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adrienne maree brown on Cancellation, Abolition and Healing

adrienne maree brown on Cancellation, Abolition and Healing

adrienne maree brown
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This week on The Final Straw, we feature a conversation between our occasional host, Scott, and adrienne maree brown. For the hour, Scott and adrienne speak about “We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice”, her latest booklet available through AK Press, as well as sci-fi, abolition, harm, accountability and healing.

adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, and author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. She is the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit. More of their work can be found at adriennemareebrown.net

If you like Scott’s interview style, check out their interviews with Kristian Williams on Oscar Wilde and Eli Meyerhoff on higher education and recuperation. Also, to hear an interview with Walidah Imarisha, who co-authored “Octavia’s Brood” with adrienne.

Transcription and Support

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As an update on the transcription side of things, we’re still rolling forward, comrades have gotten each episode so far this year out and we’ve imported the text into our blog posts and imported links into our podcast after the fact about a week after the audio release! Also kind soul has done the immense work of making zines and downloadable pdf’s of almost all of our already transcribed interviews up until last week! Those posts are updated and linked up to the text and you can find more by checking out the zine category on our site.

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Featured track:

Truth Seekin’ by Clutchy Hopkins from The Story Teller

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Transcription

The Final Straw Radio: Thank you for coming and talking to us in the Final Straw. Do you mind introducing yourself with a pronoun and relevant information you want to give?

adrienne maree brown: Yeah, so, my name is adrienne maree brown, I use she and they pronoun. I am a writer based in Detroit and I’m the author of Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, and most recently, and I think what we are going to talk about today, the author of a book called We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. I have been a movement facilitator and mediator for over 20 years, close to 25 years now. And most of the writing work that I do is rooted in the experiences and questions that have come from those places. That’s who I am for people who are meeting me here.

TFSR: Thanks! I’m so excited to get to talk to you and I wanted to dive into your most recent published book because it offers a lot of food for thought, especially for people who are engaged in different kinds of community processes and accountability and larger projects of abolition and transformative justice.

amb: Oh, one thing you should know and it may show up for your listeners, too. I have neighbors upstairs and today is the day that they host the preschool pot, so if you hear big thumps and bumps and things like that, just know it’s kids playing and everyone’s all good.

TFSR: That’s a good [chuckle]. I also have a sleeping cat that may awake and attempt to hang out on the computer.

amb: Real life continues happening even during Zoom calls, so…

TFSR: I kind of wanted to just jump in into the stuff thinking about listeners have a basic concept for abolition and transformative justice. The first thing I started thinking about when preparing to talk to you was that way that cancel culture which you, you know, you reverting in the title, it’s become a kind of meme at this point. And there is plenty of critiques from the radical liberatory side which is the one that you are offering, but also right-wing conservative perspectives, like I’m thinking of Trump getting kicked out of Twitter, or the J.K. Rowling transphobic stuff that prompted this all of these rich and powerful people to talk about cancel culture, so I was wondering what you think… How do we differentiate those critiques from the liberatory side vs. the powerful side?

amb: Yeah, I feel like I’ve had to explore this a lot more since the book came out than I ever did before. I’m really not following what right-wing conservative people are up to or saying or doing. It’s literally not a part of my world, my conversation. So when I wrote the initial piece and people were like “Trump uses this language”, I felt like “What?” I don’t follow him, so for me, it was interesting. I can totally see the right-wing using the critique of cancel culture to dodge accountability and to me, the major distinction is what is the impetus of the critique. For me, it is a love-based, abolition-based impetus. I do believe that as people who are fighting for abolition, there are conversations we need to have, questions we need to be asking and practices we need to get good at that are related to how we practice being in deeper accountability with each other and starting to develop an expectation that accountability is possible when harm happens. Because I believe that those twin expectations are what lay the foundation for a truly post-prison, post-policing coexistence. So that to me feels like the primary thing is that when someone like J.K. Rowling is being like “No, cancel culture is being no good”, what she is fundamentally fighting for is like “I want to protect my right to be oppressive, to basically cancel or deny the existence of other people”. And what I think we are fighting for is the right to protect as many people as we can from being harmed, denied, erased. So there is a call, you know, to me, the difference is also people talk about call-out vs. call-in and this kind of things, I think a lot of what we are doing is that we want to actually pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, accountability. And that feels like a huge distinction.

TFSR: That’s a good point, cause the words can become slippery, especially as they get co-opted by people who don’t have those horizons that we have.

amb: When I was trying to figure out which words were are going to fight for, and how we do that fighting for. It’s hard, but I do think it’s worthwhile in some places. Abolition is actually still ours, transformative justice is still ours. I don’t think cancel culture necessarily is the one that is ours. For me, We Will Not Cancel Us is about the activity, like we are not going to cancel people we need to be accountable for. How do we do that?

TFSR: Yeah, this is a very important distinction, because cancel culture is already a mainstream critique of this thing, probably they see it as a youth phenomenon on social media. And canceling is a thing that people do, but it’s not a whole culture necessarily.

amb: It’s not, and what I think is interesting is that there is a culture of disposability, and there is a culture of conflict avoidance, but I think the cancelation… So much of it is rooted in social media culture, so social media culture is a shallow engagement, clickbait headlines, very surface-level arguments, and then canceling people. It all goes together: trolls-gone-wild, then we are trying to build a movement and how do we navigate and organize around social media as a part of building movement, and how do we harness it as a tool? I think what’s been happening is that it’s been harnessing us. We’ve got drown into the way social media works as if that’s how a community works and changes.

TFSR: There are two different levels that we can use social media as a tool for things that we’ve done historically to protect ourselves, but then there is this other level where it takes on another meaning. One thing I was thinking about reading your book is that probably also the most notable mainstream version of this that gets discussed is the #metoo. It’s called a movement, but from what you discuss in your book I don’t see it as a movement, cause it’s an isolated ax of naming something. It’s not necessarily a struggle in the streets. And I’m not saying this as a judgment, I’m reserving judgment of like it’s effective or should people do this, but I’m interested in thinking about that, not having a basis in a tangible community.

amb: It’s interesting, I think it depends on where and when you enter the MeToo conversation. If people enter the conversation as like this happened related to Harry Weinstein, a year and a half ago now, then I think that’s the case. But if you take it all the way back to the work that Tarana Burke has been doing for years, that was very tangible and the work that she has continued to do is very much tangible, happening in real-time, in real space, in real relationships and calling for changes that happened in the offline world, and using social media to help push that along, to spread that. But I just did an event with them recently and I was blown away by how much they are inviting people into offline practices. And I think ‘movement’ is a kind of slippery and tricky term. I see people telling like “We are starting a movement”, I don’t think that is how movement works, how things take off or people get called into something and like what is actually moving. And I look at, like, is policy moving? Is our sense of identity moving, is our sense of capacity moving? And in that sense, I would say that to me MeToo is absolutely a movement because it has moved and transformed how people negotiate the intimate relationship, intimate harm, how people negotiate being public or non-public about the harm that happened to them. So I would see it that way.

TFSR: I like that idea. I was thinking, bell hooks distinguishes between political representation and pop culture that doesn’t get grounded in grassroots. But the way you mention it makes sense, and the thing I admire about the call-outs that happen, cause though we could read from a lens of canceling or even carceral sort of minds, but it also is demanding accountability and giving voices to people.

amb: Absolutely, and that’s what I think is interesting is who do we listen to, so if we listen to Cherana and Nikita and so many people who are now working in that space, one of the things they talk about all the time is… this is actually not about destruction, it’s not about trying to bring people down and destroy them. We are trying to heal trauma, to end cycles of harm, and end trauma that has come from that harm. And I think this is one of the most interesting pieces about the distinction between what I had actually an issue writing about and the larger culture of cancellation and call-out, cause call-outs are rooted in the communities I come from – brown, queer, trans communities. And the reason why we initially needed the strategy was because the power differentials between us and the folks who were causing harm were so vast that we couldn’t be heard as equal parts of the story-telling, we couldn’t be heard in our survival. That’s still the case in so many scenarios where “Oh, these workers need to call someone out, or call out an institution, a corporate entity because the power dynamics are so vast. And with Harvey Weinstein, with R. Kelly, with some of these big public cases, I hundred percent support those, I’ve tweeted that, those make sense to me because the power differentials are so big that the only way to potentially stop this harm is by making this huge call. I think the difference is then how do we handle it when the harm is much more horizontal, within a community, where there might be slightly more positional power, slightly more social media cachet or something, but no one is wealthy, no one actually owns anything, no one has long-standing security in any kind of way, and a lot of time we are talking about survivors, where everyone is in a situation of survival or something.

And that to me, as I’ve stressed, has got much more complex, and again, that still doesn’t mean that we take it off the table. It might still need to be. I’ve witnessed, I’ve held, I’ve supported the situations where we have tried a million other things to get this person to stop causing harm and this is not the move. And I think that is the case… A lot of the push-back I got from people when I published the original essay, they were like “Hold on, in a lot of these cases, we have tried everything”. Don’t take the power out of the move that we do need the capacity to make. And that was not my intention in writing and it’s not my intention now is to say “How do we make sure that we are using the tactic precisely when it needs to be used and how do we make sure we have other options when we need other options, right? This is not the first thing people jump to.

TFSR: I guess that’s the thing with social media, and we have so many examples of it, especially because being harmed is a really isolating experience and being able to voice it really scary…

amb: It’s so hard.

TFSR: We see the representation of that on social media that can give you the ability to do something even if you wouldn’t reach out to your pod or whatever. That’s a distinction that, I don’t know, I don’t know…

amb: Well, just briefly on that point, that’s also part of what I’m fighting for. As someone who is a survivor myself and who really has to battle like “Would taking this public be healing for me? Who would I share this with that it would be healing for me? How would I actually be able to heal the pattern that happened here? What do I want for the person – multiple people in my life – who have caused harm?” And it’s a very intimate reckoning. I can’t outsource like “Here is what I landed on, and that’s what everyone got to do too”. Because it’s very intimate. What I do know is that I want the result to be satisfying. If people are taking this huge risk to tell these stories, I want them to be satisfied that they are not able to get justice, but they are able to get healing. I think it is often what happens with the way the call-outs play out right now. A lot of what happens is people take this huge risk, tell a story and now they are associated with that story. It’s now they become a public face of the worst thing that ever happened to them, and sometimes there is some accountability, but often there is not, sometimes the person who caused them harm just disappears and goes somewhere else and keeps causing harm. For me, I’m just like “Hold on, let’s examine this strategy and figure out how do we actually make sure survivors are having a satisfying experience or healing and being held, and getting room to process and not having to be responsible for managing anything to do with the person who caused them harm.

My vision is where we live inside of communities, that have the capacity and the skill to be like “That harm happened to you – we are flanking you, we’ve got you, you are being held, we are attending to your healing. And that there is also enough community to go to the person who caused the harm and hold them in a process of accountability and also healing”. Because fundamentally, we know something’s wrong if someone is causing that kind of harm, if someone commits sexual assault, if someone commits rape, steals resources, abusing power. We know that actually some healing is also needed there. Not that the survivor needs to guide the healing, but the community does need to be responsible for it. I think we are a long way from that. Where we need to be heading if we call ourselves abolitionists is we have to develop a capacity to hold all of that in the community, so that we are not outsourcing it to a prison, to the police.

TFSR: Yeah, it’s interesting in this transitional period, we are not there, it that vision just discussed, we are trying to reach that. There is that experience that so many people have and you’ve probably seen and had it yourself where accountability processes go wrong or a call-out isolates someone and the person who caused harm gets scrutinized and their process doesn’t happen or even I feel like processes can be used to wheel power within subcultural communities, whether that is anarchist or queer, and exclude people. So there is a high level of burnout or disillusionment with these processes, and I just wonder what you think about how we counteract that. That’s another form of healing that is needed.

amb: Yeah. I keep pointing people to these two resources, they just came out last year, which to me says so much about how early we are in the transformative justice experiment. And to place ourselves in a context of time, helps me to drop my shoulders. Be like “Of course we don’t know what the fuck we doing, these processes are fucking hard and everything” because we are so early and we have been… Mariame Kaba talks about this, that we had 250 years of the carceral experiment, of well-funded policing and prison systems rooted in enslavement practices, had a long time of those being well-funded and we have never had a period of experimentation in what we are talking about – transformative justice and abolition practices – have been well-funded. Of course, we don’t have the resources to do it.

So one book is Beyond Survival by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha which gives a history of transformative justice, which talks about the people who were doing it before they knew that they were doing it, maybe they didn’t call it that, but just different kind of case studies and models and experiments so people can see that we have been innovating and adapting and trying to figure this out. That feels like one resource for people to say “Go look, we are not the first people to fuck up”. We still don’t know how to hold this, we are learning. The other resource is Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan put out this workbook called Fumbling Towards Repair, and I’m in love with this workbook because it’s very tangible as a resource. Here is how you can do a community accountability process in your community when something happens. It’s rooted in the idea that Mariame talks about which is it’s not going to be a one-to-one shift from the carceral state to a perfect transformative justice system that someone else still holds outside of us. It’s going to be a system where we want to defund the police and the state and redistribute resources into a million different options in our community including that many of muscle up our capacity to do community accountability processes. And if we are doing one for the first time – I remember the first time I did one – I went in with a big dream of healing and I came out mid-level satisfying, like I said my piece, and this person agreed not to do whatever.

So I just think it’s important to be humble on a grand scale about the fact that we are still learning these things and there is a lot of people in our community who actually are developing some expertise around this, but you are developing an expertise in something that is very often a private process, so it’s not something you are writing out like “Honey, let me tell what I just did with this horrific person”, a lot of it is very private and quiet, and I think that also skews the sense of this moment because a lot of times the initial call-outs, initial accountability moves are much more public, and social media takes them very far, but then we don’t see what happens behind the scenes, we don’t see what was happening behind the scenes to lead up to that moment, all the things that are behind. So if we were able to be like “Ha! We don’t know how to do this yet, we have to learn how to do this. And learning happens mostly through failure. We learn by trying something, it doesn’t quite work, then we make the adjustment. We have so much to learn. We have to learn what roles work best for different people, who are the mediators, who are the people who can hold these processes, who are the people who are like “I’m a healer, I can hold a role in a community”. Do you have to experience these accountability processes yourself, can you just read about it and hold it? There is so much to figure out, and to me, it’s actually exciting. We are in an exciting place potentially for transformative justice and abolition. But not if we stay committed to outsourcing those we deem as bad or the processes themselves. It’s more like how do we turn to be like “Yeah, we don’t know how to do this, let’s learn”.

TFSR: Right. I actually had an opportunity to teach a queer and transformative justice class, it was very well-funded, it was right when those books came out, I was so excited, look at all these new books on this. Teaching this stuff to young people seems important, but also familiarizing them with the fact that it’s not a one-to-one replacement or solution. I use a lot Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces because she talks about it not being a resolution we are used to within a Capitalist society…

amb: Exactly, and looking at those three stories, cause I think that’s the stuff, looking at these different real-life scenarios and being with the complexity of each of these human beings, I think it is such a great book. I also point people a lot to Mia Mingus’s work, particularly the work around apology, because so much of it is, you know, you are trying to get water out of the stone, it feels like “When I really need is an acknowledgment of the harm you did and an apology for that. Few people know how to give a good apology. There is a myriad of resources that we’re building and generating and slowly bringing into a relationship with each other. I think in ten years, it’s going to look very different.

TFSR: There is something interesting I was starting to think about. You talked about the privacy of the intimacy of situations that need this kind of handling. If we start having people specializing in training and that stuff that go around doing the work, we can run the risk of professionalizing it.

amb: I hope this is not the… To me, that’s why the workbook model is so exciting. And I say this is someone who has worked as a facilitator for the last 20 years. I recognize what happened for me was I had the skill, those I used in my community, and then it became a professionalized skill. Suddenly people started “We’ll fly you to all different places to do this”. For a while, it worked for me and allowed me to work with very exciting movements, but it also has the impact in the long run of making people think that they have to fly me in rather than looking around and see who in their community has this capacity and strength. I wrote Emergent Strategy to help with spreading those tools and I have a book coming out this spring called Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy. Facilitation and Mediation. And for me, the idea is similar, the workbook is like “Pick this up, integrate the skill-set, find the facilitators, the people who are like this in your community and do mediation, who are drawn to it, and let’s start to have more capacity for local reliance in these different systems and needs. I think the professionalization and the sense of bringing someone from afar to do this – we can do this, it’s possible on the level of the community.

TFSR: I know since you post so much from Octavia Butler that maybe you are kind of seeding the communities, then figure it out themselves.

amb: Exactly.

TFSR: And thinking about Emergent Strategy and the new book you’ve just mentioned, OK, in We Will Not Cancel Us, you talk about the sort of supremacy within us and connect it to the diagnosis that the Oankali make in Octavia Butler’s book about the problem with humans is like…

amb: Hierarchy and intelligence…

TFSR: Yeah. I see that work that you do, the writing that you do as part of the process, the internal process that we need to do to unlearn supremacy, the hierarchy within us… And that would work on so many different levels – power, masculinity, and all these things.

amb: Everything.

TFSR: Do you see this as a sort of thing that takes place in culture, is it internal… It seems like you’re initiating a new genre to have an “anti-authoritarian help book” or something.

amb: [laughs] Thank you. The other day I was interviewed and they said that my new genre was “facila-writing”, writing stuff that facilitates people through a process, so I’ll accept this too, “anti-authoritarian help books” I do think that is something that happens at both ends and I say this like one of my great teachers, mentors, was Grace Lee Boggs who is an Asian-American freedom fighter based here in Detroit, part of the Black Power movement. And she said we must transform ourselves to transform the world. And when I first heard it, I was like “No, we have to go out and transform all the fucked-up people who are doing bad things, we are good”. It took me such a long time to understand what she meant, which is any of the systems that we are swimming in have also rooted inside of us, and as we un-root them, uproot them, we unlearn things inside of us, then we become both models for what it looks like to be post-capitalist, post-nationalist, post-patriarchal, post-white supremacy, we become models of that, we become practitioners and scholars. We actually understand what it takes to do that unlearning. That feels like such a crucial part of this.

In We Will Not Cancel Us, I reference my friend Prentis Hemphill’s essay Letting Go of Innocence because that feels connected to this. First, we have to recognize we are not above the people who have caused harm. They may have had different circumstances, they have let us to moving our harm in different ways or processing our traumas in different ways. I think it’s such a blessing, you know I have a life of trauma, but early in my life I was given tools around therapy and healers, I had a loving household, a loving jumping off board from which to process the trauma of being alive in this time, which I think everyone actually is experiencing at some level. I interact with people and they didn’t come across the idea of therapy or they thought that’s not an option or a healer – that’s private, that’s something you don’t do. And that energy is going to move somewhere. So I don’t look at myself as above anyone who ends up in the prison system or anyone who ends up canceled. I just had different circumstances and they allowed me to process the trauma in a different way. That’s internal work that allows me to be present with the fact that capitalism is in me, petty jealous behavior is in me, judgmental behavior is in me, and that I have to examine what is white supremacy, what is patriarchy, what are those things that live in me. I keep uprooting that.

At the same time, I do believe it is cultural work and that is why I write books instead of just having these thoughts in my head or only doing the work with a small group of friends, as I am interested in dropping seeds into the culture to see if other things can bloom. And my experiment with that, with Emergent Strategy, was so exciting to me because I released the book, didn’t really promote it, I was just like “Look, if there are other people hungry for these ideas, this will spread, if they are not, I will know that I’m alone in Detroit looking at ends and that’s fucked. I felt kind of OK either way cause the Earth is still offering its amazing lessons regardless of people see it through my book or not, but now I know that that strategy can really work. And We Will Not Cancel Us similarly, we did a couple of events that just felt like important conversations to have with Charlene Carruthers, with Cindy Weisner, with Shira Hassan, and with Malkia Devich-Cyril who wrote the Afterword. But mostly it was like the book is out and people are either reading that or not. And I have a lot of people who were like “I’m reading this”. I got a lot of messages from people who are like “I’m really surprised based on the first essay to what happened in the book, I’m surprised. I see what you did, I see the growth”. That’s still not the perfect book, it was a quick process, but to me, it feels important that people are reading it in their own groups and talking about their own local culture. Because social media is not the whole world, and so much is happening in our local movement circles, and how at a local level we are integrating these questions of “Well, how do we handle harm? How do we handle conflict when it arises? What are our case studies? Are there people who we have canceled or tried to dispose of? What happened with them? Where are they now? Did they stop causing harm? Did that work? If not, what else could work? Are we putting people in the line of the state, in the eyes of the state?” Just having it as a local conversation.

The thing I’m interested in is a culture of discernment, a culture of mature, generative conflict, and I think that’s so important on this journey towards an abolitionist future is it’s not just a policy change that will make that possible, it has to be an entire cultural shift, and culture shifts because lots of individuals shift.

TFSR: That’s a good way of thinking, cause the internal work, we are sort of taught to think of the internal work as of the work you do for yourself, your goals and your profession, but actually the internal work and this stuff, it turns you into a potential facilitator. I’m not perfect obviously, but I’ve done a lot of work, and the work that I do allows me to enter the situations from a different place, that I can help facilitate them. It’s not because I’m better or to be above them or avoid them completely, cause that’s impossible.

amb: Yes, and I think right now the culture that is being produced is one where people have a lot of fear around making mistakes which limits how honest people are, because if we are being honest, we are making mistakes all the time, and we have fucked-up thoughts all the time. One thing that I appreciate about my best friendships is that I can say something that is wild and my friend will go like “That’s wild, girl, you can’t say that, and let’s examine where that thought came from”. I grew up in a military household, in a capitalist family. I have to know that that shaped me that by the time – I went to an Ivy League University – all those things shaped me. And so as I’m unlearning this, a lot unpack there, and if I’m above that unpacking or I’m hiding from ever making a mistake, then I can’t do that learning. We want to move from a culture where people are terrified to show up to a culture where people are excited to be able to be like “Here is all of me and I know I have work to do”. And if it’s a culture of belonging, where even if you are fucked up, which you definitely are, you still belong to your species and you still belong to your community. And belonging means you are in a constant state of growth.

