An Interview with Ashanti Alston
by Team Colors
(get the PDF)
Team Colors: To begin, could you speak about some of your early life experiences and how they have affected you?
Ashanti: I’m from Plainfield, New Jersey and I was born 1954. I come out of a Baptist and Hebrew family. There was a split in the church at one point, so my family was basically Hebrews, they didn’t call themselves Jews. My father and others decided that they wanted to be Baptists, so my father and his family became Baptist. But my mother’s side is still Hebrew. So I come from that kind of background and I still got both in me. I’m the baby of the family. I, a lot of times, blame my family for who I became; they claim they don’t know. I’m like “Listen, you all loved me and stuff…” Coming up, my father was a Baptist minister, and my family’s always the type that would be helping people. [My father’s] ministering to people, and I really admired him, and we’re always helping people.
So the ‘60s came along and I’m seeing the Civil Rights movement stuff, and I’m curious. I was already struggling to understand Malcolm X when the ‘67 rebellions happened in Plainfield. People took over the community. That was profound. It was profound also to see the National Guard come in with troops and tanks, took it back over, and they took it over kind of brutal. That was my entry. I wanted to be one of them black revolutionaries. After that I was reading everything I could.
I wasn’t a great reader, but I was struggling with Malcolm X autobiography. The more I struggled through Malcolm X, the more I understood. I flipped from page to page. I didn’t read it cover to cover. I got little bits here and there. And at the same time here’s Plainfield, here’s the news, here’s what’s going on in Africa, and the anti-Vietnam war stuff. So we found ourselves in junior high school fighting for black history — there was no black history. There was two junior high schools in my hometown, and at both junior high schools, led by Plainfield High School, the black students left and marched down to City Hall and demanded black history. By the next school year we had black history. So black power — a la Stokeley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown — had us trying to understand self-determination. How to implement black power in the schools. Winning black history was the first sweet taste of that.
By ‘69/’70, me and my best friend David (who was then Stagoles and is now Jihad Mumit) started finding out about the Black Panther Party, and we wanted to know more about them. We all respected Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, but that non-violent resistance, we couldn’t get with it. So something more aggressive was for us. I mean, black power was aggressive, but the Black Panther Party was openly saying, “We’re arming ourselves; we’re going to do all this, but we’re going to do this with arms.” We wanted to find out more about the Black Panther Party…
Plainfield, New Jersey is a small town in New Jersey between New Brunswick and Newark. So we would go travel to Newark, Jersey City, and then to New York to the different chapters; talk to people, pick up papers. Sometimes they would let us attend political education classes. When it became more frequent they’d let us sell papers at a certain point. Then when we had enough folks that we thought we could do a chapter, they actually helped us start a chapter. It was a whole process though, it wasn’t simple. They had to work with us.
At a certain point, like from junior year in high school going into senior year, we had an office, we had another storefront, we had a free clothing program, we had helped tenants organize against landlords, we was on the streets every night in the most crime-ridden areas of Plainfield’s black community and in the high schools doing party work. There was a black student union in the high school. Stagoles (David Bryant, and now Jihad Mumit) was part of the leadership. So we was pretty effective. But then the cop gets killed, and they tried to pin that cop on me and Stagoles, as we were the main organizers of the Plainfield Black Panther Party. From there it was being in jail for like 14 months. The last four months was the trial, and everything came out in the trial. Our lawyers showed the typical frame up stuff and actually convinced an all white jury — and we didn’t think that was going to happen either — that we were innocent. When the decision came down in the end, we didn’t think that they was gonna do that, but they acquitted us. But all during that time, our mindset was like, “We wasn’t scared” — we were prepared. Because we knew what happened to Huey Newton, we knew what happened to Fred Hampton just two years before, maybe just a year and a half before. Panthers [were] getting framed in other places, so we knew it could happen to us too. So all during that time, it’s like we were educating ourselves, trying to get out of this jail.
This was in ‘71, 14 months, we got out in 1972; we got arrested in October ’71, just one month into our senior high school year. So when we got acquitted the police was making threats, so our families wanted us out of Plainfield. So I went down south to Greensboro, North Carolina and David went to Rochester, New York. I stayed down there for 6 months, and then I’m back. And then we’re re-organizing the chapter. But at the same time we had lost a lot of members; Newark, Jersey City, New York chapters lost a lot of members. At a certain point I was back and forth between New York and New Jersey. At some point there was Panthers who were also Black Liberation Army (BLA) members who were facing the death penalty in California, but they was locked up in New York accused of a San Francisco police department ambush. So I was approached to become a part of the BLA, specifically to get them out before they were shipped back to California.
So I’m like 18/19. My girlfriend, who was also a member of the Panther Party in my hometown, she was pregnant. So for me, I had a lot of thinking to do. I’m 18/19, I still want to be around for this child, I’m still feeling like ‘I’m ok. I’m getting ready to be a daddy,’ but was still feeling like we could make this revolution happen. Even though it was clear that movements in general were on the decline; the FBI and all that stuff was doing their job and we were losing support, people were backing away from us. But we felt, too, that with what we understood of guerrilla warfare… you know, it’s kind of like the foco theory with Che and Regis Debray, the guerrillas can help bring that movement back. So we felt like maybe we could— from the underground —help to fortify them chapters that were still functioning. Help to bring other people back if we could bring up the spirit of people. This is in ‘72/’73.
At some point I came back to them and said “I’m ready to join,” and I brought one of my comrades with me; he was about a year younger than me. I was 19 and he’s about 18 or 17 years old. So here we are getting integrated into the BLA, but at that time we’re still doing above-ground work and underground-work. For me, it was helping to keep the Harlem office open — with Nat Shanks, Bernice Jones, Frankie Ziths and others — making sure the breakfast program is running, keeping the office functioning with people coming in and out, and then also doing the work in my hometown. But as the underground cell got more into our work, then it was mainly doing more underground than above, trying to prepare to get these folks out of the Manhattan House of Detention — the Tombs.
So we had a couple of plans. None of them worked, but we tried. One plan was, we had word that there was a tunnel that led up under the Manhattan House of Detention. So we went to the area where the information said you could lift up a manhole cover and go down, and we did that. There was no tunnel. But it was the wee hours in the morning down in the court area. Some John Q Citizen saw these black folks down there and called the police. So while one of the members was coming up out of the sewer, here the police come and arrest us. They don’t quite know who we are yet, or what we’re up to. But when they do find out who we are, front page— I think it was the Daily News, or one of them —they called us ‘the sewer rats.’ They called us BLA sympathizers and they thought we was trying to get into the building right outside the sewer. The building outside the sewer was the Department of Corrections building, where they have all the files of all the prisons in upstate New York. So that’s where they figured we was going; we just got some good information, I wish we knew that. But the only thing they could really charge us with was tampering with city property. So they had us in Rikers Island, and then they let us out on our own recognizance. They eventually just dropped the charges. We went right back to work.
