Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Dipping a Toe Back In

October 16, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

toe-in-water-772773_1280You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately. It has been hard to prioritize. It isn’t just the full-time job or that I am prioritizing framily and community over the solitude needed to write – though those things play a huge role. It is also because I started to wonder why I was writing.

What I love about writing is how it helps me think things through. It forces clarity and brings up questions I didn’t even realize I had. And I like thinking things through publicly on this blog…sometimes. When it was good, people helped me to see things that I had not thought of. I found a lot of kindred spirits, some of whom became friends that I cherish.

But sometimes I let myself get sucked into debate with people who were not trying to grow or build anything. Sometimes I found myself wasting time being the female opinion for dudes who weren’t really capable of even attempting to see things outside of their own experience. Sometimes I wasted precious time on haters and trolls who just liked to stir up shit. It is so easy to get caught up in other people’s agendas –  to wake up and realize you just spent days, weeks, or months being responsive to everything except the things you most want and most value.

I want to write again, but I’m going to be careful to use this blog for the good parts – finding like-minded people, finding people who want to work on similar things, opening a conduit for information about the areas I’m working on, and having genuine discussions with people who have different experiences.

To that end, I thought I would share some of the things I’m working on (or planning to in the very near future).

  • A book on Grand Juries
  • A creative/community space that is child friendly
  • A DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) media project
  • Making things (I’m painting again!)
  • Starting a Diaspora pod (or some other alternative to Facebook/Twitter that isn’t for profit)

The grand jury book is the first priority. If any of you know folks who have served on grand juries or have some expertise in that area, please ask them to get in touch with me at mel (at)

So what have you all been up to?


If You Haven’t Read This…Graeber on Bullying

August 12, 2016 By: Mel Category: Conflict

Bully scene from Stranger ThingsSomeone tweeted David Graeber‘s piece on bullying from last year and, on the chance that there is someone out there who has not read it, I’m going to put it up here with my most heartfelt recommendation.

It’s not that as a species we’re particularly aggressive. It’s that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly. Our first instinct when we observe unprovoked aggression is either to pretend it isn’t happening or, if that becomes impossible, to equate attacker and victim, placing both under a kind of contagion, which, it is hoped, can be prevented from spreading to everybody else.

There are many times that I wish I would not have given people the benefit of the doubt, behavior that I ignored only to have it escalate and bite us all in the ass later. I’m great at removing bullies, abusers, and sociopaths from my personal life. But I’m terrible at dealing with them in groups outside of my personal life. That is something I need to get much better at.

Some Thoughts on Voting for the Newly Disillusioned

August 03, 2016 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.

I get it. I’ve been there.

I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.

Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.

The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.

  1. Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
  1. Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
  1. Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
  1. Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
  1. Act
  1. Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
  1. Rinse and repeat.

That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.

But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.

It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community –  than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.

Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?

If Education is Indoctrination, How Do We Refuse?

November 13, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change

For about five years now, I have been volunteering with an adult literacy program in DC. That is a couple hundred Monday nights that I spent reading (mostly) black history with my “learner.” (The program refers to him as a “learner”.)

I hope I’ve helped him. I know he helped me. There have been times in the last five years when there was not much in my life outside of work. Since my work life is in the nonprofit industrial complex, that means way too much time around valedictorians with hero complexes. But even when I didn’t have time for friends or anything else extra-curricular, I always had that time on Monday night.

Aside from the relief of being with someone who knows that a job is a way to put food on the table and not the whole of your identity, I learned a lot. I know more about Frederick Douglas, Fanny Lou Hamer, and even the history of black wrestlers. (Turns out wrestling is fascinating. Who knew?)

But I’m almost certain that I am going to stop tutoring. The reason is that my “learner” has a goal of passing the GED. So we stopped reading black history and started doing GED prep work. Meaning we stopped reading black history and started reading a bunch of Europeans.

I’m supposed to teach him Emily Bronte and Plato. I’m supposed to help him decipher blog posts by obnoxious, white yuppies. I’m supposed to help him take paragraph-long Dickensian sentences and make them sensical.

And the whole time I am doing it I just keep asking why. Why the hell does a person have to know that crap in order to be worthy to have a job?

I end up trying to teach him test-taking tricks and explaining that, while his answer makes a lot of sense, it isn’t what they want him to say. I end up trying to teach him enough of the white supremacist code to maybe pass a test, to maybe get a piece of paper that tells the world…..what? That he has been socialized sufficiently into European education and won’t shake things up too much?

I’ve been thinking about quitting for a while, but I keep hesitating. I hesitate for the same reason I end up doing a lot of things that I am not 100% in favor of. I don’t think my discomfort should stand in the way of what someone else says they need. So I find myself in this dilemma.

