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Chronicle of a Crash Foretold

By Tom Jennings
Mute Magazine
7 May 2015

In John Barker’s Futures, an expertly crafted crime novel exploring cocaine trafficking in Thatcherite London, Tom Jennings finds a parable of neoliberalism with considerably broader resonance

Set in 1987, a year after the UK government’s Big Bang deregulation of the City of London's financial institutions, Futures follows the contrasting trajectories of several fictional protagonists operating in different but overlapping niches in the capital’s illegal drugs market. The events – described from the main characters’ own perspectives – occur in the weeks leading up to, and shortly after, the 15-16 October hurricane, which temporarily scuppered everyone's mobility and communications, followed on 19 October by the Black Monday stock market crash. As with the meteorological and economic weather patterns, the novel’s coke-fuelled outcomes also fail to yield dividends corresponding to theory, planning and expectations, so that the results of various agendas and efforts come more or less spectacularly unstuck. But before the wheels come off, and as the tension ratchets up, we are given richly detailed accounts of the lives, attitudes and preoccupations of a diverse set of Londoners adapting to and coping with change and attempting to exert control over their fates. This was a period when the dust was settling after the first tranche of social and political upheavals induced by the policies of Thatcher's governments, which had already drastically damaged the present circumstances and fundamentally foreshortened life-chances for swathes of the population, but before the fallout had become integrated into the everyday culture of atomisation, consumerism, moral squalor and cynicism that we've become familiar with since. And because the vernaculars, idiosyncrasies and interactions of such disparate folk are rendered pitch-perfectly, the impression is given of a fully realised and comprehensive cross-sectional snapshot of social strata at the time which might mirror comparable situations in all sorts of other licit and illicit fields of endeavour. That this effect is accomplished with such a minimal fleshed-out body count, largely through sharp, believable dialogue and judicious employment of interior monologue in response to the demands of a compelling storyline, is testament to the author's command of narrative and characterisation.

A Bit of a Panicker
 

At the centre of the action is Gordon Murray, drugs wholesaler and London criminal born of the old school, who is resolutely and brutally traditional in his logistics, security and human resources practices while also keen to modernize money-making activities in line with his take on the new commercial environment. Thus profits are laundered by and siphoned into investments in property and yuppie service ventures in newly gentrifying districts, while sectors of the business such as heroin from Iran are divested if margins or risks are judged to be unsatisfactory, and eventually the decision is made to broaden the stock portfolio via one of the dodgy offshore brokerages flogging innovative deals and clamouring to cater for the excess capital swilling about in the wake of deregulation. Murray's partners in the family firm are his brothers Derek, a hard man and enforcer handling distribution operations, and Keith, a cautious accountant; whereas Gordon is the chief executive and strategist. This character was intended to be ‘totally unromanticised [...] nasty but boring’, but he is also rather pathetically aspirational, socially and intellectually as well as in terms of greed.1 This is shown, for example, in ‘the way he kind of mimics neoliberal language’, seeing himself as a discreetly model ‘captain of industry’ but who is ‘in the end, a bit of a panicker’.2 On several levels, then, Gordon's overbearing self-satisfaction justifies his pivotal role in the story, given the ramifications of his vainglory for the rest of the cast.

Functioning as little more than his narrative appendage is a paid informant, Detective Chief Superintendent Graham Curtis of the Metropolitan Police Drugs Squad. Barker presumably enjoyed the portrayal of a creature even more pompous, self-righteous and venal than his clandestine employer: Curtis is obsessed with professional status and outmanoeuvring colleagues in a blatantly dysfunctional organisation. In their secret meetings, Murray barely tolerates this petty bureaucrat’s piety, snobbery and hypocrisy in order to cover himself and become apprised of specific foreknowledge about the Met’s legendary lack of bona fide ‘intelligence’ so as to plant misinformation and prompt strategically valuable legal travesties.3 Such relatively low-cost ‘outsourcing’ tactics are probably deemed expedient for the balance sheet, even if leaving the gangsters more short-staffed when going in mob-handed might otherwise be called for. Nonetheless, the prominence and space afforded to Curtis is mildly surprising given his tangential significance to the plot. Descriptions of sundry escapades orchestrated by him certainly reinforce the message that the state authorities charged with ‘regulating’ (i.e. shutting down) this particular market are at best a practical irrelevance – in contrast to PR claims concerning nominal aims and purposes – and, at worst, the crooks’ (unwitting) footsoldiers. Furthermore, the well-worn crime fiction tropes either lionising heroic crusading cops or demonising them with superhuman doses of evil or corruption are also effectively belied – showing that any truth in them tends towards banality – but this goal too could surely have been accomplished more economically.4

Completing the representative sample of narcotics tradespeople is Carol Curbishley, who receives supplies from the Murrays through a distributor called Terry, one of their longstanding middlemen. Aged 35 and from a working-class background, she is a small-time cocaine dealer and single mother of a 9 year-old daughter, living in a housing association flat but using a friend’s landline for telephone contact with clients. All of her self-designed security precautions are followed scrupulously but are also potentially flimsy, her preoccupied awareness of which causes great anxiety and paranoia and impacts negatively on her social life. However, despite regular ruminations on how to get out of the business altogether given the precarious unpredictability of income and prospects, alternatives remain elusive. Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, she finds herself in a situation which may promise an escape route along with financial security for the first time in her life, but without the wherewithal to realistically weigh up the odds. Barker says he feels ‘very sympathetic to her, representative of a very ordinary person who has to make this decision’, and it is symptomatic that, in the end, Carol turns out to be more pragmatically grounded than those with far broader knowledge and experience. In fact she is the single straightforwardly likeable major figure in the novel and the only one capable of genuine adult relationships, compared with the others who perceive people as objects for instrumental use or boosts to egos or narcissism. As a strong woman with generally sound ethics (even with this job), she is also a welcome counterpoint to the offhand misogyny of the movers and shakers, which unerringly unmasks feeble personalities behind purportedly superior intellects and loftier ranks.

 

Image: A Yuppie, from cover of The Nervemeter, 2013

 

Speaking of which, the final two prominent players start the novel as end-users at the bottom of the drugs production chain. Archetypally arrogant and brash middle-class boors with prodigious recreational cocaine habits, striding about town as if they (should) own it, Phil Stone and Jack Sharp have been best friends since school (we learn of no other close social ties). They are currency and commodity analysts specialising in the dollar and gold respectively and working for respected City investment banks which have recently been taken over by US predators seeking a slice of the newly wide-open British speculative capital pie. Although amply remunerated, Phil and Jack grow increasingly dissatisfied with the direction in which their vulgar American masters are heading compared with the relatively relaxed ride under old regimes run by the typical old boys networks of well connected toffs. What they considered to be already taxing workloads are now subject to further intensification along with restricted autonomy, accompanied by even less worshipful appreciation of their supposed genius in predicting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes. So, when his dealer is busted, Jack comes up with the idea of initiating a cocaine futures market, in principle no different from those they presently work in but now exploiting their sophisticated understanding of fluctuations in value to benefit big-time from prudent buying and selling at volume while guaranteeing unlimited personal stashes. The timing should be propitious since (as Gordon Murray also realises) the saturation of North America has prompted the Colombian cartels to seriously expand into Europe, thereby lowering prices. Phil proposes his supplier, Simone (aka Carol), as the entry point to the industry, with their extensive networks of casual yuppie acquaintances as easy marks for punters, and thus the plan takes shape...

Of course, unbeknownst to them, those occupying other positions on the greasy pole they hope to ascend are doggedly pursuing their own bottom lines, which increasingly converge, commingle and conflict in what turns out to be a perfect storm of wrecked ambition – but with dissimilarly disastrous outcomes roughly consonant with the scale of misconceived hubris and delusions of grandeur. So the accelerating pace of the narrative finally yields a cascade of interlocking denouements where the protagonists go out with either a big bang or abject whimper or, if they're less unfortunate, live to fight another day. The latter seems to be the case for Supt. Curtis, whose assiduous pursuit of Murray’s misdirections seems for a while to enhance his stock but then leads to exposure of his wrongdoings to an equally compromised colleague also battling the tide of high-flying graduates fast-tracked into upper echelons of the Met to effect its renovation (i.e. polish the PR and weed out the most embarrassingly unredeemable dinosaurs). Meanwhile, having sensed the way the wind is blowing and unwilling to venture further out of her depth, Carol kicks her dilemma upstairs to Terry and escapes the apocalypse by the skin of the teeth – complete with new lover and stepdad to the kid, though now bereft of a livelihood and, we fear, her worryingly incommunicado best friend.


