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Peter Kuper's Diario

By Alex Dueben
Comic Book Resources

Peter Kuper is one of the most productive illustrators and cartoonists of the last several decades, in addition to being one of the most politically active. He's made a mark in many outlets in a wide variety of ways, ranging from his visual style, which even casual fans can easily recognize, to the thoughtful political substance that permeates much of his works.

Kuper has drawn covers for "Time" and "Newsweek," in addition to contributing to "The New Yorker," "The New York Times" and "Harper's." He co-founded the anthology "World War 3 Illustrated" in 1979 and has been one of the guiding editors and contributors since then. Since 1997, Kuper has been the artistic force behind Antonio Prohias' comic "Spy vs Spy" for "Mad Magazine."

Outside of the cartooning world, Kuper has written and illustrated numerous books, including the children's picture book "Theo and The Blue Note." His syndicated comic strip has been collected into two volumes, "Eye of the Beholder" and "Mind's Eye." He's adapted Upton Sinclair ("The Jungle") and Franz Kafka ("The Metamorphosis" and "Give It Up!") into comics.

Kuper's many graphic novels, which range in subject from autobiography ("Stripped") to travel ("Comics Trips"), include "The System" from Vertigo, "Sticks and Stones" from Three Rivers Press, "Speechless" from Top Shelf, and 2007's "Stop Forgetting to Remember."

Kuper's newest book, "Diario de Oaxaca" from PM Press, is a collection of sketchbook pages and diary entries from the year he and his family spent in Oaxaca in 2006 through 2007, a tumultuous time in the city, to say the least. The artist/writer took time out to talk with CBR News about the book and what it was like to live in a very different place than many of those who are fans of his work are used to.

CBR News: Peter, you and your family moved to Mexico for a sabbatical, but why there, and specifically, why Oaxaca?

Peter Kuper: We had first visited Spain. The one constant in our decision was a Spanish speaking country, so our daughter (age nine at the time) would get a useful second language. It was clear we'd have to continue to work at a high velocity if we lived in Europe. Mexico was closer, only an hour off the time zone of NYC, and much cheaper. We picked Oaxaca simply based on a few previous visits. It was a charming 16th century town with plenty of art museums and lots of history.

You mention at one point in "Diario de Oaxaca" that you had visited the area when you were younger. How much had the area changed since then?

It remained unchanged in many ways, except for the traffic. The narrow cobblestone streets were never meant to handle cars and buses, and the number of both had increased dramatically. That and the seven - month teachers' strike were the big differences.

What was daily life in the city like during the strike? Was it really just business as usual for most of the city outside the zocalo and city center?

It was mostly business as usual, minus the business, since tourism dried up and many hotels and restaurants and all the people that depend on tourism were hurt throughout.

Rereading my journal in our first few months (beginning in July 2006), I noted that concern about Oaxaca being dangerous was not a major subject. Still, that may have something to do with my temperament. My wife says it was scarier than I felt it was.

There were barricades in the streets that required navigation and regular marches, but having lived in New York City for decades it didn't seem off the charts that there were some streets more dangerous then others.

I don't mean to minimize the situation. There were some very near misses for us, and many people weren't so lucky.

A lot of Americans have spent time in Europe or Mexico or other countries where strikes aren't rare occurrences like here in the U.S., but are rather a fairly common and expected form of labor negotiation. It's the response, the paramilitary forces and the army being called in, the killing of journalists, that's hard to picture. How does life go on in the midst of all this?

The people in Oaxaca were incredibly kind and friendly. This is what we were experiencing daily, along with the beauty of the town and fantastic year round weather. We had the good fortune of living away from the town center, so we weren't confronted with the troubles every time we walked out our door. After Brad Will, the American journalist, was killed and federal troops arrived, it was very different. Walking past tanks and riot police felt like we'd stepped into 1930's Germany and was very unsettling. Still, we did our work and took our daughter to school - hers was one of the few that remained open - so life did go on, for us at least.

When this happened, what people knew really depended on where they were getting their news. By and large, were people aware of what was going on and why?

People were very aware, but their stories varied and it was hard to know what was the exact truth. Rumors spread easily, so you had to take any info with a grain of salt. Overall, though, people seemed very engaged. Coming from the States, where we knew the president had stolen the election (at least once) and the country had given a collective shrug, to see people willingly encamped in the streets for months and regularly marching against a corrupt politician was inspiring.

At what point did you decide to create a book about your time and your experiences in Oaxaca, and how did you decide upon the format of a combination sketchbook/journal?

It happened incidentally. I had no plan for this. I had been writing for an arts website, DART, and sending drawing out to various publications, including one in Mexico City. They suggested publishing them in a modest way. Like a 64 page book, but they were open to something longer. With that possibility - which came in the last six months of our two-year stay - I began drawing like a man with a mission. Then I realized that the essays I'd been writing for the website would give the book a clearer narrative and fit naturally. I thought it would be fairly easy to assemble, but it took a year of design and printer wrangling to get to the final product.

Why was it important for the book to be in both English and Spanish?

Initially, I thought the book would only be published in Mexico, but I didn't want people who didn't know Spanish to be unable to read it.

When I found the American publisher, PM Press, it made even more sense [to present the book in two languages], since we only had to modify a few pages, which made the printing simple and affordable as a co-pub.

Did your habits in Oaxaca in terms of keeping a sketchbook differ from what you do in New York, and have your work habits changed since your time in Mexico?

I'm still sorting through the impact Mexico had on me. The one thing I've brought back has been my regular sketchbook drawing. Rarely a day goes by where I don't put time in filling my sketchbook. I haven't been anxious to go out looking for illustration work since I am still digesting and can't pick up where I left off. Having "Diario de Oaxaca" published reminded me to just create as much as possible and hope the publishing opportunities follow.

Was the daily sketching something you did when you were younger and just fell out of the habit of, or is this a new habit new for you?

I have drawn in a sketchbook since high school, and I especially kept one when I traveled. I had a book published in 1992 called "Comics Trips" that was my sketchbook from an eight-month trip in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Before the trip to Mexico I'd fallen out of the habit, but that trip brought me back to that very good habit, and I have continued drawing everyday, religiously since we returned.

"World War 3 Illustrated" is still going strong after three decades of publication. When you started the magazine, did you think it would become this enduring a project and would encompass so much?

We didn't think in terms of making it endure, though we're thrilled that it has. There just kept being new subject matter that made us want to create in reaction. Bush certainly gave us a ton of reasons to want to respond through the magazine. He gave us way too much material!

Are you involved in the upcoming issue of "WW3," and what can we expect from it?

Having edited the last issue, which took on and off seven months, I'm taking a break, but it is moving forward full speed with Seth Tobocman and several others editing as we move into our 30th year of publication. The theme is "solutions," but as is the tradition of the magazine, what people are dealing with is more about the problems. Solutions don't come so easily.

A solutions issue seemed appropriate after so many years of writing and drawing about problems. I'm not editing this one since I did the last one, so I can't yet say whether in this issue we come up with solutions to all the world's problems.

You wrote in your diary about wanting to continue taking longer lunches and enjoying siestas. Since returning to New York, have you been able to follow through with this desire?

In this economy? Are you kidding? Most of the longer lunches are due to unemployment and hence less enjoyable!

Speaking of the economy, one of the other big projects you're known for is "Spy vs Spy." With "Mad Magazine" now publishing less frequently, do you have any thoughts on what it means in the scheme of publishing everywhere seeing a decline?

This is a hard time for magazines, and this is another example of the downturn. There are some seismic shifts going on in the publishing world, but I hope that new avenues will open up to replace the old ones that are disappearing. Being a cartoonist, doing what I enjoy as my job is a privilege. That it is challenging to make this a career isn't surprising. In a field like this, the sand is always shifting under your feet and it requires moving even to stay in the same place. I'm pretty restless anyway, so I'm looking for a different place to take my work. My next project may be building sand castles...

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A Hard-Won Freedom

From the Bottom of the Heap
By Mel Motel
WIN Magazine

I had the honor of spending some time with the only freed member of the Angola 3 in April 2009 when he swung through Vermont on his book tour. Starting softly, in front of an audience of 60, King grew in volume and intensity as he arrived at the focus of his talk: prisons as an extension of chattel slavery. His style was narrative and circular; he weaved in and out of events and concepts, blending past with present. The first two-thirds of From the Bottom of the Heap resemble this warm, sprawling narrative, mostly reflections on his childhood as he bounces from rural Louisiana to New Orleans, from grandmother to cops to train-hopping hobos.

