Signal: 01 on Five Leaves
September 1st, 2010
September 1st, 2010
Billy Wharton is a co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. This article is based on a presentation entitled “Marxist Hijackers and Anarchist Regenerators Unite” made at the 2010 Socialist Party USA National Organizing Conference. He can be reached at whartonbilly(at)gmail.com
On March 5, 2010, after a conflict that stretched over almost 9 months, the maintenance and skilled trades workers of CEP (Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada) Local 2003 (affectionately known as the CF61) working in office towers in downtown Toronto voted to accept an offer from real estate developer Cadillac Fairview. The victory was bittersweet. On the one hand, the Cadillac Fairview workers had forced an arrogant corporation to return to the table and to do so with a substantially improved severance offer. On the other, the workers went through hell to get there and at the end of the day the jobs and the bargaining unit were lost.
Though the struggle of the workers was inspiring at many levels and could point to a partial victory, the same could not be said for the response of the broader labour movement. In this regard, the outcome was clearly negative. The movement had been tested and found wanting. When a corporation with a portfolio of $17-billion takes on a unit of 61 workers and arbitrarily sacks workers and gets rid of the union, it is the labour movement as a whole that is being challenged. Allowing this to happen without a serious pushback effectively exposes the labour movement as a paper tiger. It encourages corporations to be still more aggressive – if this is happening in unionized plants, it's not hard to imagine what is happening in non-union workplaces and to much more vulnerable part-time and contract workers (a hint of this was evident in the recent lockout of UNITE-HERE workers at the Woodbine Racetrack).
Unless and until the movement collectively figures out how to reorganize itself to match what it is up against in these times, things are going to get a lot worse for working people. Before turning to what such an alternative response might involve, it's useful to summarize some of the background to the Cadillac-CEP conflict.
Cadillac Fairview is “one of North America's largest investors, owners and managers of commercial real estate.” This includes 84 properties, the most prominent of which are the Toronto-Dominion Centre and Toronto Eaton Centre, the Pacific Centre in the heart of downtown Vancouver, the Chinook Centre in Calgary and Fairview Ponte Claire in Montreal. Cadillac is fully owned by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (OTPP). The Plan's fund includes monies contributed not just by the government as employer but also the teachers, yet its decisions are independent of any teacher or union control.
In May 2009, the company announced it would outsource or get rid of 20-30% of the workforce. It refused to increase severance payments for those whose jobs would be lost beyond the legally mandated minimum levels and – astoundingly even in this era of corporate extremism – it asked all the workers to give up their seniority and reapply for their jobs with six-month probationary periods. If subsequently dismissed, severance pay would be based on their new seniority, not the seniority they previously had. When the workers refused, the corporation waited until the agreement was over and on that day, June 14th, 2009, Cadillac Fairview locked out and replaced all the workers. A month later the company officially fired them. (On December 10, 2009 the corporation went so far as to use a Toronto by-law to force the workers to shut down their shelters outside the TD Centre).
The decisive factors to Cadillac's bottom line are trends in real estate values and corporate occupancy; the labour costs of the workers who maintain Cadillac's shopping malls and office buildings are marginal to its profitability. In the first stages of negotiating the latest agreement with Local 2003, worker concessions weren't even raised. Then the financial crisis hit and Cadillac was under pressure to cut every corner possible. Because it could do very little about the larger economic issues or affect its relationships to other businesses, it looked to place the burden on its workers. That it expected little or no serious response from the labour movement as a whole left Cadillac Fairview more confident in this attack.
Cadillac Fairview's turn to gutting worker's rights wasn't, in other words, about its survival or even about any significant impact on its profitability. It was about leaving more for its executives and stockholders. Ultimately, Cadillac Fairview acted as it did because it could.
In 1960, a group of workers separated from their international union and formed the Canadian Union of Operating Engineers and General Workers. That union was subsequently a founding member of a new national body, the Canadian Council of Unions in 1968. In 2003, they joined the Communication, Energy and Paper Union of Canada – itself the product of a merger between three unions that had broken away from their U.S.-based parent in the 1970s to move beyond the limits of American-style unionism.
In the thirty years before the last round of negotiations Local 2003 had many conflicts with their employer but no strikes. In this round of bargaining and especially as the implications of the financial crisis became more apparent, the local's demands were extremely modest. The corporation was obviously not looking for a settlement but a chance to break the union and even before the lockout began, the union had filed a bad-faith bargaining charge against the corporation - a charge that the courts subsequently decided merited a labour board hearing. The local set aside any new demands and accepted the corporation's decision to outsource work, concentrating its bargaining on getting decent severance packages for those losing their jobs. The local of course rejected transferring existing work to lower-wage categories and the outrageous corporate demand for everyone to give up seniority and ‘re-apply’ for their jobs.
While the union rejected the company agreement, it did not look to go on strike; it offered to keep working until a new agreement was reached. Cadillac Fairview wasn't however interested. As for the union's labour board complaint, the company's lawyers were able to get this put off until April 2010 (another example of the thin justice the law offers workers and a contrast to the speed with which companies get injunctions and bankers get government attention).
