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Earth First! Spring Gathering 2021 Reportback

Yesterday April 4, a group of Earth First! organizers from across the country closed out their national spring gathering at Fisheating Creek with a demonstration at the adjacent gates of both the Moore Haven CF state prison (run by private prison giants GEO Group) and the ICE Detention Center run in conjunction with the Glades County Sheriff, funded by shady dealings through the USDA, blowing millions in public money intended to assist rural farming communities.

While we were there making noise, we were seen and heard by prisoners working in the yard, families leaving visitation and staff at both facilities, across the street from each other.

This also paralleled a mobilization by the prisoner-led National Freedom Movement, who called for a day of action on April 3rd highlighting the need for massive parole reforms to free prisoners all across the country.

The protest aimed to highlight the recent reports of physical abuse and COVID-19 negligence from both these facilities as well as the national call for attention to the problems of the prisons, including environmental and public health concerns stemming from the operation of maintaining industrial warehouses holding thousands of people in cages. (Check out the full report from Immigrant Action Alliance, et al, on abuses at the Glades County ICE Detention Center here.)

These prisons are often built in remote rural locations, far from the urban base of many activist organizations. But these are places that Earth First!ers are familiar with, as they are so often the same regions where organizing against logging, mining, pipelines and other environmental atrocities are occurring.

To highlight this concern, in the nearby Manatee County another industrial disaster occurred at a phosphate mining toxic waste water storage site over the weekend. While thousands of surrounding residents were evacuated, the jail across the street was refusing to evacuate, instead proposing to move prisoners to the second floor, while toxic water was expected to flood the lower level. After public pressure from a phone zap (which EF!ers also participated in), around 260 prisoners were reported to be relocated, while over 700 more are still being left to face this environmental nightmare behind bars. It’s not the first time that flood waters have literally risen around prisoners, abandoned to failing flood control systems and exacerbating climate instability.

Here in the Gulf South, prison slave labor has also been used to clean up after red tide fish kills (also in Manatee County) and oil spills, such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling disaster, drawing connections between ecological defense, environmental justice and prison abolition. 

Though Earth First! has hosted annual public gatherings every year for the past four decades, this was the first in-person event since the start of the pandemic last year. The gathering was intentionally small in numbers, in an effort to minimize COVID-19 exposure to those still at risk and not yet vaccinated, but included geographic representation from so-called California, Oregon, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas and across Florida.

Much of the gathering’s focus was on renewing support for movement communication tools like the Earth First! Journal (which is circulated among thousands of prisoners every year) and its online newswire, which experienced setbacks from limited staffing, volunteers and financial challenges over the past year. We also discussed plans to release a 40th Anniversary edition of the Journal, along with a music compilation CD that has been in the works since last year.

The gathering also focused on discussions about strengthening connections between Earth First!, indigenous solidarity, environmental justice and abolitionist movements. Attendees of the gathering decided to manifest this by planning a demo at the prison gates, as an expression of solidarity with immigrants and prisoners.

A little history about so-called Glades County:

“What is now called Glades County was a place of refuge where people would go to try and live full lives away from state-sponsored racial violence. In the decades before Florida was admitted to the union as a slave state in 1845, Creek and other native people migrated to Spanish-controlled Florida along with enslaved people of African descent fleeing the United States. Their descendants created the Seminole nation in what is now known as the Everglades—swampland that extends from present-day Orlando to the end of the peninsula. During the Seminole Wars in the nineteenth century, many of their descendants were killed or forcibly relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government. Many of those who remained were moved to a number of small reservations, including the Brighton Reservation which lies within the borders of Glades County... The swampland that covered much of the county was drained in the 1920s and 1930s for sugarcane production, which expanded steadily in the decades following. Today, 86 percent of the county is farmland.” [Source] 

Fisheating Creek is the second-largest natural source of water for Lake Okeechobee (behind the Kissimmee River), supplying close to 9% of the water flowing into the lake with swallow tail kites swooping over head, riddled with gorgeous cypress trees with gnome-like knees abound, with a 40 plus mile long red-tea colored creek surrounded by white sandy beach and feral grapefruit, orange and lime trees. It is also the site of a battle over public access in the ’80s and ’90s, where local residents succeeding in defeated Lykes Bros from keeping people off the creek.

Feb 1st Call to Action: Demand Mass Clemency on “National Freedom Day”

Abolition is the road, clemency is the vehicle, now is the time.

