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Politics, Art and Activism in Oaxaca

By Sasha Watson
Publishers Weekly

Peter Kuper left the United States in 2006 in search of some peace and quiet. Instead, the award-winning cartoonist found a strike, a government crackdown, and a political storm in Oaxaca. True to the form that led him to co-found the political graphics magazine World War 3, Kuper soon started drawing and writing about what he was seeing around him. The result is Diario de Oaxaca, A Sketchbook of Two Years in Mexico. With text in both English and Spanish, the book is a chronicle in sketches, writing, and photographs, of Kuper’s time in Oaxaca and what he saw during the political turmoil of those two years.

In 2006, the Oaxaca teacher’s strike, which had been taking place annually without incident for years, was the subject of an unexpected attack by riot police sent in by the new governor, Ulises Ruíz Ortíz. Over the months that followed, the situation worsened, resulting in a number of deaths, including those of several teachers and of an American journalist, and the arrival of federal troops in Oaxaca. Combining sharp commentary with sketches that are sometimes impressionistic and sometimes detailed, Kuper leads readers through his life in Oaxaca, showing us what he saw and how he saw it. Diario is a rare and intimate personal account of what it’s like to live through political turmoil. Kuper discussed the experiences and the making of the book with PW Comics Week from his home in New York City.

PWCW: Can you tell me a little about what made you decide to leave the U.S.?

Peter Kuper: Well, the first reason was that we had a nine-year-old daughter, and we wanted her to have a second language. Around ten or eleven the ability to pick up language starts to reduce. Then also, when I was ten my father had a sabbatical, and we spent a year in Israel, and that had a tremendous impact on my sense of the world. Certainly part of it was being burnt out on America under the Bush administration, too. It was shortly after the 2004 elections and my work was very concentrated on political commentary. I was foaming at the mouth all the time, and just thought it would be a good idea to take a break.

PWCW: What made you choose Oaxaca as your destination?

PK: It was a crapshoot, really. We’d thought of going to Spain, but it was clear that there we'd be scrambling like we do in New York, living in an apartment in a city. We’d visited Oaxaca a few times and we were enchanted with it as a place. It turned out to be a really good choice. There’s an incredible artistic community there, with lots of museums and a lot of interesting culture—and then the political explosion was an added bonus.

PWCW: One of the most interesting things about the book is this idea of how news is spread and received. You talk about how difficult it can be to find out what's happening in a distant country, and even around the corner. How closely were you following U.S. reports of the unrest in Oaxaca and how did these reports compare to what you were seeing every day?

PK: A lot of times the news wasn’t accurate to my experience, and that was one of the things that started to drive me to write. Lots of friends were writing and saying, ‘Get the hell out of there, it’s dangerous!’ but based on our experience, it was okay, even if the reports were somewhat accurate. That’s why I started sending out emails describing what I was seeing, and then later started writing essays.

PWCW: What were the discrepancies between the news and what you were seeing?

PK: I mean, if the newspapers show a photograph of someone throwing a Molotov cocktail onto a bus, it just looks like the place is exploding but that’s not the whole picture. That image is sexier for the newspaper. The threshold of interest is really limited with newspapers, especially now, they are not gonna spend a lot of money reporting on what is essentially a dot on the map for their readers. So the reporter would be in Mexico City which is an eight-hour drive from Oaxaca, which meant that they weren’t seeing things first-hand, so a lot of the reports were really government handouts. If the reporter was there, they were really only there for the most extreme moment of the action. Living there, I was capturing a bigger picture.

PWCW: One of the events you depict in the book is Governor Ulises’s appearance at a radish festival. What's that all about?

PK: The festival is an annual event that’s gone on for years. People carve radishes and then have three or four hours for the judges to look at them before they go bad. That year there was also a counter radish festival where people were carving federal troops and helicopters out of radishes. That one got shut down after a while. Seeing people use art in response to political situations was really inspiring. I’d been so burned out in the U.S., asking myself, ‘Does art matter? What is its place and importance?’ In Oaxaca, art is so much part of the dialogue and the response. It’s how people heal themselves and announce their resistance. It really seemed that it had value to people in a very real way and it gave me a better feeling about art as an action that has some value.

