BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Book Review – Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther

March 13, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black PantherMarshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther by Marshall “Eddie” Conway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coincidentally, I finished reading Eddie Conway’s book on March 4th, the day he was finally released from prison after 44 years. I’m still thinking about it. I’m particularly thinking about how bad we are at learning from other people’s experiences and how much even one man’s story has to teach us.

Change takes risk and sacrifice. Eddie Conway lost his freedom for 44 years. He isn’t alone. Others lost their lives to violence or sometimes to just plain giving up. And there are other sacrifices. Sometimes it isn’t clear that they are worth it. For instance, Conway talks about being absent from the lives of his children. It wasn’t just because of prison. He was absent before prison because he was always busy with the movement.

Community support is fundamental. The Black Panthers obtained the support of their community in Baltimore by providing free breakfasts to children and setting up a community health clinic. In prison, the group Conway was involved with remained popular across divisions because they always advocated for the benefit of all the prisoners.

Success is the seed of your destruction. The more successful you are, the more you will become a target of the state. That is especially true if you provide services to the community that the state is not. The state will do anything to destroy you. The state will lie. The state will spy. The state will falsely imprison and kill. Even widespread community support cannot save an organization that the state is determined to destroy.

Information is essential. Even with community support, a media narrative can take off. Even die-hard supporters could start to doubt. One of the most successful prison rebellions involved prisoners who climbed up to windows where they could grab the attention of the community. Once the people most affected are allowed to speak, people see the truth. But the media is designed to create the white noise that drowns those people out.

Movements eat themselves. The image of the Black Panthers that was sold by the media attracted the kind of people who were easy targets for agent provocateurs. Anarchists have that same problem. We need to find ways to be disciplined in our organizations and to deal with the fact that agents will always be among us. We also need to deal with well-meaning but overzealous, unstrategic, and destructive people who help the state to discredit us.

I started this off by saying how bad we are at learning from other’s experiences. What I was specifically thinking about was Green is the New Red. It is a great book in many ways. But what made me furious was that the young, white kids involved seemed utterly shocked at the level of oppression that came down on them for their actions. I don’t know how anyone who had read even a page of history could have been shocked. I don’t think anyone should be taking actions – especially very confrontational actions – without understanding what they are getting into.

So read some history and know what you are facing. Conway’s book is a good place to start.

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Book Review – The SCUM Manifesto

March 12, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

SCUM ManifestoSCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Take a girl with an anti-authoritarian streak and a history of abuse. Stir in a little 50s and 60s art and counter-culture. Add some pre-queer queerness. Top with a generous dollop of power analysis and bitterness. And, what the hell, why not a dark sense of bitchy (possible) humor? That’s The SCUM manifesto.

In Michelle Tea’s intro to this book, she accuses those of us who don’t find the manifesto hilarious as totally lacking in senses of humor. I found the book mildly amusing. So I guess I just have an inadequate sense of humor. That said, Solanas’s critiques of society aren’t exactly wrong – even if her certainty that men are completely irredeemable doesn’t come across as a mere literary device.

It isn’t like I am going to argue with her about the uselessness of our government, academia, high culture, or any of the arbiters of those institutions. Her critique of hippies and communes were probably the most amusing to me. And then there is this:

Dropping out is not the answer; fucking-up is. Most women are already dropped out; they were never in. Dropping out gives control to those few who don’t drop out; dropping out is exactly what the establishment leaders want; it plays into the hands of the enemy; it strengthens the system instead of undermining it, since it is based entirely on the nonparticipation, passivity, apathy, and non-involvement of the mass of women.

It isn’t exactly new to hear critiques of dropping out. I’ve heard similar arguments from people who are aggravated that I don’t vote. What is interesting about Solanas is that she doesn’t want to march or be involved with movements either. Her people will undertake only criminal enterprises. Her people will “unwork” by taking jobs and giving stuff away for free until they get fired. They will take over buses and radio stations. They will do only the criminal.

