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Self-Defense for Radicals on the Unlikely Blog

By Gabriel Ricard
The Unlikely Blog

Writer, martial artist and activist Mickey Z. still has that wonderful sense of humor. You could certainly qualify knowing this as good news for the rest of us. It’s not new information to anyone familiar with his books. His 2008 dark-comedy endeavor CPR for Dummies was a brutal, wild story and one of the best social satires to come out in recent memory. It was bleak stuff but proved Z’s talent for story-driven farce. It also showed his effortless skill at putting some of his more enduring interests, martial arts and social activism to good use in his Armageddon-battered-world-gone-mad. Those interests aren’t likely to leave his work anytime soon either. That’s fine. As long as he can utilize those passions and keep the humor running strong, as he does in his pamphlet, Self-Defense for Radicals: A-Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, then none of us has any reason to complain.

The book is very serious in what it promises you. This really is an alphabet of tips and thoughts on how to best stand up for what drives you. This sort of thing is especially useful should someone feel the need to disagree with your opinions by trying to smash you in the head with a brick. Mickey has put his knowledge of physical self-defense to work in his writing before but has really never been quite as brilliant in doing that as he is here. The book is genuinely useful but doesn’t sacrifice Z’s trademark sense of humor or ability to know what his readers are thinking and respond accordingly. If you’ve ever wanted a really intelligent, witty and rather driven man to come over to your house and teach you how to stick up for yourself Self-Defense for Radicals is probably your best bet. Like any good pamphlet, it communicates its wisdom in sharp detail that’s quick to the point but doesn’t skip over anything Z. wants you to know. Good stuff, but it’s much more than just useful information. The best of Mickey Z’s work is able to entertain at the same time, and that’s certainly true here. Throughout his A-Z breakdown of tips and opinions (his entries for L and M are particularly wonderful) Mickey Z. adds just enough extras to give the work his trademark personality. Appropriate quotes from Bruce Lee to Angela Davis are included with several of the entries. They read like thoughts from a friend who really wants to share with you some of the bits of wisdom picked up from everything they’ve seen or done. Those illustrations from Richard Cole don’t hurt the pamphlet’s appeal either.

Everything is laid out in perfect order. There’s no question that Mickey has yet another essential read on his hands. The majority of Self-Defense for Radicals is very clever, funny stuff, but it wouldn’t be Mickey Z. if a little bit of his work didn’t frighten or even seriously piss you off. Mickey Z. succeeds in making these emotions work for the sake of the pamphlet by avoiding a high horse or any kind of soap box. He lets the statistics speak for themselves. His humor, conversational tone keep those statistics in perspective (the world isn’t completely terrible, after all). Those drawings from Richard Cole help, too. All of it makes for a well-rounded trip around Mickey Z’s philosophy, but don’t for a second forget what this work is meant to do. It’s a wake-up call. Self-Defense for Radicals is a strongly worded suggestion to start taking better care of yourself in every facet of life. That sounds aggressive, but it really isn’t meant to choke you on its opinions. It simply suggests and then leaves the rest up to you. If you’ve been looking for something to get you off the couch and out the door you’re in good hands. Chances are you’ll find only frustration in hoping for something more effective than this.

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Need a Bit of Cooking Inspiration?

By Denis Faye
January 28. 2010

On the other hand, you'll find not so much as a boiled-egg recipe in Vegan Freak. In fact, you'll find very little useful information at all. Instead, you'll get a 217-page diatribe from two very militant vegans who apparently feel anyone who doesn't see the world exactly as they do is a complete monster. Any karma these two may have earned treating animals fairly has probably been voided thanks to the bile they spit on these pages.

The book is intended to be a hilarious primer for people interested in making the animal-products-free shift, but it fails on so many levels. They operate on the assumption that non-vegans make it their lives' work to torment and mock the chosen few who have seen the meat-free light. Then, with no apparent awareness of their hypocrisy, they go on to mock non-vegans with such rancor that were I on the fence about giving up animal products, I'd run out and buy a pair of Doc Martens boots and a hamburger about halfway through the book just to spite them. (Full disclosure: I'm a pescatarian and agree with many of their stances, if not their attitude.)