[UPDATE: Check out the Feb 1st COVID Clemency Caravan and Day of Action organizing and media kit to start plugging in]

As supporters of the #CagingCOVID campaign, the Antistasis Project is calling for decentralized actions on February 1st across the so-called United States, and internationally, in support of mass clemency for people held in jails, prisons and detention centers.

Reports updated as of Jan. 19, show at least 355,957  prisoners have gotten the virus, and more than 2,232 died as a result of it. . The pandemic has resulted in prisons and jails abusing isolation more than ever before. Social distance is necessary but solitary confinement is torture.

Crowded quarters, a lack of PPE, inadequate medical care, an aging population, and unsanitary conditions have contributed to an infection rate 5.5 times higher than the already ballooned average in the U.S.

There have been over 100 documented prisoner rebellions related to negligence over COVID-19 safety (For example, Alabama prisoners have been on strike since Jan 1st). Its time we step it up on the outside. A quick and massive release of prisoners is the safest and most responsible option. In reality, its long overdue.

February 1st was declared “National Freedom Day” in 1949, in a Presidential proclamation recognizing both the 1865 signing of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Yet all these years later, today’s prisoners are still subjected to conditions those documents were thought to be addressing, from extreme medical neglect and the torture of isolation to outright slave labor.

#CagingCOVID is inviting people to join them in a caravan to DC, where they will have a motorcade rally to hand-deliver their petition to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the United Nations (UN) offices.

But there are also countless local and regional targets to apply pressure on in furthering the demand of immediate COVID clemency. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Your Governor’s home: Check out what they’ve been doing in North Carolina and Florida for some inspiration.
  2. A local jail or prison near you: Make noise to let prisoners and detainees know you are out there. While a prison noise demo is a First Amendment protected activity, it sends a message up the chain to administration and other officials who fear demonstrations spreading across the wall.
  3. Regional offices of the DOJ, CDC and UN: Help amplify the #CagingCOVID petition demands by having a presence at these offices as well.
  4. A busy intersection, interstate or shopping area: Reach people on the street, some times a little disruption can also generate more attention and media coverage that reaches thousands more.
  5. Get creative! Put out flyers and posters, drop banners in visible locations, coordinate phone zaps and social media blasts, affinity group style direct actions to blockade or occupy strategic locations… Just be sure to wear a mask, wash your hands and practice social distance while you do any in-person activity.
Florida Prisoner Solidarity and Fight Toxic Prisons blockades Governor Ron Desantis’ mansion in Tallahassee, April 17, 2020. Almost 200 prisoners in FL have been killed by COVID-19 since that time.
On July 27, 2020, 14 protesters chained themselves together in front of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home, imploring him to release prison inmates and halt transfers from prisons to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

BACKGROUND

This year of pandemic has highlighted how incarceration fails at ensuring public safety but excels at violating human rights. Agency heads and elected officials have watched for 10 months now as COVID-19 cases in their prison systems have spiked and spread, with a massively underwhelming response.

As of releasing this call-to-action, a new, faster spreading mutation, the B.1.1.7 strain, has been identified in CaliforniaColoradoFlorida and New York. Public health experts expect it to be identified in more states in the coming days.

A supposed cornerstone of the legal system is that its “better for ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But in the case of COVID-19, people are suffering and dying in jails without ever having faced trial, when they could have survived in their own home or a hospital; in prisons, people are dying who were convicted (though too often through plea bargains, coerced testimony and factual innocence), but not sentenced to death.

By the state’s own laws, as well as international treaties, this is a far overstep of state power. Its cruel and unusual punishment, its medical neglect. Its state terrorism.

COVID-19 isn’t the first public health atrocity in the prison system, but it has allowed people to see a fuller picture of what mass incarceration means. It has opened the eyes of many to a problem that has lingered for the past 150 years. There are enough parallels on a local or regional level to say the sort of medical neglect and abuse that COVID is highlighting is actually quite commonplace (such as Legionnaire’s Disease and Valley Fever, or extreme exposure to black mold, asbestos, radon, coal ash dust, and even methane from sewage leaks.) And that is the problem.

The clearest way to get people who are held in state custody out of harms way from the pandemic, and the plethora of pre-existing abuses it has highlighted, is through expedited executive clemency. Releases have happened in some facilities across the country, showing that it is possible. But thus far, it has been way too little, much too late.

In federal prisons alone, more than 14,000 clemency seekers are waiting for verdicts on their applications to the Justice Department. But the backlog is not new. In 2014, the Obama administration unveiled a clemency initiative that created new criteria for commutations, with as many as 10,000 inmates expected to qualify. The administration disappointingly granted a mere 1,696. That has to change fast.

