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The Case of Daniel Baker: Online Speech and Community Defense

The Case of Daniel Baker: Online Speech and Community Defense

Painting of Daniel Baker with a scarf
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On January 15th, 2021, two men received a knock on the door of their Tallahassee apartment from someone claiming to be delivering a Postmate parcel. The two hadn’t ordered anything and raised suspicion that someone was trying to break in and rob their home so they said they didn’t order anything and refused to open the door. Moments later, their door crashed open and a percussive grenade ignited as FBI swarmed in with guns drawn, yelling.

This was the arrest of US military veteran, YPG volunteer medic and instructor of yoga and jujitsu Daniel Baker on charges of inciting violence at Florida’s state capital. This may sound like a familiar story of government arrests across the country since the January 6th far right riot to stop the counting of votes that Trump supporters and avowed white nationalists engaged. The difference lies in the fact that Dan Baker wasn’t calling for the storming of anything. The FBI alleges that he made posts online calling for people to resist an attempted coup that elements of the far right had been promoting since the failed acts of January 6th in DC, where armed putschists would take State capitals and public officials hostage. So, why did the FBI targetting Mr Baker? Why has he not been allowed private meetings with a lawyer since his detention? Why was he kept in solitary since his pre-trial time at the Federal Correction Institution at Tallahassee begun?

On October 12th, 2021, Dan Baker was sentenced to 44 months in Federal Prison for “interstate communication of threats” for his facebook posts and his militant anti-fascism, including his time fighting Daesh or ISIS in Rojava. His defense is appealing the ruling, otherwise he’s expected to be released at the soonest in March of 2024.

For the hour, we’re sharing our March 7th, 2021 conversation with Jack and Eric. Both are anti-racist activists, students of Daniel’s yoga and jujitsu instruction and Eric was the roommate that was present at the time of the home invasion by the FBI. You can find links to articles about the case in the show notes at our website and in this podcast and more information on Daniel’s case is at the instagram account, @FreeDanBaker, you can contact support at DanBakerDonations@gmail.com, donate to his support on paypal with that email and find his amazon wishlist on the instagram.

You can write to Dan Baker at:
Daniel Alan Baker #25765-509
FCI Memphis
FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
P.O, BOX 34550
MEMPHIS, TN 38184

Some media coverage of Dan’s case:

Other related reading:

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you all please introduce yourselves with whatever names pronouns or affiliations that make sense for this chat?

Eric: My name is Eric, he/him. I’m a visual artist, and I was Dan’s roommate at the time of his arrest. We had traveled together for a while.

Jack: My name is Jack, I use they/them pronouns. I am studying biomathematics and computational science, and I’m an activist and organizer in the Tallahassee Community.

TFSR: And are y’all on the support crew for Daniel?

Jack: I’d say we’re probably the two main folks on the support group. We were all training jujitsu together at the time of Dan’s arrest, jujitsu and yoga.

Eric: Yeah, we just started a workout group thing that they’re trying to criminalize him for. They came after a yoga teacher.

TFSR: Would you all give listeners a thumbnail sketch of who Daniel is, and your relationships or how him?

Eric: We crossed paths a few times over the years. I think the first time we actually met was around 2013, we had crossed paths in the Krishna Temple in Chicago while I was traveling around, he had just come from a Rainbow Gathering. And he was traveling, visiting some different temples on the way back to the East Coast. We only met for a couple of days. And then we had reconnected on Facebook years later, after he had returned from Syria. I didn’t even recognize him at first. But I reached out to him because I wanted to learn more about his experience, I had already been studying some related Political Science type stuff and I wanted to try to get more insight into what his experience was like. He had also had some training that would be very valuable for all the different protests that were going on. So every once in a while, I’d kick down and send a donation here and there when I could to keep him going. And then eventually, we just decided to take a road trip.

I guess we connected online, maybe a couple of years ago, late 2018, early 2019. We had known each other for about a year just online, we traveled together. He had just been in Tallahassee for maybe five or six months when he was arrested. He had some roots in the community here. We were trying to make friends and network with local activist circles, and participate in the best way we could. Dan had gone through the Combat Lifesaver training with the army and had applied it during his time in Syria, so he was very valuable as a street medic. I’d just been traveling around painting on and off full-time for years, so we both would just fly signs sometimes and do a pop-up exhibition. I would live paint, we saved up to get a room. We were camping for a while. We got off the street and got a small apartment. We’re able to save up and put him through a BMR course. He knew all the material pretty much but he just needed the certification to be able to work in that field. So we were on the way to getting him reestablished here and then dudes kicked our door…

Jack: First they said they were the Postmates Delivery Service. The FBI knocked on the door and then said, “Postmates Delivery”. And then Dan was “We didn’t order Postmates” and shut the door. They kicked down the door, threw in a flashbang, and then said, “FBI”. Obviously, you have Dan and Eric sharing it separately, Dan had a very difficult time being able to communicate with anyone. But I think that the FBI wasn’t expecting the blind landlady who’s 80 years old and was in the room next door to corroborate the story. And so once that came out, she was in the room next door and heard them announce themselves as the Postmates delivery, and was able to independently verify that this happened. And they haven’t responded to that. They didn’t even deny it when it came up in the public hearing. The FBI agent went first and then said, “We announced ourselves and they resisted arrest”. And then Eric was up and he was “They didn’t announce themselves. They said they were the Postmates delivery service”. If you get a knock on the door, and it’s a delivery and you know you didn’t order something I don’t think anybody wants to answer that door. And I think everybody thinks they might think that they might be getting robbed.

Eric: As I said, we were trying to start a workout group, we had been traveling and I was trying to pick up some first aid stuff from him. He had also done some training in jujitsu, he had competed a decent amount, he had some gold medals, I think he’s about purple-belt level, he was upper-intermediate. And he was just helping me pick up some of the basics. We’re going to the Ashtanga Yoga primary series for the yoga teacher training. He had the first certification in that. He was working on building up his second certification. And I was going through getting my first. So we started inviting some other people out, and getting some more folks involved, because I would never be able to afford to learn all that stuff without somebody who’s giving that access. So I just really wanted to help him make that available to the community here. Jack was one of the first people who was coming regularly to the groups we were doing and I guess it was helping them move past some recent difficulties.

Jack: When I started training jujitsu and yoga, I have just gotten out of an abusive relationship. Training with Dan and Eric was actually a really healing practice for me. Dan and Eric created a safe space, which sometimes, as a non-binary person, can be really difficult, especially with cisgender white males, but they were both really, really, really compassionate and understanding. Dan and Eric are both really strong feminists. And I just really appreciated how comfortable they made me and how supportive they were while I was going through this process. So that was just really fundamental for me to move past this relationship and the pain that I had gone through. I feel like I owe Dan so much because he was just somebody who is very understanding,

TFSR: There are a few things that I’m noting, in addition to the descriptions of you both talking about how Dan’s been someone who works to create space, who works to build skills in order to share them, those sound like some pretty fundamental parts of who he is, as a person. People would join the military for a lot of different reasons, in part, maybe because they want to further a career, get out of a bad situation, maybe some more nefarious perspectives that people can have sometimes joined the military, but to train up to be effectively a combat medic, or a medic in what could be deadly situations, is a great skill set, and then going on to continue to apply that by volunteering, to participate in the struggle against ISIS is another show that someone is applying this life-saving tool. And the fact that Dan was bringing it back and bringing it into these dangerous protest situations that the far-right and the police create more and more so as time goes on in the US, seems to say a lot about Dan’s character.

Eric: Yeah, at least from what I understand, whenever people come back from Rojava, often they’re briefed at the airport. And a lot of times, they’re just discouraged from getting involved in politics or activism or anything like that. But Dan was very committed to his beliefs and to social justice. And he is one of those rare individuals who are willing to go to prison or put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of protecting others. And I think that’s a fundamental part of his character.

TFSR: And so you all were finding some stability at the time when this raid happened. I mean, being housing unstable is not, sadly, a unique situation these days, but especially during the pandemic is a very difficult time, that must have been very emotionally, impactful, and frightening to have somebody bust through the door and throw a flashbang and suddenly hear FBI with guns drawn out of nowhere. That’s a traumatic experience.

Eric: Yeah, it’s was the last way I was expecting this trip to turn out, although we had a feeling something like this could happen because we had also been previously stuffed by the FBI in Seattle during the time we were there. They had just rolled up to us in a parking lot after this one shooting had happened to question us about things that they had seen online. He just told them that he had already made his public commentary on Twitter. And that was basically all he had to say about it. So they let us continue on. As far as I know, they’ve been observing him for as long as I can remember, I think he got back in like 2018. He said they’ve been pretty much observing him and I’ve seen him post about being stopped a few times already. So it seems like he’s been under regular surveillance for a long time.

TFSR: And y’all were up in Seattle, where he was doing medic work around the autonomous zone period, right? There were a few shootings I know of that it seems to make sense that he would be around when there’s some violence showing up, running towards the trouble in order to mitigate the harm that’s been caused, to help save lives.

Eric: Yeah, I had been stranded out of state when COVID happened and quarantine started, I was homeless at the time, I was staying in a shelter, and I just ended up getting some seasonal work, and then got the stimulus. I sold some paintings also. I was able to get this car. And we had both been following the Unicorn Riot and talking about how we wish we could be there and support. And once we got the ability to do so it made sense to just take a trip.

TFSR: What were the reasons that the FBI immediately gave for the arrest, if they gave any? What has the federal prosecution sent to the US attorney or whoever it is that’s conducting prosecution? What arguments are they giving as to why they thought it was necessary to bust into the apartment and arrest him?

Eric: I’m not even really sure about the justification for breaking in. The justification they’re using for the entire case is just them seeing some Facebook posts and some flyer going around. Apparently, he was indicted on two separate charges. But his public defender is saying that they generally only rule as one charge, if even that, so hopefully, it won’t be as bad as a maximum sentence.

TFSR: So the posts that appear to be the main source of the FBI’s argument were related to after January 6, after the right-wing riot that occurred at the National Capitol in DC. The far-right was claiming that it was calling for people to have similar actions taking over space, damaging property, threatening people at state capitols around the country. Is it correct to say that the posts that you’re talking about are one saying “We as community members need to show up and resist the violence of the far-right and what violence they might bring into our communities while they’re doing that”? Was that the nature of the posts on social media?

Eric: Yeah, allegedly it was a reaction to the situation. It’s not like he was taking some initiative to instigate or harass anybody or anything, it was due to these pressing events and these threads coming up, which a lot of us had been expecting for a long time, at least on some level. We were anticipating that we might not see a very peaceful transition of power. And especially after what we had seen in DC, it was reasonable to assume that something similar could happen at the state capitol as well, especially that the FBI themselves were circulating warnings about what could happen.

TFSR: I think there’s a fundamental difference between somebody going to another place, going to DC, for instance, to protest or to counter-protest, as opposed to saying, “Hey, there’s a very strong danger that militia or some other group or proud boys or whatever are going to be coming to our hometown and bringing some of the same violence that you’re seeing in this other place”. Just to go back, if Daniel is the person who will run towards danger, because he has built the skills and because he’s courageous enough to put himself on the line in order to act as a line of defense as well as to help people who are in harm’s way, it seems a little illogical that the FBI is making a point of attempting to prosecute this individual who was trying to mitigate harm.

Eric: The instinct is you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is just a mistake or something. But I guess by now, there are so many of these cases.

Jack: I don’t necessarily hold the FBI in the highest faith. But then even just the whole thing where they pretended they were the Postmates delivery. What is the rationale for that, what did they gain by pretending they were the Postmates delivery service? One of the criminal complaints against Dan was that he said he was getting funded by George Soros. That he had an Antifa card from George Soros. Then they use that to try to prove that he’s this international “terrorist”. During the public hearing, the public defender asked the FBI agent, “Do you know who George Soros is”? And the FBI agent said, “No”. I laughed really hard, because what the fuck? I was even told to not laugh. And then the public defender said, “Do you really think Dan was getting funded by George Soros”? And then the FBI agent said, “Well, since I don’t know who that is, I’m not sure”. Either he’s really stupid and doesn’t know who George Soros is, or he is really bad at his job and doesn’t know who George Soros is and isn’t aware of the QAnon conspiracy that right-wing extremists ascribe to, or he was lying and playing dumb. Either of these options is not good, for why he doesn’t know who George Soros is. It’s like saying I don’t know who Bill Gates is.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s been coming out more and more, especially in the last few years, but this year, in particular, with BlueLeaks, the amount of information that’s being pumped into the intelligence infrastructure of the US from these fusion centers, that pulls in a lot of conspiracy theories, whether it be about Antifa lighting fires in the Pacific Northwest, or just similar things to that, that the FBI agents didn’t even necessarily need to know who George Soros is, although it does say a lot about their disconnection from popular culture and conspiracy theories. But it’s not surprising if there was pumping in of far-right conspiracy thinking and disinformation to the local FBI chapter. And then they decided to act out of that.

As you say, there’s a history of the FBI attacking anti-racist movements, particularly focusing on Black and brown activists, but also disrupting and incarcerating tons of activists who act in solidarity against white supremacy and against anti-Blackness. This administration has made a point of – as I said, it was during the last administration anyway – but they had the whole statement about the events in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. I think that, especially after they had conducted extrajudicial killings of anti-fascist activists, if they were going to be going after and arresting people on the far-right who had participated in January 6, they probably had to pick up some people who would have been “opposition” to show that they’re not some deep-state, leftist Campbell Soup, whatever conspiracy group.

Jack: Yeah, DemocracyNow! had a really good interview with Benjamin Crump. And then they were talking about the new information that’s come up with Malcolm X, and he was saying that they’re now calling Black Lives Matter protesters “Black Identity Extremists”. Have you heard about that new terminology that’s being thrown around for arresting Black Lives Matter protesters?

TFSR: Yeah, they’ve been introducing that more and more since the Ferguson uprising. It makes sense for this not to come up in that conversation that Benjamin Crump was engaging, but they’ve also been using the term “anti-government extremists” to be able to lump in anarchist, anti-fascists & Black Liberation activists alongside white nationalists and Nazis. As opposed to focusing on white supremacists, they say, “Oh, well, the problem is not about the specific ideology. It’s about extremism, that’s extra-parliamentary where they’re going to go and do actions in the streets or attack people or whatever. We’re in a ‘post-racial society’. So we can say that, well, these people are extremists about whiteness. And these people are extremists about Blackness” as opposed to the centrist ideology that the US government is supposed to uphold. So yeah, Black identity extremists are being put on members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club or the Not Fucking Around Crew or the Black Women’s Defense League as armed groups for Black liberation. I disagree with the politics at least one of them does, but they have some sketchy views in terms of antisemitism, but this flattening of any opposition as being a threat to the Democrat and Republican parties basically. Sorry, that was ranty. I didn’t mean.

Jack: No, no, no.

Eric: If they can just pile up a whole bunch of Facebook posts and make the case out of that, that’s bad news for everybody.

TFSR: Yeah, absolutely.

Jack: Some of the things in the FBI complaint literally made no sense. In the criminal complaint, they had that Dan had posted YouTube videos showing basic first aid. And we were just “Why is this in the criminal complaint?”. This is not illegal, this is not harmful. This is literally Dan trying to educate people on how to help each other, how to literally heal each other. That was bizarre. There were other things too, in the public hearing, they were trying to “prove” that Dan was a flight risk. And they pulled up Eric’s Facebook and found a status where he said, “Things aren’t looking great in the country, really want to get the fuck out”. And that was back in August. And then they were “They have plans”. And then our public defender was like “When Reagan was president, I said I wanted to get out of this country”. To pull up a post from four months ago, and then have somebody that says, “I want to GTFO [get the fuck out] from this country” and then say, “That’s proof of plans of a flight risk” is just… The number of people who said they wanted to go to Canada, now they’re all flight risks. It’s really grasping at straws at that point.

TFSR: I was gonna try to make some joke about how far of a stretch that was in yoga, but I couldn’t.

Jack: It was so appreciated either way. There’s so much about it. We’re aware that Dan is a white male. So he is somebody who wants to defend Black lives. And he essentially wants to use his privilege to defend Black lives. He’s the type of person to run towards the sound of gunshots, he is the type of person who wants to use his white privilege to protect Black and brown lives from white supremacists. I want to say that just because we’ve been drawing a lot of parallels between the Black Panther movement, Huey P. Newton and a lot of the examples that we’ve been giving describe the FBI involvement has been with Black leaders, Black civil rights leaders. Obviously, Dan is not Black, and it’s still very nuanced and different. But I think that the criminalization of leftist ideology, in general, is still a common thread for all of these movements.

Eric: One of the things that terrify them the most is these types of Rainbow-Coalition- style initiatives that grasp the attention of people from a vast spectrum of backgrounds.

TFSR: Currently, Dan Baker is sitting in a federal prison in Tallahassee. Have you been in contact with him? How are his conditions? How are his spirits?

Eric: I got a couple of phone calls. I got a call the last couple of weeks. And then maybe two-three days ago, I just got another whole bunch of letters that I think had been delayed in transit. It was probably over a dozen letters, some of them are things that he wanted to share about his condition in there and the way he’s holding up.

Jack: Actually, I stepped out to check the mail really fast while you guys were talking, but I realized that I had bought Dan a bunch of greeting cards to give him some color in his cell. And then I see that effective August 15, all incoming general correspondence envelopes, including greeting cards must be white in color only. So now I’m realizing that none of my letters have actually gotten to him. It’s been very difficult to actually communicate with him. He wasn’t able to make a phone call for weeks. And when his lawyers asked the warden about it, the warden said, “Talk to the prosecution”. When they talk to the prosecutors about it, they’re “You got to talk to the warden”. So they were giving the public defenders the runaround. We didn’t hear from Dan for several weeks, it was very stressful. And then the color of the envelope… They scan all of the letters in the first place and then send them copies of scanned letters. So I have no idea why the envelope would matter at all. Because they don’t even send them the envelope in the first place.

Eric: There are a couple of complaints that he sends. They’re inmate requests to staff, he’s just trying to get access to his funds and being able to communicate with everybody. Basically, he’s just trying to request information on how we can access those things and it took him a long time, maybe another few days at least, before he even figured out how to be able to access the funds that he had available. He was trying to get phone calls, he couldn’t even really get phone calls with his lawyers. A lot of times, they had him on a three-man hold. I think it’s the FDOE regulation. They’ll have three people hold them on a chain with a lieutenant there. Every time he has a phone call, or every time he meets with his attorneys…

Jack: He hasn’t been able to have a private conversation with his attorneys. He’s been in the detention center for a month and a half. And he hasn’t had been able to have one private conversation.

TFSR: Because there’s always simultaneously these other prisoners that are being…

Jack: There are these three armed guards with him at all times. And they’re trying to present him as if he’s this evil criminal.

Eric: “Antifa super-soldier”.

Jack: Yeah, antifa super-soldier, evil criminal mastermind. As Eric said, he’s won six gold medals. But that’s training within his level and his division, he’s a purple belt training against other purple belts in his weight class, not somebody who’s a Black belt training against all these other Black belts. He is very skilled, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a ninja.

TFSR: Are they afraid he’s gonna attack his lawyer? They put him into a room with his lawyer, what’s the possible danger except for extracting him from the room afterwards?

And a quick content warning, the next section has a reference to sexual assault. So if you’re concerned, I would skip ahead about two minutes.

Jack: I think they just really don’t want him to be able to have a private conversation with his lawyer. There have been so many sketchy things about this whole thing. The fact that he wasn’t able to make a phone call mysteriously.

Eric: Yeah, we had been trying to make phone calls for two weeks or so before anyone was able to get through and even got in contact with his counselor. And he just hung up on us, we had to pay subscriptions even just to register a phone number in the system. Even then, I think they initially put him in solitary. They were saying it was for a quarantine measure, 14 days of solitary confinement. But then others were saying it was because they thought he was gonna start an uprising or something. Also, I think after he had spent some time in there, he was saying it would be preferable to go out into the general population because he was just a concern for his own safety.

Jack: One of the things that he wrote in his letter is that somebody was raped with a broomstick handle. When you think about the conditions of jail/prison or anything, it’s a place that breeds hostility environment, and the guards encourage it. That was in one of his recent letters is there is a person who is struggling with some mental issue, and the guards are saying that he’s faking it and encouraging the other prisoners to bully him and antagonize him and hurt him. Dan is not sure what to make of it, except that he realizes that somebody is being bullied and intimidated and harassed. And the guards are encouraging this behavior amongst the inmates.

Eric: I just got a couple of these letters from him over the last couple of days, the most recent ones were marked “urgent”, he was concerned because he was rotating his cell. And apparently, when he got into the new cell, it was covered in feces, and there’s blood in the sink and someone used the toothbrush in there or something. He wasn’t sure if somebody was going after him or trying to intimidate him, or what the situation was, but it was extremely unsanitary. He’s not given access to even antibacterial soap or anything like that. Apparently, it was another inmate who is suffering from some mental illness and he’s done this also in other cells. So it doesn’t seem like anyone is targeting him specifically. I think he has gotten threats from other people that he’s mentioned, but I was just discussing this with his attorney the other day, and some of these things are probably pretty common in a lot of these institutions. It’s hard to even tell exactly what action to take short of abolishing them.

TFSR: Can you tell me about the support crew a little bit like how you mentioned like you two are some of the most active people in it? What infrastructure have you been building or how’s it been trying to talk about the case? There’s been a few pretty good articles that I’ve seen online and Jack, you mentioned writing a bunch of op-eds. How’s that work going?

Jack: I think the way that it started is some of our Black community activists, Black leaders, actually reached out to us about trying to support Dan. And they recognized what Dan was trying to do and appreciated that he was trying to fight against white supremacy. Then we grew it to include some more of the different prison solidarity groups across the state, across the nation, actually. We have some people from Philadelphia, New York, Indiana, and then we also have people who are with the Rojava Solidarity Network, they just all reached out. And we were really grateful to have this solidarity. We just talk about different news articles that come out. I appreciate everyone’s perspective, like I said, it’s been really helpful to have Black activists give feedback because this is something we want to be very mindful of.

Eric: So it’s been important, this whole trip to defer to Black leadership.

Jack: Yeah, Black leadership and local leadership, especially since we’re talking about protecting Black and brown lives, we wanted the perspective of Black and brown leaders in the community.

TFSR: I know that during a past interview with Coffee with Comrades, Eric, you talked about using your existing artwork as a platform to talk about Daniel’s case. Is that still ongoing?

Eric: Yeah. Basically, Dan and I had started that project. We would live paint in public spaces. We started a page called the Guerilla Gallery. It’s a common thing that a lot of artists do, a pop-up exhibition. I revived that page because I hadn’t really had it running before. So I decided to dedicate it as an info hub for his case and to use it for future prison solidarity projects. Anyone is welcome to check that out if you want to keep up with it. It’s on Instagram, Guerilla Gallery TLH, it is in Tallahassee. So I’ve been tried to post the relevant addresses mailing addresses, and some of the guidelines for sending mail, any relevant articles, I’ll probably post this article. And then once it comes up, and it’s just like a place where I can, at least until we get a website going, we’ve just been using that. We do have a website in the works. But we got shut down by GoFundMe pretty early on. So we’ve been working with some other groups set up like an independent fundraiser. So hopefully that’ll be online shortly at that one hearing scheduled for I think it was last Monday, it was supposed to be a state case, a hearing for an arraignment for whether he gets to keep his firearms. But instead, they took him before a grand jury and tried him with I think it was just the prosecutor there. And so they ended up getting him with two charges, instead of just the original one, even though the public defender doesn’t think it’ll stick, but his state case is still coming up as to whether he gets to keep his firearms. So I was just able to hire a lawyer just the other day to assist with that case and represent him because I feel like that’s important if they’re also trying to take firearms away from people that they’re harassing in this way.

TFSR: Yeah, particularly people that haven’t been convicted of a crime. One thing about Florida is that Florida is the cousin to the rest of the US South where they give you guns or shove them into your hand when you’re an infant. That’s not fair and not true. But it’s just difficult to consider the idea that the state of Florida is looking to deny someone the right to bear arms when they have “served the country”, and also when they haven’t been charged with actually conducting any violent criminal act, let alone when conducting of criminal acts in which a gun is a part of that.

Jack: The whole thing is bizarre. Exactly like what you’re saying that he hasn’t actually been convicted of anything and they’re already trying to make this decision.

Eric: If we can do some art exhibition pretty soon to draw attention to this, it’ll also show up some of the systemic issues of how these types of laws can be used to take away people’s voting rights, their ability to protect themselves. And there’s just like so much wrapped up in it.

Jack: Also the absurdity of having social media posts be criminalized that were obviously jokes. Another one of the things of the criminal complaint was that Dan had pictures or posts about eating the rich, and these are fucking memes, this is absurd that they’re including “eat the rich” memes as part of a case against him to say that he’s a threat to society.

TFSR: I’m just looking at the statement, the press release from the Northern District of Florida US Attorney’s office right now. It is saying two counts of transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure. So this is one of those instances again, also not only is that, but they’re out of context social media posts, that it’s not even actionable if it doesn’t post some recipe about how to prepare the rich for consumption. But they tack on the interstate commerce because it’s being done over the internet, even though this is about stopping a far-right incursion or attempt to putsch against the government in the town that you live in. The fact that there are communications about how we need to resist violent actors coming in and causing violence upon ourselves and further reducing whatever “democratic government” there is in the world. They’re saying that it’s now a federal charge because it’s over the internet. It’s so ridiculous. Some pretty decent coverage, there was an article on Jacobin that came out in January…

Jack: I think the Jacobin article by Branko Marcetic is probably my favorite of the articles that have come out so far. I encourage everyone who’s listening to read that one specifically. Because I feel like that really captures the absurdity of the case.

TFSR: And I was surprised too, there’s also a pretty decent article “Coming from Prison”, which is a libertarian…

Eric: Yeah, I saw that too. I was about to post that one up the other day.

Jack: Okay, I actually haven’t seen that one yet.

Eric: I was surprised about that, too, to be honest.

TFSR: It’s making some pretty cogent arguments in a legalistic framework of the government attempting to suppress the right to bear arms based on the political speech of an individual. And it probably doesn’t hurt that again, he’s a white dude.

Jack: I’ll definitely have to read on that one.

Eric: It’s easier for the prosecution to go after Dan Baker than it is for them to prosecute Donald Trump.

TFSR: So another coverage’s come up and hopefully there’ll be more, but this situation reminds me of the case of Loren Reed, he’s Diné man in Arizona facing 10 years in federal prison for joking comments in a private Facebook chat during the uprising. Does there seem to be a trend in this application of speech on social media platforms like Facebook being taken out of context and used to criminalize people on the left? I don’t know if any other cases remind you of this thing or if you have other thoughts on that?

Jack: I mean, I would say, absolutely, there is this pattern of taking jokes, taking private messages, I think in the case of Lauren Reed, they’re really trying to slam this arson charge, which, for what I remember reading in the Al Jazeera article about it, it was born out of the Civil Rights Movement as a way of penalizing civil rights activists and these federal charges are almost exclusively used to punish civil rights activists, but I definitely see that there is this pattern. I can’t think of any other cases right now.

Eric: They have these laws ready await, they will pass them under the pretense of preparing to protect against right-wing violence. And then once the public focus dwindles, they’ll use it against leftists as soon as they get an opportunity. There were some other examples listed in that Al Jazeera article, there was Evan Ellis. I think he was a BLM organizer in Evansville, who got a two years probation and psychiatric evaluation and got three counts of felony intimidation for posting a little clip on Facebook of him making a gun gesture.

Jack: Oh, wow.

Eric: He was talking about allegedly some officials or something like that, I don’t know, some policies that he didn’t like. There was a Samuel Amara also. He was charged allegedly for threatening a racist counter-protester. He could get up to five years. Those are felony arson laws that were invoked against Standing Rock protesters that Jack was referring to. There’s also a recent case here in Tallahassee, do where Baker County is? I think it’s somewhat close by to Tallahassee, but there’s another local activist named Kevin Connor, who was arrested recently. They’re trying to present it as if he was acting inappropriately with minors or something like that. He was just an organizer who was helping students, he was invited to speak to them about how they could organize in their schools and their campuses.

Jack: Even just as far as a local example is in Tallahassee, 19 people were arrested for protesting on the sidewalk. And they tried to slam some of them with felony charges. One still has felony charges, which haven’t been dropped. In Tallahassee, we had a man driving a truck through the crowd, no charges were pressed against him because he said he feared for his life. And we had a guy who actually pulled out a gun and pointed it at protesters. And he also had no charges because he said he feared for his life. So this is a counter-protester, just some white dude. But you just have a rainbow coalition of Black and brown and white activists fighting for Black Lives Matter protesting on a sidewalk and a 19-year old get arrested.

It’s just the laws are not equally distributed at all. In Florida, there’s this anti-protest bill. And they’re saying that it’s going to be DeSantis, the governor introduced it during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, it got a lot of backlash. And then he reintroduced it after the events that unfolded at the Capitol on January 6. And he’s saying that as to fight extremism. But the way that some of the speakers at the most recent protests explained it is there are already laws against rioting, there’s already laws against looting. And what these anti-protest laws, these felony charges do is make it more expensive, and keep making the sentences longer for anybody who breaks those laws. And then they are unequally distributed and used primarily against left-wing activists, but most recently, they’re coming out of this idea that it’s to stop right-wing extremists.

Eric: Recently, some courts have ruled that portions of the Federal Riot Act are unconstitutional. So even people who encourage or promote riots are legally free speech currently.

TFSR: I didn’t know about that. I’m looking forward to reading up on that after this. These are really good examples that you’re bringing up that I don’t know about. So I’m gonna do a little research and link some articles.

Jack: It’s also called the Anti-Protest Bill, if you look up Florida anti-protest bill, but the thing is 26 states have introduced bills like this since what happened on January 6, and what’s being introduced in Florida isn’t even the worst one, there are some that are actually trying to make it so that it is a 30-year prison time felony charge for organizing a protest. And then the way that DeSantis bill is defining a protest is a group of nine or more people blocking traffic at an intersection, which would include every demonstration that the Black Lives Matter protest had. And it also tries to make it so that there is no option for bail for people who are arrested for these protests, charges that try to make them felonies, which, in addition to stripping people of the right to vote, also makes that they can’t work state or federal jobs. The way that felony charges are used against people in Florida is just really disastrous. Many bills like this have sprung up in over half the country as a result of what happened on January 6, but they’re going to be disproportionately used against leftist activists versus the right-wing extremists that they’re claimed to have started from. Oh, actually, Eric just pulled up a good infographic.

Eric: Also the bill protects anyone who does bodily harm to protesters. So they’re already willing to make allowances to protect property. But if anyone tries to protect another person, that’s terrorism. Really, what he was doing is counter-terrorism. But If they admit that, then they’ll have to admit that Trump is a terrorist. And he appointed that. But also damaging a statue can be punishable for up to 15 years. And it also allows the state to override any municipality that wants to decrease police budgets.

Jack: Yeah. So the way that they have it is if a municipality votes to decrease their own police budget, it has to be approved by DeSantis, in order to defund the police, which when you think about it, there’s this whole argument about states rights and civil rights and local rights, and then suddenly, no, just kidding, we have a dictatorship where we have one person that gets to decide this decision for everybody. If there is a protest, and if damage happens, the state of Florida can sue the municipality for not adequately supplying their police officers. So if anything is damaged, they can say that the city needs to increase its police force. It’s a very problematic bill. And it’s not even the worst one that’s out there.

TFSR: If January 20 popped off the way that it was threatened to, for instance, and if this had passed, then police standing by and letting right-wingers go and do whatever they were going to do could be a reason for the police to just get more funding.

Eric: And in a sense, the real coup is just them seizing control of or trying to ram through all this anti-protest legislation. And ramping up all these surveillance programs.

TFSR: It’s not really a coup if they’re already in control, though, right?

Eric: Yeah.

Jack: Yeah. I wish I could find more specific info about that last bit that I was saying, I’ll have to look it up later.

Eric: Well, there’s also the federal level measures that are also being passed by Biden and Pelosi, as far as I know.

Jack: Patriot Act Two.

TFSR: Yeah. Aren’t we on number three by now? Yeah, definitely. All the security state discussion is in discourses, at least a lot of people are recognizing it for what it is that it’s just using whatever political capital they were able to… I’m sure that some individuals and employees were quite frightened on the 6th when the windows were getting smashed and people were coming in and fighting the cops and everything. And that sucks for cleaners or employees or whoever was working up there. But the fact that January 6 has been framed as another September 11. It is just so ridiculous, par for the course.

Eric: It doesn’t address the fact that the only reason they’re able to get in there is because all the cops and military were complicit and politicians.

TFSR: As far as supporting Daniel, how can people find out more about the case? How can they support the work that the crew is doing? How can they support him personally?

Eric: So far, it seems like his attorneys are doing a good job, they’re really well-known here in the community. I think they’ve also worked with other activists, so we lucked out in that regard. We’re focusing right now on letter-writing as much as possible. All of his information is on the @GuerillaGalleryTLH Instagram.

Jack: I also want to emphasize, as far as letter-writing is that the paper must be white in color, envelopes must be white in color. And they can only use blue or Black ink, it makes no sense because like I said, they scan the letters anyway.

Eric: There are screenshots of the guidelines and on there as well. And some links to the website with more information.

TFSR: Well, Eric and Jack, thank you so much for this conversation. Get at me with some of those links and I’ll definitely include them in the show notes about related cases. That’s a lot to think about and I really appreciate the research that y’all are doing. And the support work that you’re doing for Daniel, it’s super important even beyond him as your friend, as you said, these tools that are being turned on him are ones that are often turned on other people and are in danger of being used against all of us.

Eric: He’s so upset about his situation right now. He said he’s about to start a vow of silence, except for his allies. So I still have to find out if he’s following through with that, but it’s really crucial that he gets letters and that he just feels supported and that people are following his case and watching his case so at least that he’ll be less likely to suffer some abuse or something while he’s in there, at least they can be held to account for already what he’s been experiencing in there.

TFSR: To reiterate, as has been said, a lot of times on this show and in other discussions around supporting prisoners, sending letters to a prisoner is not just a kind act or a way of making a friend, but it literally is a measure in prisons of how much support or how many people are paying attention on the outside. And it literally means that not only Daniel, but the people that are around Daniel, for guards or administration to fuck with them, they have to know at that point, that all these people are, who are on the outside are going to have concerned about this, is it worth me messing with this guy, or the people around him if these many people are going to make a ruckus on the outside?

Eric: That’s what I’m really trying to focus on right now is creating some situation for him to be able to reenter, potentially even maybe in a better situation than he started. And just now that people have a better idea of who he is and what he stands for I hope that more people in the community will come together. And I’m trying to get him set up maybe with some platform to continue his yoga and jujitsu training and groups, and I’m hoping, you can hit the ground running when he gets out. And we can hopefully leverage this network to create some opportunities for him as well.

TFSR: Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention?

Eric: Coming to that place is serious, it’s a class war against all of us, we’re all potentially at risk here. So, I feel like everyone needs to show solidarity in their different communities to connect where they can and then to unify whatever groups are able to get together because that’s the only way that anyone will be able to protect themselves or each other.

Mèo Mun, Anarchist Views from Vietnam

Mèo Mun, Anarchist Views from Vietnam

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Mèo Mun is an anarchist collective working to make anarchist materials and ideas more accessible to a Vietnamese audience, together with providing an analysis of social struggles from a Vietnamese anarchist lens. Over the next hour you’ll hear three collective members, Mai, Will and tùng share their critiques of leftist misrepresentations of the Vietnamese State as Socialist, lasting impacts of imperialism and war on populations of Vietnam, the centering US imaginaries of Vietnam, the struggles of working class people in general (and queer folks and sex workers in particular) in Vietnam, nationalism promoted by the government and other topics.

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Transcription:

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourselves with any names, preferred gender pronouns, affiliations or political identities as make sense for this conversation? Can you tell us a little about… is it pronounced Mèo Mun?

Mai: Yes, it’s pronounced Mèo Mun. I’m Mai, I use any/all pronouns. I don’t particularly use any political label, but I adhere to many anarchist principles.

Will: My name is Will. I use they/them pronouns. I’m an anarcho-communist.

tùng: Hi, I am tùng. I use any/all pronouns, I am an anarchist against the state and capitalism.

TFSR: Thanks for being here!

So, I am excited to have this conversation with you, thanks for making time and effort to chat! As anarchists from Vietnam, could you give us some highlights of the history of libertarian anti-capitalist and anarchist ideas and movements in Vietnam and what the milieu looks like today? And what sorts of topics and engagement drive those groups?

Will: As a preface, we are quite cut off from our roots. Many of us had lived for decades until we even heard of the word that encompasses our ideas and ways of life. The elaborate and complex history of the struggle for liberation in 20th century Vietnam is painted with a single stroke: you were either a patriotic Stalinist or a reactionary traitor, a colonial, fascist collaborator. The Marxist-Leninists who now rule the country only came into power by systemically eradicating all the other oppositional currents, labeling them traitors, and so yeah, of course they’d like to have a clear black and white narrative, of course they’d like for there to be no nuances; they’d look kind of bad otherwise and that’d weaken their grip on power. So, documents about anarchism or general radicalism in Vietnam, that divert from the State’s narrative are usually inaccessible in Vietnamese, either as hard copies, or scattered around obscure corners of the internet. That’s why we are on our very own bumpy road to learn and reconnect with our roots.

Historically, anarchism in Vietnam never grew into a wide-spread political movement. However, the struggle against the state, particularly states of the most populous ethnic group—the Kinh / Viet—can be traced all the way back to feudal times. Ethnic minorities living in upland Vietnam have been resisting the Kinh / Viet state’s expansionism for a very long time. James C Scott remarks in the book The Art of not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia that many aspects of their cultures and ways of living can be read as anti-state and anti-authoritarian, meaning that they have, in a way, long practiced the tradition of keeping the state at arm’s length, out of their affairs. Their struggles continue until this very day, and we have much to learn from them. We must stress, though, that we should not retroactively apply the label “anarchist” to these groups and their practices, nor should we call what they do “anarchism.” As Simoun Magsalin, our Filipino comrade, observes about the anarchist milieu in the archipelago: we should be critical of the anarchist equivalents of a “noble savage” trope, and the search for a “pure” indigeneity unspoiled by the State that decolonization can return to. In the same vein, we have before criticized the idea popular amongst many Marxist-Leninists, that homophobia in Vietnam is solely a product of Western colonialism, and pre-French colonial Vietnam was a haven for queer people. Oof.

Anarchists, as well as radicals influenced by anarchist principles, also participated in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism of the 20th century. For example, under the yoke of French colonialism, the radical Nguyen An Ninh called for the youth of Vietnam to “reinvent itself and take control of its own destiny.” He critiqued the Confucian family values of parental authority, gender inequality and traditional morality, encouraging people to “break with the past and free themselves from tyranny of all kinds.” He fought side by side with other anarchists and libertarian communists such as Trịnh Hưng Ngẫu and Ngô Văn (a former Trotskyist), in the labor movement. But as we’ve mentioned before, the Stalinists came into power by systematically eradicating all the radicals from oppositional currents like the anarchists, and indeed the Trotskyists who were brutally slaughtered. Ngo Van, the former-Trotskyist-turned-council-communist who we mentioned earlier, went on to produce many materials critical of the authoritarian, counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinists after fleeing their persecution to France.

Mai: As for the contemporary anarchist milieu in Vietnam, it is extremely vulnerable and atomised. We simply don’t have contact with other groups, even though there might be quite a few out there. Those groups might wisely want to keep more to themselves rather than reaching out, since state repression is quite severe. This is a challenge for us, as one of our goals is to find a way for Viet anarchist groups to safely connect, communicate, and exchange experiences, if they so wish. Another reason is that our milieu has been chronically isolated from the milieus in other countries. There are many reasons for this lack of international interaction, such as language barriers and, again, state repression, but also a relative lack of support, solidarity and understanding from the Western left and anarchist community. We believe that anarchism, as a method of revolution, cannot be applied successfully by an isolated group, in other words, without international solidarity. The exchange of information and ideas, as well as the interlinking of our struggles are absolutely essential for the mutual strengthening of anarchist communities. And so, at the moment, building coalition with other milieus in South East Asia is one of the tasks that we prioritize. It’s also why we really appreciate the opportunity you have given us here on the podcast today!

Having said that, we are aghast that in many leftist circles in the West, Vietnam is painted as this Socialist haven where people think and act like a hive-mind, and the only ones speaking against the state are reactionary traitors, or CIA agents. So-called anarchists are paying to be fed those lies; so-called anarchists are capitalizing on those lies. We’ve lost count of how many times we have been fed-jacketed without any evidence whatsoever, and the people exposing us to harassment and doxxing got away scott-free. This stems from how the struggles in Vietnam and other over-exploited countries have been ignored by the majority of Western leftists for decades, especially when we can’t be used as ammunition in their own political discourse. This makes talking about our experience in Vietnam all the more dangerous, and it actively discourages anyone who might start speaking out.

As we touched on a bit before, organizing outside of the state framework in Vietnam, whether online or on the ground, is dangerous: the threats of police violence and incarceration are always looming over us and our loved ones. Many leftists seem to think of Vietnamese police as heroic defenders of the working class. It really shouldn’t need to be stated, but no, they’re not. Vietnamese police exists to protect the State and capitalist property in Vietnam. Police violence and deaths in custody in Vietnam are a well-documented reality. In Vietnam, the ruling party holds all executive, legislative and judiciary power. Cops don’t even need a court subpoena to enter our houses. Commoners like us grow up being taught to stay away from cops and everyone is used to bribing them. As for the law, there is a clause against the making, storage and spreading of material for the purpose of opposing the state and you could be sentenced to 5 or 12 years, if you’re caught.

Speaking from personal experience, many Viet anarchists seek out anarchism because we are marginalised in other ways on top of being exploited by capitalists as workers. Within Mèo Mun, many of our members are queer, disabled, and/or young. Some were radicalised while trying to organize rather unfruitfully within the liberal framework. Some have cited the horrible abuse they have suffered under the education and medical system. Some used to organize as Marxist-Leninists, simply because Marxism-Leninism is synonymous with Communism in Vietnam, but then can’t reconcile their reality with such an ideology anymore. So queer liberation, youth liberation, as well as disability justice and care are some of the passions that keep us going.

And also, I think I forgot to introduce a bit about Mèo Mun as a collective. Would it be possible for me to do that now?

TFSR: Of course!

Mai: Ok, so Mèo Mun is an anarchist collective working to make anarchist materials and ideas more accessible to a Vietnamese audience, together with providing an analysis of social struggles from a Vietnamese anarchist lens. Specifically, we do the work of archiving, translating, and disseminating anarchist texts, which can be found on the online Southeast Asian Anarchist library. There is also a very gradual translation of English Wikipedia pages related to anarchism into Vietnamese. You know, because Wikipedia tends to be the first place people come to for a basic understanding of new concepts. We try to reach a wider audience on social media as well, and we write and speak to educate people on what our experiences in Vietnam are like. The anarchist milieu in Vietnam is very atomized, so one of our goals is to connect Viet anarchists together, and provide a safer space for them to express themselves and exchange ideas, without fear of state repression, or mass harassment from statists and nationalists. Naturally, we make an active effort to include Viet anarchists in the diaspora in our organizing.

Individually, our members also participate in feminist, queer liberation, youth liberation and prisoners solidarity organizing.

TFSR: Awesome, thank you so much for the really thoughtful answers you’ve been giving, very clear.

So, you’ve already spoken on the pervasiveness of the police state and mentioned capitalist property and some other things in Vietnam. I would love to hear your perspectives on the political and economic direction of the State of Vietnam. An essay of yours that caught my attention is entitled “The Broken Promises of Vietnam” in which you argue that the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” is not actually socialist. You describe similar instances of neo-liberal national economic infrastructure development taking precedence over preserving ecosystems and leaving intact indigenous communities, let alone general public health. You also describe a government wielding a Nationalistic vision of citizens that excludes ethnic and sexual minorities and that allows for billionaires to rise while the working classes and peasants are displaced. Can you talk about this, about those broken promises and who are some communities most imperiled by the Nationalistic tenor of the CPV?

Will: So, in terms of politics, Vietnam is a crony Capitalist country. The success of a business depends entirely on how well they could navigate the unofficial channels of the state, on their relationships with the government or Party members and how much money they are willing to spend on bribery. Officially, Vietnam is dubbed a Socialist country, but the class stratification can be observed in our everyday life. We have a so-called “People’s” billionaire, Pham Nhat Vuong, who, allegedly, built his empire from shaking hands with government officials to hoard land at a dirt-cheap price. He owns a total of $7.3 billion in assets, equivalent to the total assets of about 800,000 Vietnamese (on average). Very Socialist! Not to mention that Vietnam also has many other billionaires, enough to have a Shark Tank show right on national television. The very first promise, that the commoners who sacrificed everything for Vietnam’s liberation would be directly in charge of it, was shattered the very moment the Vietnamese government came into being.

The current Secretary of the Communist Party also openly praises capitalism, spicing it up with some superficial lukewarm critiques of capital! He said, and I quote: “We acknowledge that Capitalism has never been as global as it is today and has achieved many great achievements, especially in the utilization and development of productive capabilities and scientific-technological progress.” So, we’re just supposed to ignore all the toils the working class has historically and currently endured under capitalist Vietnam, for a Communism that may never even come! The end justifies the inhumane means, apparently.

As for nationalism, we mentioned it in the article “The Broken Promises of Vietnam,” but if you speak up and criticise the State, no matter how valid your points, how copious your evidences, you will be seen as going against the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese nation, because the government has a vested interest in confusing party loyalty with the very natural and precious love that we have for our culture and fellow Vietnamese.

And as you know, nationalism sells the lie of a trans-class solidarity, that we Viet workers have more in common with Viet capitalists like Pham Nhat Vuong, rather than with fellow workers from China, Cambodia, Myanmar, or indeed the US. While in reality, Vietnamese capitalists and government go hand in hand with capitalists the world over to brutally exploit Vietnam’s cheap labor and natural resources. This can be observed in the outsourced manufacturing of electronic components and textile products to Vietnam, in the many Special Economic Zones that are mushrooming all over the country. There can’t ever exist any meaningful solidarity between us, between the capitalists and the working class, and the people in power are understandably frightened that the workers in Vietnam would one day see through this gross lie.

Consequently, they are dead-set on stoking the nationalist flame in Vietnam. That’s why career communists based in Vietnam spew absolute nonsense like “nationalism is crucial to communism in Vietnam.” Actually, Vietnamese nationalism is crucial to Vietnamese capitalism and authoritarianism. And the indoctrination process starts young.

Let’s examine the 5 commandments that Uncle Ho, Ho Chi Minh, taught Vietnamese youth:

1. Love your Fatherland, love your compatriots.

2. Learn well, work well.

3. Good unity, good discipline.

4. Good hygiene.

5. Be modest, honest, and brave.

These are hung in almost every classroom in Vietnam (usually with a photo of Uncle Ho). Many students are forced to learn them by heart. What comes first in these teachings? “Love your Fatherland.” Your fatherland comes before your compatriots. Children, who have not yet understood the concept of a “Fatherland,” let alone fully grasping what loving a Nation-state implies, are taught to put their “Fatherland” before themselves, before their family and friends. The next commandment: “Learn well” and “Work well.” For whom? In our opinion, also for your Fatherland, which is to say, for the state and the capitalists.

If you dare to question any of that, you’d likely be branded a traitor, a reactionary, a fake Vietnamese. If you dare to be “lazy” and not “work well,” you are a burden on society (disabled veterans in Vietnam are literally called “invalids;” we have “The Ministry of labor – War Invalids and Social Affairs”). The purpose of Vietnam’s education system, in our opinion, is to shape students into obedient workers or cogs in its capitalist machine, similar in essence to any other capitalist education system.

Also, many well-known authors whose works are featured in Vietnamese textbooks also incessantly preach nationalism and the idolatry of political figures like Uncle Ho, Lenin, and yes, Stalin. A 1993 poem by Tố Hữu, famed Vietnamese poet, reads:

Oh, Stalin!

Alas, do the earth and sky mourn Your departure

If I’m to love my father, my mother, my husband

and myself one, then I love You ten.”

So, “I love you three thousands, Stalin.” Ouch! That’s not very good…

Consuming products from Viet brands and Viet media is widely considered “patriotic.” Which makes non-consumption unpatriotic. How convenient for the market economy! Oh and, not only Viet media, but also foreign media which uses Vietnamese labor. In 2018, a Hollywood blockbuster was filmed in HaLong Bay, Vietnam. The film set was then utilized by the authority as a tourist attraction. The whole issue of how that movie depicts US soldiers in Vietnam and local people asides, as we read about and cheer for the ongoing IATSE strike, we can’t help but wonder if Vietnamese actors, extras and crew hired in film productions outsourced to Vietnam are compensated fairly and equally compared to their US counterparts. Fun fact: there hasn’t been a legal strike in more than 25 years in Vietnam. The General Confederation of labor, which is supposed to represent the interests of the workers, hasn’t been organizing strikes, and so all the strikes that did take place were illegal. It’s apparently unacceptable for the workers to organize and demand better conditions for themselves; a workers’ struggle is only legitimate in the eye of the state if the state can control its direction.

Mai: A field where nationalist sentiments are particularly intense is sport, mainly soccer. There was this photo of a person holding a portrait of Uncle Ho at a soccer match, which went viral a while back. That photo was said to be the evidence that Viet people love Uncle Ho. What was conveniently not mentioned is how the sport scene in Vietnam is one of the best showcases for how poisonous Vietnamese nationalism is.