PWCW: Another art form you talk about in the book is graffiti. How was that used during the protests?

PK: There’s just a tremendous amount of art on the walls in Oaxaca. During the strike and in its aftermath, there were posters, stencils, images and effigies of Ulises Ortiz. The reaction was really vibrant and very visible on the walls, and that energy helped [organize] the strikers. It was very heartening to see that.

PWCW: Did seeing all that activism in response to the crackdown on the teacher’s strike inspire any feelings about activism in the U.S.?

PK: Yes, I mean we had one guaranteed stolen election and probably two in the United States, and the idea that people weren't encamped in Washington when people camped out for months at a time on cobblestone streets in Oaxaca… We've had horrendous events go on that certainly merited taking to the streets, and if we’d had the kind of general public responsiveness there was in Oaxaca, then there would have been more notice taken. Of course there were protests against the Iraq war but somehow we didn't take it to the next step that made it a problem for the government so they had to respond. I think because the economy was so functional, a lot of people felt anaesthetized to the importance of taking action. But seeing what was happening in Oaxaca really gave me a renewed faith in the impact of art.

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5th Inning Reviewed on Simmons Fields

Off-Season Pastimes: The 5th Inning

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." (Rogers Hornsby)

Still 148 days until the 2010 season begins. What can the avid college baseball fan do in the off-season to stave off the dreaded baseball-deprivation blues?

Read a Baseball Book: The 5th Inning, by E. Ethelbert Miller

If you're one of those people who groans every time someone says "Life is like Baseball", you will not want to read this book. In fact, you probably should stop reading this book review. While I sometimes doubt if life really is like baseball, I faithfully hold the truth to be self-evident that Baseball is like Life. E. Ethelbert Miller apparently agrees:
I fell in love with baseball and lost my virginity to a glove. Gloves with names like Bobby Shantz and Elroy Face. How ironic to always be given a relief pitcher's glove.
Miller talks about his love of baseball in his youth, but in the heart of the order of this memoir he connects the experience of a man turning 50 to the 5th inning of a baseball game.

This book is a riff on middle age, marriage, fatherhood and failure. In baseball the fifth inning can represent a complete game. The structure of this book consists of balls and strikes.
. . .
When a person becomes 50 or approaches the years that follow, his story is
almost over.
Over and over, as he talks about his life, his loves, his failures, he weaves baseball in and out of the narrative.

These short chapters are the equivalent to balls and strikes. If I write too many of them you know I'm having trouble trying to find the plate. That's how one's life can begin (or end). Several years of college and you still don't know what to do. Thirty years working in the same place and you wonder - why?
Quotes like that one remind me of my own thoughts on how we as fans - who so often expect perfection out of our heroes - would benefit by remembering that life and baseball are alike. We follow Mizzou Baseball alums who keep battling on and on through the years of ups and downs in the minor leagues, and we scratch our heads and wonder why they don't see the futility of it all. The answer is that they do see the futility, but are still struggling to write the next chapter in their lives, just as we all so often continue to repeat the same routines day after day, season after season. Before we can begin to think about walking away from it all, before we veer off from the familiar rhythms that have defined our lives, we have to reconcile the totally inexplicable fact that we have devoted so many innings, so many games, so many seasons to something that will probably not carry us to the ninth inning, let alone lead to the glory we imagined when we were young.

As a man in my early 50's, Miller's memoir spoke to me like it might not to a young guy in his twenties. While most of his specific experiences were very unlike mine (Miller is an African American, a self-described "literary activist and poet"), his words forced me to look at my own life in the middle innings, as the writing of it apparently did for him.

Is this how the memoir pokes the writer in his side? A catcher throws a ball back to the pitcher - a bit harder - just to get his attention. He wants the pitcher to concentrate. I need to breathe and write more . . .