Once on the street, the local ran 24-hour picket lines for six months and then continued picketing Monday-Friday through the rest of the lockout. It organized some 15 solidarity rallies with folk and freedom singers including over 1000 supporters during the OFL Convention and a morning rush hour blockade. Knowing full well that the residents of the TD Centre in the heart of Bay Street were not going to respond sympathetically – the local organized a series of creative disruptions in the TD Centre – from launching huge banners and messages on helium balloons to parading through the crowds with giant grim reaper puppets and a daily barrage of air raid, ambulance, and police sirens. And with its limited resources, it spread its leafleting to other Cadillac properties.
On February 26, 2010 – more than eight months after the lockout began – the national union, CEP, informed the workers that the company had come around to a bargained end to the dispute and that an agreement (details withheld) had been reached which would be voted on the following week. What got Cadillac Fairview to the table was first, the stubborn determination of the workers to continue fighting and keep the issue alive. Second, it was pretty obvious that the now approaching labour board hearings would concur that Cadillac Fairview had blatantly disregarded the province's labour laws. Though this was coming late in the day and a ruling restoring workers to their jobs seemed out of the question, the expected ruling and its publicity did put some pressure on the company to end the conflict.
That pressure was primarily manifested through the owner of Cadillac Fairview, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. The Pension Plan administrators had been increasingly criticized for their anti-social investments on a number of fronts (from water privatization in Chile to investments in the arms trade) and so it was sensitive to the additional negative attention it would receive as the hearings proceeded. Reliable sources suggest that the Pension Plan administrators basically told Cadillac Fairview to settle before the April hearings.
The ratification meeting was held on March 5, 2010. Though a minority of the workers remained angrily opposed, a clear majority voted to accept it. This was not surprising. By then almost half the workers had other jobs and were not interested in returning. Others simply didn't want to work for Cadillac Fairview anymore and preferred to get a good severance package. Of those who did want the jobs again, few considered getting them back as being realistic at this stage. And the severance the corporation had been forced to offer was in fact quite significant: basically triple and in some cases more than four times the legislated minimums. The workers could therefore leave Cadillac Fairview with the dignity that comes with having taken on the fight, forced an insensitive corporation to retreat, and made – albeit qualified – gains.
The Labour Movement
The failures of the labour movement didn't lie in any lack of sympathy for the Cadillac Fairview workers or unwillingness to demonstrate periodic support. The CEP continued to pay strike pay. The Teachers' unions publically expressed their anger and frustration at the involvement of ‘their’ pension fund in attacking Local 2003. The OFL highlighted the lockout at its convention and brought its delegates out to an impressive demonstration at the TD Centre. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council (TYRLC) – one of the most progressive in the country if not on the continent – tried to generate further solidarity. And a small number of individual union activists regularly came down to the TD Centre to join the picket line.
None of this, however, spoke to the imbalance in power confronting a particular group of workers, the changing context in which workers are struggling, or to the serious implications of such conflicts for all workers. The movement seemed to be going through the traditional gestures of solidarity, rather than moving to the kind of creative and radical collective actions that might actually represent a winning strategy.
There was, for example, no clear determination on the part of CEP (perhaps overwhelmed by massive job losses and demands for concessions elsewhere) to make this struggle into a province-wide crusade against Cadillac Fairview, especially at a moment in time – the financial and housing crisis - when financiers and large developers were so discredited. Nor was there any strategic determination on the part of labour that the weak link was the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and the consequent need to raise the stakes by joining with others also fighting the narrow use of the Plan to maximize returns (including dealing with the need, at a minimum, for workers to be able to block their pension money being used to break unions).
There was no tactical consideration given to how to overcome the media's disinterest in a struggle that was becoming invisible. This could only have been addressed with the kind of direct actions that the media couldn't ignore and the local couldn't pull off on its own – such as sit-ins backed by mass outside support, at the tenants of Cadillac Fairview that might be most sensitive to public opinion (like the TD Bank), or directly at the offices of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Though Cadillac Fairview could comfortably ride out the occasional protest, there was no plan for sustained and escalating tactics to get the message across that far from fading away, the conflict would be escalated and become increasingly prominent.
Toward Class-Based Struggles
The conflict revealed not only the fragility of union rights in the province and the weakness of one local going it alone, but pointed to a broader strategic failure in the labour movement. The crisis we've been experiencing is not only about plant closures, concessions and attacks on public sector workers and social programs; it's also about a crisis within the labour movement. The movement has been under attack for some three decades now and has emerged with lower expectations and a narrower sense of possibilities. That it was working people, rather than the economic elite, that is coming out of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-10 on the defensive speaks volumes about the state of our movement. We have not come to grips with is that what we face isn't just a series of specific problems confronting particular workers, but an assault on workers as a class and the corresponding need for a class response.