Things are decisively terminal, however, only for those at, and aspiring to reach, the top of the pile. Blinded by quaint trust in the ability of the dismal science to accurately capture the often barbaric reality of major league narcotics, Phil and Jack ironically assume that access to a bigger shot than ‘Simone’ heralds the impending realisation of their dream. Instead they fall prey to Gordon’s maniacal last-ditch scheme to rescue some readies from the collapse of his empire, leaving one dead and the other framed for his pal’s murder. Murray himself, meanwhile, utterly misjudges the elite sphere of high finance and global cosmopolitanism he felt entitled to enlist in and is comprehensively swindled by the new investment advisor he assumed was forging his passport for entry. Further, and with more immediately and literally fatal import, he has completely lost touch with the grassroots end of the business and succumbs to the unexpectedly (to him) vicious, disrespectful and destructive atmosphere that prevails on the streets with the progressive degradation of working class communities: something brought on by the very government policies he has hitherto benefited so handsomely from. Thus, in one way or another, all of the book's main characters are defeated by the sheer multifaceted complexity and pace of the changes taking place in their worlds, with the nature and gravity of each prognosis depending to a large extent on that individual's levels of blithe ignorance, vanity, avarice, and humility.

Shuffling the Class Cards

Much of John Barker's background material for the book was gleaned during spells of imprisonment, first between 1972-78 after conviction as a member of UK urban guerrilla outfit the Angry Brigade, and subsequently when sentenced to five years in 1990 for involvement in an international conspiracy to import cannabis.5 Thus his profile of the London drugs scene and treatment of its denizens and their conduct, idiom and worldviews can be assumed to be based on extensive inside knowledge (in both senses). Likewise, the exhaustive details of Phil and Jack’s professional activities and their musings and prognostications on the state of the global economy from within the belly of the beast were partly sourced from studious critical attention to the broadsheet financial press while incarcerated, adding further flavour to the notion of jail as an academy of crime. It’s worth noting, therefore, that Futures was originally drafted two decades ago, and its much-delayed publication (with the help of a Kickstarter campaign) should not detract from an appreciation of its acuity concerning both the prevailing structural adjustments in criminal and other enterprise and the fantasies of omniscience associated with faith in ‘rational’ or ‘transparent’ markets (or marketers), as well as prescience concerning the catastrophic consequences of such beliefs irrespective of the sector concerned – which most allegedly expert commentators took rather longer to cotton on to, if at all, even with the advantage of hindsight.


Nevertheless, the author is at pains to emphasise that this is just ‘a kind of crime story – in no way a political tract’. But then, crime fiction has always interrogated the contours of power through accounts of activities judged to be taboo and how their manifestations are to be legitimately handled, so a crime story can scarcely avoid being political at least with a small ‘p’ In British literature this often entails reactionary rationales for restoring equilibrium to an inequitable status quo or favouring fascistic purging of criminal perversions from the social body. Meanwhile an alternative tradition originated in hard-boiled stories of American private dicks negotiating the shifting sands of class structure and the failure of mainstream institutions to acknowledge or provide redress for injuries caused to otherwise helpless citizens cut adrift from traditional family, community or solidaristic mechanisms. This inherently critical and potentially radical literary lineage has blended over time with gritty tales of colourful rogues getting one over on their social superiors, gangster sagas, conspiracy thrillers, and downbeat social-realist scenarios of impoverishment and brutalisation in lower-class milieux. These flourishing genres and sub-genres have more recently increasingly attracted more ambitious writers and filmmakers keen to diagnose wider social and political problems by dissecting large-scale patterns of wrongdoing and their reflections and reverberations throughout society. Intentionally or not, this novel definitely fits such criteria.6

 

Image: Guardian headline 15 April 2013

 

Two of its narrative strategies in particular help to differentiate Futures from more restricted or run-of-the-mill fictional depictions of organised illegal activity and attempts to control it – and especially those involving banned drugs, which typically arouse ire, indignation and distortion out of all proportion to the harm caused (compared with, say, nicotine and alcohol) and relative to other types of serious crime. Firstly, as mentioned previously, the cast selection distils down an extensive hierarchy of punters, dealers, middlemen, gangsters, hangers-on, competitors and adversaries into a very limited set of characters, which allows all of their social environments, work situations and internal lives and behaviour to be thoroughly and equitably elaborated. Moreover, no specific viewpoint is privileged in terms of any overriding attribution of responsibility or moral judgement; nor does the degree of emotional or cognitive depth ascribed to some characters contrast with others sketched more abstractly or stereotypically. In the absence of such clichéd rhetorical tactics – which facilitate the assumption of ideologically loaded preconceptions or identifications that tend to yield an unbalanced and partial grasp of the world described – the reader can more readily concentrate on the intricacies and machinations of the plot, taking into account, in turn and in combination, the characters’ contrasting perspectives on and responses to events.

 

Secondly, the novel’s episodic construction provides details of each successive short period of time from one character’s viewpoint only, so that the significance or effects of actions taken are left to the reader to infer from retrospective and/or indirect references in subsequent intervals according to different perspectives. This is a brave strategy, since readers may be left floundering to connect the dots and keep up. However, it also intensifies awareness that the protagonists may be aware only dimly or not at all of what the others are doing, missing the origins of minor or substantive changes affecting their own positions or the consequences of their own behaviour and that of others. A major dividend is that this leads to a mirroring between the reader’s efforts in following the twists and turns of the tale and the difficulties encountered by the characters themselves in interpreting their own experience and formulating their plans accordingly. In both cases, the inherent risks, uncertainties and pure unknowns in life are foregrounded, along with the wisdom of taking into account the material inertia of existing bodies and relations and the barriers introduced to the possibility of their and our comparative autonomy. Just as parallels can be drawn between the range of functions that these characters serve in their world with those operating in many more conventional and less dangerous and stigmatised realms, so the portrayal of the frustrations, impasses, ignorances and breakthroughs of those dealing in drugs hints at continuity with, rather than alienated distinction from, the ‘normal’ life of society – where similar general constellations of forces constrain action.

 

Given these rare and impressive qualities, it might even be proposed that a film adaptation of the novel would enthral a far larger audience – if a courageous and competent enough production team were tempted to take on the task who could do as much justice to its subtle and sophisticated subtexts as the obvious entertainment potential. A television serial would appear most suitable for a story of this weight and complexity, and although the track record of UK media fictionalising the controversial field of the drugs trade is sparse, there are promising precedents. Traffik (by Simon Moore, Channel 4, 1989) at least attempted a multi-stranded structure melding local, national and global elements of the heroin trade, but with a relentless focus on and clear sympathy for its upper middle-class characters. Much later (and skipping the bilious nihilism sugar-coated with New Labour aspiration of Danny Boyle's 1996 Trainspotting), following the acclaim afforded to the British feature film Bullet Boy (directed by Saul Dibb, 2004) which tackled a Hackney family’s struggles with petty crime and gun violence, Channel 4 commissioned two series of the excellent Top Boy (by Ronan Bennett, 2011/13), a similarly exemplary and unusual social realist story of the trials and tribulations of a small East London manor’s low-level drugs posse which also refused to diminish, homogenise or demonise its miscreants. Likewise, the feature Twenty8k (directed by David Kew & Neil Thompson; written by Paul Abbott and Jimmy Dowdall, 2012) made a decent fist of expanding the drugs game palette to include dodgy finance, land grabs, property speculation and municipal corruption in the run-up to the London Olympics graft-fest.