I’m rereading bell hooks’ It’s All About Love, and she uses this definition of love which is that you have the willful extension of yourself towards the nurturance of another’s growth or your growth. I want love-based communities, to me, that’s what it looks like when you see that someone has fucked up or failed, you are like “I’m going to willfully extend myself towards your growth” so that there is room to come back. That doesn’t mean people are ready for that. I held space for people who were like “I am a flamethrower, I’m in a flamethrower phase of mine, I’m just going to throw flames and everything, and then I was like “OK, this community just needs to set some clear boundaries, so that you know it’s not OK for you to be burning down everybody’s everything.

And that’s a particular move that says “You have a space here when you are ready to come back, and until you are ready to come back, we have to set this boundary. And again, there is no public shaming needed for that, there is no public humiliation, we don’t get pleasure from boundary setting, it’s just a boundary that needs to be set. So that is a kind of cultural shift that to me feels important.

TFSR: That’s an interesting way of putting it, to try and talk about it without shaming. In a relationship, I try to say “If I fuck up, tell me, cause that’s a learning experience for me, it’s an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts and know something else and also not do that again if I can avoid it.” It’s surprising that so many people don’t expect that, you have to normalize that.

amb: Right, because people don’t even realize that this concept of perfectionism is one of the ways capitalism plays out within us and within our community. That there can be some perfect and we can buy our way there or fake our way there or botox-or-plastic-surgery our way there or something. But actually, no one is perfect, people are making mistakes all the time, and I love how you said that, Scott, that a mistake is a place where an aliveness becomes possible, and learning becomes possible. There is also something really important. Just that piece around boundaries. I want boundaries from other people around me. I want to know what the boundaries are that I need to uphold and honor, even if it hurts. I think about it, in my most intimate relationship, when someone’s like “No, adrienne, you can’t cross this line”. And I’m like “Me? For real?” and them “Oh yeah, let me integrate that”. Because it actually isn’t personal, that’s that don Miguel Ruiz shit. Don’t take it personally, when you stop taking it personally, you recognize that people’s boundaries are about them, taking care of themselves, and you can love them by upholding those boundaries. Even that is part of learning.

I know a few people who have been through big call-outs and now they are sitting outside of a boundary, outside of a community that they once felt so at home in, and it fucking sucks. And I’m holding the boundary and I’m learning what I need to learn out here in order to be able to make my return. Even if I think there are other ways to do it, fundamentally, what we are trying to do is to develop a culture where we can set boundaries, the boundaries actually create growth and space for actual authentic love to be possible.

TFSR: It’s so funny, I always thought about the thing I liked about hanging out with anarchists is that I can leave any situation and people don’t need an explanation for it. I’m just like “I’m done”, with that ability to… there is not the same kind of expectation to participate beyond your limits.

amb: Because there is a practice of non-attachment, a practice of really being free around other free people, which is very uncomfortable for people who are… Ursula Le Guin wrote about it in The Dispossessed, that’s I really still identify as an anarchist, is that what it really means to be free is so at odds with how our culture is currently structured. We don’t realize all the ways we are weaving ourselves into a self-policed, self-controlled state, and we are making all kinds of agreements – control me, control me, police me, correct me, control me. I’ve just noticed that in the past year my visibility has gone up to a whole different level, which means that a lot more people think they should have control over me, and really staying free within that context is like “Oh, I’m glad I have developed the muscles before this visibility, that I am free and I deserve to fuck up and make mistakes and I can handle being in public, and someone is like “Yeah, I fuck up”. I am a human being, visibility doesn’t make me less human, but it is a muscle that I wish more people were thinking about even developing, much less practicing.

TFSR: Yeah, you have your podcast, but also your book model is a process. We Will Not Cancel Us is presented not as a finished…

amb: Yeah, it’s a process and I made uncomfortable decisions in it. It would be much easier for me on some level to just pull down the original piece and be like “That’s embarrassing. I made mistakes and people can see that”. But again, if I step outside of it, if I don’t think about it so personally, then I can imagine some young organizer being able to read a book and go back and see the piece and make a connection and be like “Oh, this was what you learned and improved, you still have room to grow, this could be better, sharper, clearer”. And I’m like “Great, you write the next book”. Keep this process going.

I recently got to be in a conversation with Angela Davis which is wild, she is someone who I really look up to, but I also love how I see her handle critique in her life. People come to her and are like “Why are you like this, whatever?” And she’s like ” Yes, exactly. Those questions are real questions that I’m in”. That she keeps herself a living, breathing, growing being who is learning and changing all the time. And she’s like “I’m not the same person I was when I was being pursued by the government when I was arrested and all that, when you campaigned to Free Angela Davis, now I’m this Angela Davis and I will continue to grow”. And I’m like “That feels like a great model for those of us who hope to be elder organizers, elder activists, elder radicals. Grace continued to be curious and grow, Angela continues to be curious and grow, and I want to be that. If I have the blessing of being old, I want to be that kind of an elder.

TFSR: I got what you mean, to have a continuation and the inter-generational connection for a diversity of people coming in now, stuff that is happening and just sharing our knowledge and experience and also getting theirs, cause they have a different perspective.

amb: Exactly.

TFSR: I’ve seen this tactic used when there is a serial abuser in a community, someone who the community doesn’t believe can be accountable, they do a general call, flyering, posters whatever. There is also in science fiction like Woman on the Edge of Time, there’s this idea that eventually, if you keep harming, you get killed, right?

amb: In Woman on the Edge of Time, you get one chance. You mess up one time, they give you the tattoo, if you mess up again, they say “We are not doing prisons”.

TFSR: I have an organizer friend who says that part of abolition is maybe the community decides that that’s it for you, that’s the vision of it. I’m not saying that everyone everyone needs to adopt that, but there is also revenge and stuff like that, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.

amb: I think it’s complicated because I will admit that I have one response – here is my theoretical, philosophical higher-self response, which is that we have to keep building our capacity to hold even the most harmful people, somehow we have to figure it out. But then a part of me is in communities regularly and has had to hold and set those boundaries and has seen that person, I’m like “You literally don’t care, you must work for the Feds, you are just… when they are passing out fives of happiness and joy, you miss the entire bucket, you don’t know what happened”. I’ve seen this side and I’ve definitely been in a place where it felt like there was no other option. What I mean inside of this is I am not actually judging what communities have to do to survive and I don’t think that any of us can do that for other communities. At least I’m not trying to judge, I’m not trying to be like “You all are weak, cause you need to do whatever”. My thing is, there is something around how we feel inside of it. Any of those times when I finally had to be like “Look, they are not willing to stop causing harm, we have to set this boundary”, for me, it’s been a move of grief and relief. Like we just have to make this call and prayer, cause I know us holding this does not mean that the harm is going to stop and they are going to find someone else to hurt. And at an individual level, this is always a thing, someone has been abusive to you, do you call the person they start dating next and say “Look, this person is going to fuck you up” or you just like “Well, I hope it goes better for them”? People make different calls about that. The things that helped me through this: one is I do believe that people change. They may not change at the pace that we want them to. I do believe that sometimes a hard boundary is the only way to get people to change. I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve seen it happen to people who had that positional power, that they were abusing and abusing, and finally were like “You don’t have it anymore”. And that’s where they actually were able to turn inward.

So I do believe that hard boundaries sometimes can be the most powerful thing. I do think it’s difficult with the flyers and revenge. I’ve said it before – that person just needs to get their ass kicked. That what needs to happen. I struggle inside of the same complexities. I think it’s the important piece here. What I want us to get good at as a community is feeling like we have as many options as we do actually have and practicing all the options. A lot of what my writing is in this time is let’s not just above all the options that help keep this person in our community or help this person to heal from the harm that clearly has happened to them, or help this scenario play out differently. Let’s not leap over all of that to have the very first thing we do is, say, plaster this person’s face and name and the intimate stories of the worst moments of their lives all over the internet and then anyone can see. For me, that’s the move that I’m trying to keep us from. To be like “First, let’s understand the history of that person. What do we know? How do we protect the survivor from any further harm? Is the person actually open to mediation or any other process? If they are, who are the right people to hold that, we need multiple people to hold that?” And so on and so forth.

Now, I think we need a boundaries school. If I were creating a school that everyone in the movement had to go through for the next year, it’s the pandemic, and we are like “OK, you can’t be on the streets, let’s all go to boundary school, let’s all go to abolition visioning school and figure out when we say ‘Defund the police’, what responsibility are we taking on in that scenario?” I would have us be in some real serious schools. I think Prentice Hemphill could run a boundary school. I have visions on this step. And Sendolo Diaminah could run the school on abolitionist visions and on practicing it at the local level. Andrea Ritchie could do that, Mia Mingus, Mariame Kaba, there are so many people. There is a lot of learning and political education and practice education that we could do because there is pleasure in revenge, there is pleasure in being able to finally say “This asshole is an asshole”, there is pleasure in all those things. But I think it’s a temporary pleasure that doesn’t actually change the conditions that will lead to more harm happening. I want us to get the pleasure mostly from healing and knowing that we have a chance from the conditions that the harm will not happen anymore.

TFSR: That’s a really good way of putting it. I was thinking about glorifying Fanon sort of violence that cleanses things. Going back to Butler, she explores violence in terms of community, but she holds it in complexity. She doesn’t endorse it, she shows detriments to it.

amb: Yeah, and there is something fascinating. In one of my favorite explorations that she has, which is The Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, those are two books inside the Patternist series, there is this character Doro, who is a straight-up body snatcher. I remember doing a series of reading groups around this where eventually, a whole huge interconnected network has to take him out because he just cannot stop causing harm. He literally can’t survive if he stops causing harm. But I was sitting in one of the reading groups one time, and someone turned to me and was like “Did she ever try to heal him?” The lead character is one of the most amazing outstanding healers that’s ever existed. And the person said, “Did she ever try to heal him?” I went back and read the book and I couldn’t really see it, cause she tried to argue, she tried to demand, she tried to shame, to run away, she tried a million things to hold him accountable and ask for him to change, but there is not really a moment that she laid her hands on him the way she did with others, and reached into that place where he was a child, his entire family had been killed, and this was the strategy that emerged for him to survive. I always come back to that, it moves me to tears each time, cause if we look at each person causing harm as a child who has been harmed, it changes the conversation, and I think it can change what’s possible. I keep wanting to make this distinction, but that to me is not the work of the person surviving their harm, for me as someone who had been and is being abused, it’s not my job to be like “Oh, I can see the child in you”. But I think in the community, we need to grow that capacity. We have to help, to figure out getting this person to therapy. That might be the mandate. I do feel there are things like that, like if you want to be here, we have to know you are getting support, if you want to be here, we have to see this commitment to your healing. And that would be a sophisticated future if that was happening.

TFSR: That’s a really good point. I was really intrigued in the book about this idea of how we feed intp surveillance and sort of a counter-surveillance. I just wanted to hear more about that idea. Is it airing dirty laundry, is it leaks that get turned against us? Again, it’s like, I’m thinking COINTELPRO and we are bringing all this stuff back to black queer organizers who use call-outs as self-defense. How do you conceive this kind of surveillance?

amb: I think it’s an interesting conversation and it’s part of why I was really excited to have Malkia write the afterword because Malkia grew up as a child of a Black Panther who has really done a lot of scholarship around COINTELPRO and surveillance and who has been fighting around facial recognition and surveillance and all these things. I feel I learned a lot about what Malkia thinks about these things. I wanted to bring this conversation into the larger conversation that we are having which is I don’t think we’ve ever healed from COINTELPRO and I don’t think we’ve ever really figured it out. There are people who are doing really interesting work around how do we relate to living in a completely overwhelming surveillance state, how do we relate to the fact that infiltration is very common and expected. And we can see the patterns of it play out, that is very hard at an interpersonal level to ever know who you can trust and who you can’t trust.

I just saw a screening of Judas and the Black Messiah which talks about the infiltration of Fred Hampton in the Black Panthers in Chicago, and it’s just devastating to know that people show up inside movement spaces with the intention to cause dissent, harm, and to keep us from justice and liberation. But that is definitely happening. And at meetings, I’m like “Hmm, I think that person is here for the wrong reasons. My response to this is mostly like “Let’s be overwhelmingly on point with what it is we are up to and hope that we sway them and they become a turncoat to the government, whatever. But that is very unrealistic. And much more realistic, since we have to be thinking how are we building trust with each other… For me, it’s all of the above, that is airing the dirty laundry piece that harms us mostly in the eyes of our opposition. They are like “Hey, they don’t actually have unity and solidarity, they are everyone at each other’s necks. And even if it’s true, I don’t think it serves us to have that be public and transparent. And I don’t think it feeds to generative conflict, if the move is that we put people on blast rather than sitting down and having a face-to-face conversation, I’m concerned about that. Zoom, face-to-face, whatever it is.

But then I also think there is something around how we isolate people. If we are taking someone and we are like “This person caused harm in our community” and we are putting that on the internet, then that person is now isolated out of the community and if someone who is surveilling and is looking for like “Who could we turn into an infiltrator, who could we reach in those ways, who could we take out, who could we disappear”. To me, it’s saying “Here are our weakest links, here are the weakest points of our movement. Come get us”. And I think right now, because the movement has grown so fast and because social media is such a bizarre space where people think they have a relationship with people they never met, they don’t know anything about, they don’t have any sense of an actual history for, we are in a really endangered species’ zone, when it comes to our movement work right now. That was a big impetus for the writing that I did, cause I was being asked to do these call-outs, and then I would go look who was asking me to do this call-out, it was almost people I didn’t know and there was nothing to show me that this person’s ever done any other community work. I can see that they’ve done other call-outs, but I don’t see anything like “Here is what they’ve built”.

I said this in many places: I’m much more moved by people who are creating, building, growing the movement, rather than people who are like “My job is to destroy this institute or organization, or turn down this activist, whatever”. That’s not organizing work. And we definitely have people in movement right now where I’m like “They may not be on the State’s payroll, but they might as well be based on how they spend their time, how impactful is it growing efforts of actually being able to advance a united front, something that is complex organizing strategy. So I just think we have to be more mindful around it. To me, even if you don’t agree with me, even if you are just like “Fuck that, it’s more important to be able to call these people out”, I’m like “That’s fine”. And at all times, let’s not pretend we didn’t live through COINTELPRO and not pretend that infiltration and subterfuge and undermining and sabotaging our efforts is not a possibility for what’s happening right now. To me, it’s not learning from our history and be able to transform the future, which is what our job is.

TFSR: That’s such an important point. That we can be serving the state in ways that are unintentional and holding up a purity…

amb: If we are already embedded in philanthropy, we already have so many compromises. We can’t also be throwing our people into those hands.

TFSR: Exactly, we need to accept that we are not pure and not expect other people to be pure. That was a really helpful way of way of packaging it, thank you.

amb: Thank you for this conversation. You have really good questions and I hope that it serves us all.

TFSR: Thanks for making the time.

Building Working Class History

Building Working Class History

book cover for 'Working Class History'
Download This Episode

This week, I spoke with John from the Working Class History collective and host of their WCH podcast. We spoke about the new book, “Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance“, that WCH has published through PM Press, their archives, methodology, the project of popularizing working class, movement and human-sized history and a bunch more. [00:05:53]

More info on Working Class History at their website, WorkingClassHistory.Com, in their podcast and on twitter, instagram and facebook in a growing number of languages.

If you thirst for more conversation with John, you’re in luck as Firestorm Books will be hosting a presentation with him about the book on February 25 from 7-8:30pm eastern or UTC – 5. You can find out more at Firestorm.Coop/Calendar.

A transcription, downloadable pdf and imposed zine should be up in about a week here!

Announcements

Transcription & Support

As an update on our transcription project, we’ve sent our first batch of zines to patreon subscribers over $10. Much thanks to everyone who is contributing at whatever level. We are still $75 short of covering our minimums for the transcription and podcasting fees, so if you think you can become a sustainer consider visiting patreon.com/TFSR. If you don’t like patreon, we can receive ongoing donations from liberapay or paypal, as well as one-time donations via paypal and have merch for sale in our big cartel store.

If you don’t have cash but want to help out our project, that’s great! Reach out with show ideas, tell some friends in meet space or on social media, rep our content, print out some zines and send them into prisoners, rate us on podcasting sites, translate our work, or if you have a community radio station in your area you want to hear us on, get in touch and we’ll help you. We have some notes on our site under the broadcasting tab as well, for our weekly, 58 minute FCC friendly episodes.

Letters for Sean Swain

Our comrades continues to be denied access to regular communication with the outside by the Department of Corrections in Ohio as well as Virginia where he’s being held. It’s also notable that his website is currently down. Sean has a complaint pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for the torture he suffered at the hands of the state of Ohio. He is also collecting support letters for his bid for clemency. You can find more details on instagram by following Swainiac1969, SwainRocks.Org, our Swain tab or by checking out the script up at https://cutt.ly/Hkph3KY.

Thanks to Linda from Subversion1312 for reading this week’s Sean script. [01:18:02]

BAD News #42

The latest episode of BAD News: Angry Voices from around the world by the A-Radio network has just been released. You can find find past BadNews episodes at the A-Radio site. This month, you’ll hear calls for support for the evicted ROG squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia, prisoner and prisoner solidarity updates from Greece, excerpts from a discussion of Russian anarchists about the current protests across that country and Alexei Nawalny, and a short piece highlighting the 100th anniversary of the death of Piotr Kropotkin.

NoDAPL Grand Jury for Steve Martinez

From fedbook

FREE OUR COMRADE & RELATIVE STEVE MARTINEZ! Thank you for the birthday wishes, let’s use this energy to Free & Support Steve! He resisted a Grand Jury for the second time in regards to alleged events from the NO DAPL struggle in Standing Rock, is currently NOT cooperating with authorities, & is awaiting federal extradition! Steve needs our support! Steve helped save our friend Sophia Wilansky’s arm from gettin blown off by military weapons, & he is a solid & brave Indigenous warrior! We are asking our comrades to call the jail to DEMAND they release Steve who is wrongfully in custody at: 701-255-3113, & PLEASE WRITE STEVE in Burleigh Morton Cty Jail at:
Steve Martinez
Po Box 2499
Bismarck, ND
58502

money orders can also be sent to him in his name at that address, as well as to his government name above on jail.atm.com

Loren Reed

We’re sharing a short rap by imprisoned indigenous, emo man, Loren Reed. Loren is facing years in prison for poorly chosen words in a private message on facebook during last summer’s uprising. We’ve mentioned his situation before. You can learn more by following Tucson Anti-Repression Crew and you can hear a great interview on Loren’s case done by fellow CZN member, the ItsGoingDown podcast. You can donate to his support by cashapp’ing TARC ($TucsonARC) or paypal’ing to paypal.me/prisonsupport, don’t forget a note saying “For Loren”.

Daniel Alan Baker

In the run-up to the January 20th presidential inauguration, the far right around the US was threatening large, armed and violent rallies at US state capitols across the country. Daniel Alan Baker, a US army vet, former YPG volunteer combat medic, yoga instructor and leftist activist called for people to counter what could have been seen as the deadly sequel to January 6th events in DC. He was pre-emptively arrested by the FBI and is currently being held at Tallahassee’s Federal Detention Center. Like Loren Reed, he is facing years in prison for statements made on social media. For more information, check out this article in Jacobin Magazine, or a great chat with supporters of Daniel’s from CZN member-show Coffee With Comrades. Updates can be found at Instagram by following GuerillaGalleryTLH.

A-Radio Network Live Show

Join the A-Radio Network on Saturday, February 13th of 2021 from 14:00 till at least 20:00 o‘clock central European time, that’s 8am to 2pm eastern or New York time for our 6th transnational live broadcast of anti-authoritarian and anarchist radios from deep within where anarchy reigns.

Since 2016 this is an important part of our yearly gathering of the A Radio network. Due to the pandemic and strong restrictions given by Governments all over the world, this year’s gathering was forced online. But don’t worry, against all odds we will nonetheless join together online on February 14th to broadcast an international show full of interesting contributions and discussions with/from comrades based in different parts all over the world. And you, dear listeners are also invited!

So far, our topics will include international experiences of: prison resistance; anarchy in the time of covid; Far Rightwing threats; and experiences organizing mutual aid!

The show will be carried by (a) transnational and militant spirit which hopefully is highly infectious. We promise our bad anarchist jokes aren’t lethal.

You will find a more detailed schedule, a player for the show and a link to the livestream soon on www.a-radio-network.org and if you’d like to participate, you can also reach out to member projects that can be found on that same site!

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Musical tracks in this episode:

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Transcription

 

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with your name pronouns and any projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this conversation?

WCH: Hi, I’m WCH:, he, and I’m the host of the Working Class History podcast.

TFSR: Would you tell us a bit about the Working Class History project, how it got started, who was involved, and why you started it?

WCH: Basically it came out of some discussions that I have with some friends a few years ago. We’d been involved in lots of different activist groups over the years and publishing projects, and involved in different campaigns. Myself, I spent most of my time organizing at work. And social media, it’s obviously a really powerful tool, and we were thinking about how could we try and put out information—radical sort of information—on social media in a way that would go viral. And we’d also got very interested in reading about the history and learning about past struggles, because the more we did organizing ourselves and were involved in social movements and such, the more it gets a bit sort of frustrating on one level seeing in general, mainstream society, that there’s so little connection that most people have—especially people of our generation and younger—have with mass working class oppositional counterculture which used to exist. Especially in the UK, where I’m from. Most of us we don’t have that organic link with the past anymore where there’d be generations of union families in certain communities. We wanted to think how can we try and not bring that back immediately, but draw that link with the past and at the same time on the (you want to call it the Left or whatever or the workers movement or whatever term you call for it) thinking that so many people get involved in stuff each new generation gets involved in stuff, and they repeat the mistakes of the people that came before them. So all sorts of thinking about how can we try and learn from these struggles in the past and try and help get these lessons to new generations of workers and activists that crop up every generation. And then we thought people seem to like anniversaries, so let’s do that. We started doing that on social media. And we were hoping that it would be viral and it was a lot more successful than we thought, in that. Because I guess for people who are, like, a bit lefty or whatever, seeing a post on social media about something happened on this day, it gives them an opportunity to share something with friends, colleagues in a way that doesn’t seem random, because it is about something that happened today. So now I’m not just lecturing all my work colleagues and family about the Paris Commune of 1871 or whatever, it’s like, “Oh, this is a historical thing that happened today, this is interesting and you might find it interesting, too.” And I think it worked in that way. Because it does give an organic and nice way of sharing information without being a bit fun and without being preachy, or lecture-y, or whatever. So that’s where it came out of, and then as the project’s got bigger we just started trying to do other things like a podcast to look into a bit more detail. Because sometimes we get comments on the on post being like, “Oh, this doesn’t have a lot of background in it, or this should really have a bit more detail.” It’s a social media post. It’s not a PhD thesis or something. We recognize that. We wanted to look into stuff into a bit more detail so we can do it in a podcast. And for people who don’t like looking at stuff online and want to have more of a reference work, we’ve done a book now.

