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Part Three: Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser

February 19, 2010 

Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with Victoria Law. You've shown us how appalling prison conditions are, particularly for women trying to keep their families together somehow. All in all, a pretty bleak picture. What's the bottom line here, Vikki? What can those of us on the outside do to raise awareness of what's going on inside? And can it help? Or does it just put those inside more at risk?

Of course it can help!

When I was doing research for my book, every woman whom I contacted thought that the issues and injustices of incarceration needed to be brought into the public conversation. Not a single woman expressed a fear that increased public attention towards prison conditions would put them more at risk. On the contrary, almost all of them felt that increased public attention (and pressure) would force prison administrators and staff to improve conditions, even if it were only slight improvements.

Here's an example of how outside awareness and pressure resulted in an improvement for the women inside: In 1976, the California Institute for Women established an "Alternative Program Unit" or closed-custody behavior modification unit for women deemed "disruptive" (those seen as leaders, lesbians or disobedient).

Women inside the prison organized against this unit and people outside organized a rally where ex-prisoners spoke out about this unit. Media coverage of the rally generated public outrage over the discriminatory criteria by which women were selected for the behavior modification unit. The ensuing public pressure and the disapproval of influential state officials (who no doubt were also pressured by their constituents) led the prison to close the unit soon after the rally. Women who had been confined in this "prison within a prison" were transferred back to general population.

More recently, when the California Department of Corrections proposed building 4500 new beds in "Female Rehabilitative Community Corrections Centers" in 2006, over one thousand women incarcerated in California signed a petition voicing their protests against the construction of these new beds and sent it to California Governor Schwarzenegger while advocates on the outside held rallies, filed a lawsuit, lobbied elected officials and raised public awareness (and outrage) about the issue.

I asked the women inside how they felt that people on the outside could help to both raise awareness about what's going on inside and support women in prison without inadvertently making the prison system bigger or stronger (as I talked about earlier with calls to reform the women's prison system leading to an increase in sentencing and an expansion of the prison system). These are their suggestions:

  • Make contact with women in prison. "Visits, phone calls, and letter writing are essential. Only with a firm foundation, a strong foundation, can we together be able to build a greater movement," says a woman incarcerated in Florida.
  • Speak out about these issues, especially when they intersect with issues that are considered "non-prison" issues, such as education, employment, racism, etc.
  • Send literature and news from the outside to help keep women connected with the rest of the world.
  • Write articles about women prisoners' issues, experiences, and actions, or publish their articles.
  • Peer education groups need up-to-date information on health issues and treatments! They need outside people who are willing to provide services not available (but much needed) within the prison.
  • If you are connected to a university or other educational institution, look into setting up a women's studies course or other program within a women's prison that helps articulate and challenge the dominant ways of thinking and the power structure. In Oklahoma and other states, there is already a structure set up for outside organizations to come in. Thus far, these structures have primarily been utilized by Christian groups seeking converts. As one woman pointed out, "People in prison soak up information. Anything new and different is absorbed--coveted even. Books, pamphlets, etc. And, if you tell me that you will give me a certificate when I complete an assignment, I will do it--just so that certificate can go in my parole file. So, sell it--and make it a novelty. Only come to the same unit once a quarter, etc"Then while you have their attention, teach the lesson. Empower the women. Help them pick up and stand them on their feet. The men's units have this all over the place, especially from the religious organizations."

prison art by R Sieber

Tell us about the book program you set up for prisoners. How does it, and similar programs, work?

In 1996, I helped set up Books Through Bars--NYC, a program that sends free books to prisoners across the country. There were already several other books-to-prisoners programs across the country and this project was partially inspired (and assisted by) the Books Through Bars group in Philadelphia.

Books Through Bars--NYC was originally a joint project between two explicitly anarchist groups (Blackout Books and Nightcrawlers Anarchist Black Cross). It was a project with an explicitly political purpose of providing political and thought-provoking literature that people in prison would not be able to get otherwise. Since then, we've expanded our focus to include sending educational books (such as writing how-tos and math and science books) as well as history books and non-mass market fiction.

The way Books Through Bars NYC (and other groups like it) works is this:

A person in prison finds out about the group and writes a letter requesting books. Sometimes the person requests specific titles, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Webster's dictionary. (Dictionaries, by the way, are our most popular request) Sometimes the person requests the subjects that she or he is interested in, such as African-American history, Aztec history, Chicano/a history, etc. Sometimes the person simply wants reading material to pass the time.

We get the letter and, during one of our thrice-weekly packing sessions, a volunteer scours our shelves of donated books to find a match (or, more often, an approximate match). We then send the person the book(s).

We receive over 400 requests each month, so multiply that process many many times over.

Being an all-volunteer, grassroots organization, Books Through Bars relies on donations for both books and postage money. We receive a modest grant from a family foundation that covers about half a year's worth of postage expenses. The rest of the money we raise through benefit fundraisers and donations from individuals. We are also fortunate to be working in the basement of an organization that recognizes the importance of our work and thus does not charge us rent.

Oftentimes, volunteers do not include a personal note with the book(s) being sent. However, on a few occasions, a letter may move one of the volunteers to begin a personal correspondence. I developed relationships with several women who had originally written to Books Through Bars requesting books on HIV/AIDS for a peer educator program or books on radical politics. Later, these women contributed their experiences and insights to Resistance Behind Bars. I also developed a relationship with the woman whose illustration graces the cover of my book; she had originally written to Books Through Bars requesting radical political literature. Her request caught my attention and so, after sending her a package of books, I wrote her a letter and that's how our correspondence began.

Even without the personal note or striking up of a relationship, the group sends books to thousands of people behind bars, most of whom would not receive books any other way. (Most state prison systems are not required to have a library or access to reading material for prisoners. Even when a prison does have a library, it is not necessarily accessible to all of the people inside. If a person's prison job conflicts with library hours, that person will never be able to use the library. If a person is in solitary confinement, he/she is often not allowed access to the library.)

What a terrific service this provides. Okay, I think this about wraps it up, Vikki. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Whew! I think that's all.

Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. You have tackled an unpleasant but important topic. Women in our prison system have been largely invisible. With the publication of Resistance Behind Bars, perhaps that's about to change. Thank you, Vikki, and good luck with your book.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page

An Interview with Gabriel Kuhn

Life Under the Jolly Roger

no quarter: an anarchist zine about pirates
March 21, 2010

Here is an interview with Gabriel Kuhn which is in NQ#5.