More importantly, they don't even start offering usable information on going vegan until three-quarters of the way through, and even then, a lot of that advice involves suggesting other books to check out.

So I suggest you skip Vegan Freak and check out those other books instead. If you want to learn more about veganism, save yourself a lot of bad juju and check out Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis for great how-to tips, and Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero for tons of great recipes.

No one likes it when sweet ol' Bessie the cow takes a bolt to the head, Mr. and Mrs. Torres, but life's too short to be that much of a hater.

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Revolution within the Revolution in Venezuela

By Lainie Cassell
Monthly Review Zine
January 26, 2010

In 1999, under newly elected President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan people were given a rare opportunity: to participate in the writing of what would become arguably the world's most radical constitution.  The result of an extensive constitutional process and an assembly voted on by Venezuelan citizens contrasts with the United States constitution, one created by white landholders centuries ago.

The document, carried in the back pockets of ordinary Venezuelan citizens, has become a pillar of the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Revolution."  For the first time in Venezuelan history the constitution declares housing, health care, and employment as basic human rights and argues in favor of a more participatory form of democracy.

The constitutional process indeed helped empower a number of organizations from the Afro-Venezuelan Network to peasant militias.  These movements not only struggle for the government to uphold the constitution but have become the driving force behind some of Chavez's most radical policies.

Venezuela Speaks!  Voices from the GrassrootsVenezuela Speaks!  Voices from the Grassroots is the first book in the English language that has captured the challenges of bottom-up movements under President Chavez.  In the book, co-authors Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox, and Jojo Farrell offer a much-needed history of revolutionary Venezuela and an analysis of current events, interwoven among interviews with some of Venezuela's most important leaders among the people.

Fox, Martinez, and Farrell are all part of a small network of internationals who have traveled to remote areas in Venezuela and have lived in the numerous shantytowns that line Caracas' hillsides.  The result of their time abroad is a collective history of Venezuela that most visitors and certainly US media have not been able to capture.

Through the oral accounts of activists, Venezuela Speaks! also offers insiders' views of the Bolivarian Revolution and the struggle towards participatory democracy.  The activists interviewed have engaged in occupations of factories and land, the development of popular education, and the creation of an alternative culture and media.

However, readers on the left seeking a rosy account of the "Bolivarian revolution" are likely to be disappointed.  Most of the book consists of interviews with an impressive variety of individuals who refuse to hold back their criticisms.  Their stories bring to life the true struggle for revolutionary change, one that faces two main challenges defined in the first chapter by housing activist Iraida Morocoima.

It is important for people to understand that we are fighting on two fronts: the struggle against the opposition so that they don't alter our goals, and the struggle against the government bureaucrats that support large financial capital who continue to give these lands to the large construction companies.  That's why we say this is a process of revolution within the revolution.

The Bolibourgeoisie (a name given to bureaucrats within Chavez's administration), she argues, serve as a fence between the people and Chavez that often stops the effective implementation of the constitution.

However, as the short-lived 2002 coup d'etat proves, Chavez's return to office was largely a result of mass mobilization from the grassroots movements.  His mere existence, therefore, depends on the strong support of some of the most radical groups in the country.

The grassroots movements also implement the constitution when the government is unable or unwilling.  As women's rights activist Yanahir Reyes argues in the book, women's struggles go beyond the language of gender inclusion used in the constitution.  She goes on to assert that only through grassroots and participatory education will a more gender inclusive culture be created.

While Reyes applauds the government for the creation of institutions to support women, she admits: "[T]he bureaucracy swallows good intentions.  I think it is a mistake to keep strengthening the institutions.  The communities are ready to make the changes.  The struggle continues to be the divide between institutions and popular power."

The stories told in Venezuela Speaks! also bring into question our own ideas of democracy as solely representative and open the door for a debate on a new form of democracy, one dependent on the active participation of its citizens.

As a result this book should also serve as a tool for activists outside Venezuela, including activists in the United States.  It shows how, through debate, self-criticism, and popular education and media, people are able to free themselves from the manipulation of state and corporate power.

Whether the revolution can go beyond Hugo Chavez and the support of his government is still unclear.  However, what is apparent is the slogan presented in the introduction: "The people have awoken.  With or without Chavez, Venezuela is no longer the same."

