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Anarchism, Marxism, and Zapatismo

By Hans Bennett
Upside Down World
15 July 2009

On January 1, 1994, the now-infamous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. That same day, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up and launched a military offensive that occupied towns throughout the state of Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN, or “Zapatistas,” had been covertly organizing for many years, but they specifically chose the day of NAFTA’s implementation for their public rebellion.


Many components of NAFTA favor US corporate interests at the expense of Mexico’s general population, but the Zapatistas were particularly opposed to NAFTA’s rewriting of the Mexican Constitution,which eliminated the population’s biggest victory won during the Mexican Revolution fought years before, at the time of World War One.

“The Mexican Revolution wrote into the national constitution the opportunity for a village to hold its land communally, in an ejido, so that no individual could alienate any portion of it,” writes Staughton Lynd, co-author of the new book Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History.

Both Lynd (a Marxist from the US) and his co-author Andrej Grubacic (an anarchist from the Balkans) are public supporters of the Zapatistas, who they argue have set a powerful example of revolutionary organizing that should influence anti-capitalists around the world. Much like the historical traditions of the Haymarket Martyrs and the ‘Wobblies’ (the Industrial Workers of the World) in the United States, Lynd and Grubacic argue that the Zapatistas have synthesized the best aspects of both the Marxist and anarchist traditions.

Based upon his research and his personal travels to the Zapatista communities in Chiapas where he met with historian Teresa Ortiz, Staughton Lynd identifies three key “sources of Zapatismo.” First, is the issue of land. Before NAFTA, the communal lands called ejidos made up more than half of Mexico’s land. The day of the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas occupied formerly communal lands that had been appropriated. Directly citing the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatistas named themselves after Emiliano Zapata, an anarchist revolutionary who was a key figure in the Mexican Revolution, and whose popular slogan “Land and Liberty” is still heard today.

Second, Lynd identifies a form of Liberation Theology that is influenced by both Christian and Native American spirituality, with Bishop Samuel Ruiz being a key figure.

“The final and most intriguing component of Zapatismo, according to Teresa Ortiz was the Mayan tradition of mandar obediciendo, ‘to lead by obeying’…When representatives thus chosen are asked to take part in regional gatherings, they will be instructed delegates. If new questions arise, the delegates will be obliged to return to their constituents. Thus, in the midst of the negotiations mediated by Bishop Ruiz in early 1994, the Zapatista delegates said they would have to interrupt the talks to consult the villages to which they were accountable, a process that took several weeks. The heart of the political process remains the gathered residents of each village, the asemblea,” writes Lynd.

This anti-authoritarian tradition of mandar obediciendo was central to the Zapatista’s decision not to see themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Lynd explains that “beginning in early 1994, Marcos said explicitly, over and over again: We don’t see ourselves as a vanguard and we don’t want to take power.” To support his argument, Lynd cites a variety of statements from Marcos, including his August 1994 statement at the National Democratic Convention in the Lacandon Jungle. Here, Marcos proclaimed that the Zapatistas had decided “not to impose our point of view,” and that they had rejected “the doubtful honor of being the historical vanguard of the multiple vanguards that plague us…Yes, the moment has come to say to everyone that we neither want, nor are we able, to occupy the place that some hope we will occupy, the place from which all opinions will come, all the answers, all the routes, all the truth. We are not going to do that.”

Lynd, coming from the Marxist perspective, harshly criticizes the influence of vanguard politics on Marxist revolutionary movements, whereby these movements have adopted authoritarian and anti-democratic practices, with these abuses of power being justified by the argument that their particular group is the vanguard of the revolution, and is therefore entitled to lead the revolution as it sees fit. Lynd sees the Zapatista’s rejection of vanguard politics as representing a “fresh synthesis of what is best in the Marxist and anarchist traditions.” The Zapatistas, Lynd writes, “have given us a new hypothesis. It combines Marxist analysis of the dynamics of capitalism with a traditional spirituality, whether Native American or Christian, or a combination of the two. It rejects the goal of taking state power and sets forth the objective of building a horizontal network of centers of self-activity. Above all the Zapatistas have encouraged young people all over the earth to affirm: We must have a qualitatively different society! Another world is possible! Let us begin to create it, here and now!”

Wobblies & Zapatistas is highly recommended to both the seasoned fan of books about radical history and theory, and the reader who is just now becoming interested in radical politics. While rooted in the inspirational examples of both the Wobblies and the Zapatistas, this book uses refreshing language and an informal conversational format of Grubacic interviewing Lynd. Their dialogue provides a big picture of global struggles against capitalism, and all forms of oppression. I myself learned for the first time that in the US, both the Haymarket anarchists of the late 1800s, and the anarchist Wobblies of the early 1900s were heavily influenced by Marxism. I also learned that many Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg from Germany, were themselves very critical of the anti-democratic and elitist consequences of the vanguard strategy of organizing that has been embraced by so many Marxists.