Which reminds me of a quote that appeals to me a lot these days.

The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society’s values, can force it to change. – Samuel R. Delaney

Solanas shot Andy Warhol. She was in and out of institutions. She had some major problems. But it is precisely those people who cannot make it in our society that we need to pay attention to. They are the ones diagnosing our failures.

One final thought about this book. Sometimes profound thoughts come from people who are hard to take. It is the flip side of how sociopaths are so charming that nobody believes they could be mass murderers or child abusers. I don’t like Solanas. But when I get past my dislike and the vitriol, there are some things worth contemplating.

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Some Thoughts on Violence, Self Defense, and Consent

March 11, 2014 By: Mel Category: Violence

Nikita TV Show trainingYou can’t be amongst radicals for more than 9 seconds without getting into a discussion about whether or not people should use violence or whether or not property destruction is violence.

As I’ve said before, I think people who are very good at violence and cruelty are usually not so great at building a new and just society. As for property destruction being violent, the answer is…sometimes. Is it violence when the army comes and burns down an entire village leaving people homeless and hungry? Fuck yes. Is it violence when there is a controlled explosion of a building so that something new can take its place? Of course not.

I have been against war since I was old enough to understand what it was. As a kid, I thought pacifist only meant being against war (which is still how some people define it).  And let me tell you, of all the things I have identified as over the years, that seems to be the one that pisses the most people off. Naturally, it makes me want to continue using it.

But as much as I love pissing people off, it makes me crazy when people equate pacifism with offering yourself up as a sacrificial lamb. If I had a nickel for every time someone responded by suggesting that I thought the person getting attacked in an alley should just sit there and die, I could take that bag of nickels and beat the crap out of them with it.

People have the right to defend themselves. The fact that so many people, especially women, end up in prison for defending themselves is unconscionable. But the tricky thing is that people are not usually attacked in an alley by a stranger. They are hurt by people they know. They are hurt by people they love. They are hurt by the people who they are often hesitant to hurt back. The kind of self-defense people usually refer to when talking about gun ownership or critiquing a wrong-headed view of pacifism does nothing to address the majority of rapes, assaults, child abuse…

When people are attacked by strangers, those attacks don’t always result in bloody noses or the need for a rape kit. The trail from perpetrator to victim is often murky. When a multinational company poisons the water, it may eventually end in deaths. But how do we self defend against that kind of thing? Self defense usually means imminent danger. (Unless of course you are a U.S. president. Then you get to define self-defense as a preemptive invasion.)

So the really clear cases of immediate violence are often perpetrated by people close to us and who we may not be inclined to punish severely because we see them as human beings.  In contrast, some of the most destructive kinds of violence are difficult to defend against because of distance – between perpetrator/victim and often between the act and its result. It is easy for some company who poisons the water to claim they didn’t know what they were doing. It is much more difficult to make an imminent danger defense when the crime is bureaucratic instead of in your face violent.

One of the many books I have been reading while on jury duty is Matt Hern’s One Game at a Time. (I’ll write more about it later. It’s fantastic). In it, Hern pushes back against the idea that sports – even fighting – are violent, saying that “violence is coercive by definition.” He also says:

The key pivot in identifying violence is agreement. Not unlike various forms of sexual activity (say BDSM, for example), physical contact, collisions, and even bodily damage is not violence if consent is present. There are any number of physical, aggressive, damaging, risky, and painful activities that we willingly and happily participate in that are not violence.

Seeing violence as coercion clarifies things a lot. It explains why that village being burned down is violent and the building destruction is not. It may even get at that multinational that poisoned the water. If the people didn’t want them there to begin with, then it is violence from the start. Of course it may be that the company arrived with promises of benefits. And that is where things get complicated. Because then we really have to start talking about consent.