Mass releases from the federal system can and should be an example for states to follow. Especially under a new administration that has claimed to plan on correcting its disastrous policy decisions in manufacturing mass incarceration over the past 40 years.

What is “National Freedom Day”?

Its an obscure holiday to most, but perhaps one we should be getting more familiar with, figuring out how to reclaim it, and holding the U.S. to it.

A 1949 U.S. Presidential Proclamation created National Freedom Day to commemorate both the passage of the 13th Amendment on that day 84 years before and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations a year prior, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

While we know we can’t expect liberation to come willingly from an empire built on slavery and land theft, we need to use strategic moments and symbols to build struggle around. We can make February 1, 2021 one of these.

Art by Lauren Walker / Truthout

Image at top: “No Executions by COVID-19” banner at news conference outside San Quentin State Prison, July 9, 2020, in San Quentin, Calif. A group of legislators, advocates, academics and public health officials gathered at San Quentin State Prison to discuss a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that has sickened more than 1,400 inmates with six deaths. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) 

Florida Prisoner Solidarity statement on Dec 6th Noise Demo in Raiford

IN HONOR OF KAREN SMITH, IN SOLIDARITY WITH KEITH SOANES AND ALL THOSE INCARCERATED

From FLPrisonerSolidarity.org

On November 29, 2020, Florida Prisoner Solidarity (FPS, formerly Gainesville IWOC) lost a founder and main organizer, Karen Smith, in a fatal car accident. A week of memorial events with family and friends culminated in a powerful demonstration in her honor at the gates of Florida State Prison (FSP) in Raiford on December 6th. 

See a short video from the protest here and here.

The demonstration consisted of a motorcade of 50 people in vehicles honking in the vicinity of the prison, accompanied by a sound system, signs, drums, whistles, pots and pans, air horns and fireworks. There was also a banner hung from the gate, red paint splattered across the ground underneath it and a circle-A painted on the entryway wall (presumably inspired by Karen Smith’s lifelong advocacy of anarchism.) 

We chose this prison location due to it being the site of an effort Karen was focusing a lot of energy on at the time of her death, specifically because multiple activist contacts inside the state prison system, including Keith Soanes, had been moved there recently in retaliation for their correspondence with prisoner rights and abolitionist groups, like us at FPS.

Just prior to her death, Karen was developing a larger campaign of support to move Soanes out of Close Management (Florida’s solitary confinement) at FSP. She had written the following in her notes, “As the COVID-19 death toll approaches 200 inside Florida prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) wastes time, effort and resources conducting a witch hunt for whistleblowers who threaten the lack of transparency maintained by staff. So far, the state has disappeared several elder black men who have a history of speaking out about conditions inside Florida prisons. These men were taken from their housing units without incident, placed under investigation and sentenced to long-term solitary confinement without evidence or explanation aside from vague accusations of promoting unrest through correspondence with outside advocacy groups. Callers are being told the information surrounding their placement in solitary is confidential and cannot be shared…” 

But we have learned much from direct communication with Keith, which can be found here

While the December 6th action was a symbolic demonstration of our love for Karen and our dedication to carry her work forward, the torment felt by prisoners inside those walls is anything but. Noise demonstrations are an important action because they are an effective ways to show prisoners in a tangible way that there is a world of people outside that care about them and have not forgotten those who are locked in cages, warehoused in order for this system to continue its legacy of white supremacy and classism. 

Prisoners frequently write letters telling us they heard us, and how much it meant to feel they are not alone. It’s also one of the few ways to convey to the FDOC staff that they are not operating in complete secrecy just because of their remote locations; that people are indeed paying attention to their actions and documenting their abuses. 

We framed the event with a quote from one of Karen’s many speeches at the gates of an FDOC prison: “Next Step, We Burn It Down.” This was the closing line from a video of her on a bullhorn in front of the Gainesville Work Camp exactly one year prior to her death. FPS chose this message as a powerful, poetic way to honor Karen’s passion and rage. But it also speaks to the powder keg of repressive and brutal conditions at hand. It speaks to an inevitable demise and destruction that has historically befallen other institutions based on degradation, subjugation and misery (i.e. slave plantations, concentration camps, etc.) It was not a threat. It was simply an observation speculating on the sequence of events for agencies and institutions like FDOC, which has buried millions of people alive over the past hundred and fifty years. 

Letters from people inside Florida State Prison (FSP) and the surrounding facilities have started coming in thanking the protestors for being there. Here’s an excerpt from one with an accompanying description from a loved one that was posted to Facebook: 

“I received a letter from my friend today who has been in confinement in FSP for months. He said he heard families outside protesting. Although he couldn’t see out of his window to see you all, he heard you guys. It touched him to know people do care, and it gave him hope that he will be moved out soon. So thank you all who were out there.”