Lynd and Grubacic’s exploration of the relationship between Marxism and anarchism is played out through their examination of so many fascinating stories of popular rebellion throughout world history. Many of these stories are about workers’ rebellions, but Lynd emphasizes that while the role of workers in making revolution is very important, workers are only part of the big picture, and workers should not be prioritized over other parts of society, including prisoners, students, women, and racially oppressed groups. Lynd summarizes his theory for best making revolutionary change: “We are all leaders, not just as a collection of individuals, but as persons embedded in different kinds of institutions and communities of struggle. The framework with within which all these aspirations must be lodged is the collective action, not of taking state power, but of building down below a horizontal network of groups and persons that is strong enough to command the attention of whoever is in government office.”

To accompany this book review, I interviewed co-author Staughton Lynd, asking him these four questions below.

Hans Bennett: This decade in Latin America has seen so many successful poor people’s movements. Are you particularly inspired by any of these victories? How do these embody those traits that you spotlight as so positive regarding the Zapatista movement?

Staughton Lynd: As your question suggests, the most hopeful part of the earth during this past decade has been Latin America. The Zapatista movement seems the most significant effort, but I believe it is organically connected to movements in other countries that have elected Leftist governments. The Zapatistas speak of governing in obedience to those below, “mandar obediciendo.” The Zapatistas interpret these words to direct them not to try to take state power, but instead to create a horizontal network of self-governing communities sufficiently strong that the national government will have to pay attention to “the below” and be accountable to it. However, in Bolivia when Evo Morales became president, he said in his inaugural speech that he intended to “mandar obediciendo”: that is, he accepted the Zapatista formulation as to how it should be between elected officials and the electorate, and in his capacity as an elected official, he intended to try to live up to it.

HB: How can US organizers adopt the Zapatista’s approach?

SL: The fundamental problem is that unlike the Zapatistas we do not have communities that have existed for centuries, that make decisions by consensus, that designate many persons to undertake small tasks or “cargos” for the community, that understand the first obligation of an elected representative to be listening, not talking. Instead, “organizing” in the United States is invariably quasi-Alinskyan, that is, inspired by the methods of Saul Alinsky, who in turn modeled his work on trade union organizing in the 1930s. I was one of four original teachers at Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute founded in 1968-1969, and am an historian of the labor movement in the 1930s, so I think I know whereof I speak. The Alinsky approach assumes that people are motivated by individual, short-term, primarily economic self-interest. “Solidarity unionism” instead encourages people to take small steps in the interest of the group as a whole: for example, in a layoff to share the pain equally rather than strictly applying seniority.

HB: Given that we’re living in the "belly of the beast," how do you think we in the US can best support Latin America poor people’s struggles that are resisting both their local ruling class, and US influence/dominance?

SL: Support for radical or revolutionary movements in other countries is a tricky undertaking. The Left in the United States has over and over again fallen into the error of romanticizing foreign movements and regimes. Examples are: the Soviet Union, revolutionary Cuba, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and perhaps now, the Zapatistas. I believe what is helpful is to say, ‘The United States should cease to intervene in Country X,’ but not, ‘We unreservedly favor whatever insurgent movement exists there.’ We should have learned this from the period of the Vietnam war. As soon as the Vietnamese had driven out the United States they created “re-education camps” against which I, at least, felt obligated to protest. Similarly, when the Sandinista government was voted out of office in 1990, Margaret Randall exposed the fact that a handful of men had run everything, including AMNLAE, which presented itself as a women’s organization. So we in the US are better off when we support the withdrawal of US troops, closing of US military bases, the nationalization of US private investments, but do not try to control what happens next.

HB: Given today’s “global economy,” do you know of any examples of any US workers being involved with cross-border working class organizing?

SL: Cross-border organizing has been timid and bureaucratic. I would like to see, for example, General Motors workers in Mexico, Canada and the United States strike together. The demands of each national group of workers would be somewhat different, but so what? Instead, even reform movements in American trade unions acquiesce in chauvinism. Thus Teamsters for a Democratic Union tries to keep Mexican truck drivers from entering the United States, even though (a) NAFTA requires their admission, (b) simple solidarity would suggest that if Iowa corn farmers can take advantage of NAFTA to destroy the livelihoods of countless Mexican campesinos by exporting corn to Mexico without import duties, then truck drivers in the United States should meet with their Mexican counterparts and seek solutions that benefit all workers involved.

Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website it www.insubordination.blogspot.com

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History is available for purchase from PM Press.