We could all stand to live a little more intentionally and stop coasting by on our talent or on our past success. I recommend this short book (167 pages of 3-up-and-3-down quick chapters) for anyone who suspects they need to get their head back in the game.

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Tearing Down the Walls

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women
By Cassandra Shaylor
Left Turn Magazine

In the summer of 1974, women incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York held seven guards hostage in protest of the brutal treatment of activist prisoner Carol Crooks, who had successfully sued the prison for locking people in segregation without a hearing. State troopers and guards from men’s prisons were called in to suppress the rebellion. In the end, 25 women were injured and 24 were transferred without a hearing to the state institution for the “criminally insane.” Despite the attention in both mainstream and activist circles to the uprising led by men at Attica prison in the same state three years earlier, the August Rebellion at Bedford Hills went virtually unnoticed.

Victoria Law’s new book seeks to correct this lacking in historical memory, and to highlight contemporary examples of resistance to state repression that originate in women’s prisons. Based on eight years of research—much of it drawn from interviews and correspondence with activists inside—Resistance Behind Bars is grounded in the lived experience of people personally engaged in these struggles.

Like some other books about incarcerated women, Law’s is organized by issue—barriers to healthcare, sexual assault, separation from children, etc. But rather than present only accounts of the myriad harms intrinsic to prisons, Law highlights everyday rebellions against those abuses. When she first launched her project, Law repeatedly heard the claim that “women don’t organize.” Her book offers an important corrective to dominant narratives, upending gendered understandings of who engages in acts of rebellion and what constitutes resistance.

This book would have benefited from a more complex examination of gender—one that acknowledges the presence of transgender and gender non-conforming people in prisons, and moves away from a binary understanding of women as “different” from men. That said, it makes a significant contribution to challenging static notions of women’s responses to imprisonment, and further opens the door to continued examination of all incarcerated people’s resistance strategies. Reading the book raises many critical questions.

As activists both inside and outside, what lessons can we learn from tactics deployed by people in arguably the most restrictive and repressive of circumstances? What is possible and what is effective in a given historical moment? What can we learn from modes of resistance deployed by previous generations? What are the differences between, for example, using the body as a tool of resistance by organizing a hunger strike, and employing a system-generated response like filing a grievance or a lawsuit?

Furthermore, what do these tactics teach us about the nature of prisons themselves? For instance, if sexual violence is necessarily constituent of the prison—that is, if the prison relies on and promotes rape in order to perpetuate itself as an institution—rape in prison cannot be eliminated until we eliminate the prison altogether. Then, how do we organize against instances of sexual assault in the moment, while acknowledging and addressing the need to abolish the institution?

Towards abolition

Reading this book also highlights gaps in contemporary organizing strategies. While there are accounts of work stoppages in the 1970s, there is little information about organized labor in women’s prisons since. This absence raises questions about how well we are communicating with those struggling around labor in prisons. It also pushes us to think about how workers organizing on the outside can support and incorporate the concerns and strategies of labor issues and struggles on the inside.

A broader question is always present: How can people outside of prison walls not only learn from and tell the stories of radical acts of resistance but, more importantly, organize ourselves in solidarity with people inside to build a strong, informed, and collective movement against the prison industrial complex?

The acts of rebellion highlighted in Resistance Behind Bars push those of us who are abolitionists and anti-prison activists to challenge our collective understanding of the roles incarcerated women play in movement-building against the violence inherent to the prison system, and towards next steps for building solidarity across prison walls to abolish the system altogether.

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Interview with John Curl


John Curl, author of For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (PM Press, 2009) interviewed by Gabriel Kuhn. (September 2009)

Internationally, US society is often associated with rampant individualism. Your book portrays an impressive number of cooperative and communal projects throughout the country's history. Can you sum up the most important chapters of this legacy?