 

Of course, the two ultimate benchmarks for filmic fantasies of the relationship between the narcotics industry and society as a whole are American. Yet, with its uniquely detailed characterisation and effortlessly effective weaving of narrative threads, one could imagine that a faithful visualisation of John Barker’s novel might compare favourably in quality and breadth of sweep with the achievements of the renowned US television series The Wire (by David Simon & Ed Burns, HBO, 2002-8) and Breaking Bad (by Vince Gilligan, AMC, 2008-13). Both chronicle careers and contexts associated with neurochemical scourges rather nastier than the upmarket appeal of powdered cocaine, blighting lower-class neighbourhoods with the crack derivative in urban Baltimore, Maryland, in the former, and an epidemic of crystal methamphetamine in the suburban US southwest in the latter. However, the political visions animating these epics are rather tamer and more conformist than their bold premises might suggest. So The Wire's magisterial cycle, tracing the interconnected complicity between drugs commerce and spheres as discrete as policing, unions, logistics, education, city politics and journalism, consistently homes in on enlightened reform-minded managers whose hearts are supposedly in the right place – hazily insinuating that some such social-democratic vanguard might mend the broken society. Meanwhile, the very different alchemy of Breaking Bad transmutes the resentment of the ‘squeezed’ middle-classes – once illusions of social progress and mobility through respectably professional hard work are exposed as busted flushes – into an obscene subaltern reflection of the cynical barbarism of government by raw capitalism itself.

 

Image: A shopping bag full of cash

 

Equally three-dimensional in nailing its setting, and convincingly true to its time, Futures trumps them both in certain respects: even-handedly rendering the agency available and prominence given to those on vastly different rungs of the dealership ladder; withholding an omniscient overview to which all of its fallible embodied subjects are, or should be, philosophically subordinated; and, most notably, being persuasively suggestive of things to come. It can then be read as a minimalist allegory of general features of neoliberalism, which could also be projected into the forthcoming years after the first flushes of Thatcherism – and with an underlying political sensibility which is precisely a critique, rather than denial, disavowal or displacement, of the ideology now often described as ‘capitalist realism’ – i.e. that ‘there is no alternative’. So, if the novel's cast are imagined as prototypes and precursors of later incarnations, the metaphor would encompass the Murray firm’s latter-day retail concern cutting costs and corners to dominate the high street, for whom Carol works as subcontracted precarious labour (herself delegating communications duties to Marie) while Terry has slightly more secure and rewarding tenure. Meanwhile Gordon stands for the company’s top management, mercilessly fleecing the accounts under the noses of colleagues and shareholders in order to feather his own nest irrespective of more distant prospects – with Phil and Jack as early avatars of the new generations of up-and-coming accountancy whizzkids from investment banks prescribing cooked books and mendacious valuation to conjure obscene profits today at the expense of stability next week. Finally, Curtis et al of the Met represent tarnished government checks-and-balances painfully transitioning from the archaic blunt institutional monopoly of force to New Public Management fetishes for performance targets, pop psychology, flexible human resources and spin – promising not less ineptitude, hypocrisy and malevolence in the service of money and power, but more mystified varieties of the same... not going to end well, is it?

 

High-end

 

So, in the unlikely event of something like the pitch pencilled in above reaching fruition, its advertising copywriters could probably do worse than the publicity tagline: ‘Did charlie cause the credit crunch?’ In fact, this question – in equal measures playful, rhetorical, and deadly serious – haunts the novel and the author’s Afterword as well as the appended text on the political economy of coke. The straightforward answer, naturally, is ‘No’, as Barker himself acknowledges in his commentaries. However, merely taking it at face value opens up the issue of the origins of the fantasies of economics omnipotence that have helped fuel an escalating series of local and international financial burst-bubbles, crises and crashes which have accompanied neoliberalism’s worldwide sway. Doubtless no less salient and rooted in a rather wider history are long-term declining rates of return from real-world productive investment, leaving the trillions trickling up to the elite stratosphere from structural adjustment – including in the consolidation, intensification and rationalisation of narco-production and distribution – nowhere else to profitably go except towards even more of the same toxic medicine. Nevertheless, could the brains behind the new miracle mathematical nostrums of derivatives, algorithms, and supercomputer simulations have been on a decades-long collective coke binge, along with their counterparts in the other burgeoning high-end ‘creative industries’ feverishly fashioning fictitious cultural and social capital in their respective realms? Well, it's intelligible that the behavioural characteristics of cocaine use – wild short-term enthusiasm, single-minded blind persistence, manically inflated confidence and other bipolar patterns – could influence specific, more or less superficial, features of developments.7 But even if so, how is it possible that the great and good who own and govern the globe would go along with it? In summary, then, the achievement of Futures is that it can be enjoyed as a simple, and extremely effective, crime yarn – but can also easily prompt such extensive speculation. This is surely no mean feat.

 

Tom Jennings is a writer, critic and editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. His blog can be found at http://libcom.org/blog/tom-jennings

 

Info

John Barker, Futures, PM Press, 2014.

 

 

Footnotes

1 A point repeatedly made by Barker in readings and interviews accompanying the launch of the book. The same applies to other quotes from the author within this review.

Quoted in Benjamin Mortimer, ‘Still Angry? John Barker on the Angry Brigade and his new novel Futures’, East End Review, 5 June, 2014, http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2014/06/05/john-bar...

3 One such incident involves fitting up a rival crime boss, who is in any case plainly guilty of many serious offences (if not this one) – perhaps a sly reference to the author’s own experience as an Angry Brigade defendant, where ‘the police framed a guilty man’. John Barker, review of Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague, AK Press, 2001, available at: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/4b8h98

4 Though maybe it’s churlish to expect the writer to forego gratification in trashing a figure who, in a conventional tale, would represent the master criminal's sworn enemy – especially in this case where the first-person voice granted only to Gordon may already imply a degree of over-identification.

5 Barker’s reflections on his jail time have been published in Bending The Bars: Prison Stories, Christie Books, 2002. The book was reviewed by Stewart Home in Mute magazine, 2003, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/bending...

6 As if to highlight this despite the above disclaimer, a political tract does indeed follow as an appendix to the book, in the form of a fascinating and exhaustive essay discussing the significance of cocaine manufacture, export and finance in the development of contemporary capitalism. John Barker's ‘From Coca to Capital: Free Trade Cocaine’ was written for the exhibition Potosí Principle: How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? by Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann and Max Jorge Hinderer, first shown in Madrid, Berlin and La Paz, Bolivia and touring from 2010. The essay was subsequently published in Mute magazine, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/coca-to...

7 See the section entitled ‘Biotool’ in ‘From Coca to Capital: Free Trade Cocaine’, Ibid.


Buy Futures now | Buy Futures e-Book now | Back to John Barkers Author Page




Sunflowers in the Concrete: Black Flags and Windmills reviewed on Center for a Stateless Society

By Trevor Hultner
Center for a Stateless Society
May 5th, 2015


Four years ago, anarchist activist and co-founder of the radical humanitarian aid organization Common Ground Relief (formerly the Common Ground Collective) scott crow released his memoir about the nearly three months where he and a band of activists and New Orleans residents beat the odds – and the Feds – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

C4SS’s Kevin Carson penned a glowing review of Black Flags and Windmills in 2011, writing, “As someone who’s followed the Arab Spring and Occupy movements very closely, I find Crow’s account of organizing the Common Ground Collective extremely relevant to the problems the movement faces today.”

Last August, crow released the second edition of Windmills, which includes a collection of emails, interviews and a photo diary of sorts that documents his trajectory as an activist from young, state-loving communist to the incredible “puppetmaster” of an anarchist (according to the FBI) that he is today, as well as moments from his time on the ground in New Orleans.

This new information, which adds roughly 100 pages of material to the book, is incredibly illustrative and should be of interest for any activist or aid worker looking to create a horizontal, decentralized and anti-authoritarian movement in their communities – whether they’re affected by natural disasters or simply the long, slow disaster wrought by state capitalism.

Besides that, there’s not a whole lot of difference from the first to the second editions; crow’s narrative flows roughly the same in both copies of the book, and Carson has already done a great job of summarizing that first edition in his own review from 2011. So rather than rehash what Kevin said, and you should really go back and read that review because it’s fantastic, here instead are some impressions the book left on me as a younger self-described anarchist.

1. It’s never just about one person. It’s about the people.


crow has received a lot of notoriety (and rightly so, in my opinion) in the years after Katrina for being one of the sort-of public faces of Common Ground; in between organizing in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he goes on speaking tours to college campuses, infoshops and independent venue spaces around the United States to talk about the foundational principles he, Malik Rahim and Sharon Johnson started Common Ground on, as well as the concept of “emergency hearts.” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him in Oklahoma twice now.