Three aspects of this book make it accessible and applicable: King’s aptitude for storytelling—non-linear, conversational, straightforward, and insightful—his eventual explanation of the Black Panther Party’s significance and power, and the details of his own legal battles fought from behind prison bars, specifically the appeal that led to his release in 2001 after 29 years of solitary confinement in Angola State Penitentiary, a/k/a “The Last Slave Plantation.”

In From the Bottom of the Heap, King relates his journey as at once remarkable and unremarkable. While his struggle to organize prisoners and steel himself against retaliation is his alone, the circumstances that brought him to Angola and kept him there mirror the experiences of millions of people in this country: the poor, the uneducated, and men and women of color. What King gives the reader is not a lecture but a seasoned account. It is a picture of racism, guard beatings, corruption, torture, favors, snitches, and inhumane living conditions that anyone can identify with who has been locked up or has a loved one in prison.

Where the book falls short is King’s use of the pages as an educational platform. He could have spent more time on political analysis of the Black Panther Party and description of the tactics that he and the other members of the Angola 3—Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—used to organize prisoners. I also wish the story did not culminate with King’s release from prison but further illuminated the work he has been doing since then to raise awareness about Wallace and Woodfox, who are still in prison.

The legal scholar will find some useful portions, however. Toward the end of the book, King includes a serious, concise account of a civil suit that he won when the Nineteenth District issued a ruling against “routine anal searches.” He also helpfully documents his partially pro se appeal process throughout the 1990s.

When Robert King was released from Angola, he declared, “Even though I was free from Angola, Angola would never be free of me.” With this book, King makes good on his promise. He exposes the horrors of an unjust, brutal system in the hopes that we may all someday be free. King says, “Sometimes, the spirit is stronger than the circumstances.” That he includes “sometimes” is a testament to his honest assessment of reality: that innocence is usually trumped by power. Freedom will not be won without awareness and sacrifice.

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Mel Motel came to Vermont in 2006 to help build a restorative justice-based prisoner reentry program. She continues to meet with and advocate for people returning to the community after doing time, works at Prison Legal News, and organizes with Vermont Action for Political Prisoners. This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News. Reprinted with permission.

Linda Thurston Talks Community

Prison Abolition, Political Prisoners, and the Building of Critical Resistance
By Matt Meyer
WIN Magazine

Linda Thurston is a founding member of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, coordinated the New England and National Criminal Justice Programs of the American Friends Service Committee, and has worked with Boston and New York Jericho and with Critical Resistance. Linda is the office coordinator at the War Resisters League national office.

Matt Meyer: You have a long history of working not just for political prisoners, but for the rights and freedom of prisoners in general, as well as for prison abolition. You’ve worked with a number of the key regional and national organizations in this field. Would you share some of those experiences?

Linda Thurston: When I became the director of the New England Criminal Justice Program of the Quaker-based American Friends Service, one of the big issues was a tendency to lock any prisoners who spoke out on any issues in solitary confinement—sometimes for years. These were clear cases of political repression, locking people up not because they posed any threats but because they were willing to fight for their rights, even as prisoners. Many folks whom I worked with then may not have landed in prison because of political activities, but they certainly got politicized once in prison.

Partly because I was in Boston, where there was a very strong anti-apartheid movement and a very strong Central American solidarity movement, I learned about many people doing time because of refusal to cooperate with federal grand jury investigations. At the Red Book Store in Cambridge, I remember meeting some people—like Tommy Manning and Jaan Laaman of the Ohio 7 case— who are still political prisoners to this day. Kazi Toure, now out of prison and the national co-chair of the Jericho Amnesty Movement, was around in those days, along with his brother, Arnie King, who is also still doing time despite an incredible record of community support and work. I think there are some regional cultural differences that have shaped people’s political development differently. In New York City, for example, most of the political prisoners came directly out of the local Black Panther Party. But in Boston and later, in Philadelphia, with the case of MOVE and the MOVE 9, I had a different framework. While I was working for AFSC, I began to learn more about political prisoners through my own writing and radio projects.

As an AFSC staff person, I was involved in the 200 Years of Penitentiary project, recognizing Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail as the first prison in the USA. The campaign was a way of doing prison abolition work in the 1980s, and I got to dress up in my Sunday best and speak to all the Quaker groups and Methodists and Presbyterians and United Church folks. From there, I got to work with the National Inter-Religious Task Force on Criminal Justice. Those networks, with people like Episcopal Minister S. Michael Yasutake (founding chair of the Prisoner of Conscience Project) building bridges between social and political prisoners, helped create lasting relationships and commitments. Fast forward some years, to the early 1990s, and I ended up working with Amnesty International USA on death penalty issues.

I actually had, from the beginning, some very real issues with Amnesty International. In part, this was because Amnesty refused to name Nelson Mandela, or any number of other people, as political prisoners. I didn’t understand at that moment the human rights movement’s nuanced differences in definition regarding political prisoners, prisoners of war, and prisoners of conscience. Nor did I understand how amazingly egg-headedly legalistic and academistic the whole human rights framework could be. But at that particular moment, between 1994 and 1995, executions in the USA had almost doubled in one year. It seemed important to do that work with those resources, but it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Amnesty is an organization that grows out of the Cold War mentality. They began as a group that issued bulletins on behalf of prisoners of conscience, one prisoner from the West and one from the Soviet Union, trying to embarrass those governments by bombarding them with letters. While I was there, we did begin trying to get Amnesty to pay attention to the case of Black Panther death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. But I could not stay at Amnesty for long.

The job I had at the Center for Constitutional Rights was coordinator of the Ella Baker Student Program, which I used to refer to as my job of training little “baby radical lawyers.” These were young people that we would recruit from various law schools who thought that they wanted to be “movement” lawyers. Whatever issues they were eventually going to work on, it was crucial that they get an education in the history and the current way of looking at the role of prisons in society and the reality of political prisoners. I remember bringing in Attica prison rebellion survivor and representative Big Black in, to come and talk to these law students after we’d shown them the film Attica. It was a strong way of educating and radicalizing people who could have a direct effect on the lives of prisoners.

MM: What were and are some of the issues involved in building bridges between the people who do work around political prisoners and those who work around the prison-industrial complex or prison abolition?

LT: I think there are people who come out of a political context, who make many assumptions about categories such as “social prisoners.” Some people who work on political prisoner cases have, in a general theoretical sense, the idea that prisons themselves are bad, but also that prisons are where bad folks are. If you stole something, you’re a thief. If you killed somebody, you’re a murderer. And that is what you are, that is who you are, and that is all you are. I really have a problem with that idea, maybe coming from my spirituality or maybe just my common-sense political analysis. Nobody is only one thing, and no one is only as bad as the worst thing they ever did. If that were true, we’d all be in big trouble because we’re all human. Some people who won’t do work around social prisoners or politicized social prisoners have this perspective, and many people who do work with the general prison population do it purely from a social service perspective and aren’t interested in working on political prisoner issues. The key is to see the connections between these struggles, and not to pit them against one another. We’ve got lots of work ahead of us.

It also has now gotten way more complicated because more and more political prisoners are spending vast, unbelievable amounts of time in prison, and not getting out. Political prisoners are dying in prison, so the issue becomes more urgent. At the same time, as I’ve said, vastly increased numbers of people are being sent to prison—also for long periods of time. In countries where the concept of “political prisoner” is recognized as a legal category, there may still be human rights problems and justice issues, but the complications and divisions between tend to be easier to deal with. It is agreed that there are political prisoners, and it is agreed that there are major problems in the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Here in the U.S., an urgent task of the current political moment is for folks doing political prisoner support work to recognize the broader context of the PIC.

One place where we’ve seen this take place is around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia’s case has brought so many people from different political movements and perspectives together. In general, though, with all the cases, we need to make more opportunities for all kinds of interaction and discussion. Not to be naïve, but these dialogues between those of us doing basically similar work are an urgent necessity. We’ve got to find greater ways to work together.

MM: You’ve been active, since the beginning, in the development of Critical Resistance (CR), which in some ways tries to present a new framework about how to do some of this work. And you continue to help bridge the gap between work around prison abolition and around political prisoners. Could you describe the current national scene, around the time of the tenth anniversary of CR, and discuss how things have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same?

LT: It may be a new framework and a new concept in this current iteration, but the notion of prison abolition is much older than the 1998 founding conference of CR. I actually didn’t get involved in CR until after that initial national conference in Oakland, but I did attend the conference. There were many folks at the first Critical Resistance gathering who were overjoyed that people were talking about prison abolition again. We didn’t know that over a thousand people would show up, with energy to build local and regional chapters. We clearly hit upon a moment when people were ready to work on issues involving the role of prisons in U.S. life.