The collectivity of North American Indians remains our deepest legacy, followed by the cooperative settlements and structures of the early colonists, and of every wave of immigrants to America from around the world. Communalism played an important role in the movement for social equity that arose in response to the industrial revolution, and also in the Abolitionist movement that ended slavery. Worker cooperatives were a key element in early labor unions, and grew into a national movement in the later 19th century. Between 1865 and 1888, there were at least 529 worker cooperatives in the US, in almost every region coast to coast. The Knights of Labor, the greatest American worker organization of the time, organized a chain of approximately 200 worker cooperatives that they planned to form the structure of an alternative economic system they called the Cooperative Commonwealth, based on workplace democracy, where they would abolish what they called "wage slavery." The Knights at their peak approached a million members, making them the largest worker organization in the world. At the same time, small farmers were organizing an infrastructure of cooperatives through the Grange and later the Farmers Alliance. An historian called the Farmers Alliance cooperatives "the most ambitious counter-institutions ever undertaken by an American protest movement." The Farmers Alliance had over 5 million members, including one and a quarter million African Americans. The Knights and the Farmers Alliance worked together. Decades later in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Self-Help movement organized mutual aid and barter outside the failed financial system, involving over half a million people in different parts of the country. In the 1960s and '70s a new generation reinvented collectivity, communalism, and worker cooperatives and called them the counterculture, which was a spontaneous grassroots movement involving millions of people. The current revival forms the latest and hopefully the most important chapter.

How do these experiments relate to US individualism? Are we looking at two distinct historical trajectories here, or is there less of a contradiction than many might think?

When you join a cooperative or an intentional community you don't surrender your individuality. On the contrary, cooperatives by their democratic nature empower individuals and strengthen their ability to pursue individual creativity. American small farmers have always been highly individualistic, yet in many parts of the US typically also belong to several cooperatives. Worker cooperative members are their own boss, and the economic independence this brings is the staff of individualism. Cooperatives are based on people power, which empowers each member individually. As the old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) anthem said, "the union makes us strong." Capitalist propaganda tries to link that economic system with the concepts of freedom, democracy, and individualism, but in truth capitalism is about funnelling wealth and power into the hands of a small elite, and disempowering everyone else. The official historians of capitalism glorify the entrepreneur-the businessman-and claim that the greatest community benefits derive from this. But the wage system is actually geared to making the community weak, and thereby less individualistic. The personification of the myth of the rugged American individual is the ruthless "robber baron" of the 19th century, who amasses his wealth from the blood of factory workers and later poses as a philanthropist dispensing gifts and largesse to charities and cultural institutions. In contrast, the historical trajectory of the American working people is paved with cooperation and collectivity, which for generations formed the material base for movements opposing the domination of capital and increasing freedom and democracy. It is through this activist opposition and their cooperative institutions that working peoples' individualism expressed itself.

How do you distinguish cooperation from communalism? From a radical perspective, is one more important than the other?

Cooperatives are integrally intertwined in their larger communities. Communalism is the form of cooperation that includes residence, and therefore often involves an element of separation. Cooperatives are everywhere in civil society, which has its base in free association. Cooperatives are democratic associations organized to manage particular jobs or functions. Their ubiquity gives cooperatives greater power than intentional communities in terms of their potential as levers for broad radical social change. It is primarily worker cooperatives and related social enterprises that are at the core of this radical potential. They challenge the wage system, since cooperative members own and manage their businesses. People are integral to the cooperative, and not just labor that can be replaced by a machine or a different employee.

Another factor is that cooperatives are easier to join than intentional communities, since to become a member a person does not have to change residence, habits or behavior  beyond the limited parameters of the cooperative. Mass society today is of course based on the single-family unit. If mass society were tribal, then intentional communities would be indistinguishable from the dominant social fabric. A cooperative on the other hand can be almost any association, business, organization providing goods or services, a music group, a neighborhood watch, a preschool play group, or any of millions of other possibilities. Many cooperatives have a low public profile, which can be seen as a weakness, but which also gives them power in that they are often flying entirely below the radar and wearing a cloak of invisibility.