This interview with Gabriel Kuhn was conducted via email in later 2009. His excellent book Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy was published by PM Press ( in January 2010. I highly recommend it.

How and when did you first get interested in pirates and the golden age of piracy?

As a child, like so many others. I was always fascinated by the outlaw image of pirates, I had pirate toys, I dressed up as a pirate, etc. Incorporating that fascination into my work later on just seemed to be a natural step, if you will.

I first encountered your writing when I read "Life Under the Death's Head: Anarchism & Piracy," in the book Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger by Ulrike Klausmann, Marion Meinzerin and yourself (published by Black Rose in 1997). What's the relationship between that essay and the new book?

I think there are clear similarities in how I try to look at golden age piracy through a variety of social, political, and cultural theory. The big difference is that I now know much more about piracy than when I wrote that essay. This has changed my outlook in several ways. In the essay I used golden age piracy mainly as a historical backdrop onto which I projected a few general ideas about radical politics. Doing justice to the actual history of golden age pirates was much less important than propagating political beliefs.

At the end of the essay I say something like, "I know I will be accused of romanticism, but I don't care." A very flippant remark, of course, but, well, it gives you an idea of the mindset I had.

This book takes a different angle. It tries to tie certain political ideas – which are very similar to the ones in the essay, not much has changed here – much more to what the golden age pirates' reality might have actually been like. So the assessment of their politics – rather than the projection of ours as contemporary radicals – plays a more important role. One consequence of this was that most of the romanticism went out the door…

Let me pick up on this. I think that perhaps the most important thing about Life Under the Jolly Roger is the way you engage with works of radical piratology critically. I feel like you are very quick to acknowledge the strengths of the works, but also argue very strongly against what you feel they got wrong. These are often very important differences (the interpretation of the story of Captain Mission and Libertalia, and the relationship between pirates and slavery being just two examples out of many). Why is it so important to correct these idealizations? Why is it so easy to make these kinds of mistakes?

Well, personally, I wouldn't even speak of mistakes. I think one of the aspects that make work on golden age piracy so difficult – and so intriguing – is the lack of first-hand sources. We have no letters, diaries, or logbooks of pirates, no accounts of people who traveled with them or who studied them at close hand. In short, apart from the traceable material facts (approximate numbers, areas of operation, ships used, etc.), there is very little certainty when it comes to the life of golden age pirates, their motives, their social relations, their political and ethical beliefs, etc. All we can do is read the "circumstantial evidence" (newspaper clippings, court transcripts, navy records), relate it to what we know of the era's general history, add our perception of how humans behave under certain circumstances, and then come up with a picture that seems convincing and believable to us. Now different scholars will come up with different pictures, but that only makes everything more interesting.

But to answer your question about idealizations and why I find it important to correct them: I think mainly because I want a radical political movement to be a credible movement; a movement that has to be taken seriously by its opponents on an intellectual and theoretical level. Now don't get me wrong, there is a place for romanticism: romanticism inspires, motivates, and reassures, and that's all great. But I also think that there is a place for serious examination where we take a step back, breathe out, and say, "Okay, let us look at how things might have really been…" And on this level I think the ability to be self-critical is tremendously important. It makes for better discussion among ourselves as radicals and for a more productive exchange with people whose politics differ.

Are you worried that people will get offended by your critiques - either the writers themselves or radicals who hold some of these idealized notions about golden age piracy very dearly?

I am a little worried that some of the writers might misinterpret my intentions, because I'm really not out to disrespect anybody's work. I wouldn't even say that I'm criticizing much, at least not in the sense of saying that someone is "wrong" on this point or another. The work of Marcus Rediker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, or Stephen Snelders is fantastic, there is absolutely no doubt about that, and my work builds almost entirely on theirs. Most importantly, I see them as authors who share similar political ideals, and this is much more significant to me than whether we share the same view on the ethics or ideals of Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts.

For me, when I differ from their interpretations, it's just about different perspectives, and about a lively, constructive debate. This is what I believe takes us further as radicals interested in historical analysis and political theory. Let us take Marcus Rediker's Villains of All Nations as an example. It is without any doubt the most accomplished book written on golden age piracy, particularly from a radical angle. Of course we could just be like, "Alright, Marcus Rediker has said it all, and that's that on golden age pirates." But I think that'd be rather boring, and I can't see Marcus Rediker wishing for that either. Radical discussion needs new takes and new thoughts, and I hope I've been able to formulate some in this book. Whether they'll make sense to readers and will be considered contributions to a valuable debate is for them to decide, but I think it's necessary to try. Radical discussion must never stop or it ends being radical.

Am I worried that I might offend some readers? To be honest, I haven't given that much thought. I guess I assumed that it's clear enough that I'm writing from a radical perspective and that I'm raising questions as a comrade and not as a foe. If people don't agree with me and think that I am too negative in my view of golden age pirates, that's perfectly fine. I'm glad that there are different positions. I just wish for respect and solidarity.

You wrote: “Perhaps there was neither anarchist nor revolutionary consciousness among pirates of the golden age – but they certainly carried anarchist and revolutionary momentum” (75). Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

I just think that it'd be hard to make a convincing case that golden age pirates were very much concerned with universal values of equality and justice or with creating a better world for all. All considered, it just doesn't seem plausible to me. Their motivating factors rather appeared to be an individual escape from oppressive structures and the pursue of a joyful life. However, this does not mean that there was nothing revolutionary about them. "Lack of consciousness" has probably been overrated as a dividing line between people who deserve the revolutionary attribute and those who don't. To me, there does lie a revolutionary – and anarchist – element or potential in the rejection of oppressive structures and the pursue of a joyful life, no matter how "individualistic." No one can take this away from the golden age pirates, and I think it's what inspires radicals to this day. So even if golden age piracy probably cannot be called a "liberation movement" based on revolutionary "consciousness," it carries what I would call a revolutionary element, potential, or, well, "momentum."

You use the work of a number of people that might not be obvious when examining the golden age of piracy. Deleuze and Guattari, Pierre Clastres, and Nietzsche, for instance. Why did you use this approach?

