your time.
Saralee: Thanks for having us.
Neal: No problem.
TFSR: So considering the relative popularity of regional histories and what this book is actually about, what brought you to write this book? And how does it diverge from what one might expect from a Southern history?
Neal: Yeah, there’s a lot of regional histories out there, and Southern history is sort of its own genre that draws up, perhaps a niche, but highly, highly fanatical crowds. So, that is something we encountered when we first started talking about writing the book. You know, our take on it, first and foremost was that we’ve read a lot of those histories, but always found them really unsatisfactory in either even remotely dealing with these kinds of rebellious moments and social movements and whatnot that we deal with in our book. But when they do deal with them, there’s these sort of very highly-scripted narratives, choreographed almost, if you will, that seek to explain the kinds of tension, social tension and social war that you see in the South. You know, just the short answer to your question, I think, is just that we found those explanations, highly unsatisfactory, in actually explaining, the roots of those tensions, and the kinds of conflict that happened in those rebellious moments and how those moments speak to today. Right? How they speak to the present. You know, we’re anarchists, we sought to write a book about Southern conflict and social conflict and social war in the South that speaks to those politics, but also just that actually speaks to the present in general.
Saralee: And I think that while there is volumes and volumes of regional history, specifically about the South written. There’s not much to speak of regional history written by anarchists right now. And we hope that in doing this, also, it inspires others to kind of take on regions that they live in and look at inspiring histories of revolt from around different regions in the South, and not just the South, but the country. And I think, furthermore, this problem that we have a lot as anarchists, especially Southern anarchist, is that we are constantly looking at history that’s in one sense, not our own, for inspiration. Whether it’s to the big cities in the US or Europe. And I think for us, it was about trying to find things that resonated. Because in order to have the history be relevant in your present, it is important to know about what revolt has looked like in your own region.
TFSR: To be a little more direct, Neal, when you were talking about tensions that get danced around? Can you talk more explicitly about what kind of tensions you’re talking about, in terms of histories written of the South?
Neal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something we deal head-on with in the book, and that have this hypothesis as we’re doing the research and from our own politics and experiences. But that became more and more frustrating and explicit, as we learn more, and as we talked as collaborators and thought more was specifically like the way the progressive narrative has shaped the South. And I mean that in the broadest sense possible. I don’t mean, like left Democrat. I mean any narrative that seeks a sort of progressive version of history. And so with that the specific examples like you’re asking, could be the the way that people who do history with that narrative, gloss over social conflicts that are inconvenient to this idea that progress with a capital P is something that happens gradually over time and inevitably that it happens through modernity, industrialization, citizenship, the granting of rights from the State, etc.
And so there’s these pockets of conflict that we probably disproportionately focus on in the book. For example, after the Civil War during Reconstruction, pockets of conflict during the Civil Rights Movement, that breakout of both rights and Black Power, organizing models, labor conflict that breaks out of the workplace, only model. So these are kinds of examples that we focus a lot on in the book. To give a very specific example for Reconstruction, a lot of the major social conflicts that emerged post-Civil War involve various populations of dispossessed either, you know, for example, all Black communities or former slaves or mixed race communities of Indians and former slaves and poor whites in other areas of the South, challenging not just the former Southern regime, the former Confederate regime, but also simultaneously challenging Northern models of redevelopment that bring in waged work that bring in contracted labor that bring in certain industry. And so they’re fighting sort of a war on two fronts: one against this “capital S South” and one against “capital N North”.
That war, the fact that dispossessed people would actually burn down plantation property in rejection of the idea of labor contracts. And the rejection of paid labor doesn’t match with the traditional historical notion that slaves were trying to transition from slave labor to wage labor. So that breaks with both the traditional kind of lefty progressive vision, also the Marxist vision that people like W.E.B. Du Bois would would espouse.
Saralee: Also, in a lot of these registries, even Leftist academic ones, you have the problem that was that Reconstruction failed, right? That it was the Southern backwardsness, and there was this failure to instill this Northern project. So what we’re looking at is not that it was a failure, but that it was also rejected, actively rejected from the beginning.
Neal: That’s maybe a more specific example of what we’re trying to dig into real deep and get at this idea that the alternative to the traditional notions of like the conservative South that’s posed by most folks as like rights, citizenship, democracy… it’s not a real alternative in that actually those things existed and came about as ways to contain social conflict. And that’s a larger truth that’s sort of taken for granted and anarchist discourse, but we wanted to dig really deep into Southern history and figure out how that’s played out here. And we wrote this book for an audience at large, not just for Southerners. Because a lot of the major conflicts in the United States that have determined where political economy has gone, where social movements have gone, have all honed in on the South. So the major wars fought on this country’s soil: Revolutionary War, the Civil War, really primarily deal with the question of what to do with labor and political economy in the South, what to do with potentially rebellious people in the South, specifically what to do with people of color, specifically, African folks. And so this history becomes meant to anyone interested in questions of social movements or recuperation, or how social conflict is happening today.
TFSR: When y’all talk about the American South, what are you pointing to? What does that signify geographically, historically, and culturally?
Saralee: Yeah, this is a… this is one that we wrestled with a lot at the start of the of this project, one, because, of course, we wanted to include so much, you know, we wanted to think as broadly as we could about the South and include as much interesting conflict as possible. But obviously, that wasn’t… it’s not possible. And we are already kind of recovering in working with a lot in the 200 some pages that exist now. But I think one of the ways is to look at where, in kind of a pre-Civil War idea and definition of the South in terms of how specifically slavery played out in the Southeast, was an important marker.
What were the slave states? What were the states that did withdraw from the Union and engage that conflict. Because we knew we were going to be dealing with a lot of Civil War and post-Civil War land struggle. And so that was really relevant. I think, also, a lot of it had to do with what we found and what we had access to, and narratives that kind of found us in the process of writing the book. Neal and I have spent most of our lives in North Carolina. I spent a lot of my life in Georgia. You see a lot of Appalachian struggle show up because those are histories that are really palpable when you’re trying to look at these things like autonomy and less politically motivated struggle. Appalachia always comes up. So, I don’t know… How else would you characterize?
TFSR: First off, what do you mean by less politically motivated forms of struggle?
Saralee: Well, what I mean by that is in the way that people defined how they were in conflict and what they were rebelling against and what they were working towards. And so we definitely were trying to find periods, you know, in areas of rebellion that were not kind of self organized as Marxist as socialists, even as anarchists, but were more organized through kinship, through through ideas in connection to land, through ideas and connection to various forms of dispossession. Does that make sense? Rather than for a specific Political agenda, party, organization, platform.
Neal: Yeah. So, I think that sort of anti-political bent, if you will, and I realized that’s not a conventional use of the word. But I think Saralee summed it up pretty well. But that anti-political bent becomes important for two reasons. One, is that it speaks to our current political moment in the 21st century, where, you know, increasingly, you’re seeing riots erupt all over the country all over the world that don’t betray in immediate politicality in the sense that you can’t point to it and label it very easily. You can’t identify clear demands, clear representatives, clear negotiators, until those people try and emerge from outside kind of like the the ambulance chasers of whatever riot you’re talking about. And so, because so much defines our current political moment and the moment that anarchists seek to intervene in and engage in, that makes the history in which social struggles will also look like that back in the day, really important because it speaks to the present.
The other reason I think that anti-political bent is very important is because without it, you can’t actually digest social conflict in the South, because the South hasn’t had a lot of the same degree of politicization of social movements that have happened in the northeast, for example, or the Midwest areas like Chicago or the west coast, where you have, for example, large immigrant communities bringing very established philosophical ‘isms’ like anarchism, socialism, communism into social movements, and really giving a very clear political trajectory to those movements. That happened a lot less in the South for a huge array of reasons. And that’s not to say, when we say that a social struggle isn’t political, we’re not saying that it doesn’t involve visions of new ways of living, new forms of life, that it doesn’t involve questions of decision making, or egalitarianism, or questions of power dynamics, or ethics of care, strategy. What we’re saying is that it doesn’t involve an institutionalization of narrative of structure, if that makes sense. And I realized that’s a little vague, but I think that becomes particularly important in the South because of how the South developed differently.
TFSR: What stories do you focus on in your seven chapters? Why did you choose those? And what are you hoping that the reader will derive from them?
Saralee: I guess, just to give an overview… the book starts in early 1700s, and runs along the colonial territories of Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Dismal Swamp. Looking at a kind of evolution from the Indian Wars against colonial settlements into maroonage as a form of both escape from plantations and slavery into a form of attack. So the Great Dismal Swamp was an area that was deeply feared and hated by colonial Europeans. They didn’t understand that kind of geography, they didn’t like the animals in it, and then quickly became associated with territories that were controlled by escaped slaves. And so that area is… it’s important. Not only because of how long of a period of revolt that went for well into the 1800s. But also, just from the beginning of the book, setting up the importance of the figure of the maroon, and the social position of the maroon as not something that was just an identity formed out of escape or running away from these systems, but directly engaged in attacking and trying to end slavery.
So I think that creates like a strong basis for some of the kind of subjects that we look at throughout the rest of the book. And then we move on into the Civil War period, specifically in the Ogeechee area between the Ogeechee rivers and Coastal Georgia. Where we are looking at the kind of struggle for land and autonomy and for life without labor contracts that Ogeechee people were engaged in, in that area. So from like, 1868, to 1869, but definitely starting from the onset of the Civil War to well into like the early 1900s. Along all those tracts of land that Sherman initially had kind of gifted back over to former slaves, and then that was immediately rescinded by Johnson.
So looking at that, and then into another period of really interesting Reconstruction Era revolt called the Lowry Wars. Which was in coastal, eastern North Carolina. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the Ogeechee struggle because while the Ogeechee insurrection was pretty much entirely Black former rice workers, were rice slaves, the Lowry Wars focuses on a multiracial banditry of Lumbee Indians, poor Scots-Irish whites, who had kind of integrated into the Lumbee ethnic and cultural world, and also former slaves who had escaped and joined the Lumbee tribe. And their attacks on Reconstruction plantation society similar to Ogeechee in that planters were returning to lands trying to trying to kind of reassert their power that well at the same time Northern labor institutions like the Freedmen’s Bureau were trying to get people to go back to work through introducing of the wage contract to the labor contract. And so we see a lot of different forms of resistance in the Lowry’s there. And then there’s a little bit of a leap into the coalfields and Tennessee and I’ll let Neal talk about a couple of chapters there.
Neal: Yeah, so from there the book sort of takes a bent towards focusing on what at first glance might be a more sort of traditional radical or lefty history in the sense of focusing on labor and labor battles. But the labor battles we choose to focus on are pretty specifically chosen to highlight a struggle that challenges that model. So, the next chapter that comes to pass is called the Stockade Wars, which refers to a heightened period of conflict in the early 90s in eastern and central Tennessee, between Black and white free coal miners, as well as almost entirely Black prisoners in conflict with various mostly Northern owned coal companies and railroad companies as well as the actual state of Tennessee and the National Guard. And they’re they’re basically fighting against the convict lease, which is what a lot of listeners will be pretty familiar with, probably, but was a system of re-enslavement by which almost entirely poor Black folks were imprisoned for small offenses, and then they’re physically leased out to private companies to do their labor, especially in mining and in railroad, also often timber as well in the deep South.
They’re fighting that system, which was a way to undermine the power of waged workers as well as exploit the dispossessed generally. So that resulted in a pretty unusual alliance of people fighting out of their own interests and social networks against those companies in the state of Tennessee. You know, what comes to pass is that laborers and prisoners end up burning down company property, looting company property, and then setting prisoners free, giving them clothes and food and helping them get out of the State. So you have a situation where Southern white folks are actually freeing Black prisoners and helping them get out of the state. And so some pretty unusual alliances develop in that context that we don’t often read about or think about. It’s not a typical workplace struggle, if you will.
And then, with some interludes, we skip on to a Wildcat struggle led by women also in eastern Tennessee, in the mills, in 1929 in Elizabethton, Tennessee. It’s a bit of a leap, but it involves similar issues that are at the fore. But we focus also to a large degree on some of the gendered constructs that break down in the heat of a wildcat struggle at primarily to mills and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929. And the dynamics of conflict internal to that movement. The ways that the union sort of helicopters in at the last moment to try and sort of negotiate the struggle and how that dynamic plays out and how that prophecies what’s going to happen in central North Carolina with the much larger mill strike activity starting in 1930.
From there, the book goes on to focus on a period of Civil Rights as well as Black Power and urban riots that happens in the late 60s, sort of dealing with like, digesting how the New Deal and how other government programs managed to kind of subsume and contain that period of radical labor conflict. And so what you see decades later is a lot of really heightened social conflict that deals directly with the identities around which some of those new deal concessions, avoid or sell out, right? So Black folks, women, queer folks, things like that, movements like that.
And so we deal next with urban riots that erupt beyond the boundaries of both Civil Rights and Black Power as narratives. And we try and deal with some of the urban riots that are have often been ignored in the South as emblematic of a kind of social struggle that can’t be contained by the Political narrative with a capital P. And so it exposes some of the limitations of Black Power and identity, as well as the rights framework that the Civil Rights movement is basing itself around.
And then to sort of close out the book. The last chapter deals with a large women’s prison rebellion in 1975, in Raleigh, North Carolina. We chose that because we wanted to focus on a prison struggle that hadn’t been talked about much we also chose it because we wanted to focus on something dealing with prisons, just because of how that’s emblematic of where political economy and institutions of control and exploitation are headed. But in that time period in the early and mid-70’s, it prophecizes against sort of the world we live in today. And so we focus on a five day uprising at a women’s prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sort of internal dynamics of that revolt and how activists sort of negotiated for it and within it, how the administration’s dealt with containing it, etc, etc. And then we close out the book with a concluding sort of a more meta chapter that basically is our own notes for historiography that might break beyond some of these leftist narratives of Southern history that we’ve been attempting to challenge throughout the book as a whole.
TFSR: So the 40th anniversary of that struggle in the Raleigh women’s prison is coming up in June. Is there anything going on? Do you know?
Neal: There should be! It would be a great June 11 thing for people who celebrate June 11. I guess, for listeners who don’t know that is, but it’s the remembering and celebrating long term anarchist and eco prisoners struggles. But yeah, no, I mean, there absolutely should be.
Saralee: Every Mother’s Day there’s a big demo, which was just last Sunday, at the… what’s kind of closest to what was the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. So it’s basically the same facility in the same neighborhood. And I think maybe because of that, it’s hard to turn around and do a June event, but there definitely should be.
TFSR: I’m not trying to interrupt the flow of questions. But since you’re gonna be doing a book opening right around that time… the event will be spoken about in a public setting again, which is pretty damn cool.
Saralee: Definitely. That’s a really good point. We should we should bring that up.
Neal: You should just show up. And, you know, yeah, go ham with that.
TFSR: Throw bananas from the crowd.
Neal: Why aren’t we doing anything for the 40th anniversary? But I don’t know sir!. Who’s that crazy man with a banana?!
TFSR: And I warned you!!! Can you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating and writing this book, like do the chapters come out in each of your voices? Or do you find a different, not third position, but like fourth or fifth?
Saralee: Whoah, that’s deep.
Collaborating has been for both of us one of the most frustrating and surprising and just kind of alchemical experiences of the last few years of my life, I think. Neal and I came into this project with a lot of affinity and I think a lot of seeing a lot of each other in each other. That makes sense? And being like, “Oh, we can work together!” And then, you know, obviously, through any kind of deep collaborating like writing a book together, I think we just were able to strike this balance where my writing background is deeply abstract and theoretical, and I had never written anything this kind of concrete and material before. And I think it was really helpful to have Neal’s writing background which is really different than mine. To be able to force deadlines, and also to just kind of know. He’s had five more years on me of writing. So I think we kind of ended up playing this dance between deadlines and having to just like force stuff out and just get it done. And then also, having a really good editing process between the two of us. We both catch different things and see different things. I don’t know, it’s been really interesting.
Neal: Yeah, I feel like if two or three years ago, somebody’s been like “you’re gonna collaborate with one person on a writing project for two and a half years.” Or two years, or however long it’s been? Maybe three at this point? I would call them crazy, and never want to do that. But I think, because it emerged gradually, we learned how to do it sort of over time in a way that was… you know, it wasn’t like we were writing for a university that gave us a deadline. This is our own project that we’re passionate about. And that we have written in… basically in the cracks of the things we actually do with our lives, which are a lot of wage work, and then a lot of actual political activity in the streets and projects that are our primary priority, I think.
And so, you know, and all the friendships and ethics of care that have to come along with those things. Those always take priority. And so this is a project that emerged in the cracks of those, and I feel like at least for me, I got a lot better at collaborating without an appropriate amount of space for it to take up and ways to communicate about it. But it’s an intense thing. I think for anybody who’s listening… everybody knows if you ever tried to just write text for a flyer with another person, it can be really hard. You know, you can kind of be like two bulls with horns slamming into each other about it. But try doing that for three years! You know?
It’s been a joy. I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I’ve become a much better writer and a better thinker, and I think a better person through it. Hopefully a better communicator too. In terms of your question of voice. I think that’s up to the readers to tell us what they think, that we did a good job with the voice. But I think at least what we were going for was the same voice in all of the chapters. Our vision for the project at the beginning was not to have the book be read and experienced like an anthology by different authors but by one voice and one political vision and set of ideas and interpretations. Which is not to say me and Saralee probably agree in terms of interpretation about everything, but for the most part the book is a singular shared set of narratives around what we’re researching. And I think we did a pretty good job with it. I feel pretty good about it, having read it more times than I care to ever again, through the editing process.
TFSR: So would you say it’s the kind of book that someone could just pick up and delve in anywhere? Or does it serve the reader more to start from, you know, introduction and go through the whole thing?
Saralee: Well, I think if you start from the introduction you get more of a… I mean, definitely, we wrote in the introduction to be read, not as some kind of like aside. We spent a lot of time collaborating on the introduction and conclusion and was most fun, I think, for both of us to write those. But no, the thing I love about this book is that you can just pick it up, start in a section that you already have interest in, or maybe something’s inspiring you to read that. And then if you like it you can read the rest. So I do think that’s helpful. Especially in dealing with such a big book. I don’t want the size and like the scope of the narratives to be intimidating, or to feel like, “Ugh, I have to read all of this?!” So yeah, people should read it however they want, really.
Neal: I’m gonna add one thing on there. I do think, you could pick it up. You could be in a bathroom and pick up one chapter and just read the chapter by itself and get something out of it. But the chapters are inter-referential both directly in the sense that you’ll see a sentence that’s like “just like in Ogeechee blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s the next chapter, whatever. But they’re also inter-referential in terms of the ideas. Just to give an example, the kinds of interpretation we have over conflicts around citizenship and assimilation that occurred during Reconstruction period speak directly and immediately to the kinds of internal conflict and recuperation and containment strategies that the state uses during the Civil Rights period.
Specifically those two moments Reconstruction and Civil Rights 60’s / 70’s era. They speak to each other in history, so they speak to each other in the book. You’re going to get a lot more out of reading about those urban riots in the way that the state contains them if you read about the way the State sought to contain conflicts post-Civil War. Because the strategies are very much related and the way they manipulate and exploit and contain Black rage, specifically Black rage are highly connected. And so actually, the book is very much a unified whole, in that sense. And I do hope that people read all of it.
TFSR: Through a few sections of the book you talk about the creation of whiteness, can you talk about race and how y’all tried to handle it in this book?
Saralee: I think that any book or text that is grappling with the history of the American South, but also the history of this continent has to directly deal with the forced enslavement of millions of Africans, of the genocide of the people that were here before colonizers showed up. And also, through that the creation of whiteness as something separate in a privileged kind of non identity, then the marked identities of people of color that were created through these violent colonial regimes. So it’s not a separate topic, you know what I mean? It’s just how we have to look at this history. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant, right?
So I guess, I don’t want to treat race as like a separate topic. It’s part of the narrative and kind of spirit of every single chapter throughout. In terms of specifically the creation of whiteness, one of the reasons that the Great Dismal Swamp was really important for us, just looking at the struggle on the dividing line of North Carolina & Virginia, is that some of those very first distinctions between the indentured Anglo servant and the enslaved African happened in these territories and in these struggles. So what happened when an indentured white and an enslaved Black… Well, those terms weren’t even used yet but an indentured Anglo and enslaved African ran away together. What happens when they’re both caught, right? And so, the history of how those two subjects are created differently is the creation of Whiteness in that early period. And then you see it evolve throughout the book. You want to talk about the evolution of it?
Neal: Yeah. I mean, so I really like what Saralee said. We are not interested in talking about race as like this separate thing, or even as a separate product of identity. But part of this larger whole of development and resistance that are always happening, you know, in tandem with each other and against each other. We talk a lot especially in the earlier chapters about primitive accumulation as this sort of… it’s a classically Marxian concept but we take a pretty different take on it. And we’ve been influenced by people’s like Sylvia Federici’s understanding of that, whereby primitive accumulation is not a one time event, but something that continues to happen over and over and over again. It’s sort of capitalism, or what the State or various structures sort of constantly weeding the field, if you will, to renew their own projects.
In much the way that Sylvia Federici highlights a focus on the witch hunts and women’s reproductive power and women’s bodies in Europe as an often overlooked aspect of primitive accumulation for capital in Europe, the creation of Whiteness as a concept as something which previously sort of disparate groups could could gather around. And likewise, the creation of different ethnic groups and identities and Blackness becomes a part of that process, it’s part of primitive accumulation in the United States. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about, perhaps as much as it should be as a way that Capital made its own development possible on this continent. It couldn’t have happened without it.
And so on the one hand that’s where you find the origins of Whiteness. It’s also where you find the origins of Black identity, not just as a victim of these forces, like democracy or divisions of labor, but also in the process of resisting those forces. So, Blackness emerges in places like the Great Dismal Swamp where people, on the one hand, are victimized by Capital and plantation life and the State, but they’re also coming together and forming a sort of pan-African identity vis-à-vis their resistance, so they have direct agency. And that’s also something the Marxian narrative of primitive accumulation never takes into account is the actual agency of the dispossessed. They tends to view them as sort of passive pawns. And we see this process of primitive accumulation also as one in which resistance takes place. And that’s the source of a lot of these identities. And so when we talk about race, we’re trying to take that larger picture into account and you know, whether or not we succeed in that is up to the reader, but that’s what we’re going for.
TFSR: And I like the way that you see on page 268, where you address this. Like where you suggested, for example, that race and its inherent violence could be re-framed from question of identity and belonging to a method of government. And where you go on from there, I thought was also another interesting way of posing it, not only in direct relation to that ongoing process of primitive accumulation.
So you get a bit heady and introspective with your views on history, historiography and storytelling. So, what were some of the things you were wrestling with in writing and editing this book concerning… I guess, in particular, what I was getting at with that question is…
Saralee: Well, I think an interesting thing that happened in writing this book is that… There’s a theorist, Walter Benjamin. He was an antifascist, and I don’t want to call him a communist because he would have hated that. But he lived in in the early 20th century in Europe, and he killed himself at the at the border between France and Spain when he thought he wasn’t able to escape the Nazis. He wrote these really beautiful, right before he died, these really beautiful theses on the philosophy of history. It’s a text that I discovered when I was really young and probably really misunderstood it. It didn’t really actually come to make any sense until I was engaged in this writing project. And Neal had also been reading Benjamin and been playing with that as well. And, honestly, I think to give a shout out to the work done by folks in the West Coast who wrote that and I think they they brought Benjamin into the anarchist context in a really fierce and relevant and beautiful way that made me realize it was okay to read non-anarchist theorists and use them when trying to write a book like this.
But yeah, I think basically, the work by Benjamin by Federici by Foucault, you know, all those kind of European all-stars. We don’t use them to to try to sound important or to try to like obscure our own ideas, but I think we tried to pull out threads of their concepts of history that just felt really relevant in our context and more specifically for Benjamin. So, our goal in working with such a large amount of material and definitely having to… we had to order the book in somewhat progressive fashion just in the sense of dates. But we wanted the actual work to speak beyond that. And so, for us getting away from the linear progressive narrative that Neal was talking about earlier is looking towards a version of writing and doing history where capitalist time, colonial time, all these different structures of time, that are that linear progressive narrative break down in these in these moments of rebellion.