One issue that we’ve been dealing with, and need to continue to deal with, is the role of people who have been most impacted by the prison industrial complex. Our organizations can’t just be made up of people who want to work on an issue. It has to include people who did time, people whose family members have done time. These folks must be in the leadership of the movement and the leadership of the struggle, because in many ways they can best understand and convey the complexities of the system on a local and national level. As we all need to step up and become active when that’s needed, we also need to learn to step back and take leadership from the folk who haven’t been in leadership. Some of us older folks need to learn that in regard to the youth, too.

Another thing that’s fairly unique about CR, in my experience, is the way in which the regional organizations reflect the national program as well as the specific political context in a given region of the country. We’ve been weaving a sort of web between the local networks and the national group.

There’s also a great deal of attention in CR given to political education. Far too often in our movements we don’t find out where people are coming from. If somebody shows up for a meeting, we’re so glad that they’re there, we’ll just give them some things to do and tell them when and where to go for the next meeting. But CR really works to build community. I feel very connected to the local folks in the organization, even though I work more with the national. We are in a situation where someone can put a call out and say, “Yo, the sister who was at the meeting last night—her kid just got arrested. Can any of you get to court?” And people do it. It reminds me of working with the groups in Boston when I was younger: that sense of community, of family, of connectedness. That feeling also comes up when I get emails from different political prisoner support groups saying, “So and so on the inside is sick, we’ve got to jump in here and deal with this.”

I guess I’ve come full circle after all these years, realizing that we need the political analysis, we need the political education, we need the strategizing, we need more bodies, and we need resources. But we also damn sure better remember that we’re human beings and we need to support one another on all levels or we’re not going to make it. Sometimes our failure is as simple as calling a meeting at dinnertime and not having so much as a pitcher of water at the table. If we’re going to survive, if we’re going to succeed, if we’re going to win, if we’re going to free folks, we’ve got to get better at doing the human piece of building movement by building community.

From Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, Matt Meyer, ed.

Matt Meyer, despite being a public draft resister, did not go to jail but did contemplate those possible consequences. Former National Chair of the War Resisters League, Meyer is editor of the recently published Let Freedom Ring: Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008).

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Women Resist Behind Bars

By Victoria Law
Illustrations by Rachel Galindo
WIN Magazine

Women have resisted and protested their conditions of confinement since the start of separate female prisons in the 1800s. However, despite the growing body of literature examining female incarceration, little attention has been paid to what women do to change or protest their conditions, thus reinforcing prevailing stereotypes of women as passive victims and the belief that incarcerated women do not organize. Researchers, scholars, and activists continue to focus on the causes, conditions, and effects of women’s incarceration while ignoring the women’s attempts to change or protest these circumstances.

This lack of attention has led to not only an absence of literature but a lack of outside support and resources for and about their issues and actions. Instead of claiming that women in prison do not engage in riots and protest actions that capture media attention, scholars, researchers, and activists should examine why women’s acts of organizing and resistance fail to attract the same public attention and support as those of incarcerated men.

Growing Numbers

The number of women in federal and state prisons has grown twenty fold in the last 40 years, from 5,600 in 1970 to 115,308 by the middle of 2007. What caused this explosion in women’s incarceration?

From President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on crime” in 1965 to Washington State’s “three strikes” legislation in 1993 (which mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for a third conviction), the policy has increasingly been to blame street crime for the nation’s growing civil unrest.

A preoccupation with drug use contributed greatly as well. President Ronald Reagan’s well-known “war on drugs” expanded both policing and imprisonment. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act with mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The act led to a huge expansion in the number of people incarcerated for drug law offenses, from 16,340 in 1986 to 58,260 at the end of 1994.

In addition, the act allowed police and prosecutors to arrest and charge spouses and partners with conspiracy because they took a phone message or signed for a package. Lacking knowledge about drug transactions, spouses and partners are unable to plea-bargain, trading information for a lesser charge. Between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in federal prisons for drug law violations increased 421 percent.

The system affects women of color disproportionately. Bureau of Justice statistics show that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are in prison. Racial profiling, not an increase in crime among people of color, accounts for much of this overrepresentation: Policing policies disproportionately target inner-city African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Within the past decade, many police departments have increased the use of stop-and-frisk tactics, in which officers stop, question, and pat down those they perceive as acting suspiciously, often people of color.

Also, alternatives to incarceration are less likely to be offered to people of color: A California study showed that two-thirds of drug treatment slots went to white people despite the fact that 70 percent of people with drug sentences were African-American.

Incarcerated women come from the bottom of the economic ladder: Only 40 percent of all incarcerated women were employed full time before incarceration. Of those, most held low-paying jobs: A study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole, or probation) found that two-thirds had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Approximately 30 percent had been receiving public assistance before being arrested. The 1996 welfare reform disqualified those with drug felonies and probation or parole violations. Between 1996 and 1999, more than 96,000 women were subject to the welfare ban because of past drug convictions.

HIV Organizing in Prison

The majority of women enter prison after years of poverty, poor nutrition, substance abuse, and a lack of access to health care. In addition, these women have fewer resources and options for survival than women in higher economic brackets and are often forced to engage in riskier activity, making them more susceptible to diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. Women in prison are more likely to be HIV-positive than either men in prison or women on the outside. However, prisons have been slow, at best, to respond to the needs of prisoners with HIV and AIDS. Prison conditions exacerbate existing health conditions, and the inadequate medical care can be life threatening for those with serious health problems.

In 1987, women at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility began the AIDS Counseling and Education program (ACE), a peer education program that cares for women who have HIV/AIDS and combats the fear, ignorance, and stigma around the disease. At the time, prisoners circulated petitions demanding that women who were perceived to have HIV be removed from their housing units. They also ostracized them socially, refusing to share meals or have physical contact with them. Staff members, including medical staff, also knew little about the disease and were afraid to have physical contact with their patients. In one horrifying instance, a woman died alone in the intensive care unit because no nurse or guard was willing to attend to her.

ACE members helped women prepare for their medical exams, working with them to define and articulate their questions. In some instances, they also accompanied women to their medical consultations. In addition, ACE battled stereotypes and fears around the disease. They presented educational seminars, often using role-playing to break through barriers, generate discussion, and examine the issues.

ACE continues today, and its model is spreading to other prisons. In 1991, women at the federal prison in Pleasanton, Calif., started the Pleasanton AIDS Counseling and Education (PLACE) program. When the program started, the prison had no pre- or post-testing counseling, no mention of AIDS at orientation for new prisoners, no special diets or vitamins for HIV-positive prisoners, and no treatments besides AZT, an antiretroviral drug that, when administered alone, enabled HIV to develop a resistance to the drug so that it only inhibited the virus for a short time. In addition, AZT was often administered in overly high doses, causing life-threatening side effects. 

PLACE members began by educating themselves about the disease and presenting their newfound knowledge to others. The process not only increased awareness about the disease but also combated the sense of powerlessness and the infantilizing manner that incarcerated women face on a daily basis. “The small steps of learning new information and presenting it to a group, or of figuring out goals and a program of AIDS education for our sister prisoners, are really giant steps in the process of empowerment, commitment, and enhancing our self-esteem,” recounted founder Linda Evans.

Even prison administrators are recognizing the value of peer education programs. Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center instituted an HIV peer education program. In 2007, peer educator Jerrye Broomhall reported, “The level of ignorance is shocking. Stuff like, ‘I don’t want to wash my clothes after her; what if her panties were bloody?’ People don’t want to share cells, meals, so most women just keep their status a secret.” Two years later, Broomhall reported, “I have seen less ignorance. I have heard people refer to what they have learned in class. Women have said they will teach their children, friends, and family things they have learned in class.”

Abuse and Battering

More than half the women in state prisons and local jails report having been physically and/or sexually abused in the past. The Bureau of Justice found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration. The prison environment, with its male guards, lack of privacy, physical and verbal abuse, and fear, often perpetuates the abuse. Despite these circumstances, women have connected with and supported each other in their efforts to overcome past trauma.

In the late 1980s, women serving life sentences in Marysville, Ohio, formed a support group called Looking Inward for Excellence (LIFE). Members realized that many had been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing their abusers. At a time when abuse and battering were still not widely recognized in either the courtrooms or outside society, they began working around issues of domestic violence.

LIFE members reached out to other survivors, helping them overcome denial and encouraging them to apply for clemency. Their actions challenged the way prisons normally divide—and breed mistrust among—the people inside: “When you’re in the institution, you get to be kind of secret,” recalled one LIFE member. “But as we started to get information, we would put packets of stuff together, illegally Xerox stuff, and kind of under the cover [say], ‘Read this, you know, this is good reading.’” Their efforts led to 18 additional women applying for clemency.

In the end, 25 women were granted clemency.