We had to figure another way to get them out. They were the ‘New York 5’ at the time and they was on trial for some ambush in New York. Everyday we were allowed to bring them food. Bringing them food meant that after they was brought from court (the court was in the same building that the jail was in), we would bring a bag of food— we gave it to the guard, they checked the food and passed it over to the prisoners. So everyday we’re signing the log sheet, who we are and everything, take the food, and have a little chit-chat. But on this particular day we had already figured out we would have to go in with an acetylene torch and cut a hole in this metal wall where the visiting room is. It was like a solid metal wall, glass window, telephone and you talk through the telephone. So on the day that we went in, when we to pass over the food, we didn’t quite pass it over; we opened up the bag like we was going to let them examine it, but we pulled out our weapons. We locked the guards up in the bathroom, went to the visiting room floor and commenced the cutting. I was the one who was cutting, but I wasn’t an experienced cutter. By the time I almost had it all cut, the oxygen tank ran out. There was about two inches to go and I couldn’t cut no more. On the places where the metal was hot and dripping it would kinda almost re-seal. So we couldn’t kick it. One of the sisters wanted to shoot it. We just had to like look at them behind the walls and say “we gotta go.” But if we would’ve been successful, we would have had four BLA soldiers out, and probably all the other prisoners who was out for visits at that time too. They would’ve probably came out too. But as easy as it was for us to go in and do it, it was as easy to get out of there. So we planned it pretty good.
The thing we had going for us was their arrogance of power. They would have never thought some black folks would dare to come up in there and attack in the inside of their fortress. So we knew we had that. So after that we’re fully underground — this was in ’74, the sewer thing was at the end of ‘73. The attack on the Tombs was April 17, 1974.
During the course of a bank expropriation in New Haven Connecticut, during the shootout, three of us were captured. So that’s when we got time. I ended up doing a little over 11 years, and once I got out I ended up doing 10 months for a parole violation. I guess that’s the beginning — it’s like, I learned through practice. I was always encouraged to read and always encouraged to practice. The Panther Party’s whole thing was theory and practice, theory and practice.
When I look back on it, I’m like, you know, yeah, we was young and inexperienced, but we also understood that we gonna learn as we go. We read a lot of Mao Te-sung and we had his Little Red Book, so there’s all kinds of really great quotes. One of them that a lot of us followed was that, he would say, “A fall in the pit is a gain in the wit,” and he would say too, “Fight, fail, fight until you win.” There was this whole thing that about, you don’t have to everything perfect. You don’t have to have the theory perfect before you act. And I think this was Che Guevara too, it’s like act and in the process you will learn. You got theory, that will change too as you go, you will learn more instead of you just sitting back theorizing. That’s how I learned. For me that was some of the most important stuff I learned in the Panther Party: you don’t have to wait.
Team Colors: So what year were you sentenced?
Maybe ‘75. The bank thing was two trials. The bank itself was federal, and the two cops that were shot were State of Connecticut. So we had two trials, we had the Federal trial first, and then we had the State trial.
Team Colors: So by ‘74 and ‘75 mass movements are starting to wane. Around that time the New York City fiscal crisis is starting as well. You’re directly involved in militant organizing at a time when mass movements are waning and the City is going into crisis, which meant that things in New York are really tough. What was your experience around that — and the decomposition of that movement — coming from a revolutionary moment?
It was not only that that I remember, but it was also when the oil prices that shot up from the Arab nations’ oil embargo. I remember that so clear. But for us too, because our support base was not there anymore, it meant we had to do a lot more expropriations. Even the expropriations, we had to have money for places that we were living, for food and transportation. Those sources that we generally had were drying up; either into legal stuff, or to people who was getting so intimidated that they was just backing up. But one of the good things about living collectively was even during the economic crisis, collective living is one of the best things you can do. You’re sharing expenses and cutting down on so much, because you’re living in what we called “Panther Pads” or “Underground Pads.” Your expenses is like really down. You can’t afford to get extravagant, you can’t afford to buy any luxuries, even if that luxury is a bottle of wine, though sometimes that happened. But that’s pretty much how I remember dealing with that.
It’s like when all around you see that people are really suffering. I just [as of this interview] came back from Florida, and so I went to their library and I’m going through the New York Times. I was reading this one article dealing with the BLA. The police had came across this one house in Brooklyn that was probably a pad, and it had a lot of weapons in it. They got wind of it, raided it and got the weapons. It was interesting that the person who wrote the article interviewed people in the neighborhood. A lot of people in the neighborhood were saying that the newspapers were going to blame it on the BLA anyhow. But people were saying that, “Yeah they may blame it on the Black Liberation Army, but look at what’s going on.” And they was talking about no jobs, all this other stuff. And that they could make that connection with what the BLA was trying to do. I said, yeah I remember so much of that, when I tell people that there was times where it felt like the community was backing us.
They backed the Black Panther Party, but the BLA was a little harder because we wasn’t just defensive anymore, now we’re going on the offensive. It was like when them police was getting hit for shooting people in our community, people did understand; or if they heard about these bank expropriations and stuff, you know, people did understand. Even though it was at the end of a movement, I think people still had enough feeling of community and struggle to kind of put some context to it. So, I think it helped in the sense that when the community was going through some struggles, they didn’t just dismiss the Panther Party or BLA, even though like… this is in 1973, even in’73 it was rough. Seventy-three and ‘74 even financially, it was rough. The community was going through a lot. It was probably a high point in bank expropriations in general, not just [for the] BLA. But everybody seemed to have been hitting the banks, everybody seemed to have been doing stickups. Because it called for something. So, a lot of that is the type of stuff I remember.
Team Colors: On an emotional level, what was it like to be involved in militant activity while larger movements are waning?
Knowing that we were suffering? I think we knew things was falling apart after the death of George Jackson in August, ‘71. A lot of the Left didn’t support us anyhow. Weather Underground folks did, folks that were in that tendency within the Students for a Democratic Society, the Nationalist groups always supported, especially BLA. I think always had critical support for the Panthers because of the fact that we were dedicated to the black community. But damn man, it was like, with the arrests, with the shoot-outs, with the media constantly bombarding the community; newspapers was like ‘”we’re thugs, we’re murderers,” we’re all of these things. It had some effect. I mean people was like buying into that stuff obviously. But some of the stuff that the FBI and the local police, like New York City had the Red Squads, stuff that they were doing, who knew? We said we knew, we said, but the reliance on mass media was still there. It was like this ideological battle on that level. We was losing that, and that was a big part of what was drying up our support. And plus the fact that when the police was coming in the community and so-called looking for us, they would terrorize a whole neighborhood. Like, when they was looking for Assata and stuff, it wasn’t just one person. They would make sure, if it was a [housing] project, they’re gonna make everyone in that project pay. They’re gonna harass everybody. So the thing would be “See what the Panther’s are causing, see what the BLA is causing, bringing down on us.” So all of that was happening.