Staughton Lynd taught American history at Spelman College and Yale University. He was director of Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. An early leader of the movement against the Vietnam War, he was blacklisted and unable to continue as an academic. He then became a lawyer, and in this capacity has assisted rank-and-file workers and prisoners for the past thirty years. He has written, edited, or co-edited with his wife Alice Lynd more than a dozen books.

Andrej Grubacic is a dissident from the Balkans. A radical historian and sociologist, he is the author of Globalization and Refusal and the forthcoming titles: Hidden History of American Democracy and The Staughton Lynd Reader. A fellow traveler of Zapatista-inspired direct action movements, in particular Peoples' Global Action, and a co-founder of Global Balkans Network and Balkan Z Magazine, he is a visiting professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco.



Teaching Rebellion in Z Magazine

Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots
By Peter Gelderloos
Z magazine

The popular rebellion that broke out in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca in the summer of 2006 caught the attention of people around the world even before the federal police moved in to crush it violently. For half a year, Oaxaca City and many of the surrounding towns were effectively self-organized through popular assemblies. A broad coalition of teachers, indigenous, students, artists, environmentalists, unemployed, and others came together to press their demands for the resignation of the state's particularly brutal governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and to create a new, compassionate, and anti-authoritarian society, without the interference of political parties.

Solidarity actions and material support for the rebellion were organized throughout Latin America, North America, and Europe. Many activists travelled to Oaxaca to participate in and learn about the social movements there. CASA, a solidarity collective that helps place visiting activists with groups in Oaxaca where they can do the most good, has recorded and translated an impressive compilation of interviews with participants in the popular rebellion. The result is Teaching Rebellion, a vital oral history for the English-speaking world. Included are the voices of neighbors who met at the barricades, artists painting revolution on the walls or reclaiming indigenous traditions, women taking over a TV station, striking teachers, torture survivors, political prisoners, grandmothers, and children.

The stories give an intensely personal picture of the roots and beginning of the rebellion, its multifaceted development over the summer, and its brutal repression in November 2006. The reader also gains a sense of what was happening in the rural areas outside of Oaxaca City, in towns where people kicked out the local politicians and set up popular assemblies. Some testimonies provide an exciting glimpse of insurrectionary moments when popular desires exploded in the streets and anything was possible, while others give a more sobering view of the long struggle from the perspective of teachers' union organizers or indigenous communities who have already been through previous ebbs and flows, victories and defeats, while continuing in their resistance patiently and persistently.

Teaching Rebellion realistically encompasses the diversity of the social movements active in Oaxaca, giving voice to priests spreading liberation theology, indigenous activists defending their culture, maids or students swept up in the moment, NGO workers seeking limited reforms, and political prisoners fighting for revolution. Though they have taken on an ambitious project, the editors, as sensitive outsiders, have not attempted to answer the contradictions that exist within the movement. This is problematic, given that within half a year the movement was splitting in different directions. According to many, Stalinists and politicians had taken over the leadership roles within APPO, the Oaxaca popular assembly. They subsequently violated a founding principle of the APPO and participated, albeit disastrously, in the elections in 2007.

The goal of the book is to teach about popular rebellions with the intent of spreading them, thus the perennial conflict between reform and revolution, between horizontal uprisings and the political opportunists that always attempt to control them, is necessary to explore and understand. Those conflicts are implicit in the interviews provided, but readers may have to do more reading and thinking to encounter those questions in a constructive way.

Fortunately, the editors have made it clear this is not a book to read and put back on the shelf—rather, it is a tool. The final pages include a thorough study guide with discussion questions and activities that encourage the reader to turn this book into a workshop, an opportunity to engage with their friends and communities and draw lessons from the rebellion in Oaxaca.

Essentially a simple book with beautiful photos and plenty of background information, Teaching Rebellion is accessible to beginners, but full of valuable stories and challenging perspectives that will also benefit those who have closely followed the events in Oaxaca.

Buy book now




Comic book series provides a fresh look at prison myths

By Ruth Kovacs
Street Roots, Portland, Oregon
March 13, 2009
“From the Desk of Ruth Kovacs”

Last week I spoke to a group of prisoners about the power of truth. After a lengthy discourse about the importance of truth, and that it empowers us to become a part of the oneness of man, and I have had to discern the untruths from the truth, I concluded by offering a way to search for truth. Of course I listed free-press papers such as Street Roots, free-speech radio such as KBOO, and the many books written by conscientious research journalists – including a few books I’ve reviewed in this column.

Clearly I’m not the only one searching for truth. Another significant contributor is Hans Bennett, an independent multimedia journalist www.insubordination.blogspot.com and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia (www.abu-jamal-news.com). You will find reviews of “Abolition Now,” The Real Cost of Prison Comix (part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project), Let Freedom Ring, and more – plus numerous articles worth reading. So if you are searching for insight on the criminal justice system, check out Hans Bennett.