Rampant on Vietnamese Social Media is the xenophobic attitude when our national football team have a match, especially with other Southeast Asian teams. If the referee makes a decision that’s unfavorable for the Vietnamese team, their Facebook or other social media accounts will be flooded with tons of vitriol and death threats. The same thing will happen to the opposing team’s players if they were deemed “too aggressive” or simply scored the decisive goal. It’s even worse with women teams, where there’ll be slews of misogynist, transphobic and degrading language. Many Viet sport fans like to joke that all Thai women are transgender women, with the heavy implication that they are not “real” women. To the nationalist sport fans, all the other teams are inferior, mixed-blooded, full of unnatural citizens, and hence has an unfair advantage. To them, the Vietnamese team is simply the best; any losses are only due to these unfair advantages.

As you may also know, nationalism seeks to create an in-group, out-group mentality, and Vietnamese nationalism constantly and violently excludes Viet ethnic minorities. A stark example is how the education-indoctrination system strips them of their culture and language. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, with more than 100 Vietnamese dialects, yet there is only one official language taught in school and used in exams, the language of the dominant Viet Kinh group. This naturally puts people from other ethnic groups at a huge disadvantage. Many schools force their students to wear áo dài as uniform, regardless of their ethnicity, even though áo dài is a Kinh garment. Attempts to even out the ground for ethnic minorities face vicious backlash from Viet Kinh people, such as when the government tried to give bonus points in the national university entrance exam for ethnic minority students. Instead of getting rightfully angry at an education system which dehumanizes its students, forcing them to brutally compete with their peers for a chance to be exploited by capitalists, many Kinh people blamed and unleashed their wrath on ethnic minorities.

Those are our observations about the political and economic situation in Vietnam. Based on those symptoms, and dare we also draw some parallels with certain formerly “Communist” countries, we could tentatively share our guess on the direction of the Vietnamese state and its so-called Socialism-oriented market strategy, should it continue to fester unchallenged. However, we are not prophets speaking gospel, nor scientists playing with solid statistics here; we will not invoke some sacred words like “science” and “materialism” and from that claim absolute truth. What we will say is this: without mass mobilization and resistance of the working class, the Vietnamese state will strengthen its grip on the populace, through law, nationalism or hierarchical social conditioning. And capitalism, hand in hand with the state, will dig its claws further into the exploited classes, drawing out from them all they can offer. The working class of Vietnam will be further fragmented as capitalism consolidates its influence together with its exploitation, delegitimizing worker struggles against it. This would ingrain a sense of resignation and self-absorbed struggle in individual workers and prevent the building of solidarity amongst them.

TFSR: Some proponents of what’s called “Socialism” in Vietnam will argue that, in fact, the work that the Communist Party has brought forth has improved the quality of life of people in Vietnam. Have you heard of this claim, does that ring true in your experience that there has been development in the quality of individuals’ lives economically or educationally that could be attributed specifically either to so-called Socialism in Vietnam or through improvements from market society?

Mai: Why yes, we’ve heard this argument before, and our eyes roll every time. First, it is undeniably true that the qualify of life has been raised. And so what? That doesn’t prove that the same couldn’t have been achieved under another political system; life everywhere has been improving. Where is the evidence to pin this development on the so-called Socialism of Vietnam? It’s a wishy-washy way to justify the authoritarianism of the Vietnamese state and deflect from valid criticisms.

Will: And to add on to that, a suitable analogy would probably be prisoners not having to work as much. Sure, it’s an improvement to before, that still doesn’t change the fact that they’re still prisoners, still robbed of freedom and forced to toil under the same old master. Same thing here. Great, now we have internet; we also have no union to defend us against exploitation by the capitalists. Great, we get fastfood; we also have a state that’s just free of any control mechanism and can do what it wants (that’s how’s hierarchies of power work!). Great, we have iphones, ipads and gucci. The workers manufacturing for those corporates certainly can’t afford iphones, ipads and the newest gucci bag! But, whatever. So, okay, nice, quality of life has gone up. We’re not gonna say that’s bad, that’d be kind of stupid. But at what cost, in what context? The growth of quality of life is a good thing, but you can’t just ignore everything else surrounding it. A pizza party is nice, but you know what is nicer? Being in charge of our own life, our fruit of labor, and not being exploited and robbed of freedom. Partially because it includes a pizza party in it.

Mai: This line of argument also exposes a double standard casually applied for us people in over-exploited countries by many leftists and anarchists. Would you say the same to, say, queer people in more prosperous countries. “Hey you can get married now, you can even adopt children now. Why don’t you praise and be grateful to your capitalist government?” I’m sure there are people saying this to marginalised groups in more prosperous countries, but any anarchists worth their dime would vehemently and rightfully refute it. Yet everyone seems to be fine when this argument is casually thrown at people in so-called Third World countries. As if we’re supposed to be grateful for more crumbles! No, we want a seat at the table. We want everyone to have a seat at the table!

TFSR: Yeah, and when you’re referring to industrialists in Vietnam having an income level equal to, I think you said, 80,000 other people.. At what cost and how is that distributed?

Will: Yeah, also it’s 800,000 people.

TFSR: Excuse me, factor of ten… Thanks for being willing to tackle that question

What might be visions of libertarian communist approaches to some of the questions of raising the quality of life for people in Vietnam? Is that the sort of framing that you would use for a positive anarchistic vision forward? It seems like, just to add on, I’ve heard that in some countries that are ostensibly Communist or Socialist that people who are critical of the government sometimes have an allergy to those terms, to a positive turn of those turns, because it’s been shoved down their throats in such a negative way.

Will: Yeah, well…

Mai: Definitely, yeah [laughs]

Will: To me, it’s about representation. The State, this grand old thing, imposed all of those things on them, so I mean what choice do they have?

First and foremost, it must be said before any libertarian communist or anarchist vision can be realised, the people in Vietnam have to recognise that there exists deep problems with the current political system, and that there are solutions to those problems. The sad reality is this: the majority of Vietnamese people are alienated from politics (as authoritarian states tend to do to the people they oppress). So, politics is something done to them, rather than by them.

The state has built up for itself a shining image of legitimacy. And so even though many will say that there are problems with Vietnam as a whole, they are unlikely to be able to pin that to the political system. Maybe they can say that corruption is a severe problem of Vietnamese society. Maybe they can connect it to individual politicians and their supposed moral failing. But they won’t be able to say that corruption is only a symptom of the system and that, more specifically, hierarchies of power are simply incompatible with the interests of those at the bottom of the hierarchy, of the majority. Maybe they would even say that the one-party system is clearly not working, but mistake the illusion of choice of multi-party system for total liberation, for freedom. The root of the problems just eludes many.

There is also a sense of apathy and learnt helplessness that has been ingrained into the population, and so, as of now, the potential of political action and change is not great. This exacerbates the previous problem, in the sense that, even if a majority of people recognize the root of the problem, they do not think that they themselves and, only themselves, have the power solve it. Or they think that the alternatives would only be even worse: either U.S. capitalism/liberalism or the kind of “Communism” with severe scarcity and corruption before the Đổi Mới reform — which mind you many Vietnamese still remember and are understandably frightened of. This is what we mean when we say Vietnamese people are alienated in politics.

We also recognise that historically in Vietnam, the traditional labor movement has alienated many groups, such as ethnic minorities, sex workers, people of marginalized genders and sexuality, disabled people, unemployed people, criminalized people, and young people. Moving forwards, it is important to make our movements inclusive enough for the many fronts against various forms of oppressions, not just class struggles. Of course, the working class is the only class capable of toppling capitalism, but our definition of “work” and “workers” needs to change radically.

So… a vision—a hope even—is that, through putting their predicament under the capitalist society of Vietnam into perspective and laying bare the fact that no one but themselves have the power to change it all for the better, people will gradually be free of the mental limitations and have the want to take control of their lives instead of putting it at the mercy of “the powers that be.” And when the recognition, the will and the want, happens, we trust that they will go only one short step further and come to adopt libertarian communist approaches for their struggles, even if they don’t declare themselves to be affiliated with any specific ideology. Again though, we are not prophets and to prophesize on a strict revolutionary form is an unwise and pointless endeavor.

But if we can say one thing about our approaches and our visions for a better quality of life in the future, we may call attention to community building. Given what we mentioned earlier regarding the alienation of the worker and the fragmentation of the working class, there is merit in considering a parallel process: of healing the wounds of alienation that capitalism left on all of us; and of educating each other on essential political knowledge, examples being food sovereignty, pre-figurative social organizing, and independent union building. And in an age where technology has become an integral part of our lives, it is short-sighted to overlook or undermine the importance of online organizing. The social relations produced and reproduced through online organizing is every bit as pre-figurative as the social relations of on-the-ground organizing. Certain aspects are different, sure, but the essence of it is the same: the building and maintaining of structures capable of facilitating our interactions as equals. Through our own organizing, we’ve also found online archiving and dissemination of anarchist materials to be critical in the context of our milieu in Vietnam, where severe censorship and state repression have proven to be highly effective in weeding out dissenting voices, and isolating those who would otherwise band together to collectively speak out against the state narrative.

And as to the framing… Yes! I think this is the framing that we will proceed with. Unlike the previous revolution in our history, ours won’t be one where the people are pushed into a so-called revolution by some self-righteous vanguard party. That kind of revolution has proven itself to be undeniably disastrous. And we would love to not repeat that. The true revolution should be a continuous process, in which everyone can partake right here, right now, on their own volition.

TFSR: Would you speak about the situation in Vietnam for people of marginalized genders, queer folks in Vietnam as well as folks criminalized for sex work?

Mai: Sure. The situation for queer folks is not great, though getting better. Same-sex marriage was criminalized until 2015. Then, the law prohibiting same-sex marriage was abolished, but it is still not legalized. So, since marriage comes with certain privileges in our current society, many queer people in Vietnam are stigmatized and barred from the medical, financial and other material privileges that their non-queer counterparts couples enjoy. Marriage equality is the front in which liberal organizations working within the state framework seem to pour a lot of effort.

For transgender people, as far as we know, there isn’t a single hospital in Vietnam that is allowed to perform gender-affirming surgeries for so-called “normal” people, only for people who were in an accident or have “birth defects.” At the same time, non-consensual, non-medically necessary medical interventions are still performed on intersex children, as they are permitted by law.

Transgender people who wish to undergo gender-affirming surgery often have to go through an intermediate center, and the whole process (examination, papers and surgery) is usually done in Thailand. Hormone therapies are not easily accessible through mainstream methods, but through the black market. They really have to bet their lives if they want to use hormones. Not only that, because of low supply and having to do surgery abroad, the amount of money one needs to spend to undergo gender-affirming surgeries can be approximately $20,000, even more if you account for long-term hormone treatments. To put this into perspective, the average yearly household income of a Vietnamese person is $2,235, before food and rent/mortgage and such. And remember, the $20,000 is only for the surgery. So, the cost is an absurdly high amount for the majority of Vietnamese people, who have to work hard just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

About sex work in Vietnam, we will speak not from personal experience, but from a place of legality and personal observation. Legally, sex work and even pornography are criminalized; sex workers used to face incarceration in so-called “rehabilitation centers” and still are charged with hefty fines if caught in raids, they are subjects of systemic stigmatization and discrimination as well, especially sex workers living with HIV. It was not until 2013 that detention center number 05 was shut down; it’s the rehabilitation center in which sex workers and drug users were detained and regularly subjected to forced labor disguised as “career training.” Supposedly, the closing of this detention center happened under the pressure from, as far as we know, an organization by and for sex workers in Vietnam called Vietnam Network for Sex Workers, amongst others. We could not find other sources to corroborate this, however, so we can’t say for certain this is what happened. Although, we certainly hope so! We suspect the reason for the scare sources has to do with the media not wanting to acknowledge sex workers’ existence since sex workers in Vietnam exist in this limbo wherein they’re criminalized, stigmatized, but also hyper-visible.

As for major queer, feminist, and sex worker organizations outside of the State framework, we are not aware of any, unfortunately. Yes, organizations that do not directly associate with the government exist; NGOs are by no means illegal. But that doesn’t mean they’re outside of the State framework. To truly be outside of the State framework, an organization must have the aim to work outside of that framework in the first place, hence giving a reason for organizing that doesn’t involve the State and doesn’t subject itself to the bounds the State establishes. There is no such thing as being accidentally outside of the State framework. And indeed, the organization we mentioned above express quite a bit of friendliness towards the state, which they view as well-intentioned but incompetent in execution with regards to programs for sex workers. We by no means wish to undermine or devalue their achievements; we applaud them for their efforts and are glad to know that there exists an organization standing for the interests of sex workers in Vietnam! But we cannot ignore the fact they achieved this only through the State framework, by cooperating and showing understanding to the machine which in the end perpetuates capitalism, and wish to see them exploited as workers. What they have accomplished is undeniably good, but in the long run, the state can never be a liberatory tool. Another thing is that a substantial part of their funding comes from liberal NGOs and NPOs. They themselves acknowledge that it is a challenge for them to organize without that funding, which will eventually go away. So once again, in spite of the good, we are obligated to point out that this form of organization cannot lead to the total liberation of the oppressed: an organization dependent on funding from liberal sources can never work to break free of the chains of the status quo, only the painstaking lengthening of those chains.

So we would say that the blindspots of the organizing by and for folks of marginalized genders, sexualities and sex workers in Vietnam is that there is no interlinking of struggles. The feminists can pinpoint the un0level playground between men and women, but many are oblivious to, say, class struggles, of ethnic minority women, of queer people and of sex workers. Indeed, feminism in Vietnam applauds the icon of a successful career woman, a girl-boss CEO who are not dependent on men. The same with queer people: many strive to assimilate into the cis-het society by broadcasting that they can be as “normal,” as successful in their careers as non-queer people. And so the poor queers, the disabled queers, the queers who are not Kinh, and many more, are further marginalized and don’t have a place within the queer community. On top of that, their organizing are dependent on the State framework, on funding from NGOs and NPOs: they need NGO and NPO money to campaign for the government to give them more rights. And in our opinion, that kind of organizing is not sustainable and will never lead to total liberation. There will always be people who are unlucky enough to be the scapegoat, who are at the bottom of the hierarchy and cast to the fringe of society.

TFSR: Speaking as someone from the so-called USA, which participated in much of the 35 years of war Vietnam experienced in the mid-20th century following centuries of colonial extractivism at the hands of the states of France, China, Japan and others, I wonder if you can talk about the legacy of colonialism and war are on the peoples and environment of Vietnam?

Mai: This is personal to us. In my family, leftovers are seriously frowned upon, even just a single grain of rice. I remember, this was when I was about 5 or 6, leaving the dining table after finishing the meal, and got called back to eat one single grain of rice left in my bowl. This is because there are family members who are still alive, who survived the Vietnamese famine of 1945, caused by Japanese and French colonialism, together with the US bombing the transport system. An estimated 2 million Vietnamese people starved to death. There is also the persisting catastrophe of Agent Orange. Personally, someone in my direct family was exposed, and we have to deal with various medical complications. Ironically, if you Google “Agent Orange,” the top results are almost all about its effects on US veterans; few are about its lasting effects on Vietnamese people and our ecosystem.

If you’d like to learn more about the atrocities that the US army committed in Vietnam, we’d recommend you to first, well, talk to Vietnamese people. You can also read the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” which consists of first-hand testimonies from GIs about the many daily My Lais that they themselves had committed or witnessed in Vietnam. You may notice that this investigation has the same name as a fictional character from a famous franchise widely regarded as pro-US military propaganda. Now, of course this could very well be a total coincidence, but even so, the incidental effect is quite real. It casts a shadow over the investigation mentioned above regardless. The way information about war crimes and its devastating aftermath on people outside of the US is obscured like that is just one in a million ways how US imperialism and cultural hegemony are harming us right this moment. And as far as we know, the documents from that [Winter Soldier] investigation hasn’t even been translated into Vietnamese for the younger generation to access and read about what happened to our predecessors.

Another product of US-centrism, which manifests plentily in anarchist and leftist circles: in political discourse, Vietnam, a country, a people with our own complex and diverse history, is constantly reduced to and talked about solely in our relation to the US. Not the whole span of that relation either, but only 20 years of slaughter and ecocide. For example, on the website of the longest running anarchist magazine in the US called The Fifth Estate, they have a page about Vietnam that is described as: “VIETNAM The failed US war and resistance to it from an anarchist/anti-authoritarian perspective”

Vietnam is not just a “failed US war.” Refusing to view us as humans with our own complex history and ongoing struggles leads to dissidents like us Viet anarchists, who don’t solely paint Vietnam as the US’ helpless victim, being branded “fake Vietnamese, CIA pawns, agent provocateurs.” The irony here is palpable. If you stop for one second and just look at the whole span of Vietnam’s relation with the US, you’ll see how the Vietnamese capitalists have no qualms shaking hands with US capitalists in their quest to exploit Viet workers. The Vietnamese and the US militaries are being all pally now, with weapon trades and personnel training courses! The US framework of every political topic is also routinely forced upon us, to the point that a Viet person who doesn’t understand every nook and cranny of US politics and its lexicon won’t be able to participate in political discourse without risking being torn apart, figuratively. Meanwhile, many US leftists/anarchists will brazenly insert themselves and their narratives in almost every conversation about Vietnam that we try to have, without taking the time and effort to learn the Vietnamese context.

And this benefits no one but US imperialism and, ironically, the Vietnamese authoritarians and statists. They capitalize on the very real frustration of Viet people who know that their struggle is completely ignored and dismissed by the US and Western left. They’d constantly and only talk about how horribly awful the US is, reducing Vietnam to its helpless victim — a glorious, brave and united nation against a common foreign enemy. On top of that, because social media favors moralized content, they’d build their platform on moralized, hateful language and rhetoric. They target a clueless Western audience who prefer self-flagellation and tokenism, rather than carefully examining information, educating themselves and developing their own analysis. When faced with criticism, the statists will weaponize their identities to silence and even harass their political opponents, accusing any Vietnamese speaking differently of being fake Vietnamese. Statists and career communists capitalizing on disinformation about Vietnam have threatened us with state violence and we have no doubt they will report us to the authority the first chance they’ve got. Of course, US imperialism permeates many corners of this earth, but to view, for instance, a Kinh Viet person living in Vietnam as merely a “person of color” erases the privilege that their ethnicity affords them domestically, erases the reason for their loyalty to the Vietnamese nation-state. We humbly ask people to de-center the US and its bloody war from conversations about Vietnam — it is long overdue. Thank you.

tùng: To add on to that, after the war, information about Agent Orange was slow in reaching Viet people, and so a lot went on to have children without having been adequately informed and prepared. I personally knew a family whose first child is blind deaf with intellectual disability, due to their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange. Without any compensation from the US nor adequate disability care from the Vietnamese government, the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange have to fend for themselves on their own, generation after generation. They receive about from $5 to $20/person/month, depending on the severity of their conditions and I think this money is not enough to survive on for a whole month.

And there are the millions of people who were displaced by the war, cut out from their cultural roots and families, forced to assimilate into a new society. Many lost their lives fleeing a war torn country with a shiny new state high on victory and hell bent on vengeance. The ones lucky enough to have reached their destinations and settled down know no ways of reconciling and reconnecting with their “đồng bào” — compatriots back in Vietnam. They can’t learn about the struggle in Vietnam without being manipulated and fed lies, thanks to state censorship and hateful nationalist sentiments.

TFSR: How can international listeners in the international community looking to be solidarity with struggles in so-called Vietnam and learn more & help? Are there any projects they can support or other sources of learning that you would suggest?

Will: There is a proverb in Vietnamese: “Nước xa không cứu được lửa gần,” which roughly translates to: “Water afar cannot put out a nearby fire.” So, the absolute best thing you can do for us, specifically, is to organize in your own community, and to educate yourself about the struggles in Vietnam, without unquestioningly absorbing disinformation like a sad sponge. It also helps if you rethink and refrain from projecting your own localized societal standards and frameworks onto situations in Vietnam, which usually have little in common. And this should be obvious, but: don’t use our struggles as mere ammunition in your struggles. When you go to do solidarity, you should not reduce us to media tokens and talking points.

As of now, Viet anarchists are outnumbered, our voices drowned out by pro-state propaganda. And so, every single person who refuses to fall for said propaganda is a win for us! You don’t need to listen to us, to Mèo Mun specifically, of course—we don’t claim to be the best source on every single topic related to the struggle in Vietnam, far from it—but please be very cautious of the disinformation from statists. Talk to as many Viet people as possible, and remember that we are not a hivemind and our experiences and opinions do vary! If you’re a reader, there are many texts on the Southeast Asian Anarchist Library concerning Vietnam and its history. So, do read close if you’re interested.

And if you’re into direct action, please pay attention to the migrant worker scene in your community. The conditions of Vietnamese migrant workers, especially undocumented ones, are often abysmal and they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. And I’d dare to say that many so-called-Global-South migrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation. We’d be very happy to know that someone is looking out for them.

TFSR: Is there anything I failed to ask about that you’d like to discuss?

Will: Not really, but I’d like to, on behalf of Mèo Mun, express our heart-felt thanks to Burst for reaching out to us, for your very thought-provoking and interesting questions, and for spending time with us today. We appreciate your giving us this platform, and though we try our best to cover what we experience in Vietnam, at the end of the day, our experience is just an experience. It is not universal and by no means can we claim to speak for every Viet person. We only hope that our speaking up gives you some tiny glimpses into our lives and struggles, which similar to any lives and struggles, are human, messy, and imperfect. So thank you for listening and seeing us!

Mai: Thank you!

TFSR: Thank you, all of you, for participating in this and also to the collective for collaboration in the answers. And I appreciate you taking the time doing this in English for the audience, I’m looking forward to this being a contribution towards more international understanding and solidarity. So, thank you!

Asheville Survival Program

Asheville Survival Program

"Asheville Survival Program" in a circle, around dandelions and the word "donate"
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Asheville Survival Program is an autonomous mutual aid network formed in early 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in so-called Asheville, NC. They are building mutual aid with oppressed communities, promoting solidarity and sharing outside the bounds of State structure through their streetside camping gear, food and solidarity distro and their “Until We’re All Free” Store, holding a distribution space open a few days a week walk-up visits and delivering groceries through a network of drivers.

For the hour, I spoke with Fern and Ducky, two members of ASP affiliated with the Free Store, about the history of the group, challenges its faced, challenging charity dynamics and working to reach outside of subculture and across racial and cultural lines. You can reach ASP on Instagram at @AvlSurvival, on fedbook via @ASPDonate, find more links, including how to donate, at https://linktr.ee/avlsurvival. You can also reach them at their email if you have further questions at ashevillesurvivalprogram@gmail.com.

And here’s the segment that Sean Swain references the FBI emailing VADOC about from April 11th, 2021

Announcements

KPCA-LP Now Broadcasting TFSR!

We’re excited to say that starting on the evening of Halloween, Sunday October 31st 2021 we’ll be airing on KPCA-LP, community access radio in Petaluma, CA! If you’re on occupied Coastal Miwok and Pomo territories of southern Sonoma County and looking for a 10pm political radio show, tune in to 103.3 FM!

Check out https://TFSR.WTF/Radio to see our other radio broadcasts around the so-called US as well as ways to get us on your local airwaves and spread the anarchy!

BRABC Prisoner Letter Writing for November

"Political Prisoner Letter Writing" flyer from BRABC with details over an autumnal Appalachian landscapeIf you’re in the Asheville area, check out the Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross letter writing night on Sunday, November 7th from 5-7pm at West Asheville Park at 198 Vermont Ave. More details on the BRABC instagram, fedbook or their website at BRABC.BlackBlogs.Org. No letter writing experience required, they provide stationary, names and addresses of prisoners with upcoming birthdays or facing repression.

New Website to Support 2020 Uprising Prisoners

Comrades have started up UprisingSupport.Org to help track prisoners who went in last year after the murder by police of George Floyd and other instances of racist, police violence in the so-called US. If you’re involved in supporting someone facing charges or in prison, get in touch with the site to get your friend listed. If you and your crew want to support folks, check it out and get involved!

And now a couple of prisoner-related updates:

Bo Brown, Presente!

Revolutionary anarcho-communist, urban guerrilla member of the George Jackson Brigade, white working class butch dyke lesbian anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist, ex-political prisoner passed recently after a long battle with Lewd Body Dementia. She will be remembered by her many comrades, including in the prison abolitionist communities of Oakland, CA, where she was active in her later life. To see a beautiful poster designed by Josh MacPhee of Just Seeds collective, downloadable and printable for free: https://justseeds.org/graphic/bo-brown-rest-in-power/

Bo’s loved ones are raising funds to help cover her funeral expenses via a Go Fund Me entitled “Show Up For Bo Brown”: https://www.gofundme.com/f/pfspu-show-up-for-bo-brown

Russell Maroon Shoatz Is Out!

Dedicated community activist, founding member of the Black Unity Council, former member of the Black Panther Party and soldier in the Black Liberation Army and now-former political prisoner, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz has been given “compassionate release” after years of medical neglect in the Pennsylvania prison system. Maroon has been released to an outside hospital to coordinate palliative and likely hospice care as he’s in stage 4 of colorectal cancer. While it’s great that Maroon gets to be near his family, this is 49 years too late and the victory rings a bit hollow to receive this fighter back into our midst after such mistreatment. There is a fundraiser at Go Fund Me entitled “homegoing Service For Richard Shoates”: https://www.gofundme.com/f/homegoing-service-for-richard-shoates

And you can learn more about Maroon at https://russellmaroonshoats.wordpress.com/

David Gilbert Paroled!

Finally, some really good news. After decades of pressure, notably by Releasing Aging People in Prison (RAPP), former Weather Underground & May 19th Communist Organization political prisoner David Gilbert is expected to be released in November of 2021. He was granted partial communtation by outgoing NY Governor Cuomo, and the parole board announced that it was granting him parole. David was arrested after the Brinks armored car robbery in 1981, led by a Black Liberation Army unit. Free Them All!

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Fern: Hi, my name is Fern. I use they/them pronouns and I’m part of Asheville Survival Program.

Ducky: And I’m Ducky. I use they/them pronouns, also part of Asheville Survival Program.

TFSR: So, I’m very excited to talk to y’all about ASP, or Asheville Survival Program, being that y’all are longtime participants in it. I was involved in ASP for about five months at the beginning with my participation tapering off after a while, so I’m excited to hear about what’s been going on. Thanks for finding the time to chat! Would folks mind giving an overview of ASP, how the project developed, where the name comes from, and how you’ve seen its scope change as time has passed?

Ducky: I’ll start and then Fern, you tag in if I forget something or if I say something incorrectly. So Asheville Survival Program was co-created at the beginning of the pandemic, like April 2020, primarily by a group of self identified anarchists who were hoping to start a mutual aid project and do disaster relief in the wake of social services shutting down at the onset of the pandemic. The name Asheville Survival Program takes its inspiration from the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, which were one of the arms of the Black Panther Party’s project, basically, helping people meet survival needs as part of the political goals of that project.

Interestingly enough, I think both Fern and I got involved right as folks that had kind of bottom-lined the creation of the project were stepping back because of burnout. So, we entered the project at this unusual transition time. But at this point, the shape of the project has remained fairly consistent for the past eight months or so at least, where we have a group that does a streetside distro, which Fern and I are not super directly involved with. But then there’s also a location called the Free Store, it’s full name as the Until We’re All Free Store where we distro free groceries. We’ll do free grocery deliveries and kind of just exist as an aid space in opposition to State power in Asheville.

Fern: One thing I’ll add is that there are a number of kind of auxiliary working groups that feed into supporting these two central projects. So, for example, we have a working group of folks who drive the grocery deliveries that we have. We have a working group that cooks big, hot meals for our street side food distribution every week. And so there’s a lot of overlap between all the different groups and subgroups.

TFSR: That’s really awesome.

What does the ASP operation look like a year and a half after its inception? You mentioned that you both kind of came in at a time when people who had initiated it were stepping back due to burnout or having to take on other stuff going on in their lives. But are there any folks that are still around who have been there since the beginning? And who is involved? Like is it folks from political subcultures, faith inspired folks, or folks from the community that you mostly operate the Until We’re All Free Store In?

Ducky: Okay, I’ll go again, Fern nodded at me and I was like “okay”. So I guess, in terms of the way the day to day operations of the project have shifted is kind of operating around this idea of trying to do smaller things really well. This idea of under promising and over delivering. When the store itself initially opened, it was closed to the public, but staffed seven days a week. We are now only staffed like three days a week and only open to the public two of those days. And that just reflects the our capacity to staff the store and the physical resources we can actually fit in the space. It’s not a huge space. It gets real full by the time we have enough stuff to distro for a weekend. We’re here now and there is just mountains of boxes all around us.

Fern: We’re literally just sitting under a stack of cornflake boxes 8 high, that’s just tipping precariously over us. Yeah, which you know, great! Happy to have all those cornflakes, but…. (laughs)

TFSR: Make sure the Fire Marshal isn’t hearing this right now.

Ducky: They’re six inches off the ground, so it’s fine (laughs). That’s all that matters.

So there’s that component of it. So, day to day operations, we are distro-ing resources, talking to people, building relationships, cultivating connection. In terms of who’s actually involved in decision making of the project? It’s a pretty small group of people that are consistently involved in that. There are a lot of different factors at play there. I would say ultimately, the vast majority of people involved are just folks coming from political subcultures, namely, the leftist, anarchist scene in Asheville. Which also means that ultimately, 90% of the people involved are white folks as well, which is just like also the reality of being in Asheville… which is just like such an aggressively white place. Did I answer that whole question? I got a little lost in the sauce.

TFSR: Yeah, I kind of extended out the the question a bit. Yeah, no, that makes sense. Like the majority of people, at least where the Free Store is situated, there’s a large Black community in the area, there’s also public housing in the area. Is there anything you can share about how it’s felt? Has the project tried inviting folks? And how has that looked? Or has it just been an instance where folks who are working there have just been building relationships with the folks that come up and get the resources and you all also take the resources?

Fern: I guess, I want to think that we are trending toward greater involvement from the community that we are situated in. And since I’ve been involved with the project, which is coming up on just about a year now, I have definitely seen a small but measurable change in the level of participation. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are, like Ducky said, a predominantly white group coming into an area that is predominantly people of color. There is just inherently a lot of distrust, and especially coming in to a space where none of us actually live, you know, for the most part, it just takes time to start building those relationships. At the end of the day, something that we’ve been talking about a lot is we can try as hard as we want to as a collective to build trust… but in reality, it comes down to individuals showing up enough to build actual relationships with actual people, and not our community building relationships with another community, or the community that we are, occupying space in.

TFSR: How does ASP relate to NGOs or nonprofits or charities? If ASP is not incorporated and doesn’t have an official status are there challenges of getting access to resources from those sectors that do? Or have relationships been built that allow y’all to work together with those sorts of groups? Are there tensions there? I know y’all we’re sharing space with Steady Collective a harm reduction collective, which is really awesome. And we’ve had on the show a couple times.

Fern: Yeah, I can speak a little bit that, because it has been a process of procuring all of the resources that we are able to distribute in the Free Store and through other aspects of the project. For quite some time we have been receiving a lot of the food that we distribute through one of the larger food banks in the Asheville area. They explicitly only partner with nonprofits and we are not in any way a nonprofit. So we started out with having a very under-the-table relationship with a nonprofit that other members of the organization of our collective were involved with, and then sort of using that as a way to start getting some of those resources. But it was all very, you know… no paper trail to the best of our abilities. But over time, I don’t know if it’s necessarily trust rather than… for example, this food bank has realized what is happening and has decided that they’re okay with it.

Now we are coming to them as Asheville Survival Program and not this other nonprofit that we were working through. There are elements where we do have to sort of comply to these standards that nonprofits have, for a variety of reasons. For example, we have to store all of our food properly, and there is some degree of keeping up on that. And that’s all well and good, I would hope that we will be storing our food in a way that is safe for people. But there is this sort of fear of nonprofit creep into our non-nonprofit organization.

Ducky: I can say more. So as a collective that has a strong commitment to organizing against the State, outside of the bounds of the State, the idea of incorporating as a nonprofit is pretty controversial within the collective, especially for the idea of incorporating the collective as a whole. I think when we’ve seriously talked about trying to incorporate it has been less because of a need to gain access to material resources, because we found ways to build relationships with either nonprofits or people in nonprofits more often that allow us to gain access to resources that normally we would not be available to us as a loose collective of individuals.

The conversation around becoming a nonprofit has come up multiple times and we still have settled on not doing for managing our finances. Just because trying to figure out how to manage finances as this non legal entity using the currency of the State has felt complicated at times. At this point in time, I don’t think we’re seriously considering incorporating. But when it has come up in a real way, it’s actually been like “how do we cover each other’s butts when handling money? Is incorporating as a nonprofit the best way to do that?” And so far the answer has been “No.”

TFSR: There was a discussion when I was engaging with the collective… There were these unwieldy meetings of like 40 people on signal, it was just everyone talking over each other’s I don’t know how decisions got made. But there was discussion and there was pushback from a couple different sides about the idea of using the space and using the service as an opportunity to share political content. When I would package up food boxes, frequently I would put in copies of “Know Your Rights” information or harm reduction pamphlets, or sometimes “fuck the Cops” type things, nothing that was too political, necessarily, a lot of it was just about critically starting conversations around “civil liberties issues”. But there was a big push against us having a political education component to the food distribution, which was the thing that the original Black Panther Party had done with their breakfast programs and with their clinics and other outreach, survival programs that they had done.

Does ASP or does the Free Store actually engage with any sort of this? Or is there much discourse or comfort or discomfort levels? It could be creepy if it feels like you have to listen to our screed in order to get the food or you have to believe what we believe in order to get your Pine Glow or whatever?

Ducky: Yeah, this is something that, especially this current iteration of the Free Store’s working group is really in dialogue around a lot. Fern and I talk about this all the time. Ultimately, I think, because we’re named after the Black Panther survival programs, if we’re going to honor that tradition and acknowledge it in a real way, some aspect of the work we need to be doing is having an explicit political agenda to the work we’re doing. And that doesn’t mean being like the only way people can access resources is by listening to our spiel.

But something that we’ve run into consistently… And this is something I thought to mention earlier in the interview, but many of the folks involved in running the store at this point, perhaps all of us have not actually been radicalized for that long, have only been involved in this kind of organizing, more or less, since the pandemic began. And so many of us just don’t have a lot of experience articulating our beliefs to other people. So when people ask us why we’re here, because people are genuinely curious… They’re like “Wow, these dirty punk kids are kind of always here giving up Pine Glow and shit… I hope I can say that?

TFSR: Yeah, I’m gonna edit it. Yeah.

Ducky: Great. When a lot of us speak to this experience when we’re asked that question, and just like “Oh, you know, we’re here, because we care about people” and giving false answers, essentially, because we don’t have comfort around talking about the ideology that drives this work, which is primarily that we believe that the State and those in power actively benefit from the oppression of everyone who doesn’t have that level of power and access to resources. And so by distro-ing resources, we are committing to these values of challenging State oppression and the hoarding of resources by those in power.

Fern: Yeah. And something that I have only recently been able to really put into words for myself, but it speaks to kind of that discomfort of this sort of basic unwillingness to discuss the politics that are determining whether or not we’re showing up or not, is that, I think it’s in many ways, pretty detrimental to the work that we’re trying to do to keep these political conversations separate. Because it’s not genuine, and I think many of the people that we’re interacting with in the community where the Free Store physically is, have great familiarity with the lack of support they received from the State and are mad about it, and have reactions to it and have lots of much more lived experience than many of the folks who are involved in ASP as a collective. Us just beating around the bush and trying to be wary of folks in a sense… Because we don’t want to start anything. There’s always a chance that you might say the wrong thing to the wrong person and they disagree with you for whatever reason.

But in general, we’re all on the same page about a lot of this stuff, and it really is just a matter of what language we’re using to talk about it and what kind of framework we’re using to approach it. I am definitely in the camp that thinks that we should be doing more explicitly political stuff, not even necessarily political education, because as Ducky said, so many of us are still in relatively early stages of our own political education that it doesn’t really feel fair to be like, “Yeah, this is what you should think, person.” But there’s so much to be learned just by having these conversations over and over again, with as many people as possible. And so I think as a collective, there is starting to be a shift toward being more comfortable being more explicitly political.

Ducky: I think also that, once again, there’s this reality too, that Fern was already speaking to that many of the people that are collaborating with us to get their survival needs met by coming to the store to just get some stuff that they need agree with many of the values that we already hold is like an anti-authoritarian, anti-State, blah, blah, blah, anti-capitalist collective, abolitionists collective. But the words we use to describe our values are just basically jargon. And so I think that ultimately is where we also have to do work as a collective. One people can understand ideas. Not to be like, “Oh, if we use this jargon, people won’t get it.” But to be like “we kind of already agree. You probably have already heard this phrase before, too. But this is what we mean when we say it.”

So like an example of one idea that we’ve had about trying to make the space more political, and also, at the same time, make it look nicer, because being able to shop someplace for groceries that you need at a grocery store that looks nice is also a really nice thing. Putting big posters up in the windows with different statements on them. One idea that we’ve been circulating right now is trying to find a really good compact definition of what abolitionism is and just put that in huge letters on one of our big storefront windows. Because abolition is the crux of why we’re doing this work. Because if you abolish prisons, you abolish police. Part of that work also involves dismantling the whole system of oppression. And so that’s why we’re here is because we want the systems of oppression to come to an end.

TFSR: Well, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it feels like to not engage with folks politically as if people don’t have opinions and as if their lived experiences and opinions aren’t worth hearing, or as if y’all’s perspectives wouldn’t withstand healthy trustful dialogue… As was stated early on, building trust with the community, building these relationships and it’s based on people showing up and being real. If you’re just like “oh, I don’t know, I’m just here, because, you know, it feels nice.” Just kind of avoiding using words that might touch someone off, or challenge them, or playing kid gloves with grown people, instead of engaging them in mutual political organizing, that seems like kind of the difference there.

I feel like I participated in stifling the conversation a bit at the time, when we were discussing it earlier on. But I think a part of my initial response was that I don’t want this to feel like a church kitchen where you have to hear a sermon in order to get food.

Fern: I mean, there is a balance. And to me, I think that be being political, and especially being politically anti-statist is really a huge part of the difference between mutual aid and charity models. And because charity has so much of that baggage of denying access based on certain factors, based on sobriety, based on whether or not you’re willing to be proselytize to, and so many other things. In the way that we’re trying to distribute things and in the way that we’re trying to approach this project as a whole. We really want to say no to people as little as we physically can. When we’re out of something. It’s like, “yeah, we don’t have any more of that. But let me put an order in and you can get it next week.” Not asking any questions, not assuming that people don’t know what they need or what they want.

I don’t think that adding on a component of like, “Hey, we’re gonna put some stuff up in our windows, we’re gonna hands and stuff out.” That doesn’t stop people. They can still get everything that they were getting. And maybe we can start sparking more of those conversations in both directions. Maybe we’ll find more common ground with people. Maybe we’ll get a ton of pushback and that will also be equally as informative and equally as worthwhile, in my opinion. Mutual Aid is about relationship building and relationship building is arguing with your family arguing with your friends and growing through that.

TFSR: So the next question that I had in here was: Have you been able to develop relationships for sourcing the distributable goods that don’t rely on commerce, like local farmers giving up surplus because they want the food to end up in good hands?

Ducky: I think, ultimately, most of our sourcing, and why again, part of why we haven’t had to incorporate to collect resources, is we have relationships with people that work for nonprofits in town that end up with surplus. We end up distro-ing that surplus. Folks will be like, “We actually can’t distro this. Can y’all distro because we know that you are in a location where it’ll get to people who need it.”

Inconsistently we’ll have folks in the community provide resources to us and share them like clothes or something that we often have and those are all just like things that people drop off. And I would say that’s the most consistent resource that we’re able to redistribute that is coming from totally autonomous, non-NGO nonprofit locations.

Fern: Although, the one one thing I’ll tack on to that is perhaps Asheville as a whole has sort of a willingness to share information about windfalls. And I think there is an especially a lot of motivation and energy devoted within the collective to taking advantage of those windfalls. For example, a certain food producer that was formerly based out of Asheville, but as leaving due to some….

TFSR: Because they are shitty bosses?! I’m just guessing…

Fern: Because they are shitty bosses!!! You know, someone who knows, someone who works at the Free Store was like, “Hey, I’m clearing out their entire production space. Do you want a ton of industrial cookware? and hotel service ware?” and I was like, “Oh, I’m already out running errands in North Asheville, I can show up there in half an hour!” And we just got hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of equipment for nothing! Just because we know someone who knows someone, which is just a testament to the power of community and the power of having the mindset of “I have all this stuff sitting here laying around, that’s just going to either get donated to a nonprofit or get thrown away… maybe I should try to have something else happened to it.”

I think that is a sort of a cultural shift. So many random people just show up at the Free Store, like, “Hey, uhh, I like saw an Instagram post about you. Here’s all this random stuff I have. I’m moving and I didn’t want to bring it to Habitat for Humanity or whoever.” Great, it’s gonna go out the door today, instead of getting shipped around the country and you know, then half of that will end up in the landfill anyway.

TFSR: So, circling back to the the mutual aid versus charity thing. Can you talk about your concept of mutual aid? I’m sure everyone’s got a slightly different answer and in the collective and in all the groups. But just how you feel your work is different from charity? How has it been to try to challenge the dynamic of charity? And how do you think that you all have done?

Ducky: I’ll start with an answer on that one. I wanted to reiterate this at the beginning and I forgot to. We’re all such baby radicals in this working group at this point. All these ideas that we have are just coming from this huge tradition of primarily BIPOC folks that have built these ideas up. So, I’m just gonna say a bunch of stuff. But at some point in this interview, wanted to say that. That all of these things are just straight up, stolen, stole them all.

But anyway, I think for me, there are two primary aspects that define or rather differentiate mutual aid from charity. One of those is something that Fern already spoke to, which is tearing down this barrier of separation between people who seek aid and give aid. Getting to a point where there is no tangible difference in the way we’re working and organizing and being in community with each other that creates a hierarchy on the basis of need. In terms of like, “these are the people that help people and these are the people that get helped.” Getting to a point where resources and care… because we have real authentic, caring relationships with each other are distributed in a way that doesn’t have this weird dichotomy to it. So that’s one part of it.

And then the other part for me is this idea that mutual aid should be doing work that challenges the systems of oppression that create the need for that work. We mostly do survival work as a collective collaborating with people to support their survival needs. If we want to continue to call ourself a mutual aid project and be honest when we say it, I think the next step in this collective development is thinking about ways that we can be explicit in challenging the systems of oppression that create the need for the project in the first place. We’re working on that first thing for sure.

I think we are doing good work and building relationships with who people trust us, because we’ve been around for almost two full years. And we still show up, and I think folks are used to people showing up for a couple months and then disappearing. But that second part where we actually challenge the systems that create the need for the work we do. I don’t see us doing that very much as a collective, at least not yet.

Fern: Yeah, I feel like I have something to add to that.

Um, maybe just that I think calling ourselves a survival program is accurate bearing in mind that the sort of theory behind the survival program model, as perpetuated by the Black Panther Party. Which was like… it is impossible for people to engage in political work if their basic needs are not met. And we’re still in a time of active crisis. And there’s still an immense amount, working against anyone finding any sort of stability during this, in general, and also with these compounded crises that we’re experiencing. And we’ve got to get to a place where we have real trusting relationships with people and those people that we are in relationship with are not struggling to survive. We can start having those conversations about the more political aspect of the project. But in terms of the energy that we’re expending on the work that we’re doing, I think, ultimately, like Ducky said, we’re still in kind of stage one. Because there’s a lot of needs that aren’t getting that in our community.

Ducky: There’s another member of our collective who says this a lot. I’m not sure where this phrase originates from that maybe it’s an original of theirs. But it’s “all the work we do has to move at the speed of trust.” I really like when this person says that because it’s a good reminder that while it can be frustrating to be like, “Man, we’re just doing charity work. Dang!” But also, recognizing that moment that the reason why we’re in this model, where we are essentially doing charity work with some anarchist slogans plastered over it is because it takes time to build the kind of connection and trust in a community such that we as individuals are also part of that community before we can do the real work of mutual aid, which is changing things in a real way.

TFSR: Yeah, I guess it’s important, bringing it back to the Panther naming of it, “Survival programs Pending Revolution.” That’s the full name of it. And it sounds like the work that you’re doing right now is trying to lay the groundwork for being able to have capacity for revolutionary relationships with other folks.

Ducky: And with each other! I think something that I’ve been learning by being part of this collective is the necessity of relying on your friends and comrades to support you and give care when you need it. White supremacy teaches us that that’s not the case. We live in a highly individualistic society that teaches you to not reach out to others when you need help, stigmatizes it.

TFSR: So there’s one of the oft-pointed-to anarchist adjacent or anarchist projects of support that echoes the work that ASP does. I guess both between street side and and the Free Store to some degree is Food Not Bombs and Food Not Bombs has gotten a very bad rap over the years for doing what some people have said… doing charity, but without the resources of what other institutions do. Like there’s a soup kitchen down the street that maybe can more efficiently produce meals for people and fill that gap that the system is leaving. But the saving grace of the Food Not Bombs model is that it is a DIY self organized attempt, that is inherently politicized by its name, attempt at providing meals building companionship and and collaboration between folks as well as filling a need that people have. Oftentimes there’s that political component, like when I used to participate with a Food Not Bombs on the West Coast I’d bring a stack of zines and a table and have them there for people to pick up if they wanted to or if they wanted to have a chat about the content.

But a critique of not doing the thing well is.. is heard in some times. People throw together stuff that they’re willing to eat maybe tastes good for them, but maybe isn’t that enticing for other folks who are coming to it. And it sounds like some of the work that you all have been doing in the space has been trying to make it more appealing to folks. The Bread and Roses idea. Like, if we’re going to provide a thing for people, providing beautiful things that are healthy and that are enjoyable, as a sign of mutual respect, as opposed to the often dark and dank ways that folks have to navigate the charity system in a way that demeans them and makes them feel small and makes them feel like they’re getting a handout.

I guess it’s not really so much of a question. But I wonder if you could talk about the importance of mutual aid work, taking care that the food that’s on the shelf is not over date, taking care that it’s the kind of stuff that you would want to eat? That you’re actually showing love by providing this stuff. Sorry, that was rambley, but it was kind of off the cuff. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or should we just skip?

Fern: Yeah, I think I do have some thoughts about that. That is something that we definitely have talked about at various times there. What I’m thinking of when you ask that is… right when I first started getting involved in the Free Store, specifically around this time last year it was this period of transition that Ducky talked about. I think a lot of that knowledge got lost in transmission somewhere. That was something that as we started opening up the store a little bit more and having folks come up to the window and be able to place orders or just tell us what they would like to have. I think there was sort of a period of unconsciousness where we’re like, “Oh, we have all this stuff that we need a distro and people don’t necessarily know what’s here, let’s just put it outside!” And boxes of food were going on the ground.

There was this conversation that we had that really stands out to me. Basically, to your point. What the hell! It’s already so difficult to get food when you don’t have money. Don’t make people stooped over for it! Put it on a table, make it look presentable, go through and it take out anything that looks even a little bit off. Even though I come from, in my college years doing a lot of dumpster diving and not really caring, like “This food is fine! Like, it looks weird, but it’s fine!” And me as someone with a lot of class and race privilege… that was my reaction to my upbringing. “Oh, we’re so wasteful as a society.” But that’s not going to be other people’s reactions who come from different backgrounds than I do. Because they would much rather just have food that is tasty and fresh, and looks as good as it would if they were getting it from a grocery store.

Definitely coming into this project I wouldn’t have really thought of it. And it wasn’t until we started having those very explicit conversations about this sort of presentation aspect. It says a lot about what we’re trying to do. Are we throwing shit in boxes outside on the sidewalk? Or are we placing it and like taking care to make sure it’s actually high quality stuff. We throw away more stuff than, I would if it was just going to my house for me to eat because I’m like, “Whatever, it’s just food!” but there’s so much societal baggage about who gets to eat what. And I think it’s very important to keep in mind because it’s so easy just to want to distro everything because it’s all technically good. But it comes comes with a lot of other stuff attached.

Ducky: I think another part to that too, over time, because Fern myself and some other people that are pretty involved in the store at various points have been here every day that the stores opened at various times and just been here talking to people. So, over time I think we do a good job of eventually shifting to getting more of the things that people specifically request. Like an example is there is this sweet guy who comes by all the time was always like, “do y’all have ramen?” and we never stopped ramen, but we were able to start spending more money on food so now I always buy ramen. People love ramen! Another thing that people often would ask for is juice packets, flavor packets, or Kool Aid. And so now we buy Kool Aid, because we don’t ever get it for free. So we can give that out to folks as well.

And the way we have cleaning supplies because no one can buy cleaning supplies with their fucking EBT. So people are like “I need bleach. I need pine Glow. I need dish soap. I need trash bags. I need toilet tissue.” And folks also always ask for paper towels, which we don’t have, but I think we’re gonna start buying them because everybody always wants paper towels and folks really appreciate it when they know that if they give us feedback, we eventually are like, “Okay, we’re going to make it happen.” So that this thing that everyone is requesting we can get so that it can be distro-ed out.