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Self-Defense for Radicals on The People's Voice

By Chellis Glendinning
The People's Voice
January 25, 2010

The prospect of setting words to page about Mickey Z.’s Self-Defense for Radicals catalyzed a certain queasiness. It brought up the rosebush reality of…violence.

In an era of drop-of-the-hat planetary destruction, as dirty wars erupt like acne and respect for Gandhi’s ahimsa has re-blossomed like Persephone’s return, as former Weather Underground activist Mark Rudd is crisscrossing the U.S. calling for a pacifist movement and Hugo Chavez is pronouncing that armed struggle is passé—to purvey violence seems patently verboten.

Martial artist Mickey Z. tackles my hesitancy on the first page, laying out a scenario of a strong-arm attack on a friend and asking if I would pray, meditate, and go philosophical-–or if I would stomp my foot, jab the dude’s eyes, kick him in the balls, grab my friend, and bolt. It’s the de rigueur challenge presented to every armed-services draftee applying for Conscientious Objector status, perhaps thorny for he who is seeking community service over combat--but oh so obvious to the rest of us.

Violence has long been a subject requiring re-clarification. Violence against whom/what? Why/how? are the questions. Is it against a child? Or an animal? Is it aimed at a corporate chief’s unoccupied fourth mansion? Or the window at Citibank?

Feminists provided a new layer of clarification in the 1970s, proposing that violence consists of any exertion of force that injures or abuses a person, that it exists on a spectrum from invisible to blatant, psychological to bloody. France’s recent law criminalizing verbal abuse in marriage signals that the lesson may be penetrating in some quarters.

Social activist Z. stands with the feminists, and his business is defense in a violent world. Avoid poorly lit areas, he reminds us. Vary your normal routes and routines. Toss an object at an attacker. When grabbed from behind, nod your head forward, then thrust it back. And scream. Always scream.

But landing a left hook, he makes clear, occurs in a social context in which power-over is not random. Ninety-five percent of domestic assaults, he quotes, are perpetrated on women by men. Twenty-five percent of girls and seventeen percent of boys are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18. Each and every day 600 women are raped in the U.S. Ninety-six percent of hate-crimes are assaults on gays and lesbians.

Too, violence is perpetrated against all living beings by transnational corporations and the governments that facilitate their exploits. Thirteen million tons of toxic chemicals are released into the biosphere every day, he points out. Eighty-one tons of mercury are emitted annually by electricity generation plants. Seventy thousand U.S. citizens die each year from aggravations caused by air pollution. Awareness of these violations, and defense against them, are part of Z.’s program as well.

That Self-Defense for Radicals is called a guide for “subversive struggle” suggests that it might be carried into a demo against the World Bank or the G-20. While such a pamphlet would surely be an addition to movement literature, Z. comes on more Zapatista-like in his notion of subversion: it is to be mustered at every moment in all interactions every day. Like a poet he rocks us out of the staid categories that perpetuate separation of the facets of reality, heaving us instead into the organic flow of personal and political, collective and individual--all the while providing practical tools that expand one’s notion of freedom in a violent world.

And more: I sense that “subversive action” refers to the end result of the read. This is a simple little pamphlet, and yet Z. manages to light a street torch to the never-queasy dedication to “fighting back” in the biggest sense.

Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle (PM Pamphlet) by Mickey Z.



Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy and Chiva: A Village takes on the Global Heroin Trade. She is also a licensed psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery and lives in Chimayó, New Mexico.

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Self Defense for Radicals in Feminist Review

By Katy Pine
Feminist Review
January 31st, 2010

While it’s true that most conflict can and should be resolved with nonviolence, even peace-loving radicals like Mickey Z., the author of this alphabetical guide to self-defense, acknowledge that an absolute aversion to violence is nearly impossible in our war-loving (yet God-fearing) society that seems to tolerate blood-n-guts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In a country where a woman is raped every forty-six seconds, peaceful resolution can quickly become a warm fuzzy afterthought. The reality is that standing up for something usually requires standing up against something. That something may be a repressive and stubborn government, or it may be a big, scary and armed figure looming in the dark. Either way, knowing how to use your body in emergencies is as important as knowing how to argue for your beliefs in the face of adversity.