And that’s the word rupture that we use a lot, right? Is to kind of mark where the time of work, or the time of imprisonment, or the time of enslavement is destroyed, even if just momentarily by those actors, by those subjects. The difference between something like a rupture, or what we would say, and what we’re referencing a lot in the insurrectionary time and historical materialism an introduction, And then something like a progressive version of revolt is that at the end of a progressive revolt, the idea is that the subjects are reinstated and are just in a better position than they were before. Right? Those are things like rights and things like getting your demands met, right? And then what we’re looking at that breaks with that concept of time, is the time of the rupture, where you don’t return to the same subject position afterwards with just better conditions, right? Life kind of halts for a while, and new life forms and new forms of activity are created. And obviously, we know these are temporal. These are temporal junctures, they don’t last. But they’re important for us to to seize on and to hold up. And it’s those memories that get washed under, and get erased, and get ignored in progressive histories. Is that helpful?
TFSR: Yeah, definitely. It seems like, and I hope I’m not just reiterating, but in those moments, if you ever experience those moments of rupture, when the world stops, it’s like you can see the potential for a line of flight out of it at that point. It’s like you can see that utopia or not…you know, whatever, whatever Uopia. You know?
Neal: Yeah, I think for us, that’s where for, well I should say for me, but I think for us? Where, for example, a lot of these writers, these theorists, but especially Benjamin, becomes really exciting because he had a lot of courage to basically break with the Marxism of his day which was saying that communism is a product of these inevitable but gradual historical forces. And, you know what that does is it takes agency away from us as actual people acting on the world. And it also means that to a large extent it’s this inevitable, despairing version of history. There’s not really… for example, I remember Marxists, orthodox Marxists responding to the Zapatista rebellion when that broke out and was big in the late 90’s. They would be like, “well, it’s really inspiring, but doesn’t really matter because they haven’t become proletarians yet, so they can actually progress”
Saralee: Or Du Bois says says the same thing about the Maroons In the South.
Neal: Right, Du Bois sort of writes off the Maroon rebellions as this thing where like, well, they haven’t become wage workers yet. So it’s like, they wouldn’t know how to make communism yet. It’s kind of arrogant. And it’s also just writing off this period of really important history. And so in our historiography, and you in the conclusion we sort of… it is a bit heady, I suppose. But also we try and get into a lot of concrete examples as to how that progressive version of history causes historians to ignore really important stuff. Because they don’t find it interesting, because it doesn’t present any possibility to them of the gradualism they’re looking for.
And to your point, the important things in those insurrectionary moments… One thing that’s important is that sometimes a riot leads to an insurrection, which leads to a social revolution. So, it’s not just a visionary, imaginary exercise, they do actually lead to real ruptures that can be permanent. Right? But also, even when they don’t do that, like what you just said, Bursts, that I really like is that they are these lines of flight. You’re in this moment, behind a barricade and you suddenly realize life doesn’t have to go back to normal. The line of flight can go towards any of these things that we have words for like the commune or anarchy or the wild or whatever.
And so doing history differently allows us to see, I think with more clarity hopefully, those moments that provide a line of flight. Whereas, for example, doing history of vis-à-vis, the traditional labor history model, just to give an example tends to not give you a line of flight so much as a way to see how to press for individual workplace demands. And that doesn’t actually provide you with the same kind of line of flight, as might a Wildcat strike in eastern Tennessee whereby they burned down all the city infrastructure and steal from the rich. And so it’s not just a matter of they’re more militant, it actually is that the content and substance is different.
Saralee: And how people are transformed in those moments are different.
Neal: Yeah, that is another aspect of this messianic quality that Benjamin talks about is that it changes the actors themselves. And that becomes really important when you talk about all the ways that race and Capital and gender and the State have made us who we are. We need those moments of transformation. We need Fanon’s psychoeffective violence to change ourselves. We have to go through that violent process or otherwise we can’t change ourselves either. So, there’s an individualist component just as much as a collective one. Yeah.
Saralee: Yeah, like that.
Saralee: Yeeeeeah. Psychoeffective Violence.
Neal: That’s, by the way, my DJ name.
TFSR: I was about to say that! I was about to say that needs to get looped, and just like… a good beat underneath it. Anyway, this brings me to the question about what is an anarchist historiography? And are you attempting to frame one out at the end of the book in the conclusion? Or is it more of a challenge and a call?
Saralee: I think we attempt to frame it out, but it’s definitely through the context of the narratives in our book. And so, we don’t kind of transpose an idea of our historiography onto just a blanket future concept, if that makes sense. I think it is a call for sure. For me, this whole book is a call. I want to see more anarchist in this work and doing history. And I hope that it’s a provocative call in the sense of it creates dialogue and creates more discourse around what an anarchist historiography could be, because I think we’re definitely also looking for that in comrades and looking to push these ideas and make them better, make them more present to our times constantly as well. But what would you say Neal?
Neal: Um, yeah, I mean, in its best moments I think it could be interpreted as a call to new kinds of historiography. Speaking personally, I mean, I am an anarchist. But I’m not really highly invested in that word as an identity. And I’m not particularly interested in things like historiographies, or critiques or things like that being connected to that word. I question how useful it is. I think, for me, I want historiographies that are negative and critical of the things that exists now. I’m sort of less interested in them affirming a singular narrative and then calling that anarchist. I think it would be a step backwards. Anything that presents itself as singular or universal. I mean, I don’t think we could substitute an anarchist narrative for a progressive one, or for a Leftist one. I think that would be futile and bad. You know, a step backwards.
So I’m interested in people writing history and interpreting and taking on that task, seriously, as it informs the conflicts we’re living in now. Because it does. And I’m interested in people doing so in ways that are just as critical and combative as like all the sort of fiery polemical communique type things that we read now on the internet in utter abundance. You know, I think people should fight over and delve into these ideas that are historical with that same degree of passion. I guess I would be interested in seeing that. I would never expect a singular anarchist historiography to emerge from that. I would expect a diverse and contradictory array of historiographies to emerge that have certain sort of principles in common, like a rejection of Leftism, like a rejection of the progressive narratives that we were confronted with now.
And also a rejection of the way that the Academy owns history. That’s something we don’t have in the interview, but it’s something we’ve talked about in public discussions and talks that we’re hosting with this book. Pretty much I think anytime when we go and talk at university, we’re probably going to be basically presenting front and center a critique of how the academy owns this material. Because we’ve had to confront that in our own research as non-academics doing a somewhat academic kind of project in all the degrees of the real things like money and time and professionalism and salary and tenure that invoke privilege around who gets to own and do history are something that anarchist should also deal head on with. Anarchists already have been dealing head on with as well as a lot of non-anarchists. But in terms of the historiography, I’m probably a little skeptical. I am less interested in it being anarchist, but I’m definitely interested in more critical historiography is emerging. And, and having a deeply sort of negative and critical take on how things have developed with history. Is that vague? I don’t know.
Neal: Okay, good.
TFSR: Where can people expect to run into y’all on this series of speaking engagements? Do you have a schedule slated?
Saralee: Yeah, we have the beginnings of a schedule. We’re having an actual release party like a bacchanal celebration, no formal speaking, you have to dress up.
TFSR: Like what? Like Bacchus.
TFSR: Toga party.
Saralee: We’re hoping that people actually bring their formal attire. We don’t get to see each other in formal attire enough because we’re poor. But I think that’s May 31, in Durham at the Pinhook. So that’s kicking off a couple of weeks of local events. So then we’ll be Greensboro, June 1 at Scuppernong Books. We will be in Durham, June 3 at the Regulator. We will be at the International, which is an anarchist run space in Carrboro, on June 8. June 14th will be in Atlanta at the Hammonds Museum with some people who have been involved in struggles in Atlanta that were actually written about in the book and mentioned in the book. So it’ll be really exciting. June 14. That’s a daytime event. And then June 20, in Raleigh, at So and So Books. We’re hoping to be in Asheville in July whenever Firestorm opens and invites us. And then in the fall, we’ll be doing some stuff on the west coast. And then we’ll also be doing a big Southeast Midwest tour. Then eventually in the Fall also in Northeast tour.
Neal: We took joy in making the Northeast have to be last. Sorry!
Saralee: Yeah, if you want to see us soon, you’ve got to come to us in North Carolina or Georgia, but we’ll come to you at later.
Neal: Yeah, and you can get the book off of probably AK Press’s website. You can also get it from us. I hope you can get their website. You can get it from us as well if you come to our events. I want to, if it’s okay to do a totally disgusting plug, we also have a poster series that we’ve put together that deals with like four or five of the themes of different chapters. And they’re really big, beautiful, like three foot tall, full color original watercolor art themed around like protagonists in different chapters with text that was written by us and Phil. And they’re really big and beautiful and wonderful. And they’re going to be sold with the book at different events and stuff pretty cheap. So thanks to P&L Printing for helping us with those because it gave us a really, really good deal.
TFSR: Thank you, Denver.
Saralee: Yeah, what’s up?
TFSR: Oh, cool. Thanks so much for chatting. And is there any other disgusting plugs you want to make before we stop recording?
Neal: Yeah, go crazy on June 11th. Get real. Get hard. Go hard.
TFSR: Stay hard.
Neal: I want to send some shout outs anybody listening to this who helped us with this project. Or was a patient ear or who gave critique, because there’s a lot of those people out there and we owe so much of this work to them. So, thank you to all those people.
Saralee: Thank you to all the rebels in the last two years that have given us inspiration as well.
TFSR: Yeah. And go hard, stay hard.
Neal: Yeah, that’s good. Why don’t you make that a T shirt.
TFSR: Hey, I’d actually be stealing it from Ida.
Saralee: And Atlanta…
TFSR: Yeah, they won’t mind. We’ve been speaking with Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford about their new book “Dixie Be Damned. 300 years of Insurrection in the American South” published by AK Press. More about the book can be found at AKPress.org
Federation of Anarchism Era on Iran and Afghanistan
The collective we spoke to for this episode began as a series of remotely-hosted blogs and communication methods among Iranian anarchists at home and abroad. By 2015 anarchists from Afghanistan had started to join and in 2018 the comrades from within Iran and Afghanistan and those living internationally founded Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran. Since, more individuals and groups have joined up from around North Africa, the middle east and other places in the world and they in 2020 re-organized themselves the Federation of Anarchism Era. Last January, after the assassination by the US Trump administration of the murderous Quds leader Soleymani we spoke with members of the then-named AUAI about the network, living under 19 years of US war and 40 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This week, Aryanam, a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era, shares collective answers to some of our questions and a few personal insights to ongoing events in Iran and Afghanistan. He talks about the recent election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency, a man who helped to oversee the death committees that executed thousands of political prisoners, as well what the election of Biden in the US and the two governments agreements on nuclear development and the sanctions the international community is imposing on Iran. You’ll hear about the course of covid in Iran, the release of prisoners last year, the outcomes of the 2019 uprisings against the government and those in 2020 after the Iranian government downed a Ukrainian jetliner, as well as viewpoints of members of the FAE in Afghanistan on the Taliban expansion as the US withdraws troops and words of solidarity for many places around the world in revolt against authority.
You can read reports by the FAE on their website, asranarshism.com, and keep up by following the project on twitter, fedbook, instagram, youtube and telegram (all listed from their website in the upper left hand corner). Keep an eye out for a fundraiser soon to support survival and defense needs of anarchists in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes back more territory and other initiatives. You can hear our 2020 interview with a member of the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran on our website, where it is also transcribed. A transcription of this interview will be available in the near future.
Week of Solidarity with Abtin Parsa, July 12-19, 2021
As a related announcements, this week the Federation has announced a week of solidarity with queer Iranian anarchist Abtin Parsa from July 12-19th, 2021. Abtin was persecuted by the Iranian government in 2014 for outspoken atheism (a state crime in a theocracy) and anti-state speech, imprisoned for a year and a half at 14 years old. In 2016 he escaped to Greece and was harassed and threatened while abroad by organizations affiliated with the Iranian state. Though given a limited political asylum in Greece, he was arrested multiple times for organizing and protesting, tortured and imprisoned for periods. Abtin was forced to leave Greece and he applied for asylum in Netherlands. In April of this year, Abin Parsa was charged by Dutch police with organizing among immigrants and now faces extradition back to Greece and possible extradition from there (after a prison sentence) to Iran. More on his case and his own words can be found linked in our show notes and on asranarshism.com and the Federation of Anarchism Era’s various social media.
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Opening Theme by The RZA from Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (Music from the Motion Picture)
TFSR: So would you please introduce yourself in whatever way you see fit any name, pseudonym, pronouns or affiliations?
Federation of Anarchism Era: Hello! My name is Aryanam. I yours hear him pronounce a member of the Federation of Anarchism Era and I am most responsible for English translation and communication. Thank you for having me.
TFSR: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for coming on.
So I spoke with folks from the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran last January. Since then, y’all’ve changed your name to the Federation of of Anarchism Era. Can you explain the significance of this and if there’s been any changes in say how the organization structures or or it’s purpose?
FAE: Yes. If you don’t mind, I’ll start with a little bit of history. We formed our primary nucleus at the end of 2009.Before that, a few people had their individual blogs and and a few anarchists were basically abroad. And at first they performed their collective blog and after 2009they started on facebook, they started their core outside the country. And that was important because anarchists in Iran, like any other group that is opposition to the Iranian government, they get prosecuted really fast. It is really hard for them to find each other. So it would be important to have a core outside the country that is not feeling the same repression and censorshipas the people in Iran. Also, the people from Iran can gather, find each other in one location and start communicating and collaborating.
So, after the reorganization at the end of 2013 by creating their Anarchism Era website, before the only had blogs and facebook groups. But by 2013 when we created our own website, naming itAnarchism Era and by that, little by little people from Iran started joining us. After that there by 2015, we had anarchists from Afghanistan join us and by 2018, we had three independent cores: one from anarchists of Afghanistan and Iranabroad; a group of anarchists in Iran; and a group of anarchists in Afghanistan. By having this three cores, we managed to form the Anarchist Union of Afghanistan and Iran in 2018 after that, a more individual anarchists from Iran and Afghanistan joined us. Before 2018, we also had collaboration with people from Morocco, from Iraq from the other, individual anarchists and anarchist groups from around the region. So by 2020, it became apparent that we are receiving more collaboration, more people from outside Afghanistan and Iran are joining us. So we thought we should reorganize ourselves, one more time and make it a federation. We accept membership from across the world who like to communicate and collaborate with us, they are welcome to do so.
One of the reasons that we are expanding that way is because in Iran and Afghanistan there are multiple ethnicities. For example, in Iran we have have Arab, Kurdishh, Turk,Azeri, Armenian, Baluchi, Turkmen and in Afghanistan we have Uzbek, Pashtun, Hazara, Pashai, Tajik…
So we published multiple articles in different languages, that is, ethnicities speak and the pay attention to basically all these ethnicities in two geographical regions. Even though we formed our federation in 2020, our main focus at the moment and activities are invested in Afghanistan and Iraq andour group abroad, but is mostly in Europe. So, the significance of this action is we are growing naturally, and more people are paying attention to us and that’s the reason that the change our name and reassert ourselves to a federation.
TFSR: Is there an ideological basis to membership in the federation? Is there a shared politic as strict, for instance, as what’s called Platformism, or… Let’s see other word for it
in Uruguay they have a version of platform is… Especifismo? Or is it more like the International of Anarchist Federations, which is Synthesis and are there a lot of chapters in Latin America and in Europe? And the third part of this isdo you have relationships with those other federations?
FAE: Our federation is basically an informal, voluntary organization. We cannot have a ledger and we don’t have air membership fee, because we cannot have a formal organization in Iran because it makes it easier for us to be identified. You have to be doing everything underground.And some of our members are really poor or very young which can not they’re spending their money on the membership fee. So we don’t have any membership fee and I we the form our communication and our groups by informally communicating with each other. There is no consulta. We frequently meet, we basically speak with each other about what is to be done, how do we need to do it and then we go from there.
There are many different anarchist tendencies within our organization . There are anarcho-egoists, anarcho-syndicalists, there is anarcho-communist, there is a small group of anarcho punks. There are many different groups.But the common thing that holds us together is basically living in insurrection. It’s action. We believe that we can not find peaceful way to get rid of this government. We need to be actively, without any peaceful way, we need to destroy this regime. This regime and all of the regimes. We need to be active in the revolutionary way.That’s because there is no peaceful way to interact with this government. The government should showed us that in the uprising in November of 2019 that it does not allow even a peaceful protest to happen in the region. Any action from their people would be met with violence of the State. So the violence needs to be met with violence are the people. And for us to dismantle the regime,and the State.
TFSR:And in particular, when you’re talking about 2019 uprising of the people. This is against the Iranian regime, based on the like, I think, the end of some like fuel subsidies and other subsidies and a lack of employment and social welfare net that the majority of the population was suffering under. Is that right?
FAE: That’s right. The NovemberUprising, it just started with the oil subsidies being cut on. Around 50% of the Iranian population is already below the poverty line, so people were feeling the economic pressure already. And after cutting the subsidies, the people came out that protest, which immediately because of the regime’s violent actions turned into hot uprising. People started chanting anti–regime slogans, they started destroying banks and other properties. They destroyed the statues of the supreme leaders from Khomeini to Khamenei.That was like a turning point for the Iranian people. After that, the regime and Iranian people entered another phase. The majority of the Iranian people understood that there is no peaceful way, there is no soft way to fix this regime. The only path forward is either changing the regime or, we as anarchists say, dismantling the whole state.
TFSR: So can you say, in November2019… When I had a chance to speak to folks from the federation last in January, it was just after the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, who was the head of the Quds? He was, I think, visiting Iraq at the time and killed by the trump regime. And we kind of talked about, among other things, public responses to the assassination and sort of who Soleimani was and also Iranian responses to American intervention and embargo and such. But I am wondering if you could iterate… I don’t think we talked about the Ukrainian air flight. Can you talk a little bit about the repression that followed the uprisings and the deal with the Ukrainian air flight and the public response to that?
FAE: Sure. So, during their November uprising in 2019, the government response was extremely violent. At the time when you were talking through to one of our members, they still did not know the numbers. We knew it was the almost 1,000, we suspected it was more than that, but we didn’t have… That was just an inkling, wedidn’t have any extra information in that regard. Since then, just as recently as two months ago there was a new stat coming out that shows the death rate of the entire Iranian population. It was,unassuming as stats, but there was a interesting point on it. It shows there’s a little jump on the November of 2019, which is about 4,000 people more than on the previous month and 4,000 more more about the following month and more than the same month in the previous year. There was this difference of about 4,000 people. So we are suspecting this 4,000 people there all because of the Uprising and they died because of the Uprising. The regime does not produce any specific amount, butthis is the most direct a piece of information, piece of data that we have about how many people probably died from there and November Uprising. So, 4,000 people died in three days from all across Iran.
FAE: Yeah, so that happened. So that tampeddown the flames of Uprising just a little bit until the Trump regime assassinated Qasim Soleimani, which was a commander of the Quds force of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard. As you said he was visiting Iraq as he did and he was assassinated on the way back, I believe. So, that jump started the another set of protests.
TFSR: There were government-sponsored parades and mourning in remembrances of this head of the Revolutionary Guard who had been… He’d been pretty prominent in repressing populations at home in Iran, right? So I’m sure there was a lot of mixed feelings among the population about the execution, the assassination.
FAE: Yes, there were a couple of interesting things about that. One is that Qasim Soleimani and the Quds force was responsible for killing at least 100 people in the province of Khuzestan,specifically in the city of Mashar. They basically came with the tanks and put down the Uprising their, which we estimated more than 100 people died just in that city in just a few days. Just like that in that one location.
So, the people of Iran… The majority of people of Iran did not like Soleimani, the opposite of what the Western media was trying to portray of the Iranians. And while the Iranian government would like to have portrayed Soleimani as a hero of the Iranian people, the majority of the Iranian people that knew him disliked him.And those that did know him would not go to his funeral unless they were paid by the State to go onto the street, a tactic that every authoritarian state uses. It’s nothing new.
Something that I would like to note is the response of the Western media, specifically there was an article in the New York Times that was saying that the pollution that gathered for the mourning of Qasim Soloeimani in the city of Ahvaz was stretched about twenty miles. Which is ridiculous, because this city of is not that long. Now we can look at the map of the city, and see there how long the the gathering roads stretched and we can measure that it was about 1.5 miles. No more than a 1,000 people. And all of thosewere either people of the State or were paid to be there. After the Uprising of2019, the government clamped down, the flames of the Uprising died down a little bit, the Iranian government shot down Ukrainian airplane, some people say by mistake by there is some evidence of they knew, that they shot at that airplane twice. And the excuse they gave us was that they wanted to bring it down “we shot the second time because we didn’t want it to burn up in the air.” Which is such a ridiculous statement, it makes me, angry. Just mentioning it makes me angry. They shut the plane twice, at first they lied about it. At first they claimed, “Oh we didn’t shoot down anything, it wasn’t us!” Then they claim “tt was us, but it wasn’t on purpose.” Then when the second (missile) came they said “Oh, yes, the second was on purpose,” that they wanted to bring it down. It was such horrible excuses, it just boggles the mind who came up with these excuses in the first place. So that started another set of protests and uprisings. The people were already, especially the student movements in Iran, chanting anti-regime slogans. People were protesting all across country. People were, of course, arrested during these protests.People were killed, executed after they got out also.
But those funerals and gatherings overcrowded between people were during the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic and the Iranian government already knew that this pandemic is happening and is spreading in Iran. They decided on showing force and showing thatthe Iranian people are very supportive Qasim Soleimani and were stricken of his death.They staged their funerals in multiple cities by crowding huge a number of people in small spaces. And at one of the incidents that happened because of this was there at a stampede of the feet during the funeral of the QassimSoleimani in Kermon, the home city of Soliemani. On January 7th, 2020, during this funeral a stampede occurred that killed 56 people. The other effect of this crowding of people in a small spaces to look good under international news (that all the authoritarian regimes use to show their strength and all the people’s support, even though it doesn’t exist) is that a during these funerals the covid-19 pandemic was already present in Iran. An we suspect that a vast majority of people got sick during these funeral proceedings. Because people were crowding in small spacesand they were not practicing any social distancing or anything like that, and they were not wearing any masks.And we suspect, actually, we know that the Iranian regime knew that the covid-19 was present, that maybe it was problematic and it was causing deaths of 1000’s of people already in different countries… But for them to show restraint, they decided to have these(public funeral gathering) proceeding happens without any precautions for the covid-19 pandemic.
TFSR: So, could you speak a little more about how covid-19 was experienced by folks in Iran after it started spreading and people became more aware of it? And also if you have word about Afghanistan… Currently are there vaccines available and have you seen any increase in infections from this new on Delta variant as they call it of covid-19 that’s come out of India? Have you were their experiences of lock downs and what have they been like? And I’ll ask the prison question afterwards, if that’s okay, unless you’re me to throw that in there
So, I guess of note- and I know this is a very long question at this point- I remember hearing early on that the Iranian regime decided to release 54,000 prisoners temporarily as a health measure, apparently driven by a fear that there would be a mass spread inside of the prisons. Which seems to show notable concern for public health that, for instance, the U.S. regime and state regimes here, had no interest in expressing interest preferred for people to die in prison.
FAE: So, let me answer your second question first… As you said there were a few 1,000’sof prisoners released, but all of this prisoner ever non-political. They they didn’t have any political activities. The political prisoners they were kept inside the prisons. Many of them got covid as well. I know some of them died because of that. The regime used covidas basically an executioner.
For the second question about how covid was experience in Iran and in Afghanistan… Well, some of our members’ families and relatives got covid. Fortunately, our members that gotcovid did not have any severe consequences, there were no severe affects. They managed to come out of it okay. As far as in Afghanistan, the situation is kind of worsethan in Iran. So in Afghanistan the corona virus spread there rapidly recently. Some of the problem is there is massive unemployment in Afghanistan and people wanna go back to work, and the workplaces don’t practice safe precautions against covid-19. Also in Afghanistan, there is less clean water and sanitation. And since the recentwar with Taliban, covid-19 is not a priority anymore. The war withthe Taliban is a priority and that caused an increase in the rate of spread of the covid-19 in Afghanistan.