The actions of LIFE inspired women at the California Institution for Women to organize a clemency drive. Members of Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), a prisoner-initiated support group for battered women, wrote a letter to then-Governor Pete Wilson asking him to consider commuting their sentences and inviting him to one of their weekly meetings so that he could understand how they had ended up in prison. Wilson declined the invitation, but their letter drew the attention of lawyers and advocates who helped the women draft arguments and gather evidence for clemency petitions.

Wilson granted clemency to three, denied it to seven, and made no decision on 24 of the petitions.

CWAA members continue to meet and share current news regarding domestic violence, homicide cases, court rulings, and their own experiences with the justice system. They also discuss possible legal strategies, media stories about women who fight back, and journalists with a focus on domestic violence.

In both Ohio and California, battered women’s efforts not only strengthened and expanded the clemency processes but also raised public awareness about abuse. Even those who were not granted clemency became empowered to speak out about their experiences instead of continuing to live in shame. The advocates and lawyers who originally helped women with their petitions formed the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison to continue organizing and educating the public. More than 15 years later, the group, now called Free Battered Women, continues to advocate the release of women imprisoned for self-defense, and its work has helped free 35 women within the past 12 years.

The Need for Outside Support

In the 1970s, off our backs and other radical feminist publications not only reported on the struggles of incarcerated women but connected their fights with those on the outside, urging readers to get involved. Radical feminists formed support groups for imprisoned women and organized campaigns around their issues. In one instance, they managed to generate enough public and political pressure to shut down the Alternative Program Unit (a closed-custody behavior modification unit for women who were deemed “disruptive”—a label that included lesbians, leaders, or the disobedient) at the California Institute for Women.

Today, Arizona prisons have more than 600 cages where prisoners are placed to restrict their movement or while they await medical appointments or work, education, or treatment programs. Although prison policy prohibits using the cages as punishment, lesbians, targeted solely for their sexual orientation, are often placed in these cages, sometimes for hours at a time in over 100-degree weather. 

Lesbians are not the only prisoners to suffer in these cages. On May 20, 2009, Marcia Powell, a mentally ill 48-year-old incarcerated in Perryville, died after being left in an unshaded cage for nearly four hours in 107-degree heat. Two-and-a-half weeks later, three women at the same prison simultaneously set fire to their mattresses in an attempt to draw outside attention. However, the lack of connections with outside supporters meant that little attention was paid to their action and they quietly disappeared.

Feminist and other activist groups of the 1970s recognized the importance of reaching out to and including prisoners in the dialogue around social justice. Now, when the prison population is more than 2 million, why aren’t we recognizing how our struggles intersect?

As Rachel Galindo, a woman incarcerated in Colorado, put it:

I was thinking about how we prisoners are very cut off from much of the rest of the world, including people who do not support the prison system or people who may be interested in our struggle. So I think that more communication via letters would help. … The communication between two humans concerning their hopes, ideas, and their plights is what allows them to bond in resistance against a system that affects everyone in many different ways. We prisoners would be inspired to see another position of struggle and that, though they may differ, all struggles are shared. This would strengthen resistance both inside and outside of the prison gates.

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Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, and mother. She is a co-founder of Books Through Bars–New York City, an organization that sends free radical literature and books to prisoners nationwide, and editor of the zine Tenacious: Writings from Women in Prison. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009). Rachel Galindo’s artwork and writings about life at the women’s prison in Pueblo, Colo., have appeared in Tenacious and Resistance Behind Bars. Her art has also appeared in the Canadian zine Kiss Machine and will be on the cover of the upcoming Mamaphiles: A Mama Zine Collaboration.

Polemics for the People

By Jeff Shantz
Upping the Anti

The Red Army Faction (RAF) is one of the last half-century’s most talked about and least understood radical left groups. An anarchist colleague, upon hearing that I was reviewing this book, felt compelled to ask why, as an anarchist, I would bother to spend any time reading about – much less reviewing the work of – an irrelevant group of authoritarian leftists like the RAF. I replied that much of the terms of debate surrounding the RAF are based on mythology, rumour, misrepresentation, and propaganda. For the most part, the voices of the RAF themselves have been largely absent from the debates and discussions of their legacy in English-speaking contexts. The reason, as the editors of Projectiles for the People point out, is simple: their political position papers, commentaries, and debates have been largely unavailable within English-speaking Left circles.

Thus, those with an interest in the RAF and the phenomenon of anti-capitalist armed struggle movements in the West can be thankful for the labour put into the preparation and distribution of the present volume. The editors-translators went through every available document from the RAF in German, providing new translations of the texts. In making direct translations from the German, many of the documents were reviewed five to six times between the editors. Overall the work presents around 500 pages of new translations. The end result is a book that includes, to the best of the editors’ knowledge, every major political document issued by the RAF between 1968 and 1977. Their planned second volume will include every document from 1978 to 1998.

Discussion of the RAF has tended to be polarized between two rather starkly opposed positions. On the one hand, there are those who see the RAF as heroic urban guerrillas trying to initiate a spark of revolution in a Cold War context of supposed apathy, indifference, and inaction – particularly among a working class exemplified by a conservative, bureaucratic union movement bent on compromise with capitalism and benefiting from imperialism. This is a romantic position posing the RAF as the war brought
home, the burning of revolutionary desire “in the belly of the beast.” On the other hand, there are both communists and anarchists who view the RAF largely as irresponsible adventurists. The group is critiqued as “middle class” and privileged youth acting out “revolutionary” fantasies detached from any real movements or support from the working class. In this view, the cost of such carelessness was the state’s enactment of repression, punishment, and violence against the working class, poor, and oppressed – with disastrous consequences for working class and radical politics.

Interestingly, both of these approaches operate within a shared framework. Each suggests a detached and decontextualized RAF, operating on its own with little or no connection to specific communities or social movements. Similarly, they both fail to situate the emergence and development of the RAF within uniquely detailed political histories, traditions, and debates. Projectiles for the People goes some distance in providing this kind of context by including all of the theoretical manifestoes and communiqués that
accompanied actions and letters released by the RAF. Unfortunately, it omits most of the thousands of letters written by imprisoned RAF members and the hundreds of court statements made by RAF defendants. Nevertheless, it remains a comprehensive work, and it is significant in that it allows the group to speak in their own words and presents their own documents directly.

The RAF was formed in 1970 when a core of West German activists went underground to carry out armed actions against targets of West German capital and US imperialism. Over the course of almost thirty years their varied membership engaged in a range of often stunning actions, including assassinations and bombings against a variety of ruling class targets. Within a few years, as the preface to this volume points out, almost all of the original members were either dead or captured, a lesson on the obstacles facing such groupings given the deployment of state resources to stop them. Still, new members came forward to extend RAF activities while the political prisoners continued to serve as an embarrassment to the West German state, and an inspiration to radicals in West Germany and beyond.

This collection is not simply a documentary of the West German revolutionary Left at a particular point in the Cold War 1970s. It is more important for the insights it provides into the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities of waging armed struggle within the context of a wealthy, well-resourced, Western capitalist
state. In this, the experiences and activities of the RAF are unique in the lessons they might teach organizers in Western capitalist milieus. In our own context, it is likely that future conditions of radical social change, and certainly revolutionary struggles, will more closely approximate those engaged by the RAF in 1970s West Germany than the much more influential examples of Russia in 1917 or Spain in 1936. In this sense, the RAF experience might be a more appropriate focal point for contemporary revolutionary assessment than the much more popular and obsessively examined Russian and Spanish examples.

The RAF made a number of decisive mistakes and left many lessons behind; a thoughtful reading of these experiences can offer some insight to revolutionary Left struggles in the contemporary period. Among the perspectives the RAF presents is the critique of the false and defeating dichotomy between pacifism and violence and the belief among some activists that radical social change can occur purely through non-revolutionary community work. As the RAF argued:

If the red army is not simultaneously built, then all conflict, all political work carried out in the factories ... and in the courtrooms is reduced to reformism; which is to say, you end up with improved discipline, improved intimidation, and improved exploitation. That destroys the people, rather than destroying what destroys the people (81).

For the RAF, the movement to build a legitimate fighting force must coincide with the movements in the communities. Those movements alone can only go so far: “If we don’t build the red army, the pigs can do what they want, the pigs can continue to incarcerate, lay off, impound, seize children, intimidate, shoot, and dominate” (81). Profound social transformation will not happen “peacefully” and the state, confronted by growing social movements, will not simply wither away or collapse of its own contradiction. The RAF states:

We are not saying that the organization of armed resistance groups can replace the legal proletarian organizations, that isolated actions can replace the class struggle, or that armed struggle can replace political work in the factories or neighbourhoods. We are arguing that armed struggle is a necessary precondition for the latter to succeed and progress... as without it there can be no anti-imperialist struggle in the metropole (86-87).