While those inside clearly loved knowing they are not alone, we have been informed of loved ones on the outside being told their visitation access is being cancelled due to their attendance of this protest (this has happened in the past, and been overturned). FDOC knows this is a way to create major disruptions and conflict between the inside/outside support work. 

On solitary confinement

A primary reason Karen Smith was focused on FSP is because of the excessive use of solitary confinement as punishment occurring there (which the FDOC calls “Close Management”), specifically in retaliation for people who have exposed abusive conditions in other facilities, as Keith Soanes is experiencing. There is currently a major lawsuit working its way through courts right now to drastically reduce the amount of solitary confinement used in Florida. 

“Across the country, a growing consensus of medical and mental health professionals have equated placing prisoners in solitary confinement to torture. In Florida, a group of civil rights groups suing to end the practice have measured rates of confinement in state prisons at twice the national average, including hundreds of people who have been in isolation for six to 20 years.” [Source]

“The rate of suicide is much higher for people who have been in solitary. From January 2013 to August 2018 at least 46 of the 80 individuals in FDC custody who committed suicide were in isolation and another 24 had previously been in solitary. Over 60 percent of the people in solitary are black, a jarring racial disparity in a state that is majority white.” [Source]

A Bradford County Sheriff Deputy hazardously aims his taser at the crowd with his finger on the trigger.

About the arrests and charges

While FPS is not looking to focus all of the attention on the three arrests, we do feel it’s important to provide support for those being criminalized on account of their participation in the event. At the moment all three are out on bonds, which were set at an exorbitant rate of $35,000 – $40,000 thousand per person for a total of over $100,000 for essentially misdemeanor charges of trespassing and resisting without violence, alleging that they did not disperse quickly enough when ordered. The county has also attempted to trump up a felony criminal mischief charge, but has failed to provide any evidence to substantiate it. It’s not expected to stick, but nonetheless carries immediate consequences that assist the state in limiting the First Amendment rights of those charged. One of the three was also sent to the hospital for treatment of a significant shoulder wound requiring stitches resulting from being assaulted by an officer while already in handcuffs.

This repression only further illustrates how the police and prison system seek to criminalize dissent, inside and outside the walls.

About the Bradford sheriff and the media

Almost immediately following the arrests, Bradford County Sheriff posted a statement lying about the trumped up felony charges they couldn’t even provide probable cause for at the arraignment hearing. Their Facebook post appeared to be circulated among pro-prison groups nationally, with hundreds of comments appearing from people such as the founder of “Correctional Officers for Trumps,” based in Massachusetts. 

Several local news outlets promptly parroted the sheriff’s press release, providing no background on the reasons for the protest and making no effort to include the perspective of local organizations who have been featured in news stories surrounding prison conditions for years in the area. 

This is a reminder of how prominent a role that prison plays in these rural counties, where it is one of the largest employers in the region. While the passion and rage was running high during the demo (and curse words flying!), now is the time to push the conversation deeper, engaging with social media and news comment sections to explain the problem with prisons and the rampant abuse in the FDOC to people who live near or work in these facilities and need to face what’s really happening and see that there is a well-informed opposition. 

We’ve got more coming, watch out!

“Next Step, We Burn it Down”

A tribute to Karen Smith, Rest in Power

Text transcribed from the video above, taken of Karen in front of the FDOC Gainesville Work Camp Nov 29, 2019, speaking to the prisoners inside: “…We cannot depend on the courts. At this very moment they are trying to limit your access to the courts. The Florida Department of Corrections is trying to end law libraries, trying to take all the resources and digitize them, and not allow you access if you have DRs [Disciplinary Reports]. This is happening. Pretty soon you’ll have no access to the courts, no access to your families. That’s why they want to end visitation. That’s why they censor our mail. They want you to be complacent slaves, easy to handle. They want us to stay away. That’s why they put these signs up. That’s why they won’t let university students write you. They’re terrified of us getting together. They know that if we fight together, we can shut this shit down. The entire system is built upon our backs. If we are not complicit, it does not work. And we are not complicit! The whole city knows this is a Nazi slave camp sitting on the edge of town. That’s why they made the decision to cut ties [with prison labor contracts]. The next step, we burn it down.”

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Karen passed on to the ancestors’ realm in the early hours of Nov 29, 2020 as the result of a fatal car accident near Waldo, Florida.