That being said, crow makes it clear toward the end of his narrative in Windmills that while he, Malik and Sharon put a whole heap of work into what Common Ground stood for and what it was doing for the community, they were not the sole people we should focus on when we talk about the success of the organization. Hundreds upon hundreds of local residents and out-of-state activists made Common Ground what it was, and without them – not to mention the support of Algiers and the surrounding rural and urban communities they served – the effort would have sputtered out.

Ultimately, the narrative crow creates – and lived – is not one about a rockstar anarchist swooping into New Orleans and rescuing the flooded poor communities in the Lower Seventh and Ninth Wards from the wrecking ball of the State, but one where the communities themselves rose up against outside pressure – from crooked, killer cops, vigilantes, overly bureaucratic federal relief organizations and the military – to save their homes, schools and neighborhoods, Zapatista-style.

2. When the State gets injured is when it shows its claws the most.

Arguably, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its sister storm, Hurricane Rita, showed exquisitely what the State will do and how it will respond when it has been dealt a truly damaging blow. crow captured the stark realities of the days and weeks post-Katrina in Windmills, pulling no punches and telling the whole story: the white vigilantes, the shoot-to-kill orders, the mainstream relief agencies delivering nothing but baby wipes and plastic cutlery to Algiers when food and water was needed, FEMA employees getting “the best medical treatment” they had ever seen in New Orleans at the Common Ground Clinic. One scene in particular was especially striking. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll let crow do the talking:

Early one afternoon, I drove a truck over to St. Mary’s to drop off our regular supply load. Their volunteers helped with unloading, and I was set to leave, when I realized the truck was blocked in by a Humvee full of young-looking soldiers. I stepped out and cordially asked the driver to move forward so I could back out. The vehicle didn’t move. The driver stared through me without moving or acknowledging I had spoken to him.

Then the blank stare changed to a disturbing facial expression I had seen on many faces recently. I thought, “Is he going to shoot me?” Suddenly, a ranking officer stepped off the curb to the driver’s side, barking at their car, “Soldier, this is not Iraq! We do not control the streets! These are American civilians! Now move your ass — immediately!” Instantly, the driver turned and the vehicle moved. The officer waved me on. Stunned, I drove away. That shell-shocked look was in the faces of many of the young soldiers who were cycling through, fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq to the hell in their own backyards.

While there are arguably more intense scenes peppered throughout the book, this particular scene hit me with the force of weeks of exhaustion and the knowledge – the certitude – that at any moment crow or any other activist working in Algiers could be shot and killed by any number of government officials, soldiers, cops or yahoos with a gun and a penchant for Klan kosplay. Despite this, the people who made up Common Ground still showed up and helped the work along in defiance of an injured and feral State.

3. Building counterpower works.

Perhaps the biggest point I took from Windmills is that, regardless of whether the Common Ground Collective can be considered “pure anarchism,” or how messy the organization’s internal framework was, or what it eventually turned into, it is still a pretty dang great model for how we can build institutions of counterpower that can actively oppose the State. We don’t have to wait for a revolution, or a natural disaster, or for the bus driver to walk off the bus, to start building. We know this model works – it worked for Occupy Sandy, and to a lesser degree, the radical cleanup efforts in Moore, OK after the May 31, 2013 F5 tornado. The principles it employs can be used in a variety of settings and are even adoptable as a personal, individual framework.

As poet June Jordan, quoted by crow in Windmills, wrote in her 1978 “Poem for South African Women,” we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. crow’s book shows how ordinary people can create something more effective and more vital for their own communities than any outside force, be it the State, corporations or mainstream relief organizations, and we can do so without waiting for anyone’s approval.

Ultimately, Windmills left me with a sense of hope and excitement for an anarchist future. It’s not a future that will come easily, as crow demonstrates, and as the old cliche goes, I may not see it in my lifetime – none of us may! But damn if you won’t see me running to meet it.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to scott crow's Author Page




Jacinta Bunnell talking to Frankie Magazine about The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book

By Jacinta Bunnell
Frankie Magazine

May 2015

“Gay has been used for decades as a negative slur to denote something as ugly, weird or uncool. In my circle of Queer friends, we have reclaimed the statements “you’re so gay” and “that’s so gay” to mean that something is AWESOME, perfect, extremely good or delightful. So that got me thinking about all the amazing things that have come out of or are associated with LGBTQP culture: rainbows, musicals, glitter, unicorns, and on and on! There are all these things that just wouldn’t be here without Queer people. Would we have jazz hands if it were not for all the gay choreographers? Who are the biggest, most exuberant fans of the movies Roller Boogie and Beaches?

Since 2001, I have been collaborating with different artists, making coloring books that celebrate feminist, queer and trans people and ideas. I started making them because I didn’t see myself or my friends anywhere in media that was made for children. We were all children once and if you grow up not seeing a representation of your family, your feelings, your crushes, or your loves in ANY media at all, it is really hard to keep your head held high, let alone keep your tiara in place. In children’s movies, video games, books and TV, heterosexuality is not just the norm, it is very near the only way romantic love is ever represented. As an educator, I have spent many years working with kids of all ages who were literally dying to be seen and heard, overcoming abuse, neglect, homelessness and torture simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. I wanted to create books which offered a fresh way for people to look at stereotypes and oppression. If you can get people to laugh at themselves and at cultural expectations, their hearts will be more receptive to taking a hard look at difficult issues. Once you have opened someone's heart with a joke or a good laugh, you are better able to do the hard work of liberation together. Though my work directly draws from feminist, queer, and transgender scholarship and activism, I try to make it accessible to people of all ages via the familiarity of coloring books. I LOVE COLORING, I always have. It is relaxing, creative and fun….  And above all, I just want people to be proud of themselves.

When I decided to make The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book, I approached it a bit differently than my other three books. With those books, I paid less attention to the design and more attention to the content. I just wanted to get the message to people. By the time the idea for this book came about, I had spent several years studying vintage books, art and design and wanted to incorporate a bit of what I had always loved about certain design into a book. I spent a week in my friend Neko Case’s library of old books, taking notes, snapping photos, and collecting ideas for what would become this book. She has a beautiful farm in Vermont. It’s not a bad place to spend a week working! And then I reached out to Leela Corman, who I had met 13 years ago at a writing retreat with Lynda Barry. We had stayed in touch through the years and I had followed her work. I was blown away when she published Unterzakhn, a hauntingly gorgeous graphic novel about two sisters growing up in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. When she said that she would love to illustrate The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book, we set out collaborating by sending ideas through email and setting up shared documents that we could work on from two different states. It took over a year, and luckily my publisher, PM Press/Reach and Teach was psyched about the project.

When you look at the history of the word Gay, it meant “exuberant, bright, attractive, lively, happy…” The antonyms for Gay are “joyless, depressed, lifeless, spiritless…” So the next time someone says “you’re so gay” to you, say “thanks”.

--Jacinta Bunnell
https://www.etsy.com/shop/JacintaBunnell
www.queerbookcommittee.com
www.jacintabunnell.com

Jacinta Bunnell is an artist and educator living in the Hudson Valley of New York. Jacinta’s work has been shown at The Horticultural Society of New York, Allegheny College, Huguenot Street Farm, KMOCA, Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, TeamLove Ravenhouse Gallery, and Roos Arts. She has collaborated with The Woodstock Film Festival, Planned Parenthood, The Hudson Valley Seed Library, and Elizabeth Mitchell. Jacinta has toured the U.S. and Canada with The Gadabout Film Fest, Neko Case, DavEnd, Anne Elizabeth Moore and Julie Novak. She is a co-founder of Hudson Valley BRAWL (Broads' Regional Arm Wrestling League).
 

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One Chord Wonders Reviewed in Spectrum Culture

By John L Murphy
Spectrum Culture

May 2015

3.5/5 stars

How punk was deployed as a reaction against what Dave Laing calls the “gigantism” of AOR, pop and progressive rock is a familiar tale. Laing, an English researcher, retells this story through an academic approach. He scrutinizes how late-1970s British punk applies to cultural critique. He incorporates insights from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva. This reprint of Laing’s 1985 semiological analysis precedes Jon Savage’s first-hand account, England’s Dreaming (1991).

Introduced briefly by the Adverts’ guitarist-singer, T.V. Smith, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock takes its title from that band’s song, a tribute to DIY spunk.