Thus, the urban guerrilla struggle “is based on the analysis that by the time the conditions are right for armed struggle, it will be too late to prepare for it” (97).

The RAF were also scathing in their criticisms of the overly academic tendencies of the Left and the insular self-referential perspective of many student-based socialisms. In their view: “The decision of leftists and socialists, the student movements’ authority figures, to turn to the study of scientific socialism and transform the critique of political economy into a self-criticism of the student movement, was at the same time a decision to retreat into the classroom” (92).

The shift from organizing to publishing and the preference of some members of the Left for inaccessible writing and theoretical obscurity are also targeted by the RAF as failings of the so-called radical groups. In their words: “The paper output of these organizations shows their practice to be mainly a contest between intellectuals for the best Marx review before an imaginary jury, which couldn’t possibly be the working class, as the language used excludes their participation” (93). These are relevant and timely criticisms in the current period, given the retreat of some of the anti-globalization movement into intellectual pursuits, the privileging of obscure theoretical language within recent tendencies such as “post-anarchism” (which seeks a convergence of anarchism and post-structural philosophy) and the growing numbers of academics finding their intellectual niche in anarchism and anarchists who are
active primarily as academics.

At the same time, various commentators note the group’s failure to address the needs and desires of the working classes in Cold War Germany (or anywhere else for that matter). This failure raises questions about the RAF activities but even more about the capacity of armed struggle to speak to the working class in liberal capitalist democracies. Certainly this is a relevant question given the state-sponsored panic of the Age of Terror and the capacity of states and capital to stoke and mobilize working class fears.

If armed struggle is itself a way to communicate with the working class – an argument presented by various actors, from nineteenth century anarchist proponents of “propaganda of the deed” to the RAF and the Weather Underground – why are these tactics regularly dismissed? Were the RAF and their armed struggle serious responses to the failure of social democracy, trade unionism and pacifist protest, as they viewed themselves to be, or were they yet another sign of failure, ultimately as futile and dispiriting as the other tired options?

This collection provides little evidence that the RAF had much connection or appeal to the mainstream working class. Indeed as the editors suggest, they were “the object of mass hatred” and the West German working class seemed to view the RAF as a sign that people were “losing their moral compass” (xxi). The editors note that the RAF did not merge with the anarchist urban guerrillas who were also active in West Germany during the period partly because the more proletarian anarchists viewed the RAF as pretentious “middle-class” students.

Nevertheless, a reading of these texts suggests that the primary audience of the RAF was young people. The writings are, in pitch and tone, geared towards disaffected youth in alienating and oppressive conditions. But the RAF seemed to have little understanding of the industrial working classes and their aspirations in the here and now of capitalism. Indeed, in various places the RAF are contemptuous and dismissive of their “standard of living” and many of the things for which good numbers of workers strive (79).

It seems apparent that the RAF did not enjoy wider appeal because their writings lack a vision of a better world. There are profound expressions of contempt and disgust with capitalism-imperialism and oppression. Yet this is a largely negative impulse. There is little positive expression here. They express reactive rage, righteous to be sure, but they never quite rise above the level of rejection and anger. More often the tone is one of frustration and futility, even desperation. 

There is little in these often stilted communiqués that could be called inspiring. If nothing else, the collection makes it easy to see how the RAF missed the mark in calling working people to action. Tellingly, the most poetic and energetic piece is the courtroom statement by Thorwald Proll who was part of the group’s initial core but who left after about a year.

Curiously, the editors chose not to include “Regarding the Armed Struggle in Western Europe” (1971) by Horst Mahler, the only member publicly expelled from the group. The editors’ unsatisfactory reason is that the group rejected the text. In my view this choice was a great mistake, serving to flatten the history and narrow the debate and discussion. In fact, more examples of internal debate and disagreement, alternative perspectives and strategies from within the group would have enlivened the presentation here, which presents final statements almost as monuments or souvenirs without much of a sense of the vigorous and heated process through which they emerged.

The lack of debate, responses, and criticisms from other significant left interlocutors leaves the collection, at times, a bit sterile, with the same sense as certain histories of Stalinist sects. It also feels clinically removed from the debates, discussions, and movements with which the RAF engaged. The inclusion of some contextualizing debate would have been useful and contributed to the overall readability of the text.

The presentation leaves a feeling of uncritical support bordering on promotion at times. The editors claim not to want to “muddy the waters” by condemning or praising the RAF along the way, and that is a fair position to take. Yet there is much praise throughout the book, and the collection is produced clearly from a perspective of adulation, with very little condemnation.

Rather questionable positions are presented in the best possible light. The place of armed struggle in “baiting its ruling class into dictatorial reactions” is presented as a positive contribution of the RAF (xxi). Yet for critics, this is exactly, and obviously, the sort of adventurist irresponsibility that harmed the working class and the broader left as the state took the opportunity gladly to enact violence against opponents of capital with little distinction for their political affiliation. The RAF’s guerrilla strategy was vulnerable to manipulation by the state. The state and the far right carried out criminal activities and blamed the guerrillas. This happened not only in Germany, but in France, Turkey, and Italy. It also provided the state with a convenient excuse to enact repressive legislation against social movements. Activities of the guerrilla, detached from broader social movements and organizations of the working class and oppressed, served to breed distrust among the general population towards the left as a whole.

Overall, the collection fails to adequately address the more questionable side of the RAF, including some of its members’ connections to neo-fascism in West Germany (see Horst Mahler and Francois Genoud) and to the East German secret police, the Stasi. With regard to the latter question, the editors say only that until the later years “the RAF-Stasi connection seems to have been casual if not ephemeral” (59). The collection does not examine the extent to which the RAF chose targets or formulated ideology to please foreign state patrons.

Still, much recommends this expansive volume. At the outset of this review, I suggested that for some the RAF are little more than yuppie fakers, or worse, terrorists who provided the German state a freebie for initiating repressive policies that it was already looking to introduce. For others they stand as a beacon of hope in a grim age, an expression of revolutionary desire, and the refusal to concede. Overcoming this dualistic approach, based as it is around narrow and limited caricatures of the RAF, is a necessity if we are to develop a productive and helpful engagement with recent histories of struggle, organization, and resistance. This collection provides a starting point to do just that. ★ 

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Armed Struggle, the RAF, and Projectiles for the People

An Interview with Andre Moncourt and J. Smith

By Gabriel Kuhn
German Guerilla

Gabriel Kuhn has interviewed André Moncourt and J. Smith, the editors of Projectiles for the People, about their book, the RAF, and armed struggle. The complete interview is reposted here; a slightly abbreviated German version of this interview will appear in the German journal Arranca!, No. 41, December 2009. A Swedish version is up on the activist website Motkraft.

1) The amount of work that has gone into this project must have been enormous. What motivated you to do this?

André:  Several things, really.  For myself, no small part was the fact that I lived in Germany for various periods of time during the 80s, and as a result developed friendships and working relationships with people in both anti-imp and autonomist circles, giving me access to documentation and to a variety of points of view.  The North American left has always had a keen interest in German far left politics, reflected by the overwhelming amount of space devoted to the RAF, the RZ and Rote Zora in the two magazines dedicated to urban guerrilla politics that were published in Canada from the early1980s to the mid-90s, Resistance and Arm the Spirit.  Armed with my originally quite rudimentary German and a big ass dictionary, I became one of the translators for both of those projects, producing some fairly low quality translations of RAF texts, a number of which, for better or worse, have found their way onto the excellent website Ronald Augustin maintains.  When the idea of collecting the texts into a book arose, it became obvious that the translations needed to be seriously reviewed and reworked, and as I was responsible for many of the problems existing in the original translations, the task of fixing them logically fell to me.  There is much about the RAF that makes it unique and much that makes it archetypical of the western guerrilla in the First World during the Cold War, and both of these aspects provide lessons best learned by firsthand experience with the RAF’s unparalleled written output.

J. Smith: Initially i expected my contribution to this project to be quite minor: looking over some translations and writing some brief introductory texts to help contextualize them – i had hopes of perhaps finding some movement history of Germany and summarizing the key facts. But as i soon discovered, no such movement history existed (at least in English), and so in order to properly explain the RAF, we had to do the research ourselves.

We really had no choice, because the RAF’s story is so deeply enmeshed in the history of the West German revolutionary left, and its own intellectual output is so thick with references to the politics of its time and location, and also to the ongoing communist project, that to give the group and its ideas the respect they deserve requires a through explanation of what was going on at the time.