What if a community consents to the destruction of their environment because of economic realities outside of their control? Can a person ever consent to working in a sweatshop given the sociopolitical circumstances in which any decisions happen? How does a community give consent if there is no consensus? How old does a person have to be to give consent? How neurologically typical does a person have to be to give consent? Do we err on the side of agency even if it means people may die?

These are some of the things one thinks about as you sit in a grand jury hearing about murders, rapes, child abuse… Horrific acts where the victimized go on to victimize others. A massive criminal injustice institution built for bureaucratic and sanitized violence. Very little questioning or thinking by the participants or those judging them. Holding some individuals solely responsible for acts that their social situation pushed them towards. Holding other individuals as helpless victims without agency.

 

Why Are There No Mom Jokes?

March 07, 2014 By: Mel Category: Culture

Ad for Home Improvement TV ShowI’m working on ten bazillion posts that will not be ready for a bit. But in the meantime a possibly irrelevant, but possibly not, question has occurred to me.

If I say a “dad joke,” most of you know exactly what I mean. Many of us had fathers who told really corny jokes and thought they were hilarious. I feel like a disproportionate amount of them were puns. There are even tumblrs for dad jokes. But when I googled mom jokes, all I got were Yo Mamma jokes. Particularly popular seem to be the “yo momma so fat” jokes. So we get to hate on mothers/women and fat people.  Always good to multitask. Ahem.

I started thinking about television shows. Granted, I am hardly an expert. I barely watch t.v. One of my friends has actually been known to apologize to me when group conversations inevitably turn to television talk. But from those shows I do remember, or have caught a piece of, the mom is always the serious one – sometimes even a curmudgeon.

The Cosby Show. Home Improvement. Everybody Loves Raymond.

What’s up with that? How come being a mom has to mean being humorless – or at least less humorous. Except for I Love Lucy, I can’t actually recall a show with a different dynamic. So all you television watchers out there need to help me out. Is there a whole bunch of t.v. that I am not picking up on or are we culturally trained by birth to think dads get to be goofy and moms have to rein in all the fun?

Is Applying PREA to Immigrant Detention a Good Thing?

March 04, 2014 By: Mel Category: Criminal Injustice System

The Department of Homeland Security announced “that it has finalized regulations to prevent sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers.” Their announcement follows the 2012 Obama administration directive that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) apply to those in immigration detention and not just Department of Justice Facilities.

PREA was passed in 2003 in response to public campaigns against prison rape. You might think that a bill requiring increased reporting and a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse would have helped. But reports of sexual abuse are actually rising. Prison officials claim this is due to an increase in reporting, not in incidents. Not a surprising claim if you consider that about half of the sexual assaults reported are guard on prisoner.

It so happens that I have been reading some back issues of Tenacious: art & writings by women in prison. In the mother’s day 2013 issue, Dawn describes how little the PREA has helped women prisoners. In fact, she says “the only people who suffer because of PREA are the same ones who were supposed to benefit from it.” According to Dawn, what “zero tolerance” has actually meant is that women are forbidden any physical contact. She was once admonished for giving another prisoner a high five.

A few abusive guards were removed and charged with crimes since PREA passed. But the Department of Corrections (DOC) also implemented their own new rule. The new rule makes it a serious infraction for a prisoner to falsely report to authorities.  Dawn says that, since they added the new rule, many women won’t make reports because

history has proven that any kind of reports true or false are found to be false. When it was found to be false the people were immediately found guilty and sent to administrative segregation (ad. seg.). One lady was only having a conversation with an officer, not ‘reporting’ anything, just telling him a rumor she’d heard about a guard putting money on an offenders account for ‘favors’. This officer went and reported their conversation and she was cuffed, taken to the hole and subsequently written up for Class 1 False Reporting and placed in Ad. Seg.

Does it sound to you like a few new policies are going to make a difference when people still accept the mass dehumanization and incarceration that creates such an ideal environment for abuse without consequences?