Mickey does not discourage standing firm in pacifism, but advocates that we all (especially women, who are statistically at a greater risk of physical attack) prepare for the worst. You may choose not to live in fear of fire, but this doesn't mean you forgo the fire alarm. In this vein, Mickey has armed us with a manual of self-defense techniques cleverly written with the help of motivating anecdotes and quirky cartoons by fellow radical, Richard Cole. Whether it is mustering every bit of might in our bodies to scream and run, or delivering a precise finger jab to the eyes followed by a hard kick to the balls, Mickey supplies us with a handy bag of tricks to use under pressure. The guy knows what he's talking about—with a personal history of martial arts, kickboxing and personal training—he values equally the power of body with the power of mind.

Sprinkled with quotes from Bruce Lee, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, and others, Mickey Z.'s Self-Defense for Radicals makes for a quick and entertaining read for anyone conscious of the potential danger we face. Pass it on to your mother, sister, daughter, and anyone else whose safety you worry about. It is an empowering statement dovetailing the greater feminist movement, however personally defined. Mickey states that, "many physical attacks are essentially oppressive gestures spawned by a perceived ability to exploit a weaker (sic) gender. Any struggle to eradicate such gestures is by definition self-defense."

Essentially, we can conceive fighting back as feminism in action. Whether you are a practiced veteran of the martial arts, or a ruthless bar brawler, the fight remains the same and there is only one winner. To dive into the essence of this provocative parallel, start with the section "I" for individuality. Then learn and practice tactics like the left hook, the elbow jab, and scan your surroundings to make sure you have access to such multifaceted weapons as a broom, scarf, pocket change, or a hot drink. And remember, “You are the weapon. Everything else is a tool.”

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Distinguished poet/author Ethelbert Miller to address W&M

bookBy Jim Ducibella
William & Mary College
January 27, 2010

Acclaimed poet, professor, mentor and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller will make three appearances at the College of William and Mary to lecture and read from Tuesday Feb. 2 through Thursday, Feb 4.

All of his appearances are free and open to the public. Miller is here as part of the Patrick Hayes Writers Festival.

"We are bringing the literary artist, our distinguished university archivist, the college community and the general public together in our library and the classroom," said Joanne Braxton, Cummings Professor of English, at whose invitation Miller is appearing. "We are, in fact, opening the university classroom to the public. This is one example of the many ways in which William & Mary demonstrates continued excellence in defining what it means to be a public university in the 21st Century."
Miller Poster

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, 12:30 p.m., Miller will discuss “My Life as a Literary Activist” in room 305 of Washington Hall.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Miller will read from his 2009 memoir “The Fifth Inning” and other works at the Botetourt Gallery on the ground floor of Swem Library.

At 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4, in room 305 of Washington Hall, Miller will be joined by Beatriz B. Hardy, Swem Library’s Marian and Alan McLeod Director of Special Collections Research Center, to discuss Miller’s role as someone who documents literary movements and what archives do with writers’ papers.

At the same time, Miller and Dr. Hardy will discuss the College’s new exhibit of the works of the late poet Reetika Vazirani. Miller saved his correspondence with Vazirani, 2002 writer-in-residence at the College and winner of the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and donated them to Swem Library following her death in July, 2003.

The exhibit, positioned at the front entrance to the library, will be available for viewing for three weeks.

Miller was instrumental in getting Vazirani’s final collection of poems, entitled “Radha Says,” published late last year. Among its editors was Ravi Shankar.

Miller has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. In addition, he was formerly the chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and a faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College in Vermont.

Ethelbert MillerEthelbert Miller
The author of 11 books, Miller was once hailed by the Washington Post as “arguably the most influential person in Washington's vast and vibrant African American arts community.”

Mr. Miller was awarded the Mayor’s Art Award for literature in 1982. He received the Public Humanities Award from the D.C. Humanities Council in 1988. In 1993, the literary community of Washington awarded him the Columbia Merit Award.

His book, “In Search of Color Everywhere,” was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was a Book of the Month Club selection. Mr. Miller received the 1995 O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize.

In 1997, he was presented with the Stephen Henderson Poetry Award by the African American Literature and Culture Society. His book, “Fathering Words,” was selected by D.C. WE READ in 2003 for the one-book, one-city program sponsored by the D.C. Public Libraries.