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project, which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with more than 100,000 distributed free to community groups and college classes. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be freely downloaded at www.realcostofprisons.org.  Prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write in the book’s introduction that the value of the “Real Cost of Prisons Project” “has been to show us how the system of mass incarceration permeates our lives, who is paying the costs of that system and the many ways the system is vulnerable to people who put their thought and effort into organizing to shrink it.” Significantly, the comics “demonstrate that the ideas we need to change the world can be explained simply enough and packaged attractively enough to be used by all kinds of readers.” Prisoners and their families can “understand material usually circulated only among academics and those who focus on policy.”

Editor Lois Ahrens writes that “a central goal of the comic books is to politicize, not pathologize.” She argues that the “deregulation and globalization” of the last 30 years has “resulted in impoverishing urban economies, limiting opportunities for meaningful work and slashing funding for quality education, marginalizing the poor, and creating more inequality. The comic books place individual experience in this context and challenge a central message of neo-liberal ideology: the myth that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In this paradigm, racism, sexism, classism and economic inequality are not part of the picture. Most people now believe that change happens through personal transformation rather than political struggle and change.”

The recent growth of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration is staggering. Ahrens writes that “every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. Today, there are more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated, with more than 5 million more on parole and probation.”

The Prison Town comic book debunks the myth that building a new prison actually helps to revitalize a town with an ailing economy, and instead illustrates the many negative costs that a new prison can impose. Importantly, Prison Town also documents how many towns learned by example and cited the prisons’ negative impact in successful campaigns to stop prison construction in their community.
Prisoners of the War on Drugs is a heart-wrenching look at the victims of the so-called “war.” At least according to its official purpose, the war on drugs has been a total failure, resulting in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders at a huge, inefficient expense to tax-payers. Prisoners emphasizes “harm reduction” and treatment as a better solution, stating that the “war on drugs locks up more users than dealers. Most want to quit but can’t. A year of treatment costs much less than a year of incarceration, plus: the person can work, pay taxes and take part in family life.” While drug laws may seem insane, they appear to have unofficial motives that are highly rational. For example, they have served to accelerate mass imprisonment, the criminalization of poverty and the erosion of civil liberties.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women & Their Children concludes the three-comic book series. The stories presented here are mostly fictional but are based on the writers’ research and personal experience working with women prisoners. Therefore, Ahrens explains that the stories “represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the war on drugs.” Perhaps most outrageous is the true story of Regina McKnight, the first woman in the U.S. to be convicted of murder because of behavior while pregnant. When McKnight’s baby was delivered stillborn and an autopsy found traces of cocaine in the fetus, she was arrested and convicted of murder, with a 20-year sentence. In 2008, following several appeals and eight years in prison, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed her conviction, after concluding that there is no medical evidence of cocaine causing stillbirths.
Bennett concludes his recent reviews with the following comment: “Above all, these highly-recommended books argue that prison-related issues are inseparable from racism, classism, sexism, and all oppression, so the more we know about prisons, the better informed multi-issue activist strategies will be. They conclude that in working to abolish all oppression, we must also work to abolish the prison industrial complex and free all political prisoners.”

The next book that Hans and I will be encouraging you to read, to be released April 24, is Jailhouse Lawyers by Mumia Abu-Jamal. And so the beat goes on.
Keep searching, by reading and listening.

Buy book now


The Person is Polemic:

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Rob Clough
High-Low

The philosopher & historian Michel Foucault wrote a number of books that tended to have the same core idea: that the nature of human relations, stripped bare of idealistic constructs, is one of power relationships. In HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, Foucault makes a case that sexual relationships are entirely based on power and hierarchy. In DISCIPLINE & PUNISH, he gives us a history of prisons and pushes the idea that the Enlightenment Project did nothing to make the concept of the prison more humane, and in fact made it less so in certain ways. In MADNESS & CIVILIZATION, he lays out the history of the treatment of mental illness. He exposes the curious phenomenon of madness "rising" in certain areas during certain eras, which he posits is again a rationalist position of defining certain behaviors or groups of people as insane. The writers and artists behind THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX use aspects of all three of these arguments to aggressively push for a total reform of not just the prison system, but the entire justice system that surrounds it.