Not helping someone to jump through the hoops that may give them some material advantages doesn’t seem right. But neither does participating in the indoctrination process when I want to be participating in the exact opposite.

So what do we do when faced with choices like these? How do we find ways to help people get by in the here and now without becoming part of an indoctrination process that moves in the opposite direction of what we know needs to happen?

Thinking of Calling 911? Reconsider.

July 08, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change, Criminalization

Stats on foster careIn 2012, Prison Culture posted a little story.* The author’s friend wrote:

I saw a toddler running down Ashland barefooted and wearing very little clothing. No one was in sight. A month ago, I know that I would have immediately called the police. In light of recent events, I got out of the car and did my own detective work. I was nervous. The child was pre-verbal and I’m not good with small children, plus I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was painfully conscious, however, that calling the police might bring irreversibly negative consequences for someone — a family, the baby, me.

The good news is that I found another passerby. We wrapped the baby in my sweater and together we went door-to-door until we found the mom, who by that point was hysterical because she realized that her child was missing. Between the neighbors confirming the child’s identity and the woman’s expression when we walked up with the baby, we were pretty confident the child was hers.

Now contrast that story with two others from recent history.

You may have heard about Danielle and Alexander Meitiv. They have been fighting protective services for letting their kids go to a playground by themselves. Like a lot of incidents, it all started when someone decided to call the cops. Luckily for the Meitivs, they are suburban, white professionals with the resources for an attorney and a lot of public sympathy. They won’t be losing their kids.

Contrast that with Debra Harrell. Harrell let her child play in a park while she worked her job at McDonalds – a job that doesn’t pay enough to afford day care. When someone in the park discovered that the child was not there with a parent, they called the cops. Harrell was arrested. She lost her job. The state took her kids. She was lucky that her case received national attention. She got her job back and received the resources to fight. Many poor women and children of color are not so lucky. The “child welfare” system disproportionately chews up poor children of color.

Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.

Note the stats in that graphic. But a post about the terrifying foster care system is something for another day.

Most of us do not yet have alternate means of dealing with some types of violence. We need to work on that. For now, I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for dialing 911 about a murder or a rape. But perhaps we can all agree that calling the cops shouldn’t be the first resort for everything that seems a little off?

Conservatives are supposed to be about personal responsibility. Liberals are supposed to be about social justice. Radicals are supposed to be about creating a better system. So what would be your excuse to call the police instead of taking responsibility, finding out what is going on, and trying to do the right thing? I suspect even some cops must get tired of being called for every bullshit thing. There have to be a few who would rather investigate murders than lock up mothers.

Surely this is one tiny (and yet not so tiny) thing that most people can agree with.


*Do read that whole Prison Culture post. It is good stuff.

What Do You Mean By Leader? Why Don’t You Just Say That Then?

June 14, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change, Nonprofits

There Can Be Only One - Image from Highlander movieHow is it that so many people are stuck in The Highlander method of getting things done?

Let’s just strike the word leader from our vocabulary. No more Oprah comments about leaderlessness in social movements. No more hand-wringing about the lack of replacements for non-profit leaders. And no more confusing leaderlessness with structurelessness.

Groups need vision, inspiration, decision-making, facilitation, public representation, resource procurement, planning, expertise, conflict management, and accountability mechanisms.

But it does not have to be that, the minute a group gets together, the biggest narcissist takes over. It is possible to find more equitable and long-lasting means of providing those things than picking a “decider.” Lots of people have successfully managed commons, navigated consensus decision-making, and still found ways to mitigate power imbalances. Not easy, but certainly not impossible.

Sadly, my experiences have been that – even in supposedly left nonprofits that explicitly support things like worker cooperatives – there is an automatic default to The Highlander Model. And in the non-professional groups that I have been involved with, people don’t take the time to carefully think through all the various responsibilities usually taken by the “leader” in order to make sure that we don’t end up with either a mess or an informal/hidden power structure.

So lets just get rid of the word leader and focus on what needs to get done and how.


Great. Thanks.

That Time the State Got a Little Date Rapey

October 07, 2014 By: Mel Category: Uncategorized

On Monday, the Guardian posted a piece about how Keith Bristow, director general of the National Crime Agency, thinks that citizens in the UK must give up more of their freedom for safety. Bristow says; however, that consent is important and that “consent is expressed through legislation.”

Back on the home front. New York officials allowed a company to put beacons in hundreds of phone booths around the city. New Yorkers were not told that these tracking/ad devices were being placed all over and had no opportunity to object.

If that isn’t infuriating enough. How about this.

Cops downloaded photos from a woman’s phone and then used them to set up a fake Facebook account without her knowledge. The account was used to communicate with suspected drug dealers that knew her. The pictures included one of her in her bra and underwear. They also included pictures of two small children – her son and niece. The government thinks it was totally entitled to do this, saying:

Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations [sic].