And relating to the vaccination right now, they’re only like 2.5-3% of the Iranian population are vaccinated. The Iranian government decided that they do aren’t going to accept the vaccines find out U.S. or other western countries, they’re going to make their own vaccines with the cooperation with Russia and China. The Iranian people don’t trust the government, so even if they’re the vaccine comes into the market then becomes available, this was big majority of people would not get vaccinated. Which is kind of understandable, because if we do not know if the vaccine is gonna be as effective, that the side effects are as minimalas the other vaccines… Since their government can not be transparent or trusted on any other subject, we cannot trust it on this subject as well. That causes the situation of the vaccination in Iran very dire now.Nobody’s gonna get vaccinated and that’s probably gonna cause the covid-19to become endemic in the Iranian population. Which is not they’re good place to be.
TFSR: I guess, in response, besides the releases of prisoners in the United States, a lot of what was experienced, it was just the the forced shutdown of public spaces and the threat that police would enforce social distancing. There were testing sites available eventually and like as with the U.S. (normally) will do the, majority of people getting punished for breaking curfew segment… Most of the curfews came into account because of the massive protests against police killing of Black and brown folks, but also the majority of people that were suffering from repression from the government for for breaking curfew, ah, were like houseless folks or people that the police would attack anyway, like Black and brown and poor people. In a lot of other countries like in Italy, in Greece and Spain, in the UK, that lockdowns were more effectively an imposed by the government. They were doing patrols in China with drones… Was like a forced lockdown, the response that the Iranian government had to the pandemic? Or was it something else, and what was that like?
FAE: The Iranian government did not really enforce a lock-down like that. In the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people wereleaving the cities to go to northern Iran to rush to rush to go to provinces of the north.Usually the boojie people do this. They go to the northern city to live in their villas, to basically weather the effect. But they, themselves, they brought their covid-19 and majority of people in the northern region of Iran got sick, they got covid, it spread more rapidly over there. And the residents of those provinces, they were wanting a government shutdown. They wanted for people to stop going and coming up to live in their villas and spread more virus.. But the government did not listen, theystill allowed people to travel all of the places. And after that they did something that is SO counter intuitive… even thinking about it is the very confusing for me right now… People the run to their villas, the boojie people, then wanted to come back. They were like “okay, they don’t want us here. So, okay, we go back to where we came from.” The government then enforced a quarantine then. They say “okay, you gonna stay over there.” They refuse to let other people to travel at least temporarily.
As you mentioned with other governments, in Iran, they used the covid-19 as a means of repression. The breaking of the protesters, an execution method for the political prisoners. They don’t enforce any social distancing if it was for the protesters against the regime, if it was for a state-sponsored gathering they were completely okay with that theydon’t enforce any social distancing.
TFSR: You also mentioned before we started recording how, in terms of travel restrictions being applied or distancing or whatever lock–down or these health concerns being applied to people differently according to class. And this kind of reminds me of the way that, ah, I understand sanctions, for instance, are applied by destroying the social safety nets for the majority of the population, while the rich continue to be able to live relatively luxuriously, traveling to villas in the north or what have you. You also mentioned that the Iranian government was allowing Chinese businessmen and business–people to still travel even after covid pandemic had become apparent to the world, which seems like a sacrifice of the health of the population in order to increase the business opportunities of the bourgeoisie end of the governing class. Is that a fair summary?
FAE: Yeah, so, when the covid-19 pandemic became apparent to be a huge and destructive thing when other countries started closing down the airports to the Chinese government, stopping the travel to andfromChina, the Iranian government did not. So, the Iranian government kept the airports open. And it allowed the Chinese businessman to travel to Iran and from Iran and to travel to Europe. So, basically the bourgeoisie of China used the bourgeoisie of Iran and the Iranian government as a loophole in those travel restrictions until people actually are closed travel routesthrough Iran as well.So, we suspect that on a good deal of the Iranian population getting sick from covid and its spreading in Iran was because of these travels as well.
The thing about Iranian bourgeoisie is highly related to the government. This might be a side note, but I I think it’s worth mentioning that prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979, the shah’s regime wanted to consolidate power into the Shah’s hands. So, he created that one party rule fully consolidated all the political power in his hand and went after religious and the market, theCapital and he wanted to gain control of both of them. Well, this backfired on him because the religious institutions and the Mullahs united with the Capitalists of the market, of the Bazaar and that led to the revolution 1979. TheIslamic Iranian regime managed to consummated all three powers. There is no effective political power that can oppose the Iranian regime, it’sa dictatorship. The religious institutions are in the hands of the Islamic authoritarian regime. The majority of their financial institutions are either run by the higher-ups in the regime by their friends and relatives. So, when we mention Iranian bourgeoisie now, you’re basically mentioning the sons and relatives of the higher echelons of the Iranian regime. That’s how it works in Iran. All the power is consolidated in the Islamic regime. The Iranian bourgeoisie, for the businesses they allowed the airports to be open and they traveled abroad as well, themselves. They got covid, they traveled abroad, those sons of the higher-ups and the regimes, they take vacations in their different countries.
There was another thing that happened during first wave of the covid-19there was a loophole for the Chinese bourgeoisie, Chinese businessman to travel to Iran and used Iran as a hub to travel to the different countries that were closed off to China themselves. And the other other thing was that the Iranian bourgeoisie are directly related to the power structure after Iranian State, they themselves traveled to other countries abroad for the vacations, to get out of Iran and perhaps weather the worst effects of covid-19, but they were already sick when they were traveling abroad. They spread their disease further.
TFSR: And just a quick reminder to listeners that the variants that have been spreading so fast… the the variance from an like… South Africa have started getting infections, likely because they were getting plane flights from people in New York City flying there, where the infections were already spreading likely they got infections. I know it likely was brought in at Milan, where there was a a large outbreak before a of these diseases are spreading because rich business people don’t care about the possible implications of their interaction. So they burn up a bunch of fossil fuels in a jet plane, so they can go vacation or make a business meeting somewhere.
So, one hopeful thing that we’ve heard from a lot of places around the world were stories ofr people creating and growing thriving mutual aid in response to that dual catastrophes of governmental and economic failure in the pandemic. How was this seen in Iran and Afghanistan? How did the authorities respond, if there were instances where people created their own civil society responses, was that deemed as a threat and have those mutual aid efforts continued?
FAE: So,one of the examples of the mutual aid aim at Iran after the spread of corona virus was in the city like Isvahan, where people basically decided to not allow increasesof the rents and may even decrease over a significant amount. But other mutual aid activities were, like you said, is seen as a threat to the Iranian regime. They do not like people to self-organize and to try to take care of themselves, because that’s seen as an action against the regime. Even if some people were trying to help other, minority ethnicities in Iran, they started making up charges against them that they were acting against the regime, they are separatists, that they are working with a foreign entity to dismantle the regime. They make claims of their mutual aid organizations that people are trying to make and basically put a stop to all of that. If anything’s happening in Iran, it is unfortunately, on the smaller scale and it’s gonna be underground, they do not allow public self–organization from the people.
TFSR: Pivoting a little bit in topics, the former U.S.President Trump had promised (as an “Antiwar president”) to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May of this year and that date was switched to September 11thfor the twentieth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. and that was changed by Biden, the current U.S. president. In March, President Ghani in Afghanistan said he’d, be working on a peace process and democratic elections with the Taliban or pursuing that at least. Also, it’s clear that, while the US and NATO powers may be trying to “draw down their forces in the country,” they will not leave the country fully. They’ll leave behind security, analysts, special forces, private contractors and a lot of the infrastructure attached to that. I was wondering how your comments from Afghanistan think that the next year might look. What are their concerns, fears and hopes. Do they expect the Taliban to overtake the existing central government in Kabul? TheU.S. doesn’t think it’s gonna, last more than six months, and what could that look like?
FAE: So, let’s start with the analysis of the comrades in Afghanistan? That is that the government in Afghanistan is probably gonna keep Kabul. Even though it might lose everything else, they’re gonna focus their forces in Kabul and at least save that place. But, then you were mentioning god and the peace negotiations with Taliban…From the one of the reports have got from our comrades in Afghanistan that before the negotiations, they (the Kabul government) released5,000 Taliban members and during the negotiations they released another, here and there, they release another 7,000 the Taliban members. This boosted the Taliban’s the morale and their forces. So at this moment it seems that the peace negotiations have failed. Of course it did, because they got about 11,000 of their members back. Why would they negotiate with the government?Another thing that I would like to mention is we lost communication week are comrades in Mazār-i-Sharīf, in Balkh province for about a week. Just few hours ago we established communication again andthe reason that we lost communication was that the Taliban cut their fiber optic communication. They manage to push them back from Mazār-i-Sharīf, apparently they manage to fix the fiber optic. so we managed to reestablish communication. Yeah, they there were saying that the fighting was intense near Mazār-i-Sharīf, so one of the tactics the Taliban user would be to destroy the power lines, they destroyed the communication lines so that the population cannot ask for help. Without the power lines as many of their infrastructure will not work which would be in benefit of the Taliban. So, in regards to U.S.drawing out is that U.S. forces in Afghanistan they’re, even though they supposedly were a counter-force to Taliban and by them being there and their actions in Afghanistan, they stopped the popular independent movement in Afghanistan. There is little-to-no independent movement to the Taliban. Everything that exists at the moment, is either from the government, or is from the religious or another political party that has their own goal and they want to score our own and political goals regional goals.They’re not something that we can trust and corporate with because our goals and values are not the same.
TFSR: Speaking from a us perspective, as someone who remembers when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and hearing the U.S. dialogue and and the power players talk about it, the “humanitarian, liberal response” in the U.S. has frequently come from a position of “We need to be in there to provide stability.” So, at first it was RAWA, the Revolutionary Afghani Women’s Association that was used as an argument for U.S. military intervention, to say that in order for like a feminist society or for a society where… By the way the U.S. is not a feminist society but saying that “In order for women in Afghanistan to not be forced into a theocratic patriarchal and heavily repressive system, we need to do our part to hold the space to build something so that the people of Afghanistan can take back over there space,” or whatever. That was the argument that was made for a lot of well meaning people in the U.S. I think they’re still concerned that, “Yes,the occupation has been terrible, but when we withdraw, there will be a collapse and move on… There’s no other option. It’s either the U.S. occupation or people living under Taliban rule!” And I think, with what you said about the has been the stamping out of any independent movements in Afghanistan that could provide a sort of alternative or provide something that is homegrown and that would fill the needs and desires of people in Afghanistan who don’t want to live under the Taliban rule and also don’t trust the warlord government. You know it hasn’t been able to flourish. It’s almost as if the U.S…. Not saying that the Taliban is a cancer, but it’s as if the U.S. and U.S. population and government and military was approaching the problem, as Afghanistan is an organ in a body or is a body and that the Taliban is a cancer and the us military is chemotherapy and that we must irradiate the country as opposed to helping support civil society as an immune system that would help to regulate itself.
I’m giving a lot of agency to the U.S. and NATO and the West in this of that feels weird. But I just kind of want to point to like the short-sightedness of the mindset that people in the West, through our “humanitarian approach” have been thinking about sending and bombs and drones, as for the last 20 years.
FAE: Yes, so for that line of thinking… As I mentioned, there are comrades in Mazār-i-Sharīfwho mention that the Taliban cut the fiber optics, and that’swhy they didn’t have communication, internet communication to communicate with us. My first response was like how incompetent is the Afghanistan government and U.S. government that they made their fiber optic cables, that this is essential for the communication so easily accessible that Taliban could destroy it.
So, I don’t think the U.S. regime was thinking of being a cure. They were thinking of their own goals, which was that they wanted to establish the region, to take it out of the influence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. And they didn’t want it to be influenced by Iran as much as possible because the Iranian regime has forces in Afghanistan as well. They would like to have a militia in Afghanistan. They very much would like to export their revolution to their neighboring countries like they do in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and the same is true in Afghanistan. The U.S. government had specific goals which were, I believe, they would have liked to get rid of Taliban. But they found after the first couple of years after the invasion they realized that objective wasn’t possible. I believe their objective changed to just hold the position, so they can exert power and influence the neighboring region, basically putting pressure on their neighboring country, which has is Iran. And having a base so as to be able to act within the region much more smoothly. The independent of people’s movement is viewed as an insurrectionist movement which is combated by their anti-insurrectionist protocols.
TFSR: Is your impression that people in the Federation within Afghanistan believe that, yes, when the U.S. pulls out, the Afghan administration will be able to hold Kabul and maybe some surrounding area, which is basically fortresses as I understand? And will it be, that the rest of the country sort of ends up living under theocratic rule from the Taliban? Or have they actually already been living under the rule of Taliban and will there be space for organic, organizing and resistance for autonomy? Will that be able to occur?
FAE: So, before the Taliban started this new conquest over the last few weeks, we were trying to start a project, a couple of projectsin Afghanistan. We were already talking about it. We were basically finalizing some of the projectsin Afghanistan.One of them was a starting an anarchist magazine, they publish monthly or biweekly and we publish it online. This would basically increase our anarchist presence inthe region and we doubt that we have more leverage to do more. But this Taliban’s movement basically cut us off guard, we have to scrap those projects that we had. Our forces are so small that they can’t do it alone, and like I said there are no other movement that we can collaborate with.We were trying multiple organizations that were nominally closer to us, but the problem is even if we are like “okay, let’s work together, even though we don’t like each other,” they do not like anarchists at all. They are completely anti-anarchist and we cannot establish a collaboration or alliance in any way.Right now, it seems that the Taliban may have already hold of 70-80% of the Afghanistan region. Yeah, so the Taliban is already there. They may in facthold maybe Mazār-i-Sharīf , maybe Kabul, some other cities in the region like a fortress, as you mention. But our priority is to save and secure our comrades living in Afghanistan. All other projects that we had in the region right now are on hold until further developments. We’ll see what we can do. We are talking with our Kurdish friends and are the are trying to see if there have any experiences from Rojava that they can share with us since they were able to successfully fight ISIS am in northern Syria, they might have some experiences that they can share with us . But this is really hard, because the anarchist presence in Afghanistan is a smallerand more spreadthan is possible to create any strong and independent movement without anybody’s help.
So, right now we are just trying to help our comrades in Afghanistan. At the moment, we are working on setting up a fund for our comrade to send financial aid to our comrades so they can have food security. We want to get them air power generator, just in case the Taliban decided that they’re gonna bomb another power line, they gonna cut down on a power line. And we’re trying to see if he can get them guns, AK-47’s. The last time that we talked to our Afghanistan comrades about it was $500 for an AK-47. We are trying to get some for them. Raiding and procuring them in other ways was suggestedbut after analyzing the situation, we couldn’t safely to do that without risking our comrades.So we decided to first procure food and then get power secured. Then we get them guns and after the there was a suggestion for us to get the satellite internet or satellite phone for all easier and more durable communication. So if we get any money and if you’re figuring any funding we’ll be spending solely for those projects, for now.
Some of our comrades are thinking of migrating but their not positive about the current trends, current situation in Afghanistan. As we mentioned before the U.S. has been there for 20 years. People there born and became adults all while the US occupation. But one of the [U.S.] objective was not allow for the people to develop independent collectives and communities to defend themselves because that would undermine their importance and their presence in the in the region. So, that’s that.
TFSR: So jumping back across borders, because anarchists don’t believe in or respect borders, Iran and the U.S. both had elections in the last eight months or so. We got Biden here and Iranians got Ebrahim Raisi, who I have heard described as a conservative hardliner. What do Iranian comrades expect to get out of their new executive? How do you see the election of Biden in the so called U.S. affecting the people of Iran. Not to continue, as we do, to center the U.S. so much but recognizing that it does have an impact.
FAE: First, I wanna make a note of their their successful boycott of the Iranian election by their Iranian people. Before the election, and there were many, many propaganda and actionsencouraging us to boycott the election. On the day of election, the majority of the voting booths across were deserted. And outside of Iran there were some voting locations for people went there and protested and harassed and identified the voters there, because majority of them are related to the regime. We found that they sons and grandsons the higher echelons of the government and they’re just coming out on vacation and they wanted to go and vote as well. So, we found that out of while we were protesting in different countries, finding the people who‘re voting for the Islamic Republic of Iran. So the majority of the voting booths were deserted. The regime claims that the about 40% of people voted which is obviously a lie. Not many people voted. People, before the election ,knew that Ebrahim Raisiwas going to be come the president, because they were manufacturing consent. So, to say, toward that direction, they were lining up everything for Ebrahim Raisi was to be announced as the president. The regime has a specific goal by making Ebrahim Raisi the president. Ebrahim Raisi, during the 1979 election had many positions in Iran and one of them was. He was part of the DeathCommittee. The majority of the time he was in the judicial position of the government and he was totally involved in the death of thousands of political prisoners in summer of 1988.
We suspect he was chosen as a direct response to the Uprising of November of 2019 and the protests of early 2020.And right now there is a huge workers strike in Iran from the petroleum, the is the sugar cane syndicalist organization in Iran who have released a list of the participating workers and are there is about57 organizations from 57 different companies from different industrial sectors, all participating in a strike. And that means thousands and thousands of people striking right now.
Ebrahim Raisi, we suspect, was chosen to become presidentof Iran as a response to all these strikes The government has not any base among people anymore, like I said after the protests of 2019 and 2020, the people do not trust this government anymore, and they’re not even optimistic about the reform of this government. The majority of theeffort sand thoughts are going concerned with replacing the regime or, as anarchists, for dismantling the state completely. So, Ebrahim Raisi was chosen to basically stamp and destroy the whole resistance in Iran. He is more ruthless and he has experience in the judicial department as it was mentioned, so his function is clear in that department.
As for Biden, in relation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, restarting the conversation with the Iranian regime, regarding the nuclear deals, it allows some breathing room for the Iranian government. If the Iranian government can produce some more money, loosen the sanctions just a little bit would spend it in suppressing the people. We know about this because there was, I believe, a 25 year negotiation deal with China and Iran, in which China received some points. it allows control of some resources in Iran, which is significant, especially in the Persian Gulf, down south. And in return. Iran would get some breathing room and also receiveanti-insurgency tools brought in from being collisions are one of the items is all did receive their anti insurgency toolslike increasing intelligence, it will include anti-riot gas otherriot suppression tools.So, Biden’s negotiation with Iran would probably help the Iranian government procure more funding, which would use a significant amount to repress the people. But it needs to be said that Trump government, with their sanction, was not helpful for the Iranian people. For example, for us to help give funding to any of of our members in Iran. We have to jump through many hoops, because I’m in the United States, I cannot directly send the funding from the U.S. to Iran because of the sanctions. I have to go through many more steps, which is much more expensive to assist our are members in Iran, to fund their projects in Iran. So, the sanctions were not really helpful for us, but less sanctions would probably give the State more breathing room, which allows them to repress people more effectively.
TFSR: I know at one point a year ago there was discussion about having a podcast, I guess in Persian. For internationals outside of Iran and Afghanistan, whether or not they can speak or read Persian languages, do you have suggestions for ways that they can show solidarity with anarchist struggles in Iran and Afghanistan and other people involved in the Federation or where they can keep up on pertinent news. You did mention that there’s going to be the the fundraising soon to support folks surviving in Afghanistan. I’ll happily share the the contact information for that when it comes up I’ll.
FAE: First of all, I wanna thank you for talking with us, having an interview with us. And I wanna thank all of our comrades that shared our perspective and our stories to the rest of the world. When we released the reports of our anarchist comrades in Afghanistan, it was translated in multiple languages and was shared widely. We really appreciate that repaired we thank every single one of you guys. Other than that, as we said, we are working on sending funding to help our comrades in Afghanistan to help in their survival. For different projects, we don’t have anything at the moment, but we would announce them as theyget finalized. You mentioned something about last year we mentioned about the podcast. We might have a podcast now, but in might not be in Persian, but instead in Kurdish. But it is still in the process of developing. We’re still trying to find gay, basically, a satellite, trying to broadcast to Iran viasatellite, because the majority of Iranian people and households have a satellite dish. It is one thing that has not been suppressed by the Iranian regime too much at the moment, so if he had a chance to broadcast to the Iranian people weekly, biweekly, monthly. That would be the best optional for us, but we are working on that Kurdish one at the moment.
Also, we would like to extend our solidarity to to the people inCanada against their horrible genocidal regime of Canada. Also, our son in solidarity with the peoples movement all across the world, from Colombia to Myanmar. We are watching all these uprisings. All this a struggle against the State and Capitalism and we are in solidarity with your guys, comrades.
In regards to what the international anarchist community can do for us to show their solidarity… It might come as a personal opinion, but I believe the rest of the Federation would agree, is you would start the revolution at home. Start the insurrectionist action at home. Basically the same in the U.S. what we witnessed at the George Floyd uprising was inspiring, very powerful, and we we hope you will see that this year. Just do some actions that you guys did last year. Some insurrectionist action. Burn some cars. Burn some police cars, burn some banks. or something like that. I hope you guys have a “hot girl summer”, I wanna be a part of that. Honestly that helps us out tremendously. Let’s keep this summer just like last yaer. The reason that it’s the best form of solidarity, in our opinion, is because the Western imperialism, the Western governments support certain groups. In the Iranian case, they support Iranian monarchists and the Mujahadeen, in which one of the goals is to take over the Iranian state. Basically, they are using their monarchists to set up a puppet state. Naturally, we anarchists are not in favor of that, we were like to dismantle the State. We do not want to have a puppet state in favor of capitalism and Western imperialism. So, by de-legitimizingthe U.S. government or Western governments like the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, all the western states… It doesn’t matter. By de-legitimizing, by uprising and rioting, you are helping us to do our struggles better. Our struggles are interconnected. Any weakness from your government is helping us and any chink in the armor of our government would help you. Let me put it another way: the Iranian government supports different militia groups in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, all across the region. And Yemen, I’m sorry. If the Iranian regime gets weakened,Peoples movement in those regions, liberatory Peoples moments in those regions can be a strengthened further. They are less repressed because the Militia are not receiving support anymore, so they can grow an and win their fights better. Or if the people in Palestine managed to liberate themselves and not fall into the hands of Hamas, that would weaken the Iranian government, which allows us to further complete its destruction. There was a video from a Lebanese activist from 2019 major Uprising. I think us 21 uprisings, all across the world in 2019.2019 was a year of revolutions. The Lebanese activist was saying “Revolution in Iranian! Revolution in Lebanon! Revolution in Palestine!” Let’s have a revolution in every country! Thank you very much.
TFSR: I love that, comrade. Thank you so much for taking the time and the effort to to have this conversation, and also please say thank you and appreciation and love to the comrades in the Federation. I really appreciate it.
FAE: Thank you very much, comrade. for your time and checking back with us. We really appreciate it.
Making Links: June 11th, Long-term Prisoners, Anti-Repression Work
June 11th is the international day of solidarity with Marius Mason and all long-term anarchist prisoners. This year we want to explore the connections between long-term prisoner support and anti-repression efforts around recent uprisings, a sharp reminder to us that the difference between a status of imprisoned or not is often tenuous and temporary. With thousands of arrests for protesting, rioting, and property destruction from last summer’s George Floyd uprising, we must be preparing for the possibility that more of our friends and other rebels may end up in prison. We’re also seeking to find ways to facilitate interactions between our long-term prisoners and uprisings in the streets. We were happy to share the production of this episode with the lovely folks at June11.Org. To this end, we speak with:
Cameron and Veera, who are part of a group that have been supporting prisoners from the Ferguson uprising for the last 7 years;
They share with us their experiences with state repression, what motivates them, and some thoughts on what we can be doing to make us, our communities, and our liberatory movements more resilient. The speakers responded to questions in the same order throughout the conversation but didn’t identify themselves much, so remember that the order and the projects they’re involved in can be found in our show notes.
You can learn more about Marius Mason and how to support him at SupportMariusMason.org. You can see past podcasts by June 11th, prisoner statements, artwork, info about the prisoners supported by the effort, a mix-tape they curated last year and events listed for various cities you can join at June11.org. We’re releasing this audio before June 11th to entice folks to consider a potluck, an action, a letter writing event, a banner drop, a postering rampage or something to share the day with folks behind walls. Hear our past June 11 episodes here.
You can also hear the June 11th statement for this year alongside other info on prisoner support from comrades at A-Radio Vienna in the May 2021 BadNews podcast!
BRABC Letter Writing Today
If you’re in Asheville, join Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross today, June 6th for a letter writing from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park on Vermont Ave. BRABC meets every first Sunday at that time, provides info on prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression, stationary, postage and company. Never written a letter? Don’t know how to start? Swing by and share some space!