[UPDATES: Donations to her children can be made here. There was a public memorial with family and friends at Depot Park in Gainesville on December 2 and there will be a series of memorial actions in the days and weeks ahead.]

It’s hard to describe what organizing alongside Karen Smith was like in a way that won’t sound hyperbolic on account of her absence, but I’m gonna go for it anyway. Movement circles can get bogged down and organizers often get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what we face. Its inevitable, yet Karen Smith figured out how to manage it all with a rare style and grace. She dodged the obstacles, confronted the bullshit and stayed focused on her two-pronged mission of supporting prisoners and attacking the prison system, relentlessly. All while being an amazing mother of two and stellar friend to so many.

Since her passing, several of us who had the fortune of organizing closely with her have noted the feeling of disbelief stemming from a view of her as invincible, unstoppable… a supernatural creature walking among muggles. The organizational energy that she could harness in planning protests, conferences, bail funds, social events is unmatched. She could motivate and focus a group without it feeling pushy, and she could host a killer party without seeming stressed, and then totally chill out and relax without seeming all high-strung from pulling these things together. She was also an incredible example to me as a parent, and countless other future parents, that people with kids can balance movement responsibilities and commitments to their children.

She could get wild as hell, then pull it all together to show up for media interviews, professional appointments, her job as a waitress, etc. When she had to step back to handle work or family matters, she didn’t make commitments she couldn’t keep and drop the ball. Wishing she coulda written me a manual on that one.

When our crew held a campout out in front of prison work camp for 10 days, Karen would come after a late work shift to sleep at the camp, roll out of a tent first thing in the morning with a bullhorn in hand to yell raw, unfiltered rage at guards and shout encouragement to prisoners, then drink some coffee and head back to town to the Sunday brunch shift at 706, where she worked for the past 15 years, till they closed for COVID-19.

I know, I told you, it sounds like the kind of things you say to kiss someone’s ass after they’re gone. And she would surely be annoyed by praise like this, but ask around, these are the stories you’ll hear over and over, from people who met her once and people who knew her for decades.

So many times over the past several years I watched in awe at her ability to connect with people and inspire them to action, in many cases just with a paper, pen and stamped envelope. At prison demos, when we were close enough to establish that those inside could hear our bullhorns, she would often say “this is Karen Smith, call us, write our PO Box. Let us know how we can work together.” And they would. On the occasion where someone made the unwise decisions to write something sexist or disrespectful, Karen would tell them firmly to cut that shit out. And they listened. She could command respect like that, even from someone she never met in person.

At any given point in a day, she might step away from a conversation with you to take a phone call, and come back having coordinated a legal defense strategy with someone sitting in solitary. By the end of the day there would be a phone zap going to support their fight for law library access, better sanitary conditions in the kitchen or getting moved out of solitary…

And she could blow a vuvuzelas loud as hell! Its a skill that really should become a prerequisite for all prison abolitionists. Now I’m going to need someone else to try teaching me, again.

Being in her presence had the feeling of working along side a legend, those who got letters from her on the inside will say the same. Perhaps the highest compliment to her work is knowing so many wardens and prison staff across Florida and beyond have cursed her name, surely wondering themselves if she was a real person or some fictitious, omnipresent force out to kick their ass.

In the last conversations we had, we were planning on how to escalate the national #CagingCOVID campaign we created together over the summer with Nation Inside. In her last hours, she helped a friend and homestead-mate on creating a hiphop video highlighting prisons, police and food justice (she was part of an effort to get free produce into the neighborhoods of southeast Gainesville). The last images captured from her life are videos of her dancing around a raging bonfire draped in a protest banner while an effigy of the Florida prison system burned to the ground. Seriously.

Now we get to carry her work of toppling the prison system foward, and though it’s daunting, it truly feels like an honor to be part of that legacy. With her memory and her spirit to drive us, we will fight inside and out, harder than we ever imagined possible, till the walls come crumbling down and every cage is reduced to ash, as were the slave plantations and factories that came before them.

This is a poster by DeLesslin George-Warren, a queer artist, researcher, and organizer from Catawba Indian Nation. I think Karen would have appreciated it.

Below is a collection of articles and photos that give a glimpse of her work against prisons in recent years, including stories about her, quoting her or highlighting some people and issues important to her. She was also involved in other efforts that are not touched on here, for example, she worked in a domestic violence legal clinic. If you search “Karen Smith, prison strike” you’ll find dozens more. But her efforts go back much further than this. When I come across any paper copies of her zine “10-20-Life” from the early 2000s, or pictures from the free food program she was part of then, I’ll post more links and pictures. I think I also have a news clipping somewhere from when she got arrested for allegedly spray painting anti-capitalist graffiti in Lake Worth with her crust punk crew back in the day!