TFSR: I’d like to talk about the book. One thing that you described in there is not a thing that I’ve ever experienced growing up in, I guess, middle class community in the United States, is a knowledge or an expectation or an experience of what a multi-generational working class feeling is. I have tons of friends growing up who were working class. But I think that a thing that you’re describing and that your project is building towards is a little bit different and a little bit something that I’d love to hear if you have any more like insights into how it’s been described to you the sort of like edges that you’ve danced around in trying to create it and what a working class culture in the UK where you grew up, for instance, felt like. What delineates that from just the experience of people who are poor and working and trying to get by?

WCH: I grew up in the southeast of England which is one of the places where the erosion of sense of working class identity has really been very successful especially with policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and onwards. The major industries where workers were best organized and most militant were systematically divided up and then defeated one after another, first with the mine workers, then with the print workers, also around the same time period steel workers, and shipping workers were defeated as well, and then later dock workers. So that was one side of it. And then another side of it was around housing, where social housing was attacked and instead ‘Right to Buy’ was introduced, which gave working class people the ability to buy their own council house, which was—especially in the southeast of England where I’m from—massively successful at converting what was a relatively large group of working class people who mostly were Labor voters and identified in that line of things. It was very successful at turning that collective sense of identity into a massive atomized individuals who can do better for them. Because buying your own council house was a move which did help those individual people who did it significantly. And that was the area that I sort of grew up in amongst a lot of people where that had happened. So their families had bought their own home and then had a sense of themselves as very middle class, mostly conservative individuals striving to do the best for themselves that they could. I’m one of the people from that generation that had no connection with these working class oppositional cultures that I just learned about later when I got into lefty ideas and radical politics.

TFSR: Would you mind talking a bit about the book that y’all just published through PM Press and sort of the process that you went through of compiling it? And what do you hope, as a project, that this book will spark or will bring out and people

WCH: The idea for the book came out of our discussions with our publishers, PM Press, who are a great independent, radical publisher, and who contacted us to see if we’d be interested in doing a book, because we hadn’t really thought about it. We were doing social media posts, and then a podcast, and we’d been involved in some print publishing in the past, but it was a huge amount of work and that put us off the whole-put us off the whole thing. PM talked us into it. And we were excited to do it because on a personal level, like, I love books. Books are great and doing one is great. Even, say, for people who follow us on social media, because of the large amount of other people are putting up posts and algorithms, people won’t see everything that we put out most the time only a fraction of a percent see anything that we put out. And also, because of algorithms, certain posts get much more prominent than others. So especially things that are more about countries where more of our followers live, like the US, that stuff gets a lot more engagement and then a lot more people see it. So people who even do follow us on social media might get a very narrow view of the historical events that we have in our archive. And also, of course, a whole bunch of stuff there aren’t photos of. And in this book we do have a lot of photos, we’ve got over 100 photos. We’ve also been able to feature a lot of stories from our archive where there are no images that exist, so we can’t put them on social media.

We wanted to put something out for people who enjoy consuming content in a different medium. And also to have more as a reference that you can flip through without having to look at a screen or whatever. And it was exciting to be able to think of putting together in terms of a whole, creating as a whole thing. So taking a random selection of everything that we post over a whole year, instead of what we normally do, which is every day we post a couple of things. It was good to think “we’ve got 366 days out of the year and these are the countries that we’ve got events about and we want to feature them the biggest amount of countries and have the most diverse range of stories possible with respect to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity,” and that sort of thing. And with the idea of the book being as diverse as our classes—we acknowledge in the introduction to the book that we have made a lot of efforts in this regard but we still have a long way to go due to the nature of the bias of the sources available to us, which are disproportionately about white guys in more developed Western countries. Most of our research over the past few years has been trying to find out and uncover stories about different parts of the world. But even that is tricky because of language stuff and even knowing what you can Google and such. So, while we’ve still got a way to go, we are still pleased at the range of different types of stories that we feature.

TFSR: It’s quite the tome. And it’s been remarked upon before, like, how much of it—so like, two events out of every date out of the year, including the February 29—which, “thank you” from leap your babies. And I appreciate the fact that there’s an index in the back because there’s a thing to be said about the way that we think about information and that we categorize it if your main impetus is, like, “what is the day today?” “What else has happened on this registered day in history?” That can be, in some happy ways, a bit lackadaisical. You’re not going to be flipping from one page to the next and saying, “Well, then what happened after the workers rose up or after the Soviet tanks came in or after, like, the British military massacred people in Kenya?” It’s interesting to just sort of get these little bite-sized morsels of history. And it seems to invite the reader to embark on a journey of research on their own afterwards, and sort of build the context for themselves as to why this is like important—build an understanding and maybe build wider networks with folks that were more directly affected by those historical events.

WCH: Yeah, that’s what we hope it will do. Like, we list all the sources that we use for each of the posts in the back. So that we do hope that if people see something that is interesting to them, they will go and look into it further. Because in our stories, we don’t try and tell people what they should take from them or what they should think because of them. We don’t want to tell people what to think or anything like that. Obviously we have a perspective, there’s a reason that we’ve put these stories in here. We want people to be able to read these stories and then look into them further if they want and figure out for themselves what the relevance is for them, their lives, and any struggles that they’re involved in.

TFSR: Class has a lot of meanings when it comes from different voices. And we’ve talked a little bit about your experience and basically with how class had been experienced by some people in the part of the world that you had grown up in. Can you talk a bit, for the purpose of this project, which I think was started by people in various parts of the world and not just in, like, the UK, for instance. Can you talk about the standards you used to determine something in the book or in the social media posts or in the podcast, or someone that falls within the parameters of what working class is? And why is it important to view it as a position of agency?

WCH: I think there’s so many different ways that you can talk about class. And they all have some validity. But for us, what’s important is we don’t use it as a system for classifying individuals. Our interest in it is as a political tool which is, how can we best understand society? And how can we then use that understanding in order to change it? And we think that class is a really essential tool in understanding that, especially living as we do in capitalist society. So capitalist society is based on the dispossession of the majority of the world’s population. We are dispossessed of means of production. So land, factories, workplaces, etc., we’re dispossessed of that. So that either by enclosures in European countries, and by colonialism pretty much everywhere else, were dispossessed of that, and therefore, we have to work for a wage for people who do own the means of production, who do own land, factories, blah, blah, blah. And that’s the defining feature of capitalist society. And that’s our broad understanding of class and how we use it. The defining feature of working class for us is this dispossession and then the requirement to either work for another or if you can scrape by on state benefits, if your government provides benefits, or petty crime, or whatever else you have to do. Some people use it—and I think in everyday parlance in the UK, it’s much more of a cultural thing. So what class someone says they have is often more to do with someone’s accent than anything else. The kind of British version of Donald Trump, the guy who hosts the Apprentice TV show, he’s, uh— I don’t know, if he’s a—he’s probably not a billionaire. He’s a very rich business owner called Alan Sugar. He sees himself as working class because his background is—that’s his background and that’s like his accent. And he can think that and that’s, that’s fine. That’s one sort of interpretation of it, but for our perspective, he’s an employer. And his wealth is from exploiting the people that have to work for him because we don’t own businesses.

So obviously in the US there’s even different —there’s all kinds of different ways we’ll have a talk about class. Like, in the US, unions mostly talk about the middle class, talk about being middle class. Because of struggles over the past 100 plus years, a good number of people in blue collar jobs have been able to improve their conditions to the point where they can have a decent standard of living because of the struggles they’ve had. So that there’s a lot of union talk in the US of unions defending the middle class, blah, blah, blah, which is funny, really, especially from a UK perspective where middle class normally means kind of like posh people that like films with subtitles and stuff. So we use it as, not about classifying individuals, but about understanding and changing society. So for example, in our archive we have stories about Oscar Wilde, the author and poet and libertarian socialist. And sometimes people will say things like, “He wasn’t working class.” And it’s like, yeah, fair enough. But his political ideas and the kind of world that he wanted to create was one in which working class people were in control of society and were really able to make the most of our lives and live vibrant, free, beautiful lives. That’s the thing that interests us the most, that for us is the key thing.

TFSR: There are examples in the book that do not take place directly within the framework of the means of production and employment—you point to the intersections between the dispossession and the wielding of state, religious, or social power against populations that are marginalized, whether by ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, place of birth. Can you can you talk a little bit about that widening too of the framework of working class? Because I’m sure there’s some people that are some pretty strict Marxists or workerists out there who are of the perspective that, “Well, that’s all fine and good, but that is not working class.”

WCH: And that was one of the reasons that we specifically chose the name that we did, as opposed to something more populist like “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, a historian who is a big influence on us. Because those vulgar— want to call themselves Marxists or workerists or whatever, are a problem. People who, while they talk progressive talk about overhauling society and building a new type of world, what they often mean in a lot of ways is that they mean that for white male factory worker-type people, and everyone else like women, or Black people, or Indigenous peoples should pretty much be quiet and stop being “divisive” until the revolution, and then all the other problems can be sorted out and hunky dory. And we think that is pretty terrible, in short, not only from a moral perspective, but also it’s completely counterproductive. And it’s a misunderstanding of what class is. While these people may often criticize what they see as identity politics, which is, in most cases, just people in oppressed groups fighting for their own self-interests. They, in fact, are adopting a crude identity politics of their own on the identity of being working class, which they normally also see as excluding other types of identities. And class doesn’t exclude other identities, it overlaps and intersects with all other identities. Obviously, most trans people are working class, most other LGBT people are working class, and the vast majority of the world’s working class are people of color. And they’re located primarily in the global south. And every other type of oppression and exploitation overlaps and intersects with class. For example, things like abortion: wherever you are in the world, whatever the laws are, generally, if you’re rich, you can get an abortion if you need one. Whereas if you are poor, you may not be able to get one, even if it’s nominally legal where you are.

So things like abortion rights are inherently part of a class conflict, class struggle. Abortion rights is just one example—all other types of oppression, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all that sort of thing is very much linked to class, and any single part of our class, fighting for our own interests, benefits all of us because these workerist-type people who would say that struggles of women workers against the pay gap is a section— is a sectional thing, not in the interest of a class of a whole, say, they don’t have that same perspective when workers in one industry go on strike, or one employer go on strike for a pay increase, because they rightly recognized in that case that a victory for one group is a victory for all. And it’s exactly the same with different sections of the working class divided up by any other arbitrary characteristic.

Things like the super-exploitation of migrant workers, or particularly oppressed racial groups, the low pay for black workers in many countries, fighting against that specific racism, exploitation, raises the bar for everyone. So there’s not the constant race to the bottom, in terms of paying conditions where employers can use us to undercut one another. So we thought that was really important to get across. And also point to, historically, that often it has been the most oppressed and the most underpaid workers who have been at the forefront of organizing for better pay and conditions. Not like some populist lefty is trying to say about migrant workers being used to undercut good union jobs or what have you. But more often than not, migrant workers are really at the forefront of workers struggle fighting for better paying conditions and have been. And through history, whether it’s people like agricultural laborers in the United States, or whether it’s people like cleaners in London, England right now, leading so many struggles. Obviously, historically, in the US, women textile workers were often forgotten about. But women textile workers were the first group of workers who properly organized in factories and took strike action. And in the (US) South, black agricultural workers and workers in industries like logging and mining were central and leading in organizing and fighting for better paying conditions, which benefited everyone, including white male workers who often tried to exclude women or black people from their unions.

TFSR: So I’ll totally admit that I haven’t read the book cover to cover and the intro says that I don’t have to so I can just pick it up whenever and say, like, I wonder what happened on June 15. But I am looking forward to continually reading portions as the days passed. I’m noticing a libertarian bent to the stories that are told, for example, I haven’t seen any acts of state by so-called worker states represented as working class events in the book. Could you talk about that a little bit?

WCH: Yeah, well, our approach is summed up in our slogan which is on the back of the book and on our social media accounts, and that’s, “history is not made by kings, politicians, or a few rich individuals, it’s made by all of us.” So that’s the perspective we’re coming from. So the act of politicians and governments isn’t particularly interesting to us because we’re believers in the principle that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. And that was one of the rules of the First International —the first big international socialist organization. And that’s our view of things, that the thing that drives history is not the actions of governments, politicians, or the powerful, it’s the everyday actions, often really small and unnoticeable, by millions, hundreds of millions, billions of us. So that’s what we focus on.

Although we do feature some events which have been done in our name. That have been done by governments which call themselves representatives of the working class. Because we think that as well as learning from successful struggles in the past, we should also learn from our mistakes where terrible crimes have been committed in the name of the working class. So some of the things we include are things like the Soviet Union re-criminalizing homosexuality, which was decriminalized during the 1917 revolution and then in the 1930s was re-criminalized. And that led to the huge numbers of gay and bisexual men being sent to the gulags, to labor camps, to suffer horribly. And that was done in the name of the working class and fighting fascism. We think it’s important to remind ourselves of these things that while those of us who say we want a new world, our ideas are beautiful ideas in a lot of ways. And that we want to create a great world where there’s a lot more happiness and joy than we have now, and a lot less suffering. It’s important to bear in mind that having these lofty ideas in our heads doesn’t always mean that that’s how they work out in practice. And we should be constantly vigilant not to think that the ends justify the means when it comes to certain things.

TFSR: You talked about the limitations of the project in the introduction, such as the limit to two events represented for each day. You also mentioned where you’re starting from, the types of events that you’re aware of, linguistic factors that determine the scope of what you could include. But can you talk about this work in your project in the social media, or in the archives, the work of translating your social media posts on the days of history? Or if you’ve had success through translation to bringing histories that were formerly out of your reach into that wider fold of your project?

WCH: Can I check? Do you mean translating stuff from other languages into English? Or do you mean vice versa?

TFSR: Into English is what I meant, to bring it to your existing audiences. But also, I would imagine that there’s a give and take when it comes to the fact that you’re now doing translations into Arabic and other languages and it seems like you’re trying to expand that framework. Is that right?

WCH: We are very fortunate in that a number of people have got in touch and have launched sister pages, essentially, of Working Class History in other languages. So at the moment there’s WCH sister pages in Arabic, Farsi, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, and the latest one is Romanian, which is really cool and really exciting to see. Some of those groups also are researching their own events and writing up their own history more about their part of the world. So the Farsi page has a lot of stuff about Iranian radical history, which is really fascinating. And the Arabic page as well about the Middle East. And that’s great, because that’s teaching us a bunch of stuff that we didn’t know. And the Portuguese lot as well are writing a load of great stuff, not just about Portugal but about—especially about struggles in former colonies like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and Bissau. So that’s really great for us. And in terms of us finding out things because, as I said, when we first started the social media page, we got a few radical history calendar-type-things and went through and wrote some stuff up, but the ones that we found were massively US and Western Europe and male-centric.

So like I said, the majority of the time we spent looking up new things have been to try and diversify that and correct the bias and imbalance that was in it right from the beginning. And for doing that—not that I want to give any big corporations any praise—but I love Google Translate so much. It’s such an amazing tool that it can do pretty decent, pass-able translations from so many languages into English. So we do use that a fair bit to find out about things. The problem with it being that if writing about something is only available in a language that you don’t speak, you wouldn’t even necessarily know to look something up there unless you had knowledge of it in the first place, which you might not have if it wasn’t in English, if you see what I mean. So it’s a bit—it’s a bit chicken and egg. Basically, when we find out about something in a country or a place that we haven’t heard of, we can use that as an entry point and then read things about it and use Google Translate. And then that references other things which we can then look up. We go down rabbit holes. It’s quite a fun way to—like, nerdy, but a fun way to spend an afternoon like going down a rabbit hole. I did that recently just reading up various things about struggles by Japanese students and things in the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure that there’s lots of stuff that has been written about kinds of stuff by people in academia at some point or by students at different universities or whatever. That’s not the background that we at WCH come from. We wouldn’t even know if any of that stuff exists because most stuff that’s written for academia is then just never heard from again by anyone outside of it, which is a shame I think.

TFSR: Or it’s just behind a paywall so you have to have the JSTOR—shout out to Aaron Schwartz, but most people don’t have that sort of access.

WCH: Exactly. So problems remain where, in the availability of information around the world, but at least on a positive, things do seem to be getting better in that regard. And I think a lot of the time just driven by ordinary people researching stuff and writing it up and then sharing on social media, and then you can find out about it, look into more and what have you, and find more kinds of things that have been digitized around the place. And the more of everything that’s made available online and translated, eventually, the more that we get to find out about all of it. But so it is exciting seeing new things get to get digitized and put online. Yeah, it’s a slow process.

TFSR: Like off topic a little bit, but to the Google Translate thing? Yeah, Google is a terrible company in its application. But also, like, six years ago I was in Istanbul and I remember—like, I don’t speak any Turkish—but I remember sitting in a cafe and one of the workers came up to talk to me because I was sitting in reading, and they asked me what I was reading in Turkish. And I was like, showed them my phone and, like, typed in to Google Translate to translate into Turkish, like, “I don’t speak Turkish, sorry.” And they just put up their phone and they were like, “Okay, well, I was wondering what you were reading—” We just had this conversation showing screens to each other and eventually got to see this, like, barista’s artwork that they wanted to show me that they had drawn and it was just neat to be able to have this conversation that would have been excluded if not for the fact that we had this intermediary technology standing between us. It’s Utopic if not for the fact that it’s owned by a terrible Skynet corporation that is trying to control all the library books.

WCH: I guess you could say at least their business model is more to let people use stuff for free and then just make money off our data in private information, rather than—don’t know if it’s better or worse. Certainly we can make use of it more than, like, the other companies that buy up historical images and then their model is to try and own all the images and then make people pay to use them. Those terrible, terrible things. Capitalism is like, it’s bad?

TFSR: It’s like it’s enclosing everything. So have you considered making a Working Class History page in Esperanto?

WCH: If someone would like to take that on and do that they are very welcome to.

TFSR: Very diplomatic.

WCH: We’ve got a bunch of stuff about that. Esperanto has a really exciting and interesting radical history. And, sadly, a guy that we are planning on doing an interview about him—a guy called Eduardo Vivancos, just died a few days ago, aged 100. He was a guy who, he fought in the Spanish Civil War in the Durutti Column Militia and survived the war, obviously, but he was also a very prominent Esperantist who wrote and did a lot of stuff spreading anarchist and working class ideas in Esperanto, and was able to communicate with lots of people in China and Japan, in particular, at that time. So I think certainly that Esperanto was a really exciting Utopian project at the time. It has a really interesting history.

TFSR: It’s really easy to point to the limitations of it being such a Euro-centric language and what have you. Like, it’s definitely an imperfect thing, but the approach and the desire to have some sort of universal tongue among peoples, it’s a really beautiful idea. A universal tongue that’s not distinctly just English or German or French or Spanish or whatever else. I know that Radio Libertaire in Paris has a weekly Esperanto show that tries to teach listeners how to speak it, which I think is pretty cool to see that still alive. I don’t know.

WCH: Just you saying that and I think that is—the idea is really cool and really Utopian. But what popped into my mind as well is also—also recently what is also about things like Indigenous languages. And so many languages are dying out. I say “dying.” Have been eradicated essentially by colonialism and neocolonialism, particularly with the spread of English. So it is heartening to see, it seems like there’s been a real like growth in interest in trying to—particularly by indigenous peoples—to re-popularize things like indigenous languages and other languages are dying out, which I think is also really important because on the flip side of universal communication there’s also that, like, because of how our brains work, so much of the language we speak shapes how we can imagine things and how our minds work and having languages die is—those whole ways of thinking die out along with them and which is really sad.

TFSR: So in the US, the last national regime was pushing a program of patriotic education, attempting to reform and shape the inculcation of public school students away from influences of critical race theory and projects like the New York Times 1619 projects, as well as “People’s History” ala Howard Zinn, who you mentioned before. States in the US have, with various levels of success, attempted to bar ethnic studies programs and to ban books like Zinn’s. Can you talk about the approach of “People’s History,” which you mentioned as being—or at least in name, at least a bit populist—and it’s maybe like, Zinn’s work or Studs Terkel or other documentarians of working class experiences, how it’s, like, influenced y’all in working class history and why you think the reactionaries find it so threatening, like that sort of approach to popular history?

WCH: Some of the stuff especially being pushed by the last government was extremely worrying with their very blatant attempts to rewrite history, especially for, like, right wing people who like to complain about Black Lives Matter activists trying to rewrite history by removing some statues, and they actually try to rewrite history by making a lot of shit up and lying about it. It’s ironic at the least, especially as it’s also so completely nonsensical that—yeah it is good that there has been a real growth recently in more people-based history, more grassroots history, more Black history, more Indigenous history more history told from the perspective of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and so on. And that is great, and that so many people are out there doing that. But at the same time, that idea in the right wing that these ideas are, like, Marxist indoctrination of schoolchildren is predominant in any public education system is to such a complete joke that. I mean, it’s obviously not funny because it’s extremely disturbed. The fact that a lot of educational institutions pay at least a bit of lip service to teaching about slavery or the civil rights movement, I think a lot of teachers and educators are doing really great work. In a lot of ways, the way that history is still taught for the most part is still very much top down, Euro-centric, colonial, blah, blah, blah.

So anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. People like Howard Zinn was really a big influence. Reading his book for the first time was very exciting. And I think on a personal level, I don’t think I really realized it at the time— I read “War and Peace” as a teenager by like Leo Tolstoy who was an anarchist, but I also didn’t realize that at the time. And intersperse—because the books about the sort of war and all these countesses and counts and whatever. And it’s really fucking long. For anyone who has or hasn’t read or whatever, interspersed through this really long story is a kind an essay about the nature of history. And the thrust of it being that, like, history is not—obviously Napoleon or whatever is a great man of history, but Napoleon is not what has made this history happen. What’s far more important is the infinitesimally small actions of tens of millions of people every single day that goes to create what history is. And I think when I read that, at the time, I thought that was a bit random that this essay was in here amongst all this sort of stories of aristocratic love and intrigue and everything. That actually stuck with me way more than the rest of the book. I think that probably had a real impact on how I think about things later. So obviously it did have an influence on me personally and on WCH in general.

And for reactionaries, yeah, it is threatening because the idea that we as ordinary people have the power to make history and change society is the most threatening thing for the people who are in power now. Because what is in their interests is the fatalistic idea which I think—I don’t know about most people, but probably most people have at least at some time—is that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And things will never change, blah, blah, blah. Which is obviously what people thought under Feudalism that the divine right of kings was something which could never be—which was, it was in the natural order of things and it could never be question never be changed. But then when people realize that, actually—Ursula LeGuin was a legendary anarchist, feminist scifi author, who sadly died a couple of years ago, said, I can’t be the exact words, I am paraphrasing. It’s not the right quote, so don’t quote me on it. “Any society that’s made by humans, however, can be changed by humans” which is, of course, true.

TFSR: I think there is some truth to the argument that they’re rewriting history. Like when we push different narratives, it doesn’t mean that people are making up facts. But history is a narrative that—or a series of narratives that we choose to accept or that are accepted by institutions and that shape the way that we view ourselves and we view the society in which we live. And a fundamental shift in that way of adopting, funnily this view that two pacifist at least anarchist-adjacent individuals like Tolstoy and Zinn had of the world… I wouldn’t call it Cultural Marxism like a lot of people on the right do. I think that it does pose a threat to the way that the world is constructed. And we can think outside of the Feudal bounds that we’re stuck in now even.

WCH: Yes. Yes, I concur.

TFSR: Along those lines there is the rewriting of history. But this isn’t even necessarily part of it, this is a byproduct of the fact that people are rethinking their relationship to historical figures who are in primacy in the historical framework—the historiographies that most of us have grown up in the US under in mainstream society. It’s been the history of great men, to paraphrase Gang of Four.

And the breaking down of that, the rethinking of these public figures who do have statues around, whether it be Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jefferson, or General Robert E. Lee, or Conquistadors or missionaries on the west coast—they’re not even just in the West Coast of the United States. Cecil Rhodes, or whoever—like, statues have been toppled. Statues were at the center of Unite the Tight number one in Charlottesville in 2017, August 12. It was a fight over statues and public representation. And similarly, throughout the United States south there have been the toppling of other statues and monuments, either to individuals or to symbolic ideas of the southern soldier, like, facing north ready to, like, fight back the siege and re-impose—continually impose white supremacy. Symbols like this mean a lot to people. Enough for people to fight over or to like struggle to destroy to build something else. Like, I’d be interested in hearing how Working Class History members felt during this last couple of years, but in particular, this summer during the uprising that took place in so many places around the world.

WCH: It was an exciting time. Not to play down obviously, it came out of horrific events the brutal on-camera murders of unarmed Black men around the US—not to downplay the horror of it. The upsurge in Black-led, self-organized protest and militancy, not just around the US, but that also had an impact, partly because of US cultural dominance of the planet in large part, that also saw similar protests breakout all over the world, and as well as parallel movements in Nigeria—again about police brutality by the colonial era police force. So on the one hand, there was the Black Lives Matter movement. And then at the same time, from our perspective, it looked like a real surge of interest from people in radical history, people’s history, the history of past movements and colonialism and social movements. We had a massive growth in new followers and interactions with our content that was unprecedented, which was exciting for us as a history project, but then also seeing how many of the kinds of discussions happening were about history and the nature of history and the telling of it was interesting and inspiring as well.

Talking about the negative impacts of colonialism that’s not something which I can recall being on the public agenda in my lifetime which is tremendously significant. And then seeing the physical manifestations of that top down—bourgeois if you want to call it right wing, colonialist, capitalist history in the statues of right wing, rich, enslaving, genocidal monuments have been built to these—I think (that) these statues that—they say what our civilization is supposed to be about. That’s what we acknowledge and revere is wealth, genocide, racism, colonialism, and all that. And seeing those symbols being toppled, or damaged, or just graffitied and denigrated. And my favorite one was the Colston statue in Bristol, of an enslaver in Bristol, just being thrown in the river. Chefs kiss! That was really sort of inspiring to see.

Then for some people on the right to complain about, oh, this is rewriting history. These things are happening because people have studied history and a lot of cases, their bodies and their selves, they’ve experienced and lived this history through their ancestors, the trauma and they’ve possessed that and they know their history and the history has been studied and it’s being talked about and this is happening because of the actual history of things. The statute is not the history, the statue is a piece of metal put up by some rich person. This is being done by people who actually know the history, not just whoever Tucker Carlson or some other right wing [beep] spews out about whatever—and especially because so many of these statues as well were erected in in the US south were erected by pro-Confederate, pro-slavery groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy, literally in an effort to rewrite history and change the narrative about what the Civil War was about. About state’s rights as opposed to the enslavement of human beings. So, it’s an interesting time to be a People’s Historian.

TFSR: Some of the stuff that happened over the summer really, like, reminiscent of that, like—and this is like an old, I don’t know how old it is, like the two examples I can think of are—as flawed as the invasion of Iraq was, it’s very flawed—as much as I wish that it had not happened—like, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein was a pretty powerful public image. At least, I’m not sure how much it was organic and how much it was put together by the invading forces—or the like decapitation of the statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956. That’s a, there’s some really cool photos of that. But people like their symbols and also people like destroying their symbols.

WCH: And also all the right wing hysteria about them is like absolute nonsense. Like I don’t know if it was seen over here in the US, but in the UK there was this right wing counter protest to Black Lives Matter that happened by these mostly fascists, and mostly fascist Nazi racist types. And from having been crying about, “Oh, they defaced he statue of Churchill,” or whatever. Obviously you can say a lot of bad things about Churchill or whatever. But also, Churchill did—was involved in a big war against Nazis. So I’m not really sure that he is your boy as much as you think. I mean, yeah, he was a racist, genocidal anti-Semite pro-fascist, whatever. So they had this big protest but they got caught on camera like pissing on statues because they’re just drunk Muppets pissing on the statues that a couple of weeks before they were like, “Oh, look at these thugs,” crying like Churchill was a racist on [inaudible] or whatever. Being like, “Oh, that’s outrageous,” and then they just go piss on them. So, how real is the outrage, huh?

TFSR: Yeah. Yeah, here, I don’t know. There was—I remember seeing footage of like a certain neighborhood in Philadelphia where just a bunch of Italian American people were out in this park defending a statue of Columbus because they were afraid that someone that Antifa was gonna come and topple it or something.

WCH: (There) could be a few less statues of Christopher Columbus and some more statues of like Sacco and Vanzetti and Carlo Tresca and if you want to tie in American statues.

TFSR: Yeah totally. A statue the Galleani. I would appreciate that more than, like, a statute of Frank Rizzo. I think they took that one down at least but it was like a racist reactionary. Police Chief in—

WCH: Yeah, in Philly. I think that got blown up at least once or twice didn’t it?

TFSR:

I don’t know about that. The—maybe? The ones that I remember being—or the one that I remember being blown up that was to the police was the—

WCH: Haymarket one.

TFSR: Yeah, the Haymarket one. I think that’s great. That’s maybe the best thing the Weather Underground ever did.

WCH: Yeah, it was similar to a statue of Margaret Thatcher was decapitated by a man with a cricket bat when it was unveiled in England a few years ago that was a fun day.

TFSR: That’s awesome. Back to the interview…

WCH: Yep. Yep. Yeah.

TFSR: So I’ve been a fan of the Working Class History podcast for a while now. Would you talk about the work there and what you choose to cover in it? And do you have any favorite episodes that stand out?

WCH: Well, as I said, we started doing the podcast to try and look some more into some of these stories, and in particular, capture the voices of participants who took part in some of these movements and struggles, to learn from their experiences. We’ve been doing that for a while now. And in terms of what we choose to cover, we’ve got a massive list of episodes that we want to work on. It’s like 160 episodes or something and constantly growing. What we’re trying to do right now is prioritize producing episodes about social movements where the participants are at risk of, because of age, not being able to— And sadly a couple of people that we had lined up to interview about things have died recently before we were able to speak with them. So we’re trying to do a fair bit of stuff about struggles in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s right now, for the most part. Again, as with the rest of project, we tried to have a diverse selection of different types of stories and movements.

We’ve got a couple of series that we’re working through. They’re kind of intermittent series on themed things. We’ve pretty much wrapped up now our series about the Vietnam War where we had a lot of episodes about that, including possibly—I don’t know if it’s my favorite one, but certainly one of—it’s a miniseries about the Columbia Eagle Mutiny where we speak with a guy called Alvin Glatkowski. He was a merchant sailor during the Vietnam War. He was working on a ship with a friend of his, called Clyde McKay, that was carrying 10,000 tons of napalm to be used by US forces in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He and Clyde hijacked a ship at gunpoint and sailed it to Cambodia, which was neutral, and his story is incredible. He hadn’t been recorded telling that story before. Hearing him tell it and then being able to put it out was something that personally I’m really proud of. And it’s a great story and a crazy story as well. So that’s a favorite, for sure.

Also, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, where LGBT people rose up against police harassment, was able to get in touch with few people who participated in the rebellion and were involved in the organizing afterwards, where people set up the Gay Liberation Front, which revolutionized the LGBT rights movement. That was really inspiring to talk to these people as well.

Another occasional series we’ve got is about the British Empire. And we did an episode on the—it was quite timely actually because it was while a recent wave of riots were happening in Hong Kong. I met with a bunch of people who were involved in the Hong Kong riots in 1967 against British occupation, British colonialism. And that was super interesting because I knew almost nothing about that before starting doing the research for that episode. So it was super interesting just to learn about their experiences growing up in British colonial Hong Kong. Especially because it’s always spoken about quite widely is an example of British colonialism done well, and getting to the meat of that. Because up until these riots took place, Hong Kong was a trading post, obviously, but also had a large number of super-exploited factory workers working in like really appalling conditions, making things like—the factory where it was started was a plastic flower factory, and things like that. And it was these riots in 1967 that were successful in substantially changing the nature of British colonialism in the country from a more openly violent and repressive, racist colonialism to, I guess you call it, I don’t know, a more kind of—more friendly Hillary Clinton-style of colonialism, if you want to call it that. So even these examples, people choose of colonialist capitalism being not so bad or what have you, it’s not due to any—it’s not due to the benevolence or the generosity of the oppressors or exploiters or the business owners or whatever. It was due to the self-organized struggle of the workers and the people in the area. So that was really interesting chatting to them as well. And also, in that one of the people I was talking … During the riots there was like a really high profile murder of a right wing talk show personality and that murder was a notorious unsolved murder in Hong Kong history. One of the participants in the interview basically told me who did it. Enough time had passed. And not the name of the person, because obviously they have descendants who could essentially the reasons behind it. I’m kind of a true crime buff, like in my personal life—it doesn’t accord with my political views at all. Other than that I do—

TFSR: Everybody gets their your guilty pleasures, that’s fine.

WCH: No, exactly. And a lot of stuff I listen to is about miscarriages of justice and stuff like that. There’s too many. A really great chat I had as well was a guy called Tariq Mehmood who is a member of the Asian Youth movements in Britain, who fought against racism in the 70s and 80s. Those are the first ones that jump into my mind right now. I’m sure I’m forgetting… I could keep going but I won’t.

TFSR: I know y’all had taken a break at some point. And so I dropped off and restarted it. But the ones for me that really stuck out—and I had to like do a little searching because it’s been a while—are the anti-Zionism movement in Israel I thought was a really fascinating multi-part episode. There was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, and sort of contextualizing that. And just the Angry Brigade episode I thought was really fascinating to hear voices affiliated with that. And the Grunwick Strike in 1976 I had no context for, that just sort of, like, opened up a lot of conversation for me of experience of, like, workers struggle in the UK among immigrant populations. And there’s just a lot in each of those discussions. And it’s really easy to talk about the context that you can grab out of that that explains where we’re at right now. It explains little snippets of these struggles that people have had that resonate with experiences that others have had. I really enjoyed those ones.

WCH: Cool, thanks. Some of those early ones, apologies for anyone who listen. The quality of them isn’t so great, but we have got better since then from a quality point of view as we’ve learned. And there was a reason that we did the Grumwick Strike episode first. Because we thought that was important just from the things that we’ve spoken about today, because that was an example where this was a group of—they were East African Asian women workers who self-organized a massive and militant struggle that lasted two years. And were unfortunately defeated in the end because the forces against them were just too powerful. Up until that point, the British trade union movement was chauvinist, essentially. The overarching thrust of the movement was towards excluding Black and Asian—Asian, meaning South Asian, primarily anyway—workers and trying to protect privileged conditions for their white members, as opposed to organizing all workers and fighting collectively for better conditions. And the women in the Grumwick Strike pretty successfully exploded that (myth). Obviously there’s still that chauvinist, nationalist current within the work, but it’s much more minor now. Worrying it seems to be getting a bit bigger with—it’s unclear how really it is, and maybe more Twitter-type personalities, villains like Paul Embry who are trying to resurrect this pro-nationalist idea of a traditional working class of white blokes—as opposed to workers uniting together in our class interests. That strike really successfully changed the general atmosphere of the workers movement in a way that made working people stronger, because of course we’re stronger when we’re united fighting against employers, when we’re not fighting amongst ourselves over scraps.

TFSR: So are you all seeking more help with the project? You’ve talked about sister pages coming up and translation work. If you are looking for more help in providing historical insights or translation work, I guess, like video editing, what sort of ways can people participate?

WCH:

There’s all kinds of ways people can help out. The primary things that we need help with at the moment are things around fact checking research and translation. So if anyone is up for helping with that, that would be amazing. Just get in touch. Email us on info@workingclasshistory.com.

TFSR: And where can listeners find out more about your work and grab the book?

WCH: Well, you can follow us on social media, just search whatever platform you’re on for Working Class History. You can listen to our podcast on every major podcast app like Apple, Spotify, whatever, just search Working Class History. There’s links to all of our information on our website, workingclasshistory.com. And you can get the book on our online store, which is at shop.workingclasshistory.com. And all of our work is funded through our readers and listeners on Patreon where you can also get the book for free depending on your patron level and access exclusive content at patreon.com/workingclasshistory.

TFSR: John, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Thanks a lot for taking the time.

WCH: It was really fun, thanks for having me. And I hope that for the theme music for this you can get the rights to a Gang of Four “Not Great Men,” because I think that would be very appropriate.

The Security State, Far Right and Media Post-January 6th

The Security State, Far Right and Media Post-January 6th

Banner from Portland Protest "We Don't Want Biden, We Want Revenge for Police Murder, Imperialist Wars, Right Wing Massacres"
Download This Episode

This week on the show, you’ll hear two segments: chat with Spencer Sunshine on the far right and the government’s reaction following the riot on January 6th in DC and some perspectives on political content removal and social media from anarchist media platforms ItsGoingDown and crimethInc.

Spencer Sunshine

First up, anti-fascist researcher Spencer Sunshine talks about the aftermath of the January 6th putsch attempt in DC, mainstream media and Democrat narratives of concerning domestic terrorism, reporting of participation of law enforcement and military in the riot, anti-fascist research, what the stepping down of Trump has meant for his radicalized base and Spencer’s thoughts on claims of rehabilitation by former White Nationalists like Matthew Heimbach. There was a good article published by IGD on the state’s response to January 6th and what it can mean to anti-repression activists here. Also, a great place to keep up on what’s going on in the far right in the so-called US, check out IGD’s “This Week In Fascism” column, soon to be a podcast.

CrimeThinc. and ItsGoingDown

Then, you’ll hear the main host from the ItsGoingDown Podcast and a comrade from CrimethInc (both affiliates of the Channel Zero Network) talking about implications for anarchists and antifascists of the silencing of far right platforms and accounts and how similar moves have silenced the anti-authoritarian left. We talk about perspectives the media may have missed around “deplatforming” by tech giants like Patreon, Facebook and Twitter and how easily the normalization of ejecting non-mainstream narratives follows the trail of profit and power, and the importance of building our own platforms and infrastructure.

Patreon Updates

A little housekeeping note. For those listeners able to support us on Patreon with recurring donations, we are still fundraising to pay comrades to transcribe and format our episodes into zines moving forward. We’ve started with January 2021, putting out a weekly transcript for translations, search-ability, access to non-aural learners and those with hearing difficulties as well as making it easier send these interviews into prisons where broadcasts and podcasts may not reach. We are still $120 behind our base goal for this. So, if you have some extra dough you can send our way, it’d be much appreciated. We won’t paywall our content ever, but for those who donate at our patreon above the $10 level, you’ll get a monthly zine in the mail sent to you or a prisoners of your choosing in the US as curated by us, plus some one-time gifts.

Other ways to support the project include sending us show ideas, giving us feedback, sharing us with your friends and enemies, or talking your local radio station into playing us on the airwaves! Get in touch with more questions…

Announcements

Fidencio Aldama

From the Fidencio Aldama Support Fund:

We’re raising funds for Fidencio Aldama, an indigenous Yaqui prisoner framed for murder and locked up in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico, for his participation in a struggle against a gas pipeline. Fidencio has been in prison since October 2016, was railroaded through the courts, and is currently appealing his conviction. Support will be ongoing, but right now we need funds to get a copy of the case file, help pay for communication, and potentially cover some legal fees.

You can donate here: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/fidenciolibre, or get in touch at fidenciolibre@protonmail.com

A website with more info will be forthcoming, but for now you can read more about Fidencio’s case here:

https://itsgoingdown.org/free-fidencio-aldama-political-prisoner-yaqui-tribe/

Saludos solidarios,

Fidencio Aldama Support Fund

Political Prisoner Updates

Xinachtli, aka Alvaro Luna Hernandez, is an anarchist communist Chicano political prisoner in so-called Texas. His supporters have put together a new website for him that can be found at FreeAlvaro.Net. He’s got a bid for parole coming up this year and could use letters of support! Please check for updates on other prisoners and how to support them in the monthly Prison Break column on ItsGoingDown.

. … . ..

Featured track:

“Let Me Be The One You Need” (instrumental) by Bill Withers from Managerie – Remastered

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Transcription of Spencer Sunshine interview

The Final Straw Radio: Would you please introduce yourself with your name preferred pronouns and any affiliation that are relevant to this conversation?

Spencer Sunshine: My name is Spencer Sunshine, he/him and I have researched, written about, and counter-organized against the far right for about 15 years.

TFSR: So we're speaking in the days after January 20 2021 and I'm hoping that Spencer, who's made a name for reporting on far right ideas and organizing from an antifascist perspective, could help break down some, a bit, of what appears to be going on the last two weeks in the US. The mainstream media has been filled with the squishy sound of liberal hand wringing over the broken windows at the US Capitol. As larger portions of the political and economic establishment have chosen to distance themselves from Trump's claims at the election was stolen, the media has reported on the far right street movements that have been violently engaging not only portions of the population they consider enemies, such as the Movement for Black Lives, or solidarity with immigrants movements, or antifascist and leftist more widely, but increasingly, they've also been engaging physically with law enforcement. Can you talk a bit about the framing that the mainstream media and the Democrat Party have been using as a rush to apply terms, like insurrectionaries or terrorists, to what took place on January sixth?

SS: It's a sort of good and bad thing. They've used a lot of language that perhaps doesn't reflect what I think went on on the sixth, you know, as you said, they've used “terrorists”, it's a “coup”, “attempted coup”, “insurrection”, you know, talking about the “domestic terrorism”, talked about the need to have new laws about domestic terrorism. You know, along with some good things, like a recognition that it’s a violent, antidemocratic movement based on lies, right, or conspiracy theories and propaganda. So there's good and bad things about how they've talked about them. Unfortunately, the worst thing is the way they're talking about them can easily be applied to the left to and that's the real, that's one of the real dangers at the moment.

TFSR: One element that surprised some of the folks and is the swath of groups with competing ideologies that shared space and took action, which, some of which appear to be coordinating. Like, I've heard reports in the media that Proud Boys are being accused of having used radios to coordinate certain specific stochastic activities at the Capitol. Kathleen Beleuw, who's the author of Bring the War Home, has talked about what happened on the sixth, less as an unsuccessful coup attempt, but more as an inspirational flexing by the autonomous fire right, of their Overton window, a la the Early Acts in The Turner Diaries. Is this a helpful landmark, and can you talk about some of the tendencies and groups that are known to have engaged in a coordinated manner around the capital push?

SS: Well, with all due respect, I disagree with Kathleen Belew, as I do on many points with her, I believe this is more a crime of opportunity. And in a sense, the left would have done the same thing if there was a big angry demonstration of 5,000 people and they thought it might be able to storm the Capitol, you know, I could see that happening. Of course, I could be wrong and maybe she's right, but I think this is a high point for them. It's true that it was a bunch of disparate groups, but these disparate groups have been acting together under the same banner for quite a while, like really, for the last four years. And at some point, the white nationalists are in or out of it. And there were some white nationalists there, you know, the Groyper’s in particular, but not that many. There were organized groups, I mean, we will find out more, and there's a lot of wild talk and speculation, and I'm hesitant about a lot of this stuff. So you know, we'll find out more, how many people were acting in a coordinated fashion, and what they were. Some Oath Keepers were just charged with this. I had no doubt that the Proud Boys were, they have a long, long time street experience and know how to act together as a group. It's unclear how the actual storming, how many of these people were important in it, and the groups of people driving deep into the Capitol, you know, most people have seen that scene where they're like, trying to slam the door on a cop and the police are really not sure if they can hold the line against them, like how many organized actors were involved in that?