In retrospect i suspect that when not due to outright bad faith, many of the slanders directed at the RAF from the left – that the guerillas were “crazy” or “rigid” or “authoritarian”, or that their texts simply “do not make sense” – may stem from an ignorance of their political and intellectual context. The RAF’s project was based on positions that had emerged from the New Left, not only in West Germany but internationally. Their strategy was likewise predicated on the existence of a revolutionary left and international circumstances that no longer exist in anything like the same form. If one fails to grasp this, then their actions and ideas certainly must seem incomprehensible.

2) André, you mentioned that the North American left has always had a keen interest in German far left politics. Can you name the reasons for this?

André:  Some of the reasons are, I think ideological, and some are practical.  Broadly speaking, one can divide armed struggle in the First World during the period to which we are referring to into four tendencies:  national liberation struggles, such the IRA or the ETA; struggles against fascist or extremely authoritarian regimes, such as those waged by the PCE(r)/GRAPO or FP25; working class based struggles, such as the BR; anti-imperialist or social revolutionary armed actions within the metropole, such as those carried out respectively by the RAF and the RZ in Germany.

In Canada, outside of Québec (and, unfortunately, space doesn’t permit us to discuss the relatively complex national liberation politics of Québec, or its armed expression in the 60s, the Front de liberation du Québec), the first three forms of struggle had limited resonance.  National liberation outside of Québec had no application, and was often perceived negatively, even on the left.  Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government, which ruled the country from 1968 until 1984, with the exception of one brief 10-month period, was in fact, in bourgeois terms, and extremely liberal government, particularly with regards to individual rights.  While there was a large unionized and fairly militant working class in Canada in those years, left-wing political activity in that milieu was restricted to what Germans would call K-group activity, while the unions supported the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social democratic party.

The far left in Canada at the time was, as was the case in West Germany, rooted in the countercultural New Left.  As such, the kind of activity that the West German guerrilla groups engaged in caught the attention of Canadian activists in a way that BR actions, for example, didn’t.  Although the book we are discussing is about the RAF, it was not the RAF that drew the greatest attention – ill-informed Canadian activists often wrote the RAF off as Stalinists with guns.  It was the Revolutionary Cells and Rote Zora that intrigued Canadian activists the most.  The decentralized structure, the often low-level nature of the actions and the populist rhetoric resonated with many young Canadian activists, most of whom fell somewhere on a spectrum running from countercultural anarchism to non-Leninist Marxists, like myself, at the time.  We all considered ourselves part of a broad “anti-authoritarian” movement.  Rote Zora added a quality of militant feminism to the mix that not only broadened the nature of the debate that existed at the time, but also helped bridge some gaps that otherwise would, I believe, have posed greater difficulties.

This element was practically reinforced by the fact that a number of young Canadian activists lived in Germany for extended periods of time in the late 70s and 80s, developing personal, as well as political, ties with their German counterparts in the anti-imp and autonomist movements, facilitating the flow of information.

3) Last year, Germany witnessed numerous events commemorating the "Deutsche Herbst 1977." Most of the events were of dubious political nature. Is it mere coincidence that your volume appears now or did the 30-year commemorations have anything to do with this?

André:  We first started talking about doing this book in 2004, and at the time, we were only thinking of one volume.  I certainly didn’t see it growing into the four-year project it did.  I’m not sure that had I known what I was getting into, I would have done so.  First, as a result primarily of the excellent ID-Verlag book Rote Armee Fraktion:Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF( and the International Association of Labour History Institutions’ website devoted to the RAF, on which former RAF member Ronald Augustin works (, it soon became clear that many more documents than had previously been translated existed.  Short introductions that I had prepared for the various sections of the book were also clearly inadequate, so J. set about researching and expanding upon these sections.  The end result was a history of the RAF that could have stood as a short book in its own right.  It is this work that turns the book from a collection of interesting documents into a compelling history that lets the reader see each of these documents in its historical context, something that is of course absolutely vital to really understanding them.  If anything, the 30th anniversary of the “Deutschen Herbst” was useful to us because of the information we could draw from various newspaper and magazine articles published at the time, particularly interviews with former RAF members.

4) I think there exists a general scepticism among German-speaking radicals when it comes to outside analyses of "their" history. At the same time, outside perspectives can often prove very enlightening. What can be learned from the RAF experience, in your opinion?

André:  As is the case with any such organization, there are both positive and negative lessons.  The two years between the RAF’s formation and its 1972 May Offensive spent constructing its infrastructure and clarifying its ideological basis allowed it to survive the decimation of the organization and the arrest of its core leadership following that offensive.  This painstaking work laid the basis that would allow the organization to reconstruct itself from the base up at least 4 times during its 30-year history.  The RAF prisoners showed people how, even in isolation, trial statements and hunger strikes could be used as survival mechanisms and organizing tools.  And, of course, the RAF proved that a small group of organized and committed individuals could deal substantial blows to the state apparatus and its personnel.

On the downside, the RAF’s decision to go completely underground, as opposed to the modus operandi of the RZ’s domestic wing, for example, left the organization isolated and cut off from the day-to-day developments in society and on the militant left, leading to a certain disconnect that could take the organization down the wrong road – the Pimental killing, which we will examine in Volume 2, is perhaps the most obvious example.  The RAF’s decision from the 1972 arrests until the “Deutschen Herbst” to orient its rhetoric around a more-or-less traditional anti-imperialist line, while orienting all of its actions at gaining the release of the prisoners, is understandable, but arguably an error.

J Smith: Throughout the imperialist west, the 1970s saw the emergence of different armed organizations on the left. In the United States, there are still dozens of men and women behind bars for the parts they played in this experiment. But the rhyme and reason behind the different guerilla groups, not to mention their eventual trajectories, varied not only within each country, but also certainly between countries. Learning about how things played out in a different society, where comrades faced different challenges and opted for different paths, helps reveal what was exceptional and what was perhaps unavoidable here.

Which is a fairly vague way of saying that the RAF’s story, while certainly unique, can be helpful in thinking about the history of revolutionary struggle in other countries, too. Not only in the obvious ways – the parallels between the psychological warfare the movement faced in the FRG and the COINTELPRO dirty tricks in the United States, or the development of isolation-torture on both sides of the Atlantic – but also in terms of the issues grappled with:  how a small armed group can intervene in struggles, how it can relate to the aboveground left, the challenges of operating in a society where much of the proletariat has become a labor aristocracy, adopting the ideology of the petit bourgeoisie… these realities have never been specific to any one imperialist society. So we can certainly learn a lot from how our comrades in different countries have dealt with these questions.

5) Is it possible to draw any parallels to armed resistance in North America in the 1970s and 80s?

André:  Between the armed resistance on the white left in the US and that in West Germany, certainly.  In both cases the armed organizations were based in the youth revolt, the student movement in particular.  In both cases, murderous attacks by the state’s military apparatus spurred the movement forward, the Ohnesorg shooting in West Germany and the Kent State and Jackson State shootings in the US.  And, of course, in both cases, resistance to US aggression in Vietnam was the fundamental unifying factor at the outset.  Likewise, in the 80s there was resurgence of militant armed resistance in both countries around a more diffuse anti-imperialism, addressing developments in the Middle East, Central and South America and Southern Africa.

J Smith: The revolutionary movement in North America was marked by national divisions, between oppressed and oppressor nations that exist within the same countries, and this was obviously not the case in West Germany. While the RAF was oriented around traditional anti-imperialist struggles, their relationship to concrete Third World struggles was really limited to training they received in various Palestinian camps in the 1970s. Their opposition was to imperialism-as-a-system, and their base was clearly in their own society. Questions of how to relate to organizations based in the oppressed nations, and what they needed to do in order to remain accountable to the masses of people who suffer under imperialism – questions that seriously challenged many white armed organizations in North America in the 1970s – seem to have been dealt with on a more abstract level in West Germany. This is not really surprising given that there is no basis for national liberation movements from within the borders of Germany, i.e. no internal colonies or oppressed internal nations.

Because of this, when one compares the RAF to North American groups, for instance the Weather Underground, one can be blinded by the glaring differences of scale and intensity, and (depending on your political sympathies) the RAF either appear as fanatical killers, or else Weather ends up looking like some half-assed bunch of hippy dilettantes. Neither judgment is really fair, though. The young people who first formed the RAF had grown up in a post-fascist society, the teachers and cops and judges and even their parents were often tainted by their personal collusion in the Holocaust, and so for them there was a greater appreciation of what the stakes of struggle might be than one might expect to find amongst most middle class white Americans.