Like I said before, we studied guerrilla warfare, we look at the North Vietnamese. The guerrilla warfare going on in Vietnam, we looked at the guerrilla struggles going on in Asia, Latin America. We were highly motivated by the Tupamaros, Carlos Marighela’s For the Liberation of Brazil, Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution. We was looking at the guerrilla movements in Quebec, Italy, Germany, and Ireland for their urban examples. And it’s like all of them had their ups and downs. So we figured ‘ok, this is a down for us but we gotta figure out a way to bring it up.’ So like the foco theory? I do think that we was definitely influenced by the foco. Like, maybe if we can survive, maybe we can begin to have victories from the underground that keep people motivated. I mean, I don’t think we ever believed that we could lead it. But it was like, ‘we can inspire people just to see that we can still keep this system vulnerable, we can still show people it’s possible to strike and they can’t catch us, we can embarrass them, we can use armed propaganda, we’ll fund ourselves, we’ll hit them banks, all of that. Even with them dope dealers, we knew that hitting them dope dealers we weren’t just destroying their drugs, we were getting their monies too, which we would try to funnel into programs and different stuff like that. It was all with hope, maybe naïve, but it was all with the hope that we could keep it going.
But like ’72-‘76 we suffered a lot of losses from people being captured, killed or shut down in other ways; a lot of people just had to split. A lot of people they just had to lay low. Sometimes laying low also meant that you may not ever have gotten back to where you were going to be functioning again, because there was so much chaos and paranoia. The Split (in the Black Panther Party), I think, played a big part in terms of who you could trust. After the Split, it was like comrades that you knew who sided with the other side, you didn’t know anymore if you could go to them now as BLA and say “hey, we need this, we need that.” You tended to trust those who you were closer to.
So, it was a rough period, it was rough. I think it put a lot of tension on our relationships. I remember one time underground we were getting low on monies. The men wanted to go to get some wine, there was one strong sister in particular, with real strong feminist politics, who was like “y’all can’t do that.” And we talked her down, and went out and did it anyhow, because we wanted to loosen up. It did create tension within our group that the type of things like that was happening. Or you know, you’re pressing things to do stuff when it was a little bit uncertain about if we had everything in place. But like, yo, if it doesn’t look good, back up; why must our machismo make us still do it anyhow? I think when things like that happened was when we made some real mistakes and people either got captured, hurt, killed, you know. I think a lot of it was pressure of a movement that was on decline from local police, FBI, and then us, just not experienced enough at knowing how to deal with our internal relationships, really getting shaky. They were really deteriorating. For a lot of reasons, it caused some people to say like ‘hey, I gotta get out of this, I’m outta here.’
Team Colors: Often times it implied that the movements of the 1960s faded because of internal bickering. Where do you think popular struggles would have gone without state violence? Even more straightforwardly, do you think there was the potential for the overthrow of dominant systems and replacement with a new system?
Whether we would have really been able to overthrow the government?
Team Colors: In context of a revolutionary moment…
That might have been more ‘68 to ’70. So much was happening where it felt like the air was thick with revolution. You just had to be in it and you probably found yourself joining something. But after that it was much harder and it was more dangerous, that atmosphere was disappearing fast. But when it was there man, I mean, people were ready to throw their lives into this thing without even clearly knowing what the outcome would be, but just on the faith of this revolutionary spirit alone. I think after that, we still had the spirit, but it was more out of like ‘we have to do this because we’re getting ready to fail if we don’t.’ And something was missing. Then, you know, you’re calling on a lot of folks who you used work with, to say like “hey, c’mon man, what happened to you, why aren’t you down anymore?” And maybe not even want to accept their reasons for why they’re not, whatever their reasons were. At some point you’ve gotta step back and say “hey, it’s different, something is happening,” and say maybe we all need to step back. And some always choose to go forward, and maybe that was the wrong thing to do. I think we had the best of intentions, but maybe we should’ve all just stepped back, but for a lot of us to step back meant cowardice, so we didn’t. And then things happened, and then that movement falls and then a lot of us are in prison.
Trying to figure out even in prison how to keep this thing going, that’s hard from in prison. So like from when I went in ’74 — I go to prison in ’74 — I’m joining a whole bunch of other political prisoners, and everybody’s trying to figure out how to keep this going — you know, BLA, we were trying to figure out how to reorganize from within the prison, and get the forces on the street to reorganize. Because I think us being in prison was the first time that we was physically taken out of the situation, not by our own choice. But still, it’s a chance to reflect. So people are trying to work it, people are trying to figure out what happened, where did we go wrong? What should we have been doing? So we thought that maybe we wasn’t centralized enough. Because BLA did operate very autonomous-cell like, but for some it was like — and I think I was even part of that at the time — I agreed that maybe we need to centralize this more; maybe we need to get this together a little bit more, with a more ideological consolidation, so that’s what we were trying to do. And to some degree, some of that that worked, but we couldn’t never quite get back to where we were before.
So all through that, like from ‘74 to the early ‘80s, it was all about trying to reorganize this thing, but then on the street and in other ways, we’re reorganizing the BLA. But there was no more movement, there was no more mass-connected or community-connected movement anymore. So even when the Brinks stuff started happening, there was no community that was supporting, there was no community that you could withdraw into. So the FBI and Special Police Squads start coming after you, it’s a lot easier for them to start isolating you, figuring out where you at, and then come for you. And that’s what it felt like had happened in the early ‘80s, with the whole Brinks thing; so much broke down around then. We had to watch that from in the prisons.
Team Colors: One interesting thing you’ve written is:
“Either you respect people’s capacities to think for themselves, to govern themselves, to creatively devise their own best ways to make decisions, to be accountable, to relate, problem-solve, break-down isolation and commune in a thousand different ways … OR: you dis-respect them. You dis-respect ALL of us.”
If people have the capacity to govern themselves and make their own decisions, what role does the idea that people have to think a certain way or attain a certain consciousness have in movement building?
I think that when people interact around whatever their issues are, that they really share and dialog, there is the possibility to create a common page of understanding. There’s a chance to create a common page of action too. But people need to understand that what they’re creating… some other community around some other issues, they are already forming their own page of understanding and action. So in that sense we’ve gotta accept that there are going to be differences. If we can figure out that even with our differences, to still be on some page together, like “we know that we can’t be free with this empire over us. Can we figure out some way to at least be anti-that while we’re respecting each other’s uniqueness, or each others autonomous desire to create something better for the situation that we’re in?”