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Feminist books for five-year-olds

By Viv Groskop
The Guardian
4th December, 2010

Feminist books for five-year-olds Can you radicalise young children in a few easy reads? Viv Groskop gives it her best shot


viv groskop reading

Once upon a time... Groskop introduces Will, 6, and Vera, 3, to some subversive storybooks. Photograph: Frank Baron

It all started with my son, Will, stamping his feet and saying he didn't want any girls invited to his sixth birthday party. Girls, he declared, are boring. At the same time I noticed my daughter, Vera, who is three, carrying a handbag and lip gloss. Will was demanding his first football kit, Vera was swooning over princess paraphernalia, and I suddenly realised that it was time for a gender stereotyping intervention.

Children know what they are supposed to like from an early age. For girls, it's princesses, ballet, fairies, parties. For boys, it's adventure, space travel, fire engines, pirates. Until now, my two have been young enough to do their own thing – Will has enjoyed baking cakes, Vera has pretended to be Luke Skywalker. But the older they get, the harder it is to resist the pink-and-blue divide.

Can books redress the balance? We often read Captain Pugwash and Asterix – but there are no girls in those stories. I was happy with Babar until Celeste became pregnant with triplets and never came out of the nursery again. In Peepo the mother is always ironing. Of course, there are some successes for both boys and girls. Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline is a wonderful tale of convent girl derring-do, with lots of boy characters, too. Julia Donaldson's books (The Gruffalo, The Smartest Giant in Town) are great fun, but not exactly politically inspiring. I wanted to find something feminist, subversive. The Female Eunuch for five-year-olds.

Bring on Jacinta Bunnell's colouring book Girls Are Not Chicks, published in the UK this week. The New York-based author first had the idea for feminist books for children when reading bedtime stories as a nanny. "I found myself editing the words so as not to pass on a sexist message," she says. "In most children's books the girls have pretty frocks and bows in their hair, so I would turn it around – call the boys by girls' names and vice versa."

In the US "anti-princess reading lists" have appeared, pioneered by the websites and There are now books for three- to eight-year-olds with a specifically feminist agenda: Call me Madame President, Girls Think of Everything, Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls.

Feminist author Natasha Walter is intrigued but cautious. "My mother wouldn't buy me Enid Blyton because she said her books were too racist and sexist," she says. "But I don't think you need to read in a feminist way to become a feminist." With her own daughter she reads Catherine Storr's Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf and Roald Dahl's Matilda. Both Walter and fellow feminist writer Susie Orbach pick Pippi Longstocking as one of the best reads for children.

So Pippi seems a good place to start. But can a three-year-old girl who wants to marry her daddy, and a six-year-old boy who hates pink, really be radicalised in just five easy reads? Time to find out . . .


Girls Are Not Chicks By Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak (£7.99, PM Press)

girls are not chicks Girls Are Not Chicks, by Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak.

Some of the pictures and captions in this colouring book are funny. A woman riding a tractor: "Who says girls don't like to play in the dirt?" Two ballerinas dancing: "No one wants to fight the patriarchy alone. Make friends." But I'm not sure whether the messages are really for the amusement of children, or adults. One caption reads: "When she stopped chasing the dangling carrot of conventional femininity, she was finally able to savour being a woman." Try explaining that to a three-year-old.

Will: "This book is for girls."

Vera: (scribbles intently)

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Political Media Review on Behind the Mask

Behind the MaskBy Anthony J. Nocella, II
Political Media Review
7 February, 2009 

Behind the Mask, a production of Uncaged Films and ARME directed and produced by Shannon Keith, is an outstanding and thought provoking documentary about the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Winner of numerous awards, the seventy-two minute investigative film weaves together interviews with some of the leading figures in the animal liberation movement with undercover footage of animals in laboratories, as well as being liberated and in loving sanctuaries. Throughout the film Keith interviews Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of People for the Treatment of Animals; Dr. Steve Best, professor at the University of Texas El Paso; Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front; Rod Coronado, former member of the Animal Liberation Front; Keith Mann, former member of the Animal Liberation Front in England; John Feldman, singer for the popular band Goldfinger; Jerry Vlasak, doctor in Los Angeles and member of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office; Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society; Chris Derose, founder of Last Chance for Animals, an animal cruelty investigation nonprofit, and many others.