Comrade David Easley, A306400 at the Toledo Correctional Institution, who has in previous months been viciously assaulted by prison staff at the direction of the ToCI Warden Harold May, as well as number of other inmates also who have been isolated for torture and other oppressive, covert, and overt retaliatory actions at that facility, denied adequate medical care for speaking out against the cruel, inhumane treatment at that Ohio facility. More and more comrades are reporting occurring throughout the ODRC, and across this country for any who dare stand up and speak up for themselves, and the voiceless within the steel and concrete walls.
This is a CALL TO ACTION to zap the phone at the U.S. District Court in Toledo, Ohio and demand that Comrade David Easley be granted a phone conference with Judge James R. Knepp II, and the Attorney General because Comrade Easley’s lawyer of record has decided to go rogue by not filing a Memorandum Contra Motion as his client requested and now the State has presented a Motion to Dismiss his case to that court.
Plaintiff: David Easley, A306400
Case No: 3:18-CV-02050
Presiding Judge: James R. Knepp II
Courtroom Clerk: Jennifer Smith
Phone No: (419) 213-5571
Also, reach out to Comrade Easley using the contact info he like many of our would appreciate the concerns, and love from us on the outside to stay the course, and not get discouraged in his Daily Struggle.
David Easley #A306400
PO Box 80033
Toledo, OH 43608
Anarchist Bank Robber and Prisoner, Giannis Dimitrakis Healing from Attack
the following was received from comrades at 1431 AM in Thessaloniki, Greece, a fellow member of the A-Radio Network. We had hoped to feature an interview they would facilitate with Giannis Dimitrakis for June 11th, however you’ll see why this hasn’t been possible. We hope he heals up quickly and would love to air that interview for the Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners in August:
On 24/5, our comrade, a political prisoner, the anarchist Giannis Dimitrakis was transported to the hospital of Lamia, seriously injured after the murderous attack he suffered in Domokou prison. G. Dimitrakis barely survived the the attack, and the blows he received caused multiple hematomas in the head, affecting basic functions of his brain. A necessary condition for the full recovery of the partner is the complete and continuous monitoring of him in a specialized rehabilitation center by specialist doctors and therapists.
In this crucial condition, the murderous bastards of the New Democracy government, M. Chrysochoidis, Sofia Nikolaou and their subordinates decide on Thursday June 3rd to transfer Giannis back to Domokos prison and even to a solitary confinement cell, supposedly for his health. Transferring our comrade there, with his brain functions in immediate danger, is for us a second attempt to kill him. Domokos prison does not meet in the slightest the conditions for the treatment and recovery of a prisoner in such a serious condition.
Αs a solidarity movement in general, we are again determined not to leave our comrade’s armor in their blood-stained hands. Nothing should be left unanswered, none of the people in charge of the ever-intensifying death policy that they unleash should be left out of our sights.
Immediate transfer of our partner to a specialized rehabilitation center
Hands down from political prisoners
Solidarity and strength to the anarchist fighter G. Dimitrakis
This is an invitation to engage June 11 in solidarity with Giannis Dimitrakis. On June 9th there will be a solidarity demo in Exarchia, Athens at 7pm!
Host 1: Would you please introduce yourselves and maybe who you are, what projects you’re working on and what experience you have with anti repression prisoner support work.
Cameron: My name is Cameron. I live in St. Louis. I’ve been doing prisoner support stuff for to varying degrees for the last 10 or so years. Having letter writing nights, fundraising for commissary stuff, sending in newsletters to jails and prisons.
Veera: I’m Veera. This is the biggest anti-repression prisoner support project that I’m a part of, or the longest running one. But similar to Cameron, I’ve been doing some support work for prisoners for probably the last 9 or 10 years, and have just maintained pen pals with several different prisoners across the states. And currently in southern Ontario, there are prisons, like across the region, that are on hunger strike, for different reasons, especially in regards to the pandemic and how they’ve been treated. And so I’ve been plugging into some of the hunger strike support work here. But yeah, also still getting acquainted with how projects are done here in this new place that I live.
Earthworm: Okay, my name is Earthworm from Atlanta, and I work with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and the protester jail support team, and Cop Watch of East Atlanta. And we’ve got a lot of protester support experience because our friends have been getting arrested for years at different protests. So we turned it into something that has scaled way, way up, of course, particularly in the last year with the George Floyd uprisings.
Jeremy Hammond: Well, you know me, my name is Jeremy Hammond. I was recently released from federal prison several months ago. And I’ve been involved for most of my adult life. And since my release, I’ve just kind of been slowly getting my feet wet and seeing what my involvement would be most appropriate. And I’m also here with my brother-
Jason Hammond: Jason Hammond, that’s my voice right here. I’m his brother. And yeah, I’m a longtime supporter of Jeremy. But I’m also of course involved in on the ground protests related movements. One group that I’m a volunteer for is the Chicago Community Bond Fund. It’s a bond fund that has been involved in prison abolition struggles, most notably the George Floyd, Black Lives Matter uprising last year. We did a lot of work for political prisoners during these uprisings too.
Host 2: Can you tell us more about the role of your projects in uprising anti-repression, and some of the prisoners you’re supporting, or talk about examples of political coordination and action with other prisoners that might give the audience a sense of the agency of folks behind bars?
C: Well, I mean, in 2014, a group of us started supporting folks who got locked up during the Ferguson uprising, and it kind of came out of desire to not ignore, but actually just like, actively promote the reality that the folks that were participating were engaged in risky and creative and destructive actions, like looting, or shooting guns and arson. And we kept seeing a lot of people fall through the cracks in 2014, like in terms of getting support from like the, “movement”. So we just really wanted to make sure that folks got some kind of support. And so a lot of the people that were participating weren’t really like a part of a movement per se, like they weren’t like in an activist organization, or they weren’t organizers, they were kind of articulating themselves outside of that. And so we just felt like that was really important to see and acknowledge because, yeah, there were people that have gone away for, are now in prison for like five plus years, some people because of what they did.
And like there’s all sorts of narratives by nonprofits and activists, that the people who are like doing the heavier stuff were hurting the movement or kind of a part of a conspiracy of outsiders or criminals. And it felt like that kind of narrative was just reproducing the same that caused this moment, this uprising. This sort of demonization of people, this sort of keeping people in their place, ignoring the fact that people have agency and ability to like refuse to be victimized by systems that want to kill them or hurt them. And I’ve personally just felt like I was very frustrated to not see that narrative promoted or like accepted. That was kind of the big reason why I got involved in supporting folks.
To go back to like nonprofit stuff, like a lot of those folks weren’t really seeing what was happening right in front of them. This was an uprising that was extremely combative against not just the police, but also private property and with the authority of a lot of people who want to keep things the way they are. And people from all walks of life just coming to this situation, and like getting wrapped up in it, and like getting arrested, and like doing things that were dangerous, and not really talked about, and like a legible, easily palatable story. That was just a very hard thing to watch. Having gone through my own legal issues, through going through courts for years, and being arrested a bunch of times, and just like knowing how shitty that is to experience and how like grueling it is to go from one continuance to another. And I knew I had people who had my back, and people who would come to my court dates, and I just wanted to return that as well to other people.
V: Yeah, I can maybe just talk a little bit more about the specifics of the project that Cameron and I are a part of, as far as like the prisoners that we are supporting. They are just from a compilation of a list that we compiled from just mailing letters to people who got arrested during the Ferguson uprising. People from all walks of life and in that neighborhood, and not necessarily people that we could say that we were like politically aligned with, because it might even be safe to say that all of the people that we are supporting when we started supporting them wouldn’t necessarily have aligned themselves with any sort of politics.
Yeah, we sent letters and just said, basically, if they were willing to, we would put them on this public list — which is the list on AntistateSTL — put their images out there and their mailing addresses, and thereby making it easier for people across the country to support them. And so that list we’ve maintained, or someone has maintained, over the years. We had, I think 11 people at one point, and now it’s down to, oh gosh, like 5 or 6 maybe? Because people have gotten out just specifically from that list of folks, there’s two people that I spend a lot of time in communication with them and their families and have visited and everything. And one of them actually, Cameron was alluding to this, but you know, people would get arrested in Ferguson for doing a lot of what a lot of people were doing, which was looting and destruction of property and everything, and one of the guys that I support was arrested for those things and then because of priors, whenever he was sentenced, he actually got a sentence of 60 years. So he’s gonna be in for the rest of his life. So that’s like a very long term. In some ways that to me is like very mind blowing and it’s a very good example of the people that were acting in the streets weren’t always people that we were familiar with their lifestyle, or familiar with the risks that they were taking.
E: So we ran jail support for anybody that was arrested and were doing prisoner support for anybody who is stuck in jail, because they were denied bail or because they’re unfortunately, sent to prison. So we’ve provided all sorts of support for arrested folks.
Jeremy: All right, well, certainly my experience in prison, you have a wide variety of individuals who are locked up, many of which have become politicized in prison. And so they see someone who is locked up on a case such as mine with support from political movements on the outside people know that I’m an anarchist, and a prison abolition is right? And a lot of people are very curious about this. Right? Because of all the experiences in their own lives having been repressed by the criminal justice system.
As far as examples of coordination there’s unfortunately, like, prison they want to bury you, right? They want to prevent you from communicating to the outside world, to receive information of what’s going on in the outside world. And so the work that’s being done on the outside, such as everything from books to prisoners, to the support at people’s court dates and stuff, to having noise demonstrations outside the jail, really gets people who are curious about what’s going on. And so for an example, like I would regularly receive zines and newsletters from ABC and other organizations, right, which are very useful in discussing things that we would otherwise only have access to, like – say for example, something on the news, we would only receive information about what’s going on with the George Floyd uprising, the Michael Brown uprising, based on what was in the news, right? But now we have additional materials to share and discuss as a focus of discussions. For example newsletters from actual movement stuff itself.
And so when people see like the jail demonstrations outside the jail, when people see that there’s people attending each one of your court rooms, that they know that there’s kind of a camaraderie, a sense of loyalty and commitment to something. It kind of brings like prisoners together that we’re not just alone, that we’re, there’s a continuum of resistance, and each of our stories plays a part in that.
Jason: So this is Jason speaking right now, I can talk about my experiences with the Chicago Community bond fund. Just a little back history: this is a bond fund that was organized in response to the uprisings in Chicago against the Chicago police scandal, the murder of Laquan McDonald. There were a large movement, which included a number of arrests to protest the cover up of the murder. And so people had raised a good amount of money to bond out the resistors, the protesters, and in the wake of that it basically coalesced into a movement of an organization that tried to address you know, the problems of the prison system, the Cook County Jail, the mass incarceration project. It was an abolitionist project so we started just working with the community, bonding out people’s family, loved ones, friends, and all that, basically as much as we could try to empty the jail out. This was, I think, around like 2016.
Fast forward to the George Floyd uprising, the organization had been long a supporter of the BLM movement, and when this had happened the organization had definitely stepped up to do everything they possibly could within the organization, to not just bond out the protesters, and the activists but of course the larger community that was involved in, let’s say, property distribution, looting, breaking property, destruction. They stated clearly on that stance, which, in fact, BLM Chicago as well had made a stance to support people involved in the looting.
So we, every day, we’d be out bonding people from Cook County Jail. Sometimes, I personally would go up with a list of like 10 people in the jail, just bonding as many people as we possibly could, as well as trying to amplify and elevate the struggles of other organizations working to change the system. Yeah, this is one thing that’s Chicago Bond Fund had been doing in 2020. And we’re still doing it, you know. We also had a campaign to change the, basically end money bail type law in Illinois. It’s said it’s an “end money bail” but of course felonies and a little bit less palatable type charges, like violent charges or domestic charges, are not bailable, but these are details in the bond bill. But it’s still a pretty good bill the Pretrial Fairness Act, passed in Illinois because of our grassroots shit.
However, there’s still plenty of other challenges beyond the fact, about money for example, the campaign was “end money bail”, right? However, there’s all kinds of other, like compounding details that would allow a person to get what they call a “no bond”. For example, if they have two charges, they can be bond out for the first one, but for the second one in light of the fact that they were already on bond, they could have just be given what they call a “no bond” so that they’re still in there, no matter how expensive their bond is or depending on what kind of charges. So for that reason, there’s still tons of people currently in Cook County Jail and you know, we are expecting the numbers to go down as the the law rolls out, expecting to kind of be fully implemented in two years, but we are we are going to still see a number of people still in the Cook County jail system, even though they are pre trial, just because of all kinds of other laws that would prevent someone from leaving, you know. A large part of this country do not want to see the changes that we were fighting for be implemented. And you know, I mean, all you have to do is just kind of look at the rhetoric and what their actions are, they’re pushing back in the legal sense as well.
Yeah, there’s a major political battle basically between the far right, the John Catanzara FOP CPD camp, as well as the state’s attorney Kim Fox, Lori Lightfoot. Kim Fox has been actually a pretty vocal support of the end money bail project. So like there’s there’s a political battle, of course, as well.
TFRS: Have you seen your support work change over time? For instance the progression from supporting someone through their initial arrest and bonding out, to serving a prison sentence or doing other follow up work with them if that’s not the case. Or if you were in prison, how did your needs change over time from the initial court support and folks showing up and fundraising for lawyers during the initial phase to like, maybe follow up?
C: Well, I mean, initially, we found all these people’s names from like media articles, like there’s a website in Missouri where you can just like find all the court records of cases and so we just kind of like comb through all those and sent letters to them and stuff. And as folks started getting sentenced, some were incarcerated in prisons, other people were given time served because they’d been in jail the whole time and weren’t bailed out. So then the focus shifted from doing like court support, to like, just letter writing and some amount of fundraising when we could. So like just trying to fundraise for putting money on their books, or like maybe some of us have steady work or whatever, so we give $10-$20 a month to one person each at this point, if that’s where it’s at for the folks, at least for me, for the folks that are still locked up. And a few folks have been released in the last couple years. We kind of always tried to check in with them when they’re about to get released, like if they need anything, like, “here’s what we can offer”. It’s a pretty small group, we don’t, we’re not like an actual, like, organization, we just kind of run on our own capacity, but we try to help people when they get released a little bit. And I’ve maintained communication with at least one person pretty steadily who’s been released and we’re actually friends.
But yeah, basically, it’s been so long, I mean, 2014 is so long ago, and people who, a lot of these people like maybe they were in prison, and they got out…there was never an effort to convert somebody to like some political sway, or like political ideology. It was always just sort of like, you were a participant, and we would want the same if we were locked up. So because of that, like, a lot of times, there’s still a connection, but also people have their own lives. And they can move on or they like, have their struggles. I guess I bring that up, because yeah, just to sort of talk about the capacity that we have, as individuals, trying to do this and how we’re not a charity, we’re not a nonprofit or social workers. So we’re kind of trying to meet people where they’re at and have a more down to earth relationship. And if it leads to more of a friendship, then great, if it doesn’t, that’s not the point of it, or whatever.
V: I would, I would echo a lot of that. Honestly, like that progression, I guess, of what our support work looked like at times, I would even say was a bit awkward and clunky. Without this baseline of “we are anarchists” or “we are radicals and therefore we act it during this uprising”, I think it was a bit unclear for both the folks that were locked up and their support networks as to who we were, you know. We’re not social workers, we’re not like an activist organization with a bunch of money coming in, you know. We have a little website on noblogs.org. And we’re kind of you know, as far as this group is made up of now, I think there’s like two people left in St. Louis, who are still there and still active in it and the rest of us are, are all over.
So it’s rather like a disjointed and kind of a funny, awkward conversation to have at times where I’m talking to one of the guys that I support, his name is Alex and I had to have like several conversations with Alex’s mom to kind of like, get her to understand who I was, and that I wasn’t like someone who was going to help place her son in a job once he got out. I was just someone who was going to make sure that her son was looked after and not forgotten about and if something needed to happen where he needed his caseworker to be bothered about some piece of mail, or if he wasn’t getting shoes or something, then I was the person that was going to call and do that. And those sorts of things. I think that we had to be willing to kind of have those awkward conversations with people. And I think that for the most part, that’s been fine. You know, at worst, it’s awkward but we have been able to raise money and get people, when they get released, we’ve been able to give them phones and clothing and help them feel cared for in small ways. And I think that that’s a really important piece of what we do.
Host2: Earthworm, can you tell us about Atlanta?
E: I guess when we started doing jail support work, it was more on the fly in response to arrests happening. It was just kind of catch as catch can, you know. Somebody would be in jail and they’d need $4,000 to go to a bail bondsman to cover their $40,000 bail and we would need to come up with just by calling all our friends. Scrambling to put somebodys rent money up and hope that somebody could pay him back by the time rents due. And we realized in doing that, we needed a more organized, and we needed a bail fund. So in 2016, we started collecting money for that. And sometimes when people get arrested, it makes a lot of news and a bunch of donations roll in. And sometimes you’re able to even set some aside and have that for the next set of arrests. And of course, sometimes more expensive than the amount you bring in.
So we sort of struggled along through a whole series of different protests. And then in the George Floyd uprising, we were fortunate enough that we already were established. And we had that we had a website, and we had this long history of being able to bail out protesters, so we were sort of already a trusted group. And we were able to be really central in that effort and got way more donations than we were used to. But of course, also way more arrests than we’re used to. But with the donations, we were able to cover a lot more of the protesters’ needs. So whereas before, the money had just been very strictly for bail and hiring lawyers we’ve been able to do things like pay everybody’s fines and fees, and pay for medical costs and pay for other incidental things like a babysitter, if you need to go to court. Other things we would never have been able to afford before.
And the other thing that is very blessed that changed is we no longer have a cap to the amount of bail that we’re able to post, because before we had money, we didn’t want to blow it on one protesters. So if you were in there, on $40,000 bail or bond, we could only cover a portion of that, and then we would have to scramble to fundraise the rest of it.
So in the early stages, even before arrests happened when we hear about a protest getting set up. So that arrest might happen, we get the jail support team together and start scheduling who’s going to be available for the 36 hours after the protests if arrests go down. So we’ve got our phones people who have a physical cell phone, because that’s all you can call from jail, and they take turns carrying that and one phone person will bring it to the next person when their turn is over. We scheduled people to do arrestee tracking, which is finding out who’s been arrested, finding them in the jail system and keeping track of them to figure out when they are able to be bailed out, and then getting them bailed out and getting people to meet them they’re at the jail when they’re out. And then once they’re out, that is when court support takes over. And that’s everything from keeping track of when their court dates are and sending them reminders to finding lawyers and helping getting people there to their court dates, and whatever sort of support they need while their court cases going on. And then once their court case is over, there’s follow up hopefully they don’t go to prison or anything but there may be support to do as far as helping them if there’s going to be a civil lawsuit, helping them find lawyers for that, or helping them with whatever kind of evidence gathering or whatever support they need with that. Of course, they may have fines and fees to pay or like ankle monitor fees and that’s all stuff that fortunately now we’re able to afford.
Or unfortunately sometimes people go to prison. And then it’s time for prisoner support, which we do also to the people who are denied bail and they’re sitting in jail waiting for their trial to happen, of which we’ve got about eight in Atlanta. So that means writing the letters. And they also have the phone number so the same phone people who are doing the intake calls the night that people get arrested are also hearing from the long term prisoners, and just figuring out what support they need. Ideally, everybody who’s sitting in jail has their whole support crew of friends and family and whatever supporters, and those support crews can coordinate with each other and with the solidarity funds to make sure everybody’s getting what they need. Failing that, the jail support team just needs to act as a support crew for each prisoner. Meaning that the only number they’re calling is the jail support phone and the jail support phone people are communicating with the prisoner support people at large, who aren’t like the prisoner support for a particular individual and just saying you know, “so and so wants this kind of books can anybody volunteer to send them that” or “so and so is not receiving medical attention, and we need to get everybody we know to call the jail and pressure them to let him see a doctor”, and, and so on like that.
Host 2: Oh my gosh, it sounds like y’all really got that figured out *laughs sweetly*
E: *laughing* Well, I think it’s a process of figuring it out on an ongoing basis. I appreciate you saying that. But I definitely don’t think anybody feels like we haven’t figured.
Jeremy: This is Jeremy. So certainly the arrest and pretrial support work is very crucial. It’s very different than say post conviction, post sentencing. First, I think we just need to listen to the particular circumstances and needs of each person and their charge. But also recognize that since we’re talking about groups and waves of repression, all the circumstances are also linked. In particular, somebody who’s facing charges often can’t openly talk in detail about like, what they’re particularly being charged with. So I think it kind of does rely on support communities to kind of — it’s a political battle, because they want to, like build support for the individual, but also like, build support for the particular so called “crimes” that they’ve been accused of, if it’s like a direct action that they’re currently in prison for. So the way the public narrative goes the way of, in support of what the prosecution’s characterization of the crimes are, right. Like if say, some of the actions over the past couple years, and the uprisings involve various arsons, and property destruction. Well, I think it’s important these groups are doing support work, not just support the individual and whatever the particular legal strategy is, like, say they’re innocent, or whatever, but also support the actual crimes themselves. We had to legitimize the act itself to the public.
And then of course, post-conviction hopefully. I think it makes a difference the amount of time in the in the whole negotiation process, the charges, like the prosecutors are willing to offer up does make a difference if they believe that the person being prosecuted is in isolation, versus if they’re part of a movement, and the prosecutor strategy is also different, and then be more willing to make like better deals or make concessions, that would be a better outcome for the individual.
And then, of course, post-conviction & post-sentencing, you want to give a voice to someone who’s now freely able to speak. The other thing is, as the person’s time draws to a conclusion, and they’re about to be released, the needs also change. That you want to make sure that somebody has every opportunity to make it upon the release, especially long term prisoners, like their ease of adapting. And fortunately I can say that, like they’ve taken care of me throughout my entire bid. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the various groups that came out and supported me. And because of that, I had a pretty easy transition when I was released people came and picked me up from the jail, people were bringing me stuff at the halfway house. You know, my brother and friends made sure that I had a place to stay, you know.
So these types of things help ease the transition I mean, because otherwise, the state will just kick you out and basically hope that you fail again. And so it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Host 1: Yeah, and that, but on that point, it especially when a person’s been inside for decades — like a decade is a long fucking time — but if someone’s been in for 30 years, like the amount of change that’s occurred during that period of time, the amount of loss of loved ones…
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah, it’s truly shocking. Especially the cultural changes, the changes in the city. You know, people might not…everything is technology, people definitely have difficulty adapting to how people apply for jobs and people secure housing and stuff like that is all different now.
J11: So there have been 1000’s of people arrested during the George Floyd uprising last year, over 300 federal cases and innumerable state felony cases. So given your experience, what can we be doing now to prevent and prepare for those uprising defendants, some of them serving time in prison, Cameron and Veera?
C: To me? It feels kind of inevitable. Part of it feels hard to prevent people from acting – or not…that’s not the question, but like, prevent, repression feels hard because uprisings are often just sort of like, they’re super spontaneous and people like who don’t necessarily consider surveillance or security culture like maybe some of us do. Or anarchists or radicals do are going to get get caught up in like the repression and I guess ideally it would be a matter of trying to like, really push for people to like, be aware of, if like a surveillance camera can see you or be aware of like, the risk that you’re taking, but also like, in some ways, having that kind of, sort of awareness can actually kind of placate you. So it’s sort of a hard balance to figure out how to kind of prevent avoidable repression. Because yeah, people are going to do what they’re gonna do. And like, I think, at least having that baseline of that’s what’s gonna happen is like, where I start from.
V: I think it’s very hard to know how to talk about what prevention looks like. We have our experience, and especially having gone through Ferguson, and especially like the repression support work, post Ferguson, we can look at that and say, “okay, we know how bad this can get, so let’s keep this from happening”. But then how do you do that? Like, how do you like, make those connections in the moment.
I can remember a moment last summer, during one of the demos, the George Floyd demos that happened, and I was… So I was hyper aware of everyone that wouldn’t have their faces covered. And so I’m running around and I’m a white woman, who’s in my 30s, running around telling people to cover their faces, and they feel invincible in the moment they feel like, “nothing’s gonna stop me, nothing, no one’s stopping me right now. Like, what do I care?” And here I am running around, telling them all to cover their faces, and they’re looking at me, like, “no, get away from me, this isn’t your moment!” You know? And, and then like, some ways, it’s like yeah, that’s true. And, like, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna stop you and say, “Look, I know how this goes I know how this ends and start telling them…” the answer is no, I’m not gonna do that. But I think that is part of what we can do show up to these things with just bandanas to hand out, you know.