The marriage of art and polemics is often a tenuous one. The history of that marriage finds art usually getting short shrift, or downright exploited, for a particular political end. The more dogmatic a point of view, the more likely artists are to be exploited. The relationship between Communists and Surrealists is a telling example, as the former eventually declared the latter to be decadent despite having similar sympathies. The genesis of the comics in this collection came from the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Lois Ahrens, who was seeking a way of quickly and easily disseminating information about the injustices she saw. She was inspired by ubiquitous fotonovellas in Mexico, by trade unions putting out information in comics form and by a couple of economists trying to explain complex information in simple pictorial form. Comics were an especially compelling way of putting a human face on a systematic and institutional set of exploitative structures; tugging on emotions became much easier in comics form that with a dry set of statistics or charts.

Ahrens didn't mention a couple of other sources that seemed every bit as inspirational: the way Mao Zedong used comics for propaganda and the manner in which fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick creates his cartoon tracts. There's no question that these comics, and the "reader's responses" that go with them, are nothing short of propaganda. But that, I mean that they are carefully crafted to forcefully articulate a particular point of view and set up opposing viewpoints as easily disposed straw men.

The good news for these comics is that they were illustrated by cartoonists well-versed in balancing polemics and art. The magazine WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED has been relentlessly bombing away with its progressive agenda for nearly thirty years. Artists like Peter Kuper and Eric Drooker have been balancing art and politics for a long time; for them, the political is also personal, and has led to some striking art. In THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX, cartoonists Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth collaborated with various personnel associated with the project to illustrate the ways that prisons exploit the small towns they're built in, the way that the so-called War on Drugs has destroyed lives, and the ways in which the justice system affects poor women and children in particular.

The collaborations are not always entirely successful as works of art or propaganda. I think that owes much to the fact that the artists had to adapt a lot of dry information in a way that was interesting. Kevin Pyle, the artist behind the excellent book BLINDSPOT, particularly struggled in adapting the most abstract of the three stories, "Prison Town". Part of this was in the visuals: Pyle's work takes on a different life in color, and the greyscale art here looked muddy. His collaborator, Craig Gilmore, is clearly an information man, not a storyteller.

The overarching argument of this book is that there is money to be made in building prisons; in order to justify them being built, there have to be prisoners to put in them. This became easy with the War on Drugs, criminalizing behavior that is essentially a victimless crime to an absurd degree. Increasing police presence in high-risk blocks served to also add to the pool of prisoners. The problem with "Prison Town" is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more information from other prison towns on what effect having a penitentiary institution had on their communities. This starts with a conclusion and works its way back with some supporting details, rather than building an argument in the opposite way.

More successful is "Prisoners of the War On Drugs", which talks about not only the ways in which a young and naive person can wind up in prison but also the ways in which race affect sentencing (most famously, possessing crack cocaine inexplicably leads to harsher sentences than possessing powder cocaine) and the ways in which the system stacks things against those who get out of prison in terms of being denied public assistance. This section is more successful because it's more episodic and Sabrina Jones' thick black lines expressively get points across. It is still pretty text-heavy, with some pages looking more like illustrated text than comics.

The best of the three stories is "Prisoners of a Hard Life", which is the most focused and expressive of the bunch. Willmarth integrates text and image on the page that makes the lettering look like part of the art, making this possible with a heavy black & white set of contrasts. This story is the best mix of emotional and statistical appeal, bombarding the reader with example after example of lives being shattered--both of women and their children. The way that the prison-industrial complex exploits the poor, the disadvantaged and the desperate is presented in such a way that one's reaction to these stories is visceral. The creators (Susan Willmarth, along with Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens) are careful to buttress their anecdotal (and emotional) argument with carefully placed statistics and even provide alternatives to what's being done now.

The creators of this book are careful not to condemn prisons per se, nor do they call for the abolition of prisons. They instead focus on victimless crimes, non-violent crimes and institutional poverty, and especially how the latter is informed by the former. Incarceration (and the death penalty) is an extremely emotional issue for many when it comes to violent crimes. The creators tacitly acknowledge that there probably are some people who need to be locked up, but that the number of dangerous individuals didn't exponentially increase in a short period of time, any more than "hysteria" became an epidemic for women in the latter half of the 19th century. Just as certain behaviors were labeled as insane during that time, it was easy to criminalize certain other behaviors now. The Real Cost emphasis on how economics drives this process makes it seem all the more insidious and cold-blooded; in the end, all we have to do is follow the money to understand why it's being done. I only wish that the approach of the book was slightly less sledgehammer, since it really does bring to mind Jack Chick's methodology.Buy book now


The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners

By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine, February, 2009

A Book review of:
The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, edited by Lois Ahrens, PM Press, 2008.

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free US Political Prisoners, edited by Matt Meyer, PM Press, 2008.

Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against The Prison Industrial Complex, edited by the CR10 Publications Collective, AK Press, 2008.