The films subtitle: “The story of the people who risk everything to save animals,” is nothing but the truth. For more than thirty years the organization has been freeing nonhuman animals around the world and destroying property that causes harm to those animals totaling up in the hundreds of millions of dollars of “damage.” As the film explains, the ALF has been identified by the FBI as the number one domestic threat in the U.S. despite the fact that they are against harming any living creature human or nonhuman, and have not harmed anyone since becoming established in the mid-1970s.

It is extremely important to have such a comprehensive documentary on the ALF because they, as controversial as the Zapatistas, Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, and the Weather Underground, have not seen much attention within the social justice movement and that which they have received has been massive repression by law enforcement around the world. Although not as sensational, and produced with much less funding than documentaries such as The Weather Underground which social justice activists have shown repeatedly at schools, community centers, and activist meetings and conferences, Behind the Mask should be valued and utilized the same way. Unfortunately it has not been for two reasons: first because the film stresses the value and respect for nonhuman animals and not simply humans, and second, it is not a historical film but rather it is speaking about extremists today.

People often say that if they were back in the sixties they would be marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and supporting Malcolm X, or they would join the Weather Underground, as today members of the Weather Underground and Black Panther Party are respected professors at top universities. This film challenges the viewer to recognize that the animal liberation movement and ALF are the imperative revolutionary groups for today’s society, and to take action to support them.

This is an extraordinary and captivating film that should be watched by anyone that believes that animal rights is a terrorist movement, who eats meat, or who just wants to understand what the ALF is about. It is perfect to show at activist conferences and meetings, as well as college courses in the field of environmental sociology, criminology, philosophy, peace and conflict studies, and environmental education.

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Red Pill Reviews Resistance Behind Bars


Red Pill
Vol 7, No 5

Published by PM Press, Victoria Law’s first book, Resistance Behind Bars The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, takes a poignant look at the history and issues surrounding women in prison.  An often overlooked reality in our  culture, Law’s 288-page book seeks to raise awareness to the lives and struggles of incarerated women across the country. With many first-hand accounts of disrespect, neglect, and abuse (physical/mental/sexual/emotional), Resistance Behind Bar paints a picture that something is deeply wrong with the way we, as a society, (mis)treat imprisoned people, especially the needs of women, which are not usually considered when thinking about prisoners.  

However, this book isn’t just a pity party thrown to lament the woes of women in the prison industrial complex. Resistance Behind Bars brings to light the many ways in which women struggle against the system for more humane living conditions.  Many issues, such as access to education/work opportunities, adequate and affordable healthcare, and family contact/visitation have been fought for inside prison, regardless of known reprecussions and punishment.

Law seeks to discount the general assumption by academics and prison activists alike that women in prison merely accept their conditions and do nothing to change it.  While many prison riots and protests that occur in men’s prisons may be often known about or covered in the media, similar incidents in women’s facilities fail to get the same media attention.  In addition to direct action, many women also exhaust the ‘official’ procedures to combat mistreatment.

Complete with numerous helpful end notes, a glossary, and a section on resources for incarcerated women, Resistance Behind Bars offers the public a new and realistic look into the lives of the forgotten and the oppressed.

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Resistance Through Writing

RBBcoverAn Interview with Victoria Law
By Ellen Papazian
The Feminist Review

Feminist Review recently interviewed writer and activist Victoria Law on her book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Here Law shares her thoughts on making her book an activist tool, the culture’s blind spot about the prison industry, social justice movements’ responsibility to incarcerated women’s issues, and how motherhood radically altered her own work and informed her upcoming anthology, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind.

Who did you write Resistance Behind Bars for?

I originally wrote the book, or the college paper that was the start of it, with no audience in mind. I had spent a semester researching post-Attica prisoner organizing and resistance in college. At the end of the semester, I looked back at what I had and realized that every instance, except for one, was about male prisoners. So the first paper was written to explore what women were doing and why their actions weren’t as well-documented, or remembered, as their male counterparts.