The answer is pretty simple, I think: I did a philosophy Ph.D. and I have always enjoyed reading theory. At the same time, I've always wanted to tie theory to issues that seemed relevant politically, instead of ending up in very isolated academic dialogue. My relationship with academia has never been easy, and I have had very little to do with it since finishing my university studies almost fifteen years ago. If you will, this book is an example of trying to make theory meaningful not only to academics but also to people who share common interests – in this case, an interest in pirates and/or radical politics – but never had the time or motivation to read up on this stuff. Among the nicest compliments I can get is someone telling me, "This is the first time Foucault (or whoever) really grabbed my attention."

Ultimately what lessons do you think radicals can draw from the golden age of piracy?

I lay this out in more detail in the last chapter of the book, but the core aspects are: 1. The rejection of authority and of dominant social norms. This seems an essential aspect of any radical engagement. 2. The golden age pirates' internal social structure that stands as an extraordinary experiment in egalitarianism and direct democracy. It's not to be idealized as it was exclusive, i.e. the guiding principles were only shared among crew members and did not extend to others, but it is nonetheless a shining and inspiring example of radical self-determination. 3. The "libidinal" dimension of golden age pirate life which I consider indispensable for making radical politics attractive. You gotta have fun being a radical. A boring society is hardly worth fighting for, and it will not endure either. It's like that famous Emma Goldman quote, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." I think the golden age pirates were always up for a good dance.

Besides these central points, there are a few other aspects: For example, the "Temporary Autonomous Zones" that the pirates created in the sense of Hakim Bey. Then their challenge to the control of space which renders terms like "pirate radio" very apt. And a number of important economic aspects, like the rejection of both the wage labor system and capitalist production (which allows to draw interesting parallels to modern-day dumpster divers, freegans, etc.), or the undermining of ownership rights (which today continues in the form of piracy as "copyright violation").

There are a lot of lessons to draw from golden age pirates for contemporary radicals, no doubt. As I argue in the book, though, the decisive question is how we can turn these lessons into effective politics today. The golden age pirates are no model for a free and just society for all, due to ever changing historical circumstances, their own contradictions, and also their special relationship to the sea. They carry the said revolutionary "momentum," but today this has to be brought to life by those who want to defend this legacy. In this context, crucial is not whether the golden age pirates were revolutionary, but how we and future generations can keep their legacy a revolutionary one. This has no longer to do with projection – it is a matter of adaptation.

What do you think about contemporary piracy, especially off the coast of Somalia?

I know very little about it. I don't think it has much to do with what I'm studying in this book, because for me the central feature of the golden age pirates is their lack of home, their "nomadism," if you will. All that the golden age pirates really had were their ships. They came indeed, as the traditional pirate greeting indicates, "from the sea." This distinguishes them from all other famous pirate communities, including the North African corsairs in the 16th century, the pirate syndicates of the South China Sea in the 19th, or contemporary pirates along the Horn of Africa.

To me, the approach of studying the latter wouldn't differ much from the general study of bandit groups with strong roots and acceptance in local communities. Personally, I think that the work of Eric Hobsbawm remains unsurpassed here. Of course there are tactical and strategic differences between bandits operating in the desert, in the forest, or on the sea, but the overall social dimensions of their actions are very similar, I believe. It is the nomadic character of the golden age pirates that makes them a unique social phenomenon and demands specific analysis.

But to give you an answer about Somali piracy based on the little I do know, I would say that it is a consequence of three overlapping factors, namely a dire social situation, war, and imperialism. Somalis wouldn't turn to piracy in the same numbers if it wasn't an economic necessity; they wouldn't have the weapons and the militaristic know-how if they hadn't been surrounded by war for nearly two decades now; and they had less justification for their attacks if there wasn't a sense that international maritime trade was plundering their resources. Whether this creates a social movement of sorts with promising political dimensions, I'm not sure. There are certainly anti-imperialist and anti-colonial aspects, and there is a sense of self-determination, but I don't know whether we're looking at any attempt here to actually alter the structure of Somali society. It is certainly an interesting development to observe for anyone interested in piracy, and we will see where it is headed.

In addition to Life Under the Jolly Roger you've written a lot! You have a forthcoming book of Gustav Landauer translations on PM Press. Also a forthcoming book about hardcore, straight edge, and radical politics on PM as well. You translated Klaus Viehmann's Prison Round Trip, wrote a pamphlet on anarchist football (soccer) and more I've missed. And that's just your English language output. It seems like you're even more prolific in German. What ties all your work together?

A passion to work with texts in whatever shape or form. Not to sound corny, but I've loved writing and putting together journals since I was very young, and this just seems to be a continuation. Whether it's working as an author, translator, or editor, it's all fun to me. Obviously this doesn't mean that things automatically turn out great, but it means that I keep on trying. Since I've been able to strongly focus on publishing work over the last few years – after a decade of permanent traveling which drew a lot of time and energy – I guess I've been able to get a few projects done.

As far as the different themes go that I've been working on – whether it's pirates, straight edge, anarchist history, or soccer – I would say that with almost everything I'm interested in I eventually reach the point where I'm asking myself how I could turn this into a publishing project. Then I develop ideas, and if I'm lucky enough some publisher picks them up.

So why did you want to write this particular book, and why now?

To be honest, this book would not have been written without Ramsey Kanaan, the founder of PM Press. Whether he'll live to cherish or regret this, I don't know, but the book really was his initiative.

I knew Ramsey from distributing Alpine Anarchist pamphlets through AK (Alpine Anarchist Productions is a DIY publishing project I founded in 2000), and when he started PM we exchanged ideas on a few possible projects. In that context, Ramsey brought up Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger, the book that you mentioned before, and asked whether I wouldn't want to do something on pirates again. I hadn't given working on pirates a thought in a long time, but it seemed like a fun idea and I went to work. It took a little while before I knew where I was heading, but not least thanks to Ramsey's interventions, I eventually embarked on a path that felt right. As far as the outcome is concerned, that's for others to say.

Any last comments?

Thanks for the invitation to contribute to No Quarter, and keep up the important work! The internet is fine and all, but a vibrant underground culture needs some good old zines!

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Short Bus on Maximum Rock N Roll

By Jessica Mills
Maximum Rock N Roll

Losing sleep over not being able to put down a totally engaging book happens from time to time.  But then continuing to lose sleep because what you’ve just read is swirling around in your head and making pictures behind your eyelids?  Doesn’t happen so often.  However, that was exactly my experience when reading My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids with Disabilities.

Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot, this collection of voices from the fringe of the fringe tells the subjective stories of non-conformist parents raising differently-abled children.   Parenting itself can be an incredibly isolating experience for many reasons, but more so when coming from what the mainstream considers counter-culture or alternative.  Add to the isolation stew parenting a disabled kid and things grow exponentially more complicated. 

It was out of this isolation that the three editors found each other’s company on an online community bulletin board for “alternative” parents.  A few years later, at the 2004 conference, they offered a workshop on disabilities and parenting.  Feeling they’d moved from object to subject, they decided to put out a zine from which this book was eventually born.

The book’s contributors cover a lot of territory here, all gathered from their personal experiences.  With an Introduction by Lisa Carver, its six chapter topics include diagnosis, navigating the system, advocating for their kids, being seen, heard, respected, and believed, respite, community support, and transitions, families, and last, an impressive resources section. 

Conspicuously, there is an overwhelming female voice throughout the book.  No matter how wide the submissions call is cast, it makes statistical sense that it’s mostly female.  Studies have shown that women take on higher levels of responsibility in caring for their disabled children than men.   It also makes sense that most of the voices here are working-class to middle-class because those who are parenting in poverty have much less time and space to write. 

The editors went out of their way to include as diverse a body of contributors as possible.  Them doing so makes perfect, expected sense, right?  Who else would go out of their way, extending the call for submissions twice, to include such an array of voices?  Those who’ve been sidelined by disability, their children’s and sometimes, their own!  The disabled, and therefore their caregivers too, are among, if not the most, invisible and excluded segment of society.

Yet the tone throughout the book is not angry.  Instead, it’s full of compassion, hope and above all, love.  These smart, strong, tender, scared, victorious, sleep deprived, dedicated parents, whether by birth or adoption, will make you cry with laughter, empathy and solidarity.  With them, you will ride their ups and downs.  You will accompany them to IEP meetings and diagnosis appointments.  They will bring you into their homes and daily lives.  Overall, you will appreciate the book’s genuineness as a partial antidote to the mainstream’s misrepresented, ridiculing and objectifying stories about disabled kids and their parents.

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Paper Politics in Maximum Rock N Roll

By Jessica Mills
Maximum Rock N Roll

    Carrying on the work of artists creating art for more than art’s sake, instead using social justice and global equity-themed art as a vehicle to engage community in political conversation, Paper Politics started out as an exhibition first hung in Chicago in 2004 in the offices of In These Times magazine.  This book showcases what became a travelling exhibit (hosted in 11 different cities from 2004-2009) of politically and socially engaged print art. 

Though traditional printmaking techniques were used for all the original work, what’s been created and collected here is cutting-edge contemporary. Though the art was created by artist hands and the exhibitions organized and shows hung by collective labors of love with the purpose of building community, mass-production printing was indeed used to create the book. 

While the exhibit boasts a cumulative crowd of thousands, the exhibit in book form becomes more portable, practical and accessible.   This obviously creates a contradictory question.  Traditionally created printmaking stands out from the digital age pack of billboards and bus ads, but can only be printed in small batches by hand.  Josh MacPhee asks in his introduction, “If the goal of printmaking is communicating ideas, and we want those ideas to reach as many people as possible, does it really make sense to be printing seventy handmade posters in the age of mass production?” 

Following MacPhee’s introduction are two essays and four sections or reproduced prints.  The first is Repression – imprisonment, eviction, torture, surveillance, media control, privatization, apartheid, suppression.  Repression is followed by Aggression – war, bombing, colonization, invasion, murder, extinction, genocide, rape.  Third up is Resistance – liberation, solidarity, organizing, occupation, direct action, uprising, disobedience, struggle.  And last but not least, Existence – identity, awareness, movement, communication, creation, transportation, perseverance, joy.  Each section showcases about 40 reprints; in total, included are nearly 200 artists and artist collectives from over a dozen countries and over seventy-five cities, suburbs and small towns.  The art here is alive with color, style, unity and diversity - from stencil art spray painted on old dumpstered blueprints to precise and fine art intaglios on Arches paper.  Each section is interspersed with artist commentary explaining why they print by hand, what they hope to gain and to whom they hope to speak. 

The first essay is “Political Art and Printmaking: A Brief and Partial History” by Deborah Caplow.  Caplow credits the beginnings of political printmaking to Francisco Goya in the beginning of the nineteenth century and reminds us that political art has earned many an artist hefty jail terms for having had the audacity to oppose injustice, war and corruption.  Caplow also explains why the printmaking medium, say instead of painting or sculpture, lends itself supremely to messages of political opposition; it’s reproducible, has low cost and holds great potential for graphic expressiveness.  The essay suggests that graphic political art has never been more popular as the evidence can be found in the form of posters, flyers and stencils on the walls, streets, newspapers and magazines all over the world. 

The second essay, “All the Instruments Agree,” by Eric Triantafillou, is an extremely thoughtful and well-written piece on the intersection of art and politics.  Starting with vivid description and sharply deconstructed political analysis of the Wheat paste wall on Valencia Street in San Francisco, the essay suggests that ultimately, single-issue political images have the effect of reducing the larger political context in which the image is based down to an oversimplified “us” vs. “them” or “evil” vs. “good” message.  They confound the broader message that needs to be communicated in order for the art as political tool to be successful.  Triantafillou ends with a call to all fellow left printmakers to unify their politics into a set of shared goals “based on an intransigent desire for total social freedom.” 

Paper Politics is for those who recognize that both art and politics are about communication and also about community.  As much as it is a collection of individual artists’ prints, the project has proven itself to be a successful exercise in large scale organization.  Josh MacPhee writes about the project’s intent, “…a community of printmakers and a more specific audience for our work than the existing ‘anyone that happens to see it on the street’.”  Proof of that intent’s success is that a couple dozen of the artists involved with the exhibits went on to become members of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, an artist-owned and –run collective and online gallery.  Over the years of the traveling exhibit, artists and audiences have met face to face and wound up building more long-term relationships than a passing glimpse of a wheat pasted poster on the street could ever provide.