The consciousness thing is gonna be different. Part of the thing from the ‘60s, and maybe the Panthers is perfect for this too — the Panther Party comes into the scene, and they’re black nationalists. As it [the Panthers] struggles, its ideology is changing and it’s changing because it’s interacting with other readings and with other experiences. And reading from Mao and traveling to Cuba or China or Africa and checking out these movements and seeing what moves them, seeing what ideological motivations they’re operating off of, the Panther’s come back with these stories and you can see how it gets integrated every time the Panthers go somewhere and bring back new information or new readings, new thinkings… for me, the Panthers, you can see that we’re developing but its always with practice. I don’t know if we started calling ourselves the vanguard or others did, but at some point we started calling ourselves the vanguard. But, it was also a broad range of people being motivated and inspired by Panthers, from poor white folks in the Appalachian mountains, to Chicanos to Puerto Ricans, to folks from other countries. The good thing about it was that everyone was developing this kind of Panther type activity but from their own ground. Y’know… and then there comes the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention where all the groups are supposed to be coming together to theoretically rewrite the constitution for this new society and everybody’s supposed to be contributing. So this meeting’s taking place in Philadelphia or Washington DC, but it got closed down it started getting so big that the people who originally gave permission got convinced by the FBI “don’t let them hold it here.” This had to have been 1970. So the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention — great possibilities. But because the Panthers called it, and the vanguard mentality, the Panthers had too much fucking control in it. The women’s groups, the White Panthers Party, the SDS and all these other people here, bringing their contribution, but the panthers are pushing for too much control. So every group has their consciousness, but shit, why’s this one group trying to dominate the thing? Because we’d convinced ourselves that we had the right analysis, and that this revolution can’t happen unless we are in the leadership or it is following Huey P. Newton’s thought… but today, I look at how the Zapatistas are trying to do this. They’re saying, ‘well, lets just to create that space’.
And so different consciousnesses can come from different places can come to the space, and we can figure out the dialog, how to create a way forward that respects us all, that respects the different worlds that we come from. So for me, if that had happened back then in 1970, where would we have been right now? And for me, that’s such a better way to go, ’cause for the queer community, or the Yoruba community that may exist in Brooklyn, what’s best for them? Whether one is a small geographical community or tied to their ethnicity or dealing with a lifestyle, we should just be open to come together and see how we can do this in a different kind of way. That’s the challenge. We definitely didn’t overcome that in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s why we couldn’t pull it off — it created divisions, it created hostilities, that the FBI who had infiltrated us so much, knew what was going on and could play on the internal contradictions and the intra-organizational differences and antagonisms to the point where we start self destructing.
Team Colors: Do you think that the contemporary anarchist scene suffers from some of this ideological ’correct-line’ approach?
I think there’s some of it in the anarchist movement. For me it always comes up with the nationalism. I was just reading the latest Fifth Estate and I was reading something, I forget the name of the article, the writer was talking about nationalism and he used a real foul word with it. I was like “God damn, I’m a nationalist, however you understand that, if you want to know what I mean by it, let’s talk. So that you see that I’m not talking about creating no nation-state.” It hasn’t every really meant that for black people and a lot of other folks. It has been a way for people who have been oppressed by a racist system in a very racist way has created other people who have begun to take their own stories in their own hands, to try to create some self-determination, some autonomy. Do not automatically tie me in to European nation states. When you see what the indigenous folks are doing in terms of what they call sovereignty, don’t just take that and categorize it. Try to understand it.
So with me, even in the anarchist movement, even when you start dealing with nationalism or sovereignty or Puerto Rican independence, or even Chicanos who are fighting for what they see as the liberation of Aztlan, it ain’t for you to see whether that fits some old category. You really need some dialog so that you can see what it is they are fighting for… So now, you’ve got the Lakota, or at least certain factions in the Lakota, who have called for secession. Instead of you saying “Oh man, I can’t deal with this… more division,” you maybe need to take a step back and find out “what do they mean?” and see that this is a struggle for their survival and still an anti-neoliberal, anti-imperial struggle that you need to support, and it does not have to fit some preconceived set of categories that you’ve got. My hope for the anarchist movement is that there’s less of that than in some other movements. It’s still a struggle.
Team Colors: One thing we thought was remarkable about you was your mix of revolutionary traditions: Your dedication to classical anarchism, black nationalism, post-anarchism, and Marxism. In a movement that seems increasingly ideologically based, how do you find your positions in relation to these individual traditions?
Even with the word ideology, I don’t use it, ’cause I see ideology — and this is part of the postmodernist, poststructuralist thing — ideology comes out of having a set of answers for something. So even for me with my anarchism, I don’t think it’s classical. I don’t call myself an anarcho-communist or none of the others. There’s definitely anarchism that’s open to being in tune with always changing realities. For me, anarcho-communists got good points about certain things, primitivists have good points about certain things. Them two don’t get along, but I get something from both of them. I like some aspects of anarcho-individualism, and Tolstoy’s spiritualism. For most of my folks, my people are Christians or Muslims and increasingly Yoruba, Kemetic and other African religions that they’re recovering and using. I don’t want to be categorized as a particular school because I know if I do, the world I would hope to be created won’t have room for all kinds of tendencies of anarchism, or all kinds of tendencies of people living their lives according to their own terms. That’s why I like Marge Pearcy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.
So there’s certain things from Marxism that I like, which is basically the dialectical method. They can have the rest, ’cause I’m not on the working class as being the ones that we’ve gotta organize, and I’m not on their historical materialism where communism evolves, ’cause all of that comes out of that European rationalist mindset where science becomes so premier — that if someone doesn’t fit that, you justify in your mind that you either have to bring them in line with evolution and progress or you eliminate them. When I look at the Soviet Union and other so called communist and Marxist revolutions, I see what they’ve done to people who live close to the earth. But when I read Kropotkin and others I say, “well damn, they didn’t want to get rid of how people live who are close to the earth” — peasants or whatever. They were about respecting them.
But I do like that the dialectical method helps me to kind of stay abreast of the ever-changing world, but I don’t want their solutions when it goes into the historical or political because it did very poorly with race, with sex, and with environmental issues as well. That’s ok, ’cause in the Panther Party we were never taught to look at Marx like he was the shit. Our thing was, we looked at the lumpenproletriat. Marx and them looked at the working class, and every group that followed seemed like they had this religious canon. So it had to be the working class, no matter how much the United States has changed due to technology and other stuff, so a lot of Marxist groups looked at the Panthers like we didn’t know anything about Marxism and Leninism. They looked at us like we were kind of naive. So I learned early that I don’t have to take the whole Marxist picture. But some of it does work, and I think the whole idea of socialism and communism are great ideas, but they are ideas and they don’t necessarily have to unfold according to Western streams of scientific thinking, or that things HAVE to unfold according to the iron law of history or whatever. Some people have been living communistically and anarchistically for thousands of years. What are you saying? That they have to go through this development? No! And Marx didn’t even have answers for that shit. But I still take what I can from it, and I still take what I think workers, and anarcho-communism and syndicalists, I think workers should be running wherever they work. So there’s value in a lot of that for me. I just don’t want to be in that category that says “this is that magical class that’s going to bring about change.”