Unlike Savage or Smith, Laing distances himself as a scholar.

He finds predecessors for punk’s nexus within pop culture. In its collision of the authentic with the commercial, punk’s predicament echoes that of British folksong proponents in 1899 and London pub-rockers in the earlier 1970s. Movements seeking a return or revival of “basic” music confront those who capitalize on its inherent potential for profit. Craving exposure, musicians often must capitulate to the system. Rejecting one tradition, innovators resurrect another, back-to-basics. Johnny Ramone, cited here, embodies this choice. “We’re playing pure rock ‘n’ roll with no blues or folk or any of that stuff in it.”

Instead, punk promoted “artifice, exaggeration and outrage.” One chord wonders turned an insult into a celebration. Distorted sounds and mangled meanings created a “frontal assault” on triple-disc or concept albums of the mid-‘70s. However, Laing reports how this music reworked old lyrical themes. Us vs. the Man repeated. Narcissism remained along with protest. Lacking a danceable element, punk stressed exclusivity and negativity. Failing to break out in 1977-1978, punk, Laing asserts, faded rapidly. He notes how broadcasters resisted its disruption and preferred easier listening.

In chapters titled “Formation,” “Naming,” “Looking,” “Listening” and “Framing,” Laing dissects the strategies claimed by punk. Drier at times, if supplemented by data, the middle section of his book muddles along. Ivory tower jargon slows its pace. It revives in its later stages, where a short “picture section” shows how punks adopted their public roles to what Laing defines as the movement’s “provisional discursive formation.” That is, punk offered positions to adopt, roles to play and rules to adhere to. Laing presents publicity shots, professional photographs taken in concert and vamping poses as proof. The last category portrayed one trap punk fell into. Originally seeking to provoke or to subvert, earnestly posing punks “allow themselves to be consumed as pinups of sex objects.”

The final chapter, “After,” adds an intriguing analogy. Laing notes that prior to punk, new bands felt making an album was equivalent to making a full-length film. Such an artistic effort seemed to overwhelm. Therefore, professional producers and studios had to be recruited and funded. By contrast, Laing reasons, punk was akin to creating a magazine or a paperback. Cassettes around 1980 began to change the way music by amateurs was distributed. Laing contrasts the cost of a hardcover book to that of a photocopy, as fans began to join with musicians to reproduce their efforts cheaply.

Enriching this study, Laing refutes the claim that most punks came from a working-class background. He compares their class and education to that of beat groups between 1963 and 1967, and he finds little difference in these categories. Such statistics deepen the value of this compact book. It may serve well in seminars or by scholars accordingly, as a critical contribution to Popular Music Studies.

Finally, Laing places punk within intellectual contexts. Benjamin and Adorno looked at Dada and at the “shock-effects” of radical art as predecessors to punk, in Laing’s estimation. Similarly, he ends with Barthes and Kristeva. They located within the avant-garde “the site of the return of the repressed.” Some punks embraced mid-1970s semiotic possibilities of confusion. Fragmenting, discontents chose other fashions, sartorial and musical, to emulate by the decade’s end. Diehards chose “anchored meanings” of mohawks, Oi! and slogans embroidered across leather jackets.

What united punk, for one or two years in the later 1970s, was the tension between realistic lyrics decrying conformity and repression and the sonic jolt that undermines musical predictability. Full of paradox, punk in Laing’s judgment produced a problem. It set out as a rock alternative, but it had to stay recognizable as rock to bring in an audience, to sustain a career and to meet industry demands.

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Clash of thoughts on The Clash

By Bob Gordon
The Record.com
January 17th, 2015

The Clash was not just a band and this is not a band bio. This is the whole intellectual ball of wax. And it's an American ball of wax.

Written by an American it is the story of how, "the Clash fell in love with America and how America loved them back."

There is no salacious gossip or he-said-she said. This is long-form rock journalism — itself a dying art, according to author Randal Doane.

Doane draws everyone from Alan Freed to Lester Bangs into the Clash's orbit in explaining how the Clash were part of larger currents in American popular culture.

There is also a detailed analysis of the New York club scene — CBGBs and Max's Kansas City — and the bands that prepared the clubs and the crowds for the Clash, from Debbie Harry and Patti Smith (hardly friends) to Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell.

The book concludes with a detailed narrative of the Clash's show at the Palladium in New York, broadcast live on WNEW-FM in 1979.

Unfortunately, this is also a depressing book. The author believes that the era that produced the Clash is gone forever. He argues that machine mediation, from synthesizers and drum machines to computer-generated FM playlists, has destroyed the intimacy, creativity and humanity of music making.

When punk died the DIY attitude died, killing free-form FM and regional radio as well. The argument itself is a tad extreme: Perhaps blogging and crowdfunding is just a new form of 'do it yourself.'

Bob Gordon is a Toronto writer.

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Ecosocialist Horizons Hour – “Fire on the Mountain”

Terry Bisson, author of ‘Fire on the Mountain’. Credit: Rudy’s Blog/RudyRucker
























Terry Bisson, author of ‘Fire on the Mountain’. Credit: Rudy’s Blog/RudyRucker

Join Ecosocialist Horizons Hour for a special interview with Terry Bisson, American science fiction and fantasy author best known for his short stories. Several of his works, including ‘Bears Discover Fire’, have won top awards in the science fiction community, such as the Hugo and the Nebula. We will be discussing his revolutionary classic, ‘Fire on The Mountain’.

Fire on the Mountain’, published in 1988, is an alternate history describing the world as it would have been had John Brown succeeded in his raid on Harper’s Ferry and touched off a slave rebellion in 1859, as he intended.

Joel Kovel, Quincy Saul, and Kali interview Bisson and examine the role of fiction and literature in radical culture and movement building. We also look to Cuba as an example of the metaphoric ‘fire on the mountain’ that succeeded in securing its own liberation and setting an autonomous example for Latin American politics.

EHH is not meant for the faint of heart. Join us with courage, spirit, and a bit of humor that is needed to answer the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.

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Waging Peace in Friends Journal

By Robert Dockhorn
Friends Journal
April 2015

When David Hartsough was seven years old and living in Gilman, Iowa, he was set upon by a band of older boys wielding ice balls fortified with stones. He had recently heard his father preach a sermon on Jesus’s command to “love your enemies.” Awed by this message, he mustered up the courage to tell the boys that he wanted to become their friends. Eventually they lost interest in picking on a boy who wouldn’t fight back, and they wandered off. Later, David gave a prized possession to the band’s leader, and a friendship ensued. For David, this reinforced his courage and initiated a lifetime of practicing nonviolence.

In Waging Peace, Hartsough recounts how he received early instruction from others in various tools of nonviolence, resulting in his organizing his first vigil at age 15 at a Nike missile site not far his family home in Tanguy Homesteads, a cooperative community near Philadelphia, Pa. By 1960, while he was a student at Howard University, he had advanced to taking part in a sit-in to desegregate a People’s Drug Store lunch counter in Arlington, Va., an experience that tested his capacity to endure abuse.

Suspicious of how the U.S. media were portraying “enemies,” Hartsough chose to learn for himself by traveling to Central and Eastern Europe, studying on both sides of the divided city of Berlin and taking a camping trip into the USSR, where he entered into dialogue with people all along his path.

He served as a conscientious objector with Friends Committee on National Legislation, and there he had the opportunity to take part as a youthful member of a distinguished delegation of Quakers to meet with President John F. Kennedy in 1962. During the meeting, Hartsough had the presence of mind to suggest to Kennedy that he engage in a “peace race” with the Soviets. Kennedy seemed impressed by this meeting, and it may have stimulated the president to reconsider his commitment to the politics of confrontation, a change of course that many noticed in the remaining time before his assassination.

In the following decades, Hartsough, with other activists, became involved in confrontations of the U.S. military, including a canoe “blockade” of warships on their way to Vietnam, and protests and attempts to obstruct the nuclear power and weapons industries. He traveled to Central America, where he witnessed the brutality that was being supported by American arms, and he participated in the accompaniment of threatened individuals. Back home, he organized the blocking of trains delivering weapons to Central America. He was at the side of Brian Willson who, on September 1, 1987, was run over and severely injured while blocking a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.