Communalism and cooperation both offer microcosmic utopian visions that demonstrate the viability of the concepts. They embody critiques of society. Yet as a strategy of social transformation, communalism has demonstrated more fatal flaws than cooperatives. Back in the 1820s, 1840s, and 1960s, communal movements tried to transform society by attempting to organize networks of intentional cooperative communities. The idea that mass society could be transformed by everybody dropping out of it and into the new world quickly revealed its limitations. Only a comparatively small number ever joined an intentional community, while in some periods almost the entire population of a region belonged to cooperatives.

Have the cooperative and communal traditions in the US ever posed a serious threat to the dominant political order and to capitalism? Were they met with strong political repression?

That happened several times.

The first time was in the late 19th century, and it changed the course of American history. The counter-institutions of the Knights of Labor and Farmers Alliance, which I already mentioned, were destroyed by the reaction of the old system. The Knights cooperatives were put out of business during the nationwide crackdown in the wake of the organization's involvement in the May Day national strike for the 8-hour day in 1886 that ended in the Haymarket police riot. The destruction of the Knights and their cooperatives marked the triumph of industrial capitalism in the US. As an historian wrote, "American industrial relations and labor politics are exceptional because in 1886 and 1887 employers won the class struggle." The Farmers Alliance cooperatives were destroyed economically a few years later by a combination of bankers and financiers, and that pushed the FA into organizing the Populist Party, which staged the most serious assault on the two-party electoral system in American history. The Populist Party was violently attacked by racists and vigilantes in many parts of the South.

In the early 20th century the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) took up the cause to create a new cooperative economic system, but instead of organizing worker cooperatives like the fallen Knights, they planned to take over the existing industries through industrial unionism. The IWW was destroyed by police repression focused around their opposition to World War I.

The Self-Help Movement of the 1930s was destroyed by the government but not by government repression. It was undercut by New Deal work programs like the WPA, which offered a cash income to almost anybody at a time when the money system was stopped, while the co-ops offered only barter. The Roosevelt administration starved the Self-Help co-ops to death by refusing to qualify work in them as WPA work, and refusing any financial help to co-ops which sold the products they produced rather than barter them or make them for self use. The New Deal helped numerous rural cooperatives of different types, but few urban co-ops, and drew the line at worker cooperatives, which threatened the wage system.

The Peoples Food Systems of San Francisco and Minneapolis of the 1970s were victims of the last chapter of government repression-or I should say probably victims, because government guilt has never been definitively proven. In those cities and in others around the country, food-related cooperatives and collectives came together to try to set up an alternative system. The Food Systems could be seen as the culmination of the spontaneous movement known as the '60s counterculture. As they became larger and more successful, they met the fate of many progressive groups in that period: they were disrupted and destabilized by individuals and small groups within their system. Although it has never been proven that the Food Systems were victims of government agents such as the Nixon administration's Cointelpro which destroyed numerous progressive groups, many participants, particularly in San Francisco, were convinced that was the case.

What is the situation today? Your book mentions how many cooperatives have entered the mainstream. Do radical cooperative and communal potentials remain?