“Movement Against Prison Slavery Ramps Up With Operation PUSH in Florida,” by Brian Sonenstein, Shadowproof

“A week-long prison strike started Tuesday. Here’s how Gainesville activists prepared,” by Jessica Curbelo, The Alligator

“From the Ground Up: Panagioti Tsolkas and Karen Smith are Organizing Environmental Justice for Prisoners,” by Deeva Gupta, The Fine Print

“Activists protest against ‘toxic’ Franklin CI,” Lois Swoboda, Apalachee Times

“Prison Abolitionists Shut Down FDOT Offices Leasing out Unpaid Prison Slaves,” by FTP, Its Going Down

Support Julius Smith”, by Florida Prisoner Solidarity

“Skating on: Life after a 15-year prison sentence,” by Patrick Gross, The Alligator

Operation PUSH timeline,” by Florida Prisoner Solidarity

Strike Camp,” by Marcelo Rondon, The Fine Print

“Gainesville Activists Support National Prison Strike,” by Vincent McDonald, WUFT (NPR-affiliate)

AUDIO/VIDEO INTERVIEWS WITH KAREN

Final Straw Radio, interview on Operation PUSH prisoner strike

Its Going Down podcast: Inside, Outside, All on the Same Side

Kite Line Radio, November 27, 2020: Careless With People’s Lives- Violence & Neglect in Florida

Karen on zoom panel “Prison Slavery, Here and Today: Disentangling UF from Prisons”

Karen’s comment on GEO Group blockade, Boca Raton, Dec 3, 2019

The Election vs. The Resistance

Thoughts on anarchist movement strategy and liberation struggle during the electoral cycle

By Panagioti Tsolkas / Antistasis Project [updated 1/6/21]

(You can also find a shorter, tighter version of this essay here as well.)

Engravings by Greek artist Thomas Molos, 1921 – 2009

Spoiler Alert: Neither an anti-voting rant or a political endorsement

For those of us who pay attention to politics and social movements, being days from an election like this can feel like being just far enough away from a destination on the horizon to tell if its a revolution or an apocalypse coming up ahead. Do we speed up? Stop and rest? Find some other way around?

For those who are not inclined to read something this long, let me summarize it real quick: get the hell out there over the next few days and talk to your friends, family and neighbors about what’s going on around us, and prepare to raise hell, if needed, over the outcome of the election.

In my earlier days of community organizing, I once tried to explain to my Spartan papou1 why I was an anarchist. He didn’t believe me. He didn’t just try to talk me out of being an anarchist, he tried to convince me that they didn’t actually even exist, that they, we, were actually just a figment of some capitalists imagination, functioning as a bohemian distraction or worse an agent provocateur for some counterrevolutionary purpose.

Later in life I came to realize he was probably just regurgitating opinions from the communist newspapers he still read with great loyalty up until his last days, even after all these decades past his time as a guerilla in the trenches of the Greek antistasis and civil war. But his position intrigued me much more than the dry analysis in books by V.I. Lenin (books I had also read). Even if we didn’t agree, he lived a resistance in a moment when the stakes are as high as they can get.

I bring these things up for discussion now on the precipice of a major U.S. election, because I think there is value in this moment, while politics and its social impacts are on peoples’ minds, to look deeper at what’s happening around us and what role we can play in upheavals across the political spectrum.

Let me be clear about my papou’s opinion on anarchists. It was, and in some ways still is, a popular conspiracy aimed at suppressing one movement in favor of another. It played out to a brutal end in places and times like Kronstadt in 1921, Barcelona in 1936. Being that the strategic use of conspiracy theory has once again come front and center as a prominent social force, I think its worth dissecting it in the current context.

On the far-right end of the political spectrum, we’ve been seeing a whole mess of conspiracies tossed out, in hopes that they distract and divert enough attention to affect the direction of society: Democrats are pedophiles and communists, the uprisings against police abuse are orchestrated by actors, Biden has a body double, Obama had no birth certificate, that pizza shop near D.C. was an underground sex slave exchange, etc.

Its bigger than influencing the outcome at the polls (though that is certainly one goal.) I think its more about controlling the narrative of resistance.

As an active part of anarchist movements and various grassroots social change efforts more generally over the past two decades, I feel pretty confident saying that we’ve had a major failure to inspire an affinity with the concept of resistance broadly enough to reach the apolitical people or folks on the fence with their affinity to a party or philosophy. These folks, many of who were chanting “we are the 99%” during Occupy Wall Street, have been lured into the façade of Trump as a rebellious option.