I’m more from like Marcuse and others — it may come from all kinda different places. It may come from the universities, it may come from the black community, it may come from the reservations, it may come from all of them rather than some pre-ordained class that, supposedly if you get this class organized and conscious of itself it will lead us to. Even with the Black Panther Party I mean, ’cause of me learning the poststructuralist stuff, I still identify with the lumpenproletriat, but I don’t look at the lumpenproletriat like it is THE class anymore. I still think it’s going to play a hell of a role, but that’s going to entirely depend on the revolutionaries within that class.
Because of these advanced technological societies, we are totally thrown out from having a relevant role to the means of production. We are like that irrelevant, throw-away class, like the Zapatista’s Mayan communities. But here we’re thrown out of industry. We’re increasingly either unemployed or underemployed. So it frees us in a sense so that we have time, like Marx says about workers, to think about what’s going on. And Malcolm X’s perfect examples of what the thinking lumpen can do. The street organizations (like the Young Lords) are perfect examples of what the organizing lumpen can do. For me, I want to be open. Don’t make me, even as an anarchist, don’t make me be tied down to something that seems to me so anti-anarchist that I just know that the power has to be with the people, that we have to get rid of hierarchical structures wherever we find them, and that we have to figure out how to create a world where all the different identities… where it’s possible for them to be who they are, and where it’s possible to have that world where everyone fits.
Team Colors: You’ve helped to bridge a predominantly white anarchist movement, a Zapatista support movement, and an anti-prison movement, which is predominantly of color. How have you seen your position as an organizer and communicator between these movements?
I think that it seems like my role is bridging more with the white anarchist communities… the Earth First! and animal liberation communities for quick terms right now. Where I also want to be is to bridge anarchist ideas and practices into my own black community and also into the academic world of radical academics who really could and want to play a big part in our struggle. That’s my desire. But even with the white anarchist community, I really feel like of all the groups, the anarchist mindset is still open to understanding all the different oppressions, that they’re not stuck on that it’s just the system out there and you have to change the system. Anarchists, I think, understand the power thing more than others, so for me there’s potential there. Already, anarchists will deal with movements that silence queers, folks of color, even on an age level — ageism, ableism. And when we start talking about how we have centered everything around us as human beings, I think that’s great shit. For that, I’m going to stay with the anarchist movement. I just want that movement to figure out more ways to be relevant to the broader communities.
I’m afraid of that, when people say to the ‘mainstream,’ and you’re talking about mainly that you want to convince mainstream white folks of something. But that process means you’ve got to keep watering down your message because you know they’re not going to just take it as it is. And in that watering down you keep losing what you’re really about in trying to appease that mainstream. That’s one of the dangers of what’s happening with Mumia and the Free Mumia Movement. I don’t want that to happen, even with the political prisoner movement. If you keep watering it down, its not the same message anymore, it’s not the same goals anymore. But I like bridging things.
Just like with me getting involved with Andy Stepanian and Daniel McGowan, and War Cry and others, it means, for me, I’m broadening my own understanding of the movements, and at the same time I’m constantly thinking about “How can I bring them movements into my community?” Also encouraging them to not just stay there in their community movement, where they’ve gotta constantly figure out how to get that message going into other communities so that they’re not insular. They’re really trying to figure out ways to communicate with folks and they’re not just staying amongst those who already know.
Animal liberation is a hell of a thing, to say “Look at what we have done as human beings, and look at how we have become the center of everything.” The postmodernist thing is decentering. We need to take ourselves out of the fucking center to see how we are related to all living things. This is challenging us to do a re-evaluation of “How do we get in this position? What does it mean for us to stay in it. What might it mean to change the relationship we have to all living things?” And this goes for the Earth First! folks, too. Sometimes it just seems like common sense that we should figure out how to love this earth that we’re part of, but then a movement comes along and says, “we’re not doing that well, we need to figure out how to save this planet.” So for me, it’s constantly figuring how my vision of revolution can get enriched. I’m taking in this stuff like decentering man, decentering human being, having a whole new relationship to all living things on this planet and where we are in the universe. It’s kind of common sense, but the Indigenous folks have been saying this for generations. People have been getting their inspiration from folks who’ve been living close to the earth forever. And we’re not just talking about folks of color, we’re talking about Indigenous folks from Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, to this continent here. They have all been close and have got some lessons for us to learn. I appreciate that. So my community, I want them to understand that this ain’t just white folks doing this — this is folks from all over the world, from all different lifestyles saying “yo, we gotta stop!”
We have to stop the machinery, even if it’s the machinery inside of us… to say, “What the fuck am I doing?” And then figure out how to hook up with others of like mind and like heart and organize so that in a massive way we can all stop the machinery and save this planet, let alone our individual lives — the ozone layer, the water, the pollution — it needs to really be more than who you are as this local person, and for me, that’s the potential of the anarchist movement.
Team Colors: What lessons can be shared between the movements you’re talking about? Especially during a time when the anarchist movement doesn’t seem to be engaged in substantial local organizing efforts.
I always encourage folks to get involved with local. Local is it. The thing I miss most about the Black Panther Party is the local organizing. This is where you go from reading all this stuff that motivates you, to interacting with people about what you’re learning and what they know. So we were reading all this stuff in the Panther Party, but the best parts were when we had to go out into the community ourselves without the Panthers there at our side.
At first they would walk us through stuff, “this is study groups, this is how we organize, this is how we rap in the community selling newspapers.” But then they would leave and it was on us to do the work. When we started really doing the work, you scared, even a little intimidated. But then you start talking and people start asking you questions like, “my landlord, he won’t fix this, and other people in the building have the same problem.” Then you have to learn tenant organizing so that you can show them. The effect is so great. You can share something with people in your community and they trust you. You don’t even realize how they’re looking at you — they’re looking at you like, “I’m proud of you, young person.” You can see in their eyes that they can finally see that they’ve got a way to fight back and you can see how it makes them feel. It’s really heavy stuff. Then you’re joining anti-war protests and encounters with the police and people in the community see that you ain’t even scared of them. You’re in some of the toughest areas — here’s the hustlers, here’s the pushers, here’s the stickup kids, and you can even relate to them. And they have respect, ’cause they see you there every day or every night, and you’re doing your thing, selling your paper, and there’s the Nation of Islam and the other groups, and everyone has respect ’cause they know that you’re part of this movement. You never realize the impact that you have.
Even with the anarchists, you’ve gotta do some local work. Even if it’s not your community, begin to interact. You don’t go in like when Paolo Freire talks about the ‘banking method,’ you go into dialog. You’ve got some information, you’ve go some things to share? Well, so do they. And in the dialog, you gonna see some points where you can begin to work together.