Fern: Yeah. And kind of related to that, this thought came up for me when you were asking the initial question, in terms of thinking about what the difference between mutual aid and charity is. I think, it’s that factor of immediacy. I think about if ASP had tried to start itself as a nonprofit at the beginning of the pandemic, we still wouldn’t be a nonprofit, we wouldn’t be here doing anything. And it’s only because there was obviously this conscious decision to pursue a mutual aid model, a survival program model of just getting up and making it happen. And that also allows us so much more flexibility, like Ducky was saying. We can much more easily respond to people’s needs when it’s just like, “Okay, there’s lots of people asking for this one thing. Let’s just have a brief chat in our group text.” And then it just happens, as opposed to having to get approval from your boss, or the board of a nonprofit. It’s just you can just actually respond to people’s needs in an efficient manner.

TFSR: So the food deliveries are still happening. That all gets processed based on orders in the space, right?

Fern and Ducky: Yes. yeah.

TFSR: And who are you trying to serve with that part? Roughly how many people participate in that element of ASP? And how many boxes of food? and these like big boxes generally, but how many boxes of food do you all distribute?

Ducky: I’m gonna answer the first part of that first, which is how does the delivery packing boxes even work? How did how do we self organize to do that. For a long time what we were doing is we would be taking orders of the door, we were taking orders via this hotline, we were compiling all this information digitally. And then while we had the door open, so that people could also shop at the window, we were also trying to pack all these orders. It was always total chaos being on shift it was too much work.

TFSR: Yes!

Ducky: We recently shifted in the past month which I think has been a super big and important shift. What we actually did is we closed our hotline, because we weren’t able to keep it consistently staffed. So when people would call, it would be a month before they would get an order back to them. So now we just take orders of the door, but the way we pack orders is we have a shift that is closed. The doors are closed. We got curtains drawn. So it’s hard to tell whether or not we’re here and we just pack all the orders for the week on that day. And then on Saturday and Sunday, when we’re open to the public, all we have to do is hang out at the door grab things for people, and coordinate with the delivery drivers who are coming by to pick up these orders that are already packed. So, it creates space on our shifts to actually just hang out and spend time with people instead of frantically trying to complete all these contradictory tasks all at once. Do you want to speak to numbers? Or if you have more to say about that?

Fern: Yeah, totally, that is such a huge shift. I took a few months off during the summer for a job I was working. And up until that point, I had been working probably two shifts a week for several months. And I love doing it and it felt important and rewarding, but also just so exhausting. And I never felt like I had as much time as I wanted to actually just chat with people and be outside the space. For now, because of COVID, the space is very small with poor ventilation. We’re not for the most part, letting folks in unless they’re helping out in some capacity or another. So it can be this very transactional, “here I am behind this little counter, I’m taking your order” customer service mode all the time.

Which obviously has to happen. We still want to get stuff out to people in an organized fashion. If you had a lull in the folks coming to the door, it was like, “Okay, now I have to like pack orders!” And you couldn’t ever find a moment to just go chill with the people who are hanging out outside. We’re in a little strip mall with a couple of other businesses that are very busy. And so there’s always people around and always people to talk to you who want to talk to you.

It definitely has been really nice. In terms of numbers, I would say it varies anywhere between like 30 to like 7 boxes a week. And a lot of stuff, people are just coming to the door and getting a box when they’re standing there… but in terms of orders that are placed ahead of time. It does vary but it is consistently maybe 20 households a week.

Ducky: I think it might be more than that. I think on a busy day anywhere between 30 and 50 people will come to the store.

Fern: Yeah, coming to get smaller amounts of stuff.

Ducky: In terms of boxes. I think like 20 households a week is about right. And then adding that to the number of people that just come by and shop, it ends up being a much larger number of people that is harder to quantify. We can count the number of deliveries we do. But there’s no real way to keep track, at least, that we’ve tried of how many people come by the door and get stuff.

TFSR: Initially when ASP started up, there were a lot of misunderstandings about virus transmission. Also ROAR in Madison County as another mutual aid community organizing project, Rural Organizing and Resilience, sort of copied off of the ASP model. They were doing the deliveries for people that thought that they might be have a higher possibility of transmission of the disease. And so we would let a food box sit on the shelf with the packaged goods for three days and go through a quarantine period, and sort of get moved from one part of the space into the other wrapped up in two plastic bags.

On delivery, we could rip open the outer bag, and they could come and grab the inner bag and take that inside. It was pretty well thought out for what we thought was going on. But who gets the food deliveries these days? Is there any presumption about transmission? Or is it just kind of anyone that asks? Like they might have mobility issues, they might have health concerns, or they just might not have enough time in their day and this will really help them out?

Ducky: Yeah, I mean, the double bag method of deliveries… I started in ASP as a delivery driver right as right as we transitioned out of that. And I think ultimately, we just gave up on even asking people if they wanted us to decontaminate their food. Because people would be like, “do you want us to deliver it soon or in three days to a week?” And people were like, “Right now, please.” What’s interesting is I don’t actually really think that since we dropped the hotline, the people that we were delivering to haven’t shifted that much. Almost all of our deliveries anyway were just going up to people who mostly live at the public housing complex right up the hill from where the store is.

But for me, at this point, I think the focus of this aspect of the project, the Free Store, is just becoming a more real part of the community of this neighborhood. And so for me, when we take orders at the door for folks that live around here, that’s for folks that can’t carry like a 40 pound box to their house, don’t want to carry a 40 pound box to their house, or are placing orders for their neighbors who are not able to leave the house right now. And for me that just reflects less of being able to actually offer realistically prioritizing people that can’t leave the house because of the pandemic because we don’t have a good way to stay in touch with those folks. So we can’t really say we’re offering that but just prioritizing folks that we have relationship with who state needs, and we’re like, “Let’s collaborate to get those needs met.” Does that feel accurate Fern?

TFSR: How has the project fared in terms of resisting burnout, having an ongoing institutional memory and challenging informal hierarchies within ASP that sort of naturally develop in scenes and in communities?

Fern: Yeah, I mean, burnout is definitely something we talk about a lot. I don’t know whether talking about how burnout is real, helps us avoid burnout in any tangible way. But you know, there is something to be said for just at least having it sort of constantly on the table. I think we are as a whole, really good at filling in for folks when they feel the need to take a step back for whatever reason. And speaking to the sort of immediacy of mutual aid, nothing that we’re doing is so complicated or so specialized that somebody else with very little introduction to it can’t just step in and start doing it.

Like when we don’t have enough drivers we just put out a post on Instagram saying, “Hey, do you want to drive grocery deliveries?” and get a whole influx of new people. Which is great. I think having a willingness to reach out, as long as the the people that are coming in are agreeing to our points of unity. That is a good way to do it in some ways and not in others. Like you mentioned in the question of institutional memory, there’s not a lot of good resources for having that body of information be available. Right when I started with the Free Store, we were still calling ourselves DECON, because we were decontaminating people’s groceries. It was this very hilarious shift where we hadn’t really been doing that for months, but we were still called DECON. I guess that’s an example of institutional memory.

I’m not sure if anyone who has joined the Free Store since we started calling ourselves the Until We’re All Free Store, have that understanding of where we started. But one thing that maybe will help this effort of having some continuity is we have started creating much more intentional space for having monthly collective wide meetings, which we’ve only just begun. Hopefully, they will continue in perpetuity where people who have been involved for many different lengths of time in the project can all come together and share experiences and talk about issues that we’re facing now and hopefully also talk about the history of the project. But I do think that institutional memory is something that needs to be built because it is really important to understand why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them now.

Ducky: Yeah, I can talk about hierarchy, I guess.

Fern: Yeah, you should talk about hierarchy. [laughs]

Ducky: I’m gonna try not to be too controversial, because I know others from the collective are gonna listen to this. I think, as a product of a desire to keep each other safe, in realm of organizing that has primarily been digital. And in fact, at one point, what Fern said about meetings is really interesting, because for a while we just stopped having meetings that were like open to anyone. Shit was just getting decided in signal loops. So, I think a big a big part of trying to challenge hierarchy has been creating more meetings, essentially, where it’s really clear that anyone who wants to participate in those meetings is welcome to. So that’s a part of it.

But I think something that exists within the collective is just trying to figure out how to include people in decision making without just excluding them. I think something that ends up happening is folks that bottom line a lot of different parts of the project end up accruing a lot of social capital. I say this as someone that has, at various points accrued a lot of social capital. Which just creates this weird hierarchy of people that feel empowered to make decisions autonomously and just do shit. And then a bunch of people who are like, “this person just is making decisions all the time. but I don’t understand how they’re making decisions. Who they’re consulting with about them? How this even works?”

I think something that is important for us to be working on as a collective is making it really clear that once you kind of get the sense of what we’re doing, you’re really empowered to make a lot of autonomous decisions, and check in with other people about the stuff you want to do especially if it’s going to affect a lot of people. But if you’re just going to create work for yourself, but it doesn’t create work for anyone else, you go ahead and do it. I think that’s where we are successful in our informal way of making decisions. That was kind of an inarticulate mumbly….

Fern: No, I think it made sense. One thing that I’ll add to that is, from my own thinking about this issue, is I think that a lot of people who are coming to this project, maybe also similarly, like myself, and like Ducky, are “baby radicals” is we’ve had a lot of experience maybe volunteering or otherwise being involved but it’s with nonprofits. And usually working with a nonprofit there are very explicit roles and expectations that you have to meet. And that’s just not something that we have other than follow through on the things that you volunteer yourself to do. And to not make life harder for anyone else.

It can be hard to sort of make the shift to make people feel empowered. Because A Yeah, like Ducky mentioned, the social dynamics of the collective are such that not everyone feels like they’re quite in-group enough to feel like they have the right or the authority to make decisions. And also that I think people are not used to being empowered to make those decisions…. we’re used to bosses.

Ducky: What’s interesting about that and something I’ve been thinking about a lot is, I think Fern and I definitively are somewhere in this in-group crowd. And a big part of that is because when we got involved in the Free Store, it was in this transition period, where the people that have been bottom-lining it for months, at various points kind of all had to step back really quickly. And so those of us who got involved all of a sudden had to learn how to do this thing and there was no one left to tell us how to do it, because everyone had left. And there was no documentation anywhere. So I think some of us have come into this project and have strong opinions about how it runs now. Like I’m very opinionated. But we have this empowerment to just make autonomous decisions because we had this experience being involved in the collective when it was like low key in shambles and there was no one left to tell us how to do anything. So we just had to figure it out.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s a really important approach. And that’s cool if that’s a continuing dynamic that the new folks are being introduced to. Yeah, “just don’t create more work for other people. But if you want to do this thing, go for it.” That’s pretty cool.

Fern: Can I add one more thing about informal hierarchies while we’re on the topic. I would say a huge disadvantage for us in doing the kind of work that we’re trying to do is that we operate very, very dependent on technology. Having access to a smartphone, having access to internet, having access to a computer, are all things that if you are going to be reliably involved in decision making in the project, just because of how it has sort of happened, and combined with starting this project, in the space of the pandemic, where it was very hard to be around other people in any capacity for quite a long time. We defaulted to these online, extremely online modes of communication that are just bottom-line, not accessible to a lot of the people that we’re trying to build community with.

I’m personally of the opinion that if we are actually going to be doing what could be called mutual aid in the future, we will have to go virtually offline. I don’t think any of our…. I don’t want to sound like an an-prim or something. But, just the reality of a person who doesn’t have a smartphone or reliable access to the internet… “How you sign up for shifts at the Free Store is by going on to this Google Doc and coordinating via signal loop with these other random people.” It’s just not gonna work. And so I think something that I really want for the collective is to take a really critical look at how we came to have the systems that we have, and how can we radically undermine them in order to make ourselves accessible in a meaningful

Ducky: THAT!

TFSR: There’s another element, in some activist communities, how some people accrue social capital, which relates to access to resources. Sometimes. You’ll see this kind of thing in school board meetings, the people that have the time and can get their kids childcare or whatever, in some cases, can show up to these things and get hyper-involved. And sometimes in activist scenes, the people who show up most consistently, and for meetings to make decisions are people who have the ability to not work a wage job and don’t have to worry about rent so much, too.

That’s not me saying anything about ASP in particular, but something that I’ve noticed. Like of my own privilege, I can get by working a job four days a week, and I’ll make rent and I have some extra spending money and some food and whatever. But I also don’t have kids, I don’t have any relatives that I’m taking care of that would require medical bills getting covered, I don’t have medical bills that need to get covered…

Ducky: That reflects the reality at the very least of the way the hierarchy that is present in the Free Store working group exists. I mean, because I worked at a lotion factory four days a week for a while and was here the three other days of the week. And then I quit that job at the beginning of the summer, because I’d saved some money while working and got my last stimulus check. And I’ve just now started thinking about going back to work, like I’m starting November 2nd. But because of that, it means I have a ton of time. So I’m at all these meetings. I’m in all the signal loops. I’m at the store all the time, but it’s because I have this additional resource and privilege privilege around time that I can choose to do with what I want. I think that’s the reality of the situation as well.

TFSR: Well, so are y’all looking for ASP to grow? And if so how? How can folks just show up and find where the store is? We haven’t talked about the location very specifically. And find out when a meeting is and show up to meeting? What you seeing in the future of the project?

Ducky: I think what I’m looking for and looking towards is continuing to do the work. I don’t imagine us trying to expand the work we’re doing and doing more work. I just imagined us trying to do the work we already do as a collective and doing it better, while making it more political. Getting really good at running this Free Store, continuing to cultivate these real relationships that I have now with folks in the neighborhood. But in terms of getting involved, the basic prerequisite for being involved, and being able to come to like these ASP collective-wide meetings is we have this document, which just our Points Of Unity document that we have new folks read through. And we’re like, “Do you agree to abide by these while doing the work of ASP?” And people were like, “Yeah” usually.

I’ve not ever had anyone be like “I’m not gonna abide by these.” But basically, just reading through these, and these are… I’m pretty sure these points of unity are basically just lifted from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR). They just got incorporated into our project at the beginning of the pandemic. If you want, I can send you a link and you can hyperlink the points of unity in this episode’s notes too.

TFSR: For folks who are going to be listening, though, could you kind of go over the general values of them? Or it’s okay if you don’t want to, if you don’t have it memorized…

Fern: We have a very abbreviated version, a concise version.

Ducky: I’m not gonna rattle them off. But I think the ones that are really important are ones that have already come up in this conversation. There are more of them, obviously. And it’s super complicated, or nuanced rather. But one of our points of unity is that we, as a collective, strive to dismantle the barriers between people who give and receive aid. Another point of unity is that we do our work with the end goal of ending all systems of oppression. One of our points of unity is that we’re opposed to all forms of bigotry. One of them is that we don’t work with the State or call the cops.

What Fern was alluding to is, so when folks just stopped by the store casually and don’t want to read like a full page long document, we have like three bullet point version, and it’s pretty straightforward.

Fern: Yeah, “No bigotry of any kind.” “Fuck 12” or for radio friendly “Don’t call the cops. Screw the cops.”

Ducky: And what is our third one?

Fern: You gonna go look, it’s on the board. We’re in the store. We just heard the chair sound.

TFSR: It’s FUCK 12 again! (Laughs)

Fern: We love drug users. “We do not shame drug users for using drugs.” That’s the other one.

Ducky: So at the store when folks just want to stop by and drop in. We’re like, “Yeah, you’re welcome to drop drop in, do you care to agree to these three things when you’re working with us in the store?” I don’t know the best way for folks that are just listening in to be in touch with us. You could DM us on Instagram?

Fern: That’s kind of true, because you’ll get somebody who could have a phone conversation with you about our points of unity and about the project as a whole.

Ducky: It probably be me.

Fern: It would probably be Ducky…

Ducky: Or like one of the two other people that do that.

Fern: Yeah. That’s another talk about burnout. That’s something that we’re looking to expand… the number of people doing the on-boarding.

TFSR: I mean, that seems like an awesome thing that someone could do if they weren’t able to share space with people or had mobility issues or that’s their jam!

Ducky: I mean, we have someone that doesn’t live in town now. Who lives in Philadelphia but is really committed to the project. I miss them a lot.

TFSR: I miss that person. I hope they’re listening.

Ducky: Yeah, we miss you. Come back! Well, don’t, you like being in Philly more! But keep onboarding people. Thanks. But yeah, I mean, that person doesn’t live here anymore, but really cares about this project. And so one of the ways that they contribute, one of many ways that they contribute still is by being one of the people that will introduce people to the project and help them get connected to different parts of it.

TFSR: The Instagram is basically the public face besides the store. If people are on that app they can reach out.

Ducky: We also have an email address. People can email the email address if they’re interested and involved or have questions, or if they want to troll us? I’ll talk to you after this call and maybe check in with other members of the collective and maybe we can give folks that option to contact us that way as well. So that if they don’t have Instagram, they can still get in touch with us. It’s AshevilleSurvivalProgram@gmail.com

TFSR: Is there any thing that I didn’t ask about that y’all wanted to share about?

Ducky: I mean, I will say, we always need more people. So if you’re listening and you’re in the Greater Western North Carolina area, and you’re interested in this kind of work, come check it out. We’re all learning. None of us know how to do this. We all figuring it out as we go. So having more people that are excited and aren’t super flaky, love everybody, but half of us are total flakes myself included half the time. Maybe cut that out. It’s fine. If you’re flaky. You do what you need. It’s up to your spoons and capacity. Flake as much as you want, Dandruff is cool! We just always need more people.

It’s a lot of hard work. But ultimately, I would say that ASP is a huge part of my life at this point because it really is meaningful work that is important. And I have built really profound relationships that have further radicalized me and helped clarify my vision and my politic in ways that have been kind of incredible. So, the last thing is come check us out. Get involved, if you want.

Fern: Yeah, doing mutual aid is better than staring into the void.

Ducky: True that.

TFSR: That’s what’s going up on the window.

Ducky: I mean, it’s basically our mirror in the bathroom. I think our mirror in the bathroom has “You look so good doing mutual aid. You look great doing mutual aid.”

TFSR: I would imagine that if someone’s in another city, and they’re listening to this, and they’ve been thinking about starting a mutual aid project, or they work with one. And they wanted to get a hold of y’all to swap stories or talk about ways of doing stuff that the Instagram and possibly email would be a pretty good way to do that, too, huh?

Ducky: Yeah, there’s not really a phone number that we can call. I’m going to try really hard to get consent.

Fern: Let’s have audio of us saying, Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Ducky: Please contact us so we can swap ideas. Cool.

TFSR: If you get consent, then I’ll put the email in the show notes and announce it also. And if you don’t, then I will cut all the references to it.

Thank you so much, Fern and Ducky for having this conversation and again, making the time to chat for the work that y’all do.

Ducky: Yeah, thank you Bursts really appreciate it.

Support Ryan Roberts and #KillTheBill Bristol defendants!

Support Ryan Roberts and #KillTheBill Bristol defendants!

"#KillTheBill Riots, Bristol ABC & Solidarity with Ryan Roberts", a Brsitol cop car tagged "Kill The Bill" with fires behind from the March 21, 2021 riots
Download This Episode

On March 21st, 2021, thousands entered the streets of Bristol in the UK to vent their anger at deaths in police custody, police violence on the streets, as well as a slate of repressive laws including the SpyCops Bill, increasing impunity for government officials breaking their own laws, as well as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, or simply The Bill, targeting Roma people, Travelers, lengthens youth prison sentences and criminalizing dissent and protest amidst some of the harshest Covid-19 lockdowns the UK had seen. What became known as the Kill The Bill riot led to running fights with police, burnt cop cars, a dizzying disinformation campaign by police centering themselves as victims, and over 80 people arrested to date, with more being detained and some facing years in prison. From Monday the 25th & Wednesday the 27th of October 2021, defendant Ryan Roberts will be facing trial and is calling for international solidarity.

For the hour, Tom and Nicole of Bristol Anarchist Black Cross talk about the #KillTheBill, police violence in the UK, the radical scene in Bristol, anti-repression work of Bristol ABC & Bristol Defendant Solidarity, the legacy of former Bristol resident Anna Campbell, the cases of the Colston 4 as well as that of Toby Shone, prison expansion in the UK and more. To learn more about their work and how to support and write to Ryan Roberts and other #KillTheBill defendants, visit BristolABC.Wordpress.Com, and to you can search that hashtag on social media for a demo in your area to join in on or to advertise your solidarity action! If you happen to be in Manchester, there’s a demo on the 27th at 5pm at the Crown Court. And check the ongoing fundraiser for the defendants at GoFundMe!

Solidarity demos October 25 & 27th 2021 for Ryan Roberts facing charges from #KillTheBill March 21st street actionsCheck our show notes for more links, including our conversation with Dónal O’Driscoll from November of 2020 about the SpyCops case. There’s also a new podcast out called SpyCops Info that includes folks who had been part of groups infiltrated by undercover pigs in the UK in past decades talking about individual cops and the ongoing inquiry that’s worth giving a listen to: https://tfsr.wtf/spycops

Also, check out this audio from Radio AvA, (a podcast by and for sex workers) with their coverage of the demonstration after the rape and killing of Sarah Everard by on-duty London Metropolitan pig Wayne Couzens: https://www.radioava.org/episodes/avashowmarch2021part1. We found that audio, shared by our comrades at Dissident Island Radio.

We’re releasing this interview a bit early so as to get word out about Ryan Roberts’ trial, so it’ll be a little longer of a wait between episodes.

Annoucements

New Eric King Solidarity Poster

There is a really cool poster available in solidarity with anarchist and antifascist prisoner, Eric King, who is facing trial in a Denver court on a frameup right now. The poster was produced by Radix Media and here’s what they had to say:

To support Eric King, we are releasing a limited edition of 35 posters carrying one of his revolutionary poems. All profits generated from the sale of the broadside will be sent to Eric’s support fund.
The print is approximately 12.5″ x 20″ and was letterpress printed in multiple passes on our vintage Vandercook proofing press.

You can find the poster at https://radixmedia.org/product/eric-king-support-letterpress-broadside/

Sean Swain Phone-Zap

Sean Swain is in danger of being out-of-state transferred again, to who knows where. His support crew are asking that folks call Ohio State Senator Teresa Fedor and Ohio State Representative Lisa Sobecki to express concern about Sean’s safety, access to his legal counsel as well as family and support network in Ohio, and to question the legality of sending Sean out of state without the legally required hearing with Sean attending, (which they skipped when he was sent to Virginia in 2019).

Check SeanSwain.Org for a basic script in the next day or so. If you’re returning to these notes to find Sean’s segment, good on you! It’s in the current iteration of the show and can be found on it’s own here: https://archive.org/download/youaretheresistance001/youaretheresistance20211024.mp3

Asheville Cover Band Show

A reminder that if you’re in the Asheville area on October 30th (and vaccinated) and want to participate in the annual Prison Books & Tranzmission Prison Project halloween cover band show, it’s taking place at the outdoor and covered venue, Sly Grog! There’s a door fee and the list of bands is extra-ordinary! Check it out:

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Featured track:

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Transcription

Nicole: I’m Nicole. I use she/her pronouns. I’ve been living in or around Bristol for nearly 30 years. And yeah, I organize with Bristol Anarchist Black Cross.

Tom: I’m Tom, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a relative newcomer to Bristol. I’ve been a defendant in trials myself and have I’ve done anti-repression work for comrades for quite a few years, too. And part of Bristol Anarchist Black Cross.

TFSR: Thank you both so much for coming on and being willing to talk, I really appreciate it. Could you tell us a bit about Bristol? Maybe where it’s at and its measurements? Who lives there and what it’s like? And what it was like in the run up to the Kill the Bill demos?

Nicole: Yeah, so Bristol is a city in southwest England. So under half a million people live there. It’s pretty diverse in terms of class and race. So, over a quarter of the people in Bristol are not white, there’s a really large Afro-Caribbean community. And there’s a really long history, like there’s a long history everywhere of police violence. But there’s quite a long history of rioting and resistance and community organizing in Bristol. It’s the 11th biggest city in the UK. And [ha!] thankfully, the Times dubbed it as one of the best places to live in the UK. But that means there’s been increasing gentrification every year. People are attracted to the city because there’s quite a lot of underground music scene, street art, this like alternative culture. But it sits in like a very rural region of England.

And I guess, just in terms, of the historical context the city was built on the slave trade. It’s by the sea on the west coast. So there’s a long history of slavery in the city. And yeah, in terms of local riots… we’re going to be talking about a recent riot that happened in March this year. But there is this historical context to that in terms of riots in the center of Bristol, in places like St. Paul’s, which have happened after police have really abused stop and search powers, where they’ve killed people. There was a famous riot in 2011, after a big squat eviction in the city. Just in terms of what we’re talking about today… so if people aren’t aware there was a riot in March…. March 21, against some some new legislation that we’re going to be talking about. A lot of people have been arrested. 81 people so far, 41 people have been charged and there’s already 10 people in prison. But we’ll go into that more over the next hour.

TFSR: Cool. And would you want to talk a bit about Bristol ABC, about Bristol Defendant Solidarity, and the anti-repression work that those two groups do?

Nicole: So there’s two groups. So, we’re representing Bristol Anarchist Black Cross and there’s also a group called Bristol Defendant Solidarity (BDS). BDS was started after this riot in 2011. But before then there’s always been ongoing informal support and solidarity for people that are arrested. BDS mostly focuses on defendant support work, and ABC focuses more on the prisoner side. But recently, with all the repression we’ve been working really closely together. In terms of Bristol ABC… if people aren’t aware of the Anarchists Black Cross… It’s debated how it started, but there is evidence that it was active in 1905 in Russia and there’s ABC groups all over the world that are active, supporting people in prison. So I’ve been doing ABC for about 10 years now. How we’ve been supporting people, practically, financially, politically, not just in the UK, but also around the world.

So yeah, Bristol was fortunate with the riots that there was a lot of infrastructure that was already established that could respond to this situation. There was also groups that got started in the midst of it all. So there’s an action medic crew that was set up and legal observers independently organized to attend the demos. And so what happened was there was obviously this mass arrest of people. And some people were known to us, were comrades, were in our communities already, and other people weren’t. And so, BDS had to really publicize the fact that support is available. There was lots of postering in the city, lots of outreach on social media, word of mouth, and encouraged defendants to get in touch so that they could be supported with different things.

BDS help with legal work. So going through the police footage, helping people prepare for court, liaison with solicitors [lawyers], attending court hearings. And you know in that moment, they’ll also do police station support, and support people if their house has been raided by the cops and they’ve lost their phones and stuff like that. And ABC will offer…. like it’ll do like pre-prison chats with people, because I did some time inside when I was younger. So, you know, few of us and ABC have been in prison. So we like to help people prepare, practically and emotionally.

We’ve also been doing fundraising and sharing details of people in prison who’ve consented and asked to have their detail shared so that they can receive letters, and solidarity and stuff like that. And there’s also an element of supporting people’s families, quite a few defendants have been separated from their kids, for example. And ideally, when we’re a bit less overwhelmed we really want to play a role in supporting prisoner resistance and organizing from the defendants who are inside. So, at the moment between ABC and BDS, we buddy people. Someone gets assigned, and you make sure that you’re bottom lining the support for that person. You’re checking in with them regularly, you’re going to court with them, you’re making sure that they have access to to what they need.

But beyond those two groups, there’s also a lot of autonomous organizing in Bristol. So, people have been organizing fundraising, bar nights and organizing letter writing events and stuff like that. And, at the moment, there’s a defense campaign in the making. We want to do something a lot more organized with defendants and their families and their supporters, and counter some of the State narratives and the mainstream media narratives about the riot and what happened. That’s what’s been going down.

TFSR: So Bristol has a history of radical leftist resistance, at least that I’ve been aware of, such as a chapter of the IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, those anti-repression projects like Bristol ABC and BDS, an anarchist bookfair that actually my co host William and I were able to attend a few years back, which was awesome. It’s also been host to sabotage actions claimed over the last decade by insurrectional anarchists of the Informal Anarchist Federation/International Revolutionary Front FAI-IRF against police and capitalist infrastructure. So it’s like a wide gamut of stuff that’s come across my radar as things that are interesting about Bristol and exciting about Bristol. It seems like a hotbed of anarchy. Can you talk about what what the anarchist scene is like in Bristol?

Nicole: Sure! So, I think to the outside world, it seems like a hotbed, but I think when you’ve lived there a long time It feels like a retirement home. But that’s probably a bit cheeky. There is a lot of stuff going on. I think there’s different theories. My personal theory is that I think Bristol is big enough to have a diversity of anarchist tendencies. So there’s these insurrectionary currents and then there’s groups like the IWW and people that are doing community organizing, around housing or wages, things like this. But it’s not as big as cities like London, it’s like intimate enough for people to know each other. And also, there’s been really long term anarchist infrastructure, Base, which is the local social center. You know, it got established in 1995. So it’s part of the furniture really, in terms of contributing to the local resistance in the area, or there’s something in the water.

TFSR: I want to get some of that water.

Yeah, that seems to make a lot of sense. And that’s a thing that I’ve heard from other people in cities where there’s a long standing activity and maybe even varied. But having that sort of infrastructure that people can plug into, and the collective community memory really makes the ability… it’s something to build off of, which I think is really cool.

So, folks may recognize the name of Anna Campbell, Feminist and anarchist who had been active organizing in Bristol, who fell šehid (martyr in Kurdish Kurmanji) while fighting in the Women’s Defense Units, or YPG, in Rojava, also known as the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria. She was killed by a Turkish missile strike, as I understand. I wonder if y’all would talk about Anna, who had been involved in the IWW, as I understand, and also BDS and Bristol ABC and a bit about her legacy.

Nicole: Sure, so yeah Anna was… I think she was probably involved in every group of Bristol at some point or another. She was, like, really well known locally, really active. She was active in Bristol ABC and BDS. And yeah, she really believed in solidarity and self defense in militant resistance. She definitely wasn’t a pacifist. She was really inspired by what was going on in Rojava and she lost her life for that.

We’ve all been talking about her a lot with the repression because she would have just fucking loved it. She would have been all over it, coming to court and doing demos and painting banners and spelling them wrong and all sorts of stuff that she used to do. So yeah, we really, really miss her. It’s really hard that she’s not around. But you know, she was doing ABC just before she left. So I think it shaped her a lot politically.

I think she could see the strategic value of supporting prisoner resistance. She organized quite a lot when there was the big prison strikes in the US in 2016. She was doing info events about that and banner drops. She was really inspired by that. She wasn’t technically from Bristol, she was from the other side of the UK. But she she definitely made an impact in the city.

Tom: Yeah. Anna was a friend and comrade when she lived in that other part of the UK, in Sussex. I remember from other struggles, from anti-militarist organizing and organizing in solidarity with the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle, organizing against the G8 summit… There were just so many struggles that she was involved in. Thinking about how those struggles can move in a more revolutionary direction… And also as Nicole mentioned, the importance of self defense and people’s self defense were things that led her to join the revolution in Rojava.

TFSR: Thank you for sharing. So I guess switching topics a bit. Could you talk about how lockdowns were experienced during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic? What they were like around the UK and maybe in Bristol in particular.

Tom: Yeah, so in Bristol, as in lots of other places around the UK, anarchists were involved in mutual aid organizing, supporting people through the Coronavirus lockdowns. So in Bristol we have a project which was established at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic called BASE and Roses. It was established by the anarchist social center in Easton delivering boxes of food to people who needed it because of the Coronavirus lockdown and for any other reason. And that’s still going on as a piece of mutual aid infrastructure in Bristol. There are also solidarity funds set up by mutual aid groups to help people survive through the lockdowns. So yeah, there was this mutual aid response to to the pandemic and to the fact that people were struggling because of inability to work because of the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Then there was the the police’s authoritarian use of the Coronavirus legislation to repress dissent and mass mobilization. So in Bristol, for example, the police, Avon and Somerset police increase the use of technology like drones to surveil the population, to spy on people gathering during lockdowns, just use it as an opportunity to roll out the use of that new repressive technology which they’ve been wanting to use for a long time. They were using it before the lockdown but there was a double in the use of that technology after the start of the Coronavirus lockdowns.

During the Coronavirus lockdowns, you had the the murder of George Floyd in the US and the global response, Black Lives Matter response, people coming together in anti-racist demonstrations… Bristol had a really vibrant movement and people are still organizing. Bristol have been consistently organizing and they organized the protests last June, where 10,000 people, one of the biggest demonstrations in recent memory are gathered at College Green and marched through the city. As they came to the statue of Edward Colston, who was a local personality who was involved in the slave trade, and who has many things named after him in the city: streets, schools etc. People had been campaigning, petitioning for the removal of this statue for… well, for decades. As the march went past the Colston statue, people put ropes around the statue and it was pulled down by the mass of the people and eventually was carried to the river Avon and thrown in the river.

The pulling down of the Colston statue was an important backdrop to what happened on March 21, which was when the riot that we’re going to be talking about happened. So, as the statue was pulled down, police stood back and didn’t make arrests at that point, and chose instead to try to identify people later on and to make arrests later on. And the police chief, Andy Marsh, said that was to avoid a riot taking place. He thought that if the police had intervened at that point there would have been a riot. And they were rebuked really harshly by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. They were told that they should have intervened, they should have stopped what was happening.

And what happened was copied around the UK, other statues were removed. The government was pissed off about that and wanted a more authoritarian response by the police. So, that provided the backdrop to what happened on the 21st of March because the police were geared up to respond in a more authoritarian way to the next, big, mass demonstration which was against the policing bill. I guess the backdrop to that demonstration was the it came during the UK’s harshest Coronavirus lockdown. Some of the other lockdowns had included clauses which said that political protests would be exempt from the terms of the lockdown, whereas in March, those clauses weren’t in place. The police were were acting as if protest was completely illegal.

TFSR: In the United States, and in North America in general, there’s been a lot of back and forth about the Right-wing having cornered a lot of the anti-lockdown sentiment around the idea that the government is using this has an opportunity to clamp down on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of expression, or ability to defend themselves. And I was talking to a comrade in Germany the other day, we were talking about how anarchists have engaged in responses to lockdowns or repression against demonstrations by using public health language in France in a different way than he had seen in Germany and I’d seen in the US.

I don’t know if you had any thoughts you wanted to share about the framing of public health measures being used as a way to… and maybe the importance in the framework that we’re operating in to decrease the spreading of COVID-19 while still living under capitalism… But, the use of the of those things to repress people’s ability to live safely and push back against government authoritarian measures. Does that make sense?

Nicole: Yeah, should I come in there Tom?

Tom: Sure.

Nicole: I think it’s been quite complex in the UK in the sense that a lot of people that have been anti-lockdown have been either open fascists or anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theory-esque with quite strong links to Right-wing world-views and to fascist ideas and ideologies. But, I don’t know if there’s been like enough critique of the State with the lockdown. I don’t know, it’s difficult isn’t it? Because obviously we want our communities to keep each other safe and if the State actually gave a fuck about anyone’s lives, they would shut down the factories and the Amazon warehouses outside Bristol that are hotspots for the virus.

But I do think it’s also exposed a huge amount of ableism like in anarchist scenes. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was really like “suddenly, let’s look out for people with chronic illnesses who were previously pretty displaced from our communities.” Like if you get sick, or you burn out, or you have a health issue, or a caring responsibility, it’s quite difficult to participate in certain struggles because of people’s ableism. So I think yeah, BASE and Roses has been a nice example of how that’s been responded to proactively.

I think the pandemics just been this microcosm of class war, right? In terms of how the legislations used and all their repressive strategies and stuff. I think, as time went on, and people understood the virus more, there was more willingness to take to the streets and do demos and not be as pacified, thinking it was like a way of harm reduction. I was really nervous when all these big demos were happening because I live with someone who’s shielding and that just like made me very nervous. But it was also really clear that people had to be on the streets and stuff.

I know anarchists everywhere have been thinking about this stuff. And I probably haven’t answered your question [laughs]. I think there’s like tensions in Bristol basically between opinions about this. But obviously everyone is against the State violence and the State surveillance and the State repression.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s totally fair, and I appreciate you. Perfect answer: “It’s complex and here’s some of the perspectives that people are coming from.” I appreciate you also pointing to the the ableism that was present, continues to be, but at least it’s like visible around folks immune-compromised and and related issues. So thank you for letting me interject that question. Can you talk a bit more about what context the the Kill the Bill protest emerged from? And what did the protests look like?

Tom: The context that the March 21 protests emerged from was immediately because of the policing bill. But the wider context is around policing in general and State repression, State authoritarianism in general. So, for instance, you had that huge mobilization in Bristol in 2020, and the toppling of the Colston statue. But police attacks on communities in Bristol and in the UK, a constant policing which is racist and racialized in Bristol. If you’re Black, for example, you’re seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than if you’re not.

In the context of this history of what Nicole was talking about there, the resistance against against racist policing in Bristol, and in the UK. Earlier that year, and in 2021, at least two people have been killed in custody close to Bristol. In January, a 24 year old man called Mohamud Hassan died after having been detained in Cardiff Bay police station, not so far away from Bristol. Five weeks later, another young man called Mouayed Bashir died in police custody, this time in Newport in South Wales. That that’s the norm in terms of police violence. Since 1990 around 1,800 people, and this is recorded cases, have died in police custody or or directly after being in police custody in the UK.

The backdrop is this really harsh Coronavirus lockdown where where protest is illegal. And at the beginning of 2021 the government passed the SpyCops Bill. At a time when it was very difficult for people to express dissent because of this lockdown that was going on. And the SpyCops Bill, basically, was the State’s response to the ongoing legal cases that have been brought by women who’ve had intimate relationships with undercover police officers who posed as people that were involved in the radical Left and had relationships with them on this false pretext. There’s currently an inquiry going on about the undercover policing tactics that were used, but the SpyCops Bill made it expressly legal. Legal, not illegal, for State agents working for the police or for other State authorities, it could even extend to things like local authorities to break the law. It was essentially passing a piece of legislation which will make it legal for police officers to break the law in the future if they were on undercover duty. So, the State had done this and under the cover of the Coronavirus pandemic and lock downs.

The next thing that the State wanted to push through Parliament was the Police Courts and Sentencing Bill. It was, I would say, the most repressive piece of legislation since the the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of the 1990’s. Again, it was being done at a time when political dissent was very, very difficult. And the bill itself criminalizes the livelihoods of Gypsy-Roma and traveller communities, gives the police some increased powers to seize vehicles and also creates a criminal offense of trespass which is an attack on the livelihoods of Traveling people and a further attack on on squatters and generally on freedom in the UK. It introduces longer sentences which can be imposed on people and particularly for young people, it allows younger people to be sent to prison for longer. The bill gives police more powers to shut down and to impose conditions on public protests and processions, it widens police powers to arrest people for causing a public nuisance, it allows cops to impose conditions on protests if the cops think that the protest is too noisy or disruptive and it allows them to shut down protests encampments, too.

So it has a massive effect on protests in the UK. The other side of the coin is the State’s new prison expansion program to create 18,000 new prison places in the UK. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, Nicole?

Nicole: Yeah, so a major part of the bill which I think hasn’t had as much attention as the other areas of harm is that the British State wants to build 18,000 new prison places through a series of mega-prisons, which will most likely be run by private companies. And this legislation gives them the opportunity to criminalize more and more people and also to keep people in prison for much longer than they already are. So yeah, it’s pretty significant in the context of the prison industrial complex more broadly in the UK

TFSR: It seems like, outside of the shape of the bill, part of the context or one of the sparks that really would have lit people and sent them into the street was the the situation of Sarah Everard. Would you mind talking about that?

Nicole: Sure, yes. So, quite an inflammatory situation in the UK that was creating a lot of rage and despair in people was that police officer in early March was arrested for murdering a woman called Sarah Everard and I don’t know if people know the case at all or had seen it on the news, but he was a police officer called Wayne Couzens and he showed his badge and use the Coronavirus legislation to get Sarah into his car. And then he later raped and murdered her.

This was a really big deal. And there quite shortly after there was a huge vigil organized in London. And in this vigil there were 1000’s of people protesting. And, again, using the Coronavirus legislation of the police to try to repress the demo, including holding women down and assaulting them, which in the context was like pretty horrifying. It’s only one week after this vigil in London that the big Kill The Bill March took place in Bristol. So, there was a lot of anger about the police in the air.

In terms of the you know the actual demo and the riot, I actually had like a 38 and a half degree (Celsius) fever at home so I thought I had COVID. So I wasn’t there. But obviously the footage got shared all over social media and all over the world. There was a really big march and then people started moving towards the police station, towards evening time. The police stations is right in the city center. Police officers attack the crowd with batons, riot shields, pepper spray was used, people were charged with police horses, some people were bitten by police dogs. People really defended themselves, seized riot shields, grabbed helmets and batons to defend themselves.

By the end of the night windows of the police station had been smashed, there was like various vehicles on fire, police vehicles. There was also some famous very Bristol related photographs shared of one kids skateboarding next to this burning cop van, which went pretty viral. Yeah, it got it got pretty wild west.

Tom: And I think it’s important to understand what happened from the perspective of the community’s self defense against authoritarian policing and the police itself, which is constantly attacking the community in Bristol and all of our communities. The legal system tries to understand self defense in a much more limited way. If you argue that you are defending yourself when you’re being attacked by the police in a court of law, it’s going to be all about whether or not you were threatened at that point.

But I think we should understand self defense in a much more broad way. that we need to defend our communities against State oppression. I have to say, I’m really proud to live in a community where people did defend themselves in that way. And yeah, that’s one of the points that we’ve made as ABC and BDS is that we’re proud of the defendants and their resistance.

TFSR: Another unscripted question, just out of curiosity… I know in the so-called US, one thing that was experienced and has been growing over the last few years, but last year really sort of blew up the idea of or made it super visible and part of discourse, the idea of Abolition in general, but abolition of the police. I know that within the US context and the white supremacist anti-Black former more-recently-slave-State that’s still pretty contested, especially around the structure of prisons and racialization in the US. That’s a lot of terms sorry.

Abolition has a weight to it I think that in a lot of other places it would not. But around this time when it becomes all the more blatant what the State is doing, whipping out its police forces and these clear instances of police murders like those ones in January in the area and also Sarah Everard in the the impunity of the pig in that instance… Has abolitionism, or has just getting rid of the police, moved from outside of subcultural discourse? Have people talked about this? Have they said like, “Oh, this is a clear sign that this is what the police do. We’re just seeing it right in front of our faces right now?”

Nicole: Yeah, I think there’s been this Abolitionist tendency that’s been growing and growing, last year definitely escalated everything. I remember doing one webinar about resisting prison expansion with a group called “Community Action on Prison Expansion.” And there was 400 people watching it, it was pretty wild how many people got interested in it. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a sensation of like “abolition is the flavor of the week.” If that makes sense. I don’t know how many people will continue to do consistent prisoner support, for example.

But I think the interesting thing about the COVID time was that for people who through privilege hadn’t experienced State violence. Suddenly, everyone was witnessing the power of the State, if that makes sense. So, working class communities, people of color, other people that have historically experienced State violence, who like a lot more on side about criticizing the police… suddenly you just had the general population thinking about it. And I think there definitely is still quite a strong anti-police energy. It’s easy to be in a left wing echo chambers, but I think there really is a sensation now in UK of where people are talking about abolition, like a lot more weightily, as you said.

Tom: I also went to Zoom meetings that were attended by many, many people during the summer of 2020… and talking about abolition. But just linking it back to the riot. One of the most beautiful things about the riot was that one of the last police cars to be set on fire, before it was set on fire, had the words “defund the police” written across the bonnet [US: hood]. And so, clearly the people who were fighting back against the police on that night did have those ideas and those visions in the minds.

TFSR: So with the folks that caught charges… I think one of you had mentioned that folks are still being charged. But can you talk about the defendants? Can you talk about what charges and times that they face? What stages of conviction are they in. Also, most of our audience is based in the US and the criminal justice system has a specific shape to it here in terms of how the court process goes, and I’m wondering if you could sort of highlight some differences or some instances that would enlighten us to what the defendants are facing in Bristol courts.

Tom: Yeah, so 81 people have been arrested so far. And of the people arrested, the vast majority are pretty young, mostly in their early 20s. And, as Nicole said, some people have been involved in our movements, but many hadn’t so it was a challenge to get in contact with people and to establish connections with them for BDS and ABC. 41 of those 81 people have been charged now.

So what happens when you get arrested in the UK, is you get arrested taken to the police station, and you might be charged at the police station, or you might be released on police bail, or released under investigation. So if one of the latter two happens, it means you haven’t been charged yet, the police are still considering whether to charge you and to prosecute you. Almost everybody wasn’t arrested on the evening of the 21st of March. So, after the riot happened the police release photographs of people. They trolled through CCTV footage and they released photographs of people who they said had been involved in the rioting and there was lots of snitching that took place. So, the footage and the photographs of people that were wanted were put on the TV, they were also released on the front pages of national newspapers. And there was some snitching that happened where people called the cops and said “Oh, my neighbor was involved in the rioting.”

And, yeah, it has to be pointed out the complicity of the mainstream media, in doing the police’s work for them in putting out the photos of people in order for them to be repressed by the State. So, 41 people have been charged, and they’ve been being brought to court over the last month since since March. 3 people are currently on remand in prison. Being on remand means that you’ve gone through a court hearing, and the judge has refused to give you bail, and you’re in prison awaiting awaiting trial. People can wait for a year or more for their trial to take place and remain in prison for that entire time.

10 people have already been sentenced for the riot. So, those who’ve pled guilty to riot have received sentences of between three and five years in prison. And the remaining people have all pled not guilty. And so their cases will be between now. The first case is next week with a guy called Ryan Roberts, he’s in court in Bristol Crown Court on the 25th of October, and his case last until the 27th of October and he’s charged with Riots and Arson. Riot carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. The judge in the cases is saying that the starting point for sentencing is 6 years. And Arson carries a variable sentence, depending on the level of the arson, it can be a very serious charge also. So it’s a serious case. And Ryan has called for solidarity and he wants to make the case as politically as he possibly as he possibly can and he wants demonstrations outside the court.

We’re calling for people to pack the courtroom to show that there’s support for people to fighting back against police violence and defending himself against against the police. So, that’s next week. There’s also two demonstrations planned next week on the 25th and 27th in solidarity with Ryan.

The rest of the trials are scheduled between January 2022 and July 2022. People are still being charged so the people who are currently released under investigation are still going on people going on being charged. And unfortunately people are still being arrested also. The police are saying that there’s many more people that are wanted, unfortunately. We can see that it’s a long slog in terms of anti-repression work and in terms of supporting our comrades going through this process of the State trying to repress them.

The narrative which has come out in Bristol actually is, so far, really the State’s narrative. So when people have been sentenced in court after they’ve pled guilty, the judge has ruled out a long list of injuries sustained by the police a long list of Statements by the police saying that they were traumatized by people fighting back against them. At the same time, when the riot happened, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, again, made Statements to the effect that the people who rioted were thugs. Avon and Somerset police called people a pack of wild animals. The mayor of Bristol also condemned people for rioting.

Nicole: I quite like that wild animals quote, we should do a T-shirt with to the effect of that.

TFSR: Good fundraiser.

Tom: I think it was a mob of wild animals.

Nicole: Yeah. We could have all the West Country wildlife. All the foxes and badgers. [laughs]

Tom: Aw nice! So what we have is a narrative really set at the moment, unfortunately, by people with the most power. You know, what we need to do is to put forward our own narrative, to show the people in Bristol support people for fighting back against the police, that we’re proud of these people who fought back. And we also need to talk about the police violence on the 21st of March against the people who surrounded Bridewell [Bristol Central Police Station]. Not only on the 21st of March, but afterward, the police attack people as Nicole was saying, they smashed right shields over people’s heads. They attack people with batons, attacked people with dogs, and that police violence needs to be centered too.

We hope that will come out through the different types of anti-repression work that we’re talking about. Through the work of BDS and ABC, but also through the defense campaign and through the evidence of defendants in court cases. Ryan, as I said, wants to make his case as political as possible and that means talking about the police violence and talking about the violence leveled against people on the evening.

I alluded just then to what happened after the 21st of March. So that’s probably worth talking about. So there was a series of demonstrations, which happened after the 21st of March in Bristol. So Kill The Bill demonstrations continued two or three times weekly. And for the first few weeks at least, we were met by an army of riot police who were intent on revenge for the 21st of March. A few days after the 21st of March there was a gathering by supporters of Gypsy, Roma and Traveler People on College Green that was violently attacked by the cops. A line of riot police charged the entire gathering of people in tents etc. And slammed riot shields down on people’s heads. And that set the scene for the policing over the next weeks and months where the cops really tried to exact revenge for what had happened on the 21st of March by using the maximum amount of violence against people when they were coming out on the streets in Bristol to resist against a bill.

Nicole: Yeah, maybe I can add one thing. I think it’s worth saying with the defendants that, again, t’s quite mixed in terms of class and race but the people that are getting smashed with the hardest sentences are working class people who have had previous convictions, or who weren’t in touch with us who went guilty due to terrible legal advice, and they thought they were only going to get a couple of months, and instead they got four or five years.

So, I think that the riot itself was politically motivated in lots of ways but defendant support always crosses into different terrains. It’s a class issue and a race issue and the people who will get smashed are those that don’t have the same level of mitigation. And part of the defense campaign goals are to support people so that they don’t make cutthroat defenses. So they don’t set up narratives of good protesters and bad protesters.

We recently had a film screening of the Sub Media film about the J20 Resistance and while it’s quite different contexts, I think it did inspire quite a lot of the defendants of how maybe without that sort of political support and education, they might have gone down the route of being like “I’m a good protester. I’m a good citizen. I didn’t mean anything by it.” And and I think it’s nice to see people collectively becoming a bit more empowered and radicalized through this process. And I’m hoping, long term, that it will just backfire against the State. Bristol is already a very radical place and now we’re going to have people organizing prisoner resistance on the inside that we can support. We’re going to have an army of young people that have been dragged through the court system who want to fight back. I think the defendant work is quite interesting in that way.