What might this mean? To begin with, this is not just a Canadian problem: it is one facing workers everywhere. It goes far beyond ‘bad leaders’ and gets to the most difficult and intimidating questions. Not only do we need to figure out how to defend ourselves in a new context but – because defence is not enough (those with power will eventually wear you down) – how we simultaneously organize ourselves to transform a society that has become a barrier to human solidarity and progress.
History puts this in some perspective. In the 1930s, workers came to the conclusion that the main form of unionism then, craft-based unionism (which only organized skilled workers), was inadequate to what they faced. They essentially invented a new organizational form that brought all workers in a sector together: industrial unionism (‘reinvented’ might be the better term since such unionism had earlier roots, but it was only in these years that industrial unionism came into its own). Industrial unionism, including its extension to the public sector, was always limited by the fact that, while it brought groups of workers together, it didn't organize workers as a class. This didn't prevent workers from making major gains, especially when economic growth could be taken for granted and the fight was over the distribution of that growth. But once growth slowed down and in response corporations and governments became more aggressive, the limits of this form of organization were exposed.
The labour movement did not, however, move on to new forms and this is what must now be placed on the agenda. Fragmented as we are, we're sitting ducks. We need to develop new organizational forms that see workers as members of a larger class. Workers have interests that go far beyond their workplace - class is expressed in all aspects of our lives from the schools our children attend to the health care we receive to access to public transportation, to the environment. Moreover, those in the same boat as us are not just unionized workers but all those who don't have capital to live off – non-union workers, the unemployed, new workers coming to Canada, the disabled and the poor.
It is not obvious what such new forms might be. But one such form – now being experimented with under the auspices of the Greater Toronto Workers' Assembly – tries to bring workers together on a class-based, community-rooted basis. This means gathering activists from across unions and community campaigns with the hope of linking up to other such formations that might subsequently be built in other cities and communities.
This does not mean that unions are irrelevant: unions continue to have a vital role and in the context of broader organizations like the Assembly, the relevance of unions can even be greater. But that can only happen if unions are themselves transformed. This is not just a matter of replacing leaders and introducing more radical rhetoric. If unions are to act to build class power, then everything about them will have to be changed. Unions will have to re-examine their priorities, and strategies, how they conduct strikes and campaigns, the focus of their research departments and the content of internal education.
They will also need to rethink the relationships of leaders to their members and the depth of internal democracy, as well as links to other unions and potential allies in the community. And it means expanding customary visions of social justice to naming what we are fighting against – capitalism.
Experience suggests that few union leaders are ready to take on the risks and responsibilities this entails. It also suggests that on their own and in the face of economic uncertainties, rank-and-file workers are unlikely to develop the confidence to force such internal changes. Such revolutions inside unions can only happen through worker activists drawing strength from the creation of networks across workplaces (and across unions) and with support outside the unions. Part of the work of the new class organizations raised above is to facilitate and support such networks.
Looking back to the struggle at Cadillac Fairview, Steve Craig – the Chief Steward of the unit – concluded that “people need to realize that we do have power. Corporations need to feel the heat and workers need to crank it up.” The Cadillac Fairview struggle showed that groups of workers will and can fight but also that this is not enough. We need a new kind of labour movement that can amplify Craig's sentiments. If the left doesn't develop new organizational forms and strategies, corporations and states will exhaust the best in the working class and unions will drift toward simply accommodating to what they face – getting the best deal in the circumstances without challenging the ‘circumstances’ – while workers adjust their private lives, out of necessity, to individual survival. The status quo is disappearing as a choice. We will either make the leap into new forms of class mobilization or find ourselves continuing to slide into ever more ineffective stances to defend the gains of a receding past. •
Sam Gindin is the Visiting Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University, Toronto.
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By Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin
July 20, 2010
Provincal Finance Minister Dwight Duncan speaks to the media at Ryerson University prior to delivering his March budget that focused on debt reduction. This week he meets public sector union leaders to discuss a wage freeze.
The 2007-8 financial crash was, in terms of its global impact, the greatest in history. It was only prevented from immediately triggering another Great Depression by governments in so many countries taking on the enormous private debt of their banks.
Nevertheless, the economic fallout was immense. Even while tax revenues fell as businesses closed and workers were laid off, many governments felt compelled to maintain their spending. Looking for safety in numbers, the G20 (an entirely marginal group until George W. Bush convened it in late 2008) proved useful to coordinate a global stimulus.
Two years later, with the banks having dumped so much debt on the public sector and their profits on the rise, bond traders were feeling confident enough again to dispense the bankers’ old orthodoxies on the evils of public debt.
Even though the growth in state deficits was directly the product of bailing out the banks, the loss of revenue and the emergency spending, governments were expected to shift their policy priorities to public sector austerity. The G20 was reconvened in Toronto to reassure financial markets that they heard the message.
All this serves as a better definition of chutzpah than the old joke about the kid who, after killing his parents, begs the judge for clemency on the grounds he is an orphan.
The hammer is about to hit right here in Ontario.
Despite the relative insulation of Bay Street from the financial collapse, the provincial economy took a major hit. With its deficit projected at $21.3 billion, the Liberal government’s March budget focused almost entirely on debt reduction. Apart from putting on hold essential public transit expansion and reducing food assistance for the disabled (while keeping corporate tax cuts in place), it also imposed a two-year wage freeze on 350,000 non-unionized government workers.
This week, even though data on first quarter economic growth has shown the deficit projections were too high, the other shoe dropped. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan summoned public sector union representatives to Queen’s Park to discuss a broader public sector freeze.
If implemented, the immediate effect of this can only be to cut the feet from under the economic growth that has occurred. Rather than cooperate in this, it is very much to be hoped that the unions will undertake a broad campaign to expose how unreasonable and irrational, let alone unimaginative and unjust, is public sector austerity in this crisis.
The possibility that the worst is not over, and we could yet face a long stagnation if not a global depression, does indeed make it incumbent on the Ontario government, like every other, to take the crisis very seriously indeed.
Its effect on government revenues is the real immediate problem, and since we are dealing with a crisis of once-in-a-life-time dimensions, the remedy should be an emergency once-in-a-life time emergency tax on those who accumulated the most wealth over the past quarter century from asset inflation while workers’ incomes stagnated in both the public and private sectors.
The Ontario government should also be expected to take advantage of the lowest interest rates on public debt in memory and use its borrowing capacity to keep economic growth going in the face of the banks’ hesitancy to lend to businesses and consumers, alongside industry’s own reluctance to invest.
One would have thought that a government of a liberal stripe that was at all creative might want in this context to emulate Franklin Roosevelt and undertake the rebuilding of our public infrastructure through direct expansion of public employment.
This is all the more important given the demands of the environmental crisis and the closure of plants and waste of skills that could be converted and applied to productive use. Rather than freezing the public sector, this moment should be an opportunity to address the crisis in the transportation sector that is so vital to Ontario’s whole economy, as measured not only in auto industry shutdowns and layoffs but in notorious traffic congestion on our roads.
This would mean converting auto assembly and parts plants to the production of energy efficient mass transit vehicles and using the tax revenues from the jobs generated thereby to fund free public transit. If there was ever a time to use Ontario’s capacity to raise funds in bond markets for this, it is now.
Far from placing a burden on future generations, it would guarantee them a future.
Of course, one would expect a union campaign to set out a vision for what a more radical government would do. This crisis has proved — by the state’s guarantee of deposits in Canada, and by its acting as lender of last resort almost everywhere — that finance effectively is a public utility. The argument that financing an economy is too important to be left to private banks is waiting to be heard.
What must be brought onto the agenda in face of the pressures that unelected bankers, with astonishing chutzpah, are putting on governments is the need for banking to be turned into a democratic public utility. The money the people of Ontario entrust to their banking system could then be used to meet our society’s real needs.
Leo Panitch is Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Sam Gindin is the Packer Chair in Social Justice at York University. Their recent book, with Greg Albo, In and Out of Crisis, is available in Canada from
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By Lucy Robinson
Department of History, University of Sussex
Anarchist Studies Journal 18.1, 2010
One of Britain’s few home-grown terrorist groups, the Angry Brigade, found innovative ways of embarrassing the Heath government for the year following August 1970. The Brigade were the impetus behind the establishment of the Bomb squad, and the centre of a conspiracy trial that was of record length; and the case fuelled a public belief in police corruption, and the role of personal vendetta in prosecution and investigation. Always diverse in its engagement, the Brigade’s claimed successes included attacks on the boutique Biba and the BBC outside-broadcast van at London’s Miss World competition. This DVD of a documentary from 1973 was therefore broadcast on a channel that had earlier been targeted by the Brigade.
The release of the documentary on DVD is timely. In a post-9/11 world, Europe and America are re-evaluating their own past flirtations with terror. The Angry Brigade documentary, made in 1973, makes explicit the links between past state violence and contemporary acts of terrorism. It also fits well with the current growing interest in the 1970s. Historians are currently turning towards the 1970s as a period in its own right rather than as an addendum to ‘the sixties’, so discussions of the Angry Brigade can act as a counterweight to previous nostalgic celebrations of popular culture, wide surveys of the ‘long sixties’1or the recent revisionist return to top-down histories of Dominic Sandbrook.
If we want to know about the impact of the Angry Brigade and the conspiracy trials, the aftermath is a useful place to start. For those involved, and those accused, the real politicisation occurred through the experiences of being identified, investigated, prosecuted and incarcerated. The conspiracy charges became self-fulfilling, as the networks around the court cases built up lines of support and defence and hardened political positions. When Angie Weir and Kate Maclean were interviewed in Time Out shortly after being found not guilty, they made it clear that their experiences of the trial had encouraged them to move towards a Marxist analysis.3John Barker was sentenced to ten years in prison, and his account of his time inside shows how his experiences in prison solidified what had previously been an abstracted class-based analysis.
Furthermore, through the inclusion on the DVD of Persons Unknown, a short documentary about the prosecution of sections of the anarcho-punk scene in 1980s Britain, the Angry Brigade are no longer placed at the end zone of a long sixties, proof that the dove of peace and peacock of counter-cultural performance are inevitably turned towards the black hawk. Instead, the Angry Brigade, and with it the 1970s, are presented as historically significant in and of themselves, with legacies and hangovers of their own. The legal threat represented by conspiracy charges continued, as did the Angry Brigade’s style of Situationist and anarchist influenced resistance. Persons Unknown shows us how both the charges, and the resistance, were translated through punk rock, by bringing together rare footage of Crass, cut against interviews with the Angry Brigade’s Stuart Christie on his island retreat.
As a documentary Angry Brigade is very much a product of its time, more Blue Peter than Boy Scouts guide to Situationism. What this DVD does, however, is show us documentary norms and aesthetics within their historical context – it provides a study in producing a politically engaged documentary from within, raising a key issue from the trial. The accused, largely connected through their involvement in the underground or counter-cultural press, were confronted with press silence, or bias, during the trial. And the controversy around the trial also focused on a central issue shared by documentary theorists –what constitutes a document (or evidence)?
In parts The Angry Brigade was a re-educational project, providing accessible explanations of communal living and collectivised childcare, or the difference between communism and grassroots direct action. The section that uses the trial to summarise Debord’s Society of the Spectacleturns the critique back on the documentary producers themselves. However, much of this is not new to today’s viewer, largely because the style and content have been picked up in other forms since.
The same images are used in the existing books on the Brigade–for example The Guardian cartoon of the Stoke Newington 8–as are the same photos of protagonists (some of the photos of the defendants had reproduction royalties held by the accused –so reporting the trials unwittingly supported the defence team). There are already two sets of documents, chronology and commentary on the Brigade
available in printed form: Jean Weir’s 1978 pamphlet Angry Brigade, 1967-84: Documents and Chronology is still regularly reprinted, as is Tom Vague’s contribution to English Psychogeography, Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade. This isn’t a criticism based on repetition;actually it seems wholly appropriate. These shared images, symbols and aesthetics, in their shared cut-and-paste style, exemplified British Situationism’s ‘look at the cracks’ approach to narrative.
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By Martin O’Shaughnessy,
Nottingham Trent University
Anarchist Studies Journal 18.1 2010
A promising-looking new publication for those interested in anarchism and culture, Arena presents itself as a journal that ‘will bring together stimulating writing and scholarship on all aspects of libertarian culture, arts, life and politics’.
The first number focuses on cinema and is edited by Richard Porton, author of the well known book Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso, 1999). Porton’s introduction begins by asking what we mean when we speak of an anarchist cinema. Are we referring to films about the historical experience of anarchism and anarchists, or would we broaden our definition to take in anti-authoritarian works made by non-anarchists? Porton’s own answer is to suggest that, despite a variety of styles and political origins, most ‘anarchist’ films promote self-emancipation and are inspired by the tradition of decentralised anarchist pedagogy.
The very diverse set of articles that follow might be seen as building on the thrust of this argument. Some engage with the largely neglected and inevitably discontinuous history of anarchist involvement in film, and use of film as political pedagogy: the short-lived Cinéma du Peuple co-operative that emerged in France in 1913-14; anarchist cinema during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939; the career of Armand Guerra, an important film-maker who linked these two periods; anarchist Gustave Cauvin’s pioneering development of educational film.
Other articles discuss the success or failure of films that set out to represent moments and figures in anarchist history: Theo Angelopoulos’s Alexander the Great(1980), William Keddell’s The Maintenance of Silence(1985), a film about New Zealander Ian Robert’s 1982 suicide-bombing of the national police computer data-base. A cluster of articles shift the focus to the present, looking at anarchist film festivals, the use of video recording to record police repression, and, more broadly, the diverse range of anarchist video in the new century.
Collectively, the pieces give a sense of the breadth and variety of anarchist cinema, and do important work by bringing neglected historical moments and marginalised practices into visibility. They also underscore how a rounded analysis of anarchist cinema needs to embrace both analysis of film form (notably the adequacy of formal choices to content) and political economy (the conditions of film production, distribution and exhibition). They are, however, uneven.
Emeterio Diez’s long piece on anarchist cinema in the Spanish Civil War is formidably well researched and packed with information, but needed more structure and a more developed analysis. Isabelle Marinoine’s piece on Cauvin could have explored his political evolution with a little more critical distance. Pieces by Russell Campbell and Dan Georgiakis on Keddell and Angelopoulos respectively carry out productive formal analysis;while Andrew Lee’s account of Vicente Aranda’s star- studded Libertariasrightly underscores the film’s superficial treatment of its subject, the anarchist feminists who fought in the Civil War. Andrew Hedden’s article on contemporary anarchist video is of considerable current relevance. By
developing an analysis of an e-mail survey carried out with over fifty self-identified individuals and groups involved in anarchist video production around the world, the article provides a fascinating account of how people reflect on their own film- making practice and the problems they face.
One telling section underscores the tendency of the image to be drawn to the spectacular dimension of demonstrations with a resultant neglect of less photogenic political activities. Overall, despite its unevenness, the journal issue provides productive ways to think about anarchist film-making. It will be interesting to see how the journal develops and how it deals with other areas of cultural production.
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by Jason Urban
September 6th, 2010
Coincidentally, this a good follow-up to the Labor Day post below featuring Josh MacPhee’s Labor Creates ALL Wealth poster.
PM Press sent Printeresting a review copy of Signal: 01: A Journal of International Political Graphics and it’s worth sharing.
Co-edited by Alec Icky Dunn and Josh MacPhee, and in keeping with their justseeds affiliation, Signal is “an ongoing book series dedicated to documenting and sharing compelling graphics, art projects, and cultural movements of international resistance and liberation struggles.” It’s modestly-sized but packed with content including an interview with Taller Tupac Amaru (Favianna Rodriguez, Jesus Barraza, and Melanie Cervantes make up the group), an interview with Dutch underground cartoonist Johannes van de Weert, a photo collection of IMPEACH train works, and a bunch of other worthwhile stuff.
The Taller Tupac Amaru interview is an overdue spotlight on a trio of Xicana artists operating in the East Bay area. It provides an in-depth and candid discussion of the group’s origins and motivations.
The photoessay of IMPEACH’s work includes dozens of images of his various traincar graffitiworks.
These images are from the Mexico 68 Propaganda story. It forms a nice historical bookend to the the contemporary work of Taller Tupac Amaru. Santiago Armengod talks with Felipe Hernandez Moreno, a printmaker and former member of the Mexican Student Movement.
Signal: 01 reads like a magazine in that it consists of a number of smaller, independent articles but the loose continuity of subject holds it together as a book. Most exciting is the fact that Signal is slated to be a serial effort. As a series, this is going to be a great resource. Dunn and MacPhee are filling a void in terms of political graphics; there’s a lot of material for them to cover and this is solid start. Copies of Signal: 01 are available now.
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Since the death of Larry Brown there have been at least a dozen novelists touted as the heir to Brown’s gritty throne. Needless to say, there have been few who’ve actually lived up to the promise. However, with Benjamin Whitmer’s stark debut, Pike, the Denver, Colorado based novelist easily rivals Brown’s most renowned novels. Recently I was lucky enough to contact the author to discus Pike and other upcoming writing projects.
Keith Rawson: For those who aren’t familiar with Pike, what’s the novel about?
Benjamin Whitmer: I have some kind of moron mental block when it comes to describing the book. The best I can usually come up with is to tell people it’s about four characters. The first, Pike, is a reformed drug-dealer, murderer and mule who lives in a small town in Eastern Kentucky; the second, Derrick, is a Vietnam-haunted corrupt Cincinnati cop driven half insane by his own pacemaker; the third, Rory, is an aspiring boxer carrying more than his share of family horror; and the fourth, Wendy, is the teenage girl who all three men are trying to use to redeem their pasts.
Where did the idea for Pike first get started? How did this character first come to you?
It got started with the characters of Pike and Wendy. I was living in Cincinnati at the time and spending a lot of time in Kentucky and rural southern Ohio, and I started to get this image flickering through my head of this life-battered runaway girl walking side-by-side with some big hulking bruiser. That image grew and grew — I remember feeling like I was watching the two of them fill out physically — until one day I just started writing.
You paint Cincinnati as a sharply divided, racially charged city. How much of this is fiction and how much is fact based?
I don’t think any of its fiction. Race and class cut across Cincinnati more clearly than anywhere I’ve ever been, and it’s all tied geographically. If you tell people you live in, say, West End, let alone Over-the-Rhine, you’re gonna get a completely different reaction than if you tell ‘em you live in Hyde Park or Mt. Lookout. Race and class were always in the air when I lived there. The white talk radio shock jocks didn’t even try to hid their flatout racist horseshit, the mainstream newspaper in town wasn’t much better, and, of course, the police were completely out of control. I remember six cops beating an unarmed black guy to death for being a tipsy and doing a little dance outside of a White Castle, and the reaction from the local media, not to mention around the water cooler — at least where I worked — was, “yep, he deserved it.”
Which is not to say, of course, that race and class concerns are any less omnipresent anywhere else. The divisions are just as complete where I live now, in Denver, but they’re swept under the rug to a far greater degree.
That actually segways well into my next question: What kind of cultural differences are there between Cincinnati and Denver? Do you see the same kind of have and have not divide in Denver as you saw in Cincinnati? Also, how did you end up in Denver?
I actually lived in Denver before moving to Cincinnati. My wife and I have lived out here off and on for more than a decade. We moved back there figuring the cost of living would be cheaper. It was, but at the cost of being able to find work. There’s ups and downs to both. I miss all the green of southern Ohio and Kentucky, but, then, I’ve got a big thing for the American West. Always have. And though you do see the same class divide in Denver as you do in Cincinnati, it’s not quite as overwhelming. Decent jobs with health benefits and all the stuff you need to support a family, they’re damn near impossible to come by in Cincinnati. They’re not easy to find in Denver, but it is possible with a little luck. Cincinnati’s the rust belt, and all those jobs, they’re long gone. Denver has more of a technology-driven economy of the sort that has yet to be entirely exported out of the country — though it’s disappearing fast.