We had learned, even in the Red Book with Mao-tse-Tung. Certain parts of the Red Book, I feel like are very anarchistic. Like, the revolutionaries are supposed to go working in a community, they talk with people about what the issue is and kind of go back home with it, go over it, synthesize it, and work something out, go back to the people and say: “listen, I was thinking about this last night and this is what we came up with. What do you think?” They interact back with you until you actually get to an action program. It was the way we were supposed to integrate our lives into the community. When you read about the early Civil Rights movement, that’s what they were doing too. It was around voting and other issues like that, but white folks and northern blacks who were not part of the south, going down to the south was a whole new experience. But you had to go with a certain mindset, at least be humble. You knew you were going down there and it would be a totally different experience for you. But if the people see you consistently enough, and that you’re coming from here, they’re gonna respect you. A lot of them white folks that went down there, they was accepted into the community. A lot of the northern blacks and even northern Puerto Ricans and others were accepted because in the period of time that they stayed working with them day to day, eating the same way that the people ate, dressing the same way that the people dressed, a certain level of respect happened that allowed them to work together down there. Even if its not your neighborhood, you’ve gotta be dedicated where you really pull your life into this. You can’t just do it and then when it’s no longer in season you moving somewhere else or you through cause people ain’t treating you the way that you think.
It’s a tough struggle, but I think people respect honesty, they respect integrity. They wanna feel like you a genuine person, that you ain’t trying to be someone who you’re not, so if you talk intellectual they begin to accept, “oh, that’s how he talks, that’s how she talks.” They can accept that as long as you are there consistently and you’re demonstrating that you really are there to be a part of the struggle and to help any way you can.
Team Colors: Do you see the anarchist movement moving into that direction?
I see certain efforts. I don’t think it’s enough. Like here in New York, I think that are certain groups like New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists (NYMAA), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and 123 SPACE that, far as I understand, are doing some community work. Anarchist People Of Color (APOC) is not there yet, we’re still trying to figure it out, and getting active. Once you start figuring it out, you got to integrate, you have to start putting your life into that community where you’re at. Sometimes just the one you live in. Understanding each one of us is part of two, three, four, different communities. You’re not just one community. You’re a community where you live. You may be part of another community that’s your ethnic group or spiritual group, another community that’s your activist group. You got to learn to work all of those communities. The opportunity is there. Which means that you got ways to really start this networking process, where so many connections are being made where you actually becoming aware of your creative power. There’s so many people you’re connected with, where you can really see that you cover a wide area that you never even had an idea of. People need to see that.
Nothing beats community work. Nothing beats putting your life into something, getting in your mind that you’re going to change in the process too. Don’t think that you’re not gonna change. Zapatista Sub-comandante Marcos and them learned that. They were University people, going to create a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolution with the peasants in southeast Mexico and go down there. But they get humbled by the people of that area and have to learn to accept that their ideas may have some relevance, but so do the Mayan peoples’ idea. Your sciences may have some relevance, and so does theirs. And if theirs don’t look like yours, well that’s ok. You may even see how your ideas came about because they had their basis in the destruction of a lot Mayan culture or the oppression of Mayan communities where the Spaniards come in with their highfalutin ideas. Now the Mayans are like, “We got ours too. We can sit down as equals at the table. Not with you thinking you giving us something.” I think anarchists, when we talk about direct democracy and ‘horizontalism,’ a different way to relate to planetary life, they are going to find a lot people who agree with the same thing, but may be not putting it in the same language. There you’ve got a basis for the dialog, to maybe start working on these issues together. You don’t have to water down what you say, but you need to find a way to communicate to them in an honest and understandable way. Which ain’t talking down to them. You done got caught up in this elitist language that it becomes very difficult for you to talk in a communicating way. Maybe you’ve got to look at that like, “I just got so caught up in a language that opened up so many doors for me that I just lost my ability to just talk.”
Team Colors: What do you think it is that keeps so many anarchists from doing that work?
Fear. I think it’s fear primarily, but I think what also plays a part in that fear, and this may just be peculiar the United States… We have a hard time dealing with race and privilege. No one wants to say, “I’m from an upper middle class family, I’m pretty privileged. I was raised by parents and we were all raised pretty racist and I carry some of that stuff.” No one wants to say that. We just want it to work. It don’t work like that. Issues always come up. Race, Class, Gender, and I think the anarchist movement do that better than others, but we gotta do so much better in talking about it. You know the small oppressions or how gender oppression comes out of our behavior, or our thinking or racist oppression comes out of our thinking. We can really work this out if we put it on the table. We don’t have to know exactly how it’s going to turn out. Zapatistas — figure it out as we go. Ask questions. For me, it’s that point that I think I see American’s don’t like messiness. So when we feel like it’s going to get messy, we avoid it. By avoiding it, we hold ourselves beck from doing so much more. We just got to get to a point where it’ going to be messy. I’ve been in struggles where I tell people about the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The spokes-council thing when the folks of color came, there was a struggle and the struggle got intense, but it had to happen, folks of color had to make sure their voices were heard.
Team Colors: Can you elaborate on that?
What I remember is that when we came there, we knew that we was going to have to deal with the spokes-council, which seemed to have been dominated by white folks, white anarchists, and other folks. People had felt like there was some other spokes-councils where folks of color’s voices had not been heard. I wasn’t one of the people chosen to be on the spokes-council, so I wasn’t directly in the mix, but I watched the discussion. I watched some discussions happen, some back and forth that got really intense, some people cried. But they stayed in it. Folks of color wanted direct equal participation in everything from the strategizing, to tactics, to choosing which issues were being highlighted more so than others so that they would know their issues weren’t being put on the back burner by what could be a predominantly white decision making process. It did help for the activities the next day to shut down the convention. It helped it to go a lot better. Because I think the folks of color felt that their voices were heard that they were a significant part of the spokes-council, and their issues were going to be addressed. They gave me hope, because I saw the spokes-council structure work. Who knows, maybe something better will come up or it will be improved. But it showed me that anarchists primarily are the ones who were searching for better methods of inclusion.
Other groups don’t do that, they just don’t do it. From the nationalist groups to the Marxists groups, to the Left in general. They already come up with concepts of coalitions and it’s all figured out. One group will fight to be the vanguard — they ain’t looking for a lot of inclusion. They just think that stuff is messy. Or, we’ll never make a decision, so listen, “we need to make a decision right away, and the structure for that is hierarchy.” Just common sense to them, but here we are saying: “No, we’re going to make the space, it’s going to take some time, it may take a couple of days. But at least we all come out of this feeling like our voices was heard, our faces actually were seen and recognized, and no one was trying to make anybody feel like we’re invisible.” That’s our movement, and yeah, we could do better, but it’s ours. I think it forces other movements to at least try to mimic that stuff or at least give lip service to it. I think if it wasn’t for Seattle and democracy happening in the streets with the decision making happening just like that… This is new stuff that says we can do this differently. We can be effective. For me it means we can win. I’m there.
Team Colors: Looking at the current movement composition within the anti-prison struggle, Zapatista support, environmental justice movement, and anarchism, can you describe the current potential and problems that you see in those movements?