I think we have to admit that most of the people who went in were not prepared to do this, and were not in organized groups, I think that that's pretty clear. I don't think it's unusual that they're acting under the same banner, I think the important thing is largely this has been a more moderate group of people, the street actions, the militant street actions have tended towards the more ideological extreme groups, you know, Charlottesville was fascists, and then it's been largely Proud Boys and to some extent, Patriot Prayer, and now this action, which is you know, an attack on liberal democracy, whatever we think of that, that's what it is, was done by more moderate political forces. And that's a really terrible sign. But again, I think it was really a high point for them, they were able to do it because of not their militancy, but a security failure on the part of the Capitol police. Which again, we will find out how much, or to what extent that was intentional, by higher up’s who decided not to put more than the regular police defending the Capitol. It obviously wasn't true of most of the people on the ground, I mean, one cop was murdered, and the others were clearly engaged in pretty fierce fighting, even though a handful may have, you know, helped facilitate this. 

So my reading of what happened: I think it's wrong to call it a coup or an insurrection. If it was an attempted coup, Trump had his chance, they succeeded, right. He could have declared the dictatorship then and should have, and he certainly did not. So I mean, I consider it a takeover or an attack, but mostly a crime of opportunity.

TFSR: I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about, like the off duty law enforcement military that participated alongside of civilian Trumpers, and with uniformed police, in some instances, allowing protesters to pass through blockades. Does this, I mean, this has been a long time policy as long back as the Klan’s existed they've had affiliations with the police. And I know that back in the 60’s and 70’s, and 80’s, there's been a push to get more active white supremacists in law enforcement agencies. Does this give a glimpse into a shift in the success of the far right organizing in those institutions? Or is it just kind of more of the same and something that was actually advertised beforehand from the you know, from the Oval Office?

SS: It's a little hard to say. So first off, the security forces being involved in far right movements is something that happens globally, it's not special to the US. There's a huge problem of this in Germany right now. It's true, there's been a lot of attempts at recruiting by far right groups, current and former police and military. I think for real, full on white nationalists, they've drawn some. I think a lot more have been drawn to the Trumpist movement, and because this was more politically moderate, I would expect more cops and soldiers. Some of these people who are being reported as being arrested are retired, though, I think about half...maybe I shouldn't say [that], but a number of them that are being reported aren't current. And if you're retired, you are in a different position to take part in, you know, further right political activity. And this is pretty common as people leave security forces to move further to the right, or publicly expressed for the right political views maybe that they had before. 

It's always a problem of the alignment between far right forces, and especially lower level police. That's not new. I don't know how many really are in these groups. I think the numbers are wildly exaggerated by the groups themselves. Like, the Oath Keepers say that, you know, are specifically oriented towards recruiting current and former police, military and first-responders, but I kind of doubt that they have very many active people from these backgrounds, you know, who are currently serving, who are members of the organization. You can join that organization if you're just an everyday person, it's largely a paper tiger. So I'm a little dubious about the claims of how many people are involved or what percentage of police and military are in these groups? I think the opposite is true. There's a larger percentage of police and military in various far right groups. Clearly, it's of some substantial-ness because they said a quarter of people arrested are military. This may be a bit of a side effect of who's been arrested, though, and not the whole demonstration. 

I think it's pretty clear that police and military, it is a speculation, but that they're more willing to engage in aggressive actions, they're more trained to do that, and they're inculcated, military particularly, are inculcated within ideology that it's appropriate to use violence in the form of political aims, no matter what those aims are, right? I mean, that's what they're doing in the military. They're using violence to forward the US political aims, but they carried that idea over into private life, too.

TFSR: So since the sixth of January, you know, I’ll quit harping on that day, pretty soon, there's been a lot of chatter about the far right getting doxxed by antifa, as the state was building its cases against participants in that push. Do you know if there have been any antifascist researchers that have been actively feeding information to authorities, or if it's just the government doing its own work and Hoovering up whatever OSINT from the public happens to be out? Like, DDOSecrets, for instance, has been hosting that trove of Parler content on Amazon servers and putting it out for free, so that's up for state or non state actors to engage with. I wonder if you have anything to say if there are, quote-unquote, “antifascist researchers” that are actively feeding information to the state, if you think that's a good idea or bad idea, or what.

SS: I don't know of and haven't heard of people who self identify as part of the current antifascist movement who've done that. Now, of course, if people out there local far right activists as being there, they show evidence, it is logical that the authorities would use that intelligence to arrest people. And that puts people in something of a bind, like, do you not, you know, out this information, in order to make sure they don't get arrested. So I think people have largely decided that they're going to put that information out there, and people can do with it as they will, which has always been the case with doxxing. Um, I don't know how good the authorities are at at finding stuff on their own. It seems like people who are are outed first and then arrested. I think what's interesting is a lot of liberals have decided to suddenly do this work, and they're doing the bulk, I would guess they're doing the bulk of the doxxing or outing, and they have no qualms about this and they're definitely feeding information to the FBI. I would guess what you describe is coming mostly from from them.

TFSR: So as the centrist consolidate power in the national government, and the FBI have been knocking on doors and arresting members of the far right, and also some anti fascist and Black liberation activists across the country. For instance, one of the bigwigs in the New African Black Panther Party was visited by FBI in New Jersey recently, and a former YPG volunteer who does community defense work in Tallahassee, Florida was arrested after posting on social media that people should go and oppose any far right armed presence on the 20th. But Biden's denunciation of anarchists throughout the uprising rings in my ears, does this signal Democrats engaging more actively in a three way fight? And what do you think that that will mean for those of us anti-authoritarian left's? Could this be like, a way to Trojan-horse in a domestic terrorism claim against antifascists that Trump wasn't able to get through, alongside of the building up, or ramping up of like, quote-unquote, “Black identity extremist” pushes that his administration was making?

SS: I don't think the way that Trump addressed the antifa movement is going to be carried on by the Biden administration. I mean, a lot of things Trump said just didn't make any sense, like the domestic terrorism designation, because there isn't one. It's true right now that they're trying to introduce new laws about domestic terrorism, which is ridiculous, even from a liberal perspective, because there's plenty of laws on the books to do that, as we've seen over and over again, used against the left. It's clear that any crackdown on quote-unquote, “domestic terrorism” is going to at least peripherally affect the left. There's many reasons for this: Biden really wants to reach across the aisle to the Republicans, and he's going to want to throw them at least a little bit of raw meat, so they'll make some arrests, even if the pales in comparison to the far right. Also, once FBI agents, this is a real problem they get when they make busts and convictions, it's good for their career, and as they run out of far right activists, they'll want to find more terrorists, and if they can't do that, produce more terrorists. And that will ultimately turn their attention to the left and Black liberation movements and such.

I don't know I kind of expect Biden to talk left and walk right about these issues, I think he’ll give lip service to Black Lives Matter. I think they’ll continue to be arrests, especially as you know, if conflicts continue to go on, if there continued to be, you know, military demonstrations in cities after the cops kill more Black folks, as they will. I don't expect a big crackdown on the antifa movement, especially now, as the antifa movement has sort of gone in a seesaw motion about whether it's popular with liberal liberals or not, like four or five times, and it's “in” right now. And unless something really dramatic happens, I think it's going to kind of stay that way, that after the capital takeover, liberals and centrists sort of have understood in some way that something should have been done about the street forces. And the antifa movement is the only thing to inherit the mantle of having done something about them. So I don't expect it, I hope not, it is possible. I think there definitely will be some people thrown under the bus just to make an appearance of the both sides-ism by the federal government, though.

TFSR: I guess to correct the question that I asked, because I totally failed to recognize the fact that it was Muslims and people from Muslim majority countries that were the main target following 911, of a lot of anti-terrorism legislation, and a lot of the enforcement was focused on entrapping people in immigrant communities and of the Muslim faith into quote-unquote “terrorism charges”, even if there was, you know, a manufacturing of the situation.

SS: Yeah, sure how much of that is gonna continue? I'm not sure how much of that has happened in the last few years even. But I believe that these techniques of entrapment will continue on for whoever. And it is possible if the whole terrorism thing, you know, domestic terrorism thing amps up that they'll turn their attention back to the Muslim community. There's enough of an industry built around that, that they can use that base, and they can always come up with some more people to entrap.

TFSR: So we were promised on January 20, that we would see a day of massive right wing protests at state capitals around the country as well as in DC. Obviously, DC was totally locked down and militarized pretty tightly. What do you think contributed to the relative quiet of the days since the sixth? Was it the drumbeat of the media, the chilling effects of federal arrests, the shutting down of Parler and silencing of other social media, the far right or Trump making his way out of office or conceding as much as he did? And what do you think it says about the future of the movement that he really helped to galvanize and whip into fervor?

SS: Well, I think Trump conceding really deflated them, right? They were inflated by this idea that he was gonna fight to the bitter end or on, and Q-Anon even had this, their last ditch theory was all those military, the National Guard was in DC, because Trump was finally going to arrest the satanist, pedophiles, and that was what the military was actually there for. But I think in general, his concession deflated them, I think the massive turning of public opinion against them, including by non-Trumpist republicans really chastise them. And they realized that was a bad move, that was really bad PR to do that. And to repeat that on a state level, you know, in state capitals was only going to further de-legitimize them. I think, you know, as I said before, their success was a failure of the security forces, and I think statewide, once the government decides it's not going to allow militant political action, they can control that situation. And that was definitely what was going to happen, you know, in various state capitals. 

I don't know how much the move towards other platforms really motivated that you can always get the word out. So that I don't think was an important factor. I think people are biding their time, biding, ha ha, their time about what the next move is, but I think their movement’s going to shatter. It's going to, well, not necessarily shatter, but it’s going to have a bunch of schisms, there's going to be a fight for the soul of the Republican Party, and the non-Trumpists are going to try to take it back. And they're going to be on good ground to say “Trump lost and so you don't have the popular ideology”. 

And then, of course, some people are going to, you know, move out of the movement towards a more radical position and a more anti-current, some people say an “anti-state”, I think this is the wrong thing, anti-current US government position and anti-police position, and we will see more brawls with police, and more turning against even the moderate Republicans then is already there. So there'll be a splinter amongst the Trumpist street forces that way, between the Back the Blue people and those becoming more and more radical. And the way that Neo-Nazis, long ago, decided to, sort of, move back towards the center about this, but you know, in the 80’s, decided that they were going to take a revolutionary position, and the police and the federal government were their enemies.

TFSR: Kind of on that line, I was wondering, so in the last couple years we've seen the dissolution of, the disappearance to some degree, of visibility, at least around groups like RAM or The Base, or Atomwaffen Division. And I'm sure that like, there definitely were some arrests, but I'm sure not everyone just gave up on the ideology. Where do you think that those folks are putting their energy now, do you have any speculation on that?

SS: That's a good question. You know, by 2018, the fascist groups involved in the alt right, pretty much collapsed. You know, as Richard Spencer's speaking tour got shut down and Traditionalist Worker Party fell apart in the Night of the Wrong Wives, that was really kind of the end of that being such a big and growing movement. And then the feds decided to smash Atomwaffen and The Base after the El Paso massacre, they finally were like, alright, well, this is a problem. And when they want to disrupt a network, they can really do it. So they have arrested most of those people and that's put the more radical, well “militant” is the wrong word, the pro-terrorism, part of the Neo-Nazi and related milieu, has scattered it, has shattered it, really. 

The biggest group now, this was something that a lot of people overlooked, but American Identity Movement dissolved the day before the election, who were one of the two big remaining white nationalists, you know, fascist groups. And they seem to have entered the Groyper movement, which is the real living part that's come out of the white nationalists — well almost white nationalists because I believe they do allow in people of color, but run by white nationalists, part of the remaining part of the alt right — and they have done an entryist move to try to move the Trumpist base to the right. And they were, of course, present on the sixth, they had flags, they were present as a bloc. So that's the main thrust of things. 

I think people maybe who were involved in 2016, 2018, I think a lot of them have probably given up being politically active. New people, especially tend to cycle through activists who are really active, you know, often cycle through an 18 months, a year. James Mason actually calls it the 18 Months Syndrome, which I like. And there's a similar thing on the left, where a lot of people get involved in these mass movements, and then burn out pretty quickly, although some of them will remain. But I don't know, it is actually a good question of where a lot of these people went. I mean, the people who run groups that help ex-white nationalists leave have said there's more and more people coming to them, and coming through them. So it's clear a chunk of people have been leaving the movement for the last couple years. 

TFSR: Well that’s good news. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the Groyper movement? I know Nick Fuentes is the name that comes up frequently with that, but so they identify ideologically as fascist and are entryists into the Republican Party. Is that a fair description?

SS: I don't know whether they identify as fascist or not. I mean, they're definitely trying to downplay that. I mean, I think they are, and they originally were trying to enter the Republican Party very openly, and take positions and local GOPs. I think more they're trying to influence the base more at this point. But it's not a movement I've watched real closely either, to be honest. So I mean, they haven't been at the forefront of anything, but they're sort of simmering in the background, but I think they're in one of the better positions moving forward. They haven't disbanded. They're not organizing independently as white nationalists. There's a question of: do you organize independently as an independent political movement or as an adjunct, and somehow part of a bigger movement, and they've picked that strategy. And it seems like a successful strategy as all the other groups have collapsed, except Patriot Front, who are digging down into their sectarianism and their events are decreasing in size. 

So I don't know they're, I think they're in a good position, they're in the best position of the white nationalist style groups. And I think going forward the militias are also going to be in a good position, they can easily pivot towards being anti-federal government, which are their traditional talking points. I was actually kind of surprised they were able to keep up their movement as much as they did under Trump.

TFSR: Yeah, I guess the idea of centralizing your authority, like, it seems like there's a lot of strains, and I'm gonna forget the names of these specific divisions within a lot of the militia movements, but that sort of align with the idea of a strong Sheriff or like some sort of like constitutional sovereign, Dominionist, I guess, is a term that falls in there. And it seems like having a strong central authority that, to some degree is viewed as imposing, even as much as he didn’t, imposing like Christian values could sort of, like a lot of people were internalizing this idea of Trump as their strong leader, as a representative of America and of masculinity and all these things, so even if he was in the central government, he wasn't viewed as being of the federal government. 

SS: Yeah I mean, I think that's how they viewed him. He was a sort of singular figure and because he was fighting, quote-unquote “the swamp” they could say that was the federal government that they were opposed to. I agree that their basic themes were all reflected in Trump. The there's an interesting history to this, that backs that perspective up, is a lot of the original militia movement comes out of a white supremacist group called Posse Comitatus, that was founded in 1971. And there was a split amongst white nationalist after the collapse of the segregationist movement by the civil rights movement, and the new laws by the federal government supporting civil rights. 

Basically, one wing — and this actually happened specifically in a Christian identity church, a white supremacist church, run by a pastor named Swift — moved towards Neo-Nazism. And the thing with the Nazis is that they want a big government, you know, with total power and an economy that they alter in some ways, they want some control over the economy. And so Richard Butler took over Swift's church and moved to Hayden Lake and established his compound and move towards Neo-Nazism. Another person in this church, William Gale founded Posse Comitatus, which, you know, became the basis of the militia movement. Instead of wanting more centralization after the failure of the segregationist movement, and wanting to take the government over — or take a government over, establish a new government — he moved in the other direction. And he said, Well, states rights failed, but what we need then is essentially kind of county rights, we need more decentralization, because then we can resist the federal government this way. 

It's the same themes as you pointed out, it's the same themes that are being pursued in two different tactical directions. The militias, I thought they did a very clever thing: all their talking points should have led them to oppose Trump, and they did a very clever move to somehow convince their base that they should actually support all the talking points that they, you know, all the things that they've opposed all these years. But I mean, it just shows us that what's driving them is not a true desire for decentralization, but it's merely a tactical way to achieve these reactionary goals,

TFSR: Localized, patriarchal, like authoritarianism, sort of.

SS: Yeah, pretty much pretty much.

TFSR: In a recent story in The Guardian, people monitoring the far right Q-Anon conspiracy movement speculated that the vanishing of Q Drops and a loss of faith in the community may lead to a large repelling of former followers. Would you talk a little bit about, because we haven't really talked about Q-Anon on the show, and I'm sure that listeners have heard tons about it and maybe been doing their own research, there's lots of podcasts about it. But would you talk about the antisemitic roots of conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, and efforts by white nationalist movements to draw them in?

SS: Yeah, I think they're being black pilled. They're already red pilled, right, because that's like Trumpists. So now there is a real fear a lot of them will move further into sort of fascist circles. And and some of them will, I mean, I'm hesitant to say the majority of them will, but even if a few do that can be a significant gain for fascists in the United States. Most conspiracy theories have a relationship to antisemitism, either they're sort of washed out de-anti-Semitized versions of conspiracy theories, where they emerge from them, keep the same structure, so often keep the same targets but sort of remove being explicit that they're being targeted because they're Jewish. Soros is a great example of this, right? Where as it’s become more popular, it's not, it's become unspecific that he's Jewish. And people will even say, Well, that doesn't matter. But the whole conspiracy theory was a traditional antisemitic conspiracy theory, and it was specified that he was Jewish and that's why he was being targeted. 

And once you get into these conspiracy circles, they move around. I always see it as a shell game, so you have three shells, and one of them is antisemitism, one is a sort of washed out antisemitism, and one of them is just something else. And the you know, the coin or whatever, the shells are constantly moving around, you have to guess which one it's underneath. And so as people get in these discussion circles, there's all kinds of cross pollination, and part of that cross pollination will be antisemitism, because that has created so many of the conspiracies, so many conspiracy theories originated as antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

This idea of the global one where a government became the New World Order was antisemitic, all the stuff about the Federal Reserve, that was formed as an antisemitic conspiracy theory, Cultural Marxism, Soros, the list goes on and on. And once you get into conspiracy theories, it's a narrative. It's actually a pretty standardized narrative that's been around a couple hundred years. And once you believe in that narrative, which is a fact free narrative, nothing stops you from moving into bigoted territory, right? You've already become dis-attached from facts and reality, you're already playing around in a fantasy world and often switching around who's the agent of a conspiracy. 

So at some point, you know, the Jews, or specific Jews will become the target of the conspiracy theory. And you're not epistemologically grounded, you're not grounded in your sense of what you accept, to resist this anymore. Not for most people. Occasionally for Jews, people will draw a line, and a few other people, at the Jews being named, but, you know, sometimes you may get Jewish people who embrace these conspiracy theories, so.

TFSR: I guess I'm a separate, separate and final note, Matthew Heimbach has been repackaging himself as a former white nationalist. I didn't know if you had any thoughts about his instance, in particular, but I'd be curious on your thoughts of how we as an antifascist movement can assess supposed turns from white nationalism and people who are drawn to the limelight, and what time maybe should pass, and what reparations would look like to prove that someone has actually moved away in more than just words from the activities. Do you have perspectives on when it makes sense to judge that someone has left the far right and can be listened to for useful perspectives?

SS: Yeah, I do. I've spent a long time talking to formers and I sort of helped someone who had already left the movement, he had just left, navigate this process over a year or two. I think it takes people a couple of years. A lot of this problem has been introduced by a group called Light Upon Light that's run by a quote-unquote, “former Islamist” who attracted a bunch of quote-unquote, “former Nazis”. The problem is the group has allowed people to keep what are more moderate, far right views: Islamophobic views, anti-antifa views. And normally, formers or groups of formers, make people go through a process, make them make amends, and expect them to embrace some sort of equality for all, right? At the very least. Not to become left wingers, but embrace civil rights and equality for all as part of the repudiation. And Light Upon Light did not do that. 

Jeff Shoep, who came out of the National Socialist Movement, almost overnight, became a former who was speaking out, and while I do believe he in particular, has honestly left white nationalism, I don't think he's gone through this process. And then his friend Heimbach, you know, again, suddenly, in a matter of months, declared himself a former white nationalist, and he, I don't believe at all by his statements has left it in his heart. And now he's left Light Upon Light and move back further to the right. And I just, I just don't believe that he has, I think people should take a couple years and go through a process. They need to confront why they were attracted to this movement, they need to publicly talk about the damage they did, and they need to make amends. And, you know, I think this is not an instant process, and anyone who does this in six months or even a year, I wouldn't necessarily trust. 

Now, that doesn't mean I don't trust that they've left the movement and a sense of detaching themselves from those networks and stuff. I just don't believe they've gone through this process. If you're talking about when should we take their opinions seriously, I think they need to sit down with it. And all the former's will say this, everyone I've talked to, or maybe the Light Upon Light people don't, but like, they need to sit down and have a real internal dialogue about what it was that attracted them to this movement, and how it is that they've moved past these ideas, and if they have. It needs to be a real reckoning with themselves. So people who come out and immediately try to posit themselves, especially as very public formers, you know, I don't buy it,

TFSR: I think also like, and again, as you say, it's like not, it's not to be expected that someone's gonna move from, you know, from a far right, white nationalist, Neo-Nazi perspective, into an anti fascist or leftist perspective, or whatever. And maybe that's not to be expected, and that's fine. But like, Heimbach in particular is an individual who has been trying to hold and build a space that would like draw this third position. And so he's already had a long time working through ideas of how do I appeal to the people on the left? How do I use language that will appeal to people who are left of center? How do I draw on narratives of identity politics and equality? You're like a quote-unquote “right wing multiculturalism”, you could almost say, so, you know, that's not to say that he couldn't change. But he seems like someone who especially particularly has a prevalence towards being able to being comfortable using language in a way to manipulate people towards an argument that they wouldn't think necessarily of adopting in the first place. I guess anyone that's an organizer is going to try to do this sort of thing. But for me, in particular, I look at him and I look at his closest to like National Bolshevism or other projects like that, and it makes me think, like, I want to see for sure that he is doing this other work before I necessarily believe that comes out of his mouth.

SS: Yeah, no, I think the Third Positionists are in a better position to do that, because they tend publicly not to denigrate people of color. That was always his shtick in Traditionalist Worker Party, and tend to say that they want to stand up for the interests of the working class, and they're interested in environmentalism, and it's pretty easy to move that and claim it's just not a racist perspective anymore. And you know, he doesn't seem to have changed his tune very much. You know, it sounds like stuff he said in TWP. And he certainly hasn't said what was wrong with TWP, and he hasn't made any amends, people have to make amends. I believe they do. And he just hasn't gone through any process. So there's no reason to believe him. 

This is gonna continue to be a problem where people like him say they're leaving, but don't seem to be leaving at all. I mean, they may leave the networks, and that does mean something, you know, that does mean something. But that doesn't mean, I'd rather that they not, I don't want these people really to join the left, not for a few years. We're not going to gain that many of them. I think after a few years, and after going through this process, they can, but we're probably going to have more and more people do that, like leave the networks, but still, you know, still talk far right still have more moderate far right views?

TFSR: Well, I was hoping that you could maybe tell us a bit about where people can find your writing, the publications that you've put out. For instance, 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists? Where can people find your stuff? And how can they support you on Patreon?

SS: So 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists is a guide I did with PopMob, the Popular Mobilization group in Portland, Oregon, that's helped, bring people to the demonstrations out there. It does what it says on the tin, it offers 40 things that are legal, actions you can take to combat a fascist in the violent far right, a lot of options in there for people who can't get out on the streets for whatever reason, if they're, you know, physically disabled, or they have to take care of their families, or they’re elderly or whichever they are, that's available for free on my website, it's spencersunshine.com/fortyways, there's printable PDFs there. I encourage people to print them out themselves and distribute them in their area. 

My other writings are all available on my website spencersunshine.com, almost all of them are free. If you want to follow me on Twitter, it's where I'm most active transform6789, on Facebook and Instagram, if you like funny, anti-far-right memes, follow my Instagram. And of course, I am an independent researcher and writer, I used to work for Think Tank, and I have left them and I don't have any organizational support. So if you like to throw me a few clams on Patreon, you know, just Spencer Sunshine.

TFSR: That's awesome. Is there anything else that I didn't ask about that you want to mention?

SS: Yeah, sure. I think it's a big Pandora's Box about what's going to happen for the next year, I think people need to be very aware and stay active for the next year. And I think the anti fascist movement, and monitors, you know, who don't identify with that term, it goes up and down in reflection of the growth of the far right. And I think what happened last time, because I caught the big boom of the 80’s and 90’s, and then it went down and then it came back up in 2016-17, during that time almost all the structures collapsed. People need to make a plan and people need to make a commitment for having a longer term structure that stays in place in the way, for example they have in Germany and such, because it takes a while to get moving. And that's a bad thing, because that means the fascist and other movements will move first, and will have to play catch up. And we want to try to prevent that situation from happening again.

TFSR: And I think that like one thing, when people think about anti-fascism in the US is we don't necessarily have a positive vision towards it. Like, we maybe think or talk about people confronting in the street or doing the ongoing research, which is very helpful for communities to keep themselves safe, maybe training, but I think that there's other groups, like for instance, PopMob that you wrote that piece with, that are doing above ground discussions and work around other things, and include anti fascism. So maybe this is also a good time for people to find their own, like positive antifascist projects to engage with.

SS: Yeah I think there needs to be like PopMob does, a lot of open grassroots and legal organizing, also, that can sustain for a longer period of time, that isn't connected to the militant antifascist stuff. That turns too many people off. And it's not always the best way to deal with some of these problems. If we want to reach a broader group of people, there needs to be a different kind of organizing, it can't have the label of everyday antifascist, which is what PopMob uses. Or it could have another label, like I take the position of “it doesn't matter”, you're doing you know, it's almost sometimes called The Work, you're doing work against the far right or you're not. So we want to make the work accessible to people. 

And that can include really positive things, I think people should do — and I've covered some of this and 40 ways — a lot of educational work. This is done in Germany and other places where the antifascist movement is much broader. Like one of the things I like is memorial events where people that have been killed by the far right, or there's been historic massacres, to sort of keep this on people's minds in the community about what the stakes of this are. And just that this is a political movement that comes and goes in America. And you know, you can have reading groups or other other things, and understand that this is a movement that's really part of American life. There's been fascists, there's been Nazis in the United States since the 1920’s. We're, you know, coming up, I think 1922 was the first Nazi, so we're coming up on 100 years of Nazism in America. And these other far right groups go back, you know, anti-Masonic theories were popular in the 1790’s. 

Andrew Jackson's presidency is often looked at as the first, kind of anti-liberal, far right movement that starts this consistent thing, the Klan starts in the 60’s. So we have to be aware, this is a permanent fixture of American life, and it may have a more moderate form, you know, sort of like Trumpist stuff that's attached to the right wing of the Republican Party, or may have a more vicious form of Neo-Nazis and rather violence, street movements, and this isn't going to go away. 

People need to learn how to pay attention to this. I think the left lost vision, lost a sense that this was here, from 2000 to 2016, or 17, neo-liberalism became the single enemy on the right. And there became a loss of vision that you know, there could be this other populist far right, that was very vicious too.

TFSR: Thank you so much, Spencer.

SS: Thanks for having me on the show.

. … . ..

Transcription of Interview with IGD & CrimethInc

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourselves as you see fit and whatever projects you affiliate with for the purpose of this chat?

CrimethInc: For the purpose of this conversation, I'm just a participant in CrimethInc Ex workers collective associated project.

ItsGoingDown: I work on ItsGoingDown.org which is a news media platform and podcasts and radio show, along with CrimethInc, The Final Straw, the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network.

TFSR: Since the right wing riot in DC on January 6, many of the larger social media platforms have begun purging accounts affiliated with far right groups and tendencies present at the Capitol and big data has been de-platforming apps like Parler. Can y'all maybe talk about what you've seen with this and how you think it bodes for anti-authoritarian projects on the left that challenge the state?

IGD:I‘ll start off. I think one thing to point out is that there's a narrative that this is, like, de-platforming censorship. I mean, obviously, we can point out that this is coming from private companies, not the state. I mean, the First Amendment is supposed to stop the state from censoring speech, and people's ideas. It doesn't have anything to do with private companies. I think which is interesting, because I would argue that there's probably more evidence to support the fact that the government has put more pressure on private companies to de-platform anarchist, antifascist and people on the left. But I would say the tendency to remove far right groups and figures from platforms though has not come from like, you know, people picketing outside Twitter or sort of this push from below. Which is sort of how the right portrays it. It's instead come after large scale incidents, things like at the Capitol, or Charlottesville, where these companies basically have freaked out. 

If you read the book Antisocial, which is sort of like a history of the alt right online, I mean, literally, as Charlottesville was happening, the people at Reddit, like the people that run the company, were scrambling because they were terrified they were somehow going to be found legally responsible for what was going on. And they were literally purging all these big accounts. So it really has nothing to do with a personal political stance, or like getting pressure. I mean, from what I've heard from journalists and other people that have talked to people at Twitter, or have relationships, they're very aware that certain people on the far right are literally, for years, have violated the terms of service. But yet they've made a decision not to ban them because either they have big accounts or they feel if they got rid of them that that would just cause too much of a riff, or a problem. 

I think Trump is a really good example: they finally got to the point where they're like, okay, we know that he's gonna be on his way out, we can finally make a decision at this point where, you know, we can get rid of him, and we're not gonna be in this weird political situation. Like we can successfully do that. And it'll look fine because he's just messed up so bad. I think like Alex Jones is another good example. They chose to get rid of Alex Jones at a time when he was facing all these lawsuits for the Sandy Hook stuff. So I mean, they made a good decision to take him off, because if they would have allowed him to continue, they might have been held legally responsible. 

So I think that we have to remember that these corporations usually are taking these moves to remove stuff because they don't want to be held legally responsible. I think the other side of the coin is like the stuff that they're doing around things like Q-Anon or COVID-19 Truther-ism or stuff like that, there is a lot of pressure for them from different forces to get rid of that stuff. So it's a little bit different. I think, like in that instance, recently, like when ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc was kicked off Facebook, I think that was very much an instance of people that were tied to the Trumpian state putting pressure on Facebook to remove certain pages. And in fact I think it's very telling, in that instance, the names that Facebook gave the press when they were talking about the stuff that they removed, even though it was much larger than just several accounts. But it was you know, ItsGoingDown, CrimethInc, and the Youth Liberation Front in the Pacific Northwest. It was like they got a like an Andy Ngô dream list of accounts, especially for what was happening at the time, which is, you know, Portland was like the big story. So it made total sense to get rid of that stuff is very strategic move, and it had nothing to do with stopping violence or things in the street or anything like that. I think that there's very different dynamics at play, in short, going on in terms of like how people on different sides are getting thrown off, just to start off the conversation,

C: Who they ban is an indication of the balance of power in our society, basically, to build off what what you're saying. They ban people if they think that they could, that their speech on these platforms could contribute to a legal risk, but the legal risks are also determined by the balance of power, what's viewed as legitimate, and how court cases would be likely to go. You know, they certainly would not have banned Trump from Twitter if Trump had won another term by a majority of votes and controlled everything. They would have been trying to figure out how to make peace with him because he would be the one calling the shots. They were able to ban him on his way out, and Jack Dorsey maintains that he was compelled to ban Trump by employees at Twitter who were pressing him to do so, that may be true, that may be the equivalent of labor organizing, but it certainly would not have happened if Trump had less power. 

So that's one of the things we're gonna have to talk about, repeatedly in this conversation, is how the line between who is banned and who is not relates to the balance of power and how groups that are already targeted, and that are already marginal, can engage with that. The other thing that I want to speak to regarding the recent bands of Parler, and Donald Trump from social media platforms, is that this is taking place in a context in which the state apparatus,  the FBI, the police, and so on, are dramatically refurbishing their image for the Biden years. And this whole sort of liberal centrist discourse that has been sympathetic to criticism of the police or the federal government over the last four years under Trump is shifting to cheer-leading for these things. 

This is part of the shift to the right that is taking place across society even as the extreme right is excised from legitimacy. You know, and it's taking place in the same context that now we see self-professed liberals calling for people from the Trump administration to go to Guantanamo Bay. Just accepting the premise that there should be a Guantanamo Bay when not that long ago, liberals were calling for Guantanamo Bay to be abolished. 

So we're really seeing state censorship, corporate censorship, and all of these things that previously would have only been endorsed by right wing groups become extended now to to become liberal discourses or even left discourses. And the risk is that whatever corporations, or for that matter governments, do to the far right, they will always use that as a cover to do the same thing to what they perceive to be the opposite numbers of those groups on the far left. So, as my friend said it, it's not a coincidence that in summer when Facebook announced that they were banning Q-Anon militia groups, that they also banned CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown and dozens of other anarchist and antifascist journalists and publishing groups, that they will always take those steps. And so really, what we're seeing is a re-consolidating of power and legitimacy in a political center that will absolutely go after the very same people who have been struggling against fascists all this time.

IGD: Just to kind of drive that point home real quick: two months ago, the New York Times did a little video on like New York Times opinion (if you go on to YouTube and type in “New York Times opinion Q-Anon” it'll pop up) but it's a short 10 minute video about Q-Anon. But like, two thirds of the way through, what they do is they say, like, conspiracy theories aren't logical and then they use like several examples: they talk about conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination, they bring up something else, and then they say “look at anarchism”. 

And it's funny, because they have this picture of Noam Chomsky that pops up — which, of course, Chomsky has submitted stuff and had stuff run in the New York Times for years, which is I find ironic — but they say “anarchism has always never worked and always imploded whenever it's been put into practice”. Which anybody that knows the history of anarchism knows that actually not true, that it's actually a history of states and outside forces and fascists and Stalinists and capitalists destroying anarchist societies and projects. I think that that example in itself is telling because what they were trying to do is they were trying to create a narrative of that, you know, we're the center, we make sense, you know, we're based on facts and reason. And then there are these crazy people outside, whether it's Q-Anon on on the right, or anarchist on the left, you know, and those are the real wackos, and stuff like that. 

I think it's also telling too that we could do a whole thing about Q-Anon and like, you know, the various forces that support it, and have pushed it, whether it's people, state actors, or even people with deep pockets, and, you know, moneyed interests and stuff like that, as opposed to anarchism, which is this grassroots movement from below that's existed for, you know, over 100 years. Wherever poor and working and oppressed people have struggled, there's been anarchist. I mean, obviously, the two are very different, but they're trying to really draw that line between them. I think that example, just kind of like really solidifies for me, at least, you know, the coming terrain of how the center sees things,

C: Right, you know, in a phrase, “narrow the Overton window”, they're not saying “get rid of the far right, because they kill people”. They're, you know, they're saying, “narrow the Overton window, consolidate the legitimacy of the center and emphasize the legitimacy of the other groups”.

IDG: Yeah, and I think that's why, going forward, it's going to be important to push back, in terms of what we're talking about here, but also in terms of any attempt by the state to enact new “domestic terrorism laws” that really are going to come back on us much more hard than anything on the far right. I mean, the state has more than enough tools to arrest everybody that's already going online saying “yes, we will commit the crimes today, and here's my address, and here's what I plan to do, and here's my five buddies I'm talking on discord about it with”. I mean, they're very apt to go after those people if they choose to do so. What they chose to do over the past five years or so, as we've seen an ascendancy of social movements, is instead double down and focus on Black Lives Matter, who they've labeled “Black Identity Extremists”. 

We know that there's a “Iron Fist program” that the FBI has developed, this has been documented by outlets like the Intercept, which like COINTELPRO, they've only described in documents as a program to disrupt the Black liberation movement. We know through Fusion Center documents, like police and FBI and homeland security agents are looking at things like InfoWars as like legitimate sources. 

If you look at things like the BlueLeaks, some of the stuff that's coming out of that is just incredible, like FBI agents believing that antifascists are being paid by Bitcoin through ads on Craigslist to go to protests. I mean, it's just batshit. But obviously the state has made a decision over the past couple of years to, surprise, surprise, go after autonomous anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-racist movements from below as opposed to looking at the burgeoning far right threat. And now it's outside their door. Now, it's actually at the point where it's starting to disrupt state power. And cause, you know, Democratic senators and house representatives to go into hiding at the Capitol. Now they want to paint it as this big issue where, you know, they've been killing us for years and stacking up corpses, but now they want to paint it as an issue that, you know, has to be dealt with.

TFSR: Well, the whole thing was run by a “Mad Dog” Chomsky, as they say, you know, the whole riot at the at the Capitol on the sixth. Well, I mean, kind of pulling back, you've both made the point that the experiences that you've had around getting pushed off of social media platforms, or fundraising platforms as years before, with subMedia and IGD off of Patreon, has been an effort by private corporations measuring the balance of power, and maybe the proclivities of the people that run those specific platforms in some instances, but oftentimes, worrying about how it's going to look to their stockholders, and kicking off anti-authoritarian, leftist and anarchist projects from those sites in those platforms. Can you talk about a little bit about what the impact has been on your projects during that and sort of how you dealt with that?

C: Well, we were fortunate in that people responded immediately to the news that we'd been kicked off Facebook, when we were kicked off over the summer. There was actually a groundswell of support, I don't think that was about our specific projects, CrimethInc, ItsGoingDown, and the other projects that were kicked off, so much as it was a spreading awareness that, rather than banning groups according to what risks they pose, groups are being banned for political reasons. This is a concern that is going to affect more and more people, I think it's probable that the eventual endpoint of this trajectory is that it will be very difficult to talk about anything except centrist politics on these platforms at all. 

So when we were kicked off Facebook, you know, there's this open letter that 1000’s of people signed supporting us and directing attention to the situation, it didn't really impact us that much. Even the groups that we know that we're not kicked off Facebook were negatively impacted by the Facebook algorithms after this, so I think if we had not been kicked off, it would not have been very much different results in the long run. We're still seeing the same amounts of traffic to our website, maybe we'd be seeing more if we hadn't been kicked off? 

I think it's really an issue of what is legitimized, if they make it seem socially acceptable to ban people on the basis of their anarchist beliefs, from being able to communicate on these platforms, that is a step towards being able to legitimize other measures targeting people. And certainly when it happened, we were concerned because we're like, well, you know, if you're going to raid a village, first you cut off the electricity to that village, and diminishing our ability to communicate about what's happening to anarchists and other activists against white supremacy and government state oppression is one of the steps that you'd have to take to be able to increase the ways that people are targeted. And when we talk about the push now to invest more resources in the state, those resources are being put directly in the hands of the same sort of people who did the capital building occupations, so we can be sure that there's going to be more repression in the future. 

But we've been fortunate in the dying days of the Trump administration, there was not the political will to carry that out. It's possible that there still will not be, but we will have to do a lot of organizing, that doesn't depend on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, to be able to maintain the ties with people necessary to weather the kind of repression that we can expect to see under the Biden administration. 

IDG: Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, the thing with Patreon was so funny, because originally far right, I believe it was Greg Johnson, and that whole kind of crew — which is, interestingly enough, tied to Matt Gates in Florida — but I mean, they have launched a campaign to try to get IGD kicked off of Patreon. And originally, somebody from Patreon responded like, you know, well, actually, we think it's really important that antifascists have their work supported and stuff like that. To which they were like, Oh, my God, how could they do that? But when Lauren Southern was then kicked off after she was engaged with a group of white nationalists trying to block and putting the lives of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in danger because they wanted to create clickbait media for you know, Youtube and stuff like that, they were basically forced to do this kind of pound of flesh thing where they had to kick something off. And people like Tim Poole lobbied them to have ItsGoingDown removed. 

I think it's important also to point out that like in the example of Facebook, before they even kicked off, ItsGoingDown and CrimethInc, they really drastically changed the algorithms and the way that pages work. They also made it harder to get certain news sources. I mean, this affected the entire news media industry and anybody creating alternative media was severely impacted. This impacts everybody from Newsweek, down to Democracy Now to us and stuff like that. And that was designed to basically streamline Facebook as a way to generate money, they wanted people to pay to get clicks, basically. Which of course, you know, results in an output, which is that if you have money, you can then pay for more exposure. The end result is something like with the 2016 Trump administration run, where it's like, they have lots of money, and they can actually pay and flood the internet with lies, and, you know, total fabrications. 

You can look at everything that Cambridge Analytica did over the past couple years, in terms of the Trump election campaign. There's a great documentary on Netflix called the Social Dilemma that's about social media and the way the algorithms work. But the point is they've been slowly kind of pushing off independent, anti-capitalist left wing voices from the platform, since like, 2017, since Trump came into office. I think if you look at the breakdown of the most trafficked sites that basically are on Facebook, like the websites that are news based, that get the most clicks, it's like The Daily Caller, The Daily Wire, Breitbart. It's like, generally right wing or very far, right Trump-aligned websites. 

That's what basically Facebook has become, it's become an echo chamber of boomers, talking about Syrian refugees coming to kill them and kick their puppies and stuff like that. And it's no surprise then that when the pandemic hit, you saw literally like, hundreds and hundreds percent increase in Q-Anon and COVID conspiracies and stuff like that. I think it's telling again, with the ban of the certain antifascist and anarchist accounts, they literally had to go back and create new rules to kick them off. They were like, well it doesn't have to necessarily support violence in the speech, but it can kind of allude to it, or the people that are reading it can support it in the comments or something. It’s so vague that literally anything they could potentially kick off. 

But of course, it's just like when police passed a new law against dumpster diving, or like, people smoking outside, or, you know, the homeless people on a bench or something like that. I mean, it's not necessarily that they're gonna enforce it all the time, but that gives the police that tool to selectively enforce it, you know, whenever they want to. So it's a, you know, an invasive instrument, which they can use to attack people whenever they want to. It's been building I mean, the commons of the internet, if you will, has been becoming more and more policed, and obviously, ideas that attack the status quo, especially that are critical of the state, critical of white supremacy critical of capital they've been going after.

TFSR: So it makes me wonder, like, why do, I mean and our project does to some degree engage with social media, and tries to spread our message through it. I fucking hate it personally. But considering all of the downsides to working with social media, considering that there are all these algorithms that you have to constantly try to figure out how to work around, considering getting de-platformed all the time, considering the fact that so many of these social media platforms frequently hand over information or allow backdoors into law enforcement to surveil “extremists”, quote-unquote, in whatever shade you find them, whether it be the far right, or anarchists or autonomists or what have you. How do you all fall on the line of: are we promoting continued use of these platforms by engaging in them? How much are we giving clickbait to law enforcement, who follows who clicks on what? And how much are we actually reaching new audiences? Or are we drawing audiences away from these platforms while still engaging with it?

C: So as we're talking with people from subMedia about this — because they were proposing that we should organize a campaign to have anarchists withdraw from Facebook, for example — coming out of those conversations, I spoke with some comrades overseas. You know, in some parts of the world, anarchist projects still rely chiefly on Facebook. The occupied social center, Rog, that was just evicted today in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the statement about the eviction is on Facebook, that's where you have to go if you want to see it. And I said, if we were to make a concerted push to have anarchists withdraw from at least the most compromised social media platforms that involve the most surveillance, how do we do that in a way that doesn't mean that we lose contact with groups like yours that depended on Facebook chiefly. And they made the reasonable argument the anarchists in their community already are in touch with each other, already communicate with each other through platforms like Signal. But the thing is that they have to be in touch with people outside of their community in order to have the reach that they need to be able to put into effect their ambitious projects to actually change society. And that's why people maintain presences for radical projects on social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, despite all the compromises. 

For us, as anarchists, I think the challenge is always to be in this world, but not of it, to take action in a social context when the terrain itself is against us. As anarchists we're always fighting not only our adversaries, but against the terrain itself, we're trying to transform it into something that fosters horizontality, even as it surveils us, even as it rewards those who have the money to buy the kind of media exposure that they need, even as it structures the distribution of information according to existing power disparities. So I think you should never use a tool for the purposes it was designed for in a capitalist society, but at the same time, I don't think that that always means that the best thing is for us to just refuse unilaterally to use these tools, because for good or for ill, human discourse has largely been fitted to these structures now and the question is more how to subvert them than how to refuse them entirely. I think that we should evaluate the effectiveness of our interventions on corporate social media platforms, according to how efficiently they move people from those platforms to more secure and more reliable formats for engagement. Does your tweet just result in 1000 likes? Or does it actually compel people to form affinity groups and reading groups and to do in person organizing? These are the sort of questions we need to be asking. 