The world is entering into a visionary period. People all over the planet are creatively reinvisioning the world economic system. The potential of radical cooperative and communal movements is greater now than at any time in history. Because the world economic system needs cooperatives to fill in the gaps, the movement is starting to become mainstream in some places; but that also embodies a new threat to the movement's integrity and ability to fulfil its mission. Economic collapse, climate change, and population explosion have jolted many people into the realization that the current economic system is not geared to handle the upcoming crises of the 21st century. Unless we change, by all predictions the near future will include vast unemployment and marginalization, huge population movements, and devastation of numerous local economies. Unless we reinvent the world system, we will suffer catastrophes of a global magnitude. That has already been recognized by the United Nations, which in 2002 called on governments to form an alliance with the cooperative movement to grow the worker cooperative sector in every country to a magnitude where it can become a key mechanism in solving the worldwide problems of unemployment and poverty. The cooperative movement (which includes communalism) needs to cautiously welcome that alliance with government. Welcome because government is a counterweight to the private and corporate sector's ability to generate resources, which the movement sorely needs. Most of the world's wealth and resources, which embody the ability to shape the world, have been privatized. The movement needs to accept access to resources from government cautiously, without being dominated by it. The movement must retain its independence to really affect social change, because government will not do it. Government support involves paternalism, and paternalism strangles and destroys mutual aid. The movement must deal with governments from a position of strength. Fortunately there is another counterbalance in civil society: nonprofits, NGOs, community groups, spiritually-based organizations, and similar institutions. There already is a growing alliance between the cooperative movement and many of these organizations, and they are increasingly including support of social enterprises in their missions.  The International Labour Organization (ILO), representing the labor movements of the world, has joined the coalition. While much of the labor movement in the last century was hostile to worker cooperatives because they blur the line between employer and employee, now the ILO is promoting worker cooperatives, because labor unions as we have known them have been marginalized. The overarching goal of the labor movement has always been to improve the lives of the community of working people, but that has been limited by a narrow focus on increasing their members' salaries and benefits. By supporting worker cooperatives and other social enterprises, labor unions are returning to their original mission of struggling for broad social equity. As unions increasingly support the larger working population, the community should in turn increasingly support labor struggles, as they did in the 1930s. Worker cooperatives are strong in small industries and businesses, but organizing larger firms is out of reach of the meagre resources that the movement can gather, so the union movement is integral to the larger struggle for workplace democracy.

What is the future role of cooperative and communal projects in radical politics? What are the prospects?

Radical politics is not defined by elections or demonstrations. It involves innumerable everyday interactions. Governments and elections make up only a small fraction of politics, which are part of all human group activities. Politics are the processes by which groups make decisions. The dominant political form of today's society is hierarchy: authoritarian command structures of power elites. Cooperation, collectivity, and communalism in contrast are based on free association of equals in unhierarchical democratic structures. They embody the opposition to the dominant paradigm, and mirror the ends they're working toward. The internal structures and methods of all truly radical organizations need to reflect their ends if they ever really want to reach them. The idea that radical organizations must take on hierarchical structures in order to effectively oppose the hierarchy of society, is a sham and a delusion. Any apparent success of such an organization is hollow and sets the real movement back. The counter-institutions built through radical politics always have to reflect the goals of social justice and equity. Cooperatives, collectives, and intentional communities do this by extending democracy to the economic sphere. They are a conscience to radical politics, and help to keep it focused on its long-term mission instead of getting sidetracked by short-term apparent gains. Radical groups organized according to the structures of collective democracy are cooperatives themselves. Radical politics by its very nature is a cooperative project.

Buy For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2nd Edition | Download For All the People eBook now | Back to John Curl's Page


Peter Kuper's Diario de Oaxaca

By Peggy Roalf
DART: Design Arts Online

When Peter Kuper, the cartoonist widely known for his Spy Vs. Spy strip in MAD magazine, told me that he was moving his family to Oaxaca City, Mexico three years ago, I asked if he would be interested in posting stories for DART. Without hesitation, he agreed, and his first article appeared on November 10, 2006. The last story, Oaxaca Journal V. 14, was published in June 2008.


Cover and inside pages from Peter Kuper’s Diario de Oaxaca.

Next week, Peter will celebrate the publication of Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico. Here’s a report on the chat we had by email this week about his experience.

Peggy Roalf: Why did you move to Mexico?

Peter Kuper: The main reason was for our daughter, Emily. We wanted her to get a second language and be in a place with fewer iPods and cell phones. She was nine when we made the move in 2006, a time when her young mind was able to easily pick up a new language. My parents had done something similar when I was ten and we lived in Israel for a year. It had a huge impact on my world view. Being a stranger in a strange land (I got beat up a lot) and having to decipher the complex symbols of a new language, helped me grow up to be a freelance cartoonist!

PR: As a political junkie, your timing couldn’t have been better, or worse as it happened - all of which is covered in Diario De Oaxaca. After the teachers’ strike and subsequent violence ebbed, did you have to decompress before getting into the natural features and the archeological and historic wonders of Mexico - and something like a daily routine?