That’s a huge question. Anti-prison struggles. There’s an abolitionist understanding about a lot of them. It was definitely a new consciousness for me to come into an abolitionist understanding of the anti-prison movement. We are envisioning a society or a world without prisons. That used to be the banner written on Critical Resistance: “Once there were no prisons, that time shall come again.” That’s like, oh, OK, we ain’t just talking about reforming prisons or cutting down on them. We’re trying to figure out a society where we don’t have prisons at all. We understand the class nature, we understand how brutal they are, how anti-human they are. Let’s figure out what kind of world we want. For me it’s anarchism, ‘cause it’s saying that we’re not going to re-create structures that oppress people.
The Zapatista’s are trying to create a world, they don’t call themselves the anarchist movement. But they do so much that’s anarchistic. Some people were a little upset when they found out the Zapatista’s set up these, it might be a house, that when somebody’s drunk and they can’t seem to control them, they may just take this person and just lock them up in a house. Some people said, “Oh look, they’re not what I thought, they’re not anarchists. They’re using a prison-like system.” But for the Zapatista’s, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re not saying, “This is going to be a main feature in the society we’re trying to create, but we’re trying to figure it out. This is what we’re going to do right now.” Even with the Zapatista army, they’re saying, “Listen, it’s a hierarchal structure.” Though the juntas are really kind of anarchistic the way they are set up. They got this mixture thing going on, because they ain’t quite figured out how it needs to be. Because this army needs to be able to move quickly and effectively. So they set up a hierarchal structure. But they say that the community, in terms of making decisions, that needs to have everybody participating and taking their time. So they do that rotating thing where every two weeks people are coming on. My god, that’s anarchistic. They experiment. They’re this movement that probably for me comes close to what I think the Spanish Civil War was about, as far as anarchists go.
The thing is, the Zapatista’s don’t want to be pigeon-holed. Even with the thing with the little jail, transformative justice or restorative justice is concepts they obviously deal with. They trying to find ways to not just confine people, but bringing balance. They bring Mayan forms of justice to Western forms. They really are about bringing the balance thing, which falls more into the restorative justice or transformative justice… They’re really trying to figure it out as it goes. If a member of the community harms or even kills someone, they’re not going to bring them to the police, they’re not even arresting them to lock them up. They are going to sit them parties down and try to figure out how do we now bring balance or reparations back to the community that has been harmed. So the family’s representatives get together, the community’s representatives get together. It may be that because this person has harmed this person’s family’s ability to produce for themselves, you may now be required to produce for your family, you may be required to produce for the other persons family ’til they figure something out. The fact that they are even experimenting with that, it means they are not just trying to do things from the old way, from the old oppressive system.
So it has particular interest for me as an anarchist. I stay up on it all the time. They are posing questions that have always been hard for us. Even the one around the EZLN, the Zapatista army, the question that may have led to the defeat of the anarchists in the Spanish civil war… They were never able to figure out, “How do we defend, do we do a standard army, what do we do?” Maybe the decision around, well, “Maybe we shouldn’t,” made them vulnerable enough for the Communists and Fascists to just destroy them. I’m sure there’s folks within the Zapatista’s who are quite familiar with that, and are constantly figuring out how to deal with that question.
The other thing is in terms of the environmental thing, I think that we always gotta figure out: what is environ-mental justice when it’s related to a community that is predominately of color? What’s environmental racism? How does one bring justice to that type of situation? I think for us here in Harlem, Harlem’s got a lot of environmental racism, from where they dump garbage to oil spills to the air pollution to the automobile congestion and gas, the high levels of asthma and stuff… how would that be resolved in the interest of the people that live there? It poses some questions: We’re a pretty complex society. We can’t quite operate as if communities are insular and they can just make decisions as if they’re not connected to all these other structures. It makes us think about it… You don’t have to have it all together, but when it gets on the table you can be sure that people will find people that have given it a lot of thought and people who are involved in the day to day anti-environmental racism struggles that can offer key shit, that are already trying to do certain forms of organizing.
The job is not as difficult as a lot of times I think we believe it is. We basically have got all have the knowledge to create another world, if only we could be convinced of it. I used to go to the Institute for Social Ecology, I would sit in on some of classes. Some of the classes used to take the students outside to learn about herbs that we would just think of as weeds. I’m amazed at how the students know so much about these plants that grow right in our neighborhood that can be used for medicinal purposes or for food. They just learn this from being a part of the Institute for Social Ecology. There’s people we know who do alternative healing in the community. There’s people we know who know all about the climate change and the atmosphere. They’re not experts — they’re damn smart activists. We just need to convince ourselves that we know this stuff. We need to act more, so we can begin to take back our lives, not in that big cataclysmic way that the Marxists think it’s going to happen. But in the small ways that it generally always happens, until someone takes credit for it later on… Here comes the vanguard, and they’re like, “we did it.” We are always learning how to take care of ourselves outside of the system. It’s the same with all of this — we’re trying to figure out how to have justice without dialing 911. Critical Resistance was initiating that a few years ago. How to have justice without taking it to the injustice system. How to make decisions in different ways — we’re practicing this stuff every time we experiment.
Team Colors: So the new society erupts in the process?
Yes! That’s the way it happens. We just gotta convince ourselves we’re not alone in this. We know that people are doing this all around the world. When we start supporting the U’wa people, and all these other groups, that’s what they’re doing, they’re snatching their lives out of neoliberalism. We also doing it in our ways in this technologically advanced urban society called the United States. We just need to do more of that interconnected work. We need to realize that we probably have the power to change the world tomorrow. We’re the ones that need to be convinced, ’cause they’ve convinced us that we’re isolated, and we’re not. That’s why I love the animal liberation folks. All these actions, either free the animals or bring attention to it and don’t get caught — so what if it’s not in the New York Times. Their little magazines and other ways of communication, it does reach people. Even in the 1960s there was all kinds of zines. You could go somewhere and there was just racks and racks and racks of zines. They’re telling you about all this other stuff going on. You really felt there was a revolution going on.
Team Colors: You spoke about people realizing the power we have, what limitations do you see within these movements and places they need to address the lack of engagement?
I see the biggest limitations being around our fear of grappling with race, gender, and class. I think it’s the thing in the U.S. history of struggles that has kept us divided, and I think it’s the most difficult thing for us to confront and prepare to work through. I think when it comes down to it, if we can do better on that, we could propel forward, but those are the messy things. It’s our fear of dealing with the messy things that holds us back. One thing I think is important, and this is from my background too, people are afraid of consequences. I mean, I come out of the Black Panther Party. I am convinced that, I don’t care what, we’re not going to change this world or bring down this empire unless, like Malcolm X says, it’s gonna be by any means necessary. That expression means that we have to understand that this is a murderous system, it will kill it’s own momma. I mean look what happened to Brad Will… I don’t care that it was in Mexico, it’s still part of this neoliberal power grid. It will kill. It will lock up, it will frame, it will drive people insane. We have to have in our minds that it is war in that sense. We’re up against an enemy. At least a physical one we can identify, the people that support this system that we’re going to confront.