You see, the woman in question had been prosecuted for playing a minor role in some drug dealing (allowing her friends to keep things at her house). She cooperated in exchange for a light sentence. Much like the scum that thinks if you say yes to a date then you are saying yes to everything, the cops did what they wanted.

As I was talking about all this with @bcduggan, I started thinking about that affirmative consent law that they passed in California. And I started thinking about what that Bristow character said about consent. He is right. In the totally non-functioning “representative democracy” that we have, we are told that consent is expressed through legislation. If you want to change something, spend 10 or 20 years trying to get legislation passed.

In the meantime, whatever inconceivable violations people can think of that you have not managed to specifically legislate against will continue. Just don’t think about how, by the time you get that legislation passed, they will find more ways to abuse you. And if there is a power imbalance that puts the consent equation in the abusers favor – say the power of a cop or prosecutor or maybe a little roofie?

Well, she didn’t say no.

Things You Might Have Missed

September 26, 2014 By: Mel Category: Uncategorized

Man removing graffiti. Graffiti of man removing graffiti.What do you do when somebody removes your street art? You take a picture of him and then put him up on the very same wall. So meta. So hilarious.

DC PD will soon be experimenting with body cameras, but are police body cameras really such a good idea?

LAPD killed almost 600 people between 2000 and 2014.

A Texas cop thinks Copwatch and Peaceful Streets are domestic terrorist organizations. He also thinks they are starting a revolution. Let’s hope so.

Thirty two people have lost their jobs at Florida Dept of Corrections for prison deaths, including the guy who had his skin burned off in a shower. But some say the ones truly responsible were promoted while little people were scapegoated.

Don’t get too excited about prison reform or the end of mass incarceration. Evidence for change is slim.

There is a whole dirt bike and ATV culture in DC. It isn’t legal. Police run over riders. Riders run over pedestrians. Like one woman said in that first article, “If the city can build skate parks and traffic lanes for bicyclists, why can’t it find a solution for these riders?” I mean you wouldn’t believe the bike lanes and million dollar dog parks around here.

According to CDC “Between 2006 and 2010, condom use decreased by 4% overall; among teens, the drop was nearly 50%.” Holy shit, kids. I hope to hell this isn’t true for DC also. Our rates of HIV/Aids are epidemic. Like officially epidemic.

Speaking of epidemics. What would you say to 1.4 million cases of ebola by January?

At first I thought that people rifling through your garbage and then fining you for throwing away too many banana peels was going to be the most invasive thing I read about this month. Then I thought, no, it is the kids who have to get fingerprinted and their biometric data collected to get their school lunch. But then I watched this video of cops forcibly taking blood from drivers who refused breathalyzer tests.

Conservative Republican Kentucky town opens public gas station…and loves it.

A long but fascinating report from GRAIN on the rise of supermarkets in Asia and the effect on small farmers and open markets.

Quite happy that I haven’t had to put up with much abuse on the internets. I like my tiny corner and thoughtful commenters. But I have seen what goes on in other spaces though. And it surprises me not at all that trolls are sadists and psychopaths in the rest of their lives too.

Another good piece against the “sharing” businesses in Jacobin.

Hitting kids is a bad idea. Adults on the other hand…. (I’m a little cranky this week.)

In Hong Kong, students are protesting elite colonization of their city.

In Chile, three people who are “accused of being members of an anarchist cell” will be charged in the recent bombing.

Also in Chile, three ex army officials will be charged for Victor Jara’s murder.


Why I Am Ambivalent About the Education Debt Jubilee

September 24, 2014 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Students at Oxford UniversityJust about every Monday for a little over four years I have been going to the library and meeting D to read (mostly) books about black history. D is a lovely man with a couple of decades on me who didn’t have the opportunity to finish school and who made it to adulthood without knowing how to read. D is not alone. A 2007 report found that 36% of DC adults are functionally illiterate.

Every year the organization I volunteer with has a recognition ceremony. Many learners stand up and tell their stories during the event. The room is filled with people who have been failed completely by our society and, especially, our school system. After all, while more than a third of adults in this town are functionally illiterate, only 60,000 of them do not have a high school diploma. One gentleman in particular I have never been able to forget.

The man was in his fifties or sixties. He stood up and described what it was like to grow up not knowing how to read. He told us how ashamed he was to tell anybody. How he was able to graduate from a DC high school without being able to read. After graduation, not even having the ability to fill out an application, he couldn’t get a straight job. So he sold drugs. Then he did drugs. Then he became addicted to drugs. He ended up in prison. Lost his family, his freedom, and decades of his life. And there was this “hardened criminal” crying as he laid it all out for us.