Tom: Yeah, and just to say in terms of the number of people sentenced… 10 people have received sentences now to a total of 29 years in prison between them. I just wanted to say another bit of the context of all this against the backdrop of the riots across the the UK in 2011 [in the aftermath of the police murder of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in North London], which were really widespread by working class communities, predominantly, and people of color. I think one one criticism of the response by anarchists to those riots is that we really, really failed to provide infrastructure and support to the people that were arrested. There was a really strong State narrative. You had Boris Johnson going out with his broom and saying that “everyone should be part of this riot clear up.” So there was a strong State narrative that was saying that the rioters weren’t political, that it was thuggery or whatever. Sadly, I think actually people bought that a little bit I’m afraid.

With what’s going on now with building infrastructure for supporting the people arrested on 21st of March, I really hope that we can do better in supporting people than we did back in 2011. That’s not to say by the way that nobody organized back in 2011. There were some good attempts at defendant solidarity organizing but what was really needed was unconditional solidarity for those in court on a really, really large scale, and that didn’t materialize.

TFSR: It’s I mean, it’s refreshing to hear people taking those sorts of lessons, though and saying “We lacked then, we’ve learned, we were trying to do this now.” And being able to take the examples of international situations or situations in other countries. That’s really impressive.

You had mentioned that Ryan was calling for people to come out and demonstrate. There’s demonstrations on the 25th and 27th. And folks are going to try to pack the courthouse. For folks that can’t make it, whether because they’re abroad or ability or what have you, can you talk a little bit about other ways that they can offer solidarity, both to Ryan’s case and upcoming ones? Ways that folks can donate towards legal costs or survival needs of the defendants moving forward? Or, I don’t know, dropping banners in front of embassies and such abroad if that’s helpful?

Nicole: Yeah, sure. So, there is there is an international call for solidarity. we’d just appreciate any crews, any groups, any organization’s making that stuff happen. It could be writing Statements, it could be doing banner pictures, it could be dedicating actions to him. Also, things like letter writing. There’s a bunch of people in prison now and they’re new to prison. So ,this is a critical time for support of getting loads of posts. A lot of the defendants have felt a bit of shame about their involvement, maybe they’ve had shame from their family, in the media. But showing them inside that loads of people on the outside support them and have their back is really important.

So yeah, we’ve got a list of prisoners and their addresses on the ABC site. We do circulate graphics as well, but it’s always worth checking the site because people get moved to prison a lot and stuff like that. And yeah, funds are constantly needed. We send every prisoner at least 50 pounds a month, money’s going people’s families, to books, to clothes, and sometimes for legal costs, as well. Bristol Defendant Solidarity have a crowdfunder for legal costs. And ABC also has a crowdfunder for prisoner support funds. Yes, so there’s definitely loads of ways that people can can offer support.

Tom: And maybe it’s worth saying I think the response to those crowdfund is really encouraging. It shows the level of support from people in Bristol and people outside for the defendants. We’ve raised over £45,000. But, the amount of money that’s needed to provide financial support to people in prison and all the different types of support that Nicole mentions is really considerable, especially over the length of time that some people might be serving in prison. So, we’d really encourage people internationally to donate to those crowdfunders.

TFSR: Like I mentioned, it’s heartwarming to hear about y’all taking lessons from cases of repression and people resisting and organizing and other places. What are some lessons or some takeaways that you’d like people listening to this to come back with and that you’re learning right now through this process?

Nicole: I think one of the key takeaways is that it’s worth building infrastructure now. Obviously repression and State violence is ongoing in every community, but I think Bristol… we had a slight advantage on other cities in the UK, for example, because we’ve got that infrastructure like ABC and BDS. Lots of challenges come up when organizing, right? And if you’ve already got an established group in affinity with each other, and systems. That really helps. There’s a zine about how to start an Anarchist Black Cross group, It’s got advice and resources if people are interested in starting an ABC.

And the thing is, I think we haven’t mentioned it much, but repression really takes its toll on people and that support does need to be holistic. It’s not just doing legal work for people. It is also offering emotional support. So there was an emotional support group, which has transformed a little bit now because I think defendants prefer to talk to people one to one. So, we’re paying for counseling and therapy for some comrades and that’s really helping people. And even in terms of people’s health and stress and herbal support, things like that… I think it’s really good to really humanize people and realize that the defendants are experiencing a really stressful time. They don’t know what’s going to happen with their lives. They don’t know if they’re going to get eight years in prison or two years in prison. They don’t know if they’ll be able to get a job in the future. Their relationships are getting trashed, maybe their children have gone into care. There’s so many effects of State violence that we invisiblize. And I don’t want us to come across that we’re rubbing our hands as anarchists like “Ah, yes, theres this uprising in Bristol, and it’s really politically exciting!” Actually, it’s been really awful and traumatic for loads of the defendants. Especially people that already experienced domestic violence who are then getting beaten by male police officers, for example.

So I think having that broad overview is really important. And then if people do not know the film, there is an absolutely ridiculous, highly problematic, but hilarious film called Hot Fuzz. So if you want to take the piss out of Avon and Somerset police, it’s based in the West Country in England, you should watch it. It’s the best film in terms of laughing at our local cops.

Tom: I was just gonna say about the effects of repression, the emotional effects of repression. When I was going through a trial 10-12 years ago. The tactics that the cops used in the run up to the trial, were designed to separate us from our comrades through bail conditions, saying that we couldn’t speak to people, and were designed to make life as difficult for us as possible, through house raids, through arrests intended to come up with reasons to remand us in prison, etc. And I guess that really impressed on me the need for for prisoner solidarity.

The thing that really impressed on me, the need for solidarity for people going through repression, was just seeing several comrades really go through hard times. Even a couple of those comrades aren’t with us anymore. Just seeing the needs to have that infrastructure there, to have the backs of people that are going through this State repression. I think that’s a real motivation for for a lot of us.

TFSR: So in relation to the Bill and the Black Lives Matter protests, there was also the swim that statue of Edward Colston decided to take. I wonder if you could please tell us about the the 4 folks that are facing heavy charges and repression for alleged involvement in that.

Tom: Yeah. 4 people are facing charges for the toppling of the statue, and there’s been a massive campaign in Bristol to support them. One thing I didn’t say in relation to the Bill is that one of the parts of the policing bill makes the damaging of national monuments, punishable by 10 years in prison. And so that was specifically in response to the toppling of Colston and the toppling of other statues around the UK. That’s part of the State’s repressive response.

So, there’s a massive campaign in support of the 4 people who arrested after the toppling of that statue and they’re going to be in court for several weeks from the 13th of December. There are demonstrations being called at the start of that court case and there’s fundraising fundraising taking place and public events taking place in Bristol, which you can find out about on the Bristol Defendants Solidarity Twitter account. That’s also a focus of solidarity work this this year.

TFSR: Finally, another case of repression that’s been in the news recently is the prosecution in Bristol of Toby Shone who the State has identified as the web admin, I believe, of the anarcho-nihilist website 325.NoState.net – It was taken down alongside other insurrectionary and counter-info anarchist sites from around the world by pigs in the Netherlands. Can you all talk about Toby’s prosecution the level of international collaboration between police forces in different countries and how people can support Toby?

Nicole: Sure. So it’s worth saying that the terrorism charge that Toby was arrested on was dropped due to lack of evidence, so it’s all alleged in terms of like his alleged role in that website. But yeah, he was raided quite violently and remanded earlier this year in prison, and was recently sentenced this last week to 3 years & 9 months for drugs charges, relating to mushrooms, and I think other drugs that he uses to self medicate around cancer and depression and things. The terror terrorism related charges were dropped mostly but he’s happy for his details to be shared. I know it’s his birthday on the 20th of October so people can send some birthday cards to him. We’ll put his address in the show notes.

TFSR: Nicole and Tom, unless there’s anything else I really appreciate the conversation that we’ve had and the work that you all do.

Nicole: Oh, thank you for all your hard work like putting out this really consistent, amazing show that people should support.

Tom: Yeah, thanks so much for inviting us and, and yeah for for making the amazing podcast.

Fat Liberation for Revolutionary Leftists with Autumn

Fat Liberation for Revolutionary Leftists with Autumn

Fat Liberation cover with fist & roses by Tali
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This week I am very excited to present an interview with Autumn (she/her/hers), who is an anarchist and scholar-activist, on Fat Liberation in all its many nuances, the pervasive, classist, racist, and colonial nature of fatphobia both in mainstream society and in far left spaces and thought, and the roots of Fat Liberation as a structure which originates and lives with Black, Indigenous, and brown, trans and disabled people. We also speak about Autumn’s syllabus entitled “Fat Liberation Syllabus for Revolutionary Leftists: Confronting Fatphobia on the Left AND Liberalism within the Fat Liberation Movement”. In this document, she compiles writings on the many aspects of fatphobia and gives her own analysis in bulleted form. This document is available for public use, and you can find it at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation!

To get in touch with Autumn, you can @abolishtheusa on Instagram.

People, works, and resources named by our guest in this episode:

Da’Shaun L. Harrison book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness”

Dr. Sabrina Strings book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”

Hunter A. Shackleford “Hunter Ashleigh Shackelford (they/she) is a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia … They are the creator and director of a Southern body liberation organization, Free Figure Revolution, which focuses on decolonizing antiblack body violence … Hunter illustrates the relationship between Blackness, fatness, desire, queerness, and popular culture.” (Instagram: @huntythelion)

Jervae (Instagram: @jervae)

Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ work on CPS and how anti-Black racism and fatphobia infect this institution.

Health At Every Size, evidence based medical paradigm that heavily critiques the social constructions of “obesity” and diet culture, and aims to present folks with a compassionate and inclusive framework for taking care of themselves.

Books by Dr. Lindo Bacon (founder of Health At Every Size)

– podcast Food Psych with Christy Harrison

Marquisele Mercedes article “How to Recenter Equity and Decenter Thinness in the Fight for Food Justice”

Caleb Luna (Instagram: @chairbreaker Twitter: @chairbreaker_) “Caleb Luna (they/them) is a fat queer (of color) critical theorist, performer, poet, essayist, cultural critic, and performance scholar. As a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, their research focuses on performances of eating, and historicizing cultural representations of fat embodiment within the ongoing settler colonization of Turtle Island.

Sonalee Rashatwar (Instagram: @thefatsextherapist)

– podcast Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon (Instagram: @yrfatfriend Twitter: @yrfatfriend)

Fat Rose Collective (Instagram: @fatlibink)

Announcement

2022 Certain Days Freedom for Political Prisoner Calendars

Just a heads up that the pre-orders for the 2022 Certain Days has begun. You can bulk order copies to distribute, you can order individual ones from Kersplebedeb (Canada) or Burning Books (USA), and you can order them for prisoners through the site, CertainDays.org. Check out our past interviews on the calendar: https://thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org/post/category/certain-days/

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

Autumn: Thank you so much for having me. So, Hello! My name is Autumn I use she / her pronouns. I’m really honored to be here and appreciate you taking the time to have me on air. Some background about myself, I am an anarchist scholar-activist who focuses on abolishing racial capitalism, through a Fat Liberation and Disability Justice lens. I am a white, Jewish, anti-Zionist, queer person. I’m a longtime organizer around mutual aid, present and border abolition and anti-fascism Palestine solidarity as well as some direct action. So, some of my work has focused on bringing a fat liberation lens to revolutionary anti-State left movements and looking at how we can create dialogue and, more importantly, coalition between our movements.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Do you have any more words to say about the like, scholar activist aspect to your work?

Autumn: Totally. So I think that scholar activism is basically a way of how can we reclaim or liberate intellectual work that is kind of sometimes held captive or gate-kept by like academic institutions and by this very capitalist idea of production and producing knowledge within academia. So scholar-activism, one way it works is through taking resources from academia and giving them back to on the ground organizers. Or sometimes it works. And it’s a form of, you know, creating knowledge by and for our movement, and creating kind of collective knowledge as opposed to this sort of like, again, capitalist colonial model of like the brilliant academic or the brilliant individual.

William: I love that. Thank you so much for going into that. So we’re here to talk about fat liberation. And like I said, before we started rolling the tape. This is a topic that I have wanted to cover on the final straw for some time now. So thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for being willing to speak on this. How did you come to be working toward fat liberation?

Autumn: Yeah, that’s a good question. So firstly, my life as a fat person, also as a disabled person, as a queer person, as a working class person is deeply effected by anti-Blackness. So if I want my life and the lives of folks in my community and my loved ones to improve, I really have no choice but to invest in Fat Liberation on as a revolutionary struggle. On a more macro level, I have a strong background in community organizing, as well as some anti-capitalist organizing. And, you know, when I first started organizing, I began to notice that when I would enter radical spaces or organizing spaces, there would be zero analysis around factors other than shallow and incorrect ideas, that top audience were simply the tragic result of State and Capitalist violence, like food deserts, and that really like bewildered and upset me because so many of the struggles that I faced in my life were connected to anti fatness. Specifically, you know, getting denied health care that I needed, not being seen as a survivor of sexual violence. And, you know, seeing fat liberation being used as a tool of white supremacy, particularly anti-blackness. One of the breaking points for both my class consciousness and my fat liberation politics was when I was at one of my former workplaces and a co worker was sexually harassing me and I reported it to my manager. And my manager basically looked at me up and down and laughed and told me that I wasn’t “pretty enough to be harassed.” And so then slowly, you know, kind of, I developed a concept like a consciousness around about activism, and I was introduced to the works of activists and scholars like Jervae, Hunter A. Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Strings, Marquisele Mercedes, Caleb Luna, Da’Shaun L. Harrison, and others. And that really inspired me to understand liberation is not only connected to other revolutionary organizing struggles that I was a part of, but like integral to them. So we cannot have other revolutionary struggles for collective liberation without fat liberation.

William: Definitely. Yeah. And we’re gonna get into some more of what you just mentioned, I think, later in the interview. So, you and I believe another person have compiled a syllabus, entitled “fat liberation syllabus for revolutionary leftists.” And it has as a stated objective to confront fatphobia within radical spaces and also the entrenched liberalism within the more mainstream fat liberation movement. To just begin though, for any listeners who haven’t heard this term, will you just begin by saying what is meant by “fat liberation” and where it came from?

Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great question. So fat liberation is a radical, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-State movement that was started by fat, Black and brown, disabled, queer and trans people. It locates fatphobia / sizesism as a tool of capitalism, the state, white supremacy, colonialism, and specifically a tool of anti-Black, State violence. Bodies, especially body is commonly thought of as “deviant” or “unhealthy”, are often sites for state and capitalist violence of how we should offer as a lens to revolutionary transform how we think about bodies, how we think about medicine, how we think about healing. Which is really crucial for us as revolutionary leftists and how we organize to take care of one another outside of the state and outside of capitalism, as well as our work to abolish capitalism and all, you know, all settler colonial states. I think it’s really important to think about that liberation is not just another box to check off for the sake of like, liberal “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas. But instead, it’s a necessary framework that we should always be operating within our activist spaces.

William: Totally. So you mentioned fat phobia’s roots in colonialism and anti-Blackness, and anti-Black racism and not to put you in a corner or make you talk about stuff from a subjectivity that isn’t yours, but would you just talk a little bit about that, from your perspective, and what you’ve learned so far?

Autumn: Yeah, absolutely. So I first want to say that some of the really amazing scholar-activists who have done that work, I just want to shout them out and give credit where credit is due. And you know, if any listeners have financial resources, and can support these people, pay these people’s Patreon or donate to them, I really strongly encourage that. So there are folks like the Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who just recently published a book called I think it was just published in August. It’s called “Belly of the Beast: anti-fatness as anti-Blackness.” Dr. Sabrina Strings, who wrote a book about I think two years ago now called “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia”. Hunter Shackleford, who is a really amazing, fat, Black, academic, educator, artist, and activist. And basically, they’ve explained that the origins of fatphobia are very intertwined with the rise of colonialism and racial capitalism. And unlike other systems of oppression, we only have to go back about 300 or 400 years to kind of find the origins of fatphobia. And so if we think back to the original colonization of Turtle Island, or the so called so-called North America and the inception of the violence settler colonial nation on whose land we said, the so-called US. That original colonization was from Puritan European colonizers and one of the kind of ideas that they brought with them was the Protestant work ethic, which basically says that individuals who are”godly”, if they are disciplined if they’re hardworking, if they’re able to restrict themselves, whereas it is, quote, unquote, sinful to be lazy, you’re overindulgent. So this was a way of basically looking at the body and understanding that “Okay, so thin bodies, especially thin white bodies are hardworking and are disciplined and they’re able to restrict themselves. Whereas fat bodies are lazy, they’re overindulgent. Those are sinful, quote unquote, bodies.”

And so kind of the origin of anti-fatness in anti-Blackness is, we see it very much arising in the era of like 19th century eugenics. And this idea that white European scientists were trying to basically look at, look at like, physical characteristics and use that as a justification for the superiority of European white people, especially like Western European white people. So in that the used the idea that “okay, Black people tend to be larger than white people. So that means inherently that Black people are more ‘primitive,’ and they’re not able to control themselves as more they need to be controlled and restrained. Whereas like white people are able to have discipline and they’re more intelligent and their political more advanced.” And then, in the era of 19th century eugenics, that was when body mass index or BMI was like developed as a concept, and it was very much used to label white bodies, especially white men’s bodies as, normative or healthy and label Black people’s bodies as obese and unhealthy. And so this continues to this day, where we see the entanglements of fatphobia and anti black violence continuing medical establishments, again, we’re fat Black patients are less likely to receive care that they need. I mean, fat bodies in general are less likely to receive the care that they need, they’re often just told to just lose weight. The state, when they surveil and target Black, brown and indigenous communities for having “high rates of obesity” and then using that as a justification to have Child Protective Services come in and remove fat children. There’s a lot of work done by Dr. Dorothy Roberts on the child welfare system not actually being about child welfare just being another way for the state to like control and monitor Black families or indigenous families or brown families. And disproportionately, Black and indigenous children are removed from their homes for non-justifiable reasons and because there’s this… It’s hard to find the racial statistics of children who are removed from their homes, but because oftentimes “obesity” is used as a justification for that,, I think it’s pretty like easy to infer that that’s oftentimes a justification for removing Black and indigenous children from their homes.

You know, in terms of state violence, fat Black people like Kayla Moore and Eric Garner, and recently Ma’Khia Bryant were murdered by the police and then the police in the general public, blamed their murders on their fatness. Da’Shaun L. Harrison, who I mentioned before, discusses this justification for the state murders of black people in their book “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness.” Does that kind of answer the question?

TFSR: Oh, yeah, totally. And it’s such a like, vast top pet topic that, you know, I think that you like, shout it out some really amazing resources. Sabrina strings is the one who I’m most familiar with. And her book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” which is a fantastic breakdown by era: she looks at art history, she looks at the developing trade routes built on the back of enslaved people. She does all of this stuff. And it’s a really amazing, amazing resource.

Autumn: Absolutely. I really recommend that folks read that book and look into it.

TFSR: I also just want to like, name the… You know, you mentioned like treatment by your former manager, when you like brought concerns about your co-worker, and then saying that vile shit to you. That is like, completely unacceptable. And I’m so sorry that happened.

Autumn: Thank you. Yeah, no, thank you for sharing that. Yeah. And I think that that kind of highlights… I talked about it a little bit in the fat liberation syllabus, but there’s a really kind of disturbing intersection between fatphobia and rape culture that I don’t see getting talked about enough. And I’m hoping that those conversations can get started more.

TFSR: Absolutely. Hopefully this will like help start that conversation a bit. So, we talked about a little bit: in order to talk about how fat phobia and fatmisia, which is… Would you give a definition of fatmisia really quick?

Autumn: This is one of the first times that I’ve heard it, but I would say that it’s more kind of ideological understanding of this idea that fatness is something to be avoided or pathologized.

TFSR: And it’s like distinct from fatphobia in that like phobia is like a fear.

Autumn: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure how it’s… I think fat phobia is similar. I think sometimes fat phobia is used more in terms of thinking about how we internalize like anti fatness, and how that’s enacted in interpersonal interactions, or in communal interactions, whereas fatmisia is more like on a broader kind of ideological lens?

TFSR: That’s really helpful. Thank you. So, in order to talk about both of these things, and how they emerge in radical spaces, firstly, we could probably talk a lot about how it emerges in broader society. Since fatphobia, infects so much of the structures we are forced to contend with, like you mentioned, the medical industrial complex and the state for starters.. Not to like, start too big. This is a topic whose completeness may like be beyond the scope of a single podcast episode, but nevertheless, could you speak on this in a general sense, and the roots of fat phobia and fatmisia specifically, I know you touched on this a little bit before but do you have anything else you want to say about it?

Autumn: No, absolutely. So, and like any other system of oppression, there’s nothing natural about fatphobia or hating larger bodies. As humans, there’s nothing that’s like natural about us that says, oh, thinness is better. That’s completely socially constructed. Just you know, and this is a common disclaimer that I have to give or that a lot of like fat activists have to give. Anytime that we talk about fatphobia, one of the most common forms of backlash that I see is the claim that like, “Oh, it’s unhealthy to be fat, and there’s an obesity epidemic. And don’t you think that we should focus on health?” So, you know, I really wish that I didn’t have to give this kind of disclaimer, but you know, I won’t in this interview won’t be addressing the question of is it healthy to be fat, because health is multi dimensional, it’s not a measure of our worth, and nobody is obligated to be healthy. There are many people of all sizes, who have disabilities and chronic illnesses, who will never be “healthy” by normative standards. That said, it’s actually not unhealthy to be fat. And there’s a lot of scientific research and evidence that supports that conclusion. There’s a really valuable, evidence-based medical paradigm called Health at Every Size, which is readily available online, there’s a Health at Every science website, there’s a book by Lindo Bacon, called “Health at Every Size,” which, you know, people are interested in that you can go look at that.

And historically, you know, and before 300 to 400 years ago, fat bodies were actually kind of like revered and celebrated. I kind of mentioned earlier that the rise of fat phobia and the rise of the idea of the thin ideal is very rooted in the Protestant work ethic as well as this kind of neoliberal, bootstraps idea that weight loss is simply the result of hard work and discipline rather than the result of.. Most people who lose a significant amount of weight, gain it back within five years, and we have a lot less control over our weight over our bodies, than we’d like to believe. And, you know, importantly, our ideas about health and medicine are not objective or neutral. Black feminists, especially, have done a really good job at explaining how what’s often cast is supposed “objective medical facts” as actually completely socially constructed. There’s no evidence to support that. And again, as I mentioned before, in the age of 19th century eugenics, that was really the era that emerged that fatness was inherently unhealthy, and that people should be instructed to lose weight. You know, before that we don’t really see a lot of emphasis on weight loss is the key to health. People were really concerned about, like dying of dysentery. So, you know, if you were fat, you were considered like robust and healthy, because we’re less likely to die of all the infectious diseases. And so, as I mentioned, before, fitness became a marker of weight, especially Western European bodies being disciplined “intelligent, well controlled bodies” and Black bodies became seen as uncontrollable, and inferior political primitive. And, again, the fact that white scientists noticed that Black people were larger than white people that was used as a justification for the supposed inferiority of Black people.

And then in terms of the connection between fatphobia and capitalism… So there’s an at-least $2 billion weight loss industry. And as the center of the weight loss industry is this kind of myth of critical personal responsibility that you can have what is called the ultimate fantasy of corporeal malleability that is just like “if you just work hard enough, and if you’re just disciplined enough, and if you just, you know restrict… you just eat the right things, if you just eat like healthy organic food, and you just force yourself to eat that, that thinness can be achieved through that.” So and, importantly, there’s this kind of these two models of fatphobia that tend to emerge. This one of conservative contempt and this one of liberal pity or liberal fatphobia. So for example, conservatives believe that our people are simply lazy, that, you know, we just need to go to the gym or put down the cheeseburger. And then I mean, I wouldn’t even call the flip side cuz it’s not the polar opposite of this. But liberal fatphobia in this kind of liberal pity model looks down about people as objects of pity and views us as abject and diseased. And as the result of, you know, structural problems like GMOs and food deserts. And oftentimes, this is very racialized, like this is oftentimes, white liberals looking down at fat Black and brown people and just thinking “Oh, they just need to be taught to like, eat better, basically,” through a very kind of like paternalistic forms of intervention. And I just really want to touch on that, you know, conservative contempt and liberal pity, are not polar opposites, right? They’re kind of different sides of the same coin. Like they both result from this idea that fatness is pathological and that it needs to be eliminated.

William: That’s a really amazing breakdown. They like as a sort of like the double prong not even like dualistic because like you said, it’s not it’s not polar opposite like the conservative and liberal like lenses through which this is, you know, largely viewed in society is like really interesting to think about. And also the neoliberalism inherent in the weight loss industry to is I think we’re totally remarkable, like the whole like individual focus on like your individual effort or whatever it’s, it’s like tantamount to being “oh, all y’all who are like buying a new toothbrush every year, you’re, you’re causing climate change,” or whatever. You know, it’s totally ridiculous. But, at the same time, it just rules so much of how this is viewed.

Autumn: Absolutely. And I would say that that really shows how we think about health, and just how we think about wellness. Because I think that there’s this really great podcast that I maybe will mentioned in some of the…, I don’t know if maybe we don’t mention that later, but it’s called, it’s called Food Psych. And the person who like is the host, her name is Christy Harrison, she’s an anti-diet dietitian. And she talks a lot about the social determinants of health and how only about 30% of health outcomes are determined by individual health behaviors, including things like smoking, or having unprotected sex. Which are, you know, but no judgement, of course, it just causally linked to health risks. But I think that just goes to show that the real threats to our health are not necessarily like what we eat, or how much we exercise, but stress caused by racial capitalism, caused by poverty, caused by state violence. And I sort of wonder when we’re so focused on “how can I personally restrict my consumption? So I don’t cause global warming?” or “How can I eat as healthy as possible so I will have good health outcomes?” Rather than, like, “how has racial capitalism and how is the state making us sick, and basically having a really detrimental effect on our bodies and minds.” And it’s kind of like a distraction from the important questions.

TFSR: Absolutely. And just to support that, briefly, I have a friend who’s an ER nurse who says that about 95% of everything he sees is a direct result of racialized capitalism.

Autumn: Absolutely, just like, stress, especially stress that’s directly caused by racial capitalism is probably one of the worst things for our bodies and our minds.

TFSR: To touch also briefly on the liberalism in the fat liberation movement aspect of your work, specifically, you write and compile resources about the interaction of the “body positivity,” and “diversity” aspects to capitalism and toxic diet and culture. Would you expand on this and say a few words about how this also influences more left radical spaces?

Autumn: No, for sure. So the term “body positivity,” to me, it’s pretty meaningless and I feel like it’s basically become this kind of individualistic self help movement, which locates the solution to fatphobia in individuals loving their bodies, and, you know, separate from anything that’s political. There’s nothing wrong with with self love, I think it can be really helpful. But as activists, we need to be invested in a political revolutionary movement, rather than focusing on self help. And so I think that there’s just a lot of ways that, especially now, you will see capitalism really kind of co-opting body positivity. Like if you go on Instagram, like you’ll see so many companies like trying to sell you something by proclaiming how “inclusive” or “diverse” they are. I think what is especially harmful about that is when companies like do try and showcase fat people, or when celebrities try and showcase fat people in their music videos. It’s like fat people are like treated as props to show how diverse and inclusive a celebrity or a corporation is. For example, I think there’s like two years ago now, Miley Cyrus had a video, I think it’s called “Mother’s Daughter” and in the video… It’s supposed to be representation of… they show a fat person and they show someone who uses a wheelchair and they show someone breastfeeding. But then, you know, thin, white Miley Cyrus, able bodied Miley Cyrus is still the center of the music video. And so in that instance, it’s you know, that’s just an example I would say of fat people or disabled people becoming these props to just like prove, how invested Miley Cyrus’s and like diversity and inclusivity.

And so my theory is that there hasn’t really been a lot of conversation, at least in my experience, it’s changing some which is great, between fat activists and revolutionary and anti-state leftists. I think a lot of that is definitely due to fatphobia on the left. But more broadly, I think fat liberation tends to get siphoned off into these kinds of specific fields such as, at best being about like public health and at worst being on this kind of individualistic like self help movement that’s led by Instagram influencers with clothing companies. And so that doesn’t really allow space for us to draw connections and coalition’s between fat liberation and anti-state, anarchists or leftist movements such as, you know, abolishing racial capitalism, and abolishing prisons and borders, and why fat liberation as a part of that. And if there was that coalition, if those conversations were happening, we wouldn’t have people who have been really active in the body positive or the health of every size movement, being for example, Zionists, or endorsing Elizabeth Warren. One glaring example without naming names is there’s this person who has been a central figure in some “body positive” or “fat spaces,” is a fat person and has written some like influential books about health and advertising. And that person is a zionist, and has literally publicly claimed that fat activists need to support the State of Israel. And so a radical intervention into that line of thought would be to understand how colonial states like the so-called US and Israel often use the logic of diet culture and fatphobia to uphold genocidal violence and occupation. So, for example, Israel literally restricts the amount of calories and food that goes into Palestine. I want to be really clear here that I’m in no way equating being a fat person or being someone targeted by diet culture in the US with being a Palestinian living under Israeli apartheid or Israeli occupation. But I think understanding how diet culture and fatphobia is used as a tool of colonialism and occupation… I think that’s really important for thinking about fat liberation as an internationalist, an anti-colonial project and I think that that leads the way for some really exciting potential coalition between fat activists and, you know, those of us fighting for the Liberation of Palestine.

TFSR: Absolutely, I had no idea that the State of Israel was doing that bullshit. That is really Stark and very, very troubling. I’m wondering, too, so just to narrow the focus perhaps onto like radical and anarchist spaces. There’s many, many, many ways that fatphobia and fatmisia, like spin out in anarchist spaces and rad spaces. But one of those that you mentioned in your syllabus, is that people sometimes exhibit the unfortunate tendency to equate fatness with capitalism. Can you expand on how you see this happening?

Autumn: 100% Yeah, so I never want to see another anarchist, or another leftist graphic that uses fat bodies as a metaphor for capitalism, or bosses or the police. So I feel like I’ve seen a lot of graphics that show like workers tearing down the big fat boss. And I just want to facepalm whenever I see that, because that’s a great way to alienate fat comrades. That imagery is especially ironic because, like other marginalized groups, statistically fat people are more likely to be paid less, and they’re more and more likely to live in poverty. You know, and I think, obviously, gender and race play into that, but it’s unlikely that the CEO of a big company would be a fat person, even if it is like a white cis-het man. And again, I see this a lot of in leftist spaces, a lot of repeating diet, culture logic around fat being unhealthy and fat being something that needs to be eliminated. Particularly I see it come up in conversations around food deserts. And playing into the liberal pity idea that, fat bodies are this tragic result of food deserts, or food apartheid.

Autumn: Marquisele Mercedes, who’s a really wonderful critical Public Health Studies, scholar and activist and also a fat studies scholar, has a really wonderful article called How to recenter equity in decent or fitness in the fight for food justice. And she talks about understanding food apartheid, or differential access to food across racial and capital, and class lines as an intentional form of racial capitalist violence. But then the problem with a lot of liberal so-called food justice movements is that they use fatphobia and diet culture to distract from the real problem of racial capitalism with the focus being on again “obesity prevention” and trying to paternalistically “fix the eating habits of poor Black and brown people that don’t fall into a fat phobic, white-middle-class-centric standard of healthy.” This great article by Marquisele Mercedes also talks about how true food justice is not about what one person or organization believes that marginalized communities should be eating, it’s about supporting the community’s autonomy and control over their food. It’s about supporting people to be less stressed, well fed and nourished, however that may it look like.

On a side note, I found it telling how there is so much focus on trying to get poor working class people to eat more vegetables or eat less processed food. And you know, this idea that that’s going to be some kind of remedy for racial capitalism and state violence. Of course there’s nothing wrong with building a community garden but I encourage us to think critically about why we as a culture are so obsessed with food and exercise as the ultimate you know remedy when we know that there are more important issues that we need to address. Also I think there’s something to be said about the way that and this is gonna be an unpopular opinion maybe, with some people but… This kind of hatred and disgust of fast food and the way that I see sometimes in leftist spaces fast food being singled out as this really abomination disgusting abomination that nobody should be eating, but I think it’s important to think about “why do we think that and why are we singling out McDonald’s” when you know Whole Foods or the United Fruit Company or Sabra hummus are like active participants or causers of gentrification? Or the United Fruit Company literally supported the US military installing right wing military coups and Central America and the Caribbean or, you know, Sabra hummus is profiting off of the occupation of Palestine. And why do we single out fast food or food corporations that we see as unhealthy when there’s some very pervasive, racist, fat phobic and classist stereotypes about who is presumed to eat fast food. Let’s really think about when we think about people who eat fast food, who do we who are we thinking of? And why are we singling out fast food and that’s not necessarily accurate but it’s a very it’s a very unfortunately pervasive cultural trope about who is presumed to eat fast food.

I guess other areas of fatphobia that I see in leftist spaces in anarchist spaces… I feel like I hear it more from Marxist-Leninists with this argument that we need to get the proletariat fit and healthy so they can fight Nazis that makes me pretty angry because that’s just literally eugenics and diet culture disguised as a poor interpretation of anti fascism. You can kill Nazis on a moped! You know? There have been a lot of really kick ass fat and disabled anti fascists who are literally doing that work. I guess on the maybe on the more anarchist side I guess I see about phobia kind of coming up sometimes in lifestyle politics and this idea about in order to be a devoted anarchists, we need to be vegan, and we need to be dumpster diving and living in a squat. And I think we need to really kind of abandon those lifestyle politics. Um, you know, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan or dumpster diving, but it doesn’t make someone more of a comrade if they’re not if they don’t want to do that. And just like our politics are not defined by the food we eat or by, you know, why do we choose to live in a decaying squat?

TFSR: Yeah, thank you so much for talking about fast food and exercise. I definitely see that meme and anti fascist spaces that really fetishize this exercise the like “a fascist worked out today, did you?” or something like that. And the topic of veganism is also really interesting. There’s definitely a lot to be said about it. I think I myself have definitely noticed not all leftist vegans that I’ve come across have exhibited this tendency but sometimes I see people doing veganism in order to… And I don’t want to use judgy language and I might cut this out so like between you and me… To maybe mask some very troubled relationship with food itself.

And using politics to bury that or whatever. I mean, using politics to also bury classism and fat phobic tendencies as well. Be vegan, that’s fine, but do so for reasons that aren’t contributing to the oppression of people around you.

Autumn: Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for saying that I agree with that 100% and I guess I just have trouble. I have no problem with people being vegan, if you want to be vegan, go for it. And that’s completely your prerogative. But I think just have trouble with this any kind of ideology that attaches moral values, the foods that we eat, and I think that there are and this is maybe it’s a longer conversation… But I think that there are, important things to be said about a decolonial or in or an indigenous worldview developing a more symbiotic relationship with animals and nature as opposed to this late very exploitative worldview coming from capitalism and colonialism. But I just have a lot of issues when people try to integrate speciesism into an intersectionality framework and claim that veganism is somehow anti-oppressive.

TFSR: Yeah, I mean, Capitalist Veganism is just as oppressive to humans and to the earth as other things. I don’t know, there was, you know, all of this analysis about factory farming, which factory farming is traumatic, right? A lot of people are super traumatized by it. On the other hand, I’m not gonna tell somebody that they can’t eat some things they need to eat.

Autumn: Absolutely. And again, factory farming is horrific, it should be abolished with a question “Is the issue meat or animal product consumption, or is it capitalism and colonialism?”

TFSR: Totally. Yeah. And I think that the problematic common denominator is definitely capitalism and colonialism. I’m wondering your thoughts on how we as a scene, together could bring fat liberation into radical and anarchist spaces and thought, love to hear your thoughts on that.

Autumn: Yeah, I really appreciate that question. I think it kind of starts with naming and identifying fat liberation as a revolutionary struggle and actually talking about it and engaging with it. You know, thin people especially you to engage with this. I made a graphic that will soon be a zine, which I’m super excited for it to be a zine. But it should be on my friend’s Instagram, and I can send a link to that. It’s about making in-person militant actions with a diversity of tactics accessible for fat and disabled comrades. And I think sometimes it’s just a matter of whether it’s a direct action or a meeting, or community space, really asking the question of “Can we all go and everybody fit in this image space, literally?” I have been in a lot of spaces where I’m very uncomfortable because the chairs are not made for fat people or, you know, I feel like I’m the only fat person there, or the door is not wide enough. And I think that’s also really kind of hand in hand with Disability Justice and thinking about how accessibility and Disability Justice is a framework that we constantly need to be operating within. I think also, you know, it’s important to call out or confront fatphobia when we see it, whether that’s in the broader world, or whether that’s with our revolutionary or organizing circles. I think it’s really important to share and amplify the work of revolutionary fat liberation activists. So the names that I mentioned before are Da’Shaun L. Harrison, Marquisele Mercedes, Hunter Shackleford, Dr. Sabrina Springs, Jervae. Other folks who are doing really incredible work are Caleb Luna. I think that both her instagram and twitter is chair breaker. And then Sonalee Rashatwar who’s @TheFatSexTherapist on Instagram, who have some really incredible content. So I just encourage everybody to just go follow these people. Again, if you have financial resources, consider joining their Patreon, consider, you know, donating to them financially. You know, and I think beyond that, like it’s really important to reach out in fight for activists to be part of your movement and be in coalition with you. And I get excited when I hear other leftists just leaving fatphobia but I think I shouldn’t have to feel that way. Because fat liberation should be the norm.

You know, I think also again, kind of like rejecting the moralization of food and just understanding how oftentimes our hatred of fats of fast food is very in meshed with fatphobia and anti-Blackness like classism and capitalism. It just because there are a lot of like really pervasive, fat phobic, racist and classist cultural stereotypes around who eats or is presumed to eat fast food or processed food and no matter how much we try to masquerade our hatred of fast food or processed food as anti capitalist or as condemning the corporations that produce the food like that’s… No matter how much we try to mask read up, it’s still rooted in this fat phobic idea of that subject and food is better than other foods, in a post revolutionary world people will still have the options to eat hamburgers and fried foods if they want to and that’s okay. You know, I think also just, trying to hide hatred and disgust for fast food behind anger at the corporations and the exploitation of workers that doesn’t actually help fast food workers unionize it, or build power and organize. I’m a former fast food worker, and I can really attest to how that kind of attitude of being disgusted by so fast food workers.

TFSR: And I’m also a former fast food worker and definitely share that you mentioned, fat activists and fat activism, would you speak about the Fat Rose collective and how it came to be formed?

Autumn: Yes, totally. So I believe Fat Rose was formed in the summer of 2019 by fat and disabled activists who organized around the abolish ice movement to close the concentration camps. And they were specifically identifying that fat and disabled people have a specific seek in abolition because, again, our experiences are in no way the same of those incarcerated in presents or in ice detention. We do know what it’s like to be treated as disposable. And so my understanding is that fat rose really recognizes the radical potential of fat people to organize, as well as aiming to create spaces where fat people can organize without without experiencing fat phobia from other organizers. It’s not really my story to tell, but I know that there are folks in Fat Rose who have specifically sought out fat specific organizing spaces because of some really horrendous experiences with fat phobia and other lefty or progressive spaces. Fat rooms organized a really beautiful action in San Francisco at the ICE headquarters, where they demanded the abolition of ICE and the closure of the concentration camps. Caleb Luna, who I mentioned before, he was a scholar activist around for liberation read a really beautiful speech there. And this was the first time that I’d really seen anything to that magnitude that was explicitly organized from a Disability Justice and fat liberation focal point. Additionally, during the ongoing COVID pandemic Fat Rose has organized the no body is disposable coalition, which demands an end to eugenicist COVID triage policies in ICU where fat people, disabled people, elderly people, people who are HIV positive, and people who are living with other illnesses are denied life saving COVID treatment or taking off ventilator treatment. And there’s literally procedures for hospitals to take people off ventilator treatment, if the you know, fall into one of these categories. Fat Rose has been doing a lot of really cool work to organize against that. Since then, Fat Rose has put on a lot of really rad events. I know they recently did a series called busting out about fat liberation and prison abolition and transformative justice. I believe their Instagram is @FatLibInc, and their Facebook it should be fat rose. So I encourage you know also listeners to check them out on social media and follow them on social media.

TFSR: Totally, they have a really beautiful website, that’s just FatRose.Org where you can see a lot of you can see how to get involved. You can see essays that they have written you can see more about busting out. I’m looking at it right now. They have a cookbook. They have all this beautiful, beautiful material on their website. So I encourage people if they’re curious to go check, check it out.

Autumn: Thank you for showing off the website. Yeah. It’s really wonderful organization.

TFSR: Totally. You touched on this, like in previous answers, but I’m curious specifically, if you have more words on how might you encourage thin white people to show up for their fat comrades, friends and family?

Autumn: So I think you know, if you can’t just be fat people showing up for fat liberation. You know, as previously mentioned, I think it’s really important think about how you can name and show up for fat liberation struggles. Amplify the work of Fat Rose, again, if you have financial resources. Support or amplify the work of fat Black and brown activists, you know, join their Patreons, support them financially. Also, if you’re a thin white person who has a lot of social capital and visibility. Think about how you can reject the pedestal that you’re placed on and how you can pass this info onto others, especially other organizers. On a personal level, kind of interrogate who your friends or even lovers with, how you treat people in your lives, are your spaces accessible for fat people. You know, I think also it’s important to kind of unpacked desirability politics and especially unpack the idea that fatness is inherently unattractive. And I really just want to say that that’s not just about dating preferences, nobody is forcing you to date or sleep with fat people. But Caleb Luna, again, really brilliant proud scholar activist, recently wrote on their Instagram about how desirability politics affects them, way beyond just eating. It’s about how they’re able to access resources, like health care, and professional opportunities. And beyond that, I think in our radical and revolutionary movements, it’s really important to, again, make sure that we’re also talking about fat liberation and we’re naming and organizing around the intersections of fatphobia and racial capitalism or fat phobia and colonialism. So it’s about both like listening you know, doing some self reflection and introspection, as well as, materially showing up.

TFSR: Yeah, and if people are looking to start a reading or listening group, your syllabus really has just so much information in it. It’s broken down into categories, like there’s a category on anti fatness and anti blackness there’s a category on sis hetero patriarchy it’s really really really well organized and has a lot of reading resources if if reading is something that feels good to folks. How can people see this document? is it available for public use?

Autumn: Yes, thank you for asking it is available for public use. It’s available at https://tinyurl.com/FatLiberation if there are show notes you can put the link to that in the in the show notes but um that’s it available tiny URL please share it share it widely amplify it.

TFSR: There’s so much there. I really got a lot out of looking at this document and just going on these tangents and going down rabbit holes, and it’s a really, really, really well, well done document. Thank you so much for doing it.

Autumn: Well, thank you so much. And yeah, thank you so much for engaging with it. I also I do recognize that reading a long document is accessible for for everyone. If there are people who feel better listening to podcasts, there’s a really great one that I mentioned before whole Food Psych. There’s also following people on Instagram, like following @TheFatSexTherapist.

Autumn: Oh my gosh, there’s another podcast that the name of it is escaping me. But her name is Aubrey Gordon, her Instagram is @YourFatFriend, I think she has a link to the podcasts, but it talks especially about fatphobia and wellness culture and unpacking what we’ve been taught to think about wellness culture. So I just want to say that there are options that don’t necessarily like involve reading and other free resources. Jervae has also created a bunch of YouTube and TickTock videos and they’re a really incredible fat Black philosopher and artist, so they have a lot of also great resources that aren’t necessarily long documents.

TFSR: That’s awesome. And I’ll link those all of those that you mentioned in the show notes. How can people support you and your work and you’ve shouted out a lot of other folks how people can support them but how can people support you if you would like that?

Autumn: Yeah, thanks for asking. Um, I think so. I’m not on social media personally but I think just keep sharing the fat liberation syllabus, keep circulating it especially donate and amplify the works of, especially, fat Black and brown activists. You can donate to Fat Rose. One of my close friends has a Instagram and Twitter that is like I think it’s both @AbolishTheUSA on both Instagram and Twitter and they were they were the person who suggested I write the syllabus and on their platform that was where the syllabus was originally circulated from. So if anyone I guess wants to email me or get in touch with me specifically, maybe you could contact now at @AbolishTheUSA and say that you have a message for me.

TFSR: Autumn, those were all the questions that I had. Thank you so much for your time and having this conversation with me. I really appreciate your energy and the time that you spent in hashing all this stuff out. Is there anything that we missed in this interview that you want to give voice to or something that you’d like to say in closing?

Autumn: I think we got everything but I just want to thank you so much, again, for having me. And this has been just such a incredible experience. And I’m always super grateful to the Final Straw Radio and just you all are doing such amazing work and I’m really honored to be part of it.

TFSR: Thank you so much. The feeling is super mutual. I’m really happy to have gotten to meet you a little bit and it was really lovely to get to share some digital space with you for a little while and talk about this thing thatI really hope that people will take back into their spaces and like do some thinking and do some reading and stuff if they need to do that. So thank you so much.

Autumn: Yah! Oh my gosh. Thank you.

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

“For Trans Liberation, Capitalism Must Be Abolished”

"Transgender Marxism" book cover with a trans flag color scheme of pink, white and blue and a transgender symbol mixing male & female iconography
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This week we’re sharing a chat that Scott Branson had about Transgender Marxism (2021, Pluto Press) with Jules Gleeson (co-Editor, Contributor) and M.E. O’Brien (contributor). Transgender Marxism brings together Transgender Studies and Marxist theory, exploring Transgender lives and movements and surviving as Trans under Capitalism. In the end, the claim of the book is that for Trans Liberation, Capitalism must be abolished. In this interview we talk about the: collective, material process of transition; trans visibility, assimilation and liberation; the history of Gay Liberation and Trans movements; being Trans in the workplace; care work and family abolition; and Trans solidarities against Capitalism and the State.

  • Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She can be found on Twitter at @SocialRepro and Patreon (QueerCom). Check out her awesome interview with Judith Butler that the GuardianUK censored due to critiques of TERFs, found in full at IllWill.Com.
  • M.E. O’Brien writes at the intersection of communist theory, trans liberation, LGBTQ social movement studies and feminism. Michelle is a co-editor of Pinko, and her writing has appeared in Social Movement Studies, Work, Employment & Society, Commune, Homintern, Endnotes and Invert. Found on Twitter at @GenderHorizon & on Patreon (MEOBrien).

Update on Sean Swain

This week, instead of words from anarchist prisoner, Sean Swain, I’d just like to share the info that Sean has been transferred back to Ohio, his state of capture, from Virginia where he was held at a Medium security facility for the last 2.5 years. It’s assumed that he’s back at the Supermax, OSP Youngstown for 2 weeks of quarantine and determination of status to decide what prison he will go to inside Ohio from there. When he was leaving Ohio for Virginia, he was close to graduating to a lower security, medium level, than where he was held and has not had any serious breeches of conduct since his transfer, so hopefully he’ll be heading to an easier and more comfortable facility.

For the moment you can write him at his old address where I’m sure he’d love some kind words or some books, posted in our shownotes and at SeanSwain.org:

Sean Swain #A243205
OSP Youngstown
878 Coitsville-Hubbard Rd
Youngstown, OH 44505

You can donate to his legal case to challenge his denied parole by sending money via cashapp to $Swainiac1969 and you can follow @Swainiac1969 for info on the upcomnig online raffle to help fundraise for Sean’s legal fees. To donate items for raffle, also contact the instagram mentioned above and keep an eye out for more info. As an update to prior mentions of Swainiac-fest, it was a success but is only a step on the way to covering his legal fees to get him the best legal defense possible. And remember, you can fundraise toward the $12,500 needed by the lawyer on your own or in community and if you want to send it to the TFSR venmo or paypal or a money order made out to us via our PO Box, feel free to do so and make sure you note Sean’s defense in the comment.

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Featured Tracks:

  • Gemini (instrumental) by Princess Nokia from Everything Is Beautiful

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Transcription

TFSR: This is The Final Straw Radio and we’re excited get to talk to an editor and a contributor to this new really, exciting volume Transgender Marxism which is published by Pluto Press. I wanted to first ask you to introduce yourself with your names, pronouns, any affiliation that you would like the listeners to know about.

Jules Gleeson: Hi. I’m Jules Gleeson, and I am one of the co-editors of Transgender Marxism, the new collection we’re here to chat about. My pronouns are she and I am only very loosely affiliated to things at the moment. I’m very happy to be joining you today.

Michelle O’Brien: Hello, my name is Michelle O’Brien and I am a contributor to the volume chapter on trans work and experiences of trans people in employment, both formal and informal. That chapter I wrote draws heavily from the New York City Trans Oral History Project that I worked with for some years. I write communist theory, teach Queer Studies at Gallatin, and work as a psychoanalyst. And my pronouns are she and her.