Sometimes we’re going to have to fight. I believe that we should- — and this is what Dhoruba bin-Wahad says — I believe that we should be preparing an underground all the time. Why do we wait for Fascism to drive us under? Why do we wait? With the anti-war movement, you know, people is not wanting to fight. They signed up, yeah, but they didn’t really understand and this consciousness hits them and they want out. We have no way for them to get out, ’cause we ain’t even trying to develop no underground. There should be something. There should be something for those communities who feel the need to develop an armed movement. Whether it’s the Lakota or whether its the black community or the Puerto Rican independence movement — how do we support the different struggles that diversely attack? Some groups are going to decide they want to implement armed struggle. We should have something. We should have something that we’re working on all the time. Because the law is against us. There are those who are going to use the law, but for the most part we should have a way to keep people out of the grip of the monster. We’ll help people disappear, we’ll get you somewhere, there’s doctors, people who know how to make ID’s. There’s some money here for you — go! I don’t think that we wait, I don’t think that in that sense our struggle is different from those who fought the Nazis during Hitler’s reign or Mussolini’s. We have to be clear that this is not a nice struggle. It can’t be won through legality. We can use legalities, but it can’t be won that way.
Team Colors: Do you think that the Left has the ability to take that on as an accepted notion?
I think the Left is going to fight it. I think it challenges the Left in terms of how comfortable the Left has gotten. Even with the Left, I don’t call myself a leftist, because the left and the right come out of a certain tradition. And in certain ways the left and the right are part of the same system. We have to figure out how to go beyond. A lot of people in the Left are caught up within doing things within a certain legality. It doesn’t make sense to me that you call yourself a revolutionary and you won’t even jaywalk. Or if you’re hungry you won’t even steal. Or you won’t support somebody else who has to or feels the need to. I think about that, you know? I want to deal with people who aren’t even a part of the Left. A lot of those people are ready to struggle to survive, and maybe take it beyond survival. If attracting people means saying “Hey you know your society has been fucked up from day one. The elections, the ability to get the latest cell phone, or music system, it’s a diversion. They’re gonna keep coming for you if you keep paying, maybe we should change the way that we live or the way we relate to this madness.” The system is not going to let people withdraw to the point where it threatens how the system functions.
Even to withdraw, it’s going to come after you. Is your idea spreading? Are other people trying to withdraw? They’re not going to let this happen if there is money involved. It’s profit and power. The movies on what’s really going on behind the scenes, where they send Blackwater type figures to take care of this and that, I think that’s based on what’s really going on. For writers and directors I think this is the only way they can get their own message out about what’s really going on behind the official walls of power. David Patterson just assumed the office of governor. He has to deal with that state police up there, which seems to be operating as this underground police force in the service of certain politicians. They’re a murderous crew, I think they probably will do anything. What happens when that’s directed towards activists on the streets?
I live everyday within my mind that one day they going to come after me. Being an enemy of the State, the State is going to send someone after me. Whether it be an official employee or a reactionary from the unofficial gangs who they send after me. For a person to kill me who’s of my own community is more depressing than if some white cop comes up and kills me. My community might then be enraged, just like Malcolm X, because it was black hands that killed him, that hurt. A lot. I live with that. I’m fine with that. They’re not going to just let us use the liberal aspect of their democracy to keep doing this. When we become effective, they’re coming for us.
I mean, at the last 2004 presidential election, I’m in Chiapas, Mexico for 6 months, I ain’t even doing anti-convention stuff. Nightline has a news report on anti-convention activity and 55 dangerous anarchists, and my picture is on there! I’m like, “ I ain’t even organizing this.” And I don’t mind… it’s an honor! They keep tabs. We can be very naïve about them staying on us. Then when they come for us, we think it’s somebody who infiltrated us. A lot of the time we’re very naïve and we ran our mouth off on the phone or talked to somebody who is an agent. When they come, they come. When they was coming for people as a result of the Green Scare, a lot of them was kind of naïve. When the state gets you, they going to put the pressure on. They’re gonna make it seem like everyone is pointing the finger at you, then you’ll start running your mouth about everybody else. Then here’s another slew of people getting ready to be political prisoners. How many people from the Earth First! and animal liberation movement backed up when them arrests and prison time started coming? Which is what the system wants. They ain’t going to stop with discouraging people, they will kill people. Fred Hampton is classic, but he wasn’t the only one. So many Native Americans was just disappeared. Clearly the FBI, CIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs. You are really putting your life on the line when you become a revolutionary. Revolutionary Catechism’s thing is, a revolutionary is a doomed man or a doomed woman… It’s really never left. In that sense I think that we have to take the struggle more seriously, ’cause when we don’t it’s a block in terms of what we do. What we are willing to do.
Team Colors: How can the community work you’ve been involved in — the Panthers, Critical Resistance, the Jericho Amnesty Movement — be used to critique the problems you’ve addressed?
Figuring out how to get involved with community struggles. That’s still number one. I would love for groups to begin to put the issue of political prisoners on their agendas in a prominent way. The issue of political prisoners forces people to think about what this struggle is about. These are the people who made the sacrifices back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. What does it mean that they’re locked up there and we pay them no attention as we still struggle to make changes in the United States. I think to connect with them brings needed history, it brings reminder stories that people need to know. In the effort to free them we are saying, “We got a commitment to them, that whatever we do, we’re saying we want them free, we want them out here.” When you connect with the political prisoner, you’re saying you are honoring the dreamers of the past, whose dreams you’ve taken on now and to the future you’re saying that we can’t really move with any sense of real integrity unless we’re working for their freedom. If there’s tactical stuff that says, “new trial, they’re innocent,” let that be clear. But let’s be clear that they are political prisoners. We must fight for their freedom. For example in the Mumia case, I always say, “I don’t care whether Mumia killed that cop or not. He belongs to us, he’s our freedom fighter. Free him.” OK, the facts point to his innocence. If it works in the interim to say ‘new trial’, ok, but let’s be clear, that’s just for the interim. Its THEIR judicial system! They have no right to have him. He’s ours. We are at war.
We are in communities of resistance until we can finally get from under your grip. If that should cause your downfall, well hey… with Leonard Peltier, he’s in the forefront of all that they [indigenous struggles] do. In the case of the IRA, the political prisoners was in the forefront of everything they do. In the anti-apartheid movement, the prisoners was in the forefront. If we ever get to the point where we can bring the powers that be to the table, it should be the first thing we put on the table. Jut like with the anti-apartheid movement — “Free Nelson and the rest of them first. Then we can sit down and talk.” We don’t do that here. I think it’s a way for us to deepen our understanding of our struggle, to deepen the commitment to our struggle, and to honor those who picked up the struggle from the generation before. In a sense it’s like reconnecting on that intergenerational thing. With the Zapatista’s, every generation is in their struggle. It’s not just young people, its whole communities. They’re honoring their traditions as a Mayan people in their Mayan communities. Here we’re very mixed, but we need to have that intra-generational connection. We need to honor those who laid it down before us. Especially those who are still alive but are just in these dungeons. We need to let the system know that they are on the front of our minds. We want them out.