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RAOUL VANEIGEM: still the most inspirational man alive

Posted on Arthur Magazine
By Jay Babcock
Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem (2009)
Translated from the French by Eric Anglès
Excerpts from

First, some biographical notes courtesy of Vaneigem’s American publisher, PM Press:

Raoul Vaneigem (b. 1934) is a native of Lessines (Hainaut), Belgium, a small town whose traditional claim to fame was the production of paving stones but which in the twentieth century also produced the Surrealist painter René Magritte and the Surrealist poet Louis Scutenaire. Vaneigem grew up in the wake of World War II in a working-class, socialist and anticlerical milieu. He studied Romance philology at the Free University of Brussels and embarked on a teaching career that he later abandoned in favor of writing.


Situationist International bongo session, November 1962: from left—unknown woman, J.V. Martin, Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord

In late 1960 Vaneigem was introduced to Guy Debord by Henri Lefebvre, and soon after he joined the Situationist International, which Debord and his comrades-in-arms had founded not long before, and he remained in the group throughout the decade of the 1960s. There is a grain of truth in the stereotypical view that Debord and Vaneigem, as two leading lights of the SI, stood for two opposite poles of the movement: the objective Debord versus the subjective Vaneigem: Marxism versus anarchism: icy cerebrality versus sensualism: and, of course, The Society of the Spectacle versus The Revolution of Everyday Life—the two major programmatic books of the SI, written by the two men without consultation, both published in 1967, each serving in its own way to kindle and color the May 1968 uprisings in France.

Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life offered a lyrical and aphoristic critique of the “society of the spectacle” from the point of view of individual experience. Whereas Debord’s masterful analysis of the new historical conditions that triggered the uprisings of the 1960s armed the revolutionaries of the time with theory, Vaneigem’s book described their feelings of desperation directly, and armed them with “formulations capable of firing point-blank on our enemies.”

“I realise,” writes Vaneigem in his introduction, “that I have given subjective will an easy time in this book, but let no one reproach me for this without first considering the extent to which the objective conditions of the contemporary world advance the cause of subjectivity day after day.”

Vaneigem names and defines the alienating features of everyday life in consumer society: survival rather than life, the call to sacrifice, the cultivation of false needs, the dictatorship of the commodity, subjection to social roles, and above all the replacement of God by the Economy. And in the second part of his book, “Reversal of Perspective,” he explores the countervailing impulses that, in true dialectical fashion, persist within the deepest alienation: creativity, spontaneity, poetry, and the path from isolation to communication and participation.

For “To desire a different life is already that life in the making.” And “fulfillment is expressed in the singular but conjugated in the plural.”

Other works by Raoul Vaneigem already published in English translation include The Totality for Kids (London: Christoper Gray/Situationist International, 1966 ["Banalités de Base", 1962-63]); Contributions to the Revolutionary Struggle (London: Bratach Dubh, 1981 [De la grève sauvage à l'autogestion généralisée, 1974]); The Book of Pleasures (London: Pending Press, 1983 [1979]) The Movement of the Free Spirit (New York: Zone Books, 1994 [1986]); A Cavalier History of Surrealism (San Francisco: AK Press, 1999 [1977]); and A Declaration of the Rights of Human Beings (London: Pluto, 2003 [2001])

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I just visited Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, who have written an appeal to Barack Obama. What would your appeal and/or advice be to Obama?

Raoul Vaneigem: I refuse to cultivate any relationship whatsoever with people of power. I agree with the Zapatistas from Chiapas who want nothing to do with either the state or its masters, the multinational mafias. I call for civil disobedience so that local communities can form, coordinate, and begin self-producing natural power, a more natural form of farming, and public services that are finally liberated from the scams of government by the Left or the Right. On the other hand, I welcome the appeal by Chamoiseau, Glissant, and their friends for the creation of an existence in which the poetry of a life rediscovered will put an end to the deadly stranglehold of the commodity.

HUO: Could we talk about your beginnings? How did your participation in situationism begin, and what was your fundamental contribution? At the outset of your relationship with the Situationist International, there was the figure of Henri Lefebvre. What did he mean to you at the time? Why did you decide to send him poetic essays?

RV: I would first like to clarify that situationism is an ideology that the situationists were unanimous in rejecting. The term “situationist” was ever only a token of identification. Its particularity kept us from being mistaken for the throngs of ideologues. I have nothing in common with the spectacular recuperation of a project that, in my case, has remained revolutionary throughout. My participation in a group that has now disappeared was an important moment in my personal evolution, an evolution I have personally pressed on with in the spirit of the situationist project at its most revolutionary. My own radicality absolves me from any label.I grew up in an environment in which our fighting spirit was fueled by working class consciousness and a rather festive conception of existence. I found Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life captivating. When La Somme et le reste [The Sum and the Remainder] was published, I sent him an essay of sorts on “poetry and revolution” that was an attempt to unify radical concepts, Lettrist language, music, and film imagery by crediting them all with the common virtue of making the people’s blood boil. Lefebvre kindly responded by putting me in touch with Guy Debord who immediately invited me to Paris. The two of us had very different temperaments, but we would agree over a period of nearly ten years on the need to bring consumer society to an end and to found a new society on the principle of self-management, where life supersedes survival and the existential angst that it generates.

HUO: Which situationist projects remain unrealized?

RV: Psychogeography, the construction of situations, the superseding of predatory behavior. The radicality, which, notwithstanding some lapses, never ceased to motivate us, remains a source of inspiration to this day. Its effects are just beginning to manifest themselves in the autonomous groups that are now coming to grips with the collapse of financial capitalism.

HUO: The Situationist International defined the situationist as someone who commits her- or himself to the construction of situations. What were those situations for you, concretely? How would you define the situationist project in 2009?

RV: By its very style of living and thinking, our group was already sketching out a situation, like a beachhead active within enemy territory. The military metaphor is questionable, but it does convey our will to liberate daily life from the control and stranglehold of an economy based on the profitable exploitation of man. We formed a “group-at-risk” that was conscious of the hostility of the dominant world, of the need for radical rupture, and of the danger of giving in to the paranoia typical of minds under siege. By showing its limits and its weaknesses, the situationist experience can also be seen as a critical meditation on the new type of society sketched out by the Paris Commune, by the Makhnovist movement and the Republic of Councils wiped out by Lenin and Trotsky, by the libertarian communities in Spain later smashed by the Communist Party. The situationist project is not about what happens once consumer society is rejected and a genuinely human society has emerged. Rather, it illuminates now how lifestyle can supersede survival, predatory behavior, power, trade and the death-reflex.

HUO: You and Guy Debord are the main protagonists of the situationist movement. How do you see Debord’s role and your role?