TFSR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I’m really excited, I did a deep reading of the book, it was really helped me think through my own positionality in the world. So I’m excited to dive into a lot of the ideas in there. Starting off, right away, one thing that keeps coming up in the book throughout different contributors’ pieces is the question of how transness might be useful for Capital. And this is being posed after this “transgender tipping point” where there’s more visibility, specifically, I think, for trans women and more understanding of transness, I guess, in mainstream worlds, although that might be questionable. So to start the discussion, what do you think are relative or limited, or positive gains made by trans people as a result of this increase in visibility?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to pick up on that. So for those of you listening at home, who are not familiar with the “transgender tipping point,” was a phase around, I suppose, 2014 to 2015. Most notably, this famous Time’s cover of Laverne Cox, the star of Orange Is the New Black appearing on Time. And the transgender tipping point is pretty loosely this moment when suddenly there was an increase, a surge of popular familiarity, let’s say, with transgender culture and transgender experiences. After which – to me, the most obvious difference is – trans people seem to become a lot more numerous, which is measurable in everything from people applying to become patients of gender identity clinics to transgender-specific communities seeming to swell in size, and there are all kinds of ways we can talk about the measurement. But, clearly at this point somewhere around 2013 to 2015, things transformed pretty rapidly and seemingly permanently towards what had been a cluster of different subcultural circles, becoming something more like a mass culture. That’s my own reading. I think both myself and Michelle, this wasn’t our point of departure into transgender circles or transgender discussions, however, clearly the transgender question, I suppose, transformed thereafter. And the work of this collection is very much following on in the wake of that, and in the confusion that follows and is continuing to follow on from that.

MO: So I’ll say a bit. In the far queer and trans left in New York City, there’s a pretty well-developed critique of the trans tipping point that centers around a number of points. One is this discrepancy between popular media attention on trans people and the actual material conditions, social service infrastructure, material well-being, violence against trans people. And so there’s certainly a disjunction between the two and where there might be a lot of progress made in the symbolic popular media realm, that only occasionally corresponds to any material progress made in the lives of working-class people. And even when we’re talking about sort of material progress, I think there’s been a lot of good thinking around how, for example, anti-discrimination legislation that we recently won in New York City, a few years ago, doesn’t actually protect people very effectively against being highly marginalized in the employment market because of the dynamics of “at will” employment and the sort of broader forces of oppression and racism in society. And so we can recognize the limits of both liberal equality and liberal celebration, liberal recognition. And I think people are very right to point out and call attention to the trans liberation, trans well-being, trans life has to be something more than getting on magazine covers and having famous people mention the existence of trans people.

I will also say that I think that the increased visibility has had dramatic and substantial benefits. And one of the stark ones Jules mentioned is the increase in the numbers of trans people, that part of the dynamics of trans life is at any given time, there are probably a lot of people out there who have internally and privately a trans experience that they are not yet able to act on in the world, to come out, to transition, to find other trans people, to talk about their experience. In my work as an analyst, I certainly encounter a lot of people in this situation. And the level of increased visibility just has dramatic implications of enabling a lot more people to find each other and to build a life together in ways that I think are very powerful. And then the other is, I think there actually has been a dramatic and substantial increase in trans organizing and trans movement-building that’s happened concurrently and that has taken Black trans leadership and communities very seriously in some ways. I think the Black Lives Matter Movement is one of the most substantially trans-inclusive political struggles I’ve ever seen, more inclusive than, I would say, most LGBT rights organizations and organizing. And I think that Black Lives Matter has been very powerful in moving money, attention, and support to Black trans-led movements, and helped them a lot in gaining political grounds in a variety of ways: whether that means money or specific policy reforms, or much broader level of attention and infrastructure. Which, obviously, we have quite a long ways to go, but we’re out in the streets and then struggle together and the tipping point has been a dimension of this political process unfolding that has dangers, that has backlash, a backlash that has, in the words of one anthology, a trapdoor, but also has some really quite powerful opportunities in advances.

TFSR: Yeah, thanks for mapping that out. First, that historical moment that we’re in the wake of and then the complexities of visibility, how that can bring good things and also cause some harm. I also think it’s really important, as you noted, to talk about the Black trans leadership we see in movements – that’s a different kind of visibility than the media or TV show kind of visibility the tipping point refers to.

There’s one thing that, Jules, you and your co-editor Elle O’Rourke write in the introduction, “if trans life can’t be eradicated, it can be normalized and disciplined.” So I’m interested in this… I don’t know if you have more to say about this kind of double-edged sword where there are these gains, but there’s also maybe a risk of what we saw with gay liberation becoming a movement for marriage equality. I wondered what either or both of you had to say about this as a potential moment of capture by capital, by the state? Can we be distracted in the way that transness can be stylized and then normalized, and then sold back to us? Or is there also hope for the resistance to that capture?

JG: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about this and the introduction. Sadly, Elle couldn’t join us today, but this was the introduction that we cowrote together. I suppose just to say one more word on Black Lives Matter does: what the introduction is trying to capture is at once we have these remarkable and unpredictable breakthroughs, breakthroughs that sometimes are quite hard to keep track of and last summer, when Black Lives Matter was in full swing, was definitely one of these cases. This is one of the moments we touch upon, the cleaning-of-the-house moment that bought around the Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn. And this is the optimistic aspect of it: all of these insurgent, intersectional connections, which are just being put into motion rather than just theorized, I think, like Michelle was saying, we’re just getting out onto the streets some of the time. But the other aspect is there needs to also be a realistic assessment of what’s standing in our way. And what you’re flagging up here as a section where we talk about the family, about private households. And this is, I think, still an intractable and still probably – I don’t know if it’s the majority of the harm that trans people encounter – but definitely any group of trans people you meet, if you talk to them about their relationships with those parents, extended families, even the friendship circles they’ve grown up with, I think maybe a minority will have had fortunate or blessed experiences, if you know what I mean.

So this is this passage which you’re flagging up that the repression and disciplining, and to drawback to what Michelle was just saying, it’s the privatization of transgender experiences where many people are allowed to furtively and secretly live out the lives they want to live, but then among the people maybe who raised them, the people who they grew up around, they have to don another face, don another attire. I think that’s something which there’s no reason to believe that is going to transform anytime soon. Maybe Michelle would want to say some more about it. Specifically, what we’re trying to do in this introduction is address the family, address private life as part of political life, which is a familiar concern for anyone, especially anyone who’s read feminist history. But we use a particular framework drawn from Angela Mitropoulos, who writes about Oikonomia / Economia, the binding and normative rules that appear in these private households. And that’s one way which we’re trying to approach this broader question, which is then returned to, in many different ways, throughout the rest of the collection. There’s basically this question of how can it be that exactly what’s supposed to be apolitical or de-political safe haven from political and capitalism – the household, our upbringings, our private lives – how can it be that those places are what any trans politics has to work through before it even exists? Before we can even take to the streets openly? That’s what this introduction is trying to cut up. I’m sure Michelle has some stuff to say as well.

MO: In the introduction, Jules’ reference substantively engages this question of the family. And you have another question, Scott, around thinking about family and family abolition. Family abolition is a very powerful way of trying to think through these pieces alongside each other, both thinking about the overall circuits of labor markets and capitalist society that the family plays a really integral role in. And then thinking about how, nested within that, the violence and tyranny and brutality that trans people face within so many structures of family. And part of the dynamics of the privacy of the family, is that it’s very difficult to make inroads in there. People are able to constitute a level of family or a form of family that’s protected against a certain kind of outside scrutiny, attention, a certain space of political struggle, and that a lot of our political movements are oriented to the state, perhaps to employers, the civil society, and it becomes much more difficult to think in political terms about what it takes to transform families. Like some of the dynamics of the workplace or some of the dynamics of the state, I think this is a real limit for contemporary social movements, that we are sort of trying to figure out how to politicize and transform these spaces that are that have deep structural dynamics in the reproduction of collective life. And it’s part of what leads a lot of trans people to be interested in science-fiction, in revolutionary politics in a more dramatic sense, in thinking about what could it mean to actually come up against and move beyond these limits.

TFSR: The experience of being trans within this bourgeois ideal of a white family that is still upheld, even though it contradicts the reality of what people are experiencing… Actually, there’s one way that you put it in the introduction, talking about how the families serves, not only in a moral sense, that is the way that is often talked about, but also in an economic sense as the project of neoliberal debt imperialism. Like allowing the state to continue to throw people into dispensable situations and somehow maintain itself while doing less and less. My question is about how this historical point we’re in, where there’s like more and more trans people, there’s still this relic of the family, but the family is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. How does transness come in as a way to disrupt that? How can we use that increased visibility, the increased trans struggle to continue to work against that stranglehold of the family, not simply morally but also economically, politically?

JG: That’s a great question. In terms of us addressing the bourgeois family, obviously, the abolition of the bourgeois family is something that is not specific to radical trans theory or anything like that. It also appears in the Communist Manifesto, obviously, and this was something which various figures in the First International were committed to and published about in the writing in various ways. What’s being talked about at this point is the bourgeois family as in this type of household which brings up the new generation, but also transfers wealth and assets and fixed capital from one generation to the next one. So when the introduction is talking about this contemporary phase, very much what we’re drawing from is these extensive decades of work, now, that’s been done looking at the New Right where through the political framework, the New Right had envisioned was not only about the strong state but also about strong families. And this is still very much evident today. If you tune into Tucker Carlson, he’s not only talking about how the police need to be given powers to put down Black Lives Matter, last time I tuned in, he’s also complaining about how today your kid’s probably a stoner cause weed is legal, so your kid’s got bloodshot eyes over the dinner table and stuff like that. This is still a part of the Right Wing imaginary, part of the Right Wing horizon is that families need to be strengthened up and there needs to be more authority against generations and pure disruption of that. One of the things he said, though obviously, Marx didn’t really talk about white families, and I suppose this is saying which more came on to the abolitionist horizon from work like Hortense Spillers’ black feminist critique which is identifying how, specifically in the American context, what’s being transferred across generations for Black families through much of US history is not wealth and not fixed assets, but exactly legal dispossession. Being un-personed and so on is exactly what’s being transferred from one generation to the next. I’ve run out of things to say at this point. But the reason I suppose that this is the family abolitionist politics has been of relevance to me and several other people in the collection, is exactly because there is this moment where you feel like a lot of the existing left has strayed from the First International in ways which I think are a shame and ways which we consider to reunite with these questions of gender and household oppression quite easily. That’s my own project.

MO: I’m writing a book on family abolition for Pluto at the moment, and it’s in full swing, as Jules and other people know. I have just an enormous amount to say about all of this. I don’t want to take up our podcast time talking about it too much at length, but a few points… One is, in the introduction, Jules referenced the family as the site of privatized social reproduction. It’s very helpful to think about the family not just in terms of a sort of normative ideal that’s imposed through policy, that’s aspired to by people, an ideological form that exists on the right and in culturally conservative sections of the left, but also the family just concretely: who do you live with? Who do you share whatever limited resources you have available? If you’re not able to work, who are you dependent on that you actually know? Who do you cook for? Who cooks for you? These questions are really concrete social reproduction that can be done entirely in the market to some extent, could hypothetically be done in various historical times and for specific strata through a welfare structure or a state structure, but overwhelmingly are done through forming relationships of care, dependency, coercion, intimacy with specific people in our lives, and that the vast majority of children are raised in this kind of structure. People have these privatized households, and there are all sorts of political implications for that. One of those political implications is that it’s a total growing up as a queer trans youth, as a gender nonconforming child, if you are unlucky enough to end up in an extremely unsupportive household, things are bad, and there are very few opportunities for collective intervention in how to change that. It’s insulated from a certain kind of struggle and collective transformation, which is a tremendous problem for liberatory movements, and how we think about them.

In terms of race and white supremacy, Jules mentioned Hortense Spillers, I’ve been very inspired by the work of Tiffany Lethabo King, who rereads Hortense Spillers and Afro-pessimism and thinks about race and gender in terms of family abolitionism. And I think there’s a way of reading about the history of enslavement and the history of the pathologization of Black families in the United States in terms of an imposition of a white norm that demonizes and pathologizes the certain kinds of kinship structures coupled to an actual apparatus of state violence, of economic violence, of historically slavery…. really fragmenting kin relationships. And that there is a dynamic dialectic in the history of anti-racist, anti-capitalist struggle in the United States, between really seeing a white bourgeois family norm as something to aspire to and pursue versus thinking that we could do something very different and better. What would it mean to actually care for each other? And that there’s a wonderful, long legacy of people trying to form a chosen family, trying to depend on extended family, trying to depend on neighborhood and community, and that these are both inspiring and to be celebrated and defended, but also run into all these contradictions that have to do with what it means to try to constitute a household in the capitalist society. And uneven access to work, to resources, to public space, and the way it structures power dynamics internally. And we can point to the bourgeois white family as an extreme or particularly horrific example of that, or the Christian fundamentalist family. But that even in chosen family structures, the broader dynamics of trying to survive and reproduce ourselves in a capitalist society are going to torque those relationships, to distort those relationships and make it very difficult to figure out how to treat each other well. Anytime we are dependent on people, there’s an element, a dynamic of coercion that becomes a part of that, that we have to sort through and we have to sort it through politically and collectively in a way that the family as a structure ends up opposing.

TFSR: Thanks for that. And I’m also very excited to read the work on family abolition because I’m also super interested in that. Maybe we can talk about that when it comes out. Going back to Spillers, because both of you mentioned that at the end of Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, Spillers says that the violent experience of women in chattel slavery made sort of ungendered is how she ends up talking about it, and she points to it as a place for rethinking and a resistant understanding and reframing of feminism from that experience. Maybe this is what you were referring to, is the dialectic with changing the impact of the state and economic violence that creates the situation of oppression into a place where you can start framing liberation. And I see that also that gets paralleled in the 60s-70s, gay liberation movement and feminism where the places that are excluded and marginalized are also places to form a resistance. And I wonder, to what extent do you think the trans experience within these structures is also actually the threat to the social order that the right-wing would claim it to be? I guess this could get back into that question of capture because it could also be domesticated in a way. But I wonder if you have thoughts on how trans experience could be liberatory in that way.

MO: I’m most attentive to the substantial intersection between transness and poverty. This is particularly true of trans people from working-class and poor backgrounds. It’s particularly true of trans people of color. It’s particularly true of trans women. Employment discrimination is quite widespread, is quite prevalent. And one of the things I tried to do in my piece is thinking about how coming out as trans, how transitioning, if you’re not able to be very stealth and very closeted and very lucky in pulling that off – and for lots of trans people being stealth is not a realistic goal – that’s going to have a huge impact on your employment trajectory, a huge impact on how you’re able to reproduce your class position, a huge impact on your economic chances. And that that’s true across the board. So you see a downward shift in class position for lots and lots of trans people. And then there’s a huge host of trans people from poor and working-class backgrounds for whom that shift pushes you entirely out of formal employment. Getting access to formal wage labor is extremely difficult. And so you see lots and lots of trans people, trans women, particularly working-class trans women and trans women of color, but it’s actually quite a widespread experience for trans women to spend extended periods of time engaging in sex work of various sorts, engaging in criminalized economies, in hustles. And then you see these little pockets of employment niches where trans people are able to reproduce themselves with some visibility, and that is most closely tied to the world of sex work and criminalized economies. I’d put HIV services, a lot of ex-sex workers or current sex workers end up doing HIV prevention services, and trans social services tied up with the world of HIV services. So, you have all these weird dynamics in fundraising and public health administration and biopolitical surveillance and criminalization tied up with this nonprofit nexus that people might use as a way of exiting out of sex work into like a lower risk, but also much lower-paying job, often with some stability. And in the Trans Oral History Project, they interviewed several former sex workers working in HIV services now and the dynamic of that trajectory.

But you have a few other pockets and those are growing. I’m certainly attentive to social work, there’s a presence of trans women in tech. As changes open up, the spaces of employment expand, but by and large, the experience of trans life is one of significant economic precarity. And so long as that’s true, and there’s a lot of reasons to think it could be mostly true for a long time to come, that has a dramatic impact on people’s politics. Being highly economically marginalized in a situation of a disappearing welfare state, of hostility and lack of support from your families of origin, of very little safety net, puts you in a position where you are relying on friends, on your own ability to engage in criminalized hustles, and makes it very clear that the world is a nightmare that needs to be overcome and destroyed. That’s not a universal response by any means. But the economic experience of economic precarity helps me make sense of why so many trans people end up in political struggles, in organizing, end up with anti-capitalist politics of a wide variety, and helps me make sense of under what hypothetical future conditions are trans people likely to be on the left or to be far-left. The circumstances of our political inclusion – obviously, a stratum of trans people could be politically included quite quickly – but really it depends on the question of employment and economic stability.

JG: There’s a few different chapters of the book that deal with this question of work, I suppose, as you’d expect from a Marxist collection. I feel like Michelle and Kate Doyle Griffiths’ piece, both addressing this question of how trans people managed to exist as workers. I think, as Michelle was alluding to, it’s also that any understanding of trans work has to understand the experience of being out of work long-term and unemployment relying on state resources or perhaps family and friend networks and so on. There’s also Zoe Belinsky’s essay, which is called “Transgender and Disabled Bodies – Between Pain and the Imaginary” and in another way, Anja Flower’s “Cosmos Against Nature in the Class Struggle of Proletarian Trans Women”, which is more using this framework of direct market mediation and the indirect in terms of the reproductive labor. So there’s a bunch of different perspectives addressing this question of both what it means to exist and make it in a workplace as a trans person and also the very commonplace realities that a lot of the time, that’s not really where we end up. Where we end up as more in the industrial reserve army of labor. You’re proletarians insofar as you’re stripped from the means of production, but not proletarians, insofar as you actually have a source of exploited toil, which you’re reliably committed to. Like Michelle, I definitely consider us spending so much time in the underbelly of capital and its reproduction a huge part of why it’s such a commonplace to find communist trans people, or leftist, anti-capitalist, whatever you want to call it.

TSFR: Or even anarchist trans people, which is the enclave I inhabit.

I like the narrative that Michelle poses away that a trans person could become politicized in a particular way. One of the things that the book in multiple essays grapples with is the extent of trying to survive under these conditions in a way that’s at least somewhat bearable versus having even the energy or the ability to fight the conditions that create that form of deathly oppression. A lot of the essays do a really good job of trying to talk about how we can create situations to survive and then also think about where we can fight against them. One of the most important things for me reading this whole book and reading everyone’s pieces is how it intervenes within the discussion of social reproduction and thinking about trans life through care work. This is something we keep mentioning, but I want to dive more directly into that. If either of you wanted to talk a little bit about how you think the transgender Marxism wreath frames social reproduction because there’s a feminist version of that, and I think that you’re building on that in here, but doing something different with specific trans experience. And specifically also talking about the transition through this lens. Maybe we can just start with understanding what a trans analysis of social reproduction might be.

JG: Yeah, that’s an exciting question, because social reproduction comes up in this collection in a bunch of different ways. Social reproduction appears on several different registers across the course of this collection. The first one is in the very first essay by Noah Zazanis, which is called “Social Reproduction and Social Cognition”, brings that Marxist feminist framework into dialogue with some more mainstream psych kind of approaches to how people develop their identities from a very young age. I guess the different approaches taken in this collection speak to the pretty broad set of approaches that Marxist feminism has increasingly come to deploy. And it’s worth mentioning that social reproduction is not actually a framework that every Marxist theorist or even every Marxist feminist is really committed to. So it’s not exclusively an SRT collection. However, I suppose that the reason which I first came to this framework of social reproduction that is focusing on workforces, what come to the workforces in the first place, how people come to the laborers and sustain themselves as laborers… The point at which I came to this, I suppose was exactly in the wake, as I was saying before, of the tipping point, and as part of my frustration that so few people really were providing any explanation as to why this was happening. And I actually found it to be very prevalent on the right, the right-wing accounts of these things were just depicted as some mysterious degeneration, or perhaps an ideological mania. But I also was finding that a lot of social theorists didn’t really seem to provide any satisfying or even helpful attempts at working out what was going on.

So social reproduction was the thing which I personally was pretty committed to around 2016. And I would say a lot of the collection is taking that meaning of the time and that avenue of inquiry, which is specifically looking at communities and subcultures, if you will, but I would rather say these reproductive circles, in whatever form they take, which provide people collectively with the means of making themselves transgender. Which has been discussed, primarily means surviving as a transgender proletarian, although it’s not the only variation, as we all know. That’s the primary meaning which I’ve been interested in and invested in. But as I say, this isn’t a settled question. And this is an ongoing discussion within Marxist feminist theory, what are the best terms to use and the best frameworks and understanding. I’m happy to say a lot more about that. Probably both myself and Michelle could talk all day about this one.

MO: I would distinguish three registers that I think of social reproduction as having a really huge impact on trans life. And I think Jules to some extent referenced each of these. One is thinking about the mutual aid networks, communities of support, that when somebody thinks they might be trans or gender questioning or knows with confidence that they are trans, they might go out and seek connections with other people to be able to help them think through both their gender identity and way of thinking about themselves, the concrete steps around transition. And this is I think, partially why we’ve seen just a giant increase in the numbers of trans people coming out with a steadily increasing access to the internet. People on the internet are able to find these communities. And why there are have been particular pockets of trans people for many, many generations, who are demographically numerous in highly specific social settings.

Like when I came out as trans in 2000, shortly after getting out of college, I looked around, I was in a kind of queer punk scene where there were a lot of trans masculine people and very few trans feminine people. And I looked around the country and I found three or four other punk trans feminine, trans women. And then I moved to Philadelphia and met like 300 black trans women my age who were the first trans women of my age I ever met. And it’s because they had this highly developed scene around balls and houses where they really figured out how to enable each other’s transitions. That certainly wasn’t available in the Women’s Studies Department, right? In my much more privileged background on some level, I was really lacking this supportive space and community. And I had various internet-based communities to try to figure out how to do this that have since really flourished and are much bigger. So that’s one meaning of social reproduction.

Another meaning is the violence and tyranny that we might experience in our homes, the dynamics of our family of origin, household as this private space of reproduction. And so social reproduction has been really key to thinking about anti-trans violence.

And then another register of social reproduction is that, depending on how you parse it, many people identify various formal wage labor sectors as being really integral to social reproduction. Nurses, teachers, daycare workers, elder care attendants – all these different people that are reproducing humans capable of participating in the labor market and society. And I think for various reasons, you see a lot of gender-nonconforming people in these sectors. These are feminized sectors, they are sectors that historically have had lots of women and queer people of various genders. I think there are different historical dynamics that have brought a fair number of trans people into working in these realms. And that these are realms of intense labor struggle, currently, and that some of the dynamics of de-industrialization and the shift to a late service economy, that these are not sectors that are easily automated, so that the need for labor isn’t easily reduced. So you really have a growing section, in the Global North, of people working in these labor sectors, and that these labor sectors have a lot of potential for uniting and connecting different sectors, strata of the working class, and bringing people together in different and complex and rich ways as part of their struggle for working conditions.

 

JG: Oh, just one more thing, quickly on the connection, I really appreciated that three-part breakdown from Michelle. I suppose one more thing in the collection, one way it appears is there’s this primarily historical essay by Nat Raha which looks at exactly the kind of movement struggles which brought what we now call social reproduction theory into being and she looks at one of these lesser-known groups, a British collective called Wages Due Lesbians, which was a counterpart of the much better-known Wages For Housework. That was operating in the context of the British New Right. And that looks at some overlaps that she perceives between this group and the much better-known STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in New York City. That’s another approach that you can find in the collection. There’s at once a range of different social reproduction theory type outlooks, and also people who see social reproduction theory as a thing to talk about other terms.

TFSR: That was already helpful to think about what transgender Marxist perspective on social reproduction COULD look like in different ways. The last point that you made, Michelle, was talking about another possible place for politicization, given that trans people and non-binary people or gender non-conforming people would be working in specific situations for a potential radicalization. That was interesting to me as another reframing of that inherent liberatory perspective that sometimes gets through and around and to me, seems often like a very liberal feeling, just being trans in itself is somehow resistance. But you discuss more explicitly how that actually works through the work that trans people do in the care work that they do for other people.

One thing I might do to follow up. That visibility in the mainstream, the idea of transition often becomes individualized, like there’s a particular internal experience that needs to be brought out through transition. The liberal perspective will get brought into the nuclear family that somehow unchanged by the fact of a transgender child, when there’s a focus on a supportive family, but the thing that the book really brought out in me, a way more explicit to me that I personally experienced through transition is how much of this is done through community and, as you said, Michelle, mutual aid. We see that also in the pandemic, just like with hormones, when there’s a supply chain break, people are sharing hormones, for example. So, I wonder if you wanted to talk more about that actual work of transition, because that’s something that gets brought up a lot in this book, and I thought it was also a major contribution by a lot of the writers in here to think about the process of transition this way, rather than the transgender individual who somehow exists. I can ask more detailed questions, but if you want to, if you have something to jump in right there, I’ll leave it open to you.

MO: This is something that other contributors and other people have thought a lot more about. I said a little bit about it, in terms of thinking about mutual aid support, but I don’t have a lot more to add.

 

LG: In my essay, I guess this is one that tried to address this question. It’s called “How Do Gender Transitions Happen?” I think that simultaneously, you can’t do away with either the personal narrative, the personal process, the very self-directed, individualized labor which people go through, or the community working. But I think it’s interesting that these things appear to be at odds, or they appear as distinctive to each other and yet, from another view, they always unfold at the same time. You’re always drawing from collective resources, or at other times, as Michelle was saying, there’s a lot of parallel development, there’s a lot of different communities which are attempting much the same thing, much the same process of transition in very different contexts and with very different styles. The point which the essay is trying to address is how people will tend to switch between these different registers of approaching transition either as something which is a set of encounters that is continuously happening as you try and negotiate your way through the world or through the community rewriting and renarrativizing. Just the specific stuff which actual circles of transgender people can do together.

 

TFSR: There’s the passage in your introduction that really stuck out to me, that “transition must come to be understood by revolutionaries as a response to its own form of hunger. The longings that drive so many to reforge lives for ourselves that leave us thoroughly proletarianized, or cast out rendered surplus”. I like this statement because I think it leaves behind the gender as a social construction versus essential gender as not even something worth spending a lot of time on at this point, and focuses on the act of transition as politicized, political, and I think it gets articulated also as ethical. But one thing that came up for me reading this is how do we… I guess there’s this personal / political divide. I could see this being dismissed as a lifestylism or self-chosen marginalization. Subcultures often get dismissed, like anarchists or punks. The thing that I really want to pull out of here is the trans desire, and also how that position of surplus in capitalism and the state, which is historically needed for capitalism to function the way it does, but how that can we rethink that place as a set of insurrection?

MO: I’ll just briefly say that I think desire is really an underappreciated category in liberation movements and the far-left. Desire is both far beyond the question of individual choice or individual preference, or how we think about market options that I think in some transphobic, conservative left discourse, there’s this idea of people choosing genders in a free way, like a neoliberal subject chooses consumer items. And that, I think, is a profound trivialization of how deep, how powerful, how transformative, and how uncertain desire is. Desire is very much what sets us in motion, in unfolding processes of personal and collective transformation, desire for survival, desire for dignity, desire for recognition. These desires are not, they’re not trivial things, they are things that are not easily satisfied, they are things that set us on trajectories that we don’t know where we’re going to end up. And that brings us into alignment and into connection with each other. And that’s just a whole realm, a whole dimension of political struggle, that I think trans people, precisely because often most trans people have made a set of personal decisions around changing their gender, that was significantly at odds with major sections of our social world, our families, our jobs, whatever that is, and had some clarity that we had a certain, one could say, truth that we were trying to think through or trying to grapple with, that might not be an essential gender, or a kind of inner gender, but a certain kind of desire in the world. And that opens up some space for thinking about how the desire functions in terms of the entire working class, in terms of the struggle for the abolition of class society, in terms of the desire to destroy and remake the world. We need to spend a lot of time listening to that and thinking much harder about that, and thinking beyond these categories of individual choice versus structural determinants.

JG: So, I suppose we talked about desire and, talking about things in terms of hunger. This is a part of the introduction where we are talking about Georges Bataille, the French theorist, pornographic writer, very heterodox political economist, call him what you will. And Bataille exactly counter-poses this effort of previous anti-imperialists prior to Marx, who were trying to elevate things and talk in terms of eagles and surpassing things. This is his critique of surrealism, by the way. It’s a very eccentric essay. But his point is that Marx is more about the old mole, it’s more about the subterranean, and specifically he talks about the hunger of the proletarian bellies being central to what Marx was trying to do or the indispensable feature of that. The stuff you’re alluding to exactly, people are dismissing this stuff as questions of lifestyle, or marginalization or whatever. This is what I feel needs to be addressed. But even if they’re rarely spoken about in the political field, transitions are the consequences of cravings, breakdowns, powerful emotions that make themselves central to the decisions we make and to the things we depart on. So you use the word ethical and that’s exactly right, a transition is always going to be about reshaping your life, taking steps, and in some way engaging in activities that transform who you are, how you’re perceived, how you’re apprehended, how you apprehend yourself. Any approach to trying to do… Whatever trans theory that doesn’t include that is bound to failure. But also, I don’t necessarily see this as something we have to choose between. We know that people seem to be living lives that are filled with desperation and breakdowns and then they get hold of these endocrinological interventions, like they got a hold of sex hormones and this transforms the lives substantially, maybe doesn’t solve all their problems, of course, it never does. But it transforms the course of their life. That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to do the political economy of sex hormones. I’ve actually been trying to look it up, but I can’t find it. Was it you, Michelle, who wrote this piece on the trajectory of sex hormones that’s going across work? I remember I was reading this in one of these trans studies collections. But this would be an essay from a long time ago, but I can’t remember if it was you or I was just reading this.

 

MO: Yes, in 2004, I wrote an essay about capitalism and pharmaceutical companies and hormones, that got reproduced many years later in the second Routledge Transgender Studies Reader. A very long time ago.

JG: So it was the second one.

MO:Tracing This Body” is its name.

JG: Yeah, a lot of it’s kind of talking about the shipping process and the way that these things move across continents. It’s 2004, so people have been working on this for a long time. This is exactly what I mean. But there’s no reason that we can’t look at these things in a way that applies an internationalist framework, which looks at how the actual ways that pharmaceutical companies interact with transition, not the conspiracy theory version where for some reason, pharmaceutical companies are trying to profit off incredibly cheap, low-cost medical treatments. There’s no reason that we have to say, “Oh there are all of these passionate sensations. And there’s been this political economy, and we have to look at one or the other”. But it’s exactly Marx’s kind of materialism that we don’t accept that as a choice, right? These are things that are continuously interacting, people are always trying to sort out their own lives on a very basic level, but then they run into this stuff, then they run into the reality of having a landlord and having a doctor. And all of these other lopsided social relations, which they have to work through. That’s what the point about hunger is, because as you say, I think this is a difficult argument to win. But also it’s like the most important one in a way.

TFSR: Thanks. Both of these are beautiful answers. What you just said, Jules, brings up for me, there’s the experience of the relationship of a trans person to the medical and pharmaceutical industry, I am trans and also chronically ill. And you’ll get leftists who will make this argument that your existence for either of these reasons could not persist post revolution, whatever vision of a revolution they have, because, in some way, you’re so reliant on these capital systems of production and shipping, etc. And I know that’s an interesting dynamic to see the ways that those genocidal ideas play out within a leftist circle. I don’t know if you have more to say about that. And maybe Michelle, that’s something that you were talking about in that earlier text.

MO: Thankfully, there are a lot of people thinking about this and speaking on it. I wrote a piece for Commune magazine called “Junkie Communism”. And I, in some ways wrote it, you wouldn’t be able to tell this reading essay, it’s a discussion of the Young Lords and them doing syringe exchange work in a detox in the South Bronx during the occupation at Lincoln hospital, and how that helped shape harm reduction today. And I wrote that essay, in my head, as a direct response to a really vicious and very ableist genocidal framework that I saw amongst Tiqqunists and some other anarchist strains in the United States, of like, “after the revolution, all these disabled people are going to die.” And like that gets referenced one way or another. I think it’s an “Introduction to Civil War” that they say that diabetics are objectively counter-revolutionary and I think that’s a current in the American far-left or in the international far-left. So it really has to be directly combated and there are various ways that we can challenge that and various ways we can critique it, and the one that I go to is a form of radical communist humanism on some level. A fundamental political principle has to be taking each other’s lives seriously and taking the profound preciousness of lives that are treated as disposable. A part of our political paths as communists or as revolutionaries, is to really cultivate an ethic of caring for each other, of defending each other’s lives, of treating the subtitle in the piece I wrote on Communism, “No One Is Disposable.” They’re really not participating in the kind of a ranking of the value of life. The trend obviously comes pretty directly out of my experience as a trans person and thinking about trans life as being treated as disposable on all these different social registers in the world.

JG: I definitely recommend people check out “Junkie Communism” as well. In the collection, there is an essay on disability, which I’ve already mentioned by Zoe Belinsky, who is also a diabetic in reference to the Tiqqun bit. This essay’s approach to this question of disability is pretty phenomenological, it’s looking at the philosophy of experience. And the main framework which Zoe was using is talking about disability in terms of this sensation of “I cannot”. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who is this communist philosopher Zoe’s mostly responding to, talked about things in terms of experience and our way through the world in terms of “I can”, so you encounter things and you think, “Well, I can rotate this square 90 degrees”, and that lets you understand the square. So Zoe’s always a social account here, looking at exactly where disability arises, where you think, “Well, I can’t do that”. I’m really glad that this essay is in there. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it because needless to say, a lot of our contributors are chronically ill, I certainly am. I feel like it never quite works out, it’s not just additional to being transgender, it always overlaps and interacts with it and these things mesh in interesting ways.

But strangely, I feel like actual extended pieces about disability in my circles are unusual. There’s a lot of contributors who don’t talk about their experiences with chronic conditions, chronic illnesses in this collection, who’ve definitely been through that. So I’m hoping that between the essays we’ve talked about… I’m hoping that this stuff appears in the near future because it’s definitely a thing which is increasingly, on my mind, I felt like if you don’t really have an account of disability and the way in which it interacts with people that are preparing themselves for the workforce, then why not? This is obviously something that not only brings people into these struggles and says that people have to work through in order to survive but it’s also something that has been the site of so much organizing across so many different national contexts. It’s an ongoing point of crisis, definitely, in Britain I come from. I can’t see why people would leave this out of consideration. Other than maybe in Tiqqun’s case, I think it’s just edgy flourishes, I feel like they just don’t care very much, so they just put the stuff in to show that bad-ass insurrectionists or whatever. But I think we can do a lot better than that, an honest account of the people who become communists especially is going to include a lot of reflection on the stuff and how it impacts our lives.

TFSR: I appreciated that putting the “I can’t” as the primary experience. Other people who often make these arguments are like primitivist anarchists, and to frame that as the original experience of being a human rethinks that idea of there’s Essential or Integral Health before domestication, civilization, whatever you want to call it. I’m glad you brought that piece, too, because I think that’s really important.

I did want to go back to the question of desire and bringing us to the relationship between a trans liberation movement to the earlier gay liberation movement. One of the things I appreciate in the book is that there’s an argument against separating gender and sexuality as if there are two separate fields, which in academic discourse, became a thing for a while that gender and sexuality have to be thought of separately. But as both of you have emphasized, the desire inherent in the transgender experience, and also connecting it to these other readers like Bataille makes me think of Guy Hocqenghem talking about Fourier as a way to rethink Marx through the desire within an economy. So, we’re past the end of gay liberation and the ways that it had been co-opted. And we’re in a new era of uprising and resistance. How does the trans liberation still theorize desire as revolutionary without getting trapped in the ways that it can be enclosed into a liberal understanding of life choices as you put it, Michelle? And I had originally written some questions about earlier theorists like Guy Hocqenghem, Mario Mieli thinking about homosexuality or transsexuality as the horizon of liberation and as providing the means towards it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and what we can inherit from that older tradition of gay liberation.

JG: Well, I actually have an essay published in the magazine, which Michelle is a founding member of, PinkoMag, which deals with Mario Mieli specifically. The essay is a sketch of what they want to work on in the future. Mieli is the Italian gay communist thinker, whose work is mostly from the early 70s. His / their work definitely uses this term transsexuality underlying the homosexual experience and specifically that what triggers homophobia, what sets it off, is that there is this base level of transsexuality, that cross-dressing, male-male desire, and so on. All these things can cause the precondition of civilization like transsexuality to peek out. I love that stuff. I think it’s 1972. By all means, check out that piece on Pinko if you want to know anything about him.

But in terms of desire, which is what you began with, I feel probably what’s the most interesting thing is why would people want to do away with desire? Why would you want to think politics without our desires and needs? That is the thing that I feel needs to justify itself. The reason I come back to Marxism all the time is that exactly what Marxism seems to provide, for me, is an account which is happy to begin with the commodity. This is what Marx begins Capital One with, what he starts with the commodity, he says, “the commodities are a strange or curious or queer thing, he says “verdächt.So the commodity is this inscrutable object. And the reason it’s so strange, and the reason you look at it, and then you look at it again, see something different, is because commodities are, on the one hand, very straightforward, very simple things. Like you want to have a snack – you buy a pack of peanuts. There we go, what could be simpler than that? And yet, when you consider them several different times, we find that it is connected to the supersensual thing which is beyond our immediate experience. Like we were saying earlier, with sex hormones, they are something you need for your satisfaction, and yet that is also something which has been shipped from another country, fabricated probably in another continent, and it’s being prescribed to you by someone in an authoritative social position.

I felt like this is sort of the way with desire. Why do we need to lose it? Why do we need to not talk about these palpable feelings that seem to drive us and lead us around? Why have we got to put those in the cupboard? I’m not going to say the closet. Why have we got to get rid of them? And that’s increasingly what I’m not convinced about, I don’t think that we need to. That’s why I was putting together a Marxist collection. I hope that the different perspectives we’ve put together mean that you don’t need to do that. You can look at things psychoanalytically at one point, and you can even look at things historically and look at different movements. Or you can try and do several things at once. Why not? Just see what works.

MO: I don’t have a lot to say. But I think this has been a really central concern at Pinko that we’re really interested in trying to think through and to think hard about the legacy of gay liberation. Gay liberationism both has some really quite extraordinary and very powerful potentials and currents and has more or less been a catastrophic failure in a lot of ways for thinking about our current moment. And to think those alongside each other in a way that really tries to draw out, to reload what could be relevant for understanding our era, for understanding sexual and gender life today, I think Jules’ pieces are a very powerful example of our efforts of trying to do that as a collective and as a journal.

I think this question of the separation of sexual orientation and gender is largely relatively unhelpful. It belongs to – even though it was pioneered in circles dominated by continental philosophy – it really kind of reeks of an analytic attempt at separating out things in[to] distinct categories that you then can isolate their divisions. While, really it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of homosexual desire abstracted from gender difference was ludicrous, it is an invention of advanced capitalist society in the 20th century and hasn’t yet permeated lots of places. You look back on the history of sodomy, and a huge amount of it involved people that were gender non-conforming in a wide variety of ways. I have some problems with it, but I think Andrea Long Chu is very interesting for talking about transitioning as being very tied up with scopic desire, with the desire of what one sees, and what one wants to become, that I think some of our efforts at avoiding some transphobic discourse around this thing prevents trans people from spending as much time talking about or thinking about as might be helpful. But the question of sexual desire and sexual yearning and gender identity has always been deeply bound up. And separating them is an elaborate artificial conceptual edifice that we should question.

TFSR: I’m glad you brought up that last thing about the ways that people try to avoid the transphobic discourse to the extent that they end up maybe repeating or leaving those distinctions in place. Winding it down, I want to ask my anarchistic question, because you’ve framed this as a Transgender Marxism and one of the classical resistance between anarchists and a version of Marxism is this historical determinism or these ideas of blueprints and stages? I’m totally open to that being a misreading of Marx, it’s played out within authoritarian communist parties. And I think historically, we could see gay liberation, the historical gay liberation movement of the 60s and 70s being a reaction to some of those versions of authoritarian communism. So I appreciated that this book didn’t play along those authoritarian lines and also made a lot of space for historical contingency. So I’m wondering how you might frame this materialist account – all of the pieces really ground their analysis from a materialist perspective – how do we bring that into relation with unknown historical contingencies, the future solidarity is that we might need to elaborate and in the particular context of trans struggle? To me, this often is a place to think of anarchism as an intervention, but I’m wondering what you have to say about that.

JG: I was really looking forward to this question, because it is a juicy one. I suppose the very short answer is that I have always found the sectarian divide between communists of the kind I get along with, communists who are my comrades and anarchists to be very flimsy, even spurious. And communism, when I use the term, and anarchist positions are remarkably similar and definitely have significantly more common ground than they have divergences. And the divergences that do exist are primarily cultural scene history stuff. That’s how I put it. That’s the very short answer.

The longer answer is, I think, Marxist communist politics of the kind I affiliate myself with, of the kind I feel connected to, have always been implacably anti-state and had a position towards the state which considers its greatest strength to also be the things that make it the most threatening and most indispensable for capitalists. The state does things that no individual capitalist is able to do and brings capitalist society into existence, one generation after the next. That’s my position. I also feel like this is becoming a much more common position among Marxist theoreticians like David Nally really recently had a series about the state, which was basically saying what I just said in a much longer way. Michel Heinrich just had an appearance on the Antifada podcast where he’s talking about how the second part of his autobiography, which is across several books, is gonna focus heavily on Bakunin and in this much misunderstood, antagonistic relationship, which Marx and Bakunin had with each other, an antagonistic relationship that exactly was over the narcissism of small differences in many cases. Increasingly, this is the turn things are taking. Obviously, there is an enormous amount of bad blood between Marxist and anarchist traditions but in many cases, I think this is overstated in its substance. Any kind of Marxist perspective which I would associate myself with is fully aware of that.

Getting back to the transgender stuff, as we must, it’s really remarkable to me how in 2013 Nevada, this novel by Imogen Binnie, it’s intuitive that the protagonist, Maria, is into anarchism. I feel like today she’d probably be a commie. I don’t know. I feel like that’s something that has changed over the past five years. And I really don’t know why. They’re obviously still a lot of transgender anarchists out there. But I feel like now the meme is that we’re all communists. So if anyone has any answers to that one, please send me a postcard.

MO: There are various ways of parsing the distinction between Marxism and anarchism, and I think most of them are silly and somewhat unhelpful. But I define and understand communism as the need to overcome class society, as the yearning, the pursuit, the real movement that abolishes the existing order of things, and Marxism is an effort to make sense of how capitalism functions. The statist Marxism, statist Communism, this idea of the consolidation of authoritarian ownership-based states that control society through violence and wage labor as somehow a transition to Communism, hopefully, it was a historical blip that we will move past and not have to deal with. And I mostly don’t spend a lot of time in an anarchist tradition, however great my hostility is towards states, just because I see the dynamics of capital and political economy as so central to driving the dynamics of human societies, state violence, state policy, police brutality, I find talking about the production of surplus populations as really an essential starting point that happens through the dynamics of capitalist wage labor markets over time. So that’s my lens of Marxism, less of statist versus anti-statist, but instead, the starting point of trying to think through the world and what we have to destroy is the dynamics of capitalism. And if an anarchist thinks that, we have a lot to talk about.

TFSR: To bring it back to the book, maybe a final question, unless you have more that you want to bring up… I appreciate the fact that this book isn’t only an academic text. It’s connected to academic work, and there are people writing in this book who are potentially employed by academic institutions, although maybe not comfortably, especially when you’re out and trans, which is something I’ve experienced, making me more and more precarious. Marxism often gets lodged in the academy in a way that’s maybe not helpful. So I just wonder about the formation of the book and how it may have come out of solidarity struggle work, or how you think it could tie back into on-the-ground movement struggle work, instead of being set off into the realms of the theory that don’t connect on the ground as much.

JG: Speaking about how academic the book is, I actually have tried to count up… it’s a bit hard to keep track off. But I think out of the 16 contributors, we’ve got 15 chapters, a total of 16 people who wrote for it, including myself and Elle. Out of those, I think about a quarter of the book [contributors] are active university lecturers. One contributor, which is Jordy Rosenberg, who wrote the afterword, has tenure. So I would say it’s primarily not an academic book. But of course, this is only part of the picture. Obviously, it’s informed by academic discourses, and a lot of academics are reading it and teaching it. That’s not especially surprising to me. The academics we do have contributing in the main body, other than the afterword, are primarily not people in the most secure or lasting positions, like come back in five years’ time…

I think that this is actually remarkably similar to the way that things look in trans healthcare, which is that there is an enormous number of people who have some relevant training, whether it’s bioresearchers, registered nurses, and so on, but very few MDs who are transgender, and this is the reason why it’s all… Who are the people with the not only the security, the partners or parents to bankroll you through down years or whatever, but also the connections that would get you through medical school, that would get you onto a tenured job, and so on. Exactly all of those connections and those healthy inter-generational bourgeois relationships are what transition is very likely to rupture. There are, of course, exceptions. There’s probably more to be said about trans studies, which is, of course, something much more expensive than this collection, and probably has a kind of uneasy relationship in some ways. But that’s what I would say. Academia has a very specific set of like demands and requirements, for people who are ready to exist for that, and that’s a very competitive environment or you’re not going to be paid reliably for quite a long time. I feel like that’s probably not going to change very quickly. And who knows if it would even be a good thing if it did.

MO: Academic life seems a deathtrap in some ways. I am one of many more or less failed academics trying to write and think in the world. If people are able to make a living there, that’s great. But it’s extremely clear that we need to create revolutionary and left spaces of thinking and study and debate and analysis, that are outside of academic spaces, academic constraints.

JG: Samuel Delany actually recounts in his shorter essays collection… he is primarily a sci-fi author, but he talks about how in the later 20th century, he got into academia on the basis that he wanted a steady income, to supplement his sci-fi career. I really struggled to imagine anyone doing that these days.

TFSR: I started teaching in the area where he was, which is also where Jordy Rosenberg is and U-Mass. He was publishing pornographic novels and at the same time… Anyway, I feel like we covered a lot and went for a long time. Is there anything that you feel like we’ve missed? There’s so much in this book, obviously, we missed a lot. But there’s anything that you would like to put on the table or bring into this discussion?

JG: I feel really satisfied. And I felt like this is gonna give a good account of the book and hopefully entice your listeners who haven’t bought a copy yet to do that title. How about you, Michelle?

MO: This is great. I already talked about far too much that extends way beyond the book. But it’s a beautiful collection and a really magnificent set of writers and authors. Jules and Elle just did an excellent job editig it. It’s a great honor to be in it. And I think I highly recommend people being interested, on the one hand, gender struggles, gender theory, trans liberation, and on the other hand, anyone wrapped up in thinking about capitalism: to buy a copy, read it and talk about it and to share about it.

TFSR: Thank both of you so much for giving so much breadth to the conversation and so much analysis of the structures. I really appreciate thinking about transness through this lens which often gets left out in the mainstream discussion of it. And even in trans studies, I find that is often disappointing, so this politicization of it is really important. And connecting it to care work and the labor experiences of trans people. I appreciate your time and the book. Is there any place that you would want to direct, beyond buying the book which you can get from Pluto press, to direct people to follow you or hear more of your work?

JG: You can follow me on Twitter @SocialRepro and I also have a https://www.patreon.com/QueerComm. That’s everything from me.

MO: I am @GenderHorizon on Twitter, https://www.patreon.com/meobrien on Patreon.

Belarusian Uprising Revisited

Belarusian Uprising Revisited

Protest flags in Minsk on September 27, 2020 including black and black & red flags
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This week on The Final Straw, we spoke with Vasili and Maria, two Belarusian anarchists living abroad about the aftermath of the 2020 Uprising in their country of birth, lessons learned, the current political prisoners and the Lukashenko regime’s attempts to attack dissidents abroad. Maria is also a member of Belarus Anarchist Black Cross, which does anti-repression education and prisoner and legal support for anarchists in or from that country. More on that group and these topics can be found at ABC-Belarus.Org, including a form to send letters to prisoners in Belarus from the website and a link to a brand new fundraising campaign to help BABC to support their anti-repression efforts. Check it out and spread it around: https://www.betterplace.org/en/projects/99819-support-anarchist-and-antifascist-prisoners-in-belarus

You can find links to our social media at TFSR.WTF/links. You can find a transcript of this conversation online in about a week at TFSR.WTF/Zines.

Belarus-ABC can be followed via their:

Announcements

Eric King Trial

Antifascist and anarchist prisoner, Eric King, has had his trial pushed back to October 14th at 9:30am. If you can show up to court with an ID and your dapper court wear, you can show up to the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse in Denver to show Eric some support and that he’s not alone. For a good read, check out the recent article by Vice about the allegations from Eric’s legal team that the BOP deleted video of the incident in question in order to cover up his setup and torture: https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvzqqa/prison-destroyed-video-proof-of-guards-torturing-anti-fascist-lawyers-say

Protest AmRen

The annual American Renaissance conference, or AmRen, a gathering of vile ethno-nationalist hucksters is slated to occur in Montgomery Bell Park at the Inn and Conference Center, outside of Burns, TN, from Friday, November 12th to the 14th. Opposition is being organized from all over and you can participate with your crew. For a good intro to what’s expected this year, check out the link in our shownotes or visit the calendar at OnePeoplesProject.Com: https://tockify.com/idavox/detail/136/1636722000000

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Featured Track:

  • Johnny Ryall (instrumental) by Beastie Boys from Dub The Boutique

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself so the audience with whatever names, gender pronouns, locations, affiliation, or other info that could be useful for this conversation?

Maria: I might go first. I’m Maria, I go by she her pronouns, and I am speaking on behalf of the anarchist black cross Belarus chapter here. So I can’t expose my location at the moment. But at the moment, I’m outside of the country.

Vasili: And my name is Vasili, an activist from Belarus, who is not in Belarus right now. He him, and I’m involved in some anarchist organizations from Belarus.

TFSR: And Maria, can you tell us a little bit about Anarchist Black Cross Belarus, the kind of work that you all do and some of your history?