In Hartsough’s nonviolent activity he was jailed numerous times, and he occasionally was called upon to demonstrate a willingness to put his own life at risk. While leaving no doubt about his views, he also knew the importance of acknowledging the humanity of those he opposed, which won respect and sometimes won people over to his views. He was often sought out as a resource, and in the late 1990s became involved in the nonviolent struggle in Kosovo. There he was disappointed by the failure of NATO to support the peaceful forces there, instead intervening with bombs. This was very much on his mind during a gathering of peace activists in the Hague—on the 100th anniversary of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference—and there he proposed an “international nonviolent peace army.” Mel Duncan, in the audience, had the same idea, and the two teamed up to found the Nonviolent Peaceforce. They envisioned it as offering an alternative to military forces that would be rigorous enough to intervene in areas of serious conflict. The NVPF now exists. It has grown, and it has played a role in international conflicts from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to South Sudan and elsewhere.

Now the executive director of Peaceworkers, a community of activists based in San Francisco, Calif., Hartsough continues his activities, which have included a presence in Gaza and travel to Iran.

Waging Peace is a major contribution to understanding the inspiration and dynamics of the nonviolence movement in the years since the 1950s. I hope other leaders in this movement over these years will record their life stories as carefully as Hartsough has done. This book includes resources for study and action, as well as an extensive bibliography with a list of websites. I hope future editions will include an index, to help guide the reader through the many individuals, organizations, and events that Hartsough cites. Additional treats are the foreword by John Dear, the introduction by George Lakey, and the afterword by Ken Butigan, all of which bring valuable insights.

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‘Days of Rage’ scorns George Jackson Brigade, but Northwest radical group won’t be ignored

By Douglas Perry
The Oregonian
April 4th, 2015


Bryan Burrough made his name with "Public Enemies," his bestselling 2004 retelling of the FBI's pursuit of John Dillinger and other outlaws during the Great Depression. Johnny Depp starred in the movie version.

Now Burrough is back with the story of another FBI war, this one 40 years later. "Days of Rage" chronicles the anti-government revolutionary groups of the 1970s that grew out of the Vietnam War protests and Civil Rights Movement. You remember: The Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, FALN. It's a big book (548 pages), and it tells fascinating stories.

It also leaves one out.

Burrough admits this right off, in a footnote on page 4. "Probably the most important underground group not chronicled in this book is the George Jackson Brigade, which robbed at least seven banks and detonated twenty pipe bombs in the Pacific Northwest between March 1975 and December 1977," he writes.

You've probably never heard of the George Jackson Brigade. Even if you were in the Northwest in the 1970s when they were robbing Oregon banks, you still might have missed their exploits.
"The FBI ordered a news blackout on the Brigade," says Daniel Burton-Rose, author of the excellent "Guerrilla USA: The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s." The reason: the FBI recognized that media coverage was exactly what the radicals wanted.

"It wasn't a Leninist attempt to seize state power," Burton-Rose says of the Brigade's aims. "It was armed propaganda."

The George Jackson Brigade -- named after a member of the Black Panthers who was killed during a 1971 San Quentin prison-escape attempt -- sought a new economic order, better treatment of prisoners, the end of police brutality, and gender and racial equality. The group had members of different races, sexes and sexual identities, and most of them were ex-cons.

The Seattle-based Brigade began its terror campaign in the spring of 1975 with the bombing of Washington state corrections offices in Olympia. They followed that attack with bombings of a Safeway store, a Puget Sound Power & Light substation, a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs office and a few banks. One of their members was killed while storming a bank, and the outfit later wounded a police officer. By the summer of 1976, law enforcement was in hot pursuit, and so the Brigade decamped for Oregon, where they went on a new crime spree, this one focused on putting money in their pockets.

The group robbed the Western Bank in Coos Bay on June 8; the Carter National Bank in Ashland on July 8; the Oregon Bank in Medford on Aug. 1; the First State Bank of Oregon in Portland on Oct. 28; the U.S. National Bank of Oregon in Portland on Jan. 4, 1977; and the U.S. National Bank of Oregon in Wilsonville on February 7, 1977.

The Brigade's survivors all were eventually apprehended and convicted.

In "Days of Rage," Burrough notes how unreal the '70s radical-underground era now feels.

"Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans -- white, black and Hispanic -- disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society's wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast."

It does indeed seem fantastical, seeing as American society is now more conformist and largely united in the effort to defeat worldwide Islamic terrorism. And yet it happened -- and it wasn't so long ago. Most of the radical underground's participants are still with us, only recently retired from unassuming jobs in education or even in the government they once sought to overthrow.

George Jackson Brigade members were all long ago released from prison. They mostly live in California and Washington state.

The news blackout in the 1970s isn't necessarily the reason most of us don't know about the Brigade. The blackout, after all, was rather porous: The Oregonian extensively covered the Portland court appearances of Brigade member and Oregon native Rita Brown in 1978, for example. (The Oregon Arts Commission is presently helping fund the making of a documentary about Brown, who now lives in the Bay Area.)

The Brigade wanted publicity for its causes, but that proved hard to come by. The group didn't have the beautiful Bernardine Dohrn (Weather Underground) or the charismatic Eldridge Cleaver (The Black Panthers) in its ranks. And geography worked against it. The Weather Underground's biggest bang came in New York City, the media capital of the world. The Panthers were based in the Bay Area, home to the Summer of Love. But, for most Americans in the 1970s, the Pacific Northwest was still Nowheresville -- the frontier.

Plus, the Brigade, which never topped seven members, was distinctly different than other homegrown revolutionary groups of the era.

"It came out of the prison-rights movement, instead of the antiwar or civil-rights movements," Burton-Rose says.

One of the group's leaders, Ed Mead, spent much of the 1960s in prison for armed robbery and other crimes. Another, John Sherman, was a former dockyard worker who ended up in prison in 1968 after using a bad check to buy a car. Mead and Sherman met at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington.

They heard about "the Movement" going on outside their prison walls and wanted to be a part of it. "There was a macho element of, 'When I get out of prison, I'll show people what I can do,'" says Burton-Rose. "There was a sense of catching up for lost time."

"One day, I looked at myself. I didn't see myself as a criminal but as a radical," Mead told a Seattle Times reporter in 1976. "I stepped over a line."

The Brigade's members struggled at first to figure out their purpose and approach.

"We clearly realize that our attacks must be discriminate and both serve and educate the everyday person," the group wrote in a public "communiqué" after bombing a Washington state Safeway. "We also realize that as the contradictions heighten it becomes harder and harder to be passive and innocent bystanders in a war zone." It was signed, "Love and Struggle, The George Jackson Brigade."

Burton-Rose says the Brigade was part of the "second wave" of counterculture revolutionary groups. The first wave was led by middle-class wannabe revolutionaries and had a middle-class approach. "When they did hurt people, like the Weather Underground with the Townhouse explosion (that killed three of their own members), it was by accident," Burton-Rose says.

"With the second wave, which was more working-class, people were much less symbolic in their actions."

That is, they expected blood to be spilled -- and not just their own.

Brigade members such as ex-convicts Mead, Sherman and Mark Cook were militant Marxists who embraced Mao and Ho Chi Minh rather than communist utopianism. This ideology "romanticized violence and tasked prisoners with being the vanguard of revolution," Burton-Rose says.

The Brigade, he points out, "was pretty callous about hurting other people."
"I decided that the way you stop (the police) from using hollow-nosed bullets is to use hollow-nosed bullets in your own gun," Mead told a reporter.

"I thought that, with the bombings, maybe we were setting an example, by being true to what we believed, by being a voice to those who were voiceless," Sherman later said.
Others in the group had their own, unique agendas.

Brown, a lesbian who spent time in prison for possession of stolen mail before joining the Brigade, said she was fighting the "sickness of capitalism-imperialism," The Oregonian reported. She also said that the prisoner-rights movement "was always the most important in my life."

Another member, Janine Bertram, was a fairly typical social activist before becoming radicalized. In the early '70s, she had founded the Association of Seattle Prostitutes to promote "the rights of a group whose members often tangle with the law and don't often win."
Brigade member Bruce Seidel was a University of Washington student who edited a radical newspaper.

The FBI agents who tracked the Brigade believed the group's "power to the people" ideology was a scam, that these self-proclaimed radicals were nothing more than violent thieves playing for public sympathy and support. "It was all a lot of left-wing drivel," agent Richard Mathers told the Seattle Times years later. "They were hoodlums."