So one ends up with the curious situation that in terms of their seriousness and the means they were willing to use, the West German comrades seem to have much more in common with a group like the Black Liberation Army – i.e. a group based in an oppressed nation – than with a group like Weather, despite the fact that Weather (like the RAF) were facing the challenge of being based in an oppressor nation..

6) Not everyone in the German-speaking world is familiar with the Weather Underground and its tactics. Could you give us a very brief overview of the group and explain why it might look like "half-assed bunch of hippy dilettantes" compared to the RAF?

J. Smith:  Weatherman was a faction that took control of the broad-based Students for a Democratic Society – the SDS, the main U.S. antiwar organization – in 1969, and as such pretty much precipitated the SDS’s falling apart. Their founding statement, from which they took their name, was cribbed from a Bob Dylan song: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Based in the student and hippy counterculture of the day, Weather sought to form a white counterpart to revolutionary groups based in the oppressed nations, such as the Black Panther Party. Becoming the Weather Underground Organization, the group established a clandestine mode of existence, and began carrying out armed attacks.

Very early on, though, some comrades putting together bombs intended to be used against a U.S. military dance crossed their wires and ended up blowing themselves up. The trauma of having several members die in such circumstances, while preparing an action that many in the WUO were clearly not comfortable with, led to Weather rejecting “militarism,” meaning attacks against individuals. All would now be limited to attacks causing property damage.

In retrospect, this retreat from “militarism” appears to be a real retreat from political responsibility. The state was not de-escalating, Black and Indigenous comrades were being gunned down on streets across the country, but these self-styled leaders of white youth felt they should reign themselves in, concentrating on purely symbolic bombings and that’s all.

It would be unfair to discount Weather, or write them off as unimportant or uncommitted. Given the incredibly corrupt and privileged society from which these young white communists emerged, their attempt to push things to the next level was certainly laudable. But within the mythology of the sixties, it has been exaggerated. Not hundreds, but thousands of armed political actions were carried out in those years, only a small minority of those by Weather. Within a few years of going under, the leadership was organizing to emerge, to seek amnesty, to become a legal left-wing force – and very quickly thereafter the entire organization was consumed in internecine feuding and factional splits.

7) Books about this have been published in English, most notably "Bringing the War Home" by Jeremy Varon. What do you make of his analysis?

J. Smith:  Varon’s book is a very interesting meditation on the morality of political violence, from a liberal progressive point of view. Unfortunately, not only did he do no real original research on the RAF, relying almost solely on the work of Stefan Aust for his facts, but he also managed to let a number of errors slip in. Most are fairly minor – for instance dates or names – but in at least one case, when dealing with the way in which during the 1980s Peter-Jürgen Boock denied responsibility for the part he played in the actions of 1977, Varon does not even realize that Boock was no longer a member of the RAF but rather a state asset at the time! So he concludes that with this state asset’s lies “the RAF reached a new ethical low”, which is really turning things on their head…

But more seriously, Varon’s exploration of the question of political violence is marred by the way in which he excludes the violence of imperialism from his analysis. He judges the guerillas’ violence in terms of the realities existing within West Germany and the United States, comparing it to the State’s counter-measures, but nowhere does he factor in the incredible violence that was (and is!) being done by countries like the United States and Germany around the world. This leads to bizarre assertions, for instance that the U.S. servicemen killed during the RAF’s 1972 May Offensive bore no direct responsibility for U.S. aggression in Vietnam. While Varon is incisive about the “politics of location” – the way in which one’s own personal place in society can distort one’s views of what is happening – he concludes that the emergence of a violent underground was simply the result of activists’ “isolation”, whereas i would argue that the really egregious isolation is that which allowed more privileged activists to ignore the situation of the most oppressed, and thus allowed them to justify to themselves their decision to work “constructively”, within the system.

This bias, one might call it an imperialist bias, leads Varon to present the RAF as a foil to Weather: again and again he points to the former as a case of good people having embarked on an immoral path, while Weather is applauded for their early decision to de-escalate and to pressure other armed groupings to engage in only non-lethal forms of violence. We are left to imagine that without this “ethical” turn, Weather would have ended up “as bad as” the RAF.

8) So far, Tom Vague's "Televisionaries: The Red Army Faction Story" has been the only book in English exclusively dedicated to the RAF. What are your thoughts on this work?

J. Smith:  Actually, Vague’s Televisionaries is not the only such book in English– Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof group: the inside story of a phenomenon, first released in English in 1987, and then re-released again last year, has been the standard “serious” reference work about the RAF until now. Also worth mentioning, Jillian Becker’s 1977 book Hitler’s Children, a counter-insurgency work dripping with right-wing bias and bitterness, remains seen by many as a valid piece of “real crime” reporting. While both these books have a bad rep amongst those who are sympathetic to the guerilla experience, and both are certainly biased against the RAF, they deserve to be mentioned simply because they are the main sources of information that everyone else has drawn on when discussing the RAF.

Indeed, Vague’s book – a very accessible and at-times humorous piece of writing, which originally appeared as a series of articles in the fanzine he produced in the 1980s – draws almost exclusively on Aust’s work for its information. And i should mention that we too, in our book, have relied on Aust for many details, though less heavily and i think with more caution than most others.

9) Your volumes are called a "Documentary History." Is documenting history their only purpose, or do you hope to stimulate debate about armed resistance today? What are the current perspectives of armed struggle in the metropolis?

André:  Certainly, if there is to be a debate about armed resistance in the metropole at this juncture, the experience of the RAF is one that warrants examination.  It is my personal perspective, however, that there are two essential factors that must be in place before armed resistance can be seriously considered:  there must be a mass movement in which the armed activity can have some meaningful resonance, and there must be some clear objective served by this armed activity in the context of such a movement.  I think that there’s a lot of movement-building and theoretical work needed before any practical consideration of armed resistance would make sense.

J Smith: The books are documentary histories in that they are primarily a collection of documents, writings by the RAF guerillas themselves. For myself, an important goal in publishing these documents is to simply allow comrades to understand who these people were, these comrades who certainly belong to our tradition (the revolutionary left), but who not only acted but also thought in terms very different from those that most leftists today would ever consider.

As for armed resistance, it will happen, whether one approves of it or not, and it will happen regardless of whether people know about the RAF or other past experiments in that direction. But i think that much can be gained from studying previous efforts, that perhaps some errors may be avoided, or at least mitigated. Here in North America, there has been an unfortunate tendency amongst those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of armed politics, and that is to not discuss the errors that were made by comrades operating on that terrain in the past. Blaming every defeat on the State and COINTELPRO really does a disservice to the revs of tomorrow, and is also pretty patronizing towards those who did put their lives and freedom on the line during the past wave of struggle. One of the advantages of looking at an armed organization in another society is that it allows us to examine some of the physics peculiar to this form of struggle in a more impartial light, without the ego and defensiveness that can often mark such conversations closer to home.

10) Why are you so sure that armed resistance will happen? Do you think this is true for North America as well? Is there a big difference between the situation in Canada and the one in the US?

J. Smith: What i suppose you are asking about is left-wing armed resistance – after all, since 2001 the world political scene has been focussed on the effects and potentials of armed struggle from other quarters. But from the left, we have only sporadic efforts – i.e. what is happening in Greece at the moment – but nothing of the scale or ambition of what occurred during the last cycle of struggle. Even when France was burning in 2005, there was no group able to back up their public statements of solidarity with that kind of action – and that was unfortunate.

History may not repeat itself, so seeing the exact same kinds of groups as the RAF re-emerge is unlikely. But the key contradiction remains – a system which condemns billions around the world to live one kind of life, full of misery, danger, and material want – while elevating a small minority to positions of comfort and wealth unheralded in human history. The contrast between “what could be” and “what is” just keeps on growing, and it galls.

Certainly, this contradiction cries out for change. Eventually – hopefully sooner rather than later – revolutionary movements will emerge as an answer to this cry. And some people will be frustrated by the limitations of those movements, so they will engage in covert, illegal, and violent acts. One does not have to go out on a limb to say this – it’s not that i am trying to be teleological, it’s just that capitalism is going to oblige and stick around until something gets rid of it, and i don’t see any other contenders.

Now this is not to say that armed struggle will always be the most appropriate or correct strategy. i think it will emerge regardless. But i must also say that i can imagine many situations in which it would be correct, where it would advance the struggle and be a healthy thing for our movements. When comrades are deported to countries where their lives are in danger, do circumstances not cry out for some kind of retaliation? When police attack picket lines, and workers are abandoned by the trade unions, doesn’t that put sabotage on the agenda? When women find the state unwilling and unable to reign in the male violence it engenders, doesn’t that beg certain questions that legality and non-violence cannot answer?

These are general observations, not limited to any one country.