Maria: Right, the Anarchist Black Cross Belarus started, I think, around 2009. in Minsk, which is the capital. First, it was like, rather an informal kind of network of people who would just make random donations, just not really doing anything other than collecting money. And back then, before 2010, when the first wave of repression hit the anarchist movement in Belarus, the group was not really needed, because the state didn’t look so much at the anarchists as the enemies let’s say, but after 2010, the group was formed and you and now it has membership. And it’s a collective that has been running since then. And over time, we’ve evolved into a stable group that is doing fundraisers for us and supports anarchist and anti fascist prisoners in Belarus, and sometimes also people who have Belarusian citizenship, who have problems in other countries, because of their anti-authoritarian activity. We’re also trying to expand the support not just for material side of providing financial support, but also psychological support, not that we are providing that but we are like, open to pay for that or to look for either professionals or like self help groups and so on. Because we see like activist trauma, like post-repression trauma as like as a consequence of repression that needs to be dealt with, especially also after release from prisons. Yeah, so we’re trying to work on that.

And we’re also quite interested, and I think we were quite successful, in creating a new security culture in the movement, like trying to agitate for like not talking to the cops and giving a lot of trainings and seminars, producing brochures, about what you should expect once you get caught. And what’s the best way to behave and also showing some light at how the police is preparing themselves for psychological pressure, like what methods they use in order to actually make you speak. So this is what we’ve been doing. And I think this last year was a catastrophe for the collective because previously, we had to deal with like, let’s say, 3-6 prisoners a year, let’s say, and maybe also throughout the years would be like the same people who would just be in prison for longer terms, but this year, at the moment, there’s already like 26 people who are either behind bars or have already been convicted after the protests. And a lot of people had to flee the country, and this is also like our Congress that we will we need to help with like migration issues and also like settlement support and stuff like that. So yeah, this is why at the moment we have a lot of work and we also need a lot of support from the outside of the country as well.

TFSR: It feels like, we can also go back and touch on this in later questions too, but since we are talking about ABC Belarus right now, could you tell us of any ways people can find out about your work and any sort of like international organizations or movements that you participate in, like the week of solidarity or the Anarchist Defense Fund. Like that sort of stuff?

Maria: Right. I mean, ABC Belarus is like part of this probably shrinking network of ABC groups here in Europe. We have some connections to also ABC groups in the US, but not so much. But in general, we try to participate in any effort of solidarity here in this continent. And basically, you can find information about the group and also the news on like Belarusian prisoners, or general repression in the country on our website, which is ABC-belarus.org. And we are now trying to publish monthly updates on repression in the country in English. So it’s not only about fundraising, but also like you can forward or like repost, share messages from there, if you have an English-speaking website somewhere. Yeah, so basically, that’s it.

TFSR: Last year, I spoke with a comrade around November of 2020, about a year ago, about the uprising in Belarus, which had already been going for some months at this point. For listeners who somehow missed it, could one of you give a really brief overview of the uprising, at least up until that point and just sort of bring us up to date so that we can, we can move on from there?

Vasili: So, if you missed what was happening in Belarus in 2020… In August, after the elections of the president, pretty much the biggest uprising in the modern history of the country happened with first, dozens of 1000s of people go into the streets, and afterwards, hundreds of 1000s of people are going to protest against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. This lasted for several months. One of main the reasons that actually this whole thing was possible was the Corona-virus, but also dissatisfaction with the economical problems of the country and so on. And the protests had different momentums. Like in first days, it was really intensive and with a lot of clashes with the police and with a lot of repressions, and at least several people killed by the police. Later on, transformed in some kind of peaceful demonstrations marches every Sunday, however it never managed to grow to the extent that would destroy the governmental power and eventually put an end to Lukashenko’s rule in the country. By the end of 2020, most of the protests were over all around the country, a lot of people were repressed. I think, in this four months from August to December, over 30,000 people were prosecuted. 30,000 people in the frame of 9.5 million people living in Belarus, which was like super big amount of people. That means that everybody knew someone who was eventually repressed. Apart from that, over 1000 people were detained and put on holds for prosecution. 30,000 people were prosecuted through administrative codes, which was like a smaller violation of the public disorder, which would give you like 15 days in prison or fines. And this over 1000 people were arrested and are now awaiting or were prosecuted or waiting for trial for the criminal offenses, which would be, I don’t know, one year in prison up to 25 years in prison.

So the protests were crushed. And at some point, we thought that maybe the Belarusian government would go crazy for the next couple of months, and will calm down as it was happening normally, through the history that if there would be like a protest, there would be some repressions, but then the government would stop. Over one year, since the protests, the repressions are still going on and people are still getting arrested. The police are still processing the videos and photos that they made during the protests. And they are still like catching the protesters and charging them with the more serious charges than they were doing in autumn 2020. Also, apart from that, there is a big wave of migration that started with the mass repressions. Depending on the country, there are also dozens of 1000s of people left, mostly in direction of Ukraine and Poland, which are the nearest countries and some parts went into this mania. And the others went all around the world basically. But the biggest diaspora is right now are concentrated in Ukraine and Poland and trying to organize politically there in any way to undermine the Belarusian government’s politics in the region.

Right. So, at this point, right now, most of the political organizing is actually smashed so all the political organizations were destroyed. Most of the media that is not affiliated with the government is banned or got their license revoked, and journalists actually massively left the country because of the threat of prosecution. The human rights organizations are also en masse leaving the country. And there are several human rights defenders, like big ones in the political sphere, who are sitting in prison. And most of also non governmental NGOs not affiliated with the Belarusian government, are also getting shut down and people who are working for those NGOs are leaving the country to go abroad, under threat of prosecution as well. Yeah, so everything looks pretty dire.

Apart from that, it’s also worth mentioning that when we came to the elections in 2020, Lukashenko was quite close to the Western countries, to European Union, but also to US, and he was getting funding from those countries. But as the protests escalated, and as Lukashenko was making more and more political mistakes, the European Union was kind of cornered into reacting to his bullshit. And now, the regime is under sanctions of the European Union and the US, and that kind forced Lukashenko to the search for another allies. And now his main ally is Putin who, well, doesn’t care about that people are blood flowing on the streets, as long as you are loyal to him. So Lukashenko’s regime is now heavily based on Russian support. And this was happening historically. All in all, Lukashenko managed to survive, because Putin or Yeltsin back then were supporting him economically, but also politically, on the bigger political arena.

TFSR: Are people going to those two countries, in particular, because of those country’s current relationship with the Russian regime of Putin? Or is there other reasons?

Maria: Yeah, I think the reasons are so simple. Just because for Ukraine, you don’t need a visa. So basically, you can just get out as quickly as possible, even if you don’t have any documents. And you can stay there up to 90 days without any reason. This is what people actually did. And also in Ukraine, people speak Russian. And this is like this kind of post USSR, mentality or culture that people are sharing. For those who don’t really speak English or other languages, is the best way to just change the surroundings without actually changing the context, let’s say. Also, because people are feeling more secure than, for example, going to Russia because Russian and Belarusian authorities and the police have like unified databases of people who are like dissidents, let’s say, and they actually can arrest you. And this has been done massively in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they have face recognition surveillance system in the streets. So people do not feel safe in Russia. That’s why they flee somewhere else. So, for Ukraine, it’s like that. If you speak about Poland and Lithuania, these are the two countries that were the first to react. I think, in October or November, they said they’re going to provide any assistance to people who have to flee the country and they started giving that so-called humanitarian visas. So that’s basically a National Visa that allows you to stay longer than a tourist visa, and you don’t need grounds, like having to work or like some studies and so on. So you can just basically get proof that you have been repressed and you’re going to be issued this visa and you can stay in the country and later apply for like a refugee status or production status. And also because the EU now, I think it’s effectively denying extradition requests from Belarus even via Interpol. So basically, this is where people feel more safe, in terms of not getting extradited. The I think these are the easiest options for people to go to.

Vasili: I would like to point as well that although Poland and Lithuania are giving this humanitarian visas and they’re openly accepting Belarusian refugees, the other EU countries are not that open, although they’re condemning the violation of human rights. It is way more complicated to move to other European Union countries like going to Germany or going to France, Spain, wherever you want to go. It is quite complicated. So for the people who want to, well, leave Belarus and have a secure, safe place, those are like the easiest places to go like you were in within the European Union. Poland and Lithuana in that case.

TFSR: Yeah, so Lukashenko is still in power, people are still having to go abroad, and still organizing resistance against the regime from abroad. If it’s… this is a strange way to put it, but this is like common parlance in the US, at least in English… There was a lot that seemed to come out in the uprising that my understanding and having spoken to a few people from Belarus, there were parts of the movement that seemed kind of unprecedented and sort of unexpected, like, for instance, the running battles with the police, the extreme violence that the police and the jails enacted on individuals when they arrested them from sexual assaults to like literal torture. I think there were some disappearances of people. And this is the thing that police do wherever because they’re police to, you know, at different times. But this is exceptionally cruel and concentrated, the apparent attempt to infect as many people with COVID as possible by cramming them into cells in the middle of the pandemic. And it seems like elements of the Belarusians nation were chipping away from what had been a sort of toleration of the administration to actually… You know, police quitting their jobs in instances, people targeting where police lived to try to pressure them to leave… Workers threatening strikes… This was a massive, massive moment.

And I guess the English term that I was going to point to is called a “post-mortem”. What sort of lessons do you take from that like, what worked, what seemed not to and and why the administration has continued to be able to stay in power.

Maria: My idea is that, actually it went the way it was supposed to go, let’s say. I mean, of course, all all the things you’ve mentioned, like the new expressions of like solidarity and new ways of protests, and actually like attracting masses of people to the protest was something new. And this was new for all of us. And for the people also, what I mean that it was supposed to end like this is because the state knows best tactics on how to suppress the protest. Because you have to understand that for many people in Belarus, it was the first time that they were actually politically interested, and were trying to promote or like, defend their rights, or let’s say, whatever, or a protest against anything. So these people have never been detained. These people have never seen an aggressive policeman beating up someone else in the street. These people have never been arrested, or detained at their workplace. These people have never been harassed, and threatened with taking their kids out of their family if they’re going to continue protesting. So these people have never experienced, like, cunning repressive mechanisms that the state has. And like, for example, for me, they’re not new, because I’m in the movement for 15 years. And like many of them have been used against me or against comrades or against like other people, just because I’m involved. And so many of them didn’t work for me. But people who went to the street in August and September, were in the streets it’s as long as it was safe for them. Like, as long as they could just be in the streets think that they’re going to change something peacefully… And here comes also the question of lacking the political analysis, or like the political history of let’s say, revolutions or like successful protests, or coup d’etat’s so and so on. So people like really thought and they believed that they even if they’re going to be a lot in the street for some time, Lukashenko will just leave. And this has never happened in in history. But for them it was the first time and they didn’t listen to anyone, that it should be like, okay, more offensive, let’s say. At the same time, there was also no one powerful enough in the media, who would actually call them to be offensive. Like everybody in the political sphere, was speaking about the fucking peaceful protest, like this protest was going on because it was supported and promoted.

And so when I was under arrest in October, I had a few women and myself who were at their door, taken to like a car with a black bag on their head, just to be arrested for 15 days. For me, it was clear that the police is just using this as a threatening mechanism. Like before it was really safe, you just go to the protest, you go home, nothing happens. And suddenly, you’ve realized that they know where you live, they come for you, and they bring you like as a hostage, in I don’t know, Afghan movies, or something like that. And they take like 1000 people like that. And these 1000 people is telling their neighbors, what’s what’s happening, and the neighbors starting to be afraid that they’re going to be the next. So like, for me, I knew that they were using it just for that to intimidate the population, and they were really successful in that. So, having this as a picture of like repression, or some kind of exemplary cases, it worked for people. And many people just left the streets as soon as they realized that they can’t post pictures of them in peaceful protests on Instagram, because now police is looking at the Instagrams and checking out the people.

Yeah, so basically, people were quite active, as long as they felt that they could be supported by others. In the first days, like you said, a lot of people quit the state managed jobs, the police, the national television, and so on and so on, like the athletes who are supported by Lukashenko and so and so on. So as long as people saw that everybody else is doing this, they were doing it as well. And they were also like, seeing a lot of solidarity coming. But then when they saw that, actually, nobody else is doing it anymore, and it’s just kind of you against the system, basically, or you and like crazy people like you who are still brave enough to show, this is when people started realizing that, okay, like, I’m just ruining my life because of that.

And also the solidarity structures were crushed. Because special solidarity structures were installed outside of the country to collect, I think they collected like 8 million bucks for solidarity from all sorts of businesses and like from individuals. So basically, they were promising that people are going to have that. If you are going to be repressed, you’re going to have it, for sure, if you’re going to be fired, you’re going to have like money, or salary, like in three months or something like that. And at first it worked, but then also these solidarity structures couldn’t actually process so many requests. So it ended up being super slow, like people who were fired would not get support, like in two months. And these are people with families, you know. And then, of course, everybody’s talking about that they are sharing that, “Okay, this solidarity is just bullshit, I asked for the money, but they’re like, verifying me for ages. I’m being arrested, I’m asking for the lawyers fees. And they’re verifying me for ages. And, like, my mother needs the money to get the food parcel to the prison today, but the money is going to be there after like half a year.” And also the more people got arrested and put behind bars, the more money they needed, right? Also, what they did is basically trying to transfer money in cash inside the country, and there were specific people who would like process tons of cash to pay for fines and to pay for lawyers fees, and so on. And these people were persecuted, they’re now in jail. So that’s why when, when other people who did the same saw that, okay, just for helping out others, I can get in jail, I’m going to stop doing it, you know? Like, I’m going to run out of the country. They weren’t showing some exemplary cases of how something you’re doing could ruin your life. And people were just thinking, Okay, so when we believed in victory, we could do that, but now, we’re doubting victory, now we don’t really believe in it anymore. So I think this is how it works like this, let’s say the morale it was destroyed. And it was like really effectively destroyed. This is why now people do not believe that there’s going to be at any moment a critical mass so they can join. A lot of people wants to join, but they feel like they’re alone in this.

Vasili: And I think, for me, the Western politics or, let’s say, Western Liberal politics played an important role in the way the protest develops. And it started not in August 2020, but historically if we look at the development of the liberal opposition in Belarus, we can see that through the money through like political support, Western liberal powers can control the narrative inside of the country. So, if you would have like really militant opposition leaders in the 90’s, who would be, you know, rioting or calling for riots participate, really confronted with demonstrations… Slowly this narrative change to a peaceful demonstrations, peaceful change of power, peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. And this became like a dogma that it was not possible to change anymore, that it should be always peaceful. And when we came to 2020, the people who were participating in the protests and people who were, let’s say, a political leadership of this whole mobilization, were still insisting on the peaceful protests for the first days, but also like afterwards. Although some of the people had clear understanding of the clear possibilities of clashes with the police. Like there were leaks for example of Tikhanovskaya talking to some allies in the smaller towns where they would be talking about possible clashes and what should be done and so on and so forth. But this cannot be publicly done, as if you start calling for riots, if you start calling for like a militant overthrow of the dictatorship, then you will have issues with those people who are eventually supporting you and do not support this kind of narrative. As the revolutionary agenda is spreading that if you if you start calling for revolution in Belarus, people start asking like “oh, we will so when changes so what are we going to do?” And I think for a lot of liberals in Western European Union or in US right now this narrative is really dangerous taking account the Corona-virus, dissatisfaction and all this stuff.

And of course, a lot of media that is in opposition to Lukashenko is still financed by some grants from the European Union or by some foundations that are also not accepting this kind of narrative, this kind of idea of a revolution happening. No, there could be a peaceful protests and like it was I don’t know when in their heads, and that’s it. And this played a really important role in during the mobilizations. Like a week since the protests started, there was this peaceful march that mobilized hundreds of 1000s of people and this was like a moment of euphoria, where we thought “okay, now the whole thing is over.” And there were a lot of people who were reproducing that narrative. So there were so many people that Lukashenko is like a political corpse, right? And I think like within maybe a German political context, he would be gone, like this is not what you do in a democratic country. But for dictatorship, killing a couple of people, sentencing or arresting 6000 people, this is not a problem. So Lukashenko was going on. But people started getting this idea of, okay, peaceful protest, everything is fine, we are winning. So nothing should be changed. We keep on going with this peaceful marches, and that was a certain moment of blocking. As the bigger crowds started, like doing only that, just Sunday marches.

And the people who were doing the mobilization had the problem that they cannot say to this bigger crowds, “Hey, let’s go and take over the fucking police station, or the City Council,” and stuff like that. And this was done because of the financing. We had as organized anarchists in Belarus, conversations with the media activists or bloggers who would say “We need like anarchists, we need some radicals who would call for radical actions.” But this was already like happening a month too late or something like that. And they started, like there were situations where anarchist calls for actions would be reproduced by the bigger media channels. But this was like too late because the repressions were hitting so hard that there was no mobilisational potential anymore, outside of the Sunday demonstrations. So I think this is the thing that was really important for Lukashenko to maintain his power that the Liberal thought is incapable of overthrowing the dictatorship not only conceptually, like bringing alternatives and saying, “Hey, this is a great idea, maybe jeans and bananas are not selling so well anymore.” But physically, like they cannot call in their liberal ideas for revolution for revolutionary changes. So liberals became a shadow of the liberal movement of the 19th century they were they were like, “Fuck yeah, we are going to free the population and so on and so forth.”

And yeah, so this was like it should show that was somehow happening inside of the country, but also happening outside of the country. And I think like, with what Maria said, people didn’t have experience in protests, people didn’t have experience with all this repressions. And they were searching a lot from outside as well. Like, “Who can help us who can explain this thing happening to us?” And who was explaining things were those liberal bloggers from Russia, or from some other countries that also didn’t have any fucking clue. But they would be so convincing that everybody will be like, “Oh, yeah, that person knows what he’s talking about, or she’s talking about” and so on. Yeah.

Maria: Can I add something?

TFSR: Totally.

Maria: I think also, like another part… I’m in two minds about what I’m going to say, but I’m just gonna mention it. I think one problem or like, one obstacle towards this kind of, like more radical revolution was also in the way that people didn’t know radical methods, like they didn’t know how to implement them, let’s say. And it was the first time people saw smoke grenades or tear gas exploding around them or something. And like basically people, the biggest like bloggers, or like telegram channels with like a massive readership, were advertising all the time “clenching hands.” Like “Clench hands, every time you see the police, because the police is going to take your comrades away, and you shouldn’t let them detain you.” And so people were trained to just be in a row clenched hands and like what I saw in the first days of like, post election protests, people like would just clench hands in front of the police trying to I don’t know, tear gas them or shooting them or something. People like really didn’t understand it’s, it’s a different method now, and you don’t protect yourself against detention, but it’s like a street fight, in a way, you know. Like, this kind of urban guerrilla is not something that people were familiar with. And I think those who understood were a minority group, it’s people who actually either participated in protests demonstrations in Europe, for example, like football hooligans, or some anarchists, and maybe people who just saw it in the media before. So they kind of knew how it should look like, but not really, what exactly they need to achieve with that. Like what would be the strategy with cops.

And I think that is one thing. People really didn’t understand. They wanted to hold a position. But why? They didn’t understand if they wanted to move cops away, or like to be offensive towards cops, they just wanted to be in one place. And that’s it. And of course, that doesn’t change anything, like okay, paralyzes the city for some time, but not really moving you towards a coup d’etat. And, on the other hand, a lot of people like you mentioned, the bloggers who are calling people to kind of go and smash policemen’s houses and, I don’t know, ruin their cars… And this is what people did. Like, they basically went there with their faces uncovered, disregarding the surveillance cameras, disregarding the fact that they were already other cops waiting for them there on the spot, because they were expecting attacks. So people were just doing like really stupid things without thinking about any security culture connected to the radical action or direct action. And they needed to know that but the bloggers didn’t care, like they would just call people do something really stupid, or like maybe smart, but you should be smart in all spheres with direct action. And people would just do it, because they were very emotional. And then they were put in jail and then they would realize that there’s not actually any solidarity because all the human rights organizations are supporting only the peaceful demonstrators and not recognizing political prisoners, those who have, I don’t know, smashed cops’ cars or smashed cops’ faces. So, that was a real kind of contradiction. Because on the one hand, people are getting a lot of information about the fact that they should be more offensive, but they were not explained how and they didn’t have any support after that.

So I think that was also like the biggest mistake and a lot of people after this, the change of the narrative that Vasili was mentioning, this kind of peaceful narrative when it came in… A lot of radical groups just left the streets because there was no place for them anymore. Like, because these groups knew they have to be in their neighborhoods, they know exactly. Together with people they know, instead of going and showing your face on a Sunday morning march, or something like that. So this audience was kind of lost, or it was waiting for some action, you know, like, was waiting for a good moment to step in.

And another problem was that at the same time, there was this split between like radical and peaceful. And the radical ones, or people who just wanted to use them, started organizing online in open chats. So they were basically forming chats, calling them “I want to smash cop cars in the street,” or whatever. And like just discussing it online, without actually protecting their accounts. It was really easy to identify people behind those accounts. And this was what is what cops used. So they were effectively identified a bunch of participants of these chats, and they just punished them, or they were just actually trying to organize actions together, and they would detain them in this in the scene, you know. So basically, people who wanted to be radical did really stupid things. And of course, I mean, anarchists is tried to change this narrative, tried to explain that you should only do a direct action with a person you really know, not just your neighbor you’ve seen for the first time or not that person from online. But anarchists didn’t have this kind of wide influence. We couldn’t spread the message as wide as possible.

So I think that was also something that people saw. Like, “Okay, I’m peaceful, a peaceful demonstrator, maybe I would like to use something else or like use another tactic, but I don’t know how, I don’t know, with whom, because these connections are not built. I know, some neighbors who are protesting, but I’m not sure they are up for it, you know? And I see that what happens with people who try.” So either they are getting caught by the cops, or they are just I don’t know, and then yeah.

But at the same time, why I said, I’m in two minds about that, because I don’t think that revolutions should be like, prepared and people like 100,000 people have to, like really be good at security culture and direct actions. Because usually, successful protests happen, like everywhere, where people are emotional enough, angry enough just to go and smash it. And, of course, in the Arab Spring, people also didn’t know how to do it. But somehow it worked in some cases. So, what I’m saying is that that was totally an obstacle, but I’m not sure that it’s a matter of just learning, and then it’s going to be successful. No.

TFSR: It’s fair to note that, that the Belarusian state had, like 25 to 30 years to figure out, not that they came out of nowhere, but they had decades to figure out how to repress public uprisings. And like y’all had been saying, if people are just suddenly coming to the like, if they’re getting this information, pumped at them, these images of what a revolution looks like, you know, or what’s acceptable, then it seems pretty hard to expand your imagination past that.

Vasili: I think that what is also important in terms of imagination as well, is that the internet is not as it used to be [laughs]. And that means that all the regulations that are passed in, let’s say the US or in some European Council, or whatever, are actually to regulate the internet to prevent terrorism or extremism distribution or whatever shit they have in their hands are affecting what is happening in the other countries. And a lot of bloggers and a lot of people with like media power had fear that if they, you know, start posting pictures of burning police cars, or they would put how to make Molotov cocktails on their channels, the channels would be blocked, because there are regulations that can be like, you know, activated to block this kind of terrorist content. And this was happening, like there were channels, there were groups all around the internet that were blocked by that. This was like the result of not what we were doing in Belarus rather that what the legislators were doing outside of the country, and this is like a fucking circus. Imagine, you know, like the Soviet Union invades Finland, and then Molotov cocktail distribution is banned by the German state or by some crazy fucker sitting in US and saying like, “No, no, this is really bad what you’re making, like, try to stop the Soviets with your bodies and with your mind.” And this was what was happening in Belarus a lot. And this was, I really find it really problematic and most probably it will shoot back in coming years for sure.

TFSR: I was hoping to put opinion that the discussion of Telegram and the mass usage of it and the fact that both of you pointed to people’s anonymity being compromised in the way that they were organizing. Because there were people from the uprising after the execution… er the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in, I want to say 2015 in the US, there were people… youth using snap chat and Instagram and all these other apps to document what they were doing and that came back to bite them afterwards. In Hong Kong, people were using a lot of online apps to communicate back and forth that also, I don’t know how much that came back to bite people but Telegram… You know going back to the Arab Spring Uprisings, Youtube or Facebook and Twitter were things that the media at least has pointed to as being important tools for organizing, Vasili, the point is well taken that the internet is not what it used to be and all of these regulations, but there’s also… We now have micro computers in our pockets that are often registered to our names and that can track our movements around and data capture is a really easy thing. And I wonder if you could talk about any sort of lessons learned about Telegram, in particular, as a platform that was used so widely and efforts that people have made once they’ve seen the danger of that platform in particular being used to organize potentially illegal activities. What sort of educational or cultural interjections that people have made?

Vasili: I think the whole thing is a huge topic with Telegram, right? Because you can start with the person this who started Telegram, Durov. He’s like Russian businessman who went to US, who actually before that started VK and which was like an alternative to facebook for Eastern Europe. And he was selling his app as the security solution for all the activists, everybody. This was marketed great and he was really aggressive. He has money, he was advertising that, and one of his main audiences is like Eastern Europe to see him say “Oh, I’m so great, I’m going to stop actually any work with Russia over with Belarus. I am really together with people fighting for freedom.” And I think people started buying that and the further you go, the more this narrative is actually getting sold really, how would you say, successfully. And forgetting the fact that VK for really long time, under Durov as well, was cooperating with the Russian government in also repressing the anti-Putin movements in Russia. So Durov is not like an evangelist of freedom, who’s going to give voice to everybody, doesn’t matter who, and this is something that’s just a commercial application, which doesn’t earn a lot of money to the person who made it. And Telegram is really hardly connected with the phone number, which is a horrible idea, as in some countries, I think in US you can still buy sim cards without registration to your passport. In Belarus you can’t do that, in Russia you can’t do that, and this is basically like you get an ID that is connected with to your passport, to your ID, to your name, to everything that is attached to that. This is an incredibly horrible thing, because it is also something that you can’t just drop out of. It’s like your whole contact list is connected to that. Your whole social network is connected to it. Imagine Facebook is doing that from time to time that you need your passport to prove blah blah blah. But imagine you have to register with the Facebook by just sending them your passport and sending your phone and all the shit. Then the phone connected to all of the geo-location data. That’s what happens with Telegram and that’s what happened exactly with Telegram during the protests. All the phones that were used to register people who were protesting were connected with it to their IDs, to their passports.

Of course, if you’re like a turbo anarchist, you could find a way to register a Telegram without using a sim card with your name, but most of the people aren’t turbo anarchists. So most of the people had their like passports already speaking into Telegram to get arrested. And some people had can hide and there is this thing and this thing, but at the end of the day there is there’s dozens of ways to figure out the people’s ID’s and that’s what happened. People were prosecuted for the fucking stupidest shit that can happen. Like there is news of a police officer and when he is home and what he did in the last like two months and then someone writes out “this fucking bastard is a swine dog!”, right? “He’s a pig dog!” That’s what happened to one of the people I know. And he got like two years in, ah, I dunno, house arrest or something like that, right? And this was connected with the fact that this person couldn’t be anonymous to write that that cop is a fucking pig, or pig-dog or whatever he wanted to say in his creative mind.

So the infrastructure of Telegram played an important role in repressing the movement through giving this kind of a platform at the beginning, but also in the long run played an important role for the state to repress people. And I think this is also like a, you know, a poisoned apple that you’re like jumping on it and really eager to eat, but then you’re ending up with I dunno, like diarrhea or five years in prison. And as we see right now, what is happening is that Telegram blocked in Russia, we’re not talking about Belarus just jumping to right now, yesterday, the elections in Russia and Telegram blocked the bot for smart voting that the opposition was trying to organize in Russia. Basically, by signing up with the Russian state in repressing this opposition attempts to create some, I dunno, some system that would give people possibility to vote in a different way than Putin organized. Telegram is already giving their, let’s say, open mind to helping repressive apparatus to destroy the efforts in bringing down the dictatorship, and this is going to go further and further. Mmm, yeah. I mean it’s a it’s a huge problem that we are still facing and we have no fucking clue how this will be in the next years. For sure people will switch to another app in, like, three or four or five years, but right now it still goes on and there are people still getting arrested constantly because of their phones once having been connected to their Telegram and Telegram exposing their phones to police and shit like that. Yeah.

Maria: I got to just answer their primary question [laughs] about what people did. Because Vasili didn’t mention that one other thing is that not only identifying people by their phone, but also trying to break in, like hacking the accounts by just cloning sim cards. Because the authorities have the right… well they don’t have that right, but they can. So basically cloning the sim card receiving the SMS with a code, like putting it on their computer and, I don’t know voila, they found an admin of the chat, they found an admin of another channel, of a protest channel. And this is what has been done a lot. And I think, of course, Telegram offers now all layers of whatever security. But the thing is that these layers are not switched on automatically when the person is logging in for the first time, everything is open. And like you need to go through all smallest details until you’re kind of protected. Like if, say nothing of the number, but just to switch on this two-factor identification and la la la everything is so that it’s actually not so easy for the people. We have to also realize that a lot of elderly people like people over 40, 50 and so on, they are not so good with apps. Like they can’t just go, and I don’t know, like manage the VPN and connect to the Telegram in a way that always works when the Telegram is on. I don’t know, like track their traffic, check their IP’s…

So, basically, you can provide some security with Telegram but you’re like needing to be like knowledgeable about this. And people weren’t… It’s too much for a Belarusian person who does the protest for the first time. They need to learn about the security, they need to learn about the facial recognition system cameras, need to know how to speak to cops. Now they need to know how to use Telegram. Everything we had to learn like in ten years of political organizing, they now have to learn in like two months or even less. So, I think answering your question about what was done to education was done by also bigger bloggers, or owners of Telegram channels that where calling people to make the [messages] less unsafe, let’s say. But the problem with Telegram that hasn’t been solved is that people still use it. I think one of the reasons why it’s popular is because it combines a messenger and the news. So, if you want to read the news feed, it’s really easy for you to just change the tab and go and chat with someone. And I think all the options like, let’s say Signal or whatever, that could be a little bit more secure, did not offer you this opportunity. So you, like can’t really read news on Signal or like Facebook is not at all protected in this way. I think there were calls for people using something like Briar or some apps that would be be not tracking the IP or like, but they are quite marginal like that people yeah, it doesn’t catch. Like, people would still use something that is easy to install that their friends are using because everybody’s communicating to each other, where it’s easy to create a chat and so on. So I think yeah, like I said, I agree that this problem has not been solved. I think now, just more people know how to make their settings a bit more secure, that’s it. But people still continue communicating on Telegram.

And I think one of the things they’re trying to do now is like spreading bots. Pretending that they’re making secure bots that are not logging anything but again like how can people check it? If I don’t have knowledge, I can’t really trust it. If my friend is not like an IT specialist or whatever, we don’t know what the servers are and there have already been cases when some oppositional structures were gathering some information from people by bots, and then this information was hacked and like the cops have like all the numbers and all the users who submitted information. And I just wanted to mention that one of the, let’s say, hopes of the protest at the moment is the creation of a bot that is called “Victory Bot” and it was started by Tikhanovskaya and by Pol, which is Belarus police in exile. So, they have created the bot, where you are supposed to register, provide information, including where you’re living, like basically the actual location, where you work, like what is your profession, in which way you would like to help the revolution? Are you ready to be like more radical or not and so on? And so basically they say as soon as they get like enough users, they would later use the bot to send instructions. Like, let’s say they collect five hundred people in one factory who are using the bot and are ready to act, they would just send them the instruction to like block the production or something. But these are promises. I think they started the bought in May and I don’t think there are enough people there to for them to start using it. So yeah. I think, for the moment this problem has not been solved.

TFSR: I can’t imagine what could go wrong?

Maria: Yeah yeah?

Vasili: Actually, the cops already created a bot that has kind of the same name, having just one letter different and people mistakenly would go to that like Belarusian cop bot and they would register there and the data will go to the police and the police would go and arrest people who just wanted to join the Victory bot, but the wrong Victory.

But I think what I forgot as well is the comparison to Hong Kong. And I think for a lot of us was there was kind of a moment of hope that we knew experience from Hong Kong, where people were using Telegram and they were using this kind of chatting, quite intensively, to organize for Belarus, it didn’t work out at all. Like if we would have a chat with five ten thousand people, this is just the garbage like you can talk to people there. It’s just basically like a flow of thought, everybody’s just writing what they think but nobody’s reading what is going on. This is a complete chaos. As for going on the streets with Telegram, the internet works when there is internet. You know this is like a really simple rule, and what Belarusian government was doing is that it was fencing, basically, the zone of demonstration and switching off the internet there, like mobile internet and stuff. This was playing an important role in actually like preventing this, you know, fast communication that Telegram or Signal app or other apps. And it was working pretty well, and people were sometimes quite confused because they were counting on this kind of like coordination through Telegram, they would end up on the street and they wouldn’t have any idea what to do next, like “Okay, we didn’t read the Telegram what are the next steps, so we are not going to self-organize and do some stuff. Rather, we are going to be searching for the internet for next half an hour somewhere where there is no internet.”

 

TFSR: We’ve talked a bit about what repression has look like with, after the fact, people are being surveilled or having their prior images being put into databases and then they’re getting arrested for stuff that they were videoed participating in months before. Or joining up on, apps like the victory bought and kind of turning themselves in. But there are a few instances of the international reach of repression of the Belarusian state that I wanted to point to and see if there are other things… Because, obviously, this is an international concern, this is why I wanted to and very happy to have you both on on the phone, because we resistance struggles in different countries against repression and against capitalism and and hierarchies have to be able to learn from each other, and we also have to be able to offer support to each other. We have an understanding like there’s so many people, as has been mentioned, who have who are now living in exile in Poland or in Ukraine or in other places. So, it’s not just an issue for Belarus and the same repressive apparatuses that are used in all these different places like in Hong Kong or in Belarus are similar they’re controlled from outside. They there’s a lot to learn anyway, blah blah blah. You get the point!

Two examples of the kind of international reach of the Belarusian regime in trying to grab back Belarusian rebels that I can think of that sort of caught my eye: the downing of the Ryan Air flight over Belarus when the plane was forced to land by the Belarusian government, basically saying that there was a bomb on board which resulted in the whisping away of Roman Protasevich, a blogger who ran some of these Telegram channels. And there was also, in the recent past of the last couple of months, the attempted arrest of Alexei Bolenkov in Ukraine. Can you talk about these and other examples that the international audience might want to know about?

Vasili: So the plane story was one of the major mistakes of Lukashenko and what happened there was that for Protasevich was coming from Athens to Lithuania and when you fly back then from Athens to Lithuania, you would pass Belarus if you fly directly. For Lukashenko, somehow he got this awesome idea, or maybe his KGB or maybe his analyst or maybe his fucking dog got this idea “Hey, let’s arrest this guy!” Although his main enemy, Tikhanovskaya, was actually flying on the same flight the day before, which they do didn’t do any kind of arrest. But they decided that they’re going to do him like they’re, going to arrest him. And what happened was this idea that the bomb and then the Belarusian state [started] trying to play the stupid face with [saying] “Oh, this was actually organized by… Hamas” and they showed the email [claiming to be from Hamas]. And for them, it was a thing from one side [of the Belarusian state saying] “Oh, we are going to show all the position that we have control over your body over your freedom and we can snatch you at any point we want!” But at the same time, what they did here is their they actually attacked the power of the European Union in in the world politics. Because Ryan Air is part of the European influence, European property. Let’s say like that. And that arrest pushed quite a lot of action from the European Union, like the the biggest sanctions and the biggest pressure started happening actually after this airplane action of Lukashenko’s. This is not something that happens quite a lot. I think this was the first and only time when Lukashenko did this kind of crazy action. But they are trying to use the, for example, InterPol databases quite often to get the people back or to try to build up pressure. And that was happening as well with the case of an anarchist from Belarus, Bolenkov, about whom Maria will be talking.

Maria: Alright, but don’t you want to the consequences of this downing of the plane?

Vasili: In the sense of what happened to Protasevich, you mean?

Maria: No, no, like in general for the country, politically. It basically was the beginning of all the sanctions that were imposed and also the prohibition on flights from European countries and to European countries? So, basically at the moment, you can’t fly out of Belarus, I think, apart from Russia or like Kazakhstan, something like that. And all the tourist planes have to make a curve around Belarus to even go there or land there.

I think if we speak about anarchists who are persecuted by the State… So, in Belarus at the moment, a lot of anarchist have been arrested because of some prior actions or there prior affiliations, let’s say. Only a few anarchists were arrested just after the protests and in connection with the protests and there’s a case of an
international anarchist criminal organization. And it’s international because they have found one anarchist organization, it’s called Revolutionary Action, that existed in Belarus. Then I think they opened a chapter in Ukraine and they [the Belarusian State] also claimed that ABC-Belarus is also a part of this network according to the police, because the Anarchist Black Cross is supposed to kind of finance all this criminal activity Basically, probably providing solidarity means financing criminal activity. What happened is that they arrested a few groups of people in different cities and, at the moment, they’re all in one big case of this “criminal organization.” And they face think up to 10-12 years, I don’t remember exactly. They are accused of participating in anarchist actions in previous years, so like not really connected with the protests, but they just use the protest and the use the momentum of repression to persecute everyone who could be at some point active in anything in the future.

And the cops also issued a list, I think it was like a 25-person-list, with names of people who are potentially involved in this case or need to be questioned as witnesses and Bolenkov was one of them. He lived in Ukraine for like 7 years now, and basically the local security services came to him and tried to give him the special document that they issued (not the court, but they just issued it from their office) saying that he has to leave the country. So, they didn’t really extracted him, but there it was clear that they have like cooperation with the security service in Belarus and they don’t want these kind of person in Ukraine. They offered him to just leave the country voluntarily. Basically, now, he’s been like trying to appeal it for 4 months. Recently he got the court decision that didn’t up happy did not uphold this order, so he can stay in Ukraine, but the cops appealed again. So now he’s gonna go to the Supreme Court, so the case is not closed. And here we see, like when I was talking previously about safety of Ukraine for people who flee the country, it is safe as long as you’re not an anarchist are not someone who is also being persecuted by the Ukrainian State. So I think the example of Bolenkov is clear about that. This is basically how instrumental cooperation can be between different security services and that you can’t really run away from the State, can’t really run away from the capitalism or from cop’s view. I’m not sure how the case is gonna end, because the pressure from the NGOs and all this kind of concerned public, this is not useful for their Ukrainian police. Probably he’s gonna stay but, anyway, I wouldn’t imagine my life if I was Bolenkov. It would be really weird to just continue living somewhere where you know the [security] services are interested in you and following you and following what you’re doing. It’s it’s a bit hard.

And also, like you said about the other examples… I was already mentioning a few examples of arresting people in Moscow and Russia, so that’s like a kind of the clenches of the regime are there and one of the antifascists from a regional city [Brest], he was persecuted in Belarus for mass riots and he ran away to Moscow. Now he’s been in jail for like half a year. The decision was to extradite him, but his lawyer appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the court said that Russia can’t do that because he could face threats to life or health. So, basically for the moment he still is in Moscow, but we don’t know like what will happen because Russia can also disobey and doesn’t give a shit about this European court decisions.

TFSR: Please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I think I recall that last July, the [Belarusian] administration released a bunch of long-standing political prisoners that they were that they were holding onto…

Maria: When you said last year, July, I think you mixing it up in with 2015. There were a lot of people arrested in 2010, anarchists included, and also people who protested the 2010 presidential elections. And, back then, the last pack of people was pardoned in 2015, including Mikola Dziadok, and Igor Oliněvič, who are anarchists and who are in jail again at this time. They were arrested in November of last year.

So, what’s happening now, just to mention the pardoning tendencies, Lukashenko is trying to do it again. Although it’s really, really, weird because what’s happening is that he has a person who was previously a political prisoner and then he was set free, probably on the pretext of cooperation. So now he has formed like, kind of a party or a movement for like democratic change or something like that, and his organization is sending out letters to all the political prisoners and asking them to write a petition for mercy, and some people do [this]. I think it has now about twenty people who has been pardoned starting from March, but either it means that not so many political prisoners are actually writing these petitions for mercy or it means that not all of them get pardoned.

Getting back to prisoners that ABC supports, at the moment, like I said, there is the group of the “international criminal organization”, around 9 people I think. [There are] 4 people from that is called “Anarcho-Partisans”. These are people there who were arrested in the forests on the border between Belarus and Ukraine, and they are accused of setting fire of cop cars or or some prosecutors offices or police stations in the region, in the provinces. And Mikola Dziadok, he turned out to be a blogger recently. So he had a anarchist Youtube channel or something, and he was decided to stay in the country and he was arrested in a [supposedly] “safe flat” (safe house). They found him by surveillance cameras and face recognition system. And there’s a few groups of former football hooligans of the antifascist football clubs that were also participating in the mass riots or attacking cops and stuff like that. So, there are some more individual people who were arrested really recently, because in the late July and August, cops actually attacked like everyone they had on a list or everybody who was even like in contact with anarchists. And some of the people were arrested for fifteen or thirty days, but some actually got to criminally charged for just being in the streets participating in marches. Not really mass riots, but just having a picture of you standing on the roadway is already blocking the traffic or something like that. These are people who now come to my mind but, like I said it’s about like it’s a little bit less than 30 people.

And just to mention it, there’re up to 4,000 people that day prosecution reports about as being prosecuted for mass riots, all for offending the State, offending the president, offending cops online. And a little bit over 1,000 of them are behind bars. So among them are 30 anarchist and anti fascists. And if you realize that the anarchist movement is not so big in the country, the anti fascist movement doesn’t really exist at the movement. So, there’re pieces of some groups, leftovers of like this antifa hooligan scene, let’s say who are not like really organized. We are speaking here about 300, 500 people max, like you are just affiliate themselves with the ideas. And having like 30 of them behind bars out of this number and 1,000 of the millions of Belarus who were protesting means that’s our part of the movement got repressed quite a lot, if we speak about like percentage.

TFSR: Can you talk about the upcoming crowd-funding to the ABC Belarus is going to be enacting, how much funds are needed, where the money would be going and how people can and get involved in supporting that?

Maria: Right. So, basically, like I said previously, we are trying to help people financially in the first place with legal fees and care packages to prison. But also with paying for therapy sessions or providing money for people who have spent like a month in jail, for example, but they couldn’t work at, but they have to still pay for their flats. Or people who have migrated and need some support, at least in the first 3-6 months. And that’s a lot of people. We don’t really receive a lot of the nations in Belarus because there’s almost no one left, everybody is either in jail or outside of the country. Also, it’s not safe to have a personal account where people could donate in Belarus. So most of our donation channels are like electronic wallets or bitcoin, Paypal, or European bank accounts. Which is not to really useful for people in Belarus, because Paypal doesn’t work there and European bank account would require a lot of fees. So most of our donations are coming from abroad and each case costs us like around 5,000 Euros or $6,000 – $7,000. And these are ongoing. Like, people are going to stay in jail for like 5-10 years if nothing changes. And in order to provide assistance on an ongoing basis, once a year we’re putting on a big crowd-funding campaign trying to attract funds. So, it would be really cool if people could spread it, and I think the link was going to appear somewhere in the description to this episode. It would be really cool if you could spread the word, because this is something we really need now.

TFSR: Were there any other things that you wanted to say before we ended this interview?

Maria: Maybe I just wanted to mention that it does sound like a failure and I think it is a failure in a way if we just think about it as that the aim was to change the regime. Let’s say that for me, as a participant in all these process of transformation of the society that used to be totally apolitical and totally not interested (also a little bit anti-anarchist, let’s say), I saw a lot of good things about it. And I think actually, I’m happy that it didn’t change in like a month that people just have another president now and think they leave in democracy. I think it’s perfect that people had to go through this process. Of course it’s painful for them and it’s like maybe doesn’t make sense for many of them, but in general it feels that the next time when something like this happens- and it will happen at some point- we’ve got like a lot of people in the country with experience, with the anger, and with probably not so much illusions about the peaceful protest or whatever. And also people who have experienced solidarity, who have organized solidarity by themselves or who got to know their neighbors, tried some kind of self organizing methods and so on. And especially now they’re got really interested in… not really anarchist ideas, I would say, but… Anarchists became people that everybody likes, let’s say, without knowing what exactly they’re doing, but I think the anarchist movement got like this kind of credit of trust and I think it’s important for us.

Vasili: And I think that for me, what is also important is that for a lot of people in the so-called First World, anarchism is some kind of an abstraction that may be leads to some bizarre utopia, but it doesn’t have connections to the reality. While for us in the east, it is a reality. We are not just, you know, fighting for some utopia on some island or on some other planet, but rather we’re trying to push the anarchist revolutionary ideas towards the society and the moment that we had in 2020 was the moment when the society was transforming as well, under the anarchist influence and under anarchist ideas of horizontal organizing and self-organizing in the neighborhood assemblies and so on and so forth. So, it is really important to remember that we are not standing for some thing that will never happen, rather that we are standing for revolutionary transformation of society that will happen if we believe in that, if we are fighting strong enough. And Belarus is still fighting, and we hope that we will, well, destroy the fucker’s regime and we’ll live not only in the beautiful new Presidential Republic, but will live in the country that is giving an example to the rest of the world, how to be free, how to organize, how to smash the authoritarianism!

TFSR: Thank you, Maria and Vasili both for participating in this conversation and sharing your experiences and perspectives, and I look forward to sharing this with the audience.

Stop The Mountain Valley Pipeline

Stop The Mountain Valley Pipeline

Banners left on pipeline construction equipment, reading "Where Will You Go When The Waters Rise?" and "The Fight Continues"
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The Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP is planned to be a 300 + mile pipeline 42 inches in diameter being built to transport compressed so-called Natural Gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian Basin, from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia for export. The pipeline started being built in 2018 and is slated to cross over 1,000 waterways, posing a danger to countless human and non-human animals and plants along the way as well as being responsible for 19 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 19 million passenger cars or 23 average U.S. coal fired power plants each year. It’s being built by a number of corporations involved in other fossil fuel infrastructure like ConEd & EQT. As of November 2020, the project was 3 years behind schedule and over $3 billion over budget because of a coalition of on-the-ground grassroots direct action and resistance, geographically dispersed solidarity actions and court challenges determined to keep this Marcellus Shale gas in the ground.

This week, we’ll speak with Toby and Emily, two longtime activists resisting the MVP’s construction about the pipeline, some of the resistance history, MVP’s attempt in federal court to intimidate and identify folks who run the social media accounts called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” and how to get involved in the struggle to fight climate change. You can find thorough coverage of the topic, and piss off the extraction industry, by following @AppalachiansAgainstPipelines on fedbook and instagram and the @StopTheMVP on twitter. You can support the ongoing resistance by throwing money at the effort’s fundraising page: bit.ly/supportmvpresistance.

You can find our past interviews about the MVP, including with folks actively in tree-sits and mono-pods at our website (by searching Mountain Valley Pipeline), and as well as our interviews about the water crisis in West Virginia generally and in WV prisons (by searching “Elk River”).

To learn more about the struggle at Line 3 and folks who are doing anti-repression work around it, check it this link and the related site: https://www.planline3.com/support-the-resistance

In about a week, you can a transcribed and easily printable version of this conversation for free at https://TFSR.WTF/Zines. You can follow us on social media and find our streaming platforms at TFSR.WTF/Links. You can support our transcription and publishing efforts monetarily, if you appreciate our work, by visiting patreon.com/TFSR or checking out other methods at TFSR.WTF/Support. And you can find more about our radio broadcasts, including how to get our free, weekly, hour-long broadcast up on a community station near you, by visiting TFSR.WTF/Radio.

Announcement

Eric King Trial Support

Antifascist, vegan and anarchist prisoner Eric King will be heading to trial soon and his support is inviting folks to show up at the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse in so-called Denver, CO, October 12-15th to support him. You can find filings on his behalf and background on the case at the Civil Liberties Defense Center at CLDC.org, and find updates on the case at SupportEricKing.Org, and the support Twitter and Instagram.

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

TFSR: So if y’all would please introduce yourselves with whatever names, pronouns, location or why we are talking and what you’re involved in for the audience, that would be super helpful.

Emily: Cool. Yeah. My name is Emily, I’m joining us from so-called Virginia, in New River Valley area, pretty close to where the pipelines currently being built.

Toby: I’m Toby, my pronouns are they/them. I am also in so-called Virginia, pretty close to the New River Valley, and also very close to where the pipeline is currently being built.

TFSR: This pipeline that we’re talking about is the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). And I’m wondering if you all could maybe tell us a bit about the plan of the MVP, what’s been built so far, the path that it is planned to take, what it will be carrying… just all the like logistical stuff about that, as it is up to this point. Maybe what the investment company behind it is called.

Toby: Yeah, totally. So Mountain Valley Pipeline, or MVP that we usually just call it is a 300-ish mile pipeline. It’s 42 inches in diameter, which is like a giant pipeline. That’s one of the biggest pipelines. It’s gonna transport compressed natural gas from the Marcellus formation in the Appalachian basin. And it’s gonna connect to an existing pipeline: The Transco pipeline. It runs from Northern West Virginia, all the way down through to Southwest Virginia. Then it’s gonna go 75 miles into North Carolina through its South Gate extension, which is still being decided in court. So, that’s going to go through like Rockingham County and Alamance County in North Carolina. When it is built, if it’s ever built (hopefully it’s never built), It would emit the 89.5 million metric tons of carbon. So that’s like 26 coal plants or 19 million passenger cars. It is right now being built by a company called Precision Pipeline, which is the same company that is building Line 3. The project itself is owned by EQT EQN Midstream who is based in Pittsburgh. And it’s like funded by like major banks who fund EQT EQN like JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, all the big name banks, and a lot of other banks. Emily, would you like to talk about maybe what they’ve built what they haven’t built?