The process of determining who will be banned from social media is also the process of establishing what the social consensus will be. I mentioned earlier that it's determined by the existing balance of power. But it's not just the result of pre-existing conditions, it also gives rise to conditions. And when it comes to this process of establishing social consensus, what isn't and is not acceptable, we have to be in that conversation. You know, and actually, we made a lot of progress over the last couple years in helping to shape widespread notions of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, you know, many people now are critical of police, are open to the idea that the entire justice system or the state apparatus, the capitalist system needs to be deconstructed, that our society needs to be reorganized. And we have to establish access to all of these people to be able to have the conversations that need to unfold. We just should never trust that the platforms that we're using, the ones that we didn't build, we should never trust that they will do the work for us or that they exist to fulfill our goals.

IGD: Yeah, I mean, I think the question that you're asking is a big one. And I think we should be definitely talking about it. I think that, you know, there are alternatives being built. You know, right now, there are servers that are on Mastodon that are creating basically an alternative to Twitter. Right now ItsGoingDown has like, I think, coming up on almost 5,000 followers, which is pretty good, considering you know, that project hasn't really been promoted that much and it's been slowly building. But there's a growing community of people. They're not only building kind of alternative social media infrastructure, but joining and following being part of the discussion. 

What have we gained from like being on social media? I mean, the fact that, for instance, the Washington Post is quoting various Youth Liberation Front collectives across the country about certain things happening, or quoting various tweets from ItsGoingDown. I think what's happened is that as anarchists have become part of the story, our voices then have been harder to basically remove from the conversation. And the fact that it's out there and people are looking at it, that means that they can't just brush it aside and say we don't exist, we don't have something to say. On the other hand, that means that as soon as those voices are gone, or they're taken off, or they're taken away, or even if a corporation can come in and say, “Oh, these people were naughty, and they said bad things, and they're promoting violence” I mean, we can turn around and quote that and run with that. So I mean, if those voices are taken off, that means that we're taking away from the conversation, and it's just as likely that we'll be quickly forgotten, or people won't reach out to talk to us.

I think that going to the Biden administration, I mean I would guess that the platform that anarchists have gotten over the past four years is going to get a lot smaller in terms of doing the mass media is going to be willing to talk to anarchists. I think that there's gonna be some people like journalists, that are anarchists that have developed the following that will continue to write and, you know, continue to get their stuff out there, but I think that it's probably a good guess that they're gonna less, and less be willing to reach out and talk to anarchists about what they think about anti-fascism or community organizing or different struggles happening. I mean, then again, we'll see I mean, who knows what's going to happen in the coming terrain? 

You know, I just think, also, too, we've built up a large following in a lot of these projects and hopefully that's not going to go away. Like ItsGoingDown I would say that probably right now, we have just as many people, probably more, that listen to our podcasts than maybe go on the website and read the articles. You know, the podcast community, the people that listen to the show is very massive, and like we have a radio presence and stuff like that. But again, like, as the other person brought up, how do we translate that into like real world engagement? 

The last big point I'll make is that I don't think that just because social media is such a defining element of our daily lives that we just basically have to give up and just say, Okay, this is the terrain in which we talk to people on like, this is it, this is the only way. We should actually really work at going back and remember that we can actually interact with people face to face, like we can actually have a public presence. I think like getting back to being really good at that, and doing that well. And, you know, having posters up, having flyers, tabling regularly outside, producing publications, running physical spaces, I mean, we do all that stuff and we do it pretty well. The fact that we have this network of infrastructure, like imagine if the alt right had the same amount of physical stuff that the anarchist and autonomous movements have, it’d be terrifying! You know, like, in some cities there's multiple spaces.

The one great thing about social media is that I mean, if you put something out and it goes very far, or if you're speaking to something that's happening, you have the opportunity to reach other people in the public that are already involved in the anarchist conversation or projects, stuff like that. So I mean, the exposure to anarchist ideas, over the past four or five years has grown exponentially. And obviously, we want that to continue. But I think we've got to plan into that, that we very well may be kicked off a lot of these big platforms. And the way to make sure that that's not going to stop what we're doing is to, you know, have the ability to organize our own communities like in the real world.

TFSR: Yeah, I totally agree. And the work that we're doing online needs to be a first step, or a part of a conversation, that draws more people into those real life engagements, because we're not gonna find liberation, we may find comrades on the way, but we're not gonna find liberation through these platforms. And I know both of the projects that the two of you work with are in and of themselves alternative platforms with so many different facets to how they communicate and the range of voices that they contain within them, which I think is really awesome. I'd like to finish up by asking sort of, are there any like interesting discussions that you think or platforms or directions that people could be taking, where they think about how we diversify the way that we get our voice out, as we've faced, either silencing through platforms shutting down or shutting us out? Or, for instance, the other day when signal was down for a good long period of time, I think people started exploring other encrypted applications. I know that CrimethInc, for instance, is also recently engaged with an app called Signal Boost, which I think is interesting to use a new tool to create encrypted phone trees. I don't know if you had any closing thoughts and examples that you want to bring up.

IGD: Yeah, I think Mastodon is great. The downside of course, is that there's not a huge amount of people that are on it that are outside of you know, the anarchist space. But you know, I’d remind people that like, for instance, on Twitter, we're probably the largest anarchist presences, I think it’s like 1% of the US population is on Twitter, and it skews more towards celebrities and journalists, politicians and stuff. It's definitely not an accurate representation of, you know, the proletariat, the United States or something like that. So, again, even these social media platforms are somewhat limiting, and that I think the real work remains to be done on the streets. And if we can build a visible presence there, I mean, it doesn't matter if they're going to kick us off of some social media. I mean, obviously, it'll matter, but we're still going to have those connections to people where we live, and I think that's ultimately what's what's really important. 

But yeah, I would encourage people to check out Mastodon, if you go to itsgoingdown.org, there is a link right on the site where you can go and check out our Mastodon. There's basically, the way the Mastodon works is, there's all these different groups that have servers and they all federate together, it's pretty cool. It's definitely anarchy in action on the internet. 

I would also encourage people to check out the Channel Zero Anarchist Podcast Network, which is growing. We just included the Indigenous Action podcast, and Sima Lee’s Maroon podcast, it’s growing all the time, there's great shows, there's just an amazing network of content that's been produced. It's just you know, anarchist politics across the board, from a variety of different groups and perspectives, and also just topics that people are talking about, whether it's people talking about tenant organizing, or stuff that's going on in the prisons, or anti-fascism or news or theory, there's a whole breadth of stuff that's going on, that people are covering.

C: Just to conclude, from our perspective, as an anarchist collective, that’s now more than a quarter of a century old, we proceeded the social media era. You know, when we got started, we're mailing each other packages of raw materials to make zines, basically, via cut and paste, we were talking to each other from payphones, you know, and the different kinds of media platforms that we've had to use to communicate have shifted dramatically since the mid 1990’s. We've won battles and lost battles on each of those fronts, but the terrain keeps changing and the struggle continues, you know. 

The good news is that the same forces, the same dynamics and tendencies that are driving us off of some of these corporate media platforms are going to erode the relevance of the platforms themselves. Facebook is not going to be the most important communications platform for the generation that is coming of age right now. And we won't have to reach them on Facebook, we may have to figure out how to make Tiktok videos in which we lip sync to songs in order to get our ideas across. Which is terrifying for people like us, we're basically boomers, you know, but the struggle continues; we just have to adjust to a new context and knowing that that won't be the final phase either. 

Throughout all of this, as my comrade said, the engagement in the real world, IRL, on the streets ,is going to be one of the most important things. Even if they ban us from every platform, if there are stickers, if there are posters up in public, if there are dramatic actions that speak for themselves, other people are going to report on those and the word will get out there. My hope is that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people start to feel at ease coming back together again, that there will be a renaissance of embodied in person social life, and that people will want to be around each other at gatherings. And that we will see people forming reading groups, hopefully establishing new info shops, and that over the past year, we've gotten to experience the limitations of having our entire social lives take place through zoom, you know, for those who even have computer access. And there will be an eagerness to return to more embodied in person projects and relationships. For me that that is the foundation of the most effective politics, because the ties that you can create there and the things that you can do together are more intimate, more deep rooted and more powerful.

TFSR: It was such a pity that the together space that happened earlier this year and through a lot of the summer couldn't very easily be followed up with a continuation of that, and like a deepening of relationships with all the people that I met in the streets. 

C: Exactly. 

TFSR: It was definitely like deadened residence afterwards. I want to echo what you said, like, let's hope for this year. Let's make it happen.

C: Yeah, exactly. Let's make it happen. And this is a good time right now for anarchists and other ambitious creative people who have everyone's best interests at heart to be brainstorming what kind of projects we could kick off this summer that will draw people together, that will involve being in physical space together. Maybe this is a time when people could get their hands on spaces that could host some of these mutual aid projects that have gotten off the ground, and then we could be watching films or reading zines and discussing them together or whatever the 2021 version of that would be.

TFSR: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. I've really enjoyed it. And yeah, I'm so glad to engage in similar projects to you and get to share space and call you a comrade. 

C: Yeah, we're so fortunate. Thank you so much.

ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation

ShineWhite on Turning Razor Wire Plantations Into Schools of Liberation

A ballooon with 'Betray Whiteness" written on it, the 'a' in a circle, and a Black Widow spider hanging from below. Created by JustSeeds
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The following is a conversation with ShineWhite. ShineWhite is the former spokesperson for the National White Panther Organization, a part of the United Panther Movement. There was quite recently a split in the UPM and ShineWhite is now affiliated with the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party.

In this conversation, ShineWhite talks about the White Panther Organization that he was representing at the time of this chat, how he became politicized in North Carolina Prisons, the terrible conditions amidst the covid pandemic and beyond, anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizing in the NCDPS system, the use of the Security Threat Group status in NC prisons and reprisals he’s faced for his call out in 2018 for NC prisoners to participate in a Prison Strike which dovetailed well with the Nationwide Prison Strike of that year as well as other organizing.

You can write ShineWhite at the time of this publication at the following address, using ShineWhite only on the inside of the letter:
Joseph Stewart #0802041
Alexander CI
633 Old Landfill Rd,
Taylorsville, NC 28681

And you can check out more of his writings at ShineWhite.Home.Blog and you can contact his comrades at pantherlove@protonmail.com

You can hear the Sean Swain segment, read with the help of Nichole of Pynk Spots podcast (member of the Channel Zero Network) starting at [00:45:43]. More info on the subject can be found at KilledByPolice.Net

Social Media & Transcription

Just a brief announcement. TFSR is continuing it’s Patreon push to pay for transcription work of our episodes to allow our guests voices to get further. If you want to help in the process and have some extra moneys, for every recurring donation of over $10 we get we are closer to paying for another week a month of transcription. You can learn more at our Patreon. For people that donate at that level and above, we’ll be sending a zine a month, plus other thank-yous.

We are also going to experiment with a couple of new social media platforms. While we don’t suggest people join the Telegram Platform for organizing on, if you’re already on there you can find our telegram channel to find our episodes, found at T.Me/TFSRadio. Soon, we will be starting to post to Kolektiva video platform, similar to our youtube account.

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Featured track:

The Rosenbergs by the RJ Phillips Band [00:58:39]

William’s commentary starts at [00:52:02]

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TFSR: For the listening audience, would you please introduce yourself with your name, location and how you came to be there?

ShineWhite: Foremost, All Power To The People! My name is Joseph Stewart, but I am known by my komrades and others as Komrade ShineWhite. I am the national spokesperson for the White Panther Organization.

I am currently being held at Alexander Correctional, one of North Carolina’s worst prisons due to the racist and prejudiced beliefs that are espoused by the Administration all the way down to the slave patrol guards who patrol the concrete fields of this razor-wire plantation. Alexander Correctional is located in a rural area of North Carolina, the radio of whites to people of color who are employed here is 8 to 1. The environment is very hostile.

I was emergency transferred here a couple of months ago during this pandemic despite the courts ordering prison officials to halt all transfers to prevent the spread of the corona virus. I was transferred from Central Prison due to my political organizing there. Within the past four years I have been transferred from facility to facility, which is a tactic used by prison officials to stifle my advocacy efforts, to impede me from organizing prisoners, which is vital if we intend to redress and ameliorate the living conditions within these prisons

TFSR: How did you come to be politicized and what is the nature of your current endeavor?

ShineWhite: I am a firm believer that poverty and repression compels one to become politicized. But there was an incident that occurred while I was in the county jail awaiting trial for the charges I am currently incarcerated for that was the catalyst of my politicization.

It was in 2012. I had assaulted a guard that was employed at the county jail that had been antagonizing me for several months. It wasn’t an average assault, I had taken it to the extreme. For this I wasn’t placed in a Regulatory Solitary Confinement cell, I was placed behind the wall which is a cell that’s secluded from everything and everyone.

Placed in the cell with nothing but the jail uniform I had on there was nothing to do but reflect on life and what the future would look like if I continued living the way I was, engaged in lumpen activities failing to realize that imposing the oppression I was subjected to on others made me a proxy of those I claimed I hated…

As the days passed, boredom began to set in. I decided to get down and do some push ups. As I was on the ground I happened to look under the bed and noticed a book in the far corner. Crawling under the bed, retrieving the book I noticed the words “Blood In My Eye.” Assuming that it was an urban fiction book that was based on the Street Formation I was representing I quickly got back on the bed and attempted to read the book.

I say attempted because at the time I was unable to read or write past the 6th grade level. I spent most of my adolescent years in and out of state-institutions. An education wasn’t the primary focus of those who ran these reform schools, group homes, etc…

Unable to read or comprehend the book, I became frustrated and threw it to the side. By this time I had been told by the guards who would bring me my three meals a day that I wasn’t leaving that cell unless I made bond or was sent to prison.

My days were spent trying to read George’s book. Weeks had passed and I was still unable to read the majority of the book. I began to write all the words I could not pronounce or understand on the walls of the cell. This went on for two months before anyone noticed. One morning a Sergeant of the jail who I have known my entire life brought me my breakfast tray, noticed the walls covered in writing, questioned what I had going on. I explained that the words on the wall were out of a book I was trying to read, I wrote the words on the walls to memorize them so once I had access to a dictionary I would look them up. He asked me what I was reading, I showed him the book that had been thrown across my cell many times, bent up and been cursed by me out of frustration stemming from my inability to read it.

Weeks had passed before this same Sergeant came back to visit with me. Bringing me my breakfast he had two books in his hand and a note pad. He said if I agree to stop writing on the walls and clean off what I had written, he would give me the books and the notepad. Quickly agreeing, I was handed over a Websters dictionary, “Soledad Brother” and a notepad.

Neglecting to eat my tray there was a word that I was dying to look up the meaning of.

“Revolutionary: one engaged in a Revolution”

Quickly moving on to search for the word Revolution.

“Revolution: a sudden, radical or complete change”

I asked myself “Am I a Revolutionary? What am I changing?” Not fully comprehending what revolution was at the time, I moved on to other words, but the question “Am I a Revolutionary?” continued to enter my mind. I wanted to make a change, I wanted to be a Revolutionary because George had been a Revolutionary and he spoke highly of other Revolutionaries. A Revolutionary is smart, I wanted to be smart. Revolutionaries fought, I wanted to fight. I had to become a Revolutionary. I didn’t fully understand what a Revolutionary was, but yet I knew to become one I had to become smart. The dictionary became my best friend, reading George’s books were painstaking in the beginning. I had to stop every other word to look up its meaning.

Komrade George changed me, he Revolutionized me in a small cell secluded from everyone for 9 months. I had become politicized! Sentenced close to twenty years, I’ve been feeding my consciousness ever since. I don’t tell a lot of people but I have a learning disability that becomes discouraging at times. It’s difficult for me to grasp what I’m reading the frist time, I have to read it over and over before I am fully able to comprehend it. I am self-educated, the past four years of my life was spent in solitary confinement. I have recently been released to general population thanks to the support of my outside network coordinating a national campaign to have me released.

Solitary confinement compels me to either grow or die mentally. I used my time to further my education in areas that would benefit the movement. Being that I am incarcerated and will remain incarcerated for at least the next seven years, my primary focus is to build up the White Panther Organization within prisons nationwide. For a Revolutionary or liberator of the people who is incarcerated, our primary focus should be to transform these razor-wire plantations into schools of liberation. Thus, upon their release, prisoners can return to their communities armed with an education that would enable them to transform their communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. This is the necessary first stage of the Revolutionary war.

TFSR: Would you tell us in some detail about the White Panther Organization, it’s philosophy and it’s activities as you can?

ShineWhite: The WPO serves as an arm to the peoples vanguard, the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP) whose primary purpose is to lead the fight against national oppression and link this to the international proletarian revolution. Our ideological and political line is Pantherism. The politics of Pantherism is Revolutionary nationalism and internationalism illuminated by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Our strategy for Revolution is a national and international United Front Against Imperialism.

Our job as White Panthers is to put in work among the white masses and poor white communities, winning them over to support the Panther 10-point program. The 10-point programs of both the NABPP and the WPO. Both can be read at ShineWhite.Home.Blog or email pantherlove@protonmail.com and request a copy of each.

As White Panthers, we are more than a white support group of the NABPP. History has shown that white support groups advance the Revolution. We as White Panthers recognize that we must be all-the-way Revolutionaries that work diligently to organize and build anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist and other progressive consensus among poor whites who are also subjected to class oppression.

As I already mentioned, it is our primary focus to transform these razor-wire plantations into “schools of liberation” and the oppressed communities into base areas of cultural, social and political Revolution. To do so, it’s imperative that we re-educate our white brothers and sisters as well as our non-binary komrades who have been deluded by racist, White Supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interests.

With the help of my Anarchist Komrades and my partner, Nadia, we have started a WPO newsletter. A dope newsletter, I must say, that serves as an educational tool used to teach and popularize the history of our ancestors who recognized the need for Resistance against slavery and recognized the need of Class Struggle such as John Brown, Bill Blizzard, Marilyn Buck, Mother Jones and many more.

Prisons are seedbeds. This is where the Revolutionary is grown. Our newsletter prunes and nurtures the reader, enabling them to blossom into all-the-way Revolutionary thinkers.

We have a Toy Drive for the children of prisoners. We understand the importance of family and the need of a father in the lives of these children. At this time we are limited to what we’re able to do to ensure relationships between prisoners and their children remain strong and continue to grow. We did this toy drive to show prisoners as well as their families that the Panthers have their back. The first 30 prisoners who wrote to us with their child’s name, age and address got toys sent to them with a message from their father . You know we are just trying to serve the people. We have plans once this covid-19 mess clears up to provide transportation for the families of prisoners who are unable to visit their incarcerated loved ones due to lack of transportation. Strong family ties create strong community ties, both are vital to advancement of our struggle.

We have a couple different endeavors in the works such as an STG / SRG campaign to address the draconian policies that those of us who have been validated as an STG / SRG are subjected to. This is something I will expand on later in this interview.

But I hope I am able to provide the resources needed to have Ruchell Magee released from prison. I intend to exhaust every avenue to have this done. Several of the elders have been released, most recently Jalil Muntaqim.

Ruchell is one of the longest held political prisoners, he has been incarcerated since the 1960’s, people, it’s time that all put forth effort to have Ruchell Magee released. We, despite what political ideology you espouse, must work diligently to expose the use of the criminal [in]justice system as an instrument of political repression and demand amnesty for our imprisoned elders. Those of you who desire Revolution, it’s essential that you defend the imprisoned Revolutionaries. This is an essential part of building for Revolution.

TFSR: You have received push-back from the NCDPS for your political organizing, including your call in 2018 for NC participation in the Nationwide Prison Strike. Can you talk about the repression you’ve faced?

ShineWhite: As our Minister of Defense Kevin Rashid pointed out, “Nothing is more dangerous to a system that depends on misinformation than a voice that obeys it’s own dictates and has the courage to speak out.” Since gaining the support of my komrades on the outside who amplified my voice, I’ve been working diligently to report and pursue public exposure and redress of the brutality, torture and abuses taking place within these razor-wire plantations. As I mentioned earlier, the past four years of my incarceration were spent in solitary confinement. After calling for for NC prisoners to participate in the 2018 national prison strike I was sent to NC’s only supermax unit at Polk Correctional. On this unit, the cells are secluded from everything and everyone. You don’t leave your cell for nothing, a cell that’s smaller than the average parking space at your local Walmart.

While being held there I witnessed prison guards wantonly murder prisoner Freddie “Barn” Pickett. I exposed those involved as well as their claim that he had committed suicide. This got national attention and some of those involved were fired. This is when the reprisals really intensified. On January 14, 2019 (my birthday), shards of glass were found in my food. A call to action was put out demanding that I be transferred. During my transfer, all of my personal belongings were lost, this has taken place several times.

After organizing a hunger strike and my outside support network coordinating a phone zap to address the living conditions at Scotland Correctional, prison guards entered my cell and physically attacked me, fracturing my ribs as well as my right hand.

I’ve been subjected to many forms of reprisals at the hands of my overseers and continue to this day to be subjected to harsh mail censorship. Correctional officers spread propaganda that I am a snitch. I’ve seen it all and at times I almost allowed it to deter me. But the words of Komrade George would always enter my mind when I was weak, “If we accept Revolution, we must accept all that it implies: repression, counter-terrorism, days filled with work, nervous strain, prison, funerals.” You can always tell how much of a threat you are by the intensity of the repression or the actions taken to suppress your advocacy efforts. Wait until we kick off this SRG campaign.

TFSR: There are all sorts of organizations inside prison walls and the WPO and affiliated New Afrikan Black Panther Party organizers have received persecution by authorities with the claim that these groups are SRG’s, or Security Risk Groups. What is an SRG, how do you answer the charge of the accusation of being essentially a gang inside NC prisons, and how does it’s membership relate to other groups determined as SRGs?

ShineWhite: Prison officials claim that a Security Risk Group (SRG) is a group os prisoners that set themselves apart from others, pose a threat to the security or safety of staff or other prisoners, or are disruptive to programs or the orderly management of the facility.

Our Minister of Defense, Komrade Kevin Rashid, recently wrote a piece on this, titled “How the pigs abuse gang levels,” explaining how a majority of the SRG investigations and their staff are white and have been trained into a hostile doctrinaire view of the so-called ‘gang culture.’

I can’t speak about other states and how a prisoner becomes validated as a member of an SRG, but here in NC the slightest thing can get you validated such as having tattoos of stars or associating with prisoners who are already validated.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) does not have an SRG policy in place to outline reasonable due process rights to dispute being validated or to present evidence that would prove that the claims being made against you are false. I know several prisoners who have been validated that are not affiliated with any group. They are subjected to repressive sanctions and discriminatory treatment which have no reasonable purpose or justification. Some of these sanctions are, but aren’t limited to:

  • longer solitary confinement terms than non-validated prisoners for rule violations that are not ‘gang’ related;
  • restricted to two 15 minute phone calls a month, please tell me how a father can maintain a healthy relationship with his child with only two phone calls a month…;
  • harsher and often unreasonable censorship of mail, both incoming and outgoing. SRG staff use the claim that my mail is being denied due to it being SRG related. I deal with this at least 4 times a week. They use this to impede and disrupt my correspondences. Everything coming in from my partner Nadia is denied. She knows how harsh the censoring of my mail is, she has been dealing with it for over a year and a half now. She isn’t going to write anything out the way. But, yet Hitler’s helpers find an excuse to deny her mail often. My mail is being held for weeks at a time before it is sent out, if it even IS sent out. The incoming mail is held for weeks before it is given to me. SRG feels as if they can do as they please and until their arrogance and pompousness is checked they will continue to do as they please. This is why it is imperative that we coordinate a campaign that we not only expose these SRG sanctions but also compel public officials to redress the violation of our Constitutional rights. This isn’t just happening here in NC, this is taking place across the nation, people. And as advocates inside and outside of prison, a campaign addressing the draconian policies that prisoners nationwide are subjected to, we must put our resources together and organize against this;
  • Prisoners who are validated are only permitted visits with immediate family members when there is no evidence to prove that visiting with someone beyond an immediate family member would be a threat to the safety of the facility;
  • prisoners who are validated are being denied access to any type of educational or rehabilitative programming;
  • on February 5th of 2019, Prison officials incorporated a policy that prohibited prisoners from receiving financial support from anyone that wasn’t on the prisoners approved visitation list. As I have mentioned, Prisoners who have been validated can only receive visits from immediate famliiy members. The majority of the prisoners who ARE in gangs come from broken families or have been raised by aunts and uncles. This restriction targets poor, Black and Brown prisoners. If one has been adopted, or if their mother, father, sister or brother has been convicted of a felony, they are unable to apply for visitation. This restriction has created an environment within these prisons that makes it hard on the average prisoner due to all of the strong-arming and extortion taking place from prisoners unable to receive financial support due to their SRG validation. But by creating such an environment, it solidifies the request for more funding to solve the so-called ‘gang problems’, it solidifies the 23 hour a day lock-downs.

As far as the WPO or NAABP being recognized as an SRG in NC, that danger doesn’t currently exist due to my relentless advocacy efforts to have both removed from the list as an SRG. This was done with the help of Senator Jayce Waddell who sits on the Senate Select committee for Prison Safety, as well as with the information provide by Komrade Malik Washington.

You see, the US Supreme Court has long held that “minority”/ dissident groups such as the WPO and NABPP have the same First Amendment right to engage in political expression and association as do the two major political parties.

The NABPP and the WPO are above ground Communist, Non-violent, Anti-Racist, predominantly New Afrikan and white organizations/ political parties. In no way do we promote anything illegal, or gang related. The courts outlawed censorship and discrimination against Communist groups by goernment officials long ago. By pointing this out to prison administrators and showing ase laws such as Brandenburg v. Ohio, I was able to have both the NABPP and WPO removed from the list of recognized security Risk Groups. But this still hasn’t decreased the political intolerance shown by prison officials.

I am validated as a level 3 Blood, the only white person in NC validated as such. This stems from when I first entered the prison system back in the early 2000’s. With this label on me, SRG staff use it to suppress my advocacy efforts claiming that I am organizing gang members.

To be completely honest, it’s vital that we gain the support of the street formations. Their support is essential to redressing not only these SRG restrictions but society as well. Both the government as well as these prison officials are aware of this, this is hwy they’re diligently working to create situations and environments to keep the members of these street formations at each others’ necks.

For example, the J-Pay Restriction policy I mentioned earlier that was incorporated on February 5th, 2019. By prohibiting prisoners who have been validated as an SRG from receiving financial support from anyone beyond immediate family, the policy has drastically increased the violence between the street formations within NC prisons. Poverty breeds violence. Not only has this policy increased the gang on gang violence, but also has fostered a very dangerous environment for those who are not affiliated with any of the street formations. Prisoners I’ve known for years are now joining these street formations just so they can enjoy the Canteen they’re able to purchase. The miscreants who incorporated this policy claimed it was done to prevent the strong-arming and other criminal activities that take place within NC prisons. This policy has done the opposite.

These are not tactics only being used in NC prisons, it’s taken place nationwide. We as Panthers are working to build a Clenched Fist Alliance, that would united all the street formations toward a common Revolutionary alliance that would address the oppressive living conditions within all prisons. I‘m aware this is a colossal task, but it can be done and should be done.

The members of these street formations relate to us and the Panthers relate to them, not relating to their lumpen tendencies but along the lines they are brothers and sisters who are from our communities, who are subjected to as many forms of oppression as the next person. Before I came to be a Panther myself, I was of the lumpen strata. Just as each and every member of both the NABPP and the WPO were.

The lumpen are not a class in the fullest sense but part of the lower strata of the proletariat. Lumpen means broken. The lumpen proletariat are those who exist by illegal means or hustle. The street formations are made up of the lumpen proletariat. They’ve been conditioned to believe that they only way to survive is by illegal hustles and in some of their situations this is true.

Some of them cannot be reached, but there are many who can. By showing them patience and that we are dedicated to redressing issues that affect them we’re able to Pantherize them, gaining their trust as well as their support. I’m in the trenches with these guys daily and many are my close komrades, their struggle is my struggle.

There’s other self-acclaimed prison activists within NC prisons who consistently write about gang violence and how they are being affected by it and how the street formations are retaliating against them because of their advocacy efforts. I’m sure some of the listeners have read about this recently. I want to clarify something quickly before we move on to the next question. I’ve been on the frontlines of this prison movement here in NC for the past six years and have organized many demonstrations which had the support of the street formations, not once have any members of the street formations attempted to retaliate against me. So for the prisoner who has been writing to those of y’all on the outside who publish and support our advocacy efforts here in NC, telling the people that he was attacked by gang members because he had exposed the prison officials where he was being held at, it is falsehood. I myself personally investigated his claims and found them to be untruthful. By lying, it only help s those we’re supposed to be fighting against. I know this doesn’t relate to the question you asked, komrade, but I wanted to put that out there because this movement is very important to me. I have sacrificed so much and I’m willing to sacrifice it all to assure the movement continues to thrive here in NC.

But, as far as the relationship between myself and those of the street formations, I stand in solidarity with them and will continue to work diligently toward building a Clenched Fist Alliance amongst them.

TFSR: Race in the US is a major schism among the working classes that is used to pit us against each other, as is pretty standard in settler-states founded by Great Britain. And prison hierarchies and organization reproduce and often improve upon those divisions. Can you talk about the importance of white folks, and white prisoners in particular organizing in anti-racist formations like the WPO? And do you feel there is a danger to organizing along the lines of racialization rather than class lines?

ShineWhite: As Komrade Kwame Nkrumah pointed out to us, “racist social structure is inseparable from capitalist economic development. For race is inextricably linked with class exploitation, in a racist-capitalist power structure, capitalist exploitation and race oppression are complementary. The removal of one ensures the removal of the other.” We White Panthers, and any other whites who are anti-racist, anti-capitalist, etc… have a special opportunity and responsibility to counter the influence of racist ideology and organizing within the working class and poor white communities by re-educating. Those who have been deluded by racist, white supremacist propaganda and ideology into opposing their own class interest, enabling them to uphold proletarian internationalism and the unity of a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class against national and capitalistic exploitation and oppression.

The WPO recognizes this class struggle but before we’re able to organize as a multi-national, multi-ethnic working class, it’s our duty to make whites see themselves “as they really are, instead of who they think they are” to quote Karl Marx.

The WPO refutes the concept of White Power as well as the ideology of white supremacy. As Komrade Spidey, the original spokesperson for the WPO recognized, “White Power not only fails to empower poor white people, it is a psychological trap that masses of people fall into that renders us politically impotent. We become unwitting tools of our own oppression. It blocks our only avenue of advancement which is through class consciousness and unity. It makes us the unwitting tools of oppression of not only non-white people but ourselves as well.”

When trying to educate white prisoners on the truth about race and why racism keeps us oppressed, the majority of them reply “Why don’t you never write or talk about Blacks being racist?” And, yes, I agree that there is such a thing as reverse racism. But as a white person, it’s my duty to re-educate the whites and it’s the duty of any New Afrikan komrades to educate the New Afrikans.

How much success would I have if I attempted to talk to New Afrikans about why they shouldn’t e racist, that’s not my place, my place is to re-educate the whites. The United Panther Movement recognizes that there’s only one race, the human race. But if we’re going to successfully combat racist oppression, we must recognize that discrimination comes down different on different groups of people and that it is important to organize within each group of people in accordance with the way they are perceived in society. That’s why there’s a Black Panther, a White Panther and a Brown Panther to carry out the task.

TFSR: There has been an outbreak of covid recently at Alexander CI, where you are imprisoned. I hope you have been able to avoid it. How has the NCDPS and your facility in particular handled the pandemic, how have prisoners reacted to the pandemic and what, if anything, have you seen from outside supporters and the wider public ala covid-19 and prisons?

ShineWhite: Thank you for asking, Komrade, in my opinion supporters on the outside here in NC fail to realize how grave the current living conditions are right now for prisoners during these unprecedented times.

Those of us who are currently imprisoned are utterly at the mercy of the miscreants who patrol these concrete fields. With there already being issues with overcrowding in NC prisons and prisoners being corralled in small housing areas, we’re unable to maintain social distancing, to control our exposure to vectors for disease transmission, to choose the quality of type of mask we wear, unable to seek independent medical treatment, overall unable to protect ourselves from the corona virus.

This is in spite of several health experts having suggested that prisoners with upcoming release dates and at high risk of medical harm be released from the custody of DPS. They explained to prison officials that by doing so it would address the crowded living conditions that have led to numerous constitutional violations and has been a cause of several covid outbreaks within NC prisons. Prison officials claim that if they were to release these prisoners, it wouldn’t really make a difference. I’m inclined to disagree with this, to date several prisoners who reside in the same block as I do have release dates within the next two months, but yet are being held and impeded from earning any extra gain days that would enable them to be released as early as tomorrow.

This isn’t unknown to prison officials, to keep it plain and simple they just don’t give a damn. The death of Ms Faye Brown proves it. She was a female prisoner who was held at the women’s prison in Raleigh, NC. At the age of 65 she died of covid earlier this year. What is sad about this particular case is that prison officials had trusted Ms Brown enough to permit her to ride the city bus five days a week to Sherrill’s School of Cosmetology where she was employed as a teacher, unsupervised. It was evident that she wasn’t a threat to society but being that she had been convicted in 1975 for participating in a bank robbery in which her co-defendant killed a state trooper, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee denied her an early release which led to her death.

I contracted the virus myself. It could have been avoided but prison officials failed to take the proper steps that would have prevented this and would have saved the life of Jenny Combs. There was a prisoner housed in the same block as me who was showing all of the symptoms of covid, often complaining to the guards. He was able to get one of them to escort him to the nurse’s station, he registered a temperature of 102 degrees. Instead of having him placed in a block that had been set up for quarantine, he was allowed to return to the block to move around, spreading the virus for three days before his test results had come back positive.

By this time, several prisoners out of the 48 who lived in B-Block were showing symptoms of covid. On Novemeber 2nd, prison administrators had the block locked down and all 48 prisoners were tested for covid. It was 21 prisoners who had tested positive. Mr Jerry Combs as well as myself were not of those 21 prisoners, but being that prison officials compelled us to remain in the block with those who had tested positive, those who hadn’t tested positive eventually did. Mr Jerry Combs contracted it, complained to medical staff and prison officials that he needed medical attention beyond some non-asprins, prison officials allowed his please to fall on deaf ears. Two days later he was found dead in his cell.

Prison officials quickly claimed that he had committed suicide by overdosing on his medications. I know thi sto be untrue, they are only trying to cover their tail as they always do. Despite three prisoners dying of covid here at Alexander, the precautionary steps that should be taken to prevent this are not being taken. They continue to move prisoners around, the guards fail to wear their masks and we are not being given the needed disinfectants to disinfect any living spaces.

This will continue until supporters intensify the struggle on the outside. I will be honest, this is my opinion. NC movements on the outside need to step it up on all levels. I know what I’m about to say will ruffle some feathers but I’m speaking the truth. The inhumane living conditions prisoners in NC are forced to endure could be ameliorated if outside supporters would take the advice of certain prisoners who have proven to be able to organize those within the walls. This struggle is one that requires much work and dedication, this isn’t a weekend thing.

We all have to be on the same page, if we are going to compel prison officials to make changes that would enable prisoners to successfully rehabilitate themselves. NC prisons are among the five states across the nation that don’t have tablets. We are forced to remain locked in our cells, no access to educational programming or rehabilitation programming. The primary objective is to rehabilitate the prisoner, correct? Well, that isn’t the case here.

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set forth by the United Nations, says “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” One of the “rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration “ is the right to education, as stated in Article 2t6. Yet prisoners here in NC are denied higher education because our states of incarceration. This is blatant discrimination. Y’all on the outside are being told that we are being offered educational opportunities. This is a lie.

What does this have to do with covid? Well, I just wanted to point out that it shouldn’t take a pandemic for those on the outside to organize to redress these living conditions. It should be taken serious at all times. As I already mentioned, I am working on an SRG campaign that would address the draconian policies prisoners are subjected to. If you would like to know more about it and how you can help, write to me:

Joseph Stewart #0802041

Alexander CI

633 Old Landfill Rd

Taylorsville, NC 28681

Or email my support network at pantherlove@protonmail.com and someone will contact you. 2021 is upon us. Let’s make this the year of intensifying the struggle on all levels. Bridges have to be built, meaningful working relationships have to be built. It takes both the prisoners and those on the outside.

Prisoners have to see the fruit first before they are willing to put the work in that’s needed to ameliorate the situation. It’s sad but it’s true. You must keep in mind that many of us have been abandoned by family members and other loved ones. So, they find it hard to believe that there are people on the outside that care about their well being when their own family doesn’t. By showing prisoners that you are willin gto struggle with them, you gain their trust and support, which is necessary if we aim to mobilize and organize.

TFSR: How do you see the struggle against racialized capitalism in the so-called US developing moving forward into a Biden presidency and what suggestions do you have to organizers on either side of the razor wire?

ShineWhite: As Mark Twain pointed out to us ,”If voting could change anything, they wouldn’t let us do it.” It doesn’t matter who is the president, because they all share the same objective: expanding the dominance of capitalism.

As long as the masses maintain constituent allegiance to the parties such as the Democratic and Republican parties, racial capitalism will continue to thrive and expand. A vote for any representative of either party is a vote of confidence in the reform-ability of capitalism and a vote against the need for socialist revolution. If we’re going to advance the struggle against racial capitalism, we must stand in implacable opposition to the dual parties of capitalism.

If the overall objective is to create a mass-oriented socialist system of mutual cooperation, fair and equal distribution that would benefit us all, certain methods will have to be adopted in order to be compatible with the newer systems which we the people are trying to establish. The primary method should be eradicating racism and taking an empathic stand against the false ideology of white supremacy. Both allowed capitalism to be sustained. Dividing the working class along racial lines is key to maintaining capitalist rule in the US conscious of the social power that the proletariat would attain through unified struggle. The ruling class utilizes divide-and-conquer strategies that have proven effective for over 400 years now.

The most important factor in the advancement of our struggle is action. We must begin to put our thoughts and strategies into action. Komrades, without action there is no mobility. Moving forward we must intensify the struggle at all levels. This includes lines of communication between prisoners and those of you on the outside.

We musn’t continue to operate from old strategies that are not effective, it is a waste of time and energy. Those on the outside must do more to support the prison movement here in NC and across the nation. Changes don’t happen without reason. People must become the reason.

TFSR: Well, we thank you for your time and I really appreciate this interview. Before we wrap up, do you have anything else you would like to share with the listening audience?

ShineWhite: Yes, it’s imperative that I thank my support network. Without their support and love I would be one of the many prisoners here in NC whose screams for help fall on deaf ears.

Dria, my komrade out on the West Coast. I love you deeply, friend. You have stuck by me throughout it all. I have so much to thank you for I don’t know where to start nor where to end. Just know I am grateful and I cherish our friendship.

Professor Victor Wallis: Thank you for all the educational material and for taking the time out of your busy life to educate and mentor me from many miles away and through this razor-wire and concrete. You deserve to be acknowledged even though I know you don’t desire it. Thank you, friend, I am grateful.

Penelope: even though all the work you do is unknown and behind the scenes, it’s imperative that you know that without you and the desire you have to support the struggle any way that you can, our newsletter may not have made it off the ground. When you are absent, you are missed. Thank you for all you do.

Leah: In a short matter of time I have so much to thank you for. You go to the extreme to make sure I know you care about meas well as my well being. Even though our political praxes are somewhat different, you are dedicated to ameliorating the living conditions prisoners are forced to endure. Thank you for all you do for me on a personal level and the love you give. You are loved.

Nadia: I know the listening audience can’t see the smile I have on my face, but thinking of you causes the biggest smiles. I want to thank you for your willingness to compromise. I know you are a serious anarchist and you’re against organizations and uplifting the names of them. I just want everyone listening to know that you helped me revamp the WPO, it was dead within these razor-wire plantations. With you at my side I was able to bring it back to life. You dedicate so much time to both our Newsletter as well as the New NABPP Newspaper. I know you would disagree with this but you are a Panther, may it be an Anarchist Panther, you are still a Panther. I love you endlessly and you are my best friend.

Also big salutes to Komrade Rashid, Keith Malik Washington, Jason Renard Walker and Kwame Shakur. I see your vision, Komrade. I’m with you, let’s make it happen. And I would like to thank Final Straw Radio for giving us a platform and for amplifying our voice. Thank you. All Power To The People.

-Shine White

Organizing To End Prison Slavery with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun

Organizing To End Prison Slavery with Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun

An image with the FAM logo announcing a 30 day boycott of alabama prison labor and spending, with a link to their blogtalk radio show at abolitiontoday.org
Download This Episode

[starts at 00:02:37]

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

 

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

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

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

Sean Swain

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

Announcements

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

Likht’samisyu Village Fundraiser

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

TFSR Transcription

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

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Track used in this episode:

  • La La (instrumental) by Slum Village

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

TFSR: For the audience. Would you mind introducing yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Absolutely.

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

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

Bennu: Okay. [chuckling]

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

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

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

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

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

Bennu: Okay, I appreciate it.

An Anarchist View from Havana: Isbel Diaz Torres

An Anarchist View from Havana: Isbel Diaz Torres

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

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

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

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

 

Sean Swain

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

Off-Topic Announcements

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

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

. … . ..

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

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

. … . ..

Transcription of the interview begins below

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR And is abortion legal in Cuba?

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

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

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

TFSR: Yeah, a broad picture…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Did Che and Fidel kill Camillo Cienfuegos?

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

TFSR: Like Rosa Luxemburg?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Are there vegans in Cuba?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: Yah, the government changed there…

IDT: Yeah.

TFSR: Thank you!

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

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

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

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

Sean Swain Update

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

. … . ..

Transcription of the conversation with Cora Borradaile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOG: –Or they stopped getting messages.

CB: Also horrifying.

*Laughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CB: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Laughter

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

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

CB: I am not a lawyer, no.

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

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

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

BOG: Oh like in The Wire.

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

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

BOG: –MAGNETS–

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

BOG: I think it’s fair, go ahead.

CB: You think people will remember?

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

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

BOG: Ghostbusters

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

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

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

BOG: Microwaves. I mean I saw –

*Laughter

BOG: Yeah, I got nothing.

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

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

*Laughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help Charlotte Jail Support Rebuild!

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

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Music for this episode:

Hustler – Retro Beatz (loop by William)

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

Kristian Williams on The Final Straw

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A View on the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone

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

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

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

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

Some of the occupations that D mentions include:

The website for the Duwamish nation is DuwamishTribe.org

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

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

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Music from this podcast:

Liquid Liquid – Cavern – Discography (1981-1984)

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Transcription:

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

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

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

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

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

D: Yeah, no problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: More white?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: [laughter] It’s so ominous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

D: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D: Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

TFSR: ..nefarious.

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

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

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

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

D: That’s hilarious.

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

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

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

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

Duwamish.

TFSR: That’s the S-U-Q-U-A-M-I-S-H?

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

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

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

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

D: Was it Daybreak Star?

TFSR: Daybreak Star – yeah, I think so.

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

TFSR: Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center…

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

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

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

TFSR: Kinda ad hoc.

D: Exactly

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

D: Yeah, I really hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: [laughter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: It was 2012.

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

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

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

Hotel Sanctuary in MPLS

Hotel Sanctuary in MPLS

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

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

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

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Further resources from Rosemary:

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

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Vigil For Fallen Comrades 6/7/2020 everywhere

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

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

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Music for this episode by:

Ratatat – Loud Pipes

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Transcription:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TFSR: I can only imagine.

[laughter]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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