PK: Of course we had no idea we’d be stumbling into an exploding political situation when we picked Oaxaca. To recap: a few weeks before we arrived, Oaxaca’s new governor attacked a small teachers’ strike causing a coalition of  other unions to join them in solidarity. It expanded into an international event when an American journalist was killed and federal troops were brought in by the thousands. I thought our time in Mexico would be a break from the barrage of depressing news we’d been getting since George W. Bush took office. Yet after months of living in Oaxaca, in the center of a political maelstrom, I was reminded of how important news events are to inspiring my art. In the aftermath I was in fact less motivated to draw. After sketching soldiers and tanks juxtaposed in front of ancient architecture, normal life seemed visually trivial by comparison. I eventually rediscovered the million details of daily life well worth drawing, but it took me months after the strike ended to appreciate this and get rolling.

PR: Diario includes a couple of wordless strips, including one about going for a walk that is almost a mini-epic. Is this something new for you? And are you planning anything as a stand alone publication along this vein?

PK: Wordless comics are an area of great interest to me since they transcend language barriers and are the roots of the form. Cave paintings, the Mayan codices and Egyptian hieroglyphics are a few examples of human’s earliest visual storytelling. I’ve done a couple of long form wordless graphic novels (The System and Sticks and Stones), and there are many examples of longer works by other artists in this form like Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel and Eric Drooker. The last issue of World War 3 lllustrated (which I co-edited) is all wordless comics; this was a result of my time in Mexico, and wanting to produce an issue that could be read everywhere, without translation. In fact I’m not even writing this answer–it is a wordless mind transmission.

PR: Would you consider doing a graphic novel about how the people of Teotihuacan vanished, which you mention in Diario?

PK: I’m developing a new fictional graphic novel based on my experiences in Mexico and I’m weaving history into the story so I can go beyond constraints of reality. But I’d consider do any number of things that would allow me to sit at my drawing table in New York and mentally travel in Mexico!

PR: You speak of the Mexican world of simultaneity on page 180, in which people celebrate their ancient heritage as they go about their daily routine. Have you brought any of that lifestyle back home?

PK: I’ve tried to bring aspects of that into my drawings. I’m trying to keep up with my daily sketchbook drawing as I did in Mexico, only here in New York, I’m mixing subway riders with floating skyscrapers, poor people on cell phones next to rich people on Blackberries. Still, somehow it doesn’t feel the same; we’re missing the truly ancient.

PR: After living there for so long, was drifting into the tourist mode hard to do?

PK: Not really. I still feel like a tourist here in New York after 32 years. What was difficult was going from feeling like part of the town during the strike, (since so few foreigners stuck around during the troubles) to feeling like another gringo when the strike ended and the town was flooded with tourists again.

PR: The drawings toward the end of the book are more highly finished than your early sketches. Did you create these after returning to New York? Or did your sketchbook style evolve through daily practice?

PK: It was an evolution. I did everything but the last few pages of the book while I was in Mexico and as often as possible drew on the spot. By drawing in my sketchbook so much I learned how to turn “mistakes” into part of the page. Some of the pages took weeks to complete since I’d hop to a new page, then return to the older drawings, and continue building them over time. I tried to avoid the tendency to get precious with any single page, but occasionally I’d have to set my coffee cup on the art and let it leave a stain - as a reminder that this was still a sketchbook.

PR: Please tell DART readers about the hearts on the end pages, which are also scattered throughout the book.

PK: The owner of the house we rented collected painted tin hearts, created by artisans for various holidays. They were stuck in nooks around the house so they became one more thing for me to draw. When I looked at my sketches later the hearts seemed emblematic of Mexico - hand-made, colorful, sometimes garish, religious overtones bent to form something personal that felt ancient, symbolic and beautiful - so I used them as endpapers in my book.

PR: Like a Mexican version of mezuzahs?

PK: They are called “Milagros,” which translates into charms; some of them reference Jesus by surrounding the heart with a crown of thorns and He was jewish so….

PR: