By AK Press | January 25, 2016
Here is a taste of Walidah Imarisha’s powerful new book Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption. You can read blurbs and a description, and order it, here
THROUGH THE GATES
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to check the underwire from your bra, or I’m not letting you in.”
She was a squat woman, bleached blonde wisps leaking out from her California Department of Corrections baseball hat. The mud brown uniform drew color from her face. In the unforgiving fluorescent lighting of the prison processing center, her features bled away, leaving only razor-edged eyes that bored into me, a mouth twisted with impatience.
The people waiting behind me in line, shoes and belts in hand, shifted irritably. I understood. We had all been on our feet for an hour and a half, up early enough to see the sun crack dawn over the lonely highway that, for us, dead-ended at a wall wrapped in concertina wire.
In the bathroom ten minutes earlier as I hurried into a stall, I passed two women who had the movements of birds, faces heavy with makeup too hastily applied. Using the box cutter with the chipped orange handle given to me by the dour-faced guard, I ripped the seams out of my new black bra, the metal skeleton underneath as exposed as I felt. Meanwhile, the women preened in front of the warped bathroom mirror, one reapplying the dark stain of lipstick every few minutes. The other spoke of her man’s sentence as though it was a communal one they shared: “Girl, we only have 148 days left!” One woman, red-faced from her obvious hangover, laughed too loudly as her friend pointed to the hickie on the side of her neck. She murmured an embarrassed “thank you” and re-adjusted her collar to cover it.
I took in the processing room that never had enough chairs as I walked back towards the counter after the dissection of my bra. White faces dotted the institutional green. Even when it wasn’t their first visit, they always looked like it was. Most faces, however, reflected me back as I met eyes briefly: Black and brown, female. Tired. No men by themselves; only women alone, shifting on swollen ankles they had spent all week on. Many were mothers of the men warehoused here. On their faces was stamped the dogged resignation that comes from going to see your child week in and week out in a place surrounded by razor wire.
Some waiting were like the young woman in line next to me. Her carefully ironed shirt, laid out lovingly the night before, was now creased like the frown on her face as she tried to manage three wildas- weeds children, who shot questions about seeing daddy in rapid fire succession. The wide-faced baby in her arms shifted fitfully as the mother separated out the six diapers and two clear baby bottles allowed in.
Two bright-faced and dark-skinned boys tumbled past me, giggles streaming in their wake. Before their mothers had a chance to rope them back under control, one of the guards behind the processing desk boomed out, “No running in the waiting area!” The boys’ faces froze more than their bodies—eight-year-old bodies that would soon grow into young Black men bodies: dangerous property, to be handled only by professionals.
As an anti-prison organizer, my work takes me behind the walls, into cages where dignity is stripped and humanity denied, where rehabilitation is nonexistent and abuse is a daily practice. I have spent years visiting political prisoners, which this country denies having. Most of them are from the hopeful, chaotic, and turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when they believed revolution was a single breath away. Now they strain to draw each lungful in the stifling atmosphere of incarceration. Many of them have spent more years in prison than I have on this planet. I have been to the white-hot hell of Texas’s death row, and to the stainless steel brutality of Pennsylvania’s most infamous restricted housing unit. I have gone behind the walls, and I have the heartbreaking privilege to walk out of them every time.
That day’s prison in California looked like so many of the newer institutions: sprawling three-story concrete buildings, windows like slitted eyes squinting in the harsh sunlight. All new prisons look the same from the outside. And thanks to the prison-building boom in the 1980s and 1990s, almost all prisons are relatively new.
California prisons spread faster than a forest fire during a drought and became a symbol for prison growth across the country. 1852 marked the first California state prison, San Quentin. In the first hundred years of California penal institutions, nine new prisons were constructed. That state now operates thirty-three major adult prisons, eight juvenile facilities, and fifty-seven smaller prisons and camps, the majority of which have been built since 1984. The prison-building brushfire of the 1980s often relied on the same corporations and the same plans to build institutions quickly, quietly, and profitably. The corporations profited in dollars, and the state profited from the control of potentially rebellious bodies. There wasn’t time for creativity to grow in the shadow of gun turrets.
Now over 2.3 million are incarcerated across this country. One in one hundred adults are living behind bars, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and over seven million are in prison or on parole. This means one in thirty-one adults is under some form of state control or supervision, by far the highest rate in the world. American prisons account fully for one-quarter of the entire world prison population. Is this the “number one” people are always shouting about?
At the California prison where I was, there had been an attempt at beautification. Art pieces decorated the sterile visiting room, including a piece from my adopted brother, all flames and burnt black tree limbs. A garden was planted along the walkway to the visiting building. The inmates tended it. It was, my adopted brother told me, a coveted job, because you got to be outside, working with your hands, instead of washing someone’s dirty underwear or scraping meatloaf off 3,769 plates each dinner service. The prison’s designed capacity was seventeen hundred, but three times as many people are crammed in: 7,538 feet in shoes three sizes too small. This meant triple bunking: three prisoners lived in a cell designed for one. The gym was no longer used to release frustration; it was used as dormitory-style sleeping, where two hundred people lived on top of each other. Fifty-four people shared one toilet.
This is not unique to this prison. The majority of prisons across the country are filled until the seams are bursting, but California is an extreme case. The entire system warehouses almost double the number of people it was designed to hold, and the federal government has been forced to intervene. In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling: California’s prison system violated the Eighth Amendment, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, though not so unusual in this nation. The Supreme Court ruled the state must parole or transfer thirty thousand prisoners in the next two years.
Thirty thousand: everyone with a loved one in California began dreaming it would be them. One in five: much better odds than the lottery. We were so busy whooping with cries of celebration, the second word of the ruling was drowned out: transfer. California argued the whole time that it could solve the overcrowding issue by new construction (during an economic collapse) or by transferring prisoners to be held in other states’ prisons. Ultimately they only had the second option. They brokered deals; they sent prisoners to Texas, Arkansas, Missouri. The State of California will still continue to pay for these prisoners, but technically the California prisoner population will be reduced—for now. Yet this is only a stopgap measure.
This is not how we stop the hemorrhaging.
“An Interview with Osvaldo Bayer, Argentinean Public Intellectual and Social Historian” (from Perspectives on Anarchist theory)
By AK Press | November 5, 2015
We will be publishing two books by Osvaldo Bayer in the upcoming year. The first, The Anarchist Expropriators, is just about to go to the printer—and with be available in December. The second Rebellion in Patagonia is scheduled for next June. In the meantime here’s a nice interview Fernando Lopez Trujillo did with Osvaldo. It was published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory way back in 2001 (you can read it in pdf form here).
An Interview with Osvaldo Bayer, Argentinean Public Intellectual and Social Historian
By Fernando López Trujillo *
Translation by Peter Larsen
I am with Osvaldo Bayer in his austere study in the residential district of Belgrano in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. As would have happened normally, Bayer himself receives the inconvenient visit with his usual friendliness. Exile has cut his life in two. Now he has a home in Germany, where his companion, children and grandchildren await him. Far away, however, in this Buenos Aires, is where he spends the majority of his life. As always when in Buenos Aires, Bayer is at home alone. But this tranquility is an illusion; Bayer’s days in this city are incredibly fatiguing, with lectures, talks and invitations to events and meetings throughout Argentina. The Department of Human Rights founded by him in the School of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Buenos Aires, although abandoned by him only last year, has not been able to do without him. I had mentioned to him by telephone that I wanted him to tell me something about the ´30s and the activities of the FACA (Federación Anarquista Comunista Argentina) and Bayer upon receiving me bypasses the question.
But you’re asking me about the ´30s, I don’t know anything about the anarchism of the ´30s…”
Obviously not! How old were you at that time, ten?