RV: Not as roles. That is precisely what situationism in its most ridiculous version aims at: reducing us to cardboard cut-outs that it can then set up against one another according to the spectacle’s standard operating procedure. I am simply the spokesman, among others, of a radical consciousness. I just do what I can to see that resistance to market exploitation is transformed into an offensive of life, and that an art of living sweeps away the ruins of oppression.

HUO: You have written a lot on life, not survival. What is the difference?

RV: Survival is budgeted life. The system of exploitation of nature and man, starting in the Middle Neolithic with intensive farming, caused an involution in which creativity—a quality specific to humans—was supplanted by work, by the production of a covetous power. Creative life, as had begun to unfold during the Paleolithic, declined and gave way to a brutish struggle for subsistence. From then on, predation, which defines animal behavior, became the generator of all economic mechanisms.

HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?

RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

HUO: Your new book takes us on a trip “between mourning the world and exuberant life.” You revisit May ‘68. What is left of May ‘68? Has it all been appropriated?

RV: Even if we are today seeing recycled ideologies and old religious infirmities being patched up in a hurry and tossed out to feed a general despair, which our ruling wheelers and dealers cash in on, they cannot conceal for long the shift in civilization revealed by May 1968. The break with patriarchal values is final. We are moving toward the end of the exploitation of nature, of work, of trade, of predation, of separation from the self, of sacrifice, of guilt, of the forsaking of happiness, of the fetishizing of money, of power, of hierarchy, of contempt for and fear of women, of the misleading of children, of intellectual dominion, of military and police despotism, of religions, of ideologies, of repression and the deadly resolutions of psychic tensions. This is not a fact I am describing, but an ongoing process that simply requires from us increased vigilance, awareness, and solidarity with life. We have to reground ourselves in order to rebuild—on human foundations—a world that has been ruined by the inhumanity of the cult of the commodity.

HUO: What do you think of the current moment, in 2009? Jean-Pierre Page has just published Penser l’après crise [Thinking the After-Crisis]. For him, everything must be reinvented. He says that a new world is emerging now in which the attempt to establish a US-led globalization has been aborted.

RV: The agrarian economy of the Ancien Régime was a fossilized form that was shattered by the emerging free-trade economy, from the 1789 revolution on. Similarly, the stock-dabbling speculative capitalism whose debacle we now witness is about to give way to a capitalism reenergized by the production of non-polluting natural power, the return to use value, organic farming, a hastily patched-up public sector, and a hypocritical moralization of trade. The future belongs to self-managed communities that produce indispensable goods and services for all (natural power, biodiversity, education, health centers, transport, metal and textile production . . .). The idea is to produce for us, for our own use—that is to say, no longer in order to sell them—goods that we are currently forced to buy at market prices even though they were conceived and manufactured by workers. It is time to break with the laws of a political racketeering that is designing, together with its own bankruptcy, that of our existence.

HUO: Is this a war of a new kind, as Page claims? An economic Third World War?

RV: We are at war, yes, but this is not an economic war. It is a world war against the economy. Against the economy that for thousands of years has been based on the exploitation of nature and man. And against a patched-up capitalism that will try to save its skin by investing in natural power and making us pay the high price for that which—once the new means of production are created—will be free as the wind, the sun, and the energy of plants and soil. If we do not exit economic reality and create a human reality in its place, we will once again allow market barbarism to live on.

HUO: In his book Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz argues for a reorganization of globalization along the lines of greater justice, in order to shrink global imbalances. What do you think of globalization? How does one get rid of profit as motive and pursue well-being instead? How does one escape from the growth imperative?

RV: The moralization of profit is an illusion and a fraud. There must be a decisive break with an economic system that has consistently spread ruin and destruction while pretending, amidst constant destitution, to deliver a most hypothetical well-being. Human relations must supersede and cancel out commercial relations. Civil disobedience means disregarding the decisions of a government that embezzles from its citizens to support the embezzlements of financial capitalism. Why pay taxes to the bankster-state, taxes vainly used to try to plug the sinkhole of corruption, when we could allocate them instead to the self-management of free power networks in every local community? The direct democracy of self-managed councils has every right to ignore the decrees of corrupt parliamentary democracy. Civil disobedience towards a state that is plundering us is a right. It is up to us to capitalize on this epochal shift to create communities where desire for life overwhelms the tyranny of money and power. We need concern ourselves neither with government debt, which covers up a massive defrauding of the public interest, nor with that contrivance of profit they call “growth.” From now on, the aim of local communities should be to produce for themselves and by themselves all goods of social value, meeting the needs of all—authentic needs, that is, not needs prefabricated by consumerist propaganda.

HUO: Edouard Glissant distinguishes between globality and globalization. Globalization eradicates differences and homogenizes, while globality is a global dialogue that produces differences. What do you think of his notion of globality?

RV: For me, it should mean acting locally and globally through a federation of communities in which our pork-barreling, corrupt parliamentary democracy is made obsolete by direct democracy. Local councils will be set up to take measures in favor of the environment and the daily lives of everyone. The situationists have called this “creating situations that rule out any backtracking.”

HUO: Might the current miscarriages of globalization have the same dangerous effects as the miscarriages of the previous globalization from the ‘30s? You have written that what was already intolerable in ‘68 when the economy was booming is even more intolerable today. Do you think the current economic despair might push the new generations to rebel?

RV: The crisis of the ‘30s was an economic crisis. What we are facing today is an implosion of the economy as a management system. It is the collapse of market civilization and the emergence of human civilization. The current turmoil signals a deep shift: the reference points of the old patriarchal world are vanishing. Percolating instead, still just barely and confusedly, are the early markers of a lifestyle that is genuinely human, an alliance with nature that puts an end to its exploitation, rape, and plundering. The worst would be the unawareness of life, the absence of sentient intelligence, violence without conscience. Nothing is more profitable to the racketeering mafias than chaos, despair, suicidal rebellion, and the nihilism that is spread by mercenary greed, in which money, even devalued in a panic, remains the only value.

HUO: In his book Utopistics, Immanuel Wallerstein claims that our world system is undergoing a structural crisis. He predicts it will take another twenty to fifty years for a more democratic and egalitarian system to replace it. He believes that the future belongs to “demarketized,” free-of-charge institutions (on the model, say, of public libraries). So we must oppose the marketization of water and air.1 What is your view?