2008 marked the ten-year anniversaries of both the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance (CR) conference in Oakland, CA that coined the phrase “prison industrial complex” (PIC) and the National Jericho Movement’s march in Washington DC that demanded the release of all US political prisoners and prisoners of war. To commemorate the 1998 events, the CR10 conference was held in Oakland in September, and Jericho organized a march to the United Nations in October.

These two important events in 1998 successfully re-energized the prison-activist and political prisoner support movements rooted in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while recognizing this accomplishment, three new books document how the prison industrial complex has actually grown bigger and stronger since 1998, while the post-911 climate has further escalated political repression. While recognizing this frustrating reality, these new books look honestly at both the accomplishments and shortcomings of the last ten years.

The Real Cost of Prisons

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project (RCPP), which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with over 100,000 distributed for free to community groups and college classes alike. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be freely downloaded at www.realcostofprisons.org.

Prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write in the book’s introduction that the RCPP’s value “has been to show us how the system of mass incarceration permeates our lives, who is paying the costs of that system and the many ways the system is vulnerable to people who put their thought and effort into organizing to shrink it.” Significantly, the RCPP’s comics “demonstrate that the ideas we need to change the world can be explained simply enough and packaged attractively enough to be used by all kinds of readers.” Prisoners and their families can “understand material usually circulated only among academics and those who focus on policy.”

Editor Lois Ahrens writes that “a central goal of the comic books is to politicize, not pathologize.” She argues that the “deregulation and globalization” of the last 30 years has “resulted in impoverishing urban economies, limiting opportunities for meaningful work and slashing funding for quality education, marginalizing the poor, and creating more inequality. The comic books place individual experience in this context and challenge a central message of neo-liberal ideology: the myth that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In this paradigm, racism, sexism, classism, and economic inequality are not part of the picture. Most people now believe that change happens through personal transformation rather than political struggle and change.”

The recent growth of the PIC and mass incarceration is staggering. Ahrens writes that “every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the US. Today, there are more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated, with more than 5 million more on parole and probation.”

The Prison Town comic book debunks the myth that building a new prison actually helps to revitalize a town with an ailing economy, and instead illustrates the many negative costs that a new prison can impose. Importantly, Prison Town also documents how many towns learned by example and cited the prisons’ negative impact in successful campaigns to stop prison construction in their community.
   
Prisoners of the War on Drugs is a heart-wrenching look at the victims of the so-called “war on drugs.” At least according to its official purpose, the “war on drugs” has been a total failure, resulting in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders at a huge, inefficient expense to tax-payers. Prisoners emphasizes “harm reduction” and treatment as a better solution, stating that the “war on drugs locks up more users than dealers. Most want to quit, but can’t. A year of treatment costs much less than a year of incarceration, plus: the person can work, pay taxes & take part in family life.” While drug laws may seem insane, they appear to have unofficial motives that are highly rational. For example, they have served to accelerate mass imprisonment, the criminalization of poverty, and the erosion of civil-liberties.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women & Their Children concludes the three-comic book series. The stories presented here are mostly fictional, but are based on the writers’ research and personal experience working with women prisoners. Therefore, Ahrens explains that the stories “represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the war on drugs.” Perhaps most outrageous is the true story of Regina McKnight, the first woman in the US to be convicted of murder because of behavior while pregnant. When McKnight’s baby was delivered stillborn and an autopsy found traces of cocaine in the fetus she was arrested and convicted of murder with a 20-year sentence. In 2008, following several appeals and eight years in prison, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed her conviction, after concluding that there is no medical evidence of cocaine causing stillbirths.  

Buy book now


Illustrations From the Inside and The Real Cost of Prisons

By Josh MacPhee
Just Seeds Blog

 

The Real Cost of Prisons covers similar material, but is a completely different take on it. This is primarily a paperback compilation of 3 comic books produced by the Real Cost of Prisons Project in order to educate prisoners and the public. The project is a nation-wide public education campaign designed to illustrate in plain and simple language what the real costs of prison are in our society. Since the 1970s the levels of incarceration in this country have skyrocketed, but there has been little to know public dialog about the reasons for this, or what it all costs, not just in financial terms, but the human costs. These comics were designed as popular education tools, and are being used as just that. Tens of thousands of copies have found their way into high school classrooms, prison study groups, politicians desks, and activist hands.

realcost01.jpgComics are a powerful medium for breaking down complex ideas into frame by frame visual explanations, and that's just what this book does. The Project was smart to approach 3 political comics veterans, all with experience working on World War 3 Illustrated, the longest running political comics magazine in the US. "Prison Town: Paying the Price," drawn by Kevin Pyle, is an overview of how prisons are paid for, who pays the real costs and how prison construction effects the communities they are placed in. "Prisoners of the War on Drugs," drawn by Sabrina Jones, exposes the forces at work behind drug laws and drug-related imprisonment. "Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and their Children," drawn by Susan Willmarth, is a touching collection of first person narratives about how prison has deeply affected women and children.