Well look, in 1940 I was thirteen. My contact with anarchism started in the ´60s, when the building was in Humberto Primo Street1 with all the old guys, who died one by one…
The FORA was in Humberto Primo Street? (Ed: Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, Argentinean Regional Workers’ Federation2
No, the Argentinean Libertarian Federation’s building was.
You made contact with people of the FACA?
Well it wasn’t really called the FACA. It was called the FLA(Federación Libertaria Argentina,3 and they remembered the FACA as something of the remote past. Shortly we had to move because of the continuation of 9th July Avenue4 to Brazil Street [the present location of the FLA], premises which I have known since their birth.
I wanted to ask you about your book Severino Di Giovanni. Was it the first militant activity of anarchism in Argentina that you became acquainted with?
Yes, absolutely. It was the first, then came Los Anarquistas Expropiadores [The Expropriator Anarchists]. I started in the year’s ´65 and ´66, and I had the luck that, except for those killed by the police, the majority of the compañeros of Severino’s group were still living. And those that belonged to groups hostile to Severino, too, like Abad de Santillán, for example. And the men who had founded La Antorcha in the early ´20s, they were all living, and a few of the memories were still alive, too. In fact, so many were that they didn’t like it at all that I was dedicating time to Severino Di Giovanni, who was an enemy. They still expressed solidarity with López Arango6 and his compañero, Diego Abad de Santillán. Santillán did every thing possible to stop me from writing this book. The wounds were still very much open and there was a lot of hate involved. For them Severino was the antithesis of anarchism, not only him, but the people who surrounded him too.
But amongst them there were thoroughly proven anarchists like Morán7…
Like Morán, yes, doubtlessly… But Severino got the full brunt of Santillán´s hate. He made statements to me about Severino, that I later proved to be false. On the other hand there were others who worked in La Antorcha and appreciated him very much, such as Alberto Bianchi(8). For me Alberto Bianchi was one of the most important fighters for this tendency, which, of course, didn’t foresee that the FLA was going to turn into a place for meetings and weekends. Then there were very valuable people, who came from the FORA or the interior of the country, who met in the FLA, like Borda, who was a great fighter, who was in La Forestal,9 a quiet man, but who made it perfectly clear for me that Severino had never betrayed the cause or any thing of the sort. What happened is that Severino´s attacks were used by the police to persecute anarchists who were militants at surface level [with] the objective of criminalizing the entire libertarian movement. And a lot of anarchists complained saying, “…but Severino should’ve warned us…”, but Severino, who was always running from the police, could never warn anybody of anything. So that’s how I was able to reconstruct, bit by bit, both of these tendencies. Those two tendencies of the ´20s were really hard on each other.
Were you able to see Fina then?10
No, Fina didn’t want to receive me. She was tired of the “crows”, the journalists who sought sensationalist material and cops-and-robbers treatment of the case. But then, when the first edition was published, when she saw that it was something different, she phoned me and explained why she hadn’t received me before. She was happy with the book because of how it handled the love between Severino and her, but she wanted to know where I’d found the material and the letters that I’d quoted. Of course, I’d studied all of the material in the court records, in the police records of the case, I’d done the entire circuit, I’d visited the places they’d lived in, I’d even arrived as far as the country-house in Burzaco where they lived together and which was Severino´s last dwelling. She was a girl of sixteen… She’s always denied it! She phoned me up and said, “No Bayer, you have to make this correction in the book. I wasn’t sixteen, I was seventeen…” What a difference! Of course, being seventeen, she was a young lady, because the main point of the press attack was that he was living with a minor.
So, you wrote this book in the ´60s, but you were aware of the Patagonia issue earlier…
Yes, I already knew that topic, because my father was a history buff, who had lived with my mother in Rio Gallegos11 during the entire strike. It interested him a lot and he collected the workers’ leaflets and newspapers of the period. That way, I had a lot of material as well as my father’s accounts.
Then you moved to Santa Fé?12
No, they moved to Neuquén.13 What happened is my mother went to Santa Fé, where her sisters lived, to have her last two children. The eldest was born in Rio Gallegos, Franz, the second, was born in Neuquén. Then they moved to Concepción del Uruguay14 and I was born, but my mother went to Santa Fé to have us. But I was conceived in Concepción del Uruguay! Imagine that! [he laughs]…they decided to go to live in Tucumán.15 So, my first four years were spent in Tucumán and I still have memories of when I was four. It’s incredible how I still remember the carts loaded with sugar cane passing by.
But when I was four, I went to live in Bernal en the Province of Buenos Aires…when I was seven we came to live in Belgrano [from suburban Buenos Aires, Bernal, to a residential district in the City of Buenos Aires, Belgrano]. Then I lived here till I got married.
How did you take up contact with the libertarian movement?
Since my student times in Germany, I’d been strongly attracted to the libertarian movement. I’d read a lot. Over there I’d become a militant of the Socialist Students’ League, who were left-socialists, left of the social democrats. They had a very libertarian tendency and there I read the classics. So, when I came back from my studies in ´56, I already had a libertarian posture. What happened is I wanted to enter the Socialist Party here, but the internal disputes were so tremendous that they didn’t accept me. The old guys who represented the right wing of the party and feared the growth of the youth thought that I’d come to break the voting tie in the committee to their disadvantage, because the assembly of associates had to accept me. I remember that assembly, it was pathetic! It embarrassed me, because they tied twice or three times! And all I wanted was to be a member. So, I thanked them, and good bye, never again, … never again the Socialist Party! Then I started to go now and then to the lectures at the Libertarian Federation in Humberto Primo Street.
How big of an influence did the FLA have in the social movement at that time?
I’d say very little, because peronism had completely defeated anarchism. And anarchism had committed some grave errors. All the people who were against Severino Di Giovanni when I started my research took me to be an enemy. And there were those who had openly collaborated with the “Libertadora.”16. Openly! So much so that some syndicates [until that moment they were peronist] were taken by the marine infantry. These syndicates held a banquet in the Libertarian Federation for Admiral Rojas.…17 Well, they were ferociously anti-peronist and unbearably anti-communist. Furthermore, I arrived there with my surname of German origin, and some said that they had to check out if I was nazi or not. It was a really shitty environment, controlled by the old guys, the old guys who had lost to peronism.
You have told me that you were once a sailor. When was that?
That was before I went to study in Germany. I had to work to save for my studies, and first I worked in an insurance agency belonging to some Germans. My third job was in the merchant marine. One of my brothers was an officer there, and he had me enter as an apprentice commissary. The commissaries were the ones who did the administrative paper pushing on the ships. But on the second day Captain Almirón saw me and said, you’re not going to stay here doing numbers in the office. Come to the bridge, You’re going to be an apprentice helmsman. So, for six months I was an apprentice helmsman. We went from Buenos Aires to Puerto Caballero to the North of Asunción along the River Paraná. It was a very nice period, dangerous because the crew was Paraguayan then. The Paraguayans and Correntinos18 held shindigs on top of the barges with an accordion and some played the harp19 really well and they danced all night long, those nights of full moon and heat. At the beginning I went but it was very dangerous because I was the only pale face there. I was going to have to close myself up in my cabin [he laughs]. Those trips were really nice, until the Maritime Workers’ Strike was called because they wouldn’t accept Perón’s decree, by which, I can’t remember, seven or eight percent of their earnings were to be discounted for the Eva Perón Foundation [founded by Eva Peron to give money to the poor]. So the Maritime Workers said “no”. The Maritime Workers and the Railway Workers were the only unions still in the hands of the socialists and the anarchists. Well, the anarchists still had influence within the sailors union, not amongst the leaders but amongst the rank and file members, amongst the mechanics. I attended the assembly where the automatic discount was rejected – it was to be voluntary, he who wanted to donate, should donate. We embarked upon the steamer Madrid, and the strike started before we arrived in Rosario.20 So, I said to the captain, “O.K., I’m on strike”, and he answered, “You’re not going to fool around, you’re not going to strike if no one’s going to stop working here”. “What do you mean, nobody’s going to stop working – we have to follow the decisions of the assembly?” “Look, not one Paraguayan or Correntino’s going to stop working here”. And that’s the way it was, I was the only striker on the steamer Madrid, and of course when we arrived in Rosario, they disembarked me and told the Coast Guard that I was a striker. It was 2 o’clock in the morning. A jeep came to pick me up and took me to the Coast Guard Station. They made me stand at attention for about six hours straight.
And it was then that they tore up your card?
Ah, I’ve already told you about this, then. Yes, then the Under-prefect came and said, “Watch what I’m going to do with your embarkation card”. He tore it up into little pieces and threw them in the garbage. And he said, “You are never going to sail again on an Argentinean vessel.” And he was right.
Had you already registered at the School of Philosophy and Humanities?
First I registered in medicine, because I wanted to learn about the body before learning about the soul. I passed my first year of medicine…and I left medicine to enter philosophy. There I became acquainted with… well, “they” came to speak to me about peronism! Peron had given the School of Philosophy and Humanities over to Catholic Fundamentalism and the Right, so you only saw Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine. The CEU, Centro de Estudiantes Universitarios [University Students’ Center] were the peronists who dominated the School and kicked the shit out of you. Their boss was Jorge Cesarsky,21 you remember…After that, I continued with journalism until [eventually] I accepted to go to Patagonia [with the Esquel22 newspaper]. I went with a contract with the owner of the chain of newspapers of Chubut,23 who [contracted] me for the Esquel paper. I went there with all my family, because I intended to stay for a few years. But right after a year they kicked me out, the gendarmerie24 that is, because of my subversive articles, Because, they said, Esquel was a border town. And so it was that I returned to Buenos Aires as a sort of national journalistic hero, because they had kicked me out and they had put me in the can. The day I arrived in Buenos Aires I started working for the newspaper Clarín. Only a short time afterwards, they elected me to be Adjunct Secretary General of the Press Workers’ Syndicate and I immediately went on to be the General Secretary, the journalists’ maximum commander. There was also the Journalists’ Association, a minority union of gorilas [reactionaries]. There, in the Syndicate, I learnt a lot.
Were you independent within the union or did you belong to any certain tendency?
No, I belonged to a tendency…, there were two “lists” [tendencies] in the union, one Blue and White,25 who were right peronists on the absolute Right and more a group of intelligence servicemen and collaborators, always mixed together with the SIDE [Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado, State Intelligence Secretariat]. We were the Green List, the independent list, formed out of radicales,26 socialists, communists and anarchists. The list, because of the communists, was introduced orders from the Central Committee [of the Communist Party]…We carried out a lot of struggles…in the assemblies and the interior of the country. I traveled throughout the world and I was under arrest for 63 days. That was in ´63, a little after Illia’d been elected [President of Argentina] and took power on the 12th of October. I was arrested during the dictatorship that had Guido as president, after the milicos’ coup d’étàt, and I was under arrest from the 2nd of April till the 20th of June, in the women’s prison. After that, that was everybody ’s joke with me! [he laughs] They had moved all the women because there wasn’t enough room in the men’s prisons – they were all full! In our pavilion there were seventeen communists and two others. Well, I was there for 63 days. You learn a lot… Well, after that my life went back to its normal work, and little by little I started with my research projects.
When you had gone to Esquel, was that your first contact with Patagonia? Did you start to do research there?
Yes, yes, mostly to collect data, because someone always appeared who knew something. There was an old journalist and I once wrote an article on him. The Horse-back Journalist he was called and he wrote his articles on horse back. He went to all the villages, always on horse back. He has a really beautiful book. One day we’re going to do a reproduction with some publisher. Any way, when I got back [from Patagonia]… the communists really betrayed the posture we had chosen, which was a completely independent one. They wanted to bend it, twist it, and so finally I didn’t want to have anything more to do with that [Green] list. I left it and continued completely independently. At that time I was director of a magazine called Imagen, a current events magazine of German style, which went pretty well. But then the owner sold it to Alberto J. Armando27 and to that son of a bitch of a painter, the one that always has ads calling him the best painter, what’s his name?…Pérez Celis, unbearable. I had to deal with him. He’s miserable, egotistic, a horrible painter. I don’t know how he keeps pulling off what he does. He’s considered to be the best Argentinean painter, any way, let’s leave him. Well, I carried on with my work there.
Yes, I started to work on Di Giovanni, and then the Clarín positioned me as the Chief of Politics and one of my reporters was named Félix Luna. So, one fine day he told me, “I want to start a history magazine. Would you help me?” and I said, “Yes, I’m very interested.” and he asked me, “What would you like to do?” “I’d like to do research on the crimes of the beginning of the century, really get into the nitty-gritty, and describe it all.” And he said to me, “O.K., do it. But do some history too.” And so I started to collaborate with the magazine Todo es Historia. I signed the cop-and-robber articles with a pen name and the other ones with mine. The first issue started with the Palomar28 affair. I liked the topics where I could still find the participants, not from the previous century, where all you have left are the newspapers and documents. I always liked doing research where I could find people to interview. And in all the research work I found the participants alive – the members of Di Giovanni’s group, the members of the expropriator bands and groups. Absolutely everybody of La Patagonia was still living, the soldiers were 62 years old. So all my historical articles are based on oral testimony, except for one topic, which interested me very much, which was the sinking of the Rosales, the only Argentinean ship that sunk with the saving of all of the officers and the drowning of all the other crew members. It was the first time that the matter was researched. The work on Di Giovanni appeared in two pretty long articles. After that, the editor of the Galerna publishers called me to say, “We’re going to publish a book [on Di Giovanni].” So I told him I had tons of material and that I’d had to summarize to fit all of it into the magazine. Then I started to put the book together. It was among the highest sellers for 24 weeks, I think.
It has to be the historical number one best seller of the history in the Argentinean press. I still see kids of 20 or so reading it as if it were the Bible.
Yes, it was, until it was prohibited by that son of a bitch, Lastiri,29 before Peron did it. And then began the whole adventure with the film, which was going to be done on Di Giovanni.
Did you actually write a script?
Yes, first with Roberto Bezza. Then there was Fabio [Leonardo Fabio, movie director], who had it for ten years or more, and after Fabio the famous Italian, the one who made “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, Gino? I wish he’d made it. Just when he was about to make it the bombing took place in Milan, a bomb in a bank that killed sixteen people, and he said to me, “No, in no way are we going to do the life of a terrorist.” Well, that’s the way it stayed till I returned from exile…In the mean time there was Fabio again, who spoke to me from Columbia. I remember it was snowing in Germany and he phoned me at three in the morning saying, “We’re going to do it on the Côte d’Azur, it’s all set.” Imagine, what a title, “Severino Di Giovanni on the Côte d’Azur” [he laughs]. After I got back here in ´83 and Olivera [who had the rights after Fabio] finally gave it up.
Why did he give it up?
He was really enthusiastic, we’d already started with the wardrobe, everything was ready, with the script written and everything else, and one day he phoned me and said, “Look Osvaldo, I can’t do it.” I asked him, “Why not? Don’t just tell me that.” And he answered, “Look, Severino’s a nice terrorist and each time he places a bomb, the people in the cinema are going to give him a tremendous applause. It’s going to cause some really messy problems, and I’ve already had enough of the experience of La Patagonia Rebelde [Rebellious Patagonia]”
But it [the movie] was the success of his life…
True, but there was no way. And then who called me? Fabio, who had every thing all ready. He described each scene to me, everything… Well, after Fabio appeared Desanzo, the one who did Evita. And I flatly refused him. He said, “I’ve got great news, Bayer, Fabio’s just given me the rights.” I asked him, “Who is Fabio to give the rights to you?” Desanzo went on, “I’m really very happy, it’s the dream of my life…” And I asked again, “Who is he to give you the rights? Stop fucking around with me, don’t hassle me with this stuff any more. That gentleman had no right! Keep yourself out of these things…” Poor Desanzo… So, well, after Desanzo nobody touched the stuff again, until the matter with Luis Puenzo31 began…
Now Luis Puenzo has the rights, is he considering filming?
I don’t know. I hope not, because he’s trash.
Give us your evaluation of the situation, today, half way through 2001. What is the situation of progressive politics, of the Left, of humanists faced with the offensive of the Right, of capitalism at its most voracious point?
I’m encouraged by the picketeers’ movement32 and by the movements of the campesinos and the unemployed. It’s really curious, because they appear spontaneously… They are living examples of the phenomenon of the [Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Disappeared)]. When there are demonstrations, people go into the streets. It is as if the absolute and total defeat of ten years ago had somehow been overcome. These movements are calling the attention of the First World. The huge demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the system isn’t working. The system is finding absolutely no solution to any problem either of the First World or of the Third World…I have real confidence that we’re going to have a more and more revolutionary climate! You see that the bourgeois parties don’t know what to do. They change one guy, put in an other one, they make ridiculous speeches… If you listened to the thing in Tucumán…, it’s just one more radical speech, it seems like they’d looked for one of Yrigoyen’s33 speeches…“All of us have to be united, all of us have to be together…” Yeah! Who united, who?! “Unite! The Mother Land is in danger!” Such stupidity, at least the peronists put a little salt on things, they at least seem to be revolutionaries when they speak…
One sees more and more people who are excluded, marginalized. Those who are integrated and who have an income are terrified of loosing it, of loosing their integration. All the movements which you have mentioned are all movements which have nothing to do directly with production. You’ve mentioned the Madres and the picketers, are they generally outside the system?
They’re outside the system, in one way but in an other they’re the ones who made the French Revolution, right? The ones who started to throw stones, thinkers aside, the urban plebes. They threw stones and started the whole thing. All the rest, you see, stayed back…Communism has been defeated. Look, socialism doesn’t exist any more – socialism as a party. The parties which try to organize are organized by village priests who know the poor and distribute food…or by the Right, isn’t it so? With torturers who are recognized by the people and say, “These guys’re tough and they’re going to kill the delinquents, right? Finally!” That is how the Right thinks and there are more than a few of them…like Bussi34 [General Domingo].
There is always a public for the Right…
Always, yes always. And especially when there’s some big danger, like now: Cavallo35 falls and inflation will take its toll. We will relive the last few months of Alfonsín’s36 presidency. And what will happen then? Then suddenly someone [will] launche a proclamation, it could be Rico,37 Seineldín,38 or Patti,39 or it could be Bussi again. You can just imagine how the Avenida the Mayo,40 is going to be opened up so that they can parade…And we thought that it had already finished, but it hasn’t. At any moment, imagine – not the same ones as before – [a military figure] makes a proclamation saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is chaos, the army has to keep vigil over the destiny of the Mother Land.”…Any way, there’re people in the streets, yeah, people in the streets…
Why anarchism today?
Well, because libertarian socialism is the way…or as I prefer to say, libertarian solidarism, that’s where we can find the essence of a better world, the essence of a society formed from the grass roots up, through the people’s discussion, the protagonism of the people. That is the most beautiful poem of all…Now, we have to be practical but one can think that finally, after so many problems, humanity’s going to start to think and … the only way is by the people being the protagonists within an enormous mutuality…
* Fernando López Trujillo, Argentinean activist and writer, received a grant award from the IAS for his project, The FACA and the Anarchist Movement in Argentina, 1930-1950.
1 A street in the old district of San Telmo of Buenos Aires
2 Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, Argentinean Regional Workers’ Federation.
3 FLA, Federación Libertaria Argentina, the continuation of the FACA, Federación Anarco Comunista Argentina, Argentinean Anarco Communist Federation
4 A centrally located multi-laned avenue, the construction of which determined the demolition of many city blocks.
5 Anarchist publication, opposed to La Protesta.
6 Secretary of edition of the anarchist daily, La Protesta, who, according to most testimonies, was assassinated by Di Giovanni in 1929 as corollary of an extensive ideological and political battle fought in libertarian publications in Argentina. For further details see Bayer’s book.
7 General secretary of the maritime workers’ union, one of the most important of the workers’ movement of the ´20s and ´30s, as well as being a well-known expropriator and proponent of direct action.
8 Rector of the University of La Plata and important militant of the FACA.
9 Workers’ struggle against a British tannin company, which occupy decades of history of the workers’ movement in Argentina.
10 América Scarfó, Di Giovanni´s adolescent lover.
11 Coastal town in the extreme South of continental Argentina.
12 Small city in northeastern Argentina on the River Paraná.
13 Small city in northern Patagonia.
14 Town in northeastern Argentina on the River Uruguay.
15 Largest city of northwestern Argentina.
16 Term used to designate the military coup d’étàt against the peronist government on 16th of September, 1955, and the succeeding dictatorial process, which lasted three years, until the results of the elections of 1958.
17 The vice-president after the ultra-reactionary coup d’étàt of December 1955, when he together with Aramburu dislodged moderate military command, who had carried out the coup d’étàt in September, from power.
18 Argentineans from the Province of Corrientes, on the River Paraná, opposite Paraguay.
19 The national instrument of Paraguay, surprisingly similar to the Celtic harp.
20 First large port upstream.
21 Famous rightist and leader of combat groups of peronism of the right.
22 Town in west-central Patagonia.
23 Central province of Patagonia.
24 Border guard corps, who, presently, are the forces used throughout the North and South of Argentina, in the province of Salta, for example, specifically for the repression of the movements of popular demands, and have thus abandoned the tasks they were originally created to fulfill.
25 The colors of the Argentinean flag.
26 Members of the Partido Radical, the Radical Party, liberal bourgeois party. Successive use of radical implies of the Partido Radical.
27 Conservative, populist president of Boca Juniors, the most popular Football team of Argentina.
28 Famous case of corruption involving the donation of a large tract of land to be used as the site for the National Military School, and its subsequent fraudulent purchase and resale to the state, involving military officers and radical politicians, and obviously huge quantities of money.
29 President of the House of Representatives, who in 1974 because of the Campora’s renunciation, assumed the Presidency of the Nation before Peron’s assumption
30 Bayer speaks about “la Strage di Piazza Fontana”. “It was a bomb in the Banca Nazionale di Lavoro, in Piazza Fontana in Milan, December 1969. It was in fact the bombing of which Pinelli was accused.” [Thanks Leslie Ray, who gives me these data]
31 Director of the film The Official Story, Oscar award winner in the ‘80s. Although good, it is based on “the theory of the two demons” (Teoría de los dos demonios, the reactionary, official view about the dictatorship years)
32 Movimiento de los piqueteros, a protest movement, of which the basic tool is blocking the flow of traffic on roads and highways, which has gained considerable strength in Argentina in the last ten years and which in July of this year was declared illegal.
33 Radical, twice President of Argentina, removed from power in his second term by the military coup d’étàt of 1930.
34 Appointed inspector-general of the province of Tucumán during the military dictatorship, against whom the lawsuits for genocide and torture have yet to be concluded, and who, nevertheless, was elected Governor of Tucumán during the ´90s.
35 Neo-liberal “Chicago boy” (Milton Friedman disciple), President of the Central Bank during the military dictatorship, Minister of Economy under Ex-president Menem, present Minister of Economy in De la Rua’s radical government.
36 Hyperinflation and civil unrest.
37 Nazionalist military officer who stood out during the Malvinas-faulkland Islands War.
38 Military companion of Rico’s, from whom he took distance upon the arrival of Menem’s peronist government in 1989; imprisoned for a frustrated coup d’étàt during the ´90s; these days maintains relations with a chavista -so named after the Venezuelan general Chávez- group within the army.
39 Ex-police official and torturer who received support from scared sectors of the middle class who he convinced with the promise of law and order during the campaign -which he won- for mayor of Escobar, a small city in northern metropolitan Buenos Aires.
40 May Avenue, central avenue of Buenos Aires leading from Government House and Plaza de Mayo to the Congress Building, which is used for protests and demonstrations not for military parades.
By AK Press | October 28, 2015
There’s a new issue of the Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library out, number 84 to be exact. It’s not available online yet, but they’ve kindly given up permission to reprint Barry Pateman’s lead-off article, a great series of ruminations on the practice of researching and writing anarchist history.
When you are done, you should check out the KSL in all its glory. The main site is here. Viewable back issues of the Bulletin are here. And if you want to support their project (and get the Bulletin before it appears online), go here.
You can find a selection of KSL pamphlets here (we’re reprinting others that were destroyed in our recent fire).
Anarchist History: Confessions of an Awkward Pupil
When the KSL issued our first publication, George Cores’ “Personal Recollections of the Anarchist Past” in 1992 there really was a shortage of good, accurate and informative books, articles or pamphlets about the history of anarchism. The works of Paul Avrich were the gold standard – exhaustively researched and reliable – and other occasional gems shone out of the pile. Some of the available material, though, was disturbingly erroneous and we have to put that down partly to a lack of primary material that led authors to make strange assumptions about people and their ideas. Within twenty-odd years, matters had changed beyond recognition. In 1992 I had read more or less every book and pamphlet on the history of anarchism. Now there has been a relative explosion in the material available. Books, pamphlets, articles and blog posts are appearing constantly and, in a rather comforting way, it is impossible to read them all – especially the latter, and this is not even taking into account the once rare and inaccessible newspapers and pamphlets that are now available to read online as well as the digitization of letters and pamphlets that, once, one would have had to travel the world to see.
Why is that? Why the recent flood? Well I do remember Albert Meltzer speaking of academic research muttering grimly “When the buggers have finished with Marxism they’ll start on us,” but I’d like to think that there is in all of that a growing genuine interest in what anarchism is, how it developed and what influences it had on the world about us. Anarchists themselves are keen to preserve and display their own history and they are keen for others to have access to it. I find it especially interesting because a while ago I entered history myself. For a while a spate of students, mainly, were looking to interview me about the anarchist actions and movements I had been involved in. I have to say it was a little flattering, at first. I’d never seen myself as particularly important (I’d always put the stamps on the envelopes and book the meeting rooms, etc) but perhaps I really was a player – even if many of their questions were if I knew so and so and what were they like. It all got a little disturbing though. They knew more about me than I did. They’d quote a flier I’d written here, a meeting I had spoken at there – none of which I could remember with any clarity at all. I began to worry that I wasn’t giving them the answers they wanted. They were often like kindly teachers trying to lead the awkward pupil to the correct response. One young man in particular was very concerned about my casual statement that much of what I had written was not exactingly thought out but intuitive and often a space-filler so we could have the paper ready for printing the next day, and I couldn’t even remember the pseudonym I’d used to write it. Reluctantly I ended these relationships. We weren’t going anywhere. I knew it would end in tears, so I had to walk away.
A free man, left to my books and memories, the world took on a very late summer glow. I basked in the sun of age, gave a few talks thinking I had advice to offer the young ones (in retrospect I had fuck all worth saying) and then packed up the bags and retreated into history. When I surfaced I began to read, for pleasure, some new publications – blog posts, books/ theses whatever, about events I had been part of, and papers I had helped produce. The problem was that I really couldn’t really recognize what was being written about. It wasn’t as I remembered and it didn’t feel at all like they said it did. There were probably good reasons for that – not least some of us not being interviewed, and our grouping/ publication/ support group probably not being considered as particularly important by the writer. After all you can’t cover everything, can you? Any historian has to have some priorities. I shrugged the shoulders and went back to obscure anarchists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. To be honest that was giving me enough problems. Something, though, wouldn’t settle and I couldn’t let it lie. If I couldn’t recognize in these “histories” the movements and activities I had been part of, what could that suggest about all the histories of other places, people and periods that were being produced?
What I think we have been doing in the field of anarchist history during the last twenty or so years is the job John Locke described philosophers as doing. We have been under-labourers in the garden of knowledge. We have been clearing the rubble from the garden of history to find the patterns beneath it and letting others plant it. The rubble has been the rubble of time and the rubble of previous writers, many of whom lacked the access to this flood of primary material mentioned earlier, or were simply distorted by their own prejudices as to what anarchists were and anarchism was. And clearing away the rubble is no easy task. It’s often lonely work, sometimes maddeningly pedantic and demanding a patience and relentlessness that can be quite exhausting. Of course when we clear the rubble, we put piles of it behind the garden shed or next to the garden wall and these piles can create problems of their own, but there can be no doubt that some fine and exciting work, in the tradition of Paul Avrich, has taken place within this context. We have had to re-think what we thought we knew about our ideal; we have had our eyes opened to the substantial presence of anarchists and anarchism in countries where we had originally thought they had the most minimal of traces. Our understanding of what we might call “prominent figures” has grown, revealing them as far more complex people than we previously thought. In some cases we have been able to see more clearly the anarchist milieu they were part of and consequently have been able to chart some of the social, personal and political dynamics of that milieu and how it may have shaped their writing. Read the rest of this entry »
By AK Press | October 27, 2015
Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism, edited by Cindy Milstein, promises to piss a lot of people off. Not that the essays it contains all agree with one another, but each of them does challenge some familiar aspect of activism-as-usual. Below are some fighting words from “A Critique of Ally Politics,” by M. [Oh, and you can get the whole book here.]
A Critique of Ally Politics
The liberal concept of allyship is embedded in a rights-based discourse of identity politics. It works with the ideas that there are fixed groups of people (black people, women, gay people, and so on) that have been wronged by the structural oppressions of our society, that we must work across these differences to achieve equality for all, and that this responsibility falls especially on those who most benefit from structural oppressions. It centers on the idea that everyone has different life experiences that are shaped by our perceived identities, and so if you have an identity that is privileged in our society, you cannot understand the experiences of someone with an identity that is oppressed.
According to ally politics, in order to undermine whatever social privileges you benefit from, you must give up your role as a primary actor and become an ally to the oppressed. A good ally learns that if you can never understand the implications of walking through this world as an oppressed [fill in the blank with a person on the receiving end of a specific oppression], the only way to act with integrity is to follow the leadership of those who are oppressed in that way, support their projects and goals, and always seek out their suggestions and listen to their ideas when you are not sure what to do next.
It starts to get real complicated, real fast, however, as you discover that there is no singular mass of people of color—or any other identity-based group—to take guidance from, and that people within a single identity will not only disagree about important things but also will often have directly conflicting desires.…
In an attempt to find brown folks to take direction from, white folks often end up tokenizing a specific group whose politics most match their own. “What does the NAACP, Critical Resistance, or the Dream Team think about X?” Or they search out the most visible “leaders” of a community because it is quicker and easier to meet the director of an organization, minister of a church, or politician representing a district than to build real relationships with the people who make up that body. This approach to dismantling racism structurally reinforces the hierarchical power that we’re fighting against by asking a small group to represent the views of many people with a variety of different lived experiences. When building an understanding of how to appropriately take leadership from those more affected by oppression, people frequently seek out such a community leader not simply because it’s the easiest approach but also because—whether they admit it or not—they are not just looking to fulfill the need for guidance; they are seeking out legitimacy, too.…
To be an ally is to shirk responsibility for your own actions—legitimizing your position by taking the voice of someone else, always acting in someone else’s name. It’s a way of taking power while simultaneously diminishing your own accountability, because not only are you hiding behind others but you’re also obscuring the fact that you’re in control of making the choices about who you’re listening to—all the while pretending, or convincing yourself, that you’re following the leadership of a nonexistent community of people of color or that of the most appropriate black voices. And who are you to decide who the most appropriate anything is? Practically, then, it means finding a black voice who agrees with your position to justify your own desires against the desires of other white people—or mixed-race groups.
Perhaps you’ve watched or participated in organizing that seeks to develop the leadership of individuals who live in a specific neighborhood or work in a particular kind of labor force. This language seems to offer the benevolence of the skills of the organizing group to those who haven’t been exposed to such ideas. It is coded language describing a reductive and authoritarian approach to imposing an organizing model on a community of people from the outside. It also conveniently creates spokespeople who can then be used to represent the whole of that (often heterogeneous) body of people. Over the last several decades, an entire elite class of politicians and spokespeople has been used to politically demobilize the communities they claim to represent.
I frequently hear from antiauthoritarian “white allies” that they are working with authoritarian or nonpartisan community groups, sometimes on projects they don’t believe in, because the most important thing is that they follow the leadership of people of color. The unspoken assertion is that there are no antiauthoritarian people of color—or none who are worth working with. Choosing to follow authoritarian people of color in this way invisibilizes all the anarchist or unaligned people of color who would be your comrades in the fight against hierarchical power. Obviously, there is at least as broad a range of political ideologies in communities of color as there are in white communities.
By AK Press | October 5, 2015
As you have probably heard, Grace Lee Boggs died today. She was 100 years old. We were lucky enough to publish a great interview with her in Uses of a Whirlwind, edited by the Team Colors Collective. The interview was conducted by Stevie Peace and captures Grace in all her energetic glory. You can read it in PDF format here.
By AK Press | September 26, 2015
The good folks at Sur Plus in Mexico City will soon be publishing a Spanish edition of Drug War Capitalism. Dawn Paley has written a new afterword for the book, which brings the story up to date, including the many horrific events, massacres and disappearances, since we published her book. We’re sharing the English version of that Afterword here, because we all need more analysis from Dawn whenever we can get it. You can read it below in good ol’ html or download a PDF for reading here or a PDF for printing here. Oh and you can get our English edition of the book here.
Ayotzinapa, Paradigm of the War on Drugs in Mexico: New Afterword to Drug War Capitalism
Mexico one year after Ayotzinapa
“It is necessary that we take action now, because they are annihilating us. It is necessary that we do something.” Nadia Vera, social anthropologist, tortured and assassinated alongside journalist Rubén Espinosa, Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiróz and Mile Virginia Martín on July 31, 2015, in Mexico City.
In the year since we put the final touches on the manuscript for the English edition of Drug War Capitalism, the campaign of terror directed against the people of Mexico in the name of fighting drugs has continued. This essay will serve as the epilogue for the forthcoming Spanish edition of the book, and looks back over the 10 months since it was published.
As the first edition of Drug War Capitalism was in its last stages before printing, there were rumblings that the army had massacred 22 people in Tlatlaya, in Mexico State, in June, 2014. Initial media reports presented the killings as having taken place during a firefight, and the governor of Mexico State initially claimed the army had, in “legitimate self-defense, taken down the criminals.” One witness, whose daughter was among the dead, later claimed that soldiers had in fact lined up 22 before executing them one by one. The eyewitness said she told the soldiers not to do it, not to kill those being interrogated. Their response, she said, was that “these dogs don’t deserve to live.” The cover-up that ensued involved bureaucrats from various levels of government. It was only because of reporting by Esquire magazine and the work of local journalists in Mexico that the truth came out. Eight soldiers are believed to have been directly involved with the killings in Tlatlaya. Seven soldiers have been charged, three of them for murder.
After the emergence of the army’s role in slaughtering civilians in Tlatlaya came the disappearance of 43 students and the murder of three others in Iguala, Guerrero. On the night of September 26, 2014, six people were killed, three of them students at a nearby teacher-training college. One young man who was killed had his face pulled off and yanked down around his neck. Others were wounded and denied medical treatment. By the next day, 43 more students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa were missing. The students were last seen as they were arrested by municipal police, allegedly for participating in taking over buses to use for transportation to a march in Mexico City. The police handed off the students to a local paramilitary group that the media dubbed Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). Read the rest of this entry »
By AK Press | September 25, 2015
About six months ago, we started hearing some disturbing rumors that one of our authors, Michael Schmidt, was an undercover fascist. Soon after, another one of our authors, Alexander Reid Ross, provided us with actual evidence. We helped him investigate further for several weeks and then put him in touch with another writer. Over the past months, we have received and compiled what we consider to be incontrovertible evidence that Michael Schmidt is a white nationalist trying to infiltrate the anarchist movement.
Alexander will soon be publishing an article that presents all the details in a more comprehensive manner, but we are not comfortable sitting on this information any longer. We have always drawn strength from the history of anarchism as an internationalist movement concerned with the destruction of capitalism, the state, and hierarchal social relations. Those social relations clearly include racism and white supremacy. We are committed enemies of fascists and their sympathizers. The anarchist movement won’t tolerate their sick credo and, when they are found hiding in our midst, they must be dragged from the shadows.
We have cancelled Schmidt’s upcoming book and have put the two books of his that we’ve already published out of print. Please stay tuned for the whole story.
The AK Press Collective
Alexander Reid Ross can be reached at areidross[at]gmail[dot]com
Excerpt from Davide Turcato’s “Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889–1900″
By AK Press | September 2, 2015
It’s somewhat difficult to choose an excerpt from Davide Turcato’s new book, because a) there’s so much goodness in it and b) Malatesta’s ideas evolve so much over time (always as a result of his “experimental” revolutionary method). But the following seems like a decent choice, for it’s relevance to questions many of us are trying to get our heads around today. Enjoy the taste. And, really, get the book: a few of us read it when it was still a $90 academic hard cover and it blew us away. We knew that we had to create an affordable paperback version for you guys!
The indeterminacy of social action
The theoretical foundations of the insurrectionary tactics that underpinned Malatesta’s action of the early 1890s were illustrated in a series of articles that appeared in L’Associazione. In these articles Malatesta explained his positive outlook on uprisings. His outlook was based on theoretical notions, such as the indeterminacy of collective action and the precedence of deeds over ideas, that were already implicit in the tactics of propaganda by the deed that Italian anarchists began advocating in the mid-1870s. In L’Associazione Malatesta reiterated his belief in propaganda by the deed, at the same time that he thoroughly reviewed this concept, in the light of past experiences and changed conditions.