P.S. If you click the above link for Tenacious, it will tell you how you can subscribe. Get your information about prison straight from the imprisoned.

Venezuela and Tensions of the Left

March 03, 2014 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Change

Half Marx Half Kropotkin A while back there was a Reddit argument between a Marxist and an anarchist. They were having the usual debate about what happens when a movement takes state power. The anarchist said something along the lines of, “When you take the state do you promise not to execute me by firing squad.” (There is something of a history here.) The Marxist’s reply was something along the lines of, “When we take state power do you promise not to start an insurrection?”

“Touché,” said the anarchist.

I’ve been trying to keep one eyeball on the happenings and debates in and about Venezuela right now. By that I do not mean the composition of the people in the streets. The evidence of that seems pretty clear. I’m paying attention to the disputes on “the left.” I’m thinking a lot about how those disputes could actually make movements towards justice stronger instead of being weaknesses that can be exploited by those who are clutching onto their power and privilege.

As anarchists, we will always be suspicious of and critical of power. I will never accept hierarchy or coercion, even from those who seem to share many of my other values. I’ll never support police power and its abuses, even if I am in moderate agreement with their bosses. I will never be comfortable with a top down model of change. However, I am also very practical. So while I cannot support a top down model of change, I can nominally support a power structure that provides more room to move toward the society I want to see.

I think us anarchists have to look at power structures and ask some practical questions. Do the people, especially the most oppressed, support the power structure? Are we less restricted and repressed under this power structure? Is there more room for our transformational projects to take hold? If I can answer yes to those questions then I can be, at least, less against that power structure than another.

But I will never stop being critical and bringing attention to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. And when those criticisms are greeted with absolute hostility, as though any criticism means being  traitor to the revolution, or at least on the side of the oligarchs, that is infuriating. It is especially infuriating because paying attention to our criticisms could actually strengthen the very movements that get so pissed at us.

Take this piece by José Antonio Gutiérrez D. He is not vilifying the government as a whole, but he is saying that many have been sucked up into its power structure and have become corrupt. He isn’t asking to undo what has been done or denying the positive things that have happened, but he is pointing out that some of the most radical democratic projects – like worker managed factories or real land distribution – have fallen by the wayside with disastrous consequences. Most importantly, he is pointing out the danger of resolving this crisis through more state power instead of through more people power.

Apart from the immediate measures (such as harmonizing the price of petrol, curbing the flight of capital, speculation and hoarding), it is essential to understand the real nature of the social contradictions facing the “process”. It is not enough to recognize that it is not perfect or that it naturally has contradictions. These contradictions and limitations must be identified, discussed, critiqued and corrected. We cannot just close ranks around them, justify them, nor even less so make a virtue of them and close our eyes to the impeccable “leadership” of the leaders.

The people today cannot be a passive agent nor nothing more than government shock troops: they must take back their capacity for political action, for acting themselves, with their own agenda, because socialism will not be built by the State. Decentralization, the autonomous development of the organs of people’s power and social control is an essential task in the present moment. There must be a transfer of power from the State apparatus to the popular movements and their organization

If I were to sum up my line of thinking at the moment, I guess it would be something like this. Centralized and hierarchical left movements should listen carefully to the criticisms of even the most pain in the ass anarchists. We are showing you your weaknesses, weaknesses that could be your downfall. (By downfall, I mean both the chance of losing power and the chance of becoming totalitarian.) And anarchists should be clear in their constant barrage of criticism that we also acknowledge – in so far as it exists – the community support and changes brought about by hierarchical movements.

I realize that this will be an uneasy and somewhat temporary truce. But at this time, we need each other. The world is less and less willing to accept any of the isms. When an anarchist criticizes a movement or government for authoritarianism or when a woman criticizes it for sexism, they need to be taken seriously without people getting defensive or dismissive. Those criticisms show you the weaknesses that need to be addressed. There is, unfortunately, very little room for error when trying to make a massive social change. There is, fortunately, less and less room to placate people by saying that their concerns will be dealt with later. We’ve all heard that before and we know that moment never comes.