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. They claim that they built a lot more, but it’s really only, like maybe 51% built. Some outside sources say, essentially, a ton of what they’re claiming to have built is not actually like completed to the point where gas could flow through it. But they have done a lot of work in pretty much most of Northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Franklin County in Virginia. But the vast majority of the pipeline’s water crossings are not done. And they have over 1000 water crossings that they will do over the course of the pipeline. Yeah, a lot of the work that’s going on is currently happening in Monroe County in West Virginia, and then Montgomery county and Giles County, in Virginia, and also in Roanoke County.

Toby: I think like they are claiming that like 92% of their work is done. But really what that means is they have done some work on 92% of the pipeline. But it’s really important to say that the work that they have yet to do is going to be some of their most difficult work. It’s going to be going over some of their steepest sections. It’s kind of hard to describe to people who aren’t from around here or who haven’t done a lot of hiking or spend a lot of time in these mountains. But when we say the steepest sections, we’re not talking about like “Oh, it’s a steep hill.” It’s like very few degrees off from a literal cliff that they’re going to try and build a pipeline through. And that includes trenching and grading and daisy chaining equipment down the hill so that they can actually do their work. Which is incredibly dangerous for themselves and for the environment around them.

Emily: Yeah, and they have already flipped excavators. I believe that one Precision Pipeline employee has already died because of their complete disregard for safety precautions or common sense perhaps.

Toby: Yeah, like they are building through karst terrain, which is really prone to landslides and sinkholes. And that mixed with the incredible steepness of the land around them and also the work that they’re doing producing lots of erosion. They are facing a lot of difficulties with their construction. They are three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget. Some of that is $2.5 million in fines that they have occurred through over 250 water quality violations.

TFSR: So is that like they’ve caused erosion through their construction that’s leaked into water supplies to rivers outside of the scope of…. Is it called an ERC?

Toby: Yeah, those are what most of those violations are from. And a lot of that $3 billion over budget is the amount of work that you’ve had to do. That’s just sediment and erosion control. And they spend millions of dollars doing sediment and erosion control where if they were not building this pipeline, they would have not had to spend all that money.

Emily: It’s also important to note that most of those violations were recorded and tracked and submitted by a citizen watch group here. So that is this community being like “You are destroying our water, you are destroying our communities. We now have to go out every day and watch you do this destruction and take photographs of it, every time it rains.” There’s teams of people that go out along the path and observe and record what’s going on so that they can then submit that to the DEQ and try and get some sort of consequences for all this destruction. I think it’s really important to note that it’s not because the company is like doing anything. The company is leaving this all on the people who live in the path. All on the people who are fighting it. And the DEQ is also leaving that burden on us here

TFSR: Yeah, there’s not like Department of Environmental Quality workers out there, like you say, going up and down the path of the pipeline of what’s been built so far and testing.

Emily: They come out when they’re caught, right? And then they need proof, oftentimes, to be convinced.

TFSR: When it was quoted “19 million passenger cars” would be the footprint, is that like the the estimated amount of carbon produced by the lifespan of the pipeline and all that it’s like slated to carry through it? Or is that like a yearly thing? Or what? How is that figured?

Toby: Yeah, so that’s what they are predicting is going to be the annual emissions. So that’s like emissions from the combustion of the gas the pipeline would carry. That also comes from a predicted methane leaks across the gas supply chain, and emissions from the actual compression. Then also like the emissions from the gas extraction and processing that’s happening up in Northern West Virginia. So that’s not including the emissions that are currently happening from all the construction that’s going on. But the majority of that is the actual gas combustion. And then also 45% of that number is from the amount that this pipeline is going to leak. And just the standard leaking that all pipelines do.

I think because of the terrain that we’re in, and the amount of like ups and downs and also the fact that this pipeline has gone on for over three years that they scheduled for their construction, it means that it’s going to be way more susceptible to leaking, to explosions. Because if you think about it, the pipe in themselves, they are not rated to sit out in a field being exposed to the elements for three plus years. And that’s what certain sections of this pipeline have don. You drive by in this area, and you go by their pipe yards, and that pipe has been sitting there for years. It’s not rated to do that. The coating on it that’s supposed to protect it is not rated to withstand that amount of exposure. And they still are saying that it’s perfectly safe to put in the ground and to pressurize and put compressed natural gas through. They claim that they rotate every section of pipe that’s laying out every day. That’s what they claim. They don’t do that at all. But that’s what they claim that they’re doing to their shareholders and all the regulatory agencies.

TFSR: So besides the the weight of the methane leaks… All those other elements that you described along the 300 mile path, there’s also the what is the imminent threats to the viability of streams and waterways and aquifers that it’s traveling through. That would seem like that would also require constant vigilance of people in the communities along that 300 miles to be watching for breaks or for spills or for leaks just so that they’re not drinking poisoned water.

Toby: Totally. As Emily was saying there’s like over 1000 water crossings that they are going to do and that does not begin to describe the aquifers that it passes through and how many people along the route that get their drinking water from wells that would be impacted by spills and leaks. Karst terrain is a natural filter and a lot of people do have wells to those aquifers. If anything were to happen. If there was a break in the line or a leak then you are looking at people losing access to clean drinking water. And we’re in Appalachia, that’s not a new thing for people around here. That’s not a new occurrence. This region has a long history of being a sacrifice zone for the fossil fuel extractive industries and those industries poisoning their drinking water and their well water. So that’s not new. But that still doesn’t make it right.

Emily: Yeah. And I think something, also on that, is that it’s already happening, right? We’re talking about leaks and that’s totally a huge risk of this project. But just the construction itself, because of the geology of the area, because of the karst terrain, people have already lost water just from the construction. We know people whose wells have dried up and that can’t be undone. They just recently pierced a pretty big aquifer that feeds all of the families that live on an entire mountain. And they denied that they hit that aquifer. But because the water tables here are so complex… which is what leads to those sinkholes… Because it’s so complex if you hit the ground water there’s no way to know how far that impact will extend into the mountains.

TFSR: There was a couple of times back in…. I want to say 2012 and 2013… [correction, 2014] this show did interviews with folks that were doing water distribution around West Virginia, and around Virginia because there were two coal related spills. There was the Freedom Industries spill, where floodwaters had washed uncontained coal cleaning chemicals that were a private industry recipe. The company wouldn’t release what the actual chemicals that were involved in it to the state EPA in West Virginia but it was released into the water supply. And folks from around the region were going up and driving huge water buffaloes, huge tanks, driving pallets of water bottles down and up into hollers and into rural communities. Because if people are relying on these water supplies that are naturally occurring and they don’t have the infrastructure where they’ve got a local county or city government that’s actually filtering the water…. even if it could filter for some of these chemicals, and some of these toxins…

The phrase used, “sacrifice zone”, in Appalachia… this is a clear example in the last decade of when industry destroys people’s ability to drink water. I mean, people and that’s excluding all the other living beings that live off of these water supplies. I can’t imagine watching 300 miles worth of one of these pipelines and all the impacted communities who are going to be left. Not not only where poverty in some cases is endemic, but also the poverty is where people are lacking easy access to transportation, let alone going and finding another source of water. Poverty aside, that’s just going to be a huge problem for anyone, whatever their level of wealth is. With how isolated people live up in these mountains, it just seems like a really huge weight to put on. Just so that some corporations can extract the stuff that we already know is destroying the ability of humans to live comfortably on this planet.

Toby: Yeah, exactly. And again, I was making the point that the burden of finding out whether or not your water is contaminated rests solely on you, as a person who lives in this region. There’s no responsibility of the company after they built this pipeline. There’s no responsibility of any of the shareholders. None of those people are going to care about the folks who are left after this project is completed. If it’s ever completed. And no one is going to be there to support those communities or to support the people living up in the hills who lose access to their drinking water. There’s only going to be us who are left. And we have to like, not only find out while it’s happening, but also be aware after it’s happening that we have to continue to support these communities.

Emily: Yeah, I remember back when the pipeline was first announced and there were a ton of community hearings that people were showing up to just in droves to be like “We do not want this. Let’s make this very clear from the beginning, we do not want this pipeline. We think it is a bad idea. We think we will be put in harm’s way because of it.” They were absolutely right about all of that. And I remember, one of the ones in the Montgomery county area, folks were talking about some some people in the Brush Mountain area who were on well water. And the question put to, I believe it was county officials was essentially like “If our wells are destroyed, how soon can we get connected to the county water system?” And these were people who were maybe a five minute drive outside of town limits. They were five minutes from their neighbors who were on County water. Because it is a really difficult area to traverse and to build in safely. And because these areas don’t have a lot of disposable income for that kind of infrastructure investment. They were like “Three years. If it becomes a top priority for us from the minute that we decide “Yes, we’re gonna get you on to County Water. Three years.” So that’s obviously a long time to go without water. Yeah, and that’s already what’s happening as a result.

TFSR: I don’t know if you know the answer to this? But when people are resisting pipelines being built, and they go over schedule, and they go over budget by years and billions of dollars, if they’re just figuring that that’s like a normal part of the loss of the possible profits that they’re gonna be making, or if they’re contractually obliged to continue building it? Because projects do stop because of resistance. For instance, the ACP [Atlantic Coast Pipeline], right? As far as I know it went just so far over budget, and there was so much resistance at so many points that they just scrapped it. Which is an amazing story of success. But is there government subsidization? Like with the federal government stepping in and saying “We need energy independence, and so we’re going to fund projects like the MVP that’s keeping it afloat.” Or the hedge funds just so awash in money that this is an acceptable loss for them?

Emily: It’s a tough question. I studied economics, actually, in college and I still don’t understand how all of this really works. But I do remember talking to someone who was an expert in this. And essentially, because of the way that a lot of these companies are structured, they break the individual corporate entities down into being ‘midstream’, or ‘extraction’, or ‘processing’. They break it down into those separate categories. But they’re often owned by the same parent companies, or they have the same investors backing them. It’s this interesting sort of shell game where you really can’t follow the money very well. And of course, they also do really shady things like just straight up not pay some of their contracts and not pay some of their workers. That’ll happen to along the way.

But what I remember from that conversation with her and we were heading into a meeting with the governor or something, and she was explaining to me essentially, that you don’t actually have to have any gas flow through a pipeline for midstream partners and shareholders to make money off of that pipeline. It is such a bizarrely built industry and such an absolutely shady thing through and through. I do not understand where the money comes from most of the time and it seems to be a real confidence game where people invest in this. Then because people are investing other people see as a good investment and invest. It’s got the smell of a Ponzi scheme but I can’t get any more specific than that. But she really was like “No gas has to flow through pipeline for the people building it to make money off of it.” And that took my breath away. I still think about that conversation all the time. I wish I could find her and have her really spend a couple hours explaining it to me. But the industry is so craftily constructed. This has always been true of these industries. I mean, Enron was doing a lot of pipeline work and we know just how ethical their business practices were. It has always been this sort of like mystery fog that surrounds pipelines and fossil fuel industries. So that’s the best answer that I can probably give you. I don’t know if Toby can say a little more.

Toby: I mean, you’re the one that studied economics, apparently.

Emily: I try not to tell people that, honestly, most of the time.

Toby: I mean, it’s coming in handy right now. So I appreciate it.

TFSR: At least you’re on our side. So yeah.

Toby: I think we we don’t necessarily have a lot of economists who are giving us a lot of advice on how this system works, apparently. I feel like, I know that MVP is… if you listen to their shareholder meetings which are public, interestingly enough, you can tell that shareholders are not exactly happy with them. Which like, why would you be happy if you invested in a company that’s $3 billion over budget. They’ve definitely lost shareholders, but they apparently have not lost enough shareholders to say that it’s not worth it financially for them to complete this project. Even though we’ve also seen all of the economic trends that have been happening. Natural gas is not actually that good of a financial incentive. It’s not actually worth that much on the markets right now. And they’re trying to frame this pipeline as critical infrastructure. But in the end, it’s not going to be critical infrastructure, economic wise. It’s not going to be worth money. Dominion saw that. And that’s why they were like “We’re not going to do the ACP.” But the folks behind MVP have not yet made that decision.

Emily: Yeah, they haven’t wised up.

We have enough infrastructure actually to meet and exceed all of the natural gas demand in this area. So we do not need this pipeline for local gas demand. And we know that that’s true, because it won’t be going to locals. They they say that it’s going to be heating homes in the area, but it’s not. I mean, they signed contracts that have literally the bare legal minimum going into local consumption. It is entirely for export, entirely for that profit.

Toby: Yeah. And I think this is a trend. It’s not just this region where pipelines aren’t a financially good idea. Part of what happened with the Jordan Coe fight out in Oregon is that FERC [Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission] declined they’re eminent domain, because they’re like “There’s no financial incentive to grant the Jordan CoVe eminent domain. Natural gas is not enough of a financial incentive for us to deal with eminent domain of all of these landowner’s properties.” So like, like this trend of like it not being a good financial move is happening. But also at the same time it doesn’t benefit the company’s. The companies are like “No, we have to keep making money.” And, as Emily said, they don’t need to actually put natural gas in this pipeline to make money. And they’re going to continue being hell bent on this process, even though it’s at the expense of us living on this earth. And other creatures living on this earth.

TFSR: It’s obvious that they’re fleecing the shareholders. And that’s why they’re losing some of them, but some of them are just too dumb to realize. But it also just kind of smells to me, like the infrastructure plans that were over the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan. Where you just had like large infrastructure or private security companies or whatever taking public funds and building bridges to nowhere, as they say. Or just walking away with money. I don’t know if those are the same companies or if it’s public money going into it, but it just seems just ERRRRRRR.

Toby: Yeah, it does seem like that. It does feel like that, It is really hard to be like “Oh, this pipeline makes sense when you go around these mountains.” And you look at like their construction methods and the absurd amount of dangerous stuff they have to do to build this pipeline. In no way shape or form does this pipeline make sense. You just being here and hiking around… you’re like “Oh, this makes even less sense than I thought it would from an outside perspective, because of the terrain and where it’s going through.” You’re just like “How did any engineer think this project made sense?” I don’t know. As Emily said before, already, one worker has died. There have been multiple equipment accidents, where excavators have flipped over, other super dangerous stuff has happened on this pipeline route. So, you’re just like “Oh, it has to be something going on where people are ‘yeah, we’re gonna keep just drowning this projects with more money and even though it doesn’t make any sense.'”

TFSR: West Virginia is one of the states in the US that has a very long history of official acquiescence to extractive industries with, among other things, the promise of employment opportunities. There was already discussed the argument that it’s going to be fulfilling local supply needs for natural gas, which has been blown out of the water. But is this providing any reasonable amount of jobs for people in local communities? And is that is that one of the selling points that they’re trying to make for it?

Toby: They definitely make that point. It’s definitely wrong. You drive around and you look at where all the Man Camps are, where all of their work yards are, where their workers park, and all of those trucks are from out of state. Most of the pipeline workers are from other states where there are other pipelines being built. They get brought in. They come and they stay in Man Camps. They come in and stay at all the hotels. They’re from mostly out of state. I think the one exception to that is that some of their security they hire is local. But none of the bosses of the security folks are local. They all get brought in too. There’s a story that by where the Yellow Finch trees sits used to be, there was a logging project that was just coincidentally right next to it. And the loggers got into disagreements with all of the MVP workers because MVP had not hired local loggers to do the tree clearing, or the tree felling. So, they’re not hiring locals, they’re bringing people in.

Emily: Yeah, and I remember back in the beginning, again. They would waltz into these meetings being like “1000’s of jobs. We are bringing 1000’s of jobs to this area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” And they would be like “Oh, we ran the numbers again, and we’re bringing hundreds of jobs! hundreds of jobs to the area!” And people would be like “Really? Really???” and then did their own research and they were like, “What you’re talking about in your own documents is less than two dozen permanent jobs, like less than a dozen permanent, jobs.” from what I remember from one of those conversations. Considering the amount of farms that I know that have shuttered in the construction process that has already out numbered. That’s already out numbered.

Toby: Even the jobs they’re providing to locals, the security jobs, as Emily was saying, they’re not continuous jobs. In fact, a lot of the security workers were pretty happy when a lot of folks started doing blockades again this year after the tree sits were extracted. Because it meant they were gonna get laid off, but now they’re no longer gonna get what laid off. That’s the thing is that they lay off a lot of workers. And even the workers that they bring in, they have large parts of the year where they can’t work, or there are stopped work orders and so they lay everyone off. So they’re not even providing jobs that are that good to all the folks who are being brought in.

TFSR: And just to keep on that topic around the Man Camps. I know when we’ve spoken to folks involved in resistance against pipelines, whether it be in so-called Canada or in the US. This can have different impacts in different places. Obviously, in in the parts of Canada where a lot of those pipelines are being built there’s large concentrations of indigenous folks living on their land, and being under threat of displacement or poisoning from this. And the Man Camps have a racialized element to them as a colonial force of displacement, as well as assault and murder against Indigenous women in particular.

But, I wonder if there’s some commonalities of experience around the Man Camps, as they’re called, along the MVP? I would imagine, and I’ve heard this sort of thing before that there’s at least higher like incidences of people transiting COVID because people are traveling back and forth over such wide distances and maybe don’t give a fuck about infecting locals at the hotel they’re staying at or the restaurant they’re eating at. But are there higher concentrations of assault around those spaces, or other concerns outside of the job site?

Emily: I mean, I’ll speak for myself here. I don’t really have a way of knowing and I’ve thought about this, and I don’t really know how to find out. A lot of those things probably wouldn’t go reported. We know for a fact that a lot of the man camps up north at Line 3 have recently been caught in sex trafficking, have recently been revealed as being sex trafficking rings. And again, They use Precision Pipeline. We use Precision Pipeline. There’s no way that it’s not happening, I guess, is what I’m saying. But I can’t necessarily speak to specifics of sexual violence around here. I will say that you’re absolutely right about the COVID transmission. I mean, they don’t wear masks. But also the cops don’t wear masks. Every every part of the construction process is putting… You know, the security workers don’t masks. A lot of the people who are out there are able to observe the people in their backyards doing the work every day. A lot of people that go out and do that observing are often older are often retired, because that’s who can show up when the people are working in their backyards. And so it’s a lot of older folks who are in close contact with these people who have no regard for their safety. None whatsoever. So yeah, you’re absolutely right about that.

TFSR: I guess getting back to the scripted questions. Thanks for going off so much with me. Can y’all talk a little bit about some of the history of resistance to the MVP? And what those old folks whose backyards are being despoiled by this… Who are some of the folks or communities that are resisting the pipeline?

Toby: Emily, would you like to start? You mentioned earlier that you have been doing this for seven years?

Emily: Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, from the beginning it’s always been a really cross-demographic group I suppose. It’s actually, to me, been really beautiful being part of this community of resistance. Because I don’t think I’ve been in a lot of other spaces that are so multi-generational, across many different faith backgrounds, and geographically widespread. People really come together to show up for each other in this resistance. So that that’s been true since the beginning. I guess, when we talk about the people who’ve put their bodies in the path of the pipeline, it’s a lot of young people, it’s a lot of old people. It’s students. It’s grandparents. It’s people from far away that know that this pipeline is going to impact their futures and their loved ones futures. It’s people close by who have already lost their water or who also recognize that it’s such an incredibly urgent and far reaching crisis, that everyone is touched by it. And I think because of that, everyone really turns out for it. Yeah, that’d be my short answer. Toby?

Toby: Yeah. I think that what we see is there’s been years of resistance, since this project has been proposed, people like fought it through the regulatory process for years. It’s been opposed since the beginning. And while the regulatory fight has continued, there’s also been for over three years, a lot of direct action that has been used to resist the pipeline, and to stop construction that began in 2018, with the sits on Peters Mountain, in the Jefferson National Forests, where we had folks on top of the mountain in tree sits right next to where the pipeline would be bored underneath the top of Peters Mountain, which is where the Appalachian trail goes. And that’s the border between West Virginia and Virginia. One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. I love that mountain. A lot of people here love that mountain. And it’s also an incredibly essential place for this region. It is a giant aquifer. It’s a place where there’s lots of different animals and species of trees, and all types of living things that are living there.

And then also, in the same National Forest a little bit later, there was the monopod that blocked construction for 57 days. That blocked one of their access roads that they use to get to their construction sites on Peter’s. So, I think there’s been not just an effort to fight them in court and to oppose them with regulatory process. But there’s been three and a half years of dedicated people putting their bodies on the line and risking their freedom to stop this project. We can keep talking about… We’re trying not to do the “And then this person did this!” I think the things that we were trying to think about this question and trying to be like “what are some of the major moments.” A lot of the major moments are where there has been a combination of local support and community support for these actions and for this type of resistance. As well as people coming to this region from all over to fight this pipeline. There’s been such a building of community that just transcends location and identity. It’s been like really incredible to see. Obviously, the best example, which is the Yellow Finch tree sit. They lasted for 932 days. And most of that was with the support camp. You met so many different types of people from all over who came to support the tree sits that way. And, obviously, that was just a space that a lot of people considered their home. But also was just a space to just build lots of resistance and capacity to fight this pipeline.

Emily: Yeah, being in that space was really special. Because you would see all these people coming from all over. You would build these amazing friendships. And obviously because people were coming from far away, there’d be a lot of coming and going, and a lot of coming back too. But then there were also the local people who I have memories of eating my friends banana bread in like week two, around the sits or something, and then memories of eating that same friends banana bread again, just a couple months before the support camp got evicted. That continuous local support that literally kept people fed and kept people safe and supported throughout is what has carried us through. There were tree sits that went up in Rocky Mount, they went by Little Teel Crossing. They were the Bent Mountain sits that lasted for five weeks. The monopod held for 57 days which was really incredible. That was the monopod on Peters Mountain.

All of that together, all of those tree sits and large actions, and our recent mass action were 100 people walked on to a site and 10 people locked down to equipment, plus all those smaller actions that still had huge impact, where people lock themselves to excavators or just put their bodies on the line. Locked themselves into cars on the on the path of the pipeline. In total, there have been 74 arrests in direct actions against the pipeline across 40 actions, and summing up to 1039 days stopped over the years of resistance.

Toby: To be fair, that 1039 number is in large part due to the Yellow Finch tree sits, which lasted for 932 days. The distribution across that… the average is a lot different of blockade length. Some of the actions that have been done like the monopods and the tree sits and all of the different aerial actions have been some of the longest lasting active blockades. Not necessarily the longest, but has been some of the longest lasting blockades in the history of this country, or this land. And yeah, that combination of these long term blockades and also smaller, shorter-term actions, where people go and put themselves in the direct path, or locked to equipment or somehow interfere with construction is mostly because of folks who are willing to risk arrests and their freedoms. Also a lot of people from across the country seeing this as a fight that is really essential and connects us all. It’s the same with any fight that is against petrochemical infrastructure or extraction.

TFSR: So a lot of that resistance that you’ve been describing is on the ground. It’s people directly observing or directly standing in the path. And that’s great when people can do that. That’s part of the skill set that they can bring to resistance. I’ve sort of gotten a big appreciation over the years of talking to folks that are involved in the sort of work that you all are doing for the combination of the on the ground stuff, and also tying up the legal side of things. I’m wondering, are there any ongoing legal challenges around eminent domain or around FERC filings or anything like that, and any groups that are participating in resisting on that landscape?

Toby: Totally, there are. It’s also important to say that MVP right now is kind of tied up with their own permitting process. Right now the West Virginia DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] just submitted a draft approval for their water quality permits. They also need all of their water quality permits that they would get through the West Virginia DEP [Department of Environmental Protection]. So those are for all their water crossings that they have not gotten variances for and done. I think they still need to do about 500 of their water crossings out of about 1000+. Some of those water crossings are major water crossings. The Elk River, the Gauley River, the Greenbrier River all in West Virginia or the Roanoke River in Virginia. They also have to cross under some major highway. And a lot of that will be done through boring which they also don’t have their approval to bore. That could get conditionally approved pending the approval of their Army Corps water crossing permits and their DEQ & DEP water quality permits.

Right now they were granted a new right of way permit to go through the Jefferson National Forest. But they can’t work there until they get the rest of their water permits. So they’re part of the legal system is that they didn’t wait to start construction until they had gotten all their permits. So they are trying to get their permits as they go. Which a lot of people say is that they’ve kind of like shot themselves in the foot. They’ve definitely limited their success by not doing what companies normally do, which is get all their permits before and then start. So that’s why they’re involved in a legal mess of their own making with all their permitting. Yeah, there’s also a lot of nonprofits in the area. Appalachian voices, the Sierra Club, and Wild Virginia, they are also in court challenging a lot of decisions made by regulatory bodies with regards to MVP. Do you want to talk more about that, Emily?

Emily: Sure. Yeah, again, from the beginning, everyone was all the local experts. Scientists were really clear that building this pipeline was going to further endanger already endangered species. A really good example of that is like the Kenny Darter, which is a really beautiful and colorful fish. The Log Perch… a lot of these species can only be found in Appalachia. And Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. It’s really, really special in that way. There’s like a lot of limitations on when they can build, because there are endangered bats and birds that need to have their habitats protected. Which, to me is insane, that they should be able to build at any time of the year at all, if we know that those are their habitats.

But yeah, that decision made by Fish and Wildlife, that decision that MVP wouldn’t impact those species has been challenged in court, and it’s actually gone really far. And I believe they’re going to be hearing some oral arguments for that in the next few months, which is exciting. But I mean, that case was filed so early on. And I think something really important to note is that that case wouldn’t have made it this far, the pipeline would have been built if it wasn’t for on the ground resistance. Also on the ground resistance would have been a lot harder if they’d been able to build across all parts of the pipeline at once. So things like the endangered species case, things like the Jefferson National Forest case, challenging the Forest Service decision to let MVP cross the Jefferson National Forest, Those oral arguments are also coming up.

Those cases have made it so that their construction is slowed down. The direct actions have made it so that their construction is slowed down and those two different arms of of the resistance against the pipeline really support each other. They’re very deeply intertwined. Which I think is something that people don’t often think about. A lot of the times when people lock down in the path of the pipeline, you see this in resistance all over the place, people will be like “Oh, well, you know, why don’t you go through the proper legal channels?” And it’s like “Not only did we from the beginning, but we still are!” It’s really necessary to use these outside of the legal system paths in order to actually make it through the legal system because it is so rigged in industry’s favor.

The last one South Gate, the South Gate Extension, so that was a permit that they were looking for to be able to like build really the entire South Gate extension and the North Carolina DEQ denied their water quality permits. They came back saying “Oh, you can’t deny it for this reason.” They denied it again. They denied it a third time. Toby’s absolutely right. This process has been so messy and it is because of their incompetence as well as the fact that this project just like shouldn’t be built. There’s no standard in which this pipeline should be built. And then on top of that, there’s also still a lot of people fighting the eminent domain claims, where they live and some of those eminent domain claims have actually been pushed to 2022. And yet, MVP is constructing in their backyards right now. Which I think is just wild that they do not have the regulatory or legal standing to be doing so much of what they do every day.

Toby: Yeah, I think that Emily was talking about eminent domain a couple of weeks ago, and that mountain MVP was starting to work and that’s a place where there’s a lot of resistance to the eminent domain of the pipeline going through people’s land. And people came out every day through the night to be close enough to work where they [pipeline workers] couldn’t work for days, while there was stuff happening in the courts trying to get an injunction to stop MVP. Eventually, I don’t think that the courts granted that injunction, but it was a time where people like got together. And as simple as “Hey, we’re gonna be here, as a group of people, as a community and just watch what they’re doing, but also be close enough so that MVP can’t do the work they’re trying to do.”

Emily: That community, actually, some of the folks were out there every day, every night trying to prevent blasting from happening in their backyards. And eventually MVP and security got together with the homeowner there and gave this essentially verbal agreement that they would not blast until the case had been heard in court. The case was scheduled for later that week, and then in the middle of the night, without doing any of the safety precautions, which they’re legally required to do, they blasted anyways. So yeah, not only is the system rigged in favor of them legally in the courts in the regulatory systems, but they disregarded anyways. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, you can cut this out later, but they shit on it anyway.

TFSR: Yeah, Go ahead and say that.

Toby: Yeah, I like the point that Emily made earlier that people who are taking MVP to court or who are challenging decisions that the regulatory bodies are making in court, all of that builds time and space and delays in the construction that allows more resistance to happen. So whether that’s more resistance, like monitoring, or more legal challenges, or the direct action element, this fight would have looked a lot different for the past three and a half years if they were allowed to work on every segment of their pipeline at once. And it would have meant a much different image of what resistance looks like against the MVP.

Emily: Very succinctly put.

Toby: It also has meant that folks have had this challenge of sustaining resistance. I think there’s an extra challenge in that too. It not only creates space for more resistance to happen, but it also creates a challenge to sustain the energy and the resistance. And a lot of that energy comes from local support for the fight against MVP. These people are not leaving, they’re not moving, they are still fighting this in their communities in this region. And so a lot of the ability to sustain direct action over three and a half years and a legal fight over seven years, is the dedication and energy of the folks who live here. And it’s been pretty cool to see that be sustained. I feel like a lot of times with direct action, it’s very urgent, it’s very fast. How do you make sure that we still have support, and we still have there is still people who are like willing to put their bodies on the line when it has lasted over multiple years.

TFSR: It’s really inspiring. There’s been this group that’s at least has a social media presence, called “Appalachians Against Pipelines” that’s been doing a very good job for a very long time of bringing up news about the resistance that’s been going on against the MVP. And just making space for criticisms, and for news of resistance, and for ways for people to get involved and for fundraisers, and all sorts of different stuff. And it’s come up I guess, in federal court, where Facebook is being pressured by MVP, as I understand by the Mountain Valley Pipeline economic project, and construction project, to try to get information about the people that are behind AAP’s social media presence, or whatever other presence. I don’t know if that’s for the purpose of a SLAP suit or what. But can you all talk a little bit about this circumstance where social media is a very useful tool for sharing information and for rallying people but it’s also potentially being weaponized against folks who are speaking out against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project?

Toby: Yeah. Appalachians Against Pipelines just describes grassroots resistance to Mountain Valley Pipeline. As like a Facebook presence or social media presence it exists to help the fight gain visibility and educate people. It published news about the regulatory process in the legal fights, as well as news about different direct actions that people take. And it’s also to act in solidarity with other resistance struggles. That is the purpose of that Facebook page. And as of now, no admin for that page has been contacted by Facebook about the subpoena. So, there’s been no communication with Facebook as of right now that I’m aware of.

I think it’s pretty important to note that this is not the first time that MVP has used this type of intimidation to try and stop resistance. It’s a harassment tactic right now that they’re doing. And it’s just trying to seek out personal information, not just as like “Oh, we want to know who is behind this Facebook page.” But it’s also a scare tactic to discourage people from joining resistance but it’s also a scare tactic to try and get people to stop. Because it is terrifying to have a company know your personal information and your name and your address and whatever else the subpoena is asking for. It is terrifying to know that with the reality of SLAP suits and injunctions, and also police investigations and other law enforcement investigations. It is scary to have that like be a tactic that is being used against people fighting MVP.

TFSR: Or private security companies like Tigerswan that were conducting surveillance and counter intelligence work up at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Toby: Yeah, it’s harassment, and it’s intimidation. And I think folks who are resisting that Mountain Valley Pipeline, this is not the first time that this scare tactic has been used. This is not the first time that MVP has harassed people and intimidate people. And so I think that as before people are going to continue to resist this pipeline and refuse to be intimidated by Mountain Valley Pipeline and their subpoena.

Emily: Yeah, and I would add that, you know, this is just kind of my personal perspective, but it seems like a very desperate and cowardly tactic. I think all intimidation harassment tactics are. It has this very cowardly and disingenuous ring to it. I’ve seen people very courageously… the risk is real, the threat is real. And also, it’s disingenuous because people have been standing up vocally with their faces and their names out in public ready to take on those consequences from the start. And so to act now, like “Oh, there’s this shady group behind it all” is absolutely trying to disempower people in this area, and everywhere who have been vocally and boldly from the beginning been saying that this is wrong and been saying it in the face of a behemoth of a corporate behemoth and in the face of the state.

Toby: I think like in general, you see, other fights have similar social media presences. And we’re now the age where social media is used as a way of not only getting the word out about different actions and different fights and informing people but it’s also an incredible tool to get inspired by other fights across the world. It is how people like learn about different people resisting and different struggles. It just emboldens everyone. It emboldens people around here to see other campaigns or other fights going on and what those people up at Line 3 are doing putting their bodies in line. Like how they’re doing that. Or seeing the fights going on at Fairy Creek or against Trans Mountain or Coastal Gas. Learning about what other folks are doing is incredibly important to sustaining the fight here. So that’s kind of the benefit I see a social media presences of these types of resistances of course, also more it does open people up to more risk. It does. This is not the first time this has happened against a pipeline fight.

TFSR: It’s so inspiring to me the the correlation between the hyper-localized, like “this is what this landscape is, these are the animals that are impacted, these are the people who are being impacted, this is the landscape.” And then seeing the map dotted with projects that are similar where local people or people locally are resisting or coming from other places to go resist And looking at the fact that there’s this web of solidarity between the groups. The scope of damage and threat is not just local, but it is local, and that can’t be diminished. But it’s also global because of fucking climate change. It ties these struggles together and co-inspires them. My mind just reels at the thought. It’s so inspiring.

So, since President Biden has come into office have y’all seen any changes in the pushing through this pipeline, any differences from the way that the administration’s of Trump or Obama interacted with the project?

Emily: So there was a FERC nominee put up by Biden. A lot of people say that this nominee is also a fossil fuel crony, which, of course, is like nothing new for the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee. I’m sure there’s a lot of specific policy details that people could debate back and forth. But the reality is just “NO!” when you’re putting your body in the path of a pipeline, and the cops come to arrest you, it does not matter who the President is. The history of this country is a history of extraction, it is a history of exploitation. That has been consistent from day one. And this mega project, this massive project, this historic project really does just slot into a long line of similar devastating, high risk, destructive projects. That history, you know, it’s not like it has four years on four years off, it is a consistent history throughout.

Toby: Yeah, and I think Biden has paid a lot of lip service to wanting to fight climate change. But as we’ve seen with pretty much every single politician ever, it’s just lip service. No on is willing to take the actions that are needed to stop the impending climate crisis. No one is willing to take the strong enough action to actually limit emissions. It’s one thing to say what you’re trying to get elected, “Oh, I want to fight climate change.” But when you are actually elected, and you do nothing to stop the projects that are going to drastically impact our world by releasing so many emissions and are so far out of the realm of what you should be doing to actually stop climate change. And you’re like, “Okay, well, great. Another politician saying the thing doing nothing. No shocker. No surprise.”

TFSR: So, for folks in the southeast of Turtle Island, like in this region, how can they get involved? Or how can we get involved with a the anti MVP struggle in our own backyard? Who do you want to show up? And what sort of stuff can folks do remotely to support it also in case they can’t show up on the ground?

Emily: So yeah, there’s a lot of different ways to plug in. I mean, we so appreciate all the people everywhere who have donated. Who have started their own fundraising methods. Who have done solidarity actions at banks, demanding divestment or cutting ties. But also, if you want to come all the way to the mountains and join us, then come! You know, we want people who are dedicated to stopping the pipeline. We would love to have you. But also if you’re not near us and there’s a fight near you join that. Contribute to that. All land and water defense is really connected. And if there’s any abolition work, or any other kind of liberation work where you are, do that. Plug into that and that would make us really, really happy.

Toby: Yeah, as you said earlier, we like thrive off of that web of solidarity. We thrive off of seeing other folks in their communities fighting for liberation, fighting for native sovereignty for land, for landback, against extraction, against petrochemical infrastructure. We thrive off of that. And so if you can’t come out to the mountains join whatever fight is closest to you.

TFSR: 1492 Land Back Lane is an ongoing struggle in so-called Canada that is really inspiring. Line 3 has been in the media a lot as a place where tons of people, both indigenous folks and co-conspirators have shown up to put their bodies on the line to try to stop that construction. And I wonder, can you say anything about that struggle and if there are other… You mentioned the struggle On Fairy Creek for instance. Can you talk about any other struggles that are that you’re taking inspiration from that are land and water defense or land back struggles that you want to shout out or inform people about.

Toby: I personally, I’m pretty excited to see all the stuff that’s happening in Atlanta against Cop City. And I am excited to see the beginnings of the organizing that’s happening there. And I’m excited about that. Inspired by that.

TFSR: Can you describe what that is?

Toby: Yeah. So in Atlanta… I’m not definitely not the expert on this. Atlanta has a lot of parks, lots of forest in and around it. And there is like a massive project that is being proposed to deforest some of the land around it where the product of that would be half of that land would go towards the movie industry and then half of that would go towards building a cop training facility that I think people are calling Cop City. And that definitely is a struggle that is at the intersection of abolition and fighting resource extraction and deforestation. But also intersects a lot with the struggles against gentrification that are happening in Atlanta, and pushing people of color, Black communities out of Atlanta. It just seemed like the intersection of all of these different fights coming together in one is pretty inspiring to me. And that being so close to us as well is nice to see that blooming and coming up.

Emily: Yeah, first of all, I fully agree with everything that you just said Toby. And to jump off of what you were saying earlier about Line 3. I think staying up to date on that fight is huge, It’s really coming to the point where Enbridge is absolutely racing to finish. I mean, they are being reckless and just railroading over. But the resistance is still ongoing, which is incredible considering the real intense ramps up that law enforcement have been using, the violence that they’ve been using against water protectors there has been oftentimes hard to look at. But we can’t look away right now. And with the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are now fighting their arrests and charges in court, ongoing court support for that fight is gonna increasingly become something that I think people from far away, can plug into. And so that’s something that I’m trying to learn a lot more about right now. And I’d encourage people to keep their eyes out for that.

TFSR: How can people keep up on the struggle against the MVP? And what are some good sites or sources or fundraising pages or whatever that they should check out?

Toby: To revisit this, check out Appalachians Against Pipelines? That’s a very good source for information and updates and also the donation link to support resistance. We also have a podcast coming out.

TFSR: Hell yeah.

Toby: We also have a podcast. Emily do you want to talk more about the podcast?

Emily: The first episode will be out soon on In This Climate which is a really great podcast. And then the following episodes that we’re hoping to put into production soon will definitely be shared on the Appalachians Against Pipelines social media, which is Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So you can find them there.

Toby: That podcast is gonna focus a lot on people’s stories, and listening to the people who’ve been involved in this fight. So it’s a lot about people’s personal experiences and reasons why they have joined in.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Yeah. I get a surprise too! Cool. When is that first episode gonna be out?

Emily: Good question. We don’t have a date yet.

TFSR: If it was by the end of the week or something like that, then I would totally drop a link in the show notes.

Emily: It will certainly not be by the end of the week. But hopefully within the next three weeks, maybe?

Toby: That’ll definitely go out on social media. So people should follow Appalachians Against Pipelines to get notified about when there is a podcast coming out.

TFSR: Absolutely. Toby and Emily, thank you so much for this conversation. Thanks for all the work that y’all are doing. And yeah, solidarity.

Toby: Thank you so much for having us.

Emily: It’s been so great talking with you.

Firearm Safety and Education with Comrade Center

Firearm Safety and Education with Comrade Center

"Comrade Squid" color logo with a squid holding a lamp, sheaths of grain, an AK-47, red and black stars and flags and a large cog in the background
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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

Comrade Center links:

Other organizations we would like to shoutout:

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Featured Tracks:

  • K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) [instrumental] by Diamond D from Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop (Instrumentals) ‎(2xLP)
  • All You Fascists Bound To Lose by Nina Hagen from Personal Jesus, cover of Woody Guthrie

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Transcription

Dave: Hi, I’m Dave, pronouns he/him, and I’m living currently in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m an organizer with Comrade Center.

Geoff: I am Geoff, pronouns he/him, living in western Massachusetts, and I’m an organizer with the Comrade Center.

The Final Straw Radio: Cool. Can y’all tell us a little bit about the history of the Comrade Center, the philosophy, points of unity, that sort of stuff. And, and as I understand, prior you had been affiliated with the Socialist Rifle Association. I don’t know if you want to say a few words about what changes happened, or why you decided to take a different direction.

G: Yeah, Dave do you want to start?

D: Oh, sure. So we all met through the southern New England branch of the Socialist Rifle Association, sometime back in 2020. And that’s where the germ of this idea for a leftist gun range started. We’re all some type of socialists the SRA is a pan-leftist organization — but we all share, you know, our point of unity for this project is that, really, it’s very difficult for folks with marginalized identities and folks who are traditionally excluded from gun culture up here in New England to learn firearms training and self-defense. And so we want to take on this project to sort of lower the barriers to entry to learning firearms, and gun safety. I don’t know Geoff wants to add to that.

G: I think that’s something that we’re going to touch on quite a bit during this conversation is that things are a little bit different up here in New England, there are not any real spaces for leftists, or anyone leftofcenter really to engage with or commune around firearms. And it’s considered a right wing only thing. And that monopoly kind of scares us.

D: I remember I went down to Durham, North Carolina at one point, and a friend who was living down there, they took me shooting to a public range where you could just go for free and target shoot. And I was a little blown away by this, this was a few years ago. So I think when I saw what folks down in North Carolina had, I was like this is, you know, this is really great. And nothing like that really exists up in New England, certainly not in southern New England, like Massachusetts, or Connecticut, that have really restrictive gun regulations. So when I joined the SRA, that is sort of the thing that sparked my interest was this project when I heard about it, and I knew I wanted to get involved.

G: I mean, it’s worth pointing out that New England as a whole, Massachusetts especially, is overwhelmingly a blue state. And your people that disagree with that are sort of like pushed into the shadows and the rural areas. And private gun range ownership is the thing. Most places you’ll find to go shooting our private clubs. They’re owned by, you know, one or two people or a board. And there’s certain bylaws. Not to dive into it too fast, but I was actually kicked out of a club recently, for bringing guests, which is within the bylaws of the club, that people did not agree with. I basically had trans people with me, and it freaked everybody out. And I was brought up on formal review for bringing outside people into the club. You know, you can point to bylaws all you want and say, Well, you know, I was observing the guest policy” and they’ll create some reason to get rid of you, in this case, some sort of official sounding statement that I was putting the safety of the club in jeopardy.

So that was the last straw for me, you could even say it was “the final straw” for me.

TFSR: [laughs]

G: And I decided that I needed to get involved with a project that was going to help people that really needed it.

TFSR: Yeah, I’m not sure about the space in Durham that you mentioned, but out in western North Carolina that we have here — and this is affiliated with at least here, I think the State Department of Fishing and Recreation, or whatever it’s called but there’s a public range in Cold Mountain or called The Cold Mountain Range where they have like a range officer that’s employed by the state government, it’s on the edge of state and federal forest lands and it’s upkept. I mean, they’ve improved it so much over the last few years. It used to be just one range, six or seven stalls, people flagging each other all the time, people not really paying attention. And now they’ve got a pistol range and a rifle range and a range officer who makes sure that people have their weapons down and you know, nothing in the chamber when people are going downrange to check their targets. So it’s, I mean, just havingpublic land use I guess in this part of the country is pretty important with all theall the big parks and stuff and I would imagine up in your neck of the woods, a lot less of that, a lot more like private ownership excluding folks, as you mentioned.

D: Yeah, and it’s-it’s worth mentioning that there is, you know, the we’re-we are kind of operating out of New England, but there’s a difference between northern New England and southern New England as far as gun culture is concerned. I think we all met from the southern New England, you know, chapter and that’s, you know, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut. You know, it’s quite different from Vermont and New Hampshire, in terms of at least gun laws. But yeah, the wholethe whole issue of space is an issue throughout the region. It’s just difficult to access gun range spaces.

G: Yeah, I mean, the southern New England region has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, excluding California, and, you know, that trickles down into how guns are recognized. I can’t imagine what a public-facing gun range would look like in Massachusetts, given the fact that, you know, laws are extremely restrictive, and it’s created a culture shift.

TFSR: Can you I guess, just to readdress, could you say anything about, do you have official points of unity, like you said, that you came out of the SRA, which is a pan-leftist organization, are there points of unity that Comrade Center upholds or like a guiding philosophy besides the general idea of getting self-defense tools and training and-and comradeship into the hands of folks that are excluded from spaces in the area?

G: Our steering committee is made up largely of allies. But we all came from the SRA, which means we’re all either socialists or anarchists or someone adjacent. But [snarky voice] whereas most leftist organizations would spend all their time scheduling meetings and fighting, we actually see the differences between our ML’s and our A’s, you know, creating very beautiful solutions to things. We’ve realized that, again, as allies, what we have to do is make space. And as we do more outreach, and we start to partner with other organizations, we are going to be the org that creates space and invites people to collaborate and help skill build. And that sort of agreement amongst our core membershipthe people who are making this project happen, doing the fundraising and doing the outreach and making sure that we have things organized and safe and secure the agreement between us at that level has bled into our mission statement and our vision for this future space.

TFSR: Cool. So what do you think, I guess more generally since you’ve been doing this kind of work, I guess you’ve talked about a bunch of different identities and marginalization and lack of access to the tools and the training and such, can you talk a little bit more broadly about the increased leftist approach towards taking space around armed self-defense and community self-defense over the last, I guess, 15 years? Like, I know that themy understanding is the first Redneck Revolt chapter started in around like 20052006 in Kansas. I know, it’s sort of like, really came up starting around 20152016 and spread out to other groups, too. But have you seen much of a shift over that period of time where y’all are at, having other groups with the sort of like, various specific or shared pan identities of leftist orientation to self-defense?

D: Yeah, I think that’s something that’sI’ve noticed that other people have noticed the past several years, at least being on social media. You have, you know, all these accounts, like Guerrilla Tactical and…I won’t name all of them, but there’s, you know, there’s several social media accounts have gotten popular, that have like a leftist bent to firearms training, and self-defense skills. And I don’t think that that’s a coincidence. I think those things are a response to material conditions on the ground, where we see in the past several years, the rise of right wing reactionary groups, like the Proud Boys and violent Trump supporters.

Just the other week, in Portland, there was a Proud Boys rally and there was, you know, a Proud Boy or someone affiliated, who opened fire on a group of protesters, and now the protesters were armed and fired back in self-defense. So I think these conversations can be difficult to have because you don’t want to come off sounding like an alarmist, but when you look at the news, when you look at what’s happening, I think it’s clear that there is a need for folks who are involved in popular movement work to reckon with the practicality of having some knowledge of self-defense and community self-defense.

TFSR: So let’s talk about Comrade Center, what’s the vision? What’s the impetus? Like, you’ve already mentioned thethe lack of spaces that feel safe for people to be able to train and be able to learn skills. What do you need? And what do you hope to offer?

G: Well, we started under the sort of umbrella of the SRA. And we are breaking off on our own, not because the vision of the SRA or the mission of the SRA doesn’t align with our own, but more to the point, it also aligns with a lot of other leftist organizations. And we want to be a central node for collaboration with these leftist organizations. We want to provide space, we want to provide the access to training, the access to actual firearms to train. This is about learning to use tools.

D: Just going off of what Geoff just said, providing a space for learning skills, and firearms training and self-defense. But also a point that I really like to harp on, that Geoff can attest to is that, you know, this is an important project, because I think, too often political work comes off as this dreary exercise, because we’re dealing with all these really important, heavy issues. But I see this as potentially something that people can get excited about. Because, frankly, going out to the range, and learning a new skill and shooting guns with your friends is, you know, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing. It’s something I grew up doing. It’s something I learned from my father. And it’s fun to teach other people how to do. And I think that the left broadly could really use more spaces for that where we can learn new skills, and also network with each other, and build community in this deep sort of way that you don’t necessarily get when you engage in other types of organizing, that are more centered around marching or going door-to-door for various issues. So that’s where I see the Comrade Center is something special and unique, is building a physical infrastructure for that sort of community building.

TFSR: Another thing, I guess a point that just occurred to me is when you had mentioned before, in terms of like a discussion of leftist approaches towards taking space to do these things and have these conversations, y‘all mentioned the marginalization of voices of people that want to practice skills, or have access to firearms. Partially, that’s through laws that are expressly like restrictive in certain parts of the country, and where you all are, southern New England, but also the way that sort of discourse around guns has become bifurcated, like in the mainstream, either an antigun position from Liberals who are concerned about public safety issues, or mass shootings at schools or other like atrocious events, or just like gun gun violence that had that occurs on a day to day basis around the country. And then the Right wing, oftentimes that takes the position of — I want to talk about Right wing perspectives and toxicity of gun culture down the road but just to sort of like “I need to protect my family, I need to defend myself, I’m kind of afraid of the world around me.” And it seems like this approach of approaching armed self-defense to people that are regularly targeted by systematic and individualized white supremacist, cis, heteropatriarchal violence, like it can be really empowering in a way. And it seems like it must bring about some, like a kind of conflict with people who might consider themselves on the Left, but really are like centrists or liberals who put a lot of their ideas about self-defense in the hands of the state. Is that the case?

G: Absolutely. Yeah, I’m searching for a way to comment because that was very succinct. I do want to mention, as you know, not as a way of diverting, because I think what you’re saying is important, too, but when you say, I think the phrase I used was create space, and you said take space, and you’re absolutely 100% correct, because we recognize the fact that the land we’re on is borrowedstolen, really — and especially in New England, where this sort of thing gets swept under the rug quite a bit, we realize that we are, you know, potentially purchasing land to build the center, we’re also doing it on somebody else’s property, we’re doing on somebody else’s land, we’re doing somebody else’s home. And we recognize that fact, and it just, it came up, as you said “take space because that’s the right way of thinking about it.

TFSR:
In the area that y’all are looking to purchase this land, do you have a relationship with the Indigenous peoples that are there or of there?

G: The area that were working in is home to the Abenaki and we have reached out and we have a good line of communication, and basically, since nothing has yet happened in the vein of actual land purchase, we are sort of in a holding pattern with them, but we want their input and we want their attention.