As this is an art bllog, let me talk a bit about the art. Kevin Pyle's comic is a visual tour-de-force. Ever since his early World War 3 comics about prisons, I've always felt Pyle's unique smudged drawing style perfectly captures the creepy feeling that prisons create; the idea something else is going on beyond what the eye can see, that the images, like the workings of state repression, won't stand still long enough to get a clear image of what is really going on. Somewhat unfortunately this unsettled feeling carries into almost all his frames, even the ones focused on restorative justice and alternatives to the cruelty of prisons. Sabrina Jones is at her peak, using bold organic lines to powerfully carry us through the story and information. The material is dense and difficult, so I commend her efforts to tame it. My only complaint is that I would like to have seen more large images, full page graphics that frame the smaller panels and give us a macro view. Although Susan WIllmarth has done comics for World War 3 before, she is the artist I'm the least familiar with, but is an exciting surprise. I think her comic is my favorite, graphicly it reads as an exciting clash between Raymond Pettibone and Lynda Barry. It is much looser than the previous two stories, the raw style bringing us deep into the lives she's narrating. I'm not a comics expert, but this seems like a great example of the comic books' visual narrative structure being used to compelling lay out important social and political material.

These two books illustrate two very different possible relationships between art and social injustice. The Real Cost of Prisons uses art by practiced professionals as a tool to teach about and explain issues to wide and diverse audiences. It plays to the strengths of an established form (the comic) and lays out a clear path for the reader to better understand the workings of the US prison system. On the other hand, Illustrations from the Inside argues that creativity is a raw tool for the liberation of the creator. The audience is secondary; we are voyeurs, allowed a quick peek into the lives of kids in prison. The art can educate people, that is much less important than the possible transformative effect it can have on the artists themselves.

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Our Bodies Ourselves reviews The Real Cost of Prisons Comix

By Christine C
Our Bodies Ourselves

PM Press has recently published “The Real Cost of Prisons Comix,” three comic books produced by the Real Cost of Prison Projects in one volume. The book includes:

Prison Town: Paying the Price” tells the story of how the financing and site locations of prisons affects the people of rural communities in which prison are built as well as urban communities from where the majority of incarcerated people come from. Illustrated by Kevin Pyle; written by Craig Gilmore and Kevin Pyle.

Prisoners of the War on Drugs” includes the history of the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, how racism creates harsher sentences for people of color, stories on how the war on drugs works against women, three strikes laws, obstacles to coming home after incarceration, and how mass incarceration destabilizes neighborhoods. Illustrated by Sabrina Jones; written by Ellen Miller-Mack, Sabrina Jones and Lois Ahrens.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children” includes stories about women trapped by mandatory sentencing and the “costs” of incarceration for women and their families. Illustrated by Susan Willmarth; written by Ellen Miller-Mack, Susan Willmarth and Lois Ahrens.

The book also features more than 30 responses from activists, teachers, health practitioners, prisoners and others about how they have used the comic books in their organizing.

The number of incarcerated women has risen at a rate nearly double that of men in recent decades, in large part due to mandatory sentencing and draconian drug laws. There is now believed to be about 200,000 incarcerated women in U.S. prisons, jails and immigration detention centers. 

In an article published at Our Bodies Ourselves, Ellen Miller-Mack, a co-author of two of the comics, describes the work of numerous anti-prison activists addressing problems faced by women prisoners, especially around issues of family preservation and reproductive rights. For instance, in 2000, the Illinois legislature prohibited the shackling of women prisoners while in labor — something that The Advocacy Project had been working on for years.

Shackling a woman who is giving birth sounds so ridiculous, like something from a different era done with no understanding or respect for a woman’s health, or the health of her infant.

Except that it’s still happening today. In fact, California and Illinois are the only states with laws on the books regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women.

Just this past July, Rachel wrote about an immigrant woman in Tennessee who was pulled over by police as she was leaving a prenatal clinic with her three children. Juana Villegas DeLaPaz did not have a current driver’s license and was subsequently jailed. She was taken to a local hospital when she went into labor that night, but the prison guard disconnected the phone so DeLaPaz couldn’t make outgoing calls and she didn’t see her husband. She was ankle-cuffed to the bed at all times except for a bathroom break. (Read an update of her case here.)

According to a report from Amnesty International, “Abuse of Women in Custody: Sexual Misconduct and Shackling of Pregnant Women,” 23 states and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons specifically permit shackling women in labor. And Louisiana and the U.S. Bureau of prisons have no restrictions on restraints other than specifying that pregnant women should not be restrained face-down in four-point restraints.