Of course, its not just Trump’s well-oiled conspiracy-theory social media propaganda machine to blame. Everyone with a brain knows the Democratic Party is also full of shit, pushing a neoliberal economic agenda, throwing us some bones to pacify people. Its just the better option at the moment, at least for all who want to curtail the slide into fascism and retain some basic protections (i.e. reproductive health, labor unions, public assistance) as well as generally create space for pushing social and ecological justice struggles forward.

—————————————-

A little history break real quick: October 28, 1940, this week 80 years ago, marked the anniversary of Oxi Day (pronounced ‘oh-hee‘), when Mussolini’s fascist forces were refused entry to Greece. It was a loud and clear message that some people weren’t going to step aside for the march of far-right totalitarian political regimes seeking to expand their control into surrounding countries. 

The modern day celebration of this holiday can get confusing, with its hypernationalism and flag-waving from a country that, for the past 10 years, had literal neo-Nazis elected to parliament seats. 2

Despite that, the decision to refuse Mussolini a peaceful passage towards expanding his new Italian empire across the Balkans and North Africa stands as an important moment in the collective partisan resistance that played a huge role in defeating the ideology represented by the Italian fascists and German Nazis.

As we know, it didn’t disappear, but it was driven back into the margins, and dispersed across the planet, where it has remained, bubbling up occasionally like a festering wound. 

Four years ago, that lingering infected sore on humanity saw a major entry point through extreme nationalism and ego-mania of Donald Trump, generally re-branded as the Alt-Right or Western chauvanism.

No, I’m not saying the U.S. Empire is currently in a fascist or totalitarian condition. But it’s impossible not to be thinking about what this means for us today, as we see similar rhetoric surfacing, talk of refusal to accept election results, paramilitary nationalists killing people in the street during uprisings against racist policing.

Over the past four years, the word resistance made its way into mainstream discourse under the current presidential administration with greater prominence in this country than decades prior, arguably since the partisan movements surrounding WWII. 3

Since Trump’s 2016 campaign, groups that usually tended towards online petitions and political endorsements began using the rhetoric of resistance in stickers, shirts, coffee mugs, etc.

Having spent years as part of small-scale resistance movements in the U.S.4 and watching this development with much interest, I think there is a lot of potential coalescing around this willingness to embrace the concept of resistance. Sure, there are some elements of co-optation and insincerity that are frustrating, but much more so, there is an opening of space for pushing a deeper level of social change in the direction of liberation, equality and ecology. 

Now that the concept of resistance has moved from fringe towards center, we have a chance to shape an understanding of it in front of a wider audience than perhaps ever before in this country, in a domestic context. Because resistance isn’t just about engaging in conflict, it’s about incorporating a principle of defiance into daily life, exercising it until it becomes a natural reflex, a response to injustice and oppression, both felt and witnessed, against people, places, cultures, ideas. Eating, breathing, sleeping, loving, resisting. Developing the courage to embrace resistance means placing it among the bare necessities.   

There’s not a need to rehash the obvious rise of neo-Nazi politics since Trump’s election. It’s been belabored enough. It’s irrefutable that he has been blowing a dog whistle long and hard to gather support from the dregs of white supremacist organizations who are attempting to “unite the right” under fascist ambitions, and largely succeeding, sparking a resurgence neo-Nazism parading as populist patriotism. The immediate praise from Greece’s Golden Dawn party should have been a clear indication for anyone who was doubting it. 

As a former Golden Dawn elected official and disgraced spokesperson, Ilias Panagiotaros, said to a reporter in 2016, “Trump is the planet’s keeper. He’s the president of the world’s superpower, and whether you like him or not, his policies are now validating beliefs and concerns across the globe.”

He continued, “Trump’s policies have given us a new wind of support. It’s validating and reinforcing our nationalistic and patriotic policies — policies that we have been advocating for years.”

The more important conversation is what we do from here.

It’s obvious that the movement to oust Trump by election is an important part of the process unfolding before us. Even for an anarchist like myself, who doesn’t feel any draw towards overly-glorifying electoralism and the façade of democracy it provides,5 a vote contesting Trump is worth the minimal effort it requires. But our strategic thinking and planning must be dynamic and visionary enough to see beyond November third.