If you are asking about specific initiatives in the United States and Canada, for years there has been nothing from the left but sporadic, one-off, non-violent symbolic attacks. More telling still, these attacks have not been carried out by organizations, but by ad hoc groups, or else by individuals operating under the aegis of some broad symbolic name. The Earth Liberation Front attacks of the 1990s, which led to the Green Scare arrests of the past years, are probably the best example of this. Or here in Montreal last year, some people torched a bunch of police cars. Good initiatives, but essentially non-violent, symbolic, and not necessitating any kind of clandestine structures – and without clandestine structures, there is only so much you can do.

Here in Canada things are more advanced in the Indigenous nations, where a tradition of armed resistance continues, and shows itself every couple of years in the latest confrontation with the state. But this is not at all the same thing as urban guerilla warfare, it is more along the lines of community self-defense, the establishment of no-go areas, etc., and often serves primarily as a bargaining chip to keep the state’s violence in check.

11) You are also planning volumes on the Second of June Movement and the Revolutionary Cells. How do you see these movements in comparison to the RAF? Why did you choose to work on the three groups in this order?

André:  In these three armed groups and Rote Zora, which we will also deal with, you find the entire spectrum of New Left politics represented:  the 2JM representing countercultural anarchism, the RZ and Rote Zora representing the autonomist impulse, with Rote Zora bringing a feminist subtlety to the table, and the RAF falling closest to an anti-Stalinist Marxist-Leninism.  The order isn’t terribly important, but as it is, we will be dealing with the groups in the order they arose historically.

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From Subversive Talk to Revolutionary Results

By Joel S. Hirschhorn
Third Party & Independents Blog

Normally, when I read a new book I like to get the essential message or theme of it quickly, so I can decide whether I will continue reading it very carefully or just make it a quick read. For Mickey Z.’s new book SELF DEFENSE FOR RADICALS: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, I had to wait for page 7.

That's when I hit this statement:

“The current patterns of dissent in America are long overdue for re-evaluation and overhaul. The powers-that-be have long ago figured out how to either marginalize or co-opt dissent. Until our tactics evolve, we remain accomplices to the perpetual global crime we call civilization.”

This statement totally resonated with me. For many years I have written about my disillusionment with the lack of an effective, aggressive and even revolutionary dissent movement in the US. Maybe, I thought, Mickey Z. has some answers. Just maybe this small book could help bring the changes real subversives have been waiting for.

One message is that Americans are under attack and have every right to metaphorically bite back or better yet to take the offensive and hit first, even if it means fighting dirty, when the danger is very real.

In the quest for justice and genuine social change in American, Mickey Z. tells us it is time to fight for real.

Readers will have to accept the fact that this book is like one very big metaphor. Physical action against a threat I think is intended to instill more of a fighting consciousness among all kinds of people seeking solid changes in a very unjust, corrupt and sick society. Some may jump to the conclusion that Mickey Z. is promoting violence, but I am not so sure about that. What definitely seems to be the case is that the author is really fed up with dissent in America that is big on talk and very weak on results, which, after all, seems entirely correct if you, like me, see our nation with its two-party plutocracy and the whole planet slipping faster down the toilet.

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Robert King and Terry Kupers

The Psychological Impact of Imprisonment

Robert Hillary King, a member of the Angola 3, was released from prison in 2001 when his conviction was overturned after many years of legal battles. The other two members of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, both remain imprisoned today. In 2008, King released his autobiography, entitled From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Robert Hillary King. His autobiography won the 2008 PASS Award, and has been reviewed by SF Bay View, Black Commentator, Hour, Alternet, Political Media Review, La Presse, Albany Times Union, and The Times-Picayune.

Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. wrote the introduction to From the Bottom of the Heap and is Institute Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Dr. Kupers is a psychiatrist with a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensics and social and community psychiatry. His forensic psychiatry experience includes testimony in several large class action litigations concerning jail and prison conditions, sexual abuse, and the quality of mental health services inside correctional facilities. He is a consultant to Human Rights Watch, and author of the 1999 book entitled Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It.

King and Kupers were interviewed in Oakland, California in October, 2009, when King was in town for Black Panther History Month. This video is only part one, so please stay tuned for more!

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Daddy Dialectic on My Baby Rides the Short Bus

Daddy Dialectic
November 15, 2009

I enjoy learning things from a book, those moments when you are stunned at what you just read, or shocked at some statistic, some point, some example. Those are the books I cherish. My Baby Rides the Short Bus was just such an experience.

From reading the introduction and on through the essays, I learned that some parents of special needs kids are radical prior to becoming parents and some become radicalized through parenting. I learned that they struggle, make mistakes, come to realizations about things they did, realizations that cause them pain, that inform choices they will make in the future, that serve as a catalyst for standing up and fighting for change.

I learned that, like parents everywhere, "they learn how their kids function and they make it happen as well as they can." Just like me; just like you.

But I also learned about the complexity of parenting, how it is something we learn to do, how we discover the depth of our militancy, awareness and patience, strengths sometimes we didn’t know we even had. Until we needed them.

I learned that the medical profession and schools and court systems, which can be difficult to navigate in general, can be downright ruthless when dealing with a special needs child and family.

I learned how encounters with these institutions can belittle, can terrify, can cut deeply.

I also learned that encounters with other parents sometimes hurt the most.

I learned a little humility.

I learned new words: neurotypical, authentic activism, and scores of acronyms I never knew existed.

I was reminded how sometimes the simplest things are the most effective, like playing with your child. Down on the ground rolling around.

I was reminded of the intensity of love. How sometimes the best thing to do is pick up your child off the floor and walk away, leave the office, ignore the advice. And yet, sometimes the most difficult act of love is to let go, to trust.

Reading My Baby Rides the Short Bus, I was reminded of the ferocity with which we love, the depths of our feelings, the need for community.

I was reminded of the power of sharing stories.

These are the stories I want to hear. The stories of pain and fear, stories of surprising strength, of learning, and then of doing. As Sharis Ingram writes, “at some point you will give up trying so hard, and come to trust yourself, trust your child, trust what *is.*”

Trust me, and go get the book yourself.

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Cook Food on Vegansaurus

By Meave

First, let’s appease the FTC by noting that we received a copy of this book for free, for reviewing purposes. Second, let’s appease the critics by noting that as Lisa Jervis is a founder of Bitch magazine, we are predisposed to love her. Third, I don’t have any photos of the food I made because I don’t have a functioning camera, so you’re just going to have to imagine how wonderful everything looked, OK? Fourthly, let’s write this.

Cook Food is a little, no-frills book that is crammed full of useful information. It’s written by a (seemingly) very practical person for the very pragmatic cooks among us, by which I mean she takes a very “do the best you can with what you have” approach, with her recipes functioning more as inspiration than rules to strictly follow. This, I dig; often I want to make dish but cannot find one of the ingredients, and do not have the opportunity and/or inclination to go get it. It’s rare to find a cookbook author who encourages you to wing it. This is all right.

I tried out three recipes from Cook Food, all of which I tried to follow to the letter but none of which I did, exactly. The first was Rosemary Mustard Tofu; lazily, I didn’t press the tofu at all, but I did let it sit in the marinade for a good long time. Per the author’s notes, the leftovers did make a good sandwich the next day. I accidentally put too much dijon mustard in the sauce, because I have trouble with tasks like measuring, but it wasn’t a big deal, really.

Next I made Lentils with Wine, which I loved and will definitely make again. For a dish with so few ingredients, it has a lot of flavor, full-bodied and rich and just really delicious. Red wine, red onion and green lentils are apparently the perfect combination.

Lastly, I tried out her version of peanut sauce, which, as she warned, was not at all like the Thai-style peanut sauce I had sort of wanted (despite having read the recipe before deciding to prepare it). This one I fiddled with, a little; I found it quite salty and, I don’t know, off somehow, so I added a lot of white balsamic vinegar and a couple splashes of plain soy milk, and that seemed to mend it for me. Then I ate it on everything; on Trader Joe’s vegetable gyoza; over cold mixed lettuces and hot rice (DELICIOUS, my goodness); as a dip for baby carrots and steamed broccoli. It turned out to be a very versatile sauce.

Cook Food wasn’t written by a vegan; it’s a vegan cookbook because Lisa Jervis believes that eating mostly organically and locally grown produce is healthiest for us and our environment (and she’s right, duh). It’s plainspoken without being obvious, and pragmatic without condescending. It’d make a wonderful first cookbook for new vegans—much better than those “Vegan Recipes for College Students” that teach you how to boil pasta or whatever—but once your skills have improved beyond “beginner” you’ll still find it useful.

Plus, like I said, it’s Lisa Jervis, and everything she creates is of very high quality.

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