Malatesta articulated his appreciation of uprisings as steps on the path of revolution in the article ‘La sommossa non é rivoluzione’ (An uprising is not a revolution) of October 1889. This was Malatesta’s response to an article by the same title published in the Italian socialist revolutionary periodical La Rivendicazione, in which N. Sandri claimed that ‘every partial uprising is an aborted revolution’. Malatesta retorted that uprisings played an immense role in provoking and preparing revolutions. For Malatesta, ‘it is always deeds that provoke ideas, which in turn act upon deeds, and so on’. He pointed to the history of past revolutions, which were all preceded, provoked, and determined by numerous uprisings that prepared people’s minds to the struggle: ‘The great French revolution would not have occurred if the countryside—worked up by a thorough propaganda—had not started to burn castles and hang masters, and if the people of Paris in tumult had not committed the sublime folly of attacking the Bastille with pikes.’ The history of socialism itself provided further evidence with the Paris Commune, which arose from an uprising in Montmartre, and which in turn originated a splendid movement of ideas, and a whole period of feverish socialist activism. Revolutions had nowhere to start from than uprisings: ‘Certainly, while all uprisings make propaganda, only few have the good fortune to arrive at the right time to determine a revolution. Yet who can say what is the right time?’
The key concept outlined here by Malatesta is the indeterminacy of collective action. No one can fully foresee the outcome of one’s intentional social action, nor is the outcome of collective action necessarily what its participants had initially envisioned.
Similar ideas dotted Malatesta’s writings from 1889 on. Commenting upon the Rotterdam strike of September 1889 Malatesta had remarked that ‘history shows that revolutions start almost invariably with moderate demands, more in the form of protests against abuses than of revolts against the essence of institutions, and often with displays of respect and devotion to the authorities’ (‘Altro’).
In 1894 he expressed the same concept, with reference to the French Revolution and to the recent movement of the Sicilian Fasci: ‘Let us remember that the people of Paris started off by demanding bread to the king amidst applauses and tears of affection, yet—having received bullets instead of bread, as it was natural—after two years they beheaded him. And it was only yesterday that the Sicilian people were on the verge of making a revolution while cheering to the king and his whole family’ (‘Andiamo’).
Malatesta still reiterated the idea in writings of two decades later. In 1914 a strike of the railway workers in Italy was creating serious difficulties to the government. In the article ‘É possibile la rivoluzioné’ Malatesta started by claiming, ‘Naturally we do not know what could happen in the near future.’ He then emphasized how a minor issue over salaries had escalated into a serious crisis, and pictured a hypothetical scenario, which really looks like a disguised call for action: ‘If really—people wonder—the railway workers refused to work; if ill-intentioned people made even a limited service impossible, sabotaging the rolling stock and the railway tracks; if the most conscious part of the proletariat supported the movement with general strikes: what would the government do with its soldiers, even supposing that the latter failed to remember that they are forcefully enlisted proletarians, and that their fathers, brothers, and friends are among the strikers? How could the current order continue?’ Malatesta argued that revolution would impose itself as a necessity, for it alone could ensure the continuation of social life. ‘Perhaps this will not happen today. Still, why could not it happen tomorrow?’ After maintaining that nobody knows in advance when the times are really ripe and that the fateful hour could strike at any moment, Malatesta concluded: ‘Everybody keep ready for tomorrow . . . or for today.’ Only a few weeks later the insurrectional movement of the Red Week broke out, in which Malatesta had a leading role. It would be problematic to retrospectively determine whether Malatesta’s prediction should be read descriptively as that of a perceptive sociologist or prescriptively as that of an effective agitator.
Get the book here: http://www.akpress.org/making-sense-of-anarchism.html
By AK Press | June 24, 2015
A land and water grab is happening in the canyons and plateaus where I live in rural Utah. Several Canadian corporations backed by transnational investors are moving in to extract tar sands and oil shale on public lands. These outfits are the spear tips of a host of operators who are trying to strip mine the world’s dirtiest oil in the headwaters of the Colorado River, one of North America’s most endangered rivers.
In a region already hit by more than a decade of drought, the mining corporations are drilling deep into underground aquifers to pump water for their processing operations. At the ranch where I work, the springs in the canyon downstream from the initial mine are drying up. The ranching family is one of the first to be impacted by the mine, but there are bigger implications, as waste discharged from the mines will impact more than 30 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and irrigation.
And then there are the climate change consequences. According to industry backers, there are more potential fossil fuels in the Green River formation that stretches across Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado than the Alberta tar sands. If the infrastructure for these types of megaprojects is completed, there is an almost certainty of being locked in a path toward catastrophic climate change.
With these stunning contradictions in mind, and with all legal options exhausted, local people and climate justice rebels took matters into their own hands in the summer of 2014 by establishing a resistance camp on the mine lease in order to halt mining operations. Amidst a summer of blockades, police repression, and the stresses of day-to-day rural resistance, it’s been a challenge to maintain a global perspective. It’s clear that our fight is being driven by capital and technical knowledge generated through the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. It’s also clear that there are financiers intending to export these mining operations around the world using corporations deeply tied to the military industrial complex.
But what are the strategic and tactical implications as to how we should carry out our struggle? What are our relationships and responsibilities to other communities fighting exploitative land grabs around the world? How can we use our collective power to fundamentally transform the political and economic structures that facilitate this ecocidal rush?
While thinking through these questions, I came across a copy of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab. This compilation is billed as an “illustrative field guide to the way people power responds to the global land grab.” It ranges from pieces written by voices new to me, like Yangtze River Delta Earth First!, to long time writers and movement elders, like Grace Lee Boggs, Max Rameau, Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky, and Silvia Federici.
Editor Alexander Reid Ross starts the introduction by describing the global land grab as a contemporary phenomenon where large transnational corporations based in the North Atlantic countries, the Saudi states, and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are grabbing millions of hectares of land from small farmers and indigenous people in Africa, South America, and Asia. By his estimate, the land grabs that have taken place around the world since 2009 would encompass the entire Western United States.
Reid Ross describes five main origins for the global land grab as climate change, financial speculation, the Great Recession, resource scarcity and the ideology of ‘extractivism’1 and the history of colonialism.
This collection is based on a “macro- and microanalysis of land-based struggles in constant tension with the principles and values of capital.” It takes the reader on a far-ranging journey of reading global capital politically by examining the drivers of dispossesive and violent conflict around land use. Grabbing Back is edited in a dialectical manner, weaving between describing the causes of contemporary land struggles as well as introducing us to the people fighting to defend their land and construct ways of life that subvert capital’s logic.
The approach of combining writings from frontline conflicts and academic authors gives the reader a bird’s eye view of the issues as well as a fine-grained picture of reality on the ground. The best articles of the collection are reflections by seasoned organizers and street fighters looking back on recent years of struggle while explaining how their thinking is evolving. AK Press has been putting out several of these sorts of collaborative collections recently, such as Undoing Border Imperialism, Life During Wartime, Uses of a Whirlwind and Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution. Hopefully this publishing trend continues to create intersectional cross-movement dialogs that result in strategic and tactical innovation.
The stories and analysis in Grabbing Back helped contextualize our local struggle in the global flows and dynamics of capital. Coming back to Utah, I’m writing on land that was grabbed from the indigenous Ute barely a century ago. So to what extent is the so-called Global Land Grab a historically unique phenomenon?
According to the collection, what is historically unique is that the forces of capital have encompassed the entire world; the narrative of the powerful is that there is no “outside” and there is no alternative. Yet capital is a dynamic force needing new markets and Grabbing Back describes a current moment defined by new attempts at accumulation. “The global land grab can be circumscribed in three interlocking economic spheres: the foreclosure crisis “freed up” capital to expand agrarian holdings in the Global South, while producing the apparent necessity to buoy up the economy through increased resource extraction in the North and South.”
The analysis in the editor’s introduction describes the links between expanding global agricultural speculation and new pushes to extract unconventional fossil fuels. When it comes to displacing small farmers and indigenous peoples while securing profits for investors, plantation agribusiness and tar sands are different sides of the same coin. The book backs up this claim with well-researched case studies in Ethiopia, Indonesia, Paraguay, and more.
The narrative of global land grabs also helped draw my attention to resistance against neoliberal approaches to mitigating climate change such as carbon markets. For example, a recent investigative article by Nafeez Ahmed describes how carbon trading projects like the World Bank-sponsored conservation program in western Kenya has conducted a relentless scorched earth campaign to evict the 15,000 strong indigenous Sengwer community from their ancestral homes in the Embobut forest and the Cherangany Hills. The implication is one advanced by indigenous activists at numerous climate summits: our approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change must advance, not destroy, indigenous and poor peoples’ control of their land, water, housing, work, culture, and food systems. As La Via Campesina recently wrote, “a global effort to give small farmers and indigenous communities control over lands is the best hope we have to deal with climate change and feed the world’s growing population.”
So how is it to be done?
Grabbing Back is not a set of policy recommendations aimed at speaking truth to power with the intent of changing the minds of politicians and technocrats. The collection is geared instead toward sharing stories and lessons between grassroots struggles. The book is divided into two sections. “Part One: Struggle in the South” is both an analytic look at the global land grab’s drivers as well as case studies of how this phenomenon is playing out, and being resisted, in Africa, South America, and Asia. Part Two moves to North America where the chapters explore conflicts around foreclosures, disaster response, gentrification, and unconventional fossil fuel extraction like tar sands, fracking, and mountaintop removal.
One of the major contributions of Grabbing Back is sharing stories of current resistance from around the globe. From the Mi’kmaq blockades of fracking operations, to the 2009 overthrow of the government in Madagascar, to the incredible “mass disturbances” of contemporary China, there are certainly revolts, insurrections, and revolutions occurring globally around the question of how people will relate to land and to each other.
As a whole, the collection arcs across an enormous amount of territory and some readers might find the book sprawling and circuitous. The resistance side of the narrative reads like an archipelago, each story its own island and, on the surface, it’s sometimes hard to see the details of what connects them because the described resistances are geographically, culturally, and politically disparate. The challenge and potential of this collection is whether it provides readers with the stories and analysis to understand how they are connected by common enemies: sometimes abstract, sometimes concrete.
Reid Ross proposes in the conclusion that these resistances are “united in attempts to gain popular sovereignty over the machinery that displaces people from their homelands and threatens to wipe out humanity through climate change.”
This is a valid description, and I am still hungry for prescriptive advice. How can we actually stop a tar sands mine from destroying the land we love? How can local communities and movements disrupt the ability of land grabs to take place? How do we learn to practice autogestation, or, as Javier Sethness-Castro, author of Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe (AK Press/IAS, 2012) writes in Grabbing Backs forward, “socio-ecological self-management.” How do we combine autogestation with an insurgent practice of militant, massive, direct action against capitalist depredation? Across the archipelago of resistance, how do we learn to act together?
I found the best guidance came from articles written by movement elders whose years of experience is fertile soil to young upstarts like myself. Place-based articles like “A Detroit Story” and “Taking Back The Land” are compelling because of their keen understanding of where their struggle is happening and its inseparability from the historic moment it inhabits. However, there is no prescriptive silver bullet here, no field manual for easy victory. But there is notable insight on how the perspectives of several long-haul radicals have evolved to see intersections between struggles around class, race, gender, land, indigeneity, education, agriculture, and ecology.
Other articles read like field reports from local fights against fossil fuel infrastructure, bank foreclosures, and responding to a climate disaster. To those unfamiliar with these stories, the collection is a solid introduction. To active participants in these struggles, the articles reflect the reality that there is still a great deal of learning and experimenting to happen. My hope is that readers will take from these articles the inspiration to keep fighting and to keep asking each other hard questions.
We are not alone and we are indeed everywhere. We are also just beginning. This is why Grabbing Back ends with an honest acknowledgement that this is an unfinished story.
Get a copy of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab.
Get a copy of the most recent Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.
Will Munger lives, loves, and works on the Colorado Plateau. He is an editor and contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press, 2013).
By AK Press | May 15, 2015
Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South is here!. One of the most exciting things about this book is how well it combines solid (and largely unknown) history with both damn good storytelling and a radical analysis that keeps the contemporary relevance of those stories in continual focus.
Here’s a little taste:
The Stockade Stood Burning:
Rebellion and the convict lease in Tennessee’s Coalfields
On the night of July 14, 1891, in eastern Tennessee, a band of about one hundred armed coal miners and local citizens marched on a newly built prison stockade owned by the Tennessee Coal Mining Company. The miners and their allies compelled the guards to release the forty inmates imprisoned there, put them on a train, and sent them to Knoxville. Without firing a shot, the miners disappeared back into the darkness. Over the next thirteen months, the workers would repeat this scene over and over, eventually torching company property, looting company stores, and aiding the prisoners’ escapes. The miners were rebelling against the use of convict labor in Tennessee mines, which was being used to cut company costs and disastrously undermine the employment prospects and solidarity of free laborers. In the words of the president of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, “We were right in calculating that the free laborers would be loath to enter upon strikes when they saw that the company was amply provided with convict labor.” But, as David Oshinsky writes in his book about the development of early southern prison systems:
Something happened in Tennessee, something almost unimaginable to the mine owners and politicians of that State. When the companies tried to intimidate their workers by bringing in convict labor to take over their jobs, the workers responded by storming the stockades, freeing the prisoners, and loading them onto freight trains bound for Nashville and Knoxville and places far away.
What began as an isolated protest in the company town of Coal Creek spread quickly across the Cumberlands to engulf most of eastern Tennessee. Thousands of miners took part in these uprisings, and thousands of armed State guardsmen were sent to face them down. The Tennessee convict war was one of the largest insurrections in American working-class history. And yet, unfolding at exactly the same time as the more publicized labor wars in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, it was largely ignored.
At a time when the post–Civil War South was trying to reinvent its economy, penal institutions, and racial caste system, the actions of the miners and their allies, combined with the resistance of convicts, created a perfect storm. Within a couple of years of the rebellion’s beginning, it was clear that the brutal system of convict leasing, by which state and county prisoners were literally sold off to private railroad and coal companies, had become totally unsustainable. Again and again, all across eastern and mid-Tennessee, miners released prisoners and burned company property to the ground. The costs of militiamen needed to guard the prisoners, along with the sabotage, work slow-downs, and rebellions by the convicts, made the system cost-prohibitive both to the state and coal companies. By December 31, 1895, Tennessee became the first state in the South to abolish the tremendously lucrative convict lease.
The convict wars symbolized the continually violent transition of chattel to wage slavery in the South, in terms of both the southern states’ attempts to industrialize as well as in the violent reactions of a newly industrialized proletariat to such efforts. Miners’ participation in this insurrection also catalyzed a change in the thinking of many poor whites, who went from using forms of rhetoric traditional to a Jeffersonian Republic and commonwealth to those of class war. As shown by both the wildcats of the 1960s and ’70s and the modern resistance to mountaintop removal mining, an uneasy combination of these different modes of thinking still remains in Appalachia to this day, creating the potential for movements that are at once quintessentially American yet simultaneously radical, violent, and autonomous in nature.
The convict lease sought to preserve the benefits of enslaved Black labor in the “New South.” This insurrection can therefore be seen as an indirect assault by white and Black miners upon older notions of white identity and loyalty to the racial caste system. Though this form of race treason never became more than a secondary factor in the miners’ economic self-defense, it would be wrong not to consider the meanings of such a self-interested racial solidarity, particularly at a time when the racist prison-industrial complex has now grown to such gargantuan proportions, and neoliberalism has eliminated so many of the industrial manufacturing jobs once occupied by white workers. For those of us interested in kindling future insurrections, there are many things worth considering in the convict wars.
1 Karin A. Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871–1896 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 79–81.
2 Ibid., 45.
3 David Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996), 81–82.
[Get your copy here.]
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