Regardless of the electoral results, joining in on this moment to counter what Trump has mobilized (with his massive campaign of social media conspiracy theories that place him as a savior) is an opportunity to take part in a community organizing effort with the people most likely to be getting masses out into the street if Trump loses and refuses to leave, or wins and continues to call on paramilitary far-right support to repress the steady flow of uprisings occurring against his police, prisons, pipelines, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.

The next few days of canvassing, phonbanking, poll watching, etc. are worth including in our diversity of tactics with the primary strategic goal of dispersing the neo-Nazis that have rallied around him back into the margins. 

Alongside that, while the Democratic Party leaves much to be desired for those of us striving towards liberation, recent movement history shows quite clearly that larger gains are made under less repressive U.S. regimes. Global justice organizing, climate justice mobilizations, immigrant solidarity, these are the things we develop further when not playing defense against the heavier flow of racism, sexism, war mongering and bigotry that tends to accompany Republican regimes more intensely.

I hear from friends and comrades about a fear that a defeat of Trump could lead to a laziness or apathy that would slow the momentum of movements that are energized by facing off with Trump. To that I name a few specific examples: Occupy Wall Street and the explosion of a housing justice movement; #NoDAPL, Tar Sands Blockade and the rise of anti-pipeline struggles; the immigrant solidarity push for DACA, the DREAM Act and the release of low-priority deportations; the growth of prison abolition and the unprecedented 2016 prison strike. These were all moments where social movements were able to have their organizing in the streets shape policy and public opinion on critical issues, under Democratic Party administrations.

A massive energy infrastructure plan was halted and federal contracts with private prisons had been cancelled in the year before Trumps took office. He reversed those decisions almost immediately. The DAPL construction continued. Prison industry stock shot back up.

Reaching back to the ‘99 Seattle WTO protests and other anti-globalization uprisings, our organized resistance unified groups across broad coalitions to push economic changes at a fundamental level. Even though President Clinton was a pusher of NAFTA just a few years before, the movement on the streets was able to grow in a way that was almost immediately stifled in the second Bush era, where contesting a policy of endless wars for oil (under the guise of combating terrorism) consumed so much of activist energy for two terms, that the fight to shut down corporate globalization summits took a back seat to the RNC convergences.    

We can and should use the last remaining days till the election, and likely the days following it if results are contested, attempting to secure a strategic outcome of a less repression condition and a less ripe scenario for further growth of fascist-style politics. In doing so, we develop relationships and prepare for a very real possibility that Trump makes good on his expressed intent to stay in his position despite ballot results.

If Biden wins, we get some breathing room for planning to crash every economic summit, blockade every pipeline, defund every police department and leave every prison is ashes.

In the weeks and months ahead, regardless of the election outcome, anarchists will have the task of both radicalizing disappointed Dems and peeling away Trump supporters as the haze clears from their brain and they realize what they helped usher in.

All that is not to say that grassroots movements in the streets can’t or don’t make gains under Republicans. Because of course, we spent much of this year proving that we sure as hell can. We turned out massive crowds amidst a pandemic. We saw the burning down an entire police station, and rebellions in dozens of cities force real conversations about cutting bloated police budgets (Note: Police department appropriations generally account for the largest share of the budget in 35 of the 50 largest cities). We watched the tearing down of Confederate and colonialist statues and the blockading of border wall construction in so-called California and Arizona all calling into question centuries of white supremacy and ecocide.

An election versus a resistance is not an either/or dilemma. It’s about looking at what we can make out of what we have to work with. In other words, an election is an event, resistance is a commitment.

FOOTNOTES

  1. My grandfather was Spartan, as in from Sparti, but he was also a throw-the-baby-off-the-cliff kinda guy. Passionate about politics and revolution, but hard to get along with.
  2. Not to mention that the defeat of fascism saw the rise of a neoliberal economic model that also relied on massive repression and global exploitation to sustain (or that the brutality and racism of those groups was largely inspired by the Manifest Destiny delusion that drove the westward expansion of the U.S. empire).
  3. In those instances, the resistance being referenced was usually something in other countries, describing confrontational groups usually with an anti-fascist or anti-imperialist focus, a radical analysis and direct action tendency.
  4.  For example, anarchist direct action groups such as Earth First!, which uses disruptions, blockades and sabotage to defend people and the earth from corporations, as well as support political prisoners captured by the state which accommodates the economic interests causing the damage.
  5. In the bigger picture, the power of the globalized economy, the Dictatorship of the Market, has so much more influence over this nation, and the planet, than the items or candidates on any ballot. On a smaller scale, the absence of democratic participation in places most people have to spend their work week or a majority of the money they earn (rent, food, etc) also exposes an absence of democracy in daily life.