At the time, however, the FBI accepted that the Brigade was motivated by politics.

"GJB is essentially a revolutionary group who are directing their bombs and rhetoric toward correctional institutions, corporations (Safeway Markets), public utilities (Seattle City Light) and were recently involved in a local bank robbery on 1/23/76, in which an alleged member of the GJB was killed at the scene," an internal FBI memo stated. "Bombing of Safeway was protest of the 'criminal exploitation' by Safeway of farm workers, store clerks, and the general public."
That January 1976 robbery of the Pacific National Bank of Washington in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila was a disaster. Sherman, Mead and Seidel pulled ski masks over their faces and walked into the bank to "expropriate" its cash for the cause. It ended with Seidel bleeding out on the marble floor. Mead and Sherman were captured and arrested. Sherman had been shot in the jaw.

Six weeks later, Cook and another Brigade member freed Sherman in a daring "rescue" operation as Sherman was being transferred from a medical facility to jail. One of them shot Sherman's guard, Virgil Johnson, in the stomach. Johnson would survive the attack. Cook was arrested the next day. The rest of the Brigade headed for Oregon, where they began a new crime spree and tried to find someplace safe to hideout.

They robbed banks in Oregon, they wrote in an open letter, because "there can be no revolution without money -- for weapons, explosives, survival, organizing, printing, etc. The people are poor. We will make the ruling class pay for its own destruction by expropriating our funds from them and their banks."

Conscious of the need to get their side of the story out there, they publicly critiqued their failings during the Tukwila bank robbery, offering an unusual combination of incisive analysis and the kind of self-delusion common to true believers. They wrote in the open letter:
"We have so far identified the following tactical criticisms of the Tukwila action: 1) We were unprepared for the level of violence that the pigs were willing to bring down on us and the innocent people in the bank. We should have had better combat training. 2) We waited too long to open fire on the pigs. We should have fired without hesitation on the first pig to arrive.

Failure to do this allowed the police to murder our comrade while he was trying to surrender, and endangered everyone in the bank. 3) A silent alarm was tripped when we removed all of the money from a teller's drawer. When the phone began to ring to authenticate the alarm, our comrades should have split immediately with whatever they had in their hands. Instead, they stayed to clean out the safe. 4) Our comrades across the street should have had more firepower than they did. We had an enormous tactical advantage which we were unable to exploit because it took so long to bring the superior firepower that we did have into action. 5) Our getaway route was excellent. Comrades were able to remain in the area, firing on the pigs until the three comrades inside the bank were taken into custody, and still get away clean. Overall, this action failed because we were not prepared to meet police terrorism with a sufficient level of revolutionary violence."

The letter then addressed the later rescue of Sherman.

"In the course of the escape raid it became necessary to shoot the police officer guarding Sherman," the communiqué continued. "We did not shoot officer Johnson in retaliation for Bruce's murder. In fact, it was our intention to avoid shooting him. He was shot because he failed to cooperate as fully as possible with the comrade who was assigned to him. One of the many lessons we learned from Tukwila is that we cannot afford to give the police any slack when confronting them. While we don't particularly want to shoot police, we don't particularly care either. We will shoot without hesitation any police officer who endangers us."

This "we don't particularly care" attitude about shooting police officers did not gin up the public support they had expected. But they didn't back away from it.

"I try to avoid using the word 'terrorist,' because it's a word that's used to shut down analysis rather than enhance it," says Burton-Rose. "But in the case of the Brigade, they referred to themselves as terrorists." He says they embraced the Ho Chi Minh saying, "When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out."

In Creating a Movement With Teeth, a documentary history of the group, the ex-convicts in the George Jackson Brigade say their actions were both a result and an extension of their years behind bars.

"We get out (of prison) and we don't distinguish between cops and prison guards," Cook said of the group's attitude toward the police. "It took me years to understand that cops and prison guards weren't the same. When you first get out you just see them as guards and it's easy for ex-prisoners to get together and deal with them like we're still in prison."

In short, they were out of prison but still viewed themselves as prisoners.

"It is minimum-security to us," Brown said.

"Our leash is a little longer," added Mead.

Brigade members admired the California-based Symbionese Liberation Army, famed for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst and led by ex-con Donald DeFreeze.

Despite their string of successful bank robberies, the Brigade would soon come to an end in Oregon. On the run, they were down to four members: Sherman, Brown, Bertram and Therese Coupez.

Hoping in vain for outside help in slipping into the radical underground, which didn't really exist anymore, they did their best to build up their worker-rights, "people power" bona fides.
They backed a machinists' strike against car dealers in Burien, Wash. In an open letter, they encouraged strike supporters to put sugar in the gas tanks of cars on the dealers' lots and break windows at dealerships. "Use bricks, slingshots, small arms, etc. Slash their tires too!" They recommended putting superglue in the locks of buildings and cars. "This is easy and it works great!"

"An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us!" they wrote. "The bosses need us, but we don't need the bosses!"

In November 1977, the FBI arrested Brown, which only cemented the Brigade's reputation as a collection of dangerous thugs. The Associated Press reported that in the house where Brown was staying, the FBI discovered a list of individuals the Brigade wanted to kidnap, including Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.

The FBI refused to confirm there was a kidnap list "because we don't want to give the George Jackson Brigade people any more publicity. That's what they're after," said District Director John Reed. "We're not calling it a list. We're issuing a disclaimer that any list exists."

Law enforcement prepared for another escape attempt. When Brown was brought into the U.S. Courthouse in Portland for the first time, officers took up positions around every entrance to the building, "just in case there were lots of visitors suddenly," U.S. Marshall Wallace Bowen deadpanned.

No one tried to break Brown out of custody. "Ms. Brown, clad in brown corduroy jeans and a brown, striped sweater, waived reading of federal grand jury indictments returned earlier this year in Portland accusing her of five counts of bank robbery and two of felonious possession of a firearm," The Oregonian reported. She would accept a deal from the prosecution and plead guilty.

Sherman and the two other remaining Brigade members soon were captured, too. Their revolution ended with a whimper, not a bang. Which might be one of the reasons Burrough decided to bypass the group in his otherwise comprehensive history of the era's radical underground. The drama came early on, then quickly petered out.

Still, even in defeat, the Brigade remained defiant. "The rich are becoming richer and fewer," The Oregonian quoted Brown as saying at her sentencing hearing in 1978.

"The poor, she said, can continue to 'live in fear of the state and its ever-growing police forces,' or they can choose to fight back. 'I have chosen to fight back, to resist,' she declared."

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Belloni sentenced Brown to 25 years in prison for bank robbery.

Now that the Brigade was behind bars and not seeking help to keep going, area radicals came out to support them. About 75 people packed the Portland courtroom for Brown's sentencing. They chanted, "The people united will never be defeated."

Editorialized The Oregonian: "Judge Belloni let the demonstrators vent their feelings without interruption, undoubtedly saving time, trouble and money by not taking legal notice of them. The whole episode seems to demonstrate the uselessness, the aimlessness of the out-of-step minds that drive persons such as Rita Brown to back away from society and bury themselves in a prison cell for 25 years."

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Inside Harvard's Sexist History on Ravishly

In this excerpt from the upcoming book Verita$, writer Shin Eun-jung provides a chilling inside look at the misogyny of Harvard's early years—and some of its more recent years, as well.


Ravishly.com
April 1st, 2015

From its origins, Harvard was a university for men, by men, and of men. Even decades after the first wave of feminism had won the right to vote in 1920, Harvard refused to admit women. At that time it was commonly assumed that women's brains were too small to execute complicated intellectual work. So it might be unfair to single out Harvard as particularly harsh to women. Although Harvard questioned women's capacities, it never denied their donations.

From the start, women were important benefactors of Harvard. Lady Mowlson (Anne Radcliffe) was one of the earliest female philanthropists, for whom Radcliffe, the women's educational institute that opened in 1879, was named. As early as 1732, Dorothy Saltonstall donated money for poor scholars. Generous female contributions continued to help Harvard survive financial difficulties. In the middle of the 19th century, a new wave of female supporters desired to enroll at the university that their ancestors had helped. Rather than remaining just generous benefactors, they had dreams to attend Harvard, which were considered a dangerous potential disruption of the social order by most of the gentlemen leading society. Subsequently, Harvard's history involved brutal quarrels as women, blacks, and minorities tried to climb over Harvard's high threshold while the white establishment did all they could to obstruct them. 