So lets keep having that dialogue and critique and use it to make us stronger. Because the powers that we are up against are immense and we don’t have a lot of room to fuck up.

Book Review – Resistance Behind Bars

March 02, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated WomenResistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women by Victoria Law

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A while back, I wrote about how frustrating it was that people were not paying attention to the prison hunger strikes in California and elsewhere. But as little attention as men’s resistance gets, women’s resistance gets even less. And while it is true that there are many more men than women in prison, it is also true that, per the sentencing project:

The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse. Large-scale women’s imprisonment has resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration and the loss of family ties

Long before Orange is the New Black, Victoria Law wrote about the history of prisons and how women have resisted. The book is broken down by issues – health care, sexual abuse, education, labor… For each issue Law shares the stories that prisoners have shared with her about how the system has affected them. She puts their stories in historical and political context. And she shows how those women pushed back.

I’ve read a lot of books, articles, and research about women in prison over the last 10 years, but this book covered new territory. Most people focus only on the victimization of the women. Rarely do you hear from the women themselves. Even more rarely do you hear about the grievances, court cases, self organized groups, hunger strikes, whistle blowing – about the women’s agency.

And unlike most of the material I come across, this book is written from a radical perspective. It doesn’t set out a handful of legislative reforms that could make things better. In fact, it shows how legislative reforms have hurt the women. Even reforms like The Prison Rape Elimination Act that were ostensibly meant to help prisoners, ended up hurting women prisoners. Women are written up for sexual misconduct if they have any contact with other women in the prison. No hugs. No high fives.

Instead of legislation, you will get an extensive list of recommended reading, some resources for prisoners, and encouragement to reach out to these women and support them in how they chose to resist.

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Cooperation is the Problem

February 26, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

When I speak to people about a cooperative society, I often get a lot of push back. I’m told that people are competitive. I’m given examples of scary people, violent people, sociopaths. I’m told that cooperative society is against human nature.

I generally respond by telling people there is plenty of scientific evidence out there that cooperation is actually what humans, and other species, do naturally. We wouldn’t have survived very long without cooperation and mutual aid.

Today, as I am serving jury duty, I am struck by how incredibly cooperative people are. Unfortunately, people are often cooperative with the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.

The jury receives its instructions almost entirely from the prosecutor’s office, the exception being the judge who swore us in. That judge, to his credit, told us that we did not work for the prosecutor’s office and said several times that we were a buffer between the state and the accused. But since that initial moment with the judge, all of our information has favored the prosecution and the jury wants to cooperate.

They tell us that our job is only to find probable cause and that a jury will later determine the facts. They don’t mention that a mere 3% of federal cases go to trial. They tell us that the defendant will be represented by counsel. They don’t mention that they aren’t entitled to good counsel. They tell us that we should not concern ourselves with what will happen to the person at the end of the line. I’m sure that’s what they told the person stamping transport documents in Nazi Germany too.

People are mostly inclined to go along. They are inclined to follow the rules (maybe especially in a place like DC where so many work for government or nonprofits or were class valedictorian).  But it isn’t just that they acquiesce to authority, it is that they also don’t want conflict. And this is how you have relatively decent people who have some doubts about the process, or at least feel uncomfortable with the system, going along with it.

People want to cooperate. They don’t want to be hated. They don’t want to make the nice lady in the prosecutor’s office job harder. They don’t want to hold everyone up from going to lunch because there is more to discuss. Fighting against the current – whether majority opinion or bureaucratic process – goes against most people’s desire to cooperate.

The only small positive thing I have to say is that every person who is non-cooperative makes it just a little harder for people to go along. The more we can tip the scales, the less it becomes about whether or not to cooperate and the more it becomes about who or what to cooperate with. The more it becomes about the difference between cooperation amongst equals and deference to authority. And then, maybe, we can start having some real talk.