RV: I do not know how long the current transformation will take (hopefully not too long, as I would like to witness it). But I have no doubt that this new alliance with the forces of life and nature will disseminate equality and freeness. We must go beyond our natural indignation at profit’s appropriation of our water, air, soil, environment, plants, animals. We must establish collectives that are capable of managing natural resources for the benefit of human interests, not market interests. This process of reappropriation that I foresee has a name: self-management, an experience attempted many times in hostile historical contexts. At this point, given the implosion of consumer society, it appears to be the only solution from both an individual and social point of view.

HUO: In your writing you have described the work imperative as an inhuman, almost animal condition. Do you consider market society to be a regression?

RV: As I mentioned above, evolution in the Paleolithic age meant the development of creativity—the distinctive trait of the human species as it breaks free from its original animality. But during the Neolithic, the osmotic relationship to nature loosened progressively, as intensive agriculture became based on looting and the exploitation of natural resources. It was also then that religion surfaced as an institution, society stratified, the reign of patriarchy began, of contempt for women, and of priests and kings with their stream of wars, destitution, and violence. Creation gave way to work, life to survival, jouissance to the animal predation that the appropriation economy confiscates, transcends, and spiritualizes. In this sense market civilization is indeed a regression in which technical progress supersedes human progress.

HUO: For you, what is a life in progress?

RV: Advancing from survival, the struggle for subsistence and predation to a new art of living, by recreating the world for the benefit of all.

HUO: In your view there is no such thing as urbanism?

RV: Urbanism is the ideological gridding and control of individuals and society by an economic system that exploits man and Earth and transforms life into a commodity. The danger in the self-built housing movement that is growing today would be to pay more attention to saving money than to the poetry of a new style of life.

HUO: Is Oarystis based on natural power, like the Metabolist cities? Rem Koolhaas and I are working on a book on the Japanese Metabolists. When I read your wonderful text on Oarystis, I was reminded of that movement from the 1960s, especially the floating cities, Kikutake’s water cities. Is Oarystis a Metabolist city?

RV: When Oarystis was published, the architect Philippe Rothier and Diane Hennebert, who ran Brussels’ Architecture Museum at the time, rightly criticized me for ignoring the imaginative projects of a new generation of builders. Now that the old world is collapsing, the fusion of free natural power, self-built housing techniques, and the reinvention of sensual form is going to be decisive. So it is useful to remember that technical inventiveness must stem from the reinvention of individual and collective life. That is to say, what allows for genuine rupture and ecstatic inventiveness is self-management: the management by individuals and councils of their own lives and environment through direct democracy. Let us entrust the boundless freedoms of the imaginary to childhood and the child within us.

HUO: How can the city of the future contribute to biodiversity?

RV: By drawing inspiration from Alphonse Allais, by encouraging the countryside to infiltrate the city. By creating zones of organic farming, gardens, vegetable plots, and farms inside urban space. After all, there are so many bureaucratic and parasitical buildings that can’t wait to give way to fertile, pleasant land that is useful to all. Architects and squatters, build us some hanging gardens where we can go for walks, eat, and live!

HUO: In 1991 I founded a Robert Walser museum, a strollological museum, in Switzerland. I have always been fascinated by your notion of the stroll. Could you say something about your urban strolls with and without Debord? What about Walser’s? Have other strollologists inspired you?

RV: I hold Robert Walser in high regard, as many do. His lucidity and sense of dérive enchanted Kafka. I have always been fascinated by the long journey Hölderlin undertook following his break-up with Diotima. I admire Chatwin’s Songlines, in which he somehow manages to turn the most innocuous of walks into an intonation of the paths of fate, as though we were in the heart of the Australian bush. And I appreciate the strolls of Léon-Paul Fargue and the learning of Héron de Villefosse. My psychogeographic dérives with Guy Debord in Paris, Barcelona, Brussels, Beersel, and Antwerp were exceptional moments, combining theoretical speculation, sentient intelligence, the critical analysis of beings and places, and the pleasure of cheerful drinking. Our homeports were pleasant bistros with a warm atmosphere, havens where one was oneself because one felt in the air something of the authentic life, however fragile and short-lived. It was an identical mood that guided our wanderings through the streets, the lanes and the alleys, through the meanderings of a pleasure that our every step helped us gauge in terms of what it might take to expand and refine it just a little further. I have a feeling that the neighborhoods destroyed by the likes of Haussmann, Pompidou, and the real estate barbarians will one day be rebuilt by their inhabitants in the spirit of the joy and the life they once harbored…

Read the complete interview at

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KidoInfo on Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book

By Katy Killilea
December 15, 2009

I have no daughters, but I’ve gathered that Bratz dolls and spangled Barbies are as inevitable as light sabers and Nerf gu—Nerf dart propelling devices are for boys. I grew up with loads of Barbies in the 1970s, and I remember my mom diligently balancing my Barbie lust with Free to Be You and Me (book and album) and a story book called Girls Can Do Anything. I remember my mom telling me, “You know you won’t look like Barbie when you grow up. You’ll probably look like me.” I was happy–what little girl doesn’t think her mom is the most beautiful woman in the world? Until…the disembodied Barbie head with makeup kit came on the market. That sealed it: I wanted makeup! Skimpy clothes! And to be an ice angel on Donnie and Marie!

For parents looking to balance out their home’s collection of–what precisely is the real offense?–slutty/pornographic/unrealistic body image-inducing/etc. toys, consider Girls Are Not Chicks. This is the coloring book with a Rapunzel who rescues herself, using duct tape and a Tina Turner album, and a Little Miss Muffet who matter-of-factly tells an encroaching spider, “I ain’t moving from this tuffet.” There are girls and boys–or girls with short hair. Or boys with long hair. Probably boys and girls. Without all of the stereotypical gender signifiers, it’s impossible to say–riding a school bus together to a place with lots of drums and co-ed ice hockey.

Quirky, smart, and funny? Yes. A coloring book? Ostensibly, but it’s even more fun to read and discuss: girls on tractors, girls covering the numbers on their scales with stickers, and girls with no hair ribbons or skirts, so maybe they’re boys. Look how sad Mrs. Peter Pumpkin Eater is living in that dank pumpkin! Even if it won’t inspire a girl to abandon her vixen dolls, it will add a little oomph to her collection.