TFSR:
And collaboration I would imagine.

D: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe I can’t speak to this point quite as well, because there are other folks who are more in communication with them, but Indigenous people always, you know, theythey have knowledge about how to, you know, take care of the land that’s being used better than we do. So I think that’s going to be a really important aspect, especially considering potential negative effects of having a gun range and what andwhat that can do to the environment. So that’s going to be really critical down the line.

TFSR: Yeah, definitely. That’s a good point.

D: Sorry, did you have-did you have a question? There was a long phrase before, and I don’t wantI want to make sure that we answer it correctly.

G:
Right?

TFSR:
Oh, just, it wasn’t so much a question as a comment and like an invitation to comment back if there was any sort ofyeah, because II don’t want to assume necessarily who the audience for the show is. I know that, like for the podcast, it’s people that are looking to hear certain conversations, but sometimes we’ll get people on the radio or people who are new to it, or people not from the US context but are still interested in community self-defense and like individual armed self-defense, and so sort of delineating the way that discourse in the US gets broken down around this very politicized concept. That’s sort of what I was just trying to

D: Yeah, no, that was a really good comment and I would actually like to say something about that.

TFSR:
Yeah, please.

D:
So I think, you know, there was a podcast, It’s Going Down, they had an interview with the members of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, which is a collective out in Colorado, I believe, of LGBT folks who, you know, they own a ranch out there. And they were being harassed and intimidated by right wing reactionaries. And it was really a wonderful example of community self-defense in my mind, because, you know, they put a call out, and they got volunteers to, you know, go on patrol and protect the ranch armed. And thankfully, nothing happened, nothing negative happened. But they did have some folks, you know, some right wing folks who were around, who were trying to intimidate them and they didn’t take that sitting down. And I thought that was really wonderful. And kind of an example of how you know that, that doesn’t really fit the right wing, or the liberal centrist vision of what gun ownership means in this country.

G: Not at all.

D:
But I think it points the way forward to what we’re trying to do that makes sense.

G: And community defense is 1% firearms. A lot of people make assumptions about, you know, what that definition is from connotation and it’s more about supplying information, skills, connections and community to the people around you, and creating and forging bonds. I mean, how can you possibly work within your community, if you don’t know who your community is? It starts with sort of knowing and giving and taking and creating a relationship there.

And we’re harping on firearms here because it’s the most exciting part of this whole project, but really, it’s just unique, given our geographical location and our political location. It’s a unique offering that other skill building or other community-based organizations don’t have the ability to offer. We have, myself included, firearms instructors, where in a place like New Hampshire where you don’t need a license or state-mandated training, the role of the firearms instructor is optional. But in Massachusetts, it’s a necessary hurdle. And if you cannot or will not sit through a four hour course in the dark in a small club house in the woods surrounded by people that don’t really think you have the right to live, that is a barrier to entry and you cannot have your license without going through one of these courses. We’ve sort of developed our own licensing tracks and our own avenues for influence, our own avenues for information, and we think building that kind of dual path is important.

TFSR: Do you all partner with, like you mentioned that as, like one of the visions for Comrade Center is to act as a node for other folks to get involved with and and like including SRA, so do you have in your vision — since this isn’t a space yet, but you’re developing it do you envision having space for groups like Pink Pistols — although I know like nationally, some of the leadership that has been pretty reactionary, here we had a pretty good set of instructors for a little bit in like 20162017, who did not have a reactionary stance or The Liberal Gun Club or John Brown Gun Club or Redneck Revolt or other SRA chapters or anything? Like do you plan toto sort of facilitate those groups that have shared vision coming in andand doing their own instruction on the space?

G: So, like we said, our break from the SRA, which I wouldn’t even really call a break, it’s just, at what point does a closed relationship become an open relationship? [chuckles] You know, wewe hope to facilitate the needs of-of-of a whole spectrum of leftist organizations. And, yeah, we want to be a resource for a whole spectrum of leftist organizations. And since the organization is still a baby, right, the Comrade Center exists, but sort of in the ether, it’s in the tubes. But we don’t necessarily have, a piece of land with a gate on it yet, a lot of these questions have gone unanswered. So to ask about vision, to talk about how we see it in the future, we have labeled our project as an open ended educational mission. So the people who need it are going to help mold it.

The one thing we have in common is that we are leftists, and that we have points of unity, right? Belief in our fellow human. But beyond that, other than just an idea that skill-building will bring communities together and will help foster community-defense, it’s an open book.

D:
I will add to that, that we do have lines of communication to Liberal Gun Club, we’re in conversation with some of these groups, and we are working with an organization called Arm Your Friends, they have a pretty substantial social media presence. And they sort of, they’re kind of an interesting group. They, you know, they organize outings to gun ranges. They’re of like mind with us, and so we’re currently working with them to see, you know, what events we could coordinate with in the future.

TFSR:
Cool.

G: They also have excellent branding, so check out their website.

TFSR: [chuckles] Yeah, if you all, like if, in the show notes to this, I’m happy to link to thatto that conversation with the folks out in Colorado — that was a really good interview, The Unicorn Ranch — and then also any sort of friendly organizations that you want to pop into the show notes to share with folks so they canthey can check them out, I think would be awesome.

D: Oh, fantastic. Great.

TFSR:
Yeah. So critiques that I generally have space for around quote unquote gun culture include how a focus on individual self-defense reproduces the worst reactionary survivalism, spending lots of money on tactical gear and guns that feel like edgy consumerism devoid of community concerns, and it kind of reproduces this I got mine mentality, pervasiveness of macho paternalism, and white supremacist or xenaphobic attitudes that notably doesn’t leave space for critique and self critique.

Can you give a bit of a critique of mainstream gun culture as it exists, and sort of… When Geoff said that the community self-defense is 1% guns, and the rest of it is all these other things that mostly relate to, like individual knowledge and experience and interconnectedness…like that seems really… critiques that I’ve heard over the years of left wing approaches towards engaging around gun culture have felt kind of like people saying oh, cool, it’s my time, I get to wear my my patches, and I get to carry a gun, and that sort of thing. I’ve been really happy to see a lot of leftists approaching critically and saying, Yeah, we don’t want to just reproduce wanna be militias like III%ers, and the exclusionary and reactionary and quite frightening, like, offensive patterns that they build that sort of replicate exclusion of certain people from their space. So just kind of like to talk about, like, how you view gun culture and sort of like shifting it in that way?

D: Well, heck of a question, but definitely happy to answer it. So I think I take a lot of personal inspiration from Margaret Killjoy, and she has a podcast on you know, sort of, you know, survivalism, but with an anarchist bent

TFSR:
[jokingly interjects as if with a promo] Live Like the World is Dying”, it‘s a member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts.


G:
[laughs]

D: [laughing] There we go. So I’ve really taken some inspiration from her and what she has to say on the topic. And I think that’s a clear line that we can draw between, you know, the right wing version of gun ownership and survivalism, if you will, and the left wing version is that: the right seems to have this idea I don’t know if you’ve heard the meme the Gray Man — where it’s like, they can just be like, an individual, like, totally like, you know, fend for themselves. And I think that that sort of attitude lends itself to edgy consumerism and the I got mine mentality that you referenced.

And the other side of that, that I think that we’re trying to foster, kind of recognizes the fact that we all have different skills, and that we all have different capacities to provide things for our community, and the Comrade Center is, you know, a project that kind of can bring all those things together. That’s that’s the vision at least right?

So, you know, one of those things is Geoff mentioned earlierwe’re going to be giving free classes to get in Massachusetts called an LTC a license to carry, and that’s required to to own and train with firearms in the state — so we’re going to be giving free classes at some point in the future. And that’s just an example of, you know, I don’t think that right wing folks would really be interested in that. But it’s something that we think is really important.

G: There are people that make a living doing LTC courses, and they are $100250 a pop, it’s four to five hour course, you get your certificate, and then you could apply for your license with the state. It is a business. We’re looking to dismantle that a little bit for the people who need it. And you mentioned the uhh, sort of all the baggage that comes with Leftists sort of adopting a Right wing culture. And there’s some pitfalls that are very obvious. There are things that, you know, we call them “chuddy” or “Fuddy” things. The wearing camo in public, you’re likely to find the Leftist doing that.

But there’s a lot of things that come with it that are hard to suss out. I think there are also some things that are a little bit more subversive. And given the fact that most of your leftist firearms communities are overwhelmingly white, there is a white-savior complex, that sort of bubbles beneath the surface. I have adopted this skill, I understand the skill, let me teach this to you, person of color, and then you can defend yourself. There’s a lot of blanks to be filled in there, and the concept of making yourself a target through ownership. There’s concepts that I don’t even understand because of my privilege. And unlearning and relearning as we open up our mission and we start to approach this educationally, it’s-it’s important, it’s really important to go slow, and understand exactly what you’re doing.

TFSR:
In prior interviews — in particular, I’m thinking of when you’re still affiliated with the SRA, probably the IGD interviewyou were clear to say that this project is not a militia. Can you talk about why this distinction is important for you — unless that’s changed and how right wing paramilitaries like III%ers Three-Percenters or Oath Keepers, in your area, engage with your organizing efforts? Like are you viewed as a threat? Are you kind of under their radar? What does that look like?

D: What a militia type organization is trying to do and what we’re trying to do, I think the goals are fundamentally different. We are focused on providing individuals who are typically excluded from firearm spaces with a space that they can safely learn the effective use of firearms. So I think that’s, you know, the last thing we want is for those folks to be intimidated by any sort of apparent militia affiliation. So that’sthat’s not what we’re trying to do. As far as the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers are concerned, maybe Geoff can speak better to this, but we haven’t really engaged with them and we certainly don’t plan to. So we hope to stear clear.

G:
We could not be more different. I mean, the the reasons for getting involved in organization like that are completely different, more about taking than giving and more about feeling like you’re something special, when in reality a Leftist organization that revolves around skill building is more about feeling humble and helping. You know, Dave made a good point, it’s fundamentally different to want to organize as a militia group, or somebody who is taking up arms, as opposed to somebody who wants to teach skills and promote community through skill building.

It’s also worth mentioning that, just like firearms are 1% of community-defense, firearms are probably 10 or 20%, of our course offerings once we actually get moving. What makes our space unique is that we can also offer that, alongside other survival skills, community defense and organizing skills. And, you know, again, it’s going to matter who steps forward to help partner with us, which is sort of our open call right now, to other leftist groups that want to help and want to be helped, but that’s how we’re going to build community, we’re going to knit these things together.

TFSR:
And I think there’s like, just another little rant, there’s also a, in the US context, there’s a very particular history to militia that doesn’t really get unpacked a lot when it gets discussed. Like it’s meant to be supplemental to the State as it operates, it’s meant to be the reasoning, you know, in case of foreign invasion, or whatever we’re going to back up the constitution and, and whatever else. And I think there’s like a certain value — and historically, it was militia that was used to, before the formation of slave patrols, that was used to do that sort of work, it was militia that was used to attack indigenous populations. And I don’t think you can likethe idea of having an armed wing that falls into the command of the state in a settler-colonial society like ours, you can’t disconnect those things and have it do a different function. It’s like the idea of having like, a, like community policing, in the way that it’s idealized, you know, versus how it’s operationalized. It’s just another way of counterinsurgency against the the general population. Just as was said, like, who gets to feel special and carry the guns and take the commands and give the commands and whatever else, as opposed to this model where you’re, like you said, spreading the information, spreading the tool set, helping people keep themselves safe, and buildingbuilding community as opposed to like, a separate agency.

G: No, you’re you’re on the right track there. I mean, it couldn’t be more different from a hierarchical, militaryinspired survivalist attitude. It’s difficult to distance ourselves from that, because that’s what we know from TV and movies and anyanybody carrying a gun is like, oh, are they army? Are they police, are they militarized police? Like, we are facing a difficult task to not only do the work, but also break down the assumptions about the work.

TFSR: So the loudest gun organization in the US is the notoriously reactionary National Rifle Association or NRA

G: [sarcastically] Never heard of ‘em.

TFSR: [laughs] — which due to its high degree of internal corruption filed for bankruptcy in the recent past? I can’t remember if it was, I think it was beginning of last year, but I might be wrong. Could you talk about the prominence of that group? Often, like it’s viewed as the only go to option in folks minds when they’re thinking of getting training, when they’re thinking of advocating for themselves around use of weapons to defend themselves? And, sort of, what sort of shifts you’ve seen where you’re at, like— are people pissed about, about how the NRA has been operating in the disclosures? Or do they think it’s fake news, conspiracy stuff?

G:
It’s it happened to me too. I mean, my firearms training course was an NRA course. It’s all that was available. This is we’re talking six years ago when I decided after going through that experience that I wanted to become an instructor and help people, I realized that I would have had to basically train through the NRA to become an instructor because that’s the only thing available. Only after some intense googling did I find out that Massachusetts actually recognizes two dozen other courses to qualify for the LTC. The one I pursued was with the Liberal Gun Club, and I’m still an instructor with them. And I still believe in what they’re doing. I’m leveraging that experience to try to help as many people as I can.

But as far as the association with firearms in this country, and the NRA: you’ve got a group, as poorly run this they might be, who has managed to be the expert for our government, also a lobby group for manufacturers, and just, their tentacles are in so many different pockets, it’s impossible to sort of figure out where they start and where they end. I’m amazed that they ran out of money, it doesn’t make any sense.

D: And I’ll just add to that and say, I think that, yeah, the NRA is just… In people’s minds gun ownership and the NRA are, are kind of closely intertwined. And I think that’s done a lot of damage in the minds of folks who might otherwise be sympathetic to our cause. You know, they think gun ownership, NRA, we don’t want anything to do with that. At least in New England, in some of the liberal progressive circlessocial circles that I run in, that is sort of how it’s thought of. And from what Geoff said earlier, we’re trying to undo a little bit of that with our project.

G:
It’s a lot of work. It’s very difficult in a place like New England, that’s so anti-gun. And like Dave was just saying the association of guns with the NRA only makes that work harder.

TFSR:
Yeah, that makes sense. Do you ever have people come up to you and say, like, hey, so like the work that you’re doing is making our society more dangerous because it’s promoting more people having guns in their hands?And, for folks that are interested in engaging more around armed self-defense and armed community defense, for whatever reasons, do you have like a good response that they might think through? Or what sort of goes through your mind, or what you say to folks that are concerned about the proliferation of guns and that meaning more potential bullets flying?

G: [exhales] Have you, Dave have you had this happen to you?

D:
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

[laughs] So these, yeah, I’ve had these conversations before not where I’m from, from Vermont — but when I moved to Boston, I’ve had these conversations, and they’re not easy conversations to have. What I try to say is, well, first, the fact there’s, there’s more guns than there are people in this country in the United States. So that’s a fact that sort of has to be reckoned with. A lot of those guns are owned by the police, they’re owned by the military, they’re owned by the KKK, and the Proud Boys and other right wing groups. And they’re not giving those guns up. And that is a fact that I think has to be reckoned with. And people have the right to self-defense. That’s something that I believe in, I think that’s something that everyone involved in this project really believes in.

So, you know, as far as the problem of the proliferation of firearms, that’s already happened. And I think that this is something that we need to recognize and move forward with, in the best way that we can. And, you know, we couldwe could have a whole conversation about, you know, what the left’s position on gun control should be, but the way I see it is state regulations that try to limit gun ownership, what that really ends up doing is it limits gun ownership for poor folks, for folks of color, typically marginalized groups. And that’s something that’s unacceptable to me. So…

G:
That attitude of, you know, promoting violence is extremely privileged. And the people I’ve spoken to that have had that attitude, they are just fine in their cozy little worlds. And, not to sound alarmist — right, that’s not why we’re here — but to that 1% of the time, to prepare in case something goes sideways, you have to allow for the fact that when someone is holding a gun, and someone else isn’t, there’s an extreme power dynamic there. And that is legal within our society. So, we’re here to help, we’re here to change that we’re here to balance that a little bit. But, you know, this concept that well if both sides have guns, that’s when the shooting starts. So privileged.

You know, what Dave just said was these common sense gun laws that are being implemented by some of your more leftleaning states actually create a sort of an economical bubble. And what happens there, and Dave back me up, I can own an AR15 in Massachusetts just fine. You just have to understand the laws and you have to pay for it.

What that means is: pre-ban firearms are perfectly legal to own. What does that mean? The cost of pre banned firearms has spiked. So those who can afford it can have I’m not gonna say it’s more advanced weaponry, but weaponry that the state deems inappropriate — as more of these laws pop up this continues to happen. It’s this sort of concept by the state of Massachusetts and other left-leaning states that, well, if you have money you’re not really a threat to society.

TFSR:
So an experience that I’ve had, being around firearms and learning more, has for myself, and I’ve seen other people express this too, that people that have been around may have had traumatic experiences with firearms, may have experienced, witness shootings, or had a gun pulled on them in the past. They may not like the devices, they may not like their proliferation, but at least there’s something to be said for making the choice to handle the device to learn how to make sure that it doesn’t have any bullets in it, and possibly to make sure it won’t function anymore. And you can’t do that if you just have a mystified view of a gun. And a training allows you to understand some of the limitations of the devices and some of the safety features that can be deployed to make them immediately less of a threat to the people around them.

Which sounds like I don’t know, it sounds kind of like running around the topic. But I think that when there is more education and more discussion around — if we want to talk about like comparisons to sex education: people are going to be having sex. If we aren’t having conversations, and there’s shaming around how we do it, and avoiding talking about the repercussions, positive and negative that we could see out of people having sex and not having the tools to have, you know, safer sex available, affordable or free to people, you’re going to have unintended pregnancies, you’re going to have people experiencing infections, not knowing how to deal with that stuff. But it seems like a good education around safety around firearms, how to disarm them, or how to keep them more securely, would limit instances of a kid getting a hold of it, because it’s not stored properly, because it’s not locked because they’re being unsupervised. Does that seem like a reasonable approach?

G:
Your approach is exactly what we’ve developed. We are putting together our curriculums for training. I already teach LTC courses from a conversational aspect, we don’t actually handle firearms till later in the class, everybody has a chance to sort of like acclimate a little bit. And we talked about past traumas, we talked about our concerns, that is the first third of the course. And we dovetail into the legality after that, because Massachusetts has a lot of laws. In order to be an educated gun owner, you have to at least understand most of them, or know where to find the information — but we go very gentle. We’re not shocking or awing people in this course.

We’ve also developed a class, which is either a primer or a standalone course, called Make Safe. And it’s about what to do if you find a handgun. Or what to do if you come across something. I mean, this happens more often than not, where it’s found in a vehicle, or it’s found in an attic, or something like that. There’s also situations where it’s found on the street. It can be extremely scary and knowing a bit about these mechanisms, about these tools, will make everybody a little bit safer.

It’s also gives people a chance to get over a fear that they want to get over. It‘s very difficult to confront fears of the firearm in our society right now. Because like, it’s not like you just walk into a store and be like, I’d like to hold a firearm, it doesn’t work that way.

So we want to provide safe environments where people can with people who know and, you know, actually start addressing this issue, if they would like to.

TFSR:
Yeah, that economic limitation to like being able to walk into a store and have a conversation and hold the device and expect the clerk to be, like, walking you through — they might be if they think they’re gonna make a sale — but, you know, otherwise, they’re probably not going to unless they know the individual. But because there is an economic limitation to holding a firearm, to owning firearm. There’s also like legal ones in a lot of states. If someone were to come across one and they had a felony in certain states, they would probably be aware, hopefully, of the way that the laws would impact them, but they may not be able to have as easy access to a training course where they can learn how to take the bullets out of the chamber, take the clip out of the gun, make sure to verify that it is clear and safe.

Yeah, butespecially thethe limitations of you know, if you’reif you’re limited by being able to purchase a pistol or a rifle to go take a courseI don’t know if that’s the case, necessarily — but it seems like making it more available to people that aren’t necessarily going to buy a gun for their own immediate safety… But they can go to a place where there are weapons available for them to learn how to handle more safely, they can make a better decision down the road, and they’re not gonna—

G:
— and then states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, basically, where this project spawned out of, you know, the amount of time between deciding that this is something you wanted to pursue and actually engaging with it is six months. So it’s not like you can just decide like, okay, I want to understand this tool, I want to understand its effects. I want to understand, you know, the science behind it and the culture behind it. You can’t just do it right then. That you have to go through a course, you have to apply for your license, you have to wait for that to come in. It’s a very lengthy process quite different than other parts of the country.

TFSR:
So how can folks reach out to y’all keep up with your work and learn more about the Comrade Center to support it?

G: So I would urge people to check out our website. As of now we are fundraising, but we are still trying to give back and start executing our sort of educational mission while that’s happening. Keep an eye out for courses coming up, up here in New England, they’re going to be offered sort of sporadically at events and community centers and other gathering spaces. They’re going to be free of charge, they’re not going to involve live fire. So, if you’re a little nervous about basically firing a gun, we’re gonna use the simulation training but free of charge — bring friends, sign up — and if you’re able, we’re also fundraising to purchase lands and create a sort of a training node. If you’re able to contribute, please do. Check us on GoFundMe and we, Dave, we have a social media presence don’t we?

D:
Please follow us on Twitter at Comrade Center and Instagram.

G:
Nobody types in URLs anymore, right? Everybody just Google’s things?

TFSR:
[chuckles] If you want to say, I mean, I wish that people with DuckDuckGo a little more honestly but

G: Sorry, sorry.

[G and TFSR both laugh]

TFSR:
Yeah, do you want to throw out an URL just to that, or a URL or however we want to say that.

D: Coming on anarchist podcast and talking about Google is
[Everyone laughs]

G: I’ll just show myself the door.

TFSR:
Edge Lord!!

[everyone laughs harder]

G: You can find us at comradecenter.org

TFSR: That’s awesome. All right well, thanks a lot. And good luck, y’all.

G: Thank you.

D: Thank you so much for having us on.

Stop The Legal Lynching of Ernest Johnson

Stop The Legal Lynching of Ernest Johnson

"Clemency for Ernest Johnson", picturing protest at Boone County courthouse
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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.

Some other useful links:

More info on Swainiac Fest available on Instagram (@Swainiac1969)

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Featured Tracks

  • For Pete’s Sake (instrumental) by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from For Pete’s Sake
  • Hangman by Al Dean from The Hangman’s Blues: Prison Songs In Country Music
  • Reflections (instrumental) by Diana Ross & The Supremes from Reflections

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with any name, gender pronouns, location, affiliation, or other information that will help listeners orient?

Elyse Max: Sure. My name is Elyse Max. I am the state director at Missourians For Alternatives To The Death Penalty. We are a statewide organization in Missouri and I work from Kansas City, and my pronouns are “she” series pronouns.

TFSR: We’re here to talk about the case of Ernest Johnson and the Missouri Supreme Court’s execution death warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. Would you tell us a little bit about Earnest, about his upbringing, about who he is as a person?

E: Sure. Ernest was born 61 years ago in rural Missouri in Pemiscot County and the city of Steele, Missouri. Ernest was raised in rural Missouri, he went to school in Mississippi County in the city of Charleston, Missouri. Ernest’s family… According to the court documents his father identified his occupation as a share-cropper. And we can see in Earnest’s family history that his maternal and paternal grandparents worked on farms in rural Missouri, which had ties to enslaving people. When Ernest went to school in Mississippi County in the 1960s, it was a segregated school. He never passed the sixth grade, there weren’t services at that time for special education or testing as we know it today. And so Ernest had a rough upbringing, his family history includes many people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities. He had a brother who was institutionalized and passed away. His mother died from what he says is alcoholism. And he didn’t have an easy life. But the folks that know Ernest that grew up with him and that know him now describe him as kind and gentle and soft-spoken. Earnest has no history of violent crimes, and only crimes of poverty, theft, things like that until he was convicted of triple murders in 1995.

TFSR: Do you know much about the context that led up to, as you said, crimes of poverty? What happened that we know of with the robbery at Casey’s General Store in 1994?

E: It was described largely as a botched robbery. We know a lot from media reports and court documents. The crime was committed by Ernest and the kids of his girlfriend at the time. According to reports, his girlfriend had broken up with him that day. And Ernest was in despair, he was drinking and smoking crack at the time. And he went in to rob this Casey’s General Store with his girlfriend’s kids. The three people that were working there were murdered that night: Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs, and Fred Jones. There was evidence that they were bludgeoned by a hammer, some stabs, some shot. To this day, Ernest says that he has no recollection of that night. He was the only one convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for those crimes that happened in 1994.

TFSR: You mentioned looking at the descriptions in the media at the time. Can you talk a bit about what the trial looked like and what the media landscape looked like for him?

E: Yeah, at the time Boone County, Missouri, it happened in Columbia, which is where the University of Missouri is and it was much different than it is today, it was pretty much a small town. So this crime really shook the foundations of Columbia, Missouri at this time. It was pretty well-covered, with a lot of media attention. It’s stoked a lot of fear in the public. Ernest was prosecuted by Kevin Crane, who was the prosecutor in Boone County at that time, and he is well known in Missouri as a highly problematic prosecutor. He was responsible for the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson, who is now exonerated. In fact, he is now a judge in the state of Missouri. But part of the problem with Ernest’s trial was that his intellectual disability claim has only ever been heard by a jury. In most states, if you have an intellectual disability claim, there is a pre-trial exemption where a judge will settle that before it even goes to court. We believe that’s what should have happened in Earnest’s case. But in Missouri, the law is such that the prosecutor has to agree to the pre-trial hearing for the ID claim. Kevin Crane rejected that, and the judge sided with the prosecutor. So it was just moved directly to a jury trial.

In fact, Earnest’s death sentence, not his conviction, was overturned two times due to errors in the presentation of evidence about the ID claim. In the third trial, he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury that was pulled from Pettis County, and they sentenced him to death for the third time. His intellectual disability claim has never been heard by medical experts, has never been determined by clinicians. And when the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities, they left it up to the states to determine what those criteria would be. So in Missouri, the criteria match what the APA’s definition is, meaning low IQ, early onset, as well as adaptive deficits in everyday functioning. But because that wasn’t determined by medical experts, the prosecutor relied on racial stereotypes and stereotypes of people with disabilities to win over these juries. The prosecutor, in the third trial, told the all-white jury to rely on their gut, rely on their common sense. And obviously, Earnest had street-smarts. He’s incarcerated, and he can play cards, complicated card games, he can play basketball. Really just urging the jury to rely on nothing that is medical evidence. That’s a huge problem today. So part of our campaign is to push for a board of inquiry that can look at the ID claim from that perspective and make a recommendation to the governor on clemency based on medical and clinical advice.

TFSR: To make it super plain, can you talk about the constitutional basis in which that’s grounded or the moral or ethical basis in which the idea that someone needs to be competent in the US system to face punishment for a crime and actually be held and be considered fully responsible for it?

E: Sure. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruling was Atkins vs Virginia, which made it unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability. I don’t know the answer to whether or not this is the same as a competency claim, because it isn’t about competency to stand trial, it’s more about being ineligible for the execution. So it’s different than not guilty by insanity because they’re still guilty, but the highest punishment they could receive would be life without parole, so it just makes them ineligible for execution.

TFSR: It’s a strange delineation for me. The way that I’ve always approached was that if someone is considered to be experiencing a different reality than other people, you can’t hold them to all the same standards, as someone who you understand shares the same experience of reality as yourself, or the same ability to cope with the reality and responsibility of what would be a citizen or whatever. And so if the argument that the courts are making by saying, “Look, he can play basketball, he can play complicated card games. Therefore, he understood the ramifications of what he was doing at the time…”

And I’m speaking as if the assumption that somebody deserves to be killed because they’ve hurt other people or killed other people, is the decision that I want the state to make, which is not the case. I don’t think that that decision should be made, which pragmatically is one reason that I think that this conversation is important besides all of the other white supremacist ramifications of this case, in particular. But it seems that in order for someone to get executed for a thing if we assume that that’s the thing that the state should have the right to do, there should be degrees of responsibility taken for an action. And if there is a limit for who can take responsibility for such a heinous crime and receive that sort of punishment, they have to be considered to be operating at the same standards. And it’s reasonable to have the same expectations of participation and understanding and competency that you have of everyone else in the system. Does that make sense?

E: Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. I think that’s very confusing, and it was especially confusing to a jury of laypeople, is that proving that someone has an intellectual disability doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t know what was going on, or they didn’t understand what was happening. But it means that they didn’t have the same kind of agency that someone that doesn’t have an intellectual disability would have. People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to have coerced confessions, they’re more influenceable. Their agency isn’t the same as someone who would premeditate something and go out and commit a crime. They don’t have that same degree of agency. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he had no idea, he doesn’t know what he’s going to be executed for, he had no idea what happened on that night. In fact, we recently had a jury sign an affidavit that said that they would reconsider their decision if they had known what the clinical definition of an ID was because the prosecutor was trying to argue that Ernest was coherent, he knew what he was going to do. They said he cased the joint earlier in the day. So it was probably premeditated, but his agency, especially in acting with two other people, was less than someone who didn’t have an intellectual disability. So he shouldn’t be eligible for the ultimate punishment of execution, although he could still be eligible for first-degree murder, which would be life without parole, which arguably is more than sufficient of punishment for anyone. That’s a great question. I think there is a lot of confusion around that, and in no way shape or form should a jury be ever diagnosing or determining what someone’s intellectual disability or what their capacity or their agency is, in that sense, without understanding the medical and the clinical reasoning behind it.

TFSR: I appreciate you responding to that. Thank you. That was muddled “blah, blah, blah, but it doesn’t seem right”.

E: I hope that helps clarify because it isn’t right. And it is hard to understand. It is hard to articulate because it is so almost outlandish.

TFSR: Can you tell us a bit about MADP, Missourians For Alternatives To Death Penalty? How did you get involved in Ernest Johnson’s case? And what’s the current campaign’s goal?

E: MADP, we are the statewide death penalty abolition group in Missouri. We’re the only ones with that single focus. Missouri is not a state that is ready for full repeal. So we do what we call “abolition by attrition”. We just chip away at the system that is so very broken. Things like revising our intellectual disability laws, so that they require a pre-trial exemption for people with ID claims. We are basically just trying to make fewer people eligible for execution. In fact, in Missouri, we have 20 people that are currently sentenced to death. We don’t have a death row, so to speak, they’re integrated into the general population further proving they’re not a future danger to society. We work on the front end and the back end. We follow pending cases, pay attention to prosecutor races in high-use counties, as well as assist legal teams. We follow their lead at the end, like we’re doing with Ernest Johnson when it comes time to bring awareness to the clemency campaign around an execution. We are there, we’re across the board, working throughout the whole spectrum. Before a case even becomes death-qualified, it’s on our radar. And we’re trying to work with legal teams and the folks that have been impacted in order to stop this. And so for Ernest Johnson’s campaign, there are several balls in the air. The biggest issue is the constitutionality of the intellectual disability claim. Our hope, since the Supreme Court of Missouri recently unanimously rejected his habeas petition, our hope is that the governor will grant clemency, grant a stay, to call the board of inquiry to review the ID claim. Our governor and our attorney general have claimed to be champions… For communities of folks with disabilities, they base a lot of their pro-life arguments on the fact that our attorney general has a son with a disability. We really think they’re embedded in that community and that is the issue that could penetrate their hearts and minds and make them look at this in a rational way instead of a political way. And the death penalty is always political.

TFSR: For the audience that maybe didn’t pick it up when you were describing Ernest going to segregated schools in… Missouri is one of the states in the US south but it’s considered to be Midwestern. It’s great plains. But it was under segregation. And you mentioned coming from a sharecropper family. So for folks that don’t know, Ernest would be considered Black under legal standards at a certain point in the United States legal system and has suffered from anti-Blackness, multi-generationally. So can you maybe unpack a little more? You mentioned the makeup of the jury earlier, and there are a few matters in terms of the competency of the jury to make decisions about whether or not he is an individual with developmental delays and disabilities should be held to the standard of the death penalty. But there’s also the wider claim of the constitutional right for someone to face a jury trial by a jury of their peers. Can you talk about the makeup of the jury in Ernest’s case, in any of Ernest cases, and the importance, the underpinning argument of why in southern states where white supremacy is much more near the surface in public discourse than it can be in other parts of the country? Well, that’s unfair. Let me re-state that part because, you know, America, right?.

Can you talk about the importance of that argument and why you’re arguing what he had as a jury during his trial does not hold up to that standard of a jury of peers?

E: Yeah, sure. I think that’s such a great point. The jury is supposed to be the consciousness of the community. In death penalty cases, a jury has to be what is called death-qualified. While they’re selecting jury members, they have to already believe that they can impose a death sentence. So how is that a jury of your peers in the first place? And then to pull an all-white jury from Pettis County, a county which had racial terror lynchings, which had enslaved populations in the past? Those things are our linkages. Really, if we look at the historical acts of racial terror, there are direct linkages between those counties and the modern-day mass incarceration system. And that’s one thing that we do at MADP. Looking at our state work, we look at counties that had high numbers of racial terror lynchings that, had high numbers of enslaved people on the census and overlie them with other indicators, like the Secretary of State’s traffic stop reports – the likelihood that you’re pulled over driving while Black. These historically problematic counties are problematic today. That’s where we see our high number of death penalty cases. Mississippi County just had an extrajudicial murder of a Black man passing through town in their county jail. And that’s where Ernest went to school. There were also four historical racial terror lynchings in Mississippi County, three in Pemiscot County. We work closely with the Equal Justice Initiatives and they connect this history with our modern-day criminal legal system. We know that there’s just such a huge disparity on who is sentenced to die in the United States, and that’s reflected in Missouri. African-Americans nationally make up 40% of people on death row, but only 13% of the population.

But even more so than the defendants’ race, it’s the race of the victim. So in Missouri, if your victim is a white female, you are 14 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if your victim is a Black male. And these are the types of remnants that we see with historical racial terror lynchings that, in the 1940s, they went inside because it became a shame to lynch people publicly. In 1972, the death penalty was abolished in the United States because of the racial bias that was apparent. If you look at the death row in the south, it’s like 75% of people are African-American. So then, when it came back in 1982, they decided that you couldn’t just eliminate the death penalty because of racial bias, but each individual case would be allowed these many rounds of appeals, so they could be sure that they were not imposing racial bias when imposing the death penalty. But as we know, that hasn’t really helped if they’re pulling all-white juries and if we’re having these problematic prosecutors that are remnants of the same thing that happened in the South as is the case was Kevin Crane and the complaints against him. So, Ernest’s case just coalesces all of these broader systemic issues and anti-Blackness within the system, but also connections to our own deep history in Missouri. We were a Union state but allowed to keep our enslaved population, we were just a very divided state. So we often, I think for Missouri, want to appear to be Midwestern. But our economics, our capital is based on racial capitalism. That is still the case today. And that’s so strongly reflected in our criminal legal system, not just statistically but when you look at the way that people of color, especially Black men are treated when they’re going through these trials and these rounds of appeals.

TFSR: I think that the racial capitalism element is a really important thing to contextualize this, too, because there’s, besides huge and visible racial disparities in terms of who is accused of being the assailant in an instance, there’s also an overlap of that with class. And when you look at again, to go back to Ernest’s family history of being sharecroppers, there’s a lineage right there of you are being denied the ability, you’re having your wealth extracted from you, your lives were taken to serve the white supremacist capitalist state, or feudal at that point. And then afterward with the Black codes and with other laws going into the system that, again, Michelle Alexander’s a good example of showing this history and the perpetuity of white supremacist continuation of slavery in the United States. So, generation by generation kept in systemic private poverty, through being forced to go to underfunded segregated schools, through redlining, through all of these economic ventures, people who get the death penalty, almost never are rich people. And when you’ve got the confluence of multigenerational, not poverty, but inability to conserve and hand down wealth that people of color and Black folks and indigenous folks in the United States have facing them. You can’t hire a really expensive lawyer to argue your case for you. You’re stuck going with public defenders, who are systematically deprived of the time and energy to be able to give enough focus to an individual and their case, to actually argue on their behalf and pull the strings and file the paperwork.

E: That is very true and every single person on the currently sentenced to death list in Missouri is with the public defender system. As we watch these new pending cases pop up, that is very evident to us. If you have a private attorney, you’re usually getting your charges dropped to second-degree murder through a plea agreement. And if you have a public defender, oftentimes, there’s not even a plea bargain on the table for you. That is pretty stark. You mentioned Michelle Alexander. If anyone from Missouri is listening, there’s a great book by Walter Johnson called The Broken Heart of America. And it is about the racial capitalism of Missouri, and specifically St. Louis, and how that evolved from Native American genocide all the way to Ferguson and modern-day hyper-militarization of the police in St. Louis. If you like to drill down on that, it’s a really good one to look into.

TFSR: It seems clear with the lines that you’re drawing…. This show identifies as abolitionist as well as anarchist, most of our guests are not necessarily anarchists. My understanding is that your organization is not explicitly an abolitionist organization, but as you said, you could view trying to reverse these and offer support to individuals facing the death penalty in the move towards eventually retracting the death penalty in Missouri as abolition by attrition. Can you just say a few words again about the continuity between lynching and the lack of subjectivity afforded to Black and brown folks in this country historically, and how the death penalty is a continuation of the same struggle, and the struggle against the death penalty is the same struggle towards the abolition of that same un-personhood that we’ve struggled for centuries in this country around?

E: Yeah, sure. The linkage between historical acts of racial terror and the modernity mass incarceration system is well-researched and well-versed, particularly with lynching being manifested within the use of the death penalty and their actual litigation on lynching that happened when it went inside. In the 1940’s, it wasn’t a public spectacle anymore because it actually became embarrassing to gather around it to celebrate these things because of the way public perception was changing in the 40’s. They moved it inside and tried to make it a matter of the judiciary. But there wasn’t the same due process that we have around the death penalty today. So a lot of times it was an accused before the judge, and they went right to lynching. And so the death penalty actually was abolished, Georgia v. Furman, I believe that was in 1972, because of its racial application of it. It came back 10 years later, and the Supreme Court said, “You can’t just abolish it because it’s racially unjust, you have to bring each case and present the individual racial bias in each case.” In fact, last year, North Carolina just granted retrials to every single Black person sentenced to death in North Carolina understanding that there is so much racial bias. Everybody who was sentenced gets a chance to have a retrial where they’re able to present what would have been the racial bias in their case at the time they were sentenced. The connection legally is there. We have this idea that, with the death penalty, there is due process, but the way the death penalty is stacked up, where you have to even be death-qualified to sit on a jury that determines whether someone should receive a death sentence. It’s just…

TFSR: Mind-blowing…

E: It is mind-blowing. I don’t know if I’m trying to find the right word that is appropriate for publication. It’s pretty evident when you trace it back. The museum in Montgomery, Alabama, it’s From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, where Brian Steven works with the Equal Justice Initiative. They collect jars of soil from lynching sites across the United States, they’re on display in the museum. And that’s what we’re working on now in Missouri. There were 60 recognized victims of racial terror lynchings during Reconstruction, and we’re collecting those jars of soil to keep in a statewide exhibit. And through that work, it’s where it really became apparent that historically problematic counties are current problematic counties, where they’re applying the death penalty more often, where there are more traffic stops if you’re driving while Black, where you have higher levels of mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings of Black people. So we need to look at that history and address that history. And that’s part of what our racial justice work is like, I don’t know if we can abolish it until we have come to terms with where these things in our system come from.

So, while our organization isn’t explicitly abolitionists, we’re not trying to abolish the whole criminal legal system, if we take what I believe is the tip of the iceberg, which is giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies through the power to execute, once we can get rid of the very tip of the iceberg, it blows open everything else it. That’s why they won’t abolish the death penalty on racial discrimination grounds is because the Justice has said, “Well, then we’re going to have to look at every single felony, every single life without parole case”. Because the stuff that we’re allowing people to murder by is really the same stuff that is contributing to our whole systemic mass incarceration problem. So I feel strongly as an abolitionist that my work with the death penalty is only going to further the abolitionist cause, even if my organization dissolves formally because we’ve succeeded in our mission of abolition, which would be great. That is only going to blow open this wound that is just going to require more work to be done. We have to be glad and we have to celebrate victories because this work is so hard. Even though I’m not personally a reformist, I know that each step along the way is getting us closer to what we want to see the world around us looking like. I’m very proud of our work and I think that it does contribute greatly to the abolitionist cause overall.

TFSR: Thank you for that. It pretty much started off saying that Ernest Johnson has a standing execution warrant dated for October 5 at 6 pm. That’s very soon. How can listeners help in these coming weeks before that date comes to pass? And it’s not a foregone conclusion that there won’t be a stay, but the very high likelihood and possibility that this man will get executed by the state.

E: Yeah, I think that people inside Missouri and outside Missouri can go to www.madp.org. We have a toolkit that is constantly being updated. For Ernest right now we’re targeting the governor, he’s got the ultimate executive power to grant clemency right now, although I know the legal team is working up to the wire to get litigation going all the way up to the last minute if they can. We’re focusing our efforts on the governor. So there’s information, there’s a call script on our website, a toolkit, some cut-and-paste social media posts you can be making. As we move closer we are going to have a few phone apps and Twitter storms, as well as there’s a petition on change.org that currently has about 18,000 signatures. And we’ll be partnering with the NAACP and several organizations to deliver that personally to the governor on September 29. On our website, we made our homepage The Clemency for Ernest’s page. And also, we have a great comms organizer. So our social media is on fire, I’ve been told. I would just suggest people follow us there and then keep their eye on the toolkit for up-to-date information on how to help.

TFSR: Obviously, there’s a timeliness to Ernest Johnson’s situation, that’s really important. So it makes sense that you have converted the homepage as focused on this case and getting people involved. Are there other ongoing parts of MADP that you want folks to know about and get involved in the longer term? Like, are there ways for people to invest their energy in the organization towards that longer goal of abolishing the death penalty in Missouri?

E: Yeah, thanks for asking that. We have as I said, 20 folks sentenced to death. Unfortunately, 75% of them are in their final rounds of appeals. With the way the United States Supreme Court is and the Supreme Court in Missouri, we need your support, and we need people to get engaged in the issue. Fortunately or unfortunately, the media picks up on innocence cases quite a bit and oftentimes leaves behind the death penalty until it becomes salacious, like the night of the execution, just like they do with the crime, where they want to only focus on the salacious and made for TV parts. And oftentimes, we hear from folks that they didn’t even know we weren’t actively executing state, they didn’t know that we even had the death penalty in Missouri. So we do want people to stay engaged. For the past three years, we have had one execution a year. While that’s less than Texas, we are one of only four states that are currently for 2021 have executions on the books. Just going through the website, we’re a membership organization, you can join for $50 and get our newsletter.

We also are unique in that we have chapters across the state. So it’s great, we have a base that we can activate, we will be activating them on October 5, and as things come on, we’re always using all of our tools – email lists and things like that. And we have several petitions. So we need people engaged all the time. Please don’t be like the media and only focus on it during times of execution. Because these people need support. We have a pen pal program, we hook up folks with spiritual advisors, and all of this is an effort to really just to bring some humanity to people that are in the system, which is what they lack the very most. So lots of ways you can get engaged on very small levels. And also you can make larger commitments as well. Thanks for asking that. I think it’s important that we aren’t only focusing during times of execution.

TFSR: Personally, as someone who entered political organizing around the death penalty, I feel like the movement seemed to hit a national peak in the late 1990s. With media representations like Dead Man Walking and the advocacy and publication of books by sister Helen Prejean, and the popular push to commute the death penalty against former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, among other folks. So I guess the timing of that matches up with the 1996 signing by Bill Clinton of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. I remember that happening at the same time. And that feels like there’s some concordance between those events chronologically.

Where do you see the anti-death penalty movement today, as far as a nationwide movement? And how can people find out more in case they’re not in Missouri and want to get involved where they’re at in this penalty that has no take-backs?

E: That’s a great question. You’re right, it does have no take-backs. I think that there was a peak in the 90s maybe as far as public perception goes, but we saw the tough-on-crime rhetoric. You’re right about the Crime Bill and Clinton, when he was running for president, made a huge public deal about rushing back to Arkansas because he had to oversee an execution. So while I think public perception has changed, that takes a while for that to change in the political sphere. And to the common issue that voters care about, and something that they’re even asking people to care about. I think we’ve come a long way. And really, last year, Virginia became the 24th state to legislatively abolish the death penalty. Actually, they’re the first southern state and they’ve executed over 100 people in Virginia. So it’s very inspiring to see that happen. This isn’t gonna happen through a moratorium. Obama had a moratorium and all it did was set up Trump to execute 13 people at the end of his regime. Biden has a moratorium right now, but he’s still pursuing capital cases, or let me say the Department of Justice is still pursuing capital cases. Eight federal capital cases are happening in Missouri, on top of the 19 state capital cases in Missouri. So a governor-imposed moratorium is a good start, but it’s not enough, this has to come from the United States Supreme Court. We have to determine that it is cruel and unusual. We’re one of the few countries that still continue to keep executions on the books. We’re in the company of China and Saudi Arabia. This has to come through the Supreme Court. I’m inspired by the 24 states abolishing legislatively, because once we can tip the scales and get 26-27-28 states, then we can argue before the Supreme Court again, that it is cruel and unusual and it’s being used rarely and not often, and that it should just be completely abolished.

Part of that is that public perception has to change. They have to run out of people to put on juries. That’s what we’re seeing in Missouri, juries aren’t giving death sentences. So as much as our AG and our prosecutors want to try, the juries aren’t doing it. I think it is moving in that direction, it is a slow haul. The death penalty is as embedded as white supremacy is in America, and they go hand in hand. And so the work that we have to do when acknowledging our past wrongs needs to happen for us to realize what the death penalty actually is and what we are doing by allowing the government to kill in our name. But people that do this work are faced with so many different barriers and challenges in all of the work that we do that I understand why it often gets forgotten.

So it would be nice to have a little sister Helen public revival. Just Mercy came out last year, which is a great movie based on the book by Bryan Stevenson. It’s bringing it back into public opinion. And certainly the slaughter by Trump last year brought it back into the public discourse in such a way that there is now a Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act in the house in the Senate, that’s trying to work through things in that way. It is a long haul, we’re just trying to chip away at it and save every single life that we can, because unfortunately, what we know is that states that abolish have very few people left on the row. Virginia, I think had two people left at the time that they abolished. Missouri has 20 right now, so hoping we can get there but also knowing what that could mean for us is a lot more hard work and sadness ahead.

TFSR: Yeah. A lot of what you talked about in terms of where the decisions get made, we need Supreme Court decisions to say that it’s unconstitutional so the courts can stop applying that. And in order for that to happen, or/and as a stopgap in the meantime, legislative decisions made state by state to say we need to abolish the death penalty, we need to impose a moratorium because they’re less easily retracted than when it’s an executive simply putting something on the books, and then the other party gets in power and they remove it. Then back to organizations like yours that are going out there and applying pressure on the public officials that are supposed to listen to public opinion. What you said about the juries having trouble getting people to sit on them, I think says something about a shift in the public consciousness, I would like to think. That’s not to say positive or negative about people voting or not voting, but it says, if people vote, a lot of people choosing to vote says something about the legitimacy that they feel about the system. And what you’re seeing there is a lack of a voice, which is a statement, even if it’s not clear as to what it’s saying, or the other.

People refusing to participate in trials, because either they just somehow recuse themselves, or more specifically, recuse themselves because they say, “I cannot give a pro-death penalty decision in this case. So you have to kick me off of this jury” says something, says a lot. At the foundation of this and the less visible side of it is public participation in discussions and in organizing with their family and talking to the family about issues like the death penalty. And ideally, that should be what creates the wave that would force to some degree the hand of public officials and courts to actually impose stops on these sort of acts. So that’s why I’m excited to talk to you is because, for people in Missouri, this is a place that they can plug in, this may be more their speed than going out and protesting outside of the jail if they’re an abolitionist, it may be more their speed than doing a number of other things. It’s a way, especially that a lot of people of faith can engage around the issue of life or just people who think that the state shouldn’t have the decision to take someone’s life, that that’s not a choice that the state should be able to have. Sorry, that was repetitious. Are there any national networks that MADP is involved with, or that you know about that do really good works that might have participant groups inside of them that are reflective of specific states?

E: Maybe? I know the Equal Justice Initiative. They have community remembrance projects across the United States and we work closely with many different groups: Amnesty International, the 8th Amendment Project (they don’t have chapters per se), ACOU is a great partner to us. I think that intersection. But making sure – and this is something that we’re working really hard to deal with – is we need to talk about the death penalty as a wrongful conviction. So whenever anyone’s talking about wrongful convictions, they think about innocence and really harsh sentencing. We just need to put the death penalty in all of those discussions. When we talk about progressive prosecutors, they have to be against the death penalty. You can’t be against cash bail and pro-death penalty and, if you’re a prosecutor, that needs to be confronted and I know progressive prosecutors have community coalitions that support them.

 

So we need to hack the culture, so to speak, so that the death penalty is seen as a wrongful conviction. Murder isn’t ever a public safety measure. So the deterrents argument and all of that is just so obviously untrue when you look at the data and the research. I just want people to start talking about the death penalty and discussing it in the way that we talk about all other wrongful convictions because essentially, that’s what it is. It’s ugly, it’s messy, it’s murder, it’s not fun, and so it gets left behind until it becomes an execution date. I appreciate you bringing attention to it today and understanding it as part of a system and not an anomaly that is just gonna continue to perpetuate these types of injustices.

TFSR: Elyse, thank you so much for participating in this conversation and being available to talk to me and all the great work that you’re doing. I really appreciate it.

E: No problem, nice to talk to you. Thank you so much.