Support the People Not the CML

February 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Politics

Evo MoralesWhat is going on in Venezuela right now has brought to the surface a lot of tensions between different parts of what is usually referred to as the left. That’s a good thing. And I expect I may write a few things about those conversations in the coming weeks. But I want to start with this quote my friend Navid put up on his FB page.

As an anarchist I still support the governments of Venezuela & Bolivia. Why? Because they are building popular governments & are in the process of distributing power to the bases. Anarchists & Libertarians that are living under neo-liberal governments & have produced no structural change to the way they are governed want to criticize & dismiss the work that the governments of these revolutionary movements. It would be nice if Evo Morales didn’t have to be a president. But because we are still living in a world with nation states, most of them republican, social movements & the governments they put in place will continue to struggle with the contradictions of distributing power through the state. Anarchists & Libertarians that want to take what they think is the ‘principled high road’ of not supporting & in some cases dismissing the work of the governments of social movements, I don’t think have a vision of how we can actually achieve a world without borders or states. I would love to be able to wish & dream this into existence but the fact is, there are steps, and none of them lack contradictions. We have to acknowledge reality & collectively deal with it. – Cexilia Poncho Rojo

I don’t know any anarchists who don’t struggle with the fact that we sometimes support state programs or political changes as a practical matter in the here and now. We understand the contradictions. You will find plenty of anarchists who protest for state funded housing and education. You’ll find plenty of anarchists who vote.  We get that we live in a world where it is expected that we will all live in states or participate in groups led by a charismatic male leader (CML).

But

As someone whose beliefs are fundamentally a critique of power, I will always raise an eyebrow toward anyone who pursues power. I will always be skeptical about what will happen to even the best intentioned person who attains power. I will always be vigilant in watching how people use their power. Because I believe that power corrupts. Most importantly, I make a very large distinction between the people, the social movements that bring someone to power, and the CML that becomes the face of that movement.

Evo Morales has an inspiring personal narrative. But the movement that brought him to office is what really counts. And when those people turn around and protest President Morales in order to force him to cancel an amazon road project, I have no internal contradiction about whether I should support the president or the people who put him in power.

It is the same for other social movements as well. I have respect for MLK, but I believe that Ella Baker was right that the movement made Martin, not the other way around. Ultimately, it is the people who are important, not the power center or the anointed face – as inspiring as that person may be. As a bonus, when you keep your focus on the people instead of the CML, perhaps losing that leader doesn’t put the whole movement into disarray.

It is an exaggeration to say that all governments and leaders are exactly the same. Some are definitely more responsive or more repressive than others. In so far as there may be people out there who are summarily dismissing the beneficial things these governments have done, Rojo’s criticism is valid. But in so far as I am expected to confuse support for the people with uncritical support for the CML, which is often what people seem to want, that just isn’t going to fly.

 

 

Congratulations! You Deserve a Drink or Something

February 21, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

Everyday Awards‘Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society.’ James Baldwin

Yesterday, on my post about the food system, Todd commented that it is hard to find inspiration these days. To which I replied that maybe we need to give credit to anyone who hasn’t given up yet. The more I think about it, the more true it seems.

I don’t want to lower the bar or anything, but some days it is such a fight just not to give up and give in. Sometimes it is tempting to sit in front of the tv and pretend things aren’t happening. Sometimes it is tempting to go along with the program and stop fighting the pressures to conform and social climb. Sometimes it is tempting to tell your principles to shut up so you can get along and not be in constant war with people. Sometimes it is tempting to drown yourself in booze or heroin or oxy or whatever it is that makes it all go away.

Some days I really think I have no fight left. But them I find a little more somewhere and maybe that is more of an accomplishment than I’ve been giving myself credit for. So I congratulate all of you that still have a little fight left, especially the ones who have been dragging your ass out for decades. Nicely done.

HT to @bcduggan for the graphic