Was Pike your first attempt at writing a novel and is there any of your other work floating around out in the world?
I actually wrote a practice novel before Pike, but I wake up every night in a cold sweat fighting off nightmares of somebody finding a copy. And I know there are some short stories and such out there floating around, but trust me, they’re unreadable. It took me a very long time and probably thousands of shredded manuscript pages to get through what I consider my apprentice phase. Other, more talented, people do great work when they’re young, and I’ve got nothing but admiration for them, but it took me a long time to just get the basics down, and I feel like I’m only beginning to get a bead on what writing is all about. I figure by the time I’m fifty I might write a sentence I like.
How long did it take you to finish writing Pike?
It took me about two and a half years of plugging away. It seems like it took even longer when I think back on it. I write really, really slowly, and I throw a lot away.
Why did you decide to set the novel in 1985 as opposed to writing it in a modern setting?
There were a couple of reasons, but the major one was just a matter of timing. I wanted Derrick to be a Vietnam veteran, but I also wanted him younger than Pike, and that meant I had to set it in the 1980s. I was a kid in the 1980s, but I remember Vietnam being everywhere. Every haunted cop, every suicide, every alcoholic, every fucked up family had Vietnam as the subtext, and from the minute I started thinking about this book I knew it had to have one Vietnam-ruined cop — a kind of anti-Magnum PI. I went through a lot of revisions before I landed on Derrick, but the minute I started to get him in my head, I knew he was perfect.
Do you consider yourself a crime/noir novelist or does designation/genre mean anything to you as a novelist?
I don’t know what I consider myself. I’ll admit I didn’t sit down to write a crime or a noir novel, but when my agent said that’s what it was I was happy about it. I know what makes a police procedural or a spy thriller, but to be honest, I don’t even know what makes crime fiction. I mean, does Faulkner’s Sanctuary count? How’s about Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes? Likewise, though Ellroy’s work definitely falls in the crime/noir genre, I read a review recently that compared his latest book to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that I thought was really smart.
For me, I write novels about damaged, complicated, often-violent people, because those are the kind of people that interest me. If that’s considered crime fiction, I’m honored to be part of that community. It’s includes some of the best writers in the world, genre be damned.
Pike isn’t your typical noir tough man, were there any genre templates you utilized when creating him?
I don’t know if there was a template, but I was definitely reading a lot of James Ellroy and Jim Thompson, and thinking about the way they just drop you into these massively flawed characters and don’t really ask for your approval or forgiveness. I’m not a real violent guy, not by a long shot, but I’ve known some who are, and they’re not sweethearts %99 of the time and only tough guys that other %1. The ones I’ve known are fucked up by what they are. They eat their own shit every day of their life trying to live normal lives. I kept that in mind when I was thinking of Pike’s character.
Some of the imagery in Pike really shook me, particularly Rory’s flashback of his little sister in chapter 31. Were there moments in the novel when you had to step back after writing a scene like that? Are there moments as a writer where you self censor and choose to hold back?
Yeah, sometimes I do have to step back for a minute. I tend to pace a lot, and some of those scenes set me pacing more than others. I believe I took a late-night walk around the block after the scene you’re referring to. The thing is I really do love my characters — even the ones who aren’t so lovable, like Derrick — and I get attached to them. That said, I don’t think I ever self censor in that way, not because something’s too sad or too terrible. Or, at least, I try real hard not to.
Y’know, Flannery O’Connor had a great line about her writing: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
I’m not comparing myself to O’Connor, not by any stretch of the imagination, but that line is one of those things that I always keep in the back of my head when I’m writing. And with that drawing of “large and startling figures” comes the danger of exaggerating to the point of absurdity. I try to be always vigilant against that, against crossing that line from pathos to parody. So I do self censor in that way.
Are you currently writing a follow up novel?
It took a long time to get Pike published, so I’m actually almost done with one, half done with another, and I’ve got what I think is a damn good idea for a third. I’ve had a pretty big non-fiction opportunity drop in my lap recently, though, so I’ll probably put those on hold for the next six months to a year and concentrate on that.
With your non-fiction project, is it something that you can talk about at this point?
I don’t want to say too much about the non-fiction project because the contracts haven’t been drawn up, and I’m superstitious. Generally, it’s co-writing an autobiography for a country music legend with one hell of a life’s story — somebody who’s finger prints are all over pretty much all the music I love. (Do I sound excited?) One of the coolest things is that if it all pans out it’ll be excerpts from Pike that landed me the gig.
by Benjamin Whitmer
I’m going to start with what I hope isn’t a shocking confession in the world of crime fiction: I’m a bit of a gun nut. Though admitting that in some places seems tantamount to professing an interest in pedophilia — or, perhaps worse, being a cigarette smoker — I’m hoping that it won’t shock anyone in this community. I started shooting at the age of seven, blowing the guts out of old television sets at the county dump near our home in the Appalachian foothills. Though I don’t remember what make or model that rifle was — it was a semi-automatic .22 with a seven-round magazine — I clearly remember the sight picture and the feel of the trigger.