I’ll pause while you digest that sentence.

Sexual abuse is also a widespread concern. Last year Nicole Summer, writing at RH Reality Check, looked at how the prison system addresses sexual abuse against incarcerated women — most of which is perpetuated by prison guards — and prisoners’ access to contraception and abortion.

“Surviving a sexual assault and then navigating the health care system to receive adequate counseling and reproductive medical attention is daunting enough for those who walk freely on the outside. For women in prison, these hurdles can seem insurmountable,” writes Summer.

Miller-Mack’s article identifies a number of organizations working to address these and other issues, as well as resources for learning more about the conditions and realities of women in prison.

Plus: Miriam at Feministing recently live-blogged the Critical Resistance 10 conference. Check out her entries, particularly this one on prisons as a tool of reproductive oppression.

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Letters to Robert King

Students at Pioneer valley Performing Arts Middle School in South Hadley, Massachusetts recently mailed letters to King thanking him for his visit to their school.

In 1970, a jury convicted Robert Hillary King of a crime he did not commit and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Angola State Penitentiary, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, the state grudgingly acknowledged his innocence and set him free. Since that time he has worked tirelessly for the freedom of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox (the remaining Angola 3), and all political prisoners.

 

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Wobblies and Zapatistas reviewed by PMR

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History
Reviewed by Deric Shannon
University of Connecticut
Political Media Review

Wobblies and Zapatistas is basically a long conversation between Grubacic and Lynd about building bridges between the best traditions within anarchism and Marxism written for modern militants, revolutionaries, and working people. It is a series of provocations, led by Grubacic as he asks Lynd probing questions about radical practice contemporarily and historically.

One particular theme of interest is the position of contemporary anarchists in regards to mass social movement work. Grubacic (24) writes that “the generation of new anarchists… must learn how to ’swim in the sea of the people’”. Lynd replies with recollections of the Left’s past, focusing at one point on the SDS and how sections would leave school and organize amongst poor populations. Lynd describes the approach as short lived, but offers his own concept for organizing with workers and the poor.

This concept, accompaniment, is a major theme in the book. It is used to describe the ways that radicals might organize alongside marginalized communities. The radical organizer accompanies the struggles of the marginalized like a string quartet might accompany a horn section’s lead. This “lead”, however, isn’t to suggest uncritical acceptance of the politics of marginalized populations. Rather, it asks of us to be honest and vocal about our disagreements without resorting to patronization.

This concept is similar to the idea of social insertion articulated in especifismo, a Latin American variant of anarchism. That is, anarchists should involve (socially insert) themselves in mass movements and actively argue our politics within them. Many anarchist events I’ve attended over the last decade or so have included workshops on bike repair, mushroom foraging, punk music, etc. with little attention paid to involvement in social movements and mass struggles. This missing piece in anarchist practice is also apparent in the ways that modern anarchists at times actively discourage working class organizing. Lynd and Grubacic argue for a radical milieu that involves itself in mass struggles and sees the positive contributions of working class people in fights for social justice, as well as reminding us that without a struggle for socialism-or worker’s self-management-we do not have a movement capable of talking about “justice” in holistic terms.

Other interesting items of discussion include conversations on direct action, dual power, “whiteness theory”, and behaving like comrades (something many of us could learn a lot about on the Left with our entrenched history of denunciations, sectarian squabbling, and our seeming inability to have diplomatic and principled disagreements). Throughout its pages, this book is about drawing those common threads together from the best of anarchism and Marxism. In a time of global economic depression, with factory and school occupations all over the world, as well as radical movements in as disparate places as Greece and Iran having pitched battles in the streets with the state, it is incumbent on us Leftists to work together. There is radical potential in the world right now-potential that need not be wasted over theoretical quibbles. This book is a good start in creating commonalities in practice along the radical Left-and at just the right historical juncture.

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So Cal Anarchist Conference

The Southern California Anarchist Conference-- a weekend long conference centered on anarchist and its anti-authoritarian tendecies as uniquely manifested in the southern California. Collectively we hope to show past & present examples of anarchist ideas in practice, through speakers, panels, workshops, images, theater, music, film and non-coercive socializing as they intersect in the everyday struggles against coercive power, capitalism and the state.

 

 

Saturday, August 1st 2009 CONFERENCE
(workshops, strategizing and networking sessions)
12:00-8:00PM at the SoCal Library
6120 S. Vermont Ave. L.A. 90044
$5.00 suggested donation; no denied entry.

Sunday, August 2nd 2009 FERIA LIBERTARIA
(Art, music, theater, food, tabling, and more!)
12:00-8:00PM UCLA Downtown Labor Center
675 S. Park View St. L.A. 90057
FREE!



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