And as far as preparation, I don’t know, I thought about that. But I think that the model of what this support group is doing, find a small group of people — and we are, we’re a small group of people that are just willing to say, “Okay, these 11 people, we’re gonna make sure they’re taken care of.” And I think if you can form groups like that, and just kind of trust each other to do the bottom line for some of these people that are getting locked up, I think that that can be a really good start.
E: Number one thing, I think we need to be educating everybody that we can about not talking to police, and doing other security culture measures to keep ourselves from going to jail in the first place. You know, as far as educating people about wearing masks and security cameras, and just taking precautions, about things that could get somebody in trouble, not talking about illegal things that somebody could get in trouble for, not posting sketchy stuff on social media. Not talking to the cops, or anybody who might talk to the cops.
And when I say “not talking to the cops”, like not saying anything to the cops, other than “I’m going to remain silent, I want to see a lawyer, or am I being detained? Am I free to go?”, or “I don’t consent to a search”. And that is it, as far as what anybody should say to police. So I think holding trainings and holding them for as many people as we can, particularly because we’re getting lots of brand new people who aren’t used to being protesters is going to save a ton of money, countless hours, and misery in terms of people going to jail, and potentially prison later on. Because it’s so heartbreaking when you hear about somebody didn’t know that they shouldn’t talk to the cops, or they didn’t know that they had the right to not talk to cops, and they’ve just threw away what power they had to protect themselves.
Or I guess you could say, conversely, when we hear about people who did get that training, and did know to keep their mouth shut, and were able to tell their friends to keep their mouth shut, that prevents them from going to jail. And that is a huge relief. You know, when we hear from people, and they’re like, “Oh, no, I didn’t say anything to the cops! You think I’m crazy?”. That’s just like a choir of angels singing.
Jeremy: So first off, as with everything, it’s important that you think through your actions before you carry them out. And I think it’s also important to look at the history of cases and to see how people got caught and the mistakes people have made. So the way we don’t repeat the same mistakes so that way, we don’t keep this ongoing cycle of arrests and incarceration. We obviously want to reduce the numbers of people captured by the state.
Jason: This is Jason now. Yeah so obviously, “don’t get caught” is the ongoing lesson that we’re trying to learn. Secondly, we can’t forget, we have to keep the momentum up for people who are facing charges, we have to demand their charges be dropped in whatever form we can we can be writing letters, we could do petitions, we could be doing protests, we could be doing rallies, we could be doing letter writing parties, we could organize our own letter writing chapters, we could organize our own prisoner support chapters. So there’s all kinds of things that we could be doing and are doing to kind of keep the momentum up.
This is a pretty unique moment where you’re still in the wake of where the largest uprisings of many people’s lives, and there is a lot of energy ready to be harvested to kind of push the abolition our work forward, as well as change the system. So the people who are arrested trying to fight the power, to change the system, they really need to be supported if we agree with their goals. So let’s, let’s do everything we can to keep the momentum going on. And you know, people are exploring new ways of doing this.
Host 1: So one of the big things with long term prisoner support that June 11th is trying to address is not letting these people be forgotten. As interest in detention from last summer is already greatly decreased. what can we do to ensure energy and support lasts as long as the effects of the repression will.
C: For me it’s important to be like unapologetic about what people do, or for people to be like, “yes, people engaged in collective and individual actions that were incredibly threatening to the State and Capital and then they get caught”. So it’s like, it is being unapologetic about it is sort of giving people a sense of agency in their actions, as opposed to kind of seeing folks as they became, I mean, obviously, people became victims of state repression, but like, they were resisting, being repressed in day to day life, or oppressed in day to day life. And I guess just like putting it that way can help me kind of see the reality of it, and for lack of a better word, like humanize people.
For instance I think last summer, people were actually coming out in support of looting. Like, that wasn’t happening in 2014. That was a very hard position to hold. And I think it still is in a lot of circles today, but it was very exciting to me because it helps people see the people that are doing that, and create this sort of contagious effect of “Oh, people who are doing that are doing that for a variety of reasons and they deserve to be supported if they get arrested”, that deserves to be spread, and not just throw it under the rug. Because I think if you do that, then you lose the essence throwing the fact that there’s looting, throwing the fact that there’s lots of burning going on, the fact that there’s a fair amount of combative gunfire in the air, just all sorts of creative stuff going on sort of gives a lot of dimension to these uprisings. And I think people can see themselves better in that than they can see themselves in like a more civil disobedience sort of narrative that often just completely erases that. Just talking about it in that way and just like, again, just being unapologetic.
We want to build a different world or live in a different world and the way we get to that is dangerous, but also can be very empowering and exciting and incredibly worthwhile. And the more people who are unapologetic about it, who are like “I support all these combative actions”, the more to me it’s on people’s minds, and the less likely it can be swept under the rug.
V: Yeah, I think that’s the move that we see, or like this boundary pushing of an acceptable narrative. I think that we can participate in that as anarchists and as actors in these rebellious moments. I don’t always know how to push those narratives of the boundary shifting. You know, social media has never been my strong suit, but I think that there are ways to take it to social media and push those things. You know, as the nonviolent protesters and the police were the big bad and “we weren’t doing anything wrong” sort of thing, that’s when we saw some of the people that we supported sort of get forgotten, you know? And I think that that’s changed. That was different last summer, and that the repression support is going to look different because of that.
I think that’s great. I think that there’s still more work to do. And I think that we can be a part of that work. Again, I don’t always know how, I think having those conversations. Just from my personal example, I know that every one of my family was very confused about my participation and Ferguson stuff. Last summer, half of my family was in the streets after dark. And I think in part because of the conversations that we were having, and the ways that things started to be more acceptable, and more people were willing to confront this discomfort.
E: Wow, that is a tough one. I think that’s something that long term prisoners experienced widely, you know? You get a lot of support in the first couple years and then once you’re in there for a few years, the world keeps going and kind of starts to pass you by, and it’s just heartbreaking to think about people in there, wondering if anybody still cares about them. And you know, getting those letters that are just such a precious lifeline when you’re in there, and getting them less and less often. That’s got to be a desperate feeling. I think anybody who hasn’t experienced that, we probably don’t understand just how much of a lifeline that support from the outside is.
So I think trying to communicate that to people, and talk about prisoner support as a core antirepression effort. I think it often gets overlooked as sort of one of the unsexy grunt work things. And it’s kind of hard to write letters, there’s some social anxiety there, people don’t know what to say. But just getting that to be more of a core part of all of our efforts. It’s a mutual aid effort, because you and I, one day, are very likely to end up doing some time. You know, if we’re effective at what we’re trying to do and I hope we are, it’s extremely likely that they’re going to come after us. So setting up these efforts and promoting them as “this is an important part of the antirepression work that we do”, supporting prisoners could directly benefit us one day, and will definitely benefit our community.
So, and I think that there are a lot more opportunities to do prisoner support but it’s kind of overlooked as an activity. Because I frequently run into people who say “I don’t have a lot of consistent time but I’m able to do something here and there, what kind of work do you recommend?”, and I’m like “write a prisoner. You can do that on your own, you can do it kind of at work, or whenever you get a few minutes, it’s totally independent”. And it is such a lifeline for that person. And it’s a way to directly help, you know? Cuz there’s so much that we do that is kind of planting seeds for the future, or just hoping that one day it’ll bring about revolutionary change — which this, I think, again, is a big important piece of doing the prisoner support — but it also directly means so much to a specific individual, that you can see the difference that it makes.
So, talking to people who need guidance about how they can contribute, and who maybe want to work independently, maybe can’t leave the house, don’t have good transportation aren’t able to come to meetings, this is something that you can do from home, that you can do entirely by yourself. If you’re not able to risk arrest, or if you’re not able to physically keep up with a march, you can keep in touch with a prisoner, you can write them. If you hate writing letters you can get a JPay account and send emails, that’s a lot easier. You can put money on your phone account and let them call you. Or you can, some jails and prisons have the like video visits thing, you can do any of that. Once again, I don’t think we can even really understand how important it is for them to know that there’s somebody out there that they can count on, that they can reach out to if they’re in a desperate situation.
I think another big barrier to people’s willingness to begin writing a prisoner is uncertainty about how much time they can commit to it and not wanting to start off strong and then kind of leave the prisoner hanging, which is an important concern. But I would say you know, if you can only do one letter every six months, be upfront about that. But if you can only do one letter as a one time thing, just be truthful about that, and set the expectations realistic. And whatever you can do is incredibly meaningful.
Host 2: And for you, Jeremy?
Jeremy: Well, certainly the work that people have done with June 11th have brought attention to like anarchist and Earth Liberation prisoners who have experienced long amounts of time behind bars and they have not been forgotten and their stories aren’t over either. As far as the cycle of oppression and arrests and incarceration and how do we avoid burnout, and how do we ensure energy and stuff like that: I think one of the big things is we need to realize that we have the capability of winning. That this isn’t just an ongoing cycle that’s going to repeat forever. We believe that we will win, we believe that there is going to be a moment that we could overturn the system. Abolition is mainstream discourse now so we just need to keep the pressure up and keep it going and keep chipping away at the armor of the system.
Of course avoid arrests I mean as much as possible, and bring attention to the people who have unfortunately fell into the dragnet. But I think one of the other things I liked about the work that people have done around June 11th is that it kept people who are behind bars involved, to the extent possible. And really as someone who’s been behind bars and who has been following the June 11th stuff…we want to see people continue the work that we’ve been doing. Even though we might not have all the details, we don’t need to know all the details.
Jason: Yeah. So, I mean, there were 1000’s of arrests last year. It’s summertime now, they say that somewhat the interest has waned in protesting, people wanting to go back to normal, whatever, but I don’t see it that way. I see plenty of people still willing to take the fight. And so let’s get creative, let’s see what new kinds of things we could do. Let’s keep the struggle up, keep amplifying. Like my brother said we do believe we could win, and we do believe that we have made a lot of changes just within the last year. Let’s see how far we can take it.
Host 2: What could it look like to have more connection between long term political or politicized prisoners, and activity and resistance in the streets and elsewhere?
C: Part of my impetus for being involved in the Ferguson prisoner support group, or whatever, is just kind of trying to encourage a culture of solidarity. Especially in a way that tries to cross all sorts of cultural and subcultural divides, whether that be like racial or gender, or class, whatever. Just trying to see how we can fortunately, and unfortunately, have this moment where — especially during an uprising — we’re not following an easy script. Because day to day life is extremely segregated, it’s extremely…it can feel pretty isolating going through day to day life, going to work, going to school, raising your family, whatever. And being just in that baseline, and then whenever that kind of gets shook up a little bit, it’s an opportunity if you have a certain perspective to try to bridge, or break out of, that sort of stalemate.
I think with the prisoner support stuff, it’s always felt important to me to try to meet people where they’re at to have a variety of folks from all sorts of disparate or common situations and just have more perspective. And I love trying to foster situations or moments or being in moments where that is a little more uninhibited, or more relaxed. So like, how do you do that outside of these ideal — and they’re not even really ideal, there’s all sorts of terrible things that happen in uprisings as well, I don’t want to romanticize that if I can — but it is a thing where, yeah, it feels a little looser and easier. So like, how do you do that when it’s over? How do you foster a culture of solidarity of mutual aid that continues to break down like separations? I think we’re always between a rock and a hard place with this, but I think, especially in this case, writing folks, after the uprising ends, ideally, it can help create a sense that “Oh, if this happens to a friend, maybe I would do the same thing”.
Maybe they would have always done the same thing. Because obviously people have their own support networks. But like, maybe us doing that kind of helps spark an idea that like, “oh, if somebody is in trouble, or if somebody is having a hard time because of state repression or because of work, or all sorts of struggles, I can do something too. Or I can call these people who helped me in the past, and we can do something about it”.
So that’s the ideal that I have of doing this project, and even on a practical level, having more support inside and outside of prison walls and jails is helpful. Like if one of us happens to go to prison or jail, we might know somebody in there, somebody you connected with who’s like out, who is released who might be like, “Oh, yeah, I got a buddy in this jail or this prison that you’re going to and it might help you out”. Kind of not the most empowering thing, but it’s like, again, it’s like you’re between a rock and a hard place and these situations…or ultimately I want to like break out of having to think about that, but I think it’s a great place to start.
V: Yeah, it’s I feel similar to Cameron. There’s parts of this that just feel tough to answer, especially regarding the prisoner support work that we’re doing with people who I don’t know that they would identify as political prisoners. But maybe something that I have learned from this and from them is I was kind of talking about the awkwardness of making the connection at first, and then sort of allowing that to just be what it was. Like, “I’m here, and I know you because of this thing, because we were acting at the same time in the same place for a lot of the same reasons” and then sort of seeing where that takes us. And because these guys are not political prisoners, or “political prisoners“, it’s taken me and our relationship in all sorts of places. And I think that that’s been a beautiful way to connect. It’s opened up like my eyes to a lot of the different day to day oppression that some of these people have been living through, and that they’re sort of like allowing me to see into their life me as someone who they wouldn’t have allowed that, before all of this.
And I think that that’s been a really beautiful piece that’s come out of this, because we sort of open it up for connection to happen in all sorts of ways that don’t really hinge on “let’s read this radical text together and have a book club about it”, but it looks different. And then suddenly George Floyd uprising happened, and I’m getting emails and phone calls from them, where they’re just talking to me about how this is inspiring them from the inside and how they’re talking to people, their other inmates inside about why they acted in the way that they did and suddenly you see this fire again, and then you get to be inspired by that with them. And I think that a lot of that is because we allowed for a more open connection, and then we’re allowed to go down this path with them. I think our connection with these guys is a bit different but it’s still one that I continue to feel inspired by.
J11: How about you, Earthworm?
E: Again, I think staying in touch with people is the very ground level of that. Writing to those folks and for their advice and their input. Atlanta ABC runs a newsletter that we send out to probably about 250 prisoners, mostly in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast, that’s mostly written by them: they’ll receive the newsletter and we put a ask for contributions in it, and then they’ll mail us and we type it up and get it in the next newsletter. And staying in touch that way at least they’re connected in with what’s going on, they’re getting news about whatever the revolutionary struggles are, and they’re able to give their input. They’re able to lend support to people who are facing charges, who might go to prison, because they obviously have the clearest idea of how to handle that, and how to keep that in perspective, you know? If you’re facing a little bit of time, being in touch with someone who’s doing a lot of time can be very helpful.
We also publish prisoners writings on the Anarchist Black Cross website. And when they are engaging with something that’s going on in the moment, we’ll publish that more widely kind of spread that to other news sources to keep them engaged that way. I think the other part of that is to hear from them about what struggles are going on inside the prisons, and connect the people who are working on the outside to lend support to those things. So, if people are being brutalized in there, or there’s some horrible racist guard who’s harassing particular inmates, or behaving badly in general, we on the outside are able to bring pressure on that as a result of maintaining this connection with the long term prisoner. There are eyes and ears on the outside.
Jeremy: Certainly like the world we’re building is a world without prisons and we want everybody to be freed unconditionally, regardless of their particular circumstance. We support political prisoners and prisoners of war, but we also support politicized prisoners, we also support prisoners of everything, you know? So, often though, like the state will target political cases as like a canary in the coal mine type situations, where they use new legal techniques to go after political prisoners that, if successful, they’ll generalize. But the same works both ways too. They’ll also use tactics to target segments of the population that they think nobody will rush to defend either for that matter. And so it’s important that we’re fighting for all different types of cases and not letting the state get away with anything.
As far as encountering each other we need to keep up sending physical newsletters into the prisons, sending books to people in prison, doing radio shows on radio networks that have reach within prison, the jail demos and stuff like that. You would be very surprised at the long term reach that some of these actions happen. Like, for example, like when I was being transferred around a couple years ago with the grand jury Virginia thing, right? I ran into somebody at the Oklahoma Transfer Center, right? And I thought he looked familiar, right? Then he came over, said something like “I remember you and Jerry were at New York, they were always having demonstrations outside the jail for you all”. And I was like, “Wow, that was like eight years ago”. But you never know, like, something like that can stick in people’s minds. And I think that has an effect on the mentality of people that “you are not alone, you’re not fighting this alone”, and that June 11th specifically, like, if you are questioning whether you want to be involved in something – first off you should always think your actions through — but know that if you do get in trouble the movement will have your back, will see you through this whole thing, that you’re not alone.
Host 1: Are there any last things that y’all want to add, any ways that people can follow your work or get into contact with the folks that you support?
C: People can go to antistatestl.noblogs.org there’s a tab on the website that says “Ferguson Related Prisoners” and that list is up to date as to who’s still locked up and who still wants some kind of support. There’s also a PayPal link for commissary donations, or release fund donations. People are also welcome just to directly send it to the folks inside themselves if they prefer that.
E: So the Atlanta jail support efforts is not just Atlanta people, lots of work is remote. So if you want to help out with our jail support efforts, we’ve got a mountain of work that needs to be done and we’d be delighted to plug you in and get you trained up to do that. Of course, there’s probably a similar effort in your area that you can get involved in with probably a little bit of googling. If you want to write to any of our long term prisoners, atljailsupport.org has an email that you can reach out to us on and we will plug you in and get you connected to one of them. Also atlblackcross.org is for not specifically protest related prisoners, but all prisoners who are now protesting the conditions of their confinement or protesting the system in general. And if you visit that site there are ways to write to them as well.
Jeremy: Alright, first, I want to pay my respects to the comrades behind bars who are still enduring this repression, the folks who are facing charges now who might have a journey in front of them still. I want to say: we got your back, we support what you’re doing, stay strong.
As far as the work me and my brother are doing, you all know that we do a podcast called Twin Trouble, you could check us out at twintrouble.net. As you all might know, I have several conditions of supervised release, which involves stuff about association with civil disobedience and a few of the things that make my involvement and stuff post a release is going to be difficult to navigate these conditions. Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance is there. I’m currently finding ways to become involved in a way that’s meaningful and safe for both myself and others. But so yeah, check us out on the podcast twintrouble.net we got a few other projects in the works, but I just want to show my appreciation to everybody who has had both me and my brothers back up until this point and the future is unwritten. So who knows what might come next.
IDOC Watch, Leon Benson and Abolitionist Organizing in Indiana
First, you’ll hear from Koby Bluitt talking about her father, Leon Benson and his struggle for release after 23 years in prison, 10 of which was in solitary confinement, for a murder charge in 1998 that he has consistently claimed to have not committed. More on Leon at freeleonbenson.org or leonbenson-freeleonbenson on facebook. The Mass Release & Clemency for Leon rally in Indianapolis is July 25th at Tarkington Park. [00:04:44]
Then, you’ll hear from Landis Reyonolds, a founder of IDOC Watch currently held in Westville Correctional Institution and who’s been in since he was a juvenile, and Ray, an outside organizer with the South Bend, Indiana chapter of IDOC Watch. They talk about their work to start study groups in prison, promote Prison Lives Matter, support jailhouse lawyers and recruit outside lawyers through the Prison Legal Support Network alongside the NLG and more. More info at IDOCWatch.Org or find them on twitter, instagram or fakebook. You can support them via their patreon as well! [00:38:08]
Join abolitionists on June 5th, 2021 at Chimborazo Park from 2-6pm for an Aboliton Assembly & BBQ, hosted by the VA Prison Abolition Collective and Prison Lives Matter. You can find that and more events across Turtle Island at ItsGoingDown’s Upcoming Events page.
Drop The Charges in PDX
The Portland Anti-Repression Defense League, or PADL, is launching a campaign to demand all charges from the 2020 BLM protests get dropped. You can find a link to the press release in the One Year Rebellion post of the IGD column, In Contempt. And you can contact the organizers at email@example.com.
International Solidarity with Palestinians
Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement and the Muslim-Jewish Anti-Fascist Front have called for weeks of actions in support of the people of Palestine under the title “International Solidarity Is The Weapon of the People.” We’d like to remind you that while occupied Palestine is no longer in the news as Hamas and Israel signed a ceasefire:
the everyday brutality of the blockade on Gaza has been going since 2007
Israeli courts, cops, military and settlers continue to displace and ethnically cleanse Palestinian Muslims, Jews, Christians, Atheists and others from the occupied territories as they have since the Nakba began
the US government ok’d more weapons sales to Israel during this recent assault that left dozens of Palestinian adults and children dead, destroyed water treatment, housing, media, medical and other infrastructure
Eric King & CLDC Are Suing BOP
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, on behalf of incarcerated antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King has filed a lawsuit about the ongoing cruelty and torture Eric has faced since he was incarcerated in 2014 for an act of sabotage in solidarity with the then-Uprising in Fergusson, MO, after the brutal murder of Mike Brown, Jr, by police. Eric cannot be abandoned or forgotten, notably since he’s in the crosshairs of the state and white supremacists for his anti-racist and anarchist views. You can find an announcement of the lawsuit at the CLDC website, you can find a great writeup on the situation by Natasha Leonard on The Intercept, and you can hear our interview with Eric and his partner from 2019 at our website.
Skelly of CLE4 In A Halfway House
Joshua “Skelly” Stafford, a part of the Cleveland 4, 4 young anarchist men recruited out of Occupy Cleveland and entrapped by a paid FBI informant into a conspiracy, was released to a halfway house recently. We are excited to see Skelly on his way to full release. Keep an ear out for more details and possible ways to support Skelly post-release.
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Printmatic (Instrumental) by Soul Position from 8 Million Stories
Innocent by Leon Benson / EL BENTLY 448 · MeachThaGod
Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk (instrumental) by Cypress Hill from Cypress Hill
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Koby: Bluitt:My name is Koby: . I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I am one of two children of innocent political prisoner Leon Benson. His other child is Leon Bluitt. So that is my younger brother. And I’m here speaking on his behalf and my experience, just want to thank you so much for having me here.
TFSR:Would you tell us about Leon Benson?
Koby: : He has been incarcerated in the state of Indiana for 23 years. So, to rewind, in 1999 he was sentenced to 60 years of which he has maintained his absolute innocence, despite the Indiana justice system’s refusal to grant him justice in its appellate courts. To touch on these different things that we’re trying to get through the appeal courts, they basically were able to convict him of mis-identification by the state sole witness, she changed her statement from the original statement that she had, they had him in custody, they wouldn’t even line him up when they wanted to do an actual lineup for her to be able to identify the person that she claimed that she had seen when she was there. Also, there was a new witness that was actually on the scene, and the testimony was never heard in court. And also, they have been not even accepting his appeals to even reconsider the case, even to reconsider any of the evidence because there’s not even DNA evidence, the sole eyewitness seen, she described him as a dark-skinned male, and he had on a certain amount of clothing. If you guys have ever seen my pops online, or ever checked out his website platforms, like my pops is nowhere near darker complexion. He is a very light, very light brown young man. And also the clothes did not match, the clothes that the actual police had locked him up in, when he was locked up on that night, he didn’t even have the match of the description of the clothing at all.
There was a gentleman who they had got a tip from that actually had a disagreement with my pops. Prior to this crime happening that night, they were able to take his testimony, so-called, and this young gentleman I’m speaking of was someone who was known for using drugs in the area. And this guy basically gave the police a tip, because he was there out of spite to whatever he had going on with my pops. And I guess, of course, they wanted to get my pops anyway due to selling drugs or not that, so… And like I said if you guys heard my pops’ song called Innocent, he talked about how he sold dope. He talked about how he was on the streets trying to make a way for his family, my mom and helping her and everything, and not saying that that’s right. But that’s what he did. And then my pops had a witness who was actually with him that night that never got to speak in the trial, and they wouldn’t even allow him to speak in none of the trials, although he’s ready, willing, open to do it. And there are also other witnesses that did not get to speak on my pops’ behalf. They literally just used this young woman and this other gentleman who was known for using drugs, and he was already on parole, too. It was definitely some mess going on. Maybe a reduced sentence for this young man who actually claimed that he’d seen my pops do it.
Basically, where we are now is my pops has been really trying to get into the appellate courts, and they have refused. He has filed a petition of clemency. This happened back in October of 2020. They finally logged into the system about December of 2020. Within four months in the state of Indiana, they’re supposed to give you a decision on if they’re going to grant it or not. And it’s clearly been more than four months. Despite that, Leon Benson, my pops has demonstrated his humanity, growth, and rehabilitation. For the past seven years, he hasn’t had any misconduct, any write-ups, anything. And he has completed over 50 vocational, therapeutic, spiritual and educational programs, over 50. So he has used his time to really what they think in this criminal justice, incarceration system is supposed to work, people are supposed to get rehabilitated. He really took advantage of all the things that they offer. He is now an asset to society. This is a clear case of rehabilitation versus punishment. Are we going to continue to punish people, even after they have sought redemption from within, they have utilized all the services that are offered within this so-called prison system.