Then, when I was a little older in St. Lawrence County, New York, I graduated to handguns. We had a neighbor who taught me the basics of pistol handling in exchange for helping him with chores on his farm. He was a Vietnam veteran who’d turned hermit, and he taught me a couple of other things, too, as I recall. Once he gave me a long lecture on how he tried to always shit where the cows did so that they wouldn’t think he thought he was better than them, and that always stuck with me. And I seem to remember a porn stash that taught me a number of other important lessons.
Anyway, as a gun nut, I thought hard about the kind of gun each of my characters carried in my first novel Pike. Given his bloody past and his age, I couldn’t see the title character, Douglas Pike, carrying anything but a wheelgun. And I knew it had to be chambered in .357 Magnum, the most powerful handgun round of any practical use when shooting people. Luckily I had one lying around: a Ruger GP100, known for being a hoss of a gun, about as rugged as a brick and twice as heavy. I gave Pike an earlier version, a Ruger Security Six, but the only substantial difference between his and mine were his custom grips: black walnut etched with eagles. When I thought up those grips I was thinking of John Brown — weird John Brown, as Melville put it — who I think shared some of his gravity and intensity with Pike, if not much of his emancipatory instinct.
Pike’s young sidekick, Rory, was a different story. He had to get his handgun from Pike, and he wasn’t very comfortable around them, so it couldn’t reflect too much of his character. So I gave him a Glock 19. I always think of Glocks as the Jim Beam of guns: you can get one anywhere, and they’ll always get the job done, but they don’t have a lot of character. That’s not a knock on Glocks, my go-to gun is a Glock 19, but in Rory’s case I purposefully wanted him using something without a whole lot of personality.
Which left Derrick, the corrupt cop at the center of my story. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and that meant he would have carried a Colt .45 1911 as his service sidearm. There’s no handgun in America with the history of the 1911, which has seen military use for a century. It was designed after the .38-caliber round employed during the Philippine-American War was found to inadequate to the task of exterminating Filipino guerillas. (And when I say exterminating, I mean exterminating: one American general gave a standing order to put a bullet in every male child in the Philippines over the age of ten.) Given its complicated and brutal history it seemed just about the perfect sidearm for Derrick. And it gave me an excuse to buy one. Which I did.
I won’t write about a gun that I haven’t fired, unless I absolutely can’t help it. I need to have that hands-on feeling. I like to do as many small things as I can to move into my characters’ bodies. I’ve gone through phases of rolling my own cigarettes, wearing cowboy boots, carrying a concealed firearm, and have even taken up a certain amount of kitchen-table gunsmithing. I try to eat what my characters eat, drink what they drink, and walk as many of the places they’ve walked as I can. Every writer does it differently, and I’m sure there are better writers than I who don’t need those kinds of touchstones, but I do. I’m usually feeling some of what my characters are feeling in their heads — that’s why I’m writing about them — but I also need to feel some of what they’re feeling in their hands.
Which means, I think, that my next protagonist will be carrying a CT Brian custom build on a Colt Combat Commander frame. The last one I saw was selling for about $6,500, but what price art?
Grandma Johnson lives alone in the forest and loves to knit sweaters and mittens for her grandchildren in the city. One day, when returning from a visit to the city, her solitude comes to an end when her mischievous forest neighbors reveal themselves in a delightfully colorful fashion. Who took her yarn, and what have they done with it?
The colorful mystery is solved when the birds, rabbits, snakes, trees, and other dwellers of Grandma Johnson's neighborhood are seen playing with the yarn. Suddenly the forest doesn't seem so lonely, and the visiting grandkids take great delight getting to know the inhabitants of Grandma's forest. This picture book is a lesson for both young and old to connect with one's surroundings and embrace the role of good neighbors with the rest of the natural world, whether in the city or in the forest.
About the Author:
Hailed as the philosopher poet of the ecological movement, Derrick Jensen is the widely acclaimed author of Endgame, A Language Older Than Words, Songs of the Dead, and How Shall I Live My Life? among many others. Author, teacher, activist, and leading voice of uncompromising dissent, he regularly stirs auditoriums across the country with revolutionary spirit. He lives in Crescent City, California.
Stephanie McMillan creates the comic strip Minimum Security five days a week for United Media's comics.com, and her hard-hitting political cartoons have been published in dozens of publications internationally. She co-authored, with Derrick Jensen, the graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial (2007, Seven Stories Press), and her comics are collected in the book Attitude Presents: Minimum Security (2005, NBM Publications).
Author: Derrick Jensen
Illustrated by: Stephanie McMillan
Publisher: PM Press/Flashpoint
Published: September 2010
Page Count: 40
Dimensions: 11 by 8.5
Subjects: Children's Picture Book, Environmentalism