Many women who tried to enroll at Harvard drank a bitter cup of disappointment. In 1848, Harriot K. Hunt, who had practiced medicine in Boston for 15 years, applied to Harvard Medical School but failed because of student protests. Three years later, after students passed resolutions opposing her being allowed to attend lectures, she wrote, "The class at Harvard in 1851, have purchased for themselves a notoriety they will not covet in years to come." In 1879, a $10,000 fund was offered to the Medical School on the condition of women's admission, but it was turned down. For more than a century, protests and furious arguments continued in connection with women's acceptance into Harvard. This struggle wasn't limited to the Harvard Medical School; the dispute over coeducation brought huge debates within the community.

Charles Eliot, who took office as the president of Harvard in 1869, firmly believed coeducation was impossible. His philosophy was made crystal clear in his inaugural address: "The Corporation will not receive woman as students into the College proper, nor into any school whose discipline requires residence near the school. The difficulties involved in a common residence of hundreds of young men and women of immature character and marriageable age are very grave. The necessary police regulations are exceedingly burdensome. . . . The world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex."

As a sophisticated scientist, Eliot dodged the mystery of women's mental capacities, but if you read his words carefully, you can see he was just worried about male students being disturbed by females. Although many feminists criticized his narrowmindedness, Eliot wasn't alone. It was common sense at that time that women were intellectually inferior, that if women received too much education, it would harm their health and create problems for them to have children. 

In 1879, the Harvard Annex, a private non-degree program for women taught by Harvard professors, opened. It was welcomed both by women who were thirsty for knowledge and Harvard professors who would receive extra bonuses for repeating the same lectures. Though the Annex successfully enrolled 200 students within 15 years, Eliot and the Corporation remained opposed to a women's department at Harvard. In 1894, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts chartered the Annex as Radcliffe College. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the widow of prominent Professor Louis Agassiz, became the first president. As it became one of the most prestigious higher educational institutions for women, Radcliffe produced many distinguished women such as Helen Keller and Gertrude Stein.

Between 1837 and 1889, seven liberal arts colleges for women, the so-called "seven sisters," were founded in the northeastern United States: Mount Holyoke College, Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, and Radcliffe. At the same time as women's desire for higher education was undeniable, in 1920, after years of demands, women finally obtained suffrage, changing their social status dramatically. In 1919, Harvard appointed its first female professor, Alice Hamilton, an assistant professor in industrial medicine at Harvard Medical School. The medical school made three conditions for Hamilton's appointment: not to use the Harvard Club, no access to faculty football tickets, and not to march in commencement parades or appear on the commencement stage with university leadership. Hamilton accepted these demands and became the first female faculty member at Harvard. In 1935, when she reached retirement age, Harvard lost its sole female professor and became once again an exclusively male haunt.

Women were still not allowed to attend classes in Harvard Yard, so Harvard professors used to teach the same material to Radcliffe women after they taught the boys in the yard. This strange tradition continued until World War II, when classes were merged only because there were not enough professors since many had joined the war. Beginning in 1943, Radcliffe students began to take classes in Harvard Yard, and by 1947, most classes became coeducational. In 1948, a historian, Helen Maud Cam, became the first tenured female professor at Harvard.

Until the late 1960s, there remained very few female tenured professors. Margaret Gullette, Radcliffe Class of 1962, remembered that she had no opportunity to study with female professors. "There were no women. I was never taught by a woman when I was an undergraduate. [There was] nobody. There was only one woman faculty member who was a full-time senior faculty person, and she was in astronomy, and I just didn't take astronomy."

Harvard's male-oriented atmosphere had deep impact on the students. With great honesty, Margaret Gullette told me a bitter anecdote. One day in a writing class, a professor gave students an assignment to write "I wish I were a . . ." While some students wittily wrote, "I wish I were a polar bear," she wrote, "I wish I were a man."

In the 1960s, as the civil rights and anti-war movements reached their culmination, feminism unfolded dramatically, producing huge changes in women's lives and stirring up Harvard as well. In 1963, Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was opened to women, and Radcliffe students received Harvard diplomas. Nonetheless, the number of male faculty far outnumbered female faculty. The following chart comparing the number of male and female teachers ("officers") at Harvard in the late 1960s clearly demonstrates the imbalance of Harvard's employment policy.

Over the years, Harvard has made dramatic changes. In 1977, Harvard and Radcliffe signed an agreement to merge the two institutions, and 22 years later, they officially became one. Today, more than half of undergraduates are females. To keep pace with these changes, Harvard has tried to hire more female professors. According to Harvard's official records, between 2011 and 2012, some 22% of professors were women, as were 33% of assistants and associates. Considering there were only three women tenured professors in the middle of the 1950s, that is rapid progress.

In 2001, Lawrence Summers became president. During five years of his presidency, the number of tenured female faculty decreased visibly. In 2004, Harvard offered 32 tenured positions, but only four to women. The following year, Summers delivered a remarkable speech in which he explained that innate differences might explain the reason women are less successful in science and math careers. Reactions to his remarks (and to his poor treatment of African American faculty) were so intense that he was compelled to resign. As Harvard tried to clean up the mess Summers left, he was replaced by Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female president in Harvard's history. According to the March 12, 2010, New York Times article "Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard," various new programs were created to support women in science and research careers as well as to hire more tenured women professors. Harvard financially supported childcare.

While there is still a long way to go, Harvard is changing. Looking at it today, it is hard to imagine that it was a place exclusively for rich, white males—which it was less than a century ago.

It is not as easy as it used to be to enroll at Harvard just because you were born with a golden ticket. No more discrimination or being forbidden entering into a library because your chromosome is XX. These changes didn't happen automatically but because people struggled and fought continually from inside and outside Harvard. The future of Harvard depends upon what kinds of universities we dream and dare to create.

This is a sneak peek from Verita$: Harvard's Hidden History, which will be released by PM Press on July 1, 2015. Pre-order a copy here.

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Positive Force: A Review in RazorCake

By Lisa Weiss
RazorCake
March 19th, 2015

The DC punk scene is probably the best documented in the world. There’s Banned in DC, a photo book that came out at the end of the ‘80s and Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, a thick tome chronicling DC-area non-mainstream rock. Recently, Dave Grohl (he played drums in Scream) took viewers down the Sonic Highway through the District for a chat with Don Zientara, the producer of most of the Dischord catalog. As of this writing, I am praying to the Madonna of Dupont Circle that the Oakland screening of Salad Days: The DC Punk Revolution will not sell out. Do we really need another movie where we watch Fugazi and listen to Ian MacKaye talk about Fugazi?

The answer is yes. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if you wanted to see Fugazi and many other great bands such as Jawbox, Nation Of Ulysses, Beefeater and Fire Party—and Basque and European politico-punk bands such as Negu Gorriak and Chumbawamba—in DC, it was most often at a show put on by Positive Force. All of the shows benefitted one local organization or another, were all-ages, and five dollars. They were held in church basements in neighborhoods where condos now command high rents but then were places where tenants were organizing and Positive Force was supporting their efforts.

This film chronicles the efforts of this group through the shows they put on, the meetings they held in their community house, and the work they tried to do to affect change.It’s one thing to yell, “Fuck the system.” It’s quite another to work to keep people from getting fucked by the system. PF gave the DC scene a character not found in other places. That character, to some—myself included—felt a little puritanical at times. I lived in DC during the part of the time covered in the film, went to a couple of meetings and helped out with a couple of shows, and attended many more. It was a real culture shock when I moved to San Diego and a “benefit” show was to raise money for the drummer’s paternity test. But it was nice to drink alcohol and listen to live punk rock at the same time.

Any group of committed, idealistic, young (or young at heart) folks are bound to have disagreements, right? Well, not according to this movie. There are a couple of times where breaks in ranks are briefly mentioned, but every good documentary has a plot, and part of that plot is conflict. Instead of glossing over disagreements, it might have been more interesting to see how these folks worked through their differences.

This film is great for going beyond the music and showing that there is more to punk rock than the elements of clothing and fast music that became part of its commercialization in the early ‘90s, but, in the end, it comes off as a little too one-sided and self-congratulatory.

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page



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