Just a fun fact for those who are listening. Indiana has only granted three clemency petitions since the 70s. Okay, and we are in 2021. And I’m sure there are other people who have sent in applications, and he is not the only one in Indiana who has been wrongly convicted. This is not a unique case. This is tragic when it’s known that it’s prolonged incarceration. And it’s not really to rehabilitate prisoners, we all know incarceration hinders mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. With hopefulness, we are going to basically where his case is now to keep things simple as that he filed for clemency, we’re waiting to hear back.
TFSR:Another thing that I’ve seen, talking to folks who are behind bars, who’ve been fighting for a change in the sentence, if nothing else, is that during that period of time, because of all of the “tough on crime” culture war stuff that was going on to the US from the Democrats and the Republicans.
TFSR: There were people getting super long convictions. And since then, there have been reforms of the sentencing structures in a lot of states, where people like old-law people like Jason Goudlock, for instance, is one incarcerated activist in Ohio that I’ve spoken to. He’s talked about how the difference between the old-law prisoners, the ones who had the mandatory minimums, who had the 20 to life sentences, or parole as opposed to required release after a certain period of time that younger prisoners have. Not only is that an unfair situation, but that’s also totally political, where someone who is accused of a crime at a certain point… If your pops is innocent, he should be released anyway. I’m not in favor of carcerality and prisons like they exist in our society. But then again, it seems like it’s obviously a sign of the times of when he was convicted, and it wasn’t about him as much as it was about filling a cell, like you said, if people that are being convicted now of crimes that are similar to that are getting less time. It’s okay if you don’t have an answer to this, but is there a discrepancy between convictions currently versus the time when he went in in 1998? Is that any sort of leverage that you can make in the case?
Koby: Yeah, during that time, I don’t know if the listeners are aware of the prison industrial complex. Really seeing what that time looked like, and what it looks like now, and like you said, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they were really pushing this “tough on crime” kind of thing. And this “tough on crime” attitude within legislatures and just within the drugs, right? A lot of drugs were going on and they were using that as a way of really getting these people who were black and brown and just even lower to middle-class people out of here. During that time, it was definitely more than just the person and the actual so-called crime, it was more of a culture, it was more of a push like “We’re gonna get all these people out of here, they’re a menace to society and they need to go. We’re not even open to hearing innocence. We’re just going to get them out of here”. And it’s a lot I can touch on. Absolutely.
That relates to… as you said, they have minimum sentencing back in the day, it was different things that they had in place. They still have that, right? Even to connect to why… he’s having clemency, we’re pushing for him to have a clemency hearing. And the thing is we may not even be able to participate in this clemency hearing because they’re supposed to let us know at least two weeks in advance, but with it being over four months, he filed in October 2020, and they logged it in their system in December 2020. And it is May 28 of 2021. This is an opportunity where he could have people come in and speak. And that’s something else I’m gathering, I’m gathering organizations here within Indiana that are involved in knowing that prisoners, their lives matter, they need to be present, they need to be here, focusing on rehabilitation versus punishment and all of that, but the thing is I think the system is just sets you up. We may not even be able to be in court to speak on my pops’ behalf, to let the judge know that he has support, to let the judge know he’s not just somebody, that you’re not just letting out a person who could be a menace to society. I don’t even agree with prisons in general, but like, nonetheless, we won’t even have an opportunity, possibly, because it’s so late in the game, they might just literally tell my pops a couple of days before that he’s gonna go to court, and we won’t even have enough time to get together, to be present for him. And they may not even let him know in enough time to let us know. So I definitely think the times that back in the day in the 90s, the 80s, and the 70s. Like there’s an amazing Netflix documentary The 13th just about why people should care if they don’t even have people incarcerated or know someone.
TFSR: Would you share a bit about Leon’s activism inside, his creativity, and the gift that he and others like him continue to share despite the dungeons that they’re kept in?
Koby: Yeah, for what it’s worth, my pops has not spent this time in prison and let it go to waste. He really got into books, he really got into unlearning to relearn about the world around him and culture and religion, and cultivated a new him, he had a lot of time to spare, clearly. I think a lot of people who are incarcerated, not even my pops, they come out with such an amazing, broader perspective on how do you take the pain and turn it into a passion of some sort, how do you take the pain and possibly be able to create a platform for your children to be able to begin, to create some revenue through learning about turning all that they’ve been through and learning how to get creative with it. And what I mean by that is, although, my pops’ body was locked up, although there are other men and women who are incarcerated, and their bodies are physically behind bars, their mind, my pops’ mind was free to roam, as he dedicated himself to writing powerful poetry and music and helping to create motivational and educational programs to benefit his other fellow comrades from the inside. He has also worked closely with community activists to push for statewide prison reform, to build a system that truly treats every citizen equally.
My pops has been a key part of forming and running several programs in prison meant to create a better system for others. So I want to mention that he was chosen to be a mentor for the staff that created the band of brothers. And this band of brothers basically taught realistic views of masculinity and help individuals to become better members of their families and communities. My pops has really gotten to the healing point that they so-called push for in prisons, he really got into that, but he created that with other individuals that he was locked up with, and they created that community with each other. And, he is a mentor to other men who are in there for different reasons. And he was tasked with facilitating this group and other group discussions and using his unique perspective to make sure that everyone got the most out of the program.
My pops has been not only a father, he was a brother, he was a friend of his community. My pops is from Flint, Michigan. And he came to Indiana in 1995 and was sentenced to 60 years to life by 1999. He wasn’t even here this long, he’s not even from here, he came down here to help his uncle with his painting business, and to help them do home renovations. But nonetheless, my pops has really taken all his pain and turned it into a passion. Through his music, you hear his pain, but you hear his liberation, you hear his never dying, ending faith, that his music and his art and his poetry really speaks for itself. Some other things he’s been involved in is that he was chosen to be council praise team member and sermon group leader for the congregation of Yahweh, and basically a Hebrew spiritual, cultural community.
My pops is very spiritual, he is not religious, and he speaks about spirituality. That’s what we need to be going towards because we all know religion is a social creative construct. My pops spent 10 years in solitary confinement, where people are known to kill themselves, I don’t think there are any windows in there, it’s literally the size of a bathroom or even smaller, and 10 years in there. I mean, the man has amazing strength. And this is why when you hear his song Innocence, when you hear his songTND Truth Never Dies as long as we discover it, he created most of his art being in the shoe, being in solitary confinement. And so, Leon’s commitment to spiritual betterment has won him praise and respect from his peers.
And even from the people inside, and also, Leon became a demand educator, developing a course called The Streets Don’t Love You Back, where he educated hundreds of participants about the perils of street life, and how to escape and find your higher purpose. We know a lot of our men end up going to the streets, not because they “Oh, yeah, sign me up, I want to go, I want to get into things that could possibly get me killed or sent to prison for life”. No, they get into these things because within their environments, there are little to no options, especially coming from a single-parent home. My pops never met his father. And this is something unique for me. I didn’t know my biological father. I didn’t meet him until I was 16 years old. The reason why I’m here today is that my pops stepped up with my mom and said that he would help raise me. And he said he would be my father. Because he never had his father. My pops had character before he went in. Yes, my pops sold drugs, but he did it because that was one of the very few options that he had to actually provide for his family outside of the option that he came down to Indiana to do when that wasn’t working.
As I said, he taught an education course in prison called The Streets Don’t Love You Back and he educated other men who are in prison because of these things. He became a very gifted public speaker delivering over 300 speeches that could be inspirational, comical, tragic, or uplifting, all at the same time. My pops is very artistically inclined. While in prison, it allowed my pops to raise his creativity to new heights. He studied theater, Shakespeare in particular. He took part in several productions. He developed another program called Poetic Justice, in which he helped his fellow inmates to express themselves in words while learning about poem structures, style, and performance. Really turning all the BS and all the things that they put him through, he was able to make it because he was able to find meaning within all of this and is still finding it.
He’s also published several poems, and also several books that have even been stolen. What I mean by stolen is that there are books that he actually had produced and came out with, but they were stolen by different people who actually published them and actually did the legal work behind them. He doesn’t even own that material anymore. It’s just really crazy, but that’s never stopped him. He’s still going on, still creating, he actually has an album coming out called Innocent Born Guilty. And that will be towards either late July or August. He’s done a lot on the inside and has been a part of what prison is supposed to do, to so-called rehabilitate. But once you rehabilitate, then what? Do you still gotta pay? That’s where we are now. It’s been seven years that my pops has had any write-ups and any violations and as anyone knows, prison is a jungle. It may not be you involved in some mess, it might be somebody else, your cellmate, the guards are corrupt. There’s just so much that could happen but for him to be solid that long especially he’s in there wrongly convicted, so he could have really lost his mind and really snapped and crackled and popped. But he’s been really strong. His strength is so admiring for these past 23 years.
TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the Mass Release campaign? And how does it relate to the efforts to gain clemency for your pops?
Koby: I am actually working with IDOCWatch, an amazing organization. They have a chapter here in Indianapolis, Indiana. And basically, they have four things that they are working on within this Mass Release campaign, they’re working on actually holding the Indiana Department of Corrections accountable. We need to release some people, we need to release them all because people are not getting rehabilitated through this kind of system. And even when they’re rehabilitated, so-called, they shouldn’t have to sit and die in these prisons without their family and those other things. So there are four topics that are connected to the Mass Release campaign. One is compassionate release, and this is the release of the aging people campaign. The second is clemency. And my pops is representing this portion of the four topics that they are going to touch on within the Mass Release campaign, and also being able to get Direct Relief. That’s the second one. And the third point that they’re connecting with the Mass Release campaign is that when their so-called discipline and written up, people are getting their good time taken away. You can get time added to your sentence, really crazy things. And then the fourth one is that some people are getting sent back for technical violations. And literally, they have added like five to ten years on to their sentence. Even though they have good time, even though they’ve been solid for the last couple of years, if they have one violation or one behavior misconduct, they will add time. It’s designed to keep people in, it’s not designed for rehabilitation. With this mass release we must release them all and let’s rehabilitate them, release them all, and let’s actually create programs. As you guys know, if you don’t even have a member of your family incarcerated, our tax money, our tax dollars are going to build these prisons, we can put this money back into reconstructing some rehabilitations, get some social works out there, get some psychologists out there, therapy, we need it. But they’re focused on keeping people in. So with this Mass Release campaign and my pops, really calling on all those to stand in solidarity and for the state of Indiana to begin to reevaluate the mass utilization of the Indiana Department of Corrections. Even across the country, not even Indiana, but just other departments of corrections. They need to reevaluate this mass incarceration.
TFSR: What might you say to folks on the outside who don’t know that they know anyone in the carceral system, or don’t think that they have this vested interest in abolition about your dad’s case and about the mass release campaign?
Koby: We are all witnessing what is going on. People are getting screwed from different ends, to be very transparent, to be very frank, even just outside of mass incarceration, that is happening – our healthcare. There are just different things that are being screwed that if we all come together and stand in solidarity with one another, and it doesn’t have to be because you directly are affected, it is because that you are a part of this Earth and you have to walk the streets of a person who is affected, who is involved. And you have to make sure that that doesn’t mess up what you have going on, that is not deconstruct anything that your children-to-be are going to grow up. We got to think about what kind of world we want to be a part of, what is the change that we want to see. And it’s going to take more than the people who are actually affected by mass incarceration. And maybe you don’t have a father like me who’s been incarcerated. Maybe you have a brother, maybe you have a friend, maybe a friend or a mother who is a single mother because her boyfriend or the father of her children is incarcerated. And now she’s out here having to make ends meet. Now she’s out here making decisions that she wouldn’t have made if she had assistance from the actual father of her child. Now her children are put in spaces with different scenarios that could go left or right because now she has to make it by herself with little to no support. You’re seeing children that are ended up having mental and emotional issues within the school system, that may be sitting next to your child and class. And they may be having behaviors that are they’re acting out in school, or in high school, or maybe they’re in sports, and they’re a little aggressive on the field, and there may be some things that are going on, that you may not even know about, that have to do with their parents being gone incarcerated, that have to do with their parents having health issues, mental health issues, and have to do with their family, be in situations where they did not… the children don’t even have a say, so they don’t even they’re not even cared about. And it’s just that we have to be a part of a world that we want to see.
It’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take everybody. You are going to have to choose a side. You got to ask yourself every day: are you doing what you would want the world to look like in the future? Are you a part of the change that you want to see? Or are you remaining silent and being compliant? Because remaining silent and not saying anything and not being involved does not make you better or not. That’s actually a worse offense. Because if you see something, say nothing, then that lets you know that you are in compliance, that you are just as at fault as the people who are doing these things, the systems that are a part of oppression for different people.
And there are different ways. You don’t even have to be standing on the ground, standing in solidarity. Where’s your money going? Where are you donating your money to? Is your money going towards these efforts to get these things off the ground? IDOCWatch, have a Patreon and they have things that people can send in money because they’re actually working with prisoners. Also, they’re connected with Green Star Families, actually helping families be able to… Certain children are not able to connect with their parents. And because they can’t even afford a phone call, they can’t even afford to put money on the books of these incarcerated loved ones, right? We just have to remember: it takes a village to demand change. And we all have to do our part. You don’t have to be on the ground standing in solidarity. You can be redirecting your money. You could be writing letters, you can be reposting this campaign that you’re hearing today. There are ways to be involved. But I would say being silent is definitely not the answer. Your silence lets you and the world around you know where you stand. And if it was you or your loved one, you wouldn’t be silent. We just have to really think about that.
TFSR: So how can people support the efforts to get clemency for Leon Benson? And is there a way that they can follow the campaign?
We’re going to actually have the demonstration on July 25 in Indianapolis, Indiana at Tarkington Park in connection with the Mass Release campaign. This mass demonstration will have guest speakers, it will have poetry, we’re going to have vegan food and ways that you can connect with like-minded individuals and network, and whatever else you want to do with being a part of a mass demonstration, being a part of something.
Also if you guys already are connected with IDOCWatch or you need to, get on them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/IDOCWATCH/ and also check out his music, google Leon Benson. It’s a lot of information out there, he’s on a lot of different platforms, and see the story for yourself. You don’t have to just take it from my word, you can look up the facts and public information that is on this case, and you can see it for yourself. I encourage you guys to do that. I encourage you guys to support this clemency by seeing what’s next and actually being present for the actual demonstration. But if you’re not able to be present, you can definitely support the fundraiser we’re going to have, we’re going to have a T-shirt and different items that people can purchase. Be on the lookout for that. As I said, the proceeds are going to go to Green Star Families and IDOCWatch, and then half is to Leon Benson and continue the movement that he and I are doing which is Truth Never Dies. TND, that’s the movement that I am constructing for my pops myself and Valerie, which is his sister.
TFSR: Awesome, Koby, thank you so much for this conversation and for all the work that you’re doing, and good luck. I really hope to see your father free soon.
Koby: Yeah, and thank you so much for this opportunity, thank you guys, the listeners for listening and I hope to see you guys soon. I hope you guys you know really start to stand for something and you gonna fall for anything.
Landis: : My name is Landis Reynolds, I’m currently incarcerated in Westville Correctional Facility. I was convicted at age 17 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. I’m now on year 17. While incarcerated, my advocacy and activism began with juvenile justice reform, trying to get them to change some of the laws that they use, with respect to waiving minors to adult court and sentence them to adult time for offenses committed as juveniles. And as I began to study some of the background there and witness some of the horrors that take place in the penal setting. I just started to expand my activism a little bit, study more of the systematic causes and abuses that are perpetrated by the prison industrial complex.
Ray: And I’m Ray, I use they/them pronouns. I’m the PSLN outside facilitator and a member of IDOCWatch in South Bend.
TFSR: So for the listening audience, could you all maybe talk a bit about the IDOCWatch, what it is, how it developed? What motivates it, who it supports and why?
Landis: Okay, so IDOCWatch began rather informally. There were some incarcerated individuals in long-term segregation and in various prisons that reached out to individuals on the outside and began to form friendships and relationships with those individuals. And as those friendships and relationships blossomed, the individuals on the outside were able to see the daily struggle that incarcerated individuals go through in the Indiana Department of Corrections, they were able to see some of the systematic abuses and the violations that go on, and over time, as those friendships and relationships began to blossom. It morphed into what can we do to fix this situation? So, IDOCWatch is essentially a collective to provide assistance for those that are incarcerated, to fight back for their rights and assert themselves. IDOCWatch believes in a prisoner-led abolition. Basically, as we strive and struggle for abolition, we believe that it starts with the individuals that are incarcerated. We have to educate ourselves, we have to take those first steps in the fight towards abolition and asserting our rights. And IDOCWatch has grown exponentially and towardsfurthering those goals.
I’m curious about… with the organizing that y’all have been doing on the inside, how has the Indiana Department of Corrections reacted to prisoner self-advocacy, sharing education, sharing experiences, and building this community, as you say, and friendships?
Landis: They’ve responded in some overt obstruction, some of the obstruction is subversive. Anything that appears to be offenders or prisoners uniting is extremely frowned upon, any type of assistance or attempts to uplift each other is frowned upon. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is form study groups where we can help educate each other politically, assist each other with education, whether it be pursuing a GED, different stuff like that. One thing that we’ve seen at the location where we’re at is anytime a study group is formed, and we began making progress, that there’s a mass movement and the individuals that are taking part in the study group are scattered throughout the facility. You see administrative rules that are enacted where you can receive a conduct violation for studying in a group. Internal advocates, or what’s also known as jailhouse lawyers, can receive a conduct violation for helping to assist other individuals in legal matters. So there’s absolutely a constructive attempt to stop that type of solidarity and prisoner to prisoner assistance.
TFSR: It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing are rules infraction board-type assaults on individuals inside. Have they done anything that would resemble gang-jacketing participation or solidarity or study groups?
Landis: Oh, absolutely. Anything that same as in support of abolition or in support of solidarity, they actually refer to it as a security threat group activity. So when members get together in a study group to help uplift each other, they see that type of unity, even though it’s in furtherance of reformation and rehabilitation, they see that type of unity as a threat to the safety and security of the facility. And they actually can act pretty harshly against it.
TFSR: Ray mentioned the Prison Legal Solidarity Network. I’m wondering if y’all could tell the listening audience a little bit about how that developed and your partnership with the National Lawyers Guild and what the vision is for that?
Landis: Okay, so with PLSN, one of the things we’ve seen historically, is when it comes to any type of movement when individuals are asserting their civil rights, protesting, and things of that nature alone, without more, it is difficult to accomplish the goal. So various members of IDOCWatch, we put our heads together. And we see that in the correctional setting, many constitutional violations go unchallenged, because either there’s an ignorance amongst the prisoner population on how to challenge those constitutional violations, or what we’ve seen in recent years, is a meaningful or willful attempt on behalf of IDOC to keep offenders out of law libraries or make it difficult for them to assert their legal rights. So, with the PLSN we’ve seen an opportunity to not only build a network that provided the necessary resources for offenders to attack their criminal convictions or file lawsuits against systematic abuses within the correctional setting, but we’ve seen it as an opportunity to educate. One of the main pillars and objectives is empowerment. In that, we seize the opportunity to educate the incarcerated on the true motives of the prison industrial complex and the history behind the prison system as apparatus of class warfare and subjugation. We see it as providing the necessary resources to weaponize the very system, they weaponize against our communities, against the prison industrial complex. And it provides an opportunity for us to network and to build those friendships and meaningful relationships to continuously grow and progress towards the ultimate goal.
TFSR: Yeah, that kind of strikes a chord that I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes of, in the last few years, from prisoner organizers, which is I think a mixture of a quote from… I’m not… amazingly versed in George Jackson, but between George Jackson and also Ho Chi Minh, talking about turning the prisons into schools of liberation. When reading up on the Prison Legal Solidarity Network, I also came across the Prison Lives Matter which I’ve also heard referenced by incarcerated activists that I have spoken to. Can you talk a little bit about PLM and how the Prison Legal Solidarity Network engages with it and what that initiative is?
Landis: PLM is an amazing organization that was created in part by one of our members, one of our inside coordinators Shaka Shakur. And basically, it is to shine a light on the fact that just because the person was convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that their life doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a legitimate shot at reformation. The public a lot of times doesn’t understand the factors that condition individuals and set them up to be incarcerated, number one. And number two, a lot of people think that incarceration is conducive to reformation. They believe that when you come to prison, you have the ability to take advantage of programs to reform yourself and to become a productive member of society. But that’s absolutely not the truth. They don’t understand that prisons are absolutely saturated with narcotics. They don’t understand that prisons are ridiculously violent. And that most administrations enforce policies and a culture that reinforces the cycle of addiction and the cycle of violence. And when an individual spends years at a time in these environments, without the opportunity for a meaningful reformation, that the system is essentially manufacturing monsters that they’re returning to these working-class and minority communities. And it creates that cycle of violence and failure and addiction and re-incarceration. And they don’t understand that that was the true meaning of that system.
If you look at the Indiana Department of Corrections, their model isn’t reformation, it isn’t rehabilitation. If you look at their emblem, it says, Employees Efficiency Effectiveness. So they’re utilizing employees to efficiently and effectively incarcerate individuals. It has nothing to do with the reformation, nothing to do with rehabilitation. So Prison Lives Matter was a formation to shine a light on what really goes on behind these walls and to start to put the mechanisms in place, to start to form the relationships and the networks to actually be able to create an environment that’s conducive to rehabilitation and supports what we’re striving for.
TFSR: And while the work that y’all are doing to co-educate and to engage other people that are behind the bars, it seems super important, especially since people are coming in and going and going back in, people have families and communities on the outside. And one of these major dehumanizing methods of the prison system in the United States is to attempt to, despite what it says, break up those connections. It seems like Prison Lives Matters gives an opportunity for people to gain more tools to be able to talk about what they’ve experienced to their loved ones on the outside and re-contextualize the reason that they’re in that place and engage the people on the outside to fight along their side too.
Landis: Absolutely, and what’s disturbing is when you’re incarcerated, those relationships and friendships with your family are already strained because of the distance and the difficulties that come with incarceration. But we’ve seen an effort on the part of the Indiana Department of Corrections to make that even more difficult. So one of the things that they’ve done is they’ve made it harder for offenders to receive snail mail. And one of the reasons for that is they issue began issuing tablets where we can send electronic mail to our families and everything, one more way that they can make money. So what they began to do is, instead of allowing us to receive actual letters, they began copying our letters and making it difficult and limiting the type of mail that your family can send you, they can’t send you actual pictures anymore, to force us to start to use these tablets. Now what we’re seeing, since COVID, is an attack on the contact visitation. One of the most dehumanizing things about incarceration is you don’t have the ability to receive that reassuring touch. And contact visitation, when you’re able to see your family and actually hug another human being, hold their hand, kiss your child, that reminds you of your humanity, that’s a motivation for you to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And here recently, we’ve seen an attack on that.
We believe that, and I’ve heard from a senior official that they’re actually trying to eliminate contact visits in the Indiana prison system and force us to have to utilize the video visitation to see our family. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Number one, not all families have the financial resources to do that. Number two, the Wi-Fi system is ridiculously unreliable. Frequently, one of your family members has scheduled a visit, and they can’t even get through because the Wi-Fi is not up. So as you were saying, maintaining these human connections is really important. And that’s another thing that we’re seeing constructive efforts to obstruct our ability to maintain that contact with those loved ones, our ability to maintain the network with individuals like yourself who support us and support our well-being.
TFSR: It’s a strategy that Departments of Corrections seem to be applying across the country, including at the federal level. It also increases the possibility of surveillance, right? If you’ve got emails shooting back and forth, and you’re paying 50 cents for an E stamp or whatever, through JPay, then suddenly, it’s way easier to run an algorithm to just search for certain key phrases or monitor your relationship with people on the outside.
Landis: Absolutely! One thing that’s particularly scary is for activists, without contact visits, without the ability to utilize snail mail at any time, people that are shining a light on the systematic abuses and oppression, they can cut you off electronically, stop you from being able to send electronic messages, they can stop your video visits. Because the way that it was set up before is they could restrict your visit, they could put you on non-contact visits, but at any time an individual could come up there and make sure that you were okay. But the things that they’re trying to impose now, where they’re making everything electronic, somebody who’s a thorn in the side of a particular administration, they would have no problem whatsoever cutting off all of your contacts with the outside world, and you would literally be at the mercy of that particular administration. So it creates a huge possibility for abuse.
TFSR: And so I guess while you all are working towards PLM as a project to garner more attention and get more support, more understanding on the outside, the Prison Legal Solidarity Network is a tool towards multiplying the number of people that are going to be able to advocate for each other and also build solidarity with each other, to advocate on each other’s behalf, help them through filing these lawsuits, challenging the imposition of this for-profit filtering of people’s real lives and ability to survive.
Landis: So, one thing that we have seen in analyzing history is movements such as this, like I said earlier, require more than simple protesting. In order for us to achieve the things that we want to achieve, we have to start to put the support systems in place to sustain an ongoing movement. One way to proactively counter PRC aggression, and to fulfill certain objectives, such as legal education, political education, the empowerment that we need collectively, was to put this support system in place. We also believe that we have to begin to put other support systems in place to continue to counter some of these moves to further the objectives of the prison industrial complex.
We see, especially at locations like this, where they only provide the minimum amount of education required. Here, under IDOC policy, they’re only allowed to teach English in the classroom. So one thing that I’ve seen is we have a large number of Hispanic immigrants here that can’t speak English. So those individuals aren’t provided books in Spanish, they aren’t provided a translator or individuals that can teach them English, and they’re still expected to be able to get their GED. And what’s even more unfair about the situation is in order to go on to a vocational school or programs like PLUS or other reformative programs, they require GED. So basically, individuals who are immigrants or don’t speak English have to do 100% of their sentence simply based off of a policy. And you see that if you study the policies, the policies aren’t geared towards reformation or reintegrating individuals in society, they’re geared towards keeping individuals here longer.
TFSR: Like handling a surplus population.
Landis: Absolutely. So, that’s two things that the PLSN is looking at right now is we’re looking at how they are deprived of good-time credit. And we’re also looking at the parole system in Indiana, and how they have absolute authority to re-incarcerate individuals at their whim, which is scary. Once an individual does their required sentence and they’re released on parole. If I forgot to report, a change of address, they can send me back to prison for the rest of my sentence.
TFSR: I’d also like to hear a little bit about – I know it’s off topic of the Prison Legal Solidarity Network – but if you could speak a little bit about what your experience with COVID has been in the facilities that you’ve been in, and what vaccination, if any, is happening among the guards, how prisoners feel about vaccines, because I know there’s a lot of hesitancy or distrust in certain facilities around the country.
Landis: Well, at the location I’m at with respect to the vaccine, there’s a huge distrust. We know that historically, prisons have been the place where they’ve done medical experiments, tested experimental medications. So amongst the offender population, there’s distrust for for-profit medical companies like Wexford, who could care less about our physical well-being, their main concern is their bottom line or profits. So very few of the offenders that I know have actually taken advantage of the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and most of them think we all had COVID. So what’s the point in getting vaccinated against COVID, if every person that you know has already had it?
The public has no clue what went on behind these walls during this pandemic. It was terrifying. So when we begin to see news reports about the severity of COVID, how serious it was, there was no meaningful response from the administration whatsoever. And the scary thing is this facility holds more prisoners than any other facility in the state. I just arrived here when the pandemic hit. We have a unit here called ANO where when you’re first transferred from another prison or you come from the reception diagnostic center, you go to that unit first, they assess you, and then they send you to your respective part of the prison you are assigned to. So, the first case was on that unit. And what they did is they tried to keep it hush-hush. They didn’t respond in any meaningful way. Then when we started to hear that they had positive tests in that unit, from what the correctional staff was saying that they instructed officers to stop, if you weren’t assigned to that unit, you weren’t supposed to go to that unit. But we were seeing officers go up to that unit, where they had positive cases, visit with other staff, and then go to other units within the facility. And within a few days, maybe a week, we start seeing individuals start to exhibit the symptoms of COVID. Once itfinished sweeping through the prison like wildfire, then they step in, and they basically quarantine each dorm to their dorm. But they knew that the virus was already within each dorm. So, we weren’t issued masks. When staff was walking around wearing masks if an offender has made his own mask out of whatever materials that he could get, he received a conduct report for it. And then once they finally started to issue masks, at first, I believe those maybe one or two days, medical staff would report to each unit and check to see if guys had symptoms. But after that we didn’t see medical staff for months, there were instances where an offender would be so sick that we would have to threaten to riot to get that offender medical attention. It was a very, very terrifying experience.
TFSR: Sure. Although it sounds like you were describing an instance where maybe someone was transferred in and brought it into the facility as an inmate or as a prisoner, I don’t know if there were any concerns, if you would be aware if the guards had any quarantining going on among them, because they’re coming in and out of the facility, they’re not regulated in the rest of their life, where they’re spending their time, who they’re around, and if they’re masking up outside.
Landis: Exactly. None whatsoever, the guards were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted to do. The only thing that they changed, and this was after there was a ridiculous amount of positive tests, was they started taking the guards’ temperatures coming in. That’s it. And it’s crazy because we read a newspaper article, where the Indiana Department of Correction reported that there were 233 COVID cases, department-wide in every prison in the state of Indiana, they only had 233 people test positive, which is laughable. Because every dorm on the complex that I was in, pretty much everybody had it. There were periods of time where you wouldn’t see an individual for two weeks, and then they would pop back up. And you didn’t know that that person had been in their bed sick that entire time. They tested the dorm underneath the ANO unit. And I believe they had 93 people test positive out of 96. And they stopped testing after that. They wouldn’t test anybody else anymore after that.
TFSR: Yeah, I guess if they reported those numbers, that’s like opening themselves up to a federal injunction or something. They don’t believe in actually being held accountable for anything, let alone for prisoners’ health.
Landis: I’m going to be honest, I believe, because I read some articles on herd immunity. And basically, herd immunity means you let the majority of the population become infected. And basically, that slows… there’s immunity that’s built up on the antibodies. And that basically takes the place of a vaccine, and that’s what I’ve seen take place here. What they did, is they restricted the movement, and they just let the vaccine run its course to the detriment of the people that were incarcerated here.
TFSR: If we don’t know the long-term effects of what the vaccines will do, and there have been like small examples of the negative impacts on a few, a 100th of a percent of the population that’s been vaccinated. But definitely, we’re already seeing the long-term impacts on the cheaper version of herd immunity, which is just let everyone get infected.
Landis, you talked about how you’ve been in for 17 years, you came in as a juvenile, correct?
Landis: Yes, sir.
TFSR: And you’ve been an advocate around shifts and changes in juvenile incarceration in Indiana. If you could talk a little bit about what some of that work looks like and what maybe people on the outside don’t realize why there need to be major shifts in the way that people consider criminality, incarceration, and juvenile health.
Landis: The first thing that people don’t consider is that minors are physiologically incapable of making an adult decision. So anytime a minor is waived to adult court and sentenced to adult time for a decision they made when they were incapable of thinking as an adult, in and of itself, contradicts justice. For me, after I was convicted, I was at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, the most violent prison in the state of Indiana. I was placed in a dorm called K-dorm, it was a program called YIA, youth incarcerated as adults. And basically, it was like Lord of the Flies in there, it was violent. There was a lot of misconduct on the part of staff towards juvenile offenders, we really didn’t have any rehabilitative resources to speak of. And one thing that I’ve always seen is that if there’s any renewable resource, here, within the last 10-20 years, as a society, spoken a lot about renewable resources, if there’s any renewable resource, it is our children. If anybody is capable of reformation and redemption, it’s a child. But we’re the only country in the world where a child can commit a crime. And one thing that really isn’t taken into consideration is the background that this child came from, what motivations caused this child to commit this crime.
Not understanding that background, not understanding the inability to think at the level necessary, and sentencing a child to considerable term in prison goes against what our Constitution is supposed to do. Because here in Indiana, we have Article 1 Section 18 that says the Penal Code shall be founded upon principles of reformation and not vindictive justice. But what’s more vindictive about sending a child to prison where they have a choice between joining a gang and engaging in violent behavior, or being raped, or being robbed, or abused. Basically, when you send a child into this environment, either he has to become a monster to survive, or he has to become a victim. And if reformation is the goal, that makes reformation impossible. So looking towards the initiatives and the things, there is pretty much nothing in place that would allow a child to reform themselves.
TFSR: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And there’s some audio of you also speaking about your experiences up on the IDOCWatch.org website. Really just spell it out also, and very worth listening to. How can people who were in the listening audience support PLSN and get involved, support PLM, if you can speak to that.
Ray: As far as Prison Lives Matter, you can our focus is incarcerated people and people on the outside. You can reach us at PO Box 9383, Chicago, Illinois 6069. Or you can visit us at supportprisonlives.org. For the Prison Support Legal Network, if you are a jailhouse lawyer or interested in our initiative, you can write to us at PO Box 3322 South Bend, Indiana 46619, or leave us a voicemail at 423-281-5009 with your name, DOC number, and a brief introduction and any legal experience or training that you may have, and we will contact you.
If you are a lawyer in Indiana, a paralegal law student, abolitionist-minded with a little bit of legal expertise, we’d love to have you onboard as well in our external committee, and you can email me directly. That’s Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TFSR: Ray gave us a little bit of information about how outside people can get involved with or find out more about PLSN and PLM. The website for IDOCWatch, or it has a reference to support for the demands of the 2018 national prison strike. About a month ago, I got to speak with someone from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak about the Shut Them Down 2021 initiative. And I’m not sure if you’re aware of this initiative, if either you as a member of IDOCWatch, or you as an individual, have any words for the audience about that call out for people to come together around the theme of abolition and engage with juvenile facilities, ICE facilities, BOP, local DOC, whatever and challenge them and educate each other.
Landis: With respect to this specific initiative, I haven’t really had an opportunity to read up on it or anything like that. But one thing that I can say is, without unity, we’re not going to make it anywhere. Every year, I see our rights eroded, I see the abuses become more blazing and more sadistic. But unless individuals come together and make up their minds that meaningful change is the only thing that they’ll settle for, things are only going to continue to get worse.
TFSR: I didn’t have any more questions that I had scripted out. So is there anything that we didn’t talk about? Or that I didn’t ask about that you want to be asked about or that you want to just riff on?
Landis: I don’t know, Ray might have some stuff. The only thing that I wanted to touch bases on is some of the long-term goals for PLSN. Because as a mechanism of genocide, the prison system is just one component. I think that people don’t really see things like public defender agencies as mechanisms of genocide or tools of the prison industrial complex. And what we’re doing is we’re developing some future goals and objectives and strategies for how we can continue to combat the prison industrial complex, not just in the prison setting, but on the street. So one of the things that we’ve started to develop is what we call the Indiana Criminal Representation branch, where most public defender agencies blame their inability to adequately defend defendants on the number of cases that they have. So, I believe that one of the strategies that we can utilize in fighting against the public defender agencies being able to feed working-class and minority individuals as to this horrible system, is by creating our own mechanisms for criminal defense, things like the PLSN, where we have professionals, we have lawyers and paralegals and jailhouse lawyers come together, and law students, and pooling resources to effectively provide that legal support.
If we start to put these mechanisms into place prior to incarceration, I believe we can really carve them out of individuals that are fed into the system and save a lot of lives. Another initiative that we’re looking at is non-profit bail bonds. In recent years, we’ve seen a movement for bail reform, because we know that the odds of an individual receiving an unfavorable outcome to their criminal case is a lot higher when they fight their case from behind bars. And that’s one of the strategies that they use for working-class minority individuals is they keep you locked up. And a lot of times the lack of these resources and these public defenders that either won’t or can’t perform their job effectively assist in feeding the prison industrial complex. If we could come up with mechanisms to where we can assist minority and working-class people in getting out of jail so they can find their cases on the street and start to implement some community-building with those programs. So for the individuals that take part in the indigent criminal representation, or non-profit bail bonds, where they’re actively doing community service, going to school, taking part in political agitation, assisting in initiatives like the PLSN, where they’re actively helping members of their community understand what the prison industrial complex is perpetrating against our communities. And further our goal of abolition.
TFSR: Ray, did you have anything to add to this conversation? I think this would be a good place probably for us to start wrapping up.
Ray: I think that what Landis said above and beyond covered things that I wanted to talk about, and that are call-outs that I mentioned, our buffer inside and outside, you mentioned that it was heard outside, somebody they’re in contact with that is in Indiana that is interested in being a jailhouse lawyer or being trained, contact us.
TFSR: How can people follow IDOCWatch?
Ray: You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, both with IDOCWatch.
TFSR: Landis, are you cool with people reaching out to you? And is it okay, do you have a preference of JPay male or I guess what remains is snail mail?
Landis: However they’d like to reach out, I’m definitely interested in sharing my story and participating with any organization where I can help further the goals of abolition or assist anybody who’s going through what I’ve been through or is going to go through what I’ve been through. In any way that I can help anybody, I’m willing to. You can reach out to me through GTL by downloading the Connect Network app or through snail mail. My name is Landis Reynolds, DOC number 157028, and I’m located at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana.
TFSR: Thank you, all of you for taking the time and helping to make this conversation happen. I really appreciate it.
This week, we’re airing a conversation recorded by Eda Levinson on September 12th, 2002, with political prisoner Veronza Bowers, Jr. It originally aired on Youth Speaks Out on KZYX in Modesto County, California, and we re-air this with permission of Veronza and the current producer of the Youth Speaks Out. The show continues to produce youth focused and progressive content available at YouthSpeaksOut.net.
For the hour, you’ll hear former Black Panther Party member Veronza describe to the audience in his own words his upbringing, his experiences of racism, his time in prison, his case, his views on the burgeoning War on Terror, and the situation of political prisoners in the US. You’ll also hear some recordings of Veronza playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute. Veronza was convicted of the death of a US Park Ranger on the word of two prison informants who were paid and received reduced sentences. Veronza continues to claim his innocence and he has been illegally held beyond his mandatory release date of June 21, 2005, based on political pressure by GW Bush appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apparently on behalf of the Association of National Park Rangers, the widow of the dead ranger and the Fraternal Order of Police.
The conversation is very much a product of it’s time, for instance the discussion of the implications of the one year anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sadly there is a timelessness in their discussion of the brutal war against the people of Afghanistan as well as the continued incarceration of Veronza, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, alongside many other long term, leftist and liberation political prisoners held by the US government. Currently, the Biden administration is discussing some sort of pull out of US troops from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in the last year we’ve seen the deaths due to medical neglect and decades of incarceration for political prisoners like Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, deaths right after release like Delbert Africa, and the endangering of aging political prisoners in their 70’s and 80’s who’ve had bouts with covid and cancers inside like Sundiata Acoli, Dr Mutulu Shakur and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Veronza was successfully treated for lymphoma and pneumonia in 2017 and 2018, having hip surgery in 2019 but his death by incarceration only looms a larger possibility day by day.
He is currently being held at FCI Butner in North Carolina and can be written at:
Veronza Bowers, Jr. ##35316-136 FCI Butner Medium II P.O. Box 1500 Butner, NC 27509
You can learn more about his case as well as see pictures of Veronza and loved ones, read his writings, poetry and interviews at Veronza.Org. Some of this is also available by viewing his page on PrisonerSolidarity.Com and you can read many articles about his situation on the SFBayView.com.
Other Veronza Audio Recordings
These are a collection of audio recordings of spoken word and musical pieces featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr, political prisoner since 1974 and former Black Panther Party member in the US. These are being posted with the permission of Veronza and we hope to have them more available for streaming in the future.
Healing Heart is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Birthing Song is performed by Veronza Bowers, Jr, on shatuhachi flute with overlaid ocean sounds
Song for Alexis is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
To Touch the Spirit is performed by Jah Roots (a band of imprisoned musicians featuring Veronza on shatuhachi bamboo flute)
Eulogy was recorded by Veronza “Butch” Bowers, Jr, in memory of his Mama’s passing. As Veronza was unable to participate in his mothers funeral so with the allowance of the then-Warden at USP Coleman, alongside comrades Rev. “One Love” and another comrade, Siakatame “Mountain Heart” Hafoka, the three speak their goodbyes to Dorothy Woodruff and Veronza performs poetry and music in his mother’s memory and family.
Sean Swain talks about the FBI
BadNews #44 Out!
The A-Radio Network has released the 44th monthly episode of our Angry Voices From Around The World, English-language podcast. Check it out! Updates from Bristol & the wider UK, Mare Liberum about resisting deadly anti-refugee practices in the Mediterranean, hunger striking anarchists and prisoners of the Uprising in Chile, interview with a Myanmar Food Not Bombs activist, the student movement and trial of the anarchist Vaggelis Stathopoulos from Greece, anti-dam resistance in Aragon (Spain), and notes on repression and struggle against the state in Greece!
All Out for Mumia’s Birthday
It’s notable also, that Mumia Abu-Jamal, prolific author and journalist, former Black Panther and political prisoner in Pennsylvania is in grave danger. He’s been in prison since conviction for the 1981 death of a cop in Philly based on flimsy evidence and perjured testimony. From a blood infusion, he contracted hepatitis-c which was eventually treated and cured due to his struggle on behalf of so many other prisoners, that condition gave Mumia cirrhosis of the liver and damaged eye sight. He developed congestive heart disease from his time inside and this year Mumia has contracted covid-19 and is fighting for his life in an emergency heart surgery. The white supremacist police state failed at assassinating Mumia, they failed at executing him and now they’re killing him by medical malfeasance and mistreatment.
It is long past time for Mumia to be free. You can join Mumia’s friends and family for his 67th birthday on April 24th by taking to the streets to exert pressure to releaes Mumia so he can get the medical treatment he needs and end this charade of injustice. There are events popping up around the world for the 23rd through the 25th. You can find some info at FreeMumia.Com
New bilingual website for Fidencio Aldama Pérez
There is a now a bilingual support site for Fidencio Aldama Pérez, a Yaqui de-colonial activist in so-called Mexico who is serving a bullshit 15.5 year sentence on a murder he did not commit. You can hear a little in our Mexico interview from last year, there’s a brief intro post at IGD about the case and the site, and you can learn more at FidencioAldama.org/en/
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To Touch The Spirit by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [01:02:42]
Song For Alexis by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:22:50]
Healing Heart by Jah Roots (featuring Veronza Bowers, Jr. on shakuhachi flute) [00:37:59]
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The following transcription was done by Dan Roberts, producer of Youth Speaks Out when the interview was conducted through today. More of their episodes, including politically progressive ones like this, can be found at YouthSpeaksOut.Net. This transcript, alongside a further dialogue with Veronza by Dan can be found in the mid-May/June 2003 issue of The New Settler Interview #136, archived online by Freedom Archives
Eda Levenson: For four years I have been in contact with a man who has spent the last thirty-two years of his life in prison. His name is Veronza Bowers, Jr. Before his incarceration, he was a member of the Black Panther Party during the Sixties. At twenty-six years old he was convicted of the murder of a Park Ranger—although the legitimacy of his trial is questionable, due to the lack of physical evidence and the reliability of the key witnesses. To this day, Veronza claims his innocence, and that the FBI framed him. He is currently being held in a federal penitentiary in Coleman, Florida. Last June, my family and I visited Veronza. This is the first time that any of us, including my father, who has known him for fifteen years, has seen Veronza in person. During our visit I brought up the idea of doing a telephone interview. After months of negotiation, and being denied once by the assistant warden of the prison, I was finally granted permission to interview Veronza over the phone. On September 11th of 2002,1 conducted the interview.
Because of his circumstances we could only talk in fifteen minute segments, with fifteen minute breaks in between each one.
Veronza Bowers, Jr.: First, I want to thank you, Eda, and Dan, and everyone at the radio station KZYX and all your listeners. This is such a great opportunity, because I recognize the fact that I don’t exist in a vacuum, and at the same time, I understand that it is a tremendous responsibility because people listen to what people say sometime and our voices have been silent for a long, long time.
So this is great opportunity, and I really do appreciate this opportunity, and I’ll try to let it flow. Secondly, you might hear a lot of noise in the background. But it’s not really noise: it’s other human beings, just like I’m situated, and they are getting ready to go and eat, and it might sound like feeding time at the Serengeti Plains.
Eda: I’m going to ask you to talk a bit about your personal background—where you grew up and went to school.
VBJr: I’ve given some thought about my childhood growing up. One thing about prison: it gives you an opportunity if you take it, an opportunity to do a lot of reflecting upon your past.
I grew up in a little town in Oklahoma named McAlester—that’s where they have a big penitentiary—I grew up in a very, very small, tight-knit community, at a time when things were a lot different. And reflecting on that, I grew up primarily with the influence of women. Because my father was away in the Army. My father, Veronza, he did a twenty-five years in the U.S. Army. So my mother, Dorothy …
I’m glad you asked this question be-cause in order to understand anything, you have to look at it in its totality, it’s connections—it’s historical connections, if you will. And growing up in this little town, surrounded by women as I was—because my grandmother had six children: five of them were women, and one son (we called him ‘Uncle Sonny). And so, the little neighborhood that I grew up in, all Black neighborhood, we didn’t have any experience with racism directly.
Or even with all the conflicts that result from that.
Looking back on it, you think about poverty and being poor and all of those things: but back then, it was just always a very, very good feeling. My great grand-mother, Granny, she was my first real teacher of Our Story (it’s called ‘history’). She was seven years old when slavery was abolished. She taught me a lot of things about that past. So my youth was very rich in tradition and stories. And I remember my grandmother (everybody called her ‘Bucker’, but I called her ‘Grandma’). She was like the backbone of the Johnson/Larkins clan. And her word was law.
Growing up as a little boy like that, I learned to really listen to and appreciate the old people and what they had to say. Because they always were talking about “Life”—you know. That was a great joy for me to be able to sit around and listen to all those kinds of things.
And Mama was always ‘Mama’. With my father being away all the time, she gave so much strength and understanding of the world around me.
So, growing up in McAlester, Oklahoma—I was born in 1946. [the sound of many men in the background grows louder].… Eda, listen to this: you hear them call chow? It will get quiet in a minute so I won’t have to speak so loud and so fast, maybe… I’ve really come to the realization that when you start talking about the past, there’s so much that happened, so many memorable experiences that you could wander on and on and on.
EL: Would you talk a little bit about what it was like to be segregated and discriminated against.
VBJr: Eda, I never understood what segregation meant and what racism meant, and I never heard the word ‘nigger’ because, as I say, I grew up in a Black community where there was a lot of love and concern about each other.
I went to a little small school, named L’Ouverture High—but it was for from the first to the twelfth grade. We had to catch a bus and cross a little canal to hop on the bus to go way, way across town. And there was a little school right up the street about two and a half blocks on a dirt road: it was a very nice red brick school. I come to find out later, it was a grade school to jr. high. That’s where white people went to school. And I used to walk past it sometime and look at it and wonder: What kind of teaching goes on in there that’s so much different?
Later on in life I found out L’Ouverture High was named after Toussamt L’Ouverture, the great liberator down there in Haiti. They’d never taught us anything about that.
But that little town, as small as it was, we thought it was normal. Like when we wanted to go to the movie theater. Back then you paid five or ten cents to go to the theater.
They had three movie theaters in the whole town: the News, the Chief, and the Okla. The News was the one where we could go to. I always wondered why we couldn’t go to the other ones, but I didn’t ever question that. And when we did go, we had to sit up in the balcony; and it was only on Saturday or Sunday that we could go.
One time they had this movie called The Ten Commandments—I remember just like I’m looking at it. They closed the theater and let all the Black communities in. Third ward, Fourth ward and Fifth ward (our communities were called ‘wards’).
That was for two weeks. And once that was over and they figured everybody had seen The Ten Commandments that were going to see it, they closed the movie theater down for another two weeks and fumigated the place, because we had been there.
Those experiences as a little boy: I would look at them then and wondering what all this was about. They still had the water fountains with signs: one water fountain said ‘Colored’ and the other water fountain said ‘White’.
I remember on a sunny day, my father picked me up (because I’m too small to step on the water pedal and drink at the same time) so he picked me up and the water is coming up, and I look over at the other water fountain—I could read too, by then—and at the other water fountain a little white boy’s father had him picked up. I’m looking at this water, and the water is sparkling because the sun is shining through the window, and when my father set me down I said, “Daddy, how come my water says ‘Colored’ and the other water says ‘White’ and they look both the same?
And I remember my father lifting me and he said, “Boy, you’ll understand those things later on in life.”
Those are the kind of little experiences, the accumulation of which, along with the lessons of my grandmother, that leads a little young mind like I had into questioning a lot of things that you see around you.
EL: At what point did you become aware that because you were Black you were being treated differently, and when did you realize you wanted to make a difference, and you wanted that to stop?
VBJr: You know, Eda, I don’t think it was a particular point. It was just an accumulation of my experiences growing up, particularly in McAlester Oklahoma, and then later on in Omaha, Nebraska. I think it was just the accumulation, starting back from my real education by my great grandmother, and then watching the women with the Welfare and all of that kind of stuff going on in the neighborhood.
Then one day they came up with the desegregation of schools (I think that was 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court) and I starting going to that little school two and a half blocks up the way, and that’s when I was called (to my knowledge) ‘nigger’ for the first time.
Those kinds of things growing up. Becoming part of a wrestling team and going away to college. Being in the military, the US Navy for a short stint and going overseas in the Mediterranean. And along about that time (by then I guess I’m about twenty years old or so), Brother Malcolm X came on the scene with the Nation of Islam and that whole movement toward recognizing what they called ‘Negroes’ at that time, as Black people, people of African descent—that we were actually somebody. That we were human beings and not just the doormat of the world.
And just listening—because I’ve always been a listener. I was raised that way: to listen to the old people, to listen to adults when they talk. And I took that listening and listened to a lot of things. And not just listened with my ears, but with my heart and feeling. And as I grew up and started looking around me, and I see what is considered poverty everywhere and that it is such a pervasive thing. Then going overseas and seeing how people live differently; coming back and seeing how we still are at the bottom of the pecking order, so to speak—the doormat of the world—and then hearing people like Malcolm talk about (and even the Honorable Elijah Mohammed) talk about “do for self, and pride in your own self.”
And then the pride I was given by my grandmother, Bucker. You know, Eda, if I could, I would like to just give you a little idea through a poem that I wrote to my grandmother. She died in 1983. I used to write a lot of poetry and I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. So I wrote this poem and sent it to my sister and asked her to read the poem—(‘To Grandma,’ that’s the name of it)—and place it on her chest, place it over her heart. I haven’t written any poetry since. The poem goes like this:
Grandma the silence of your heart brings pain to all who love you
Could I say goodbye to you in tears. I would
But somehow I know you would only smile and say
‘Boy, wipe your eyes. I’m free at last. I’m free at last
Thank God, Almighty. I’m free at last.’
So, Grandma, I’ll remember you in your strength
You taught me to stand tall with pride and dignity
Although I live in shadow
At this moment in time
Grant me but the memory of you
Your face, your smile
In darkness then I live without fear
Lost though I may be for a while
Wonderful memories of you sustain me
And I know the meaning of hope
Reflections of you spring from my heart
To liberate me from the chains of men
Grandma, could I say goodbye to you in tears I would
But never can I say goodbye to all that you were
To all that you gave me
Grandma, may you rest in peace
And you know, I wrote that to say that not just Grandma, but the people of the community. You’ve got to have a real appreciation for the strength of a people who were able to withstand the discrimination, the exploitation, the oppression — that life — and still be able to love each other and hope for a better day.
I learned listening to people like Malcolm, and to my own heart, that not only should you hope for a better day, but you also have to struggle for it. So at one point in my life when I heard about the Black Panther Party being formed out in Oakland, California; and I read their platform and program, I said to myself: Man, maybe here we can do something to better the condition of our people.
And then “Our People” expanded to be people who were living in a bad way. And so, I joined the Black Panther Party.
EL: What did the Black Panther Party offer you? And what did you want to accomplish by getting involved?
VBJr: The Black Panther Party became a nation-wide organization and we established chapters for the state and branches in the city all across the country where there were major (what people called) “ghettos”. We began to address some of the issues of our communities—the same ones that I’d seen growing up as a little boy.
Hunger. We established programs like free breakfasts for school children— programs for any child that wanted to eat a healthy meal before they went to school. They could stop by at any of the places where we had that established, and have a good, healthy and wholesome breakfast.
Because it’s a hard thing to sit in school, trying to learn, and your stomach is growling, and you hear more of your stomach than you do the teacher.
So those kinds of issues.
Or, like the old ladies would be going to the store and a youngster would come by and snatch her pocketbook: we addressed those kind of issues. Even recruited some of those little youngsters to escort the ladies to the store and not be worried about being molested.
Those types of positive programs in the community—doing for self—became like a vehicle. And I was just one of the many young men and women who were filled with a vision and a burning desire and a hope and a dream for a better future for our people. And so, we embarked upon that journey, not knowing where it would end. Or if it would end. But we knew we had to do something.
—Not to mention the police brutality that was raging from coast to coast—and still is from coast to coast. We began to wrestle a lot of those issues, and unfortunately (and history will bear it out) we were maligned and attacked.
And my incarceration is a direct result of that. Not because of something I have done, but because of my (what they call or what is called) “political activity.” So that makes me one of the long held political prisoners in this country. And I am just one of many – and it is hard for me to just speak about myself. But because of the nature of this interview, I know that’s necessary. But I can’t be understood apart from a People and a Movement.
Because in reality, as a political prisoner—and that’s known throughout the world: that we were representatives of a people and we were accused of trying to overthrow the government and all kinds of foolishness. Because that was never the case. We were trying to make a better life for our own people. And for that—history will also absolve us on this—a war was declared against us, and many of us linger in prison now. For decades. I’m almost in my thirtieth year, and I’m still struggling.
EL: Would you talk about what happened during your original case. What happened during that time and how old you were when you were convicted.
VBJr: I had never really been in trouble with the law, other than selling Black Panther newspapers and a lot of little miscellaneous charges they were using to try to disrupt the flow of activity.
So, I was twenty-six when I got convicted of first degree murder of a National Parks Service ranger. It was a very strange thing, because not ever having to have an experience with the law and justice and all that kind of stuff, sitting there in the courtroom, clearly things were running pretty ragged. —And I had some very good defense lawyers, and I could see they were doing their best, but I also could see that apparently the deck was stacked.
I’m going to try to make it real brief and straight to the point: they had two main witnesses: one guy that I knew well (and I knew his brother even better) and another guy I had never met, although I knew his brother. The first guy, the main witness, testified that on the night of this killing that I was with him—which was a lie. And that I was the trigger man—which was a lie. And in exchange for his lie, and his testimony (he had already been convicted of an unrelated bank robbery and had received twelve years) he wound up doing two years at some camp and received $10,000 for his testimony.
The other witness —who I had never laid eyes on in my life— he had three cases pending in court for Possession, for Sale and Distribution of heroin. And in exchange for his testimony against me(he corroborated the main witness’s testimony—with another lie—by saying that I came and told him everything that happened.) In exchange for that lie, the State’s cases for possession and sale of heroin were dismissed and he received $10,000. Plus, we had a 1973 Grand Prix that was taken, and it was awarded to him. He was rewarded with our own Grand Prix for his duplicity.
Those two testimonies, with no physical evidence, sealed my fate. And I’ve languished in prison ever since, unable to unravel that strange web that was weaved.
Weaved at a time in history, Eda, when (as it is generally known, now) there was a program called COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) that was designed to disrupt and neutralize the Black Liberation Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement. Many of us were victims of that program set up by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. And the web was spun so tight, that we haven’t been able to unravel it except in a couple of cases like Geronimo Pratt out in California. After twenty-seven years, they finally proved it was a wrong conviction and he was released after twenty-seven years and awarded something like four and a half million dollars. That amounts to about fifty dollars a day for your life, and that is not a fair exchange.
And there was one other brother out of the Panther Party named Dhroba Moore. After nineteen years of wrongful conviction by the state of New York, he was awarded some-odd millions of dollars. But that is in exchange for a life, and our lives are just as precious as anybody else’s. We are political prisoners, and there are many others that are still lingering in prison in New York state and California and Maryland, and Mumia up there on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Leonard Peltier over there in Leavenworth. And we just continue to try to do the best we can. To try to live and do the best we can.
My case has so many clouds on it, and it’s been through many procedures; but it can summed up pretty quickly this way: I was arrested on state charges—a number of them and they were all dis-missed, not only because of the Search Warrant. —The judge ruled the Search Warrant was illegal, because there was no Probable Cause or anything. Back in those days there was a lot of fishing expeditions going on.
And then, after the state charges were dismissed (each of them carried Five-to-Life in the state of California: three or four different charges) the Feds stepped in and charged me with the murder of this National Parks Service ranger. And because there was no physical evidence linking me to the crime itself, the government chose to use two people who already had trouble with the law (one of them, I thought was a friend of mine; and like I said, this other guy that I didn’t know) and in exchange for their testimony and all the rewards that they got, the Feds secured a conviction.
I appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, and of course, got no relief. And I haven’t got any relief up until this day. Including when I go to the Parole Commission.
One of the things they require is that you show remorse for the crime that you committed, and from my first time going there in 1983 up until the present, I’ve always maintained my innocence. I explained to the commissioners on more than one occasion that that places me in a dilemma, because it is one thing to have remorse and sorrow for something that you’ve done, but it’s an impossibility to have remorse and sorrow for some-thing that you haven’t done.
And I have made it very clear to them that I did feel sorrow during my trial when I heard the ranger’s wife testify about her husband: I could tell that she loved him. The taking of human life is something, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. But at the same time, I’ve expressed over and over again that my life, in essence, was taken without remorse for a crime I had nothing to do with.
So that’s the thing I have had to deal with, coming into prison as a young man—by the time I got to Atlanta, I was just turning twenty-seven and I’ve had all those birthdays in between. But basically, I became eligible for parole in 1983. I was sentenced to a life sentence, but in 1983 I became eligible for the first time for parole, and at that parole hearing they told me to continue to a full consideration hearing, which meant 1993. I took my court appeal all the way to the 9th Circuit and actually won the Appeal in the 9th Circuit, and that took ten years and the court ordered the Parole Commission to recompute my parole release date, give me an immediate new hearing, absent any erroneous and false information about an alleged assault that never took place—it took place, but I wasn’t involved in it.
And the Commission went through the motion of giving me a new hearing, and then said “Continued until 2/3rds Expiration,” which is 2004. Since ’83, I’ve gone to the Parole Board in ’91, again in ’93, ’95, ’98, 2000, (I haven’t gone in 2002 yet). And in 1993, for the first time, the Parole Board examiners recognized that something was wrong, and they attempted to give me a Parole Release date: they recommended I be released on December 7th, 1998 and they awarded me fifty-seven months for superior program achievement because there have been a lot of things I’ve done positive since I’ve been locked up. And it went to Washington and they took that back. And again in 1995, the Commissioners attempted to give me a 1998 release date, and again, it was taken back in Washington.
I appealed that decision, and thanks to the effort and support from numerous friends, too many to mention, I was able to get some very good legal representation. And now, we have a case in court down in Florida and it’s right up to the ending point, whereas if the judge rules in my favor, I will get immediate release. If they rule not in my favor, then no doubt I’ll be released in 2004—if life lasts and death passes.
But it’s been an on-going struggle with the Parole Commission.
And I have to mention this, Eda: it’s not just me. Particularly those who are considered political prisoners, like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abul-Jamal in state prison, and many up in the state of New York—all over the country, about one hundred and fifty of us. That’s the treatment that we received: we received long, lengthy sentences; in many cases, wrongfully convicted.
And in spite of the fact that we have pretty much been what they call “model prisoners” because we are who we are, we do what we do—in spite of all of that, we keep getting denied parole over and over again. Like Leonard just got denied parole on July 9th, this year. And Mumia got his case overturned in so far as the death penalty phase, and they’re trying to re-sentence him either to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
But thanks to the many people whose eyes are now being opened, we’re getting a lot of support. Because in the old days, there was very, very little support. We were pretty much going on our own. Thanks to the untiring efforts of many people, I was able to get some very good legal representation. But in spite of that legal representation, the Parole Board has dug its heels in and has refused to honor its own rules, regulations and guidelines, as well as the law of the land.
And so we have a case in court that addresses all those issues and it will be decided in the not so distance future. Maybe within a month or two. Hopefully, less than that. Obviously, I’m eligible to go every two years. So, I’m waiting.
—Because when I went in the year 2000, represented by my attorneys, the examiner told me he recommended I be released on Sept 12, 2001. And as witness our interview right now, this is 2002 and it’s September 11th, and I still haven’t been released. It’s a lot of things that don’t meet the eye. But at any rate, we continue to struggle.
EL: How do you maintain the positive spirit—and sanity—after being in prison so long?
VBJr: That’s a question I’m often asked by a lot of the youngsters that are around today—when I look around prison today (because I was one of the younger guys in prison back in those days in Maximum Security penitentiaries). And so I meet a lot of young guys—young, very, very young with more time sentence-wise than they have been on the earth. Like twenty-two or twenty-three years old with Life sentences and forty-five years, and they often ask me: “Man, how do you do all of that time?” That’s the question. But when you say how? Obviously, you just continue breathing—you know what I mean. But it’s also (in my particular case) because I’ve always recognized that myself, as individual, I’m just a part, a small part, of the suffering of a People.
And so even though I’ve suffered the pain and despair of being separated from my loved ones—my mama: she’s eighty-six years old now and in bad health; and my daughter, when I left her, she was five years old: now she’s just had her thirty-sixth birthday—and married with two children, my grandkids. So that pain of that type of separation—longing to be with your family—can never go away. It’s that 24/7 type of pain.
But I also recognize, when I look back and look at the suffering that Granny and Grandma and all the other grannies and grandmas and mommas and daddies and children who have been living lives that could be so much better (you know) if things had changed to some degree or another, that that individual pain and suffering, is long-standing; and so, my suffering becomes very little when you com-pare it, or make the connection between that type of suffering and the suffering that I endure as an individual.
And I’m surely not saying that because I understand a few things that I didn’t understand when I was a little boy—if that makes it any easier. And of course with friends (and I could just name a whole list of friends and supporters who’ve given me courage, who’ve given me hope—guys in prison too but a lot of people who I have been in contact with over the years who have given unconditional love and support and friendship.
And then when you look at the struggle of peoples throughout the world, you recognize that you have to live life somewhere.
And I recognize that. That whether I am in prison or out in the so-called “Free World’ that I have to live my life somewhere. And I’ve determined long ago that I want to live it the best I can, and as fully as I can, wherever I am and wherever I find myself.
In those Maximum Security penitentiaries back in the old days, you used to do a lot of ‘hard time’, they called it; it reminds me of a poem: “Without the cold and disillusion of winter, there can never be the warmth and splendor of spring. Calamity has hardened me and turned my mind into steel.” It’s like the life of a willow tree: you learn to bend when you have to and weather the storm.
So people have told me: “Man, you seem to have found a way to maintain your sanity and dignity.” And I remember reading in one of Nelson Mandela’s books (you know, he did twenty-seven years over there in South Africa, he and his comrades)—and he said one of the hardest things that they found doing that type of incarceration and misery, was how not to adjust. That you maintain your dignity and self-respect, and honesty in dealing with people; and you care for people.
I think I’ve done that because that’s the way I was raised. And so when people look and say, “You’re a strong man,” it’s not because I’m a strong man but because I was raised by strong women and a strong people. And I’m just blessed and thankful that some of those characteristics of those people I just mentioned found a way into my own heart. I just do the best I can, because I love people, and I love life, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to have good people in my life.
Like a master flute maker I know named Monty, and an eloquent lady, Kayo, and your sister, Anna. Those in the Jericho Movement: Safiya and Paulette and Herman. My sisters Cynthia, Rhonda, Voni & Joi, Betty, Jean Marie, Ovedia, Debbie, Debb. Mamma Mae, her beautiful daughter Theriseta. My attorneys: Neoma Kenwood, who fought single-handedly for ten years, Mr. Curtis Crawford, Mr. Benjamin Malcolm (may they rest in peace), Edward Hammock & Donnna Sullivan. John Neptune & the world of Shakuhachi. Maynard Garlield —the list goes on to where you just can’t name all of the people who have influenced your life, and you accept that blessing as it comes.
One thing that I forgot to mention is that I had tried to escape in Lompoc in 1979, and I was shot and apprehended, as was my comrade.
Archie Fire Lame Deer sent a couple of warriors over and invited us into a sweat lodge ceremony of Native Americans, and from that ceremony, that day—it was a healing ceremony—I’ve adopted those ways and I walk that path of what is called the ‘Red Road’. And that sweat lodge, the ceremonies—the discipline it takes and the connection with all living things—has made a significant change in my life.
—Including Shakuhachi: the blowing, the using of the breath, connecting with your inner self in meditation. Those kind of things, and healthy exercise and trying to eat the best you can, you can still smile in spite of the harshness of the environment. Environments do make a difference, but I don’t think they are the determining factor in how you view the world and how you respond to that world.
Because today is a lot different than it was in the old days. And particularly, Eda, this institution where I am—Coleman, Florida. It’s the first time (after twenty-six years) that I came to a lower-level security-type institution. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I’ve never experienced an Administration like this one. Here, because of the broad vision of the warden and his administration, we’re allowed to have quite a few programs that are meaningful. Programs in the sense that the guys can contribute something back to society. We have a little program we call YES—Youth Encouraging Support—wherein we are able to make contact through our program with young kids who they call ‘trouble kids’, but they really are kids in trouble. Kids from the ages eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen who have been in trouble with the law. We’re able to sit with them in the visiting room and interact and exchange a lot of ideas and feelings and thoughts—to try to make a difference.
We have a program called ‘Non-Violence Training Outreach’ an out-reach program teaching guys self-respect and character building. We have a Fine Arts Department where we put on plays that are slices of life. These types of programs, because of the way things are going to-day, have been not allowed in many many places. So I think we’re like pioneering and laying the groundwork for the future. Because today, there are so many young guys coming into prison, many of them without a GED, or communication skills. And we’re able to make a difference. And that is very meaningful to me as an individual.
So even though prison is a place where no one wants to be; because we are here, some will make a positive use of their years of confinement—and some don’t. And its real painful and terrible to see those that don’t, who often times, through no fault of their own.
At any rate, all the little things combined together to either make you into a better human being, or break you and make you unrecognizable as a member of the human family when you are released.
EL: Today marks the anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and undocumented workers. Could you describe what happened inside the prison that day, and how it has changed since September 11th.
VBJr: On that particular day, it was probably like everywhere else. What happened was something that we couldn’t have even believed to be possible— the loss of that many lives all at once. And not just the lives that were lost immediately, but the families, the things and everyone that was affected by it.
There is one guy here, Siokatame Hafoka from the island of Tonga—that’s way in the middle of the Pacific—he’s a member of our Sweat Lodge ceremony. He’s a big gentle giant—I mean a huge guy—and he’s a gentleman and has a heart as big as he is. Big. And this guy (there are about 1700 people here in this institution) was so affected (as many people were), he fasted every single Tuesday, until today—till yesterday—which made it a whole year of fasting—without food or water. Just to remember that day and remember the spirit of what had happened.
I know that in other institutions, there was lockdown; meaning everybody was locked into their cells. But this place is a lot different than a lot of other places and we didn’t directly experience that—although a few guys got locked up because of their religious affiliations with Islam.
And you hear a diversity of attitudes. But I myself recognize that not only were a lot of innocent lives lost here, but that there have been repercussions on the people of Afghanistan and that people throughout the world have been effected by what happened that day. I think it was something like 2,824 odd people have been identified through body parts that have been found. In my own mind and heart that was a great tragedy. And like in all wars of all times, war is a mutual slaughter of men and women, and those kinds of things they can only sadden the heart.
EL: If there was one thing that you could change in this world what would it be?
VBJr: I would love to be able to change the relations among men—when I say “men” I’m also including women. Humankind. Because we talk about war, poverty, hunger and misery on the one hand, but it’s opposite always exists. But it evolves down to the relationships. Relationships to me are very, very important, and if there is to be a world free of sexism and fascism and ageism and all those other “isms”and schisms that divides humankind—not to mention racism, which is an artificial division of human being based upon skin color or positions and stations of life…
If we could go back in time to that time of what is called “primitive communal society”, but really was a society when there was a lot of collective and mutual cooperation in order to survive against the beasts of prey and the forces of nature that man didn’t understand; if things could be ordered in such a way (not ordered in a sense of a dictatorial thing) but ordered by mutual respect. ..
Like the way I grew up in a community. The elders had respect, not because they had authority being imposed upon those who gave the respect, but because that respect was well-earned and understood. And that’s the type of respect that even great presidents and generals and foreign ministers don’t have because those things are not something that can be forced upon a people.
So if those relations change—relations to the point of production—then we could have a much better world where a woman would never know what it is to have to give up her body in prostitution, or people would never know what it was like to grow up in slavery, a beast of burden. That’s what I would hope for my children and grandchildren and the children after them, and yours, and those yet to be born. And it could be so, but that requires a lot of struggle and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of willingness of people to understand that unless we cooperate as a human species, then we are going to perish.
EL: Is there some advice you would like to tell youth in America today?
VBJr: Yeah. It’s been said (and it’s not rhetorical) that the youth are like the sunshine at eight or nine o’clock in the morning—bright, full of beauty and vigor. And they will visit places where those of my generation and other generations can’t even dream of—yourself included. You have places to go that can only be dreamed of. So, the youth have a great responsibility—like all generations that come after the generation that’s currently struggling to make a better world.
The youth have to take a sober look at that. Not in the sense of foregoing all the joys of life that come with youth, but also recognizing that youth, just like old age, is a passing thing, and it’s here now and it will be gone.
So we listen to our past—reflecting on our past—and plan for the future and live in the moment. . . Often time we see that youth have been criminalized as a generation. They still are our hopes, because they are going to be the future leaders of tomorrow. And so, that responsibility that they have, that has been squarely laid on their shoulder, it will be a heavy burden. But I have full confidence in our youth—the hip-hop generation.
Every generation has its ways. The youth of today are very much in tune with life and the world around them. You hear it in the music, you hear it in the rap music; you see it in their dance, the way they walk and talk. It’s just a matter of being willing to listen, as we all have problems listening when we are young. I pin my hopes upon the youth.
And when I see these youngsters come into the programs I was telling you about: we’ll be out in the visiting room talking and you look in their eyes, and sometimes you see despair, and sometimes a few sparks flare up, and your heart hurts inside, because without some changes, then you know a lot of people will live half-butchered lives, who could otherwise live meaningful lives.
—Not just in the sense of being professional people like doctors and lawyers, but just contributing positive things to their own communities, and to their own families. That’s where it starts at, with the family. And it goes out from there to the community and to the city and the state and the nation. And the world.
EL: What are your own future plans when you finally get out in the year 2004
VBJr: If that happens—and like my mama always say: “If life lasts and death passes.” In other words, if I keep breathing and I am fortunate enough to be re-leased in 2004 (or if I win my case down here in the court that I have going now, and am released immediately). I have a lot of plans.
One is to try to keep breathing—living. And I would really like to be able to open up a Meditation Healing clinic. Over the years I’ve studied and learned and practiced acupressure and hands-on-healing and tsubo therapy, and a variety of healing arts including blowing shakuhachi as a means of self-meditation healing, and have gained some insights and rewards doing all of that stuff to relieve pain.
Pain is a thing people don’t have to necessarily live with—or “learn to live with” as the medical profession often says. But pain can be relieved with the touch of a finger or the sound of a note, or the sound of a voice or a birdsong.
So I would like to try my best to open up a clinic of that nature and train some youngsters in that art of caring, and try to make a little difference in some lives, and take it from there . . . (Loud commotion-sounds like. “Closed, closed, prepare/or. . .] That’s a big announcement.
Anyway, I really have to say that I’m very happy that my mother (who is 86 years old), and my daughter Veronica, even though they suffered so much pain in my absence, that they’ve understood that I had to follow my dream for a better world for US all. Because at one time, I don’t think they understood. But they do now. And those kind of things help one situated like myself, to continue. Those are the kinds of things that mean so much. And I want to thank you, and I want to thank Dan, and I want to thank all of the people at KZYX and all of you listeners who put up with all of my ramblings. Obviously, I definitely want to thank all of the people who have believed in me and have supported me. And I can only hope that that will continue, and that somehow in the future, that my own life—what I have left of it—will be used in a way that is befitting that type of unconditional love and support. This call is from a federal prison. This is a prepaid call. This call is from . . . Veronza