When I first had the idea to turn my paper into a book, I had a few audiences in mind: people who were already interested in prison and prisoner issues; those interested in women’s issues; people who aren’t particularly interested in prisons or prisoners’ issues, but are interested in tales of resistance, and incarcerated women themselves. In corresponding with over a dozen women incarcerated around the country, I also wanted to make sure that the book was accessible to them. None of the women I’d reached out to had any idea of organizing being done in other prisons or of the previous organizing, resistance, and riots that had happened in women’s prisons in the 1970s and 1980s. I kept in mind that I wanted my book—and the information in it—to be accessible to someone with an eighth-grade education. The book doesn’t work as a potential organizing tool if those most affected by these issues aren’t able to read and comprehend it.

What’s the response to Resistance Behind Bars been like—and how has it affected you personally and your work as an activist?

I think that because Resistance Behind Bars is a book specifically about incarcerated women—and even more specifically about their acts of resistance—it’s attracted attention and interest from people who normally think of prison issues as male issues and are excited and intrigued by incarcerated women’s resistance. Such an enthusiastic response means that I’ve been kept busy planning and doing events, not only the typical bookstore readings, but also workshops at various social justice conferences and at schools.

My daughter, who was a newborn when I first started researching incarcerated women’s resistance, is now eight years old and knows a lot about prisons, prison and gender, and abolition, probably more than most other eight-year-olds (except, perhaps, for any children whose parents are Critical Resistance organizers). She’s asked me very pointed questions about both realities inside prisons and ideas about abolition, which means that I had to clearly articulate my arguments, thoughts, and ideas.

What was the writing process like for this book?

When I first started researching, I did two things: I set aside all preconceived notions of what prisoner organizing might look like and started reading specifically about women in prison. I found a lot of material covered issues like motherhood and pregnancy. Issues of parenting—and, of course, pregnancy—do not come up in documentation about male prisoner organizing, and so people who are looking at instances of prisoner resistance aren’t going to necessarily look at how they organize around and challenge the realities of parents in prison. Battering and past abuse is another issue that comes up in a lot of the studies around incarcerated women, but again, that’s not an issue that we see impacting men going to prison and thus isn’t looked at as a “prison issue.”

I also scoured the news—and alternative media, mostly prison-related zines—for mentions of actions by incarcerated women. Once I found that someone had done something—filed a lawsuit, complained to the press, launched a hunger strike, etc.—I used the websites of either that state prison system or the Federal Bureau of Prisons to find the woman’s contact information and sent her a letter explaining who I was and what I was researching. I asked if she would be willing to share her stories and experiences with me.

Not wanting to take without giving back, I offered what I could: I offered to look up lawsuits for them and send them copies of court decisions; I offered to look up other resources for them; I offered to send them books via the Books Through Bars program that I helped start here in NYC; I sent stamps so that they could not only respond to me, but also write letters to other groups or people; in some cases, I offered to call their children if they were unable to get through themselves.

What were some of the most surprising realities about women in prison that you discovered in researching your book?

I remember receiving a letter from the Clear Creek County Jail in Colorado about the re-institution of the chain gang for the women held there. That wasn’t the huge surprise; the surprise was that the woman who wrote me was actually happy to be on the chain gang! She had recently given her newborn son up for adoption, and so I can’t help but wonder if keeping occupied, even if it’s on a chain gang, helps her process losing him. She’s not the only one: women at Clear Creek want to be on the chain gang. It’s tiring, backbreaking work in the hot sun, but it’s also the first chance they’ve been given to get out of their cells, be outdoors, and accrue “good time,” or time off their sentences. Keep in mind that the jail’s male inmates have had the chain gang for a while. They also have other chances to earn “good time.”

What are the most common misconceptions and assumptions circulating right now about women in prison that keep people from understanding what’s really going on inside prisons for women?

In May, I was invited to speak at a New York City high school about women and prison. Having done so many of these talks to people who are interested in prison issues and have some framework about the issue, I forget what the majority of people think or don’t know. I came in ready to talk about historical contexts and what is going on now and started with the question: “What do you think about when you think about prison? Who goes to prison and why?”

One girl raised her hand and said, “Criminals. People who do bad things.”

“Drug dealers.”