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Audio of Robinson and Bisson SF Panel

SF in SF Panel Discussion Featuring Eric Simons, Kim Stanley Robinson and Terry Bisson on October 17, 2009
Agony Column Podcast

"That seems to me, totally wrong."
  Terry Bisson to Eric Simons

Yes, I have a lot of catching up to do. And so we forge forward, with this podcast of a fabulous panel from October's SF in SF, featuring Eric Simons, Kim Stanley Robinson and Terry Bisson. This was SF in SF's first experiment that I know featuring a non-fiction writer, and it is one I hope that they shall repeat.

You know that you’re going to have a lot of fun when you put Kim Stanley Robinson on a panel, because, he's well — known to be witty and funny and very insightful. Eric Simons was an unknown, until her read, at which point he was revealed to be a perfect match for Robinson. Add in the ever-sharp Terry Bisson, a smattering of house commenters and a great, controversial subject, that being Evolution and Charles "Changed the World" Darwin — and you are guaranteed a good time whether you're there (which is always better because you can sip fine whiskey while participating) or whether you’re listening on your way into work via this linked MP3 audio file.

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Kim Stanley Robinson Reads Lucky Strike

Kim Stanley Robinson Reads at SF in SF on October 17, 2009 : "The Lucky Strike"
Agony Column Podcast

Once again, the pleasures of discovery; and not just those of the writer. Here we are at SF in SF on November 17, and not without some trepidation, about to be subjected to a literary experiment. SF in SF has, for all my experience, been a fiction-only operation. Not that this has seemed a dictate; it's just the way it's happened. Eric Simons changed all that, and in the best possible way. He was just remarkably entertaining. I'm guessing he sold a few books.

And with this reading from his novella, you get the best of both worlds. Robinson abridged his story while reading at SF in SF, off-the-cuff, so to speak, reading selections here and there that boil down the story and give a perfect verbal version of the much longer written version. What’s so nice is that when you listen to the reading, you can get the emotional and intellectual shock of Robinson's story. You'll feel the literal blast that he describes as he reads.

But because Robinson has read a self-abridged version of his longer story, you can still go out, but the book and read the story to get the fully fleshed-out as well as the live reading audio experience. This is a very clever move on his part, and not just because he sells you a book. No, it's much better than that. As a listener and a reader, you'll get to experience the same set events from two equally powerful perspectives; the reading experience will enhance the audio and vice versa, but in a different manner. It's a fascinating experiment for the writer and the reader. You can begin your experiment by following this link to the MP3 audio of the story.

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Resistance Behind Bars at the Edmonton Anarchist Bookfair

RBBcoverBy Scott Harris
Vue Weekly

October 1, 2009

The struggles of prisoners against unjust incarceration or inhumane treatment has a long history in the United States, from the national "Free Huey" movement which sought to have Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton released from prison in the late '60s to the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in New York to contemporary prison solidarity movements seeking the freedom of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier.

But despite this long history, the specific struggles and realities of female prisoners has largely gone unrecognized, a fact that is all the more important given that while women make up less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million prisoners now in US jails, female rates of incarceration are increasing faster than their male counterparts, more than doubling in absolute numbers through the 1990s.

This oversight is one which Victoria Law, who will be visiting Edmonton as the keynote speaker at this weekend's Edmonton Anarchist Bookfair, aimed to remedy in her recently released book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 250 pp, $20). Part of the reason the prison activism of women has been ignored, Law explains, is because the specific issues faced by women in prison lead to different priorities and forms of struggle.

"When you consider that prisons were set up originally to incarcerate men, and this hasn't really changed in the past few centuries there are a lot of things that aren't specifically for women that are needed, like gynecological services or resources to deal with women who come in who are pregnant or who have a history of things like breast cancer or cervical cancer," Law explains over the phone from New York. "In addition, because of the way society is gendered when a mother goes to prison oftentimes there is not a male relative or somebody willing to step up and take care of her children, whereas when a father goes to prison oftentimes a female relative, like the biological mother of his children or his girlfriend or his wife or this mother or his sister will take care of his children. The majority of women who go to prison are mothers and the majority of those mothers have been single heads of households before going to prison, and again this is in large part because of the way society has gendered parenting."

The result of these gender-specific issues, she says, is a different form of prison-based struggle, one that is rarely recognized to the same extent as more straightforward prison issues.

"A lot of the resistance isn't looked at as quote-unquote resistance by people who are looking for things like organizing and activism. So if incarcerated women are organizing around access to their children this doesn't fall under the traditional idea of what we think of when we think of prison issues," she says. "So women at the maximum security prison of New York, Bedford Hills, formed a foster-care committee specifically to educate the incarcerated mothers there as to what their rights were when their children entered foster care. But because when we think of prison issues we think of male prison issues, we're not necessarily looking at things like parenting and access to children particularly as a prison issue. It's not a big glamourous thing, it's not a work strike, it's not a riot, nobody gets hurt and it's not something you can look at and see."

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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix on Book Bag

Real Cost of Prisons

Book Bag, Daily Hampshire Gazette
April 2009

This book is a collection of three comic books, including accompanying essays, that explore the social, emotional and financial cost the United States faces by keeping approximately 2.3 million people behind bars. The book also includes comments from community organizers around the country discussing how they have used the book in their work.

This country's imprisoned population is a number that has steadily grown. From the end of World War II to 1970, according to Ahrens, there were 200,000 people in prison. Though there are more than 2 million people jailed now, the nation's crime rate, she says, has changed little.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Ahrens noted that Massachusetts currently spends a larger portion of its budget for prisons than for higher education. "Maybe people would rather pay for higher education than for prisons. Maybe the days of pure punitive policy are not something people still want to pay for, especially now." For change to occur, she said, "It's going to take people saying they think this is a bad idea - and they're tired of paying for it."

Ahrens, who lives in Northampton, edited the volume and is a contributing writer. Other writers include Ellen Miller-Mack, also of Northampton, along with Craig Gilmore, Susan Willmarth and Kevin Pyle. Illustrations are by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, with an introduction by Craig Gilmore and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Last month, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a private organization that defines its mission as working for responsive and effective criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare systems, named "The Real Cost of Prisons" one of nine winners in the literature category of a PASS award (Prevention for a Safer Society.) Awards were also given in the categories of film, magazine, newspaper, radio, television/video, and the Web.

The council says it grants the awards "in recognition of thoughtful and factual coverage of the issues."

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