DC may have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, but according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, millions of people in the US demonstrate the lowest literacy skill levels. Some of them are immigrants learning a new language. Many have disabilities. Many are from older generations who had even less access to schooling. Some are just poor and ignored. All of their options are limited because of their literacy barriers.

Now, if you know me at all, you know that I do not put much stock in the education certification system. The system is not the answer to poverty. Going to a university is about continuing to be one of the privileged few. Promoting education allows us to ignore race and class and other accidents of birth. It is pretending like we live in a meritocracy and that a meritocracy is a good thing. It is about believing that the uneducated deserve their terrible fate so that some of us can enjoy our good lives guilt free.

They must just suck, right? Can’t read. Can’t eat. Not my problem. Should have been “smarter.” Should have worked harder. (As though we don’t all know lazy asses who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter and tireless sacrificers who have never caught a break.)

I started writing this post when I found out that this week is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week in DC. But shortly after I started, articles started coming out about the education debt jubilee. And I found myself feeling incredibly ambivalent. I’m happy for those people who are free of their education debt. It would be great if millions of students insisted that they no longer be shackled by debt before their life even really begins.

But I cannot get excited about a campaign that focuses on college debt when I spend every week focused on people who will be incredibly lucky if they get a GED and a stable job that pays more than minimum wage. Education debt campaigns are about less than 7% of the world population. As bad as education debt may be, we are not the “wretched of the earth” by any stretch of the imagination.

Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel recently wrote an important article about the scam of for profit colleges. A business that charges people tens of thousands of dollars for a product that is virtually worthless and markets itself to the people who can least afford it is repugnant. Sucking resources from those who can least afford it is how our system works – mortgages, payday loans, legal fines – and we should be taking down the institutions that do it.

But focusing on for profit educational institutions while accepting the stratification that higher education was meant to enforce is not helpful. It is like getting your drawers in a bunch about private prisons, but being fine with the rest of the racialized caste system of social control that relies on mass incarceration. We need to get much more basic than that.

In their article, Taylor and Appel wonder if it is “time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder.”  With all due respect, that is the wrong question. It is time to ask whether or not there should be a ladder. And the answer is no.

In the end, we all have to ask ourselves some questions. Can there be justice in a society that has ladders? Should we be fighting for affordable higher education or should we be battling against the social hierarchy that considers those with education “higher”? Do we put our energies into fights where the immediate benefits would be felt by the most privileged third or tenth? Or should we focus on those people who are struggling the hardest for mere survival?

I don’t know what all the answers are, but I feel fairly certain that fixing “higher” education is not one of them.


A note about literacy: Literacy is hard to measure. What skills you need depend on your community and culture. The literacy survey sets the following framework – “Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” The lowest levels of literacy that I refer to above would include people who may be able to do routine tasks (make out a check, sign their name, identify a meeting time on a sheet) and some that don’t even know the alphabet.


Book Review – Philadelphia Fire

September 22, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

Philadelphia FirePhiladelphia Fire by John Edgar Wideman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book so much. It was ostensibly about a hideous and important piece of history that too few people know about, which is why I wanted to read it. And it has beautiful, poetic (if sometimes unnecessarily pretentious) writing. If I had read certain bits of it as separate short stories or poems, I would have loved those bits. But all together it just doesn’t work. It was all over the place.

There is very little about the actual Move bombing or group in the book. So if you are looking for that you will be disappointed. It is more about the history and social problems in Philadelphia. Which might have been fine. Except that it is written in a very stream of consciousness style, which I despise. The characters are impossible to give a shit about; most of them are barely fleshed out anyway. And the one you spend most time with is an asshole. He is, like the book, incredibly self-absorbed.

Except for a few moments when I was able to get lost in the prose, I spent most of the book thinking that I wish he would get to the point. A point. Any point. Are you throwing up your personal anguish just to do it? Or are you using your personal anguish to understand deeper things about yourself, the people around you, society? Too often it felt like throwing up thought. Like a first draft with potential. Like he said, “Screw it. I’ll let the reader edit.”

And how do you write a book about government murdering people and the society that allows that, but spend more time on the main character’s creepy voyeurism than on the actual people killed?

I get the symbolism. I get that it is up to individuals to do something and that those individuals need to somehow find a way out of their traps and issues. I get that this giant mess of a web was pulling in important bits in unique ways. Sometimes it even kind of worked a little. But isn’t there something more important?

One of the lines in the book is “Better to light one little candle than to sit on one’s ass and write clever, irresponsible, fanciful accounts of what never happened, never will. Lend a hand. Set down your bucket.” And that line comes in a fanciful book that was ruined by cleverness.

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