I realized that most of the students had no framework about incarceration other than what they had been fed by the mass media, so I had to mentally throw out my outline and start from scratch. I talked about poverty and racial profiling, the history of the prison as a means of social control, how Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon equated the civil rights movements and liberation movements with street crime and started their war(s) on crime to lock up poor people of color before they could mobilize to demand their rights. None of the students had ever heard of the Rockefeller Drug Laws or mandatory minimum sentencing. I hadn’t either when I was their age, and I grew up in New York City too!

I also talked about some of the conditions inside—the lack of health care treatment, the fact that staff members often encouraged prisoner-on-prisoner violence, because it’s easier for them if the prisoners aren’t uniting and fighting for basic human rights, lack of educational programs inside the prison. At the end of the hour, when we talked about what they, as high school students, could do about this issue, one boy raised his hand and suggested that we should lobby for medical treatment for people inside prison. “If I broke my leg in prison—or anywhere—I would want people to help me get it treated.”

Later one of the coordinators of that high school’s community day told me, “Students in your session were really struck by the experiences you shared with them, and there has been a lot of conversation in among students about issues concerning prison.” Some of the students were talking about forming a student club to do work around some of these issues, like the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

You write in the book that calls for reform have failed to adequately address the factors leading to women’s incarceration. How so?

Prisons fail to address the societal conditions that lead to incarceration, such as poverty and the increasing feminization of poverty, misogyny, violence, racism, and the issues that accompany women to prison. How does locking someone in a cage address any of these factors?

You have to remember that people have gone to prison face numerous obstacles in successfully reintegrating into the community when they are released from prison. Oftentimes, they are not only released with the same lack of resources and opportunities than they had before being arrested and incarcerated, but now have a criminal record which prevents them from getting certain jobs, qualifying for certain housing, or social safety nets. The 1996 welfare “reform” banned people with drug felonies for life. Similar legislation banned them from receiving governmental financial aid for college, etc.

We also need to keep in mind that prison issues affect all sorts of issues on the outside, shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment, and other societal supports that are needed.

Did motherhood change your own activism?

Before motherhood, I was super-involved in all sorts of political projects and organizing. New motherhood definitely made me sit still! Once my daughter was born, I realized that I had to pick a few issues and focus on them. I also couldn’t risk arrest or bringing my daughter to something where the police might attack the crowd.

I started researching resistance and organizing among incarcerated women shortly after my daughter was born. Being stuck inside during the winter with a newborn gave me a lot of time to read, respond to letters, contemplate ideas and issues—this, by the way, is something I did a lot while nursing—and work on draft after draft of this paper. I don’t know if I would have had this same opportunity if I had tried to do this as a childfree person rushing off from one political [event] to another at various hours of the day and night, or if my daughter had been older, more mobile, and needing more direct attention.

I want to stress that what’s made my continued involvement and even writing my book possible is the huge amount of support I get from my friends and the people with whom I organize. I realize that not all mothers get this type of support, although they should, and that I’m extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful support system.

What are you working on now?

My next book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, will be an anthology co-edited with China Martens, a mother, writer, and publisher of the longest running subculture parenting zine, The Future Generation. Originally, China and I wanted to share our experiences as radical mothers and advocate for community support of all families. We were meeting parents and their allies and hearing their stories and experiences. A few years ago, we realized that we wanted to extend the reach of our message of community support and decided to compile a handbook specifically geared towards allies, or potential allies, of radical parents.

With Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, we’re addressing the need to support—and build support systems for—families in our own social justice movements. In so many of our so-called radical movements, we’re not providing support for people who decide to have children so that they can continue participating in political work. There’s an individualistic attitude that says, “Well, I didn’t choose to have kids. You did, so you deal with them.”

Even when there’s not an overt resistance to having children in our movements, we need to look at how ways that we organize and socialize exclude parents and caretakers. We lose valuable organizers—and organizing experience—when we don’t take these factors into consideration.

Unlike Resistance Behind Bars, this book will be an anthology of both caregivers and their allies of ways that their movements support children and their caretakers in your collectives, organizations, or communities. We are especially seeking experiences that take into account factors such as race, class, gender, single parenthood, and/or mental health issues, since these issues often aren’t talked about when we talk about building communities and support systems here on the outside. We’re still reaching out, meeting people and collecting submissions, so if anyone out there has stories and experiences to share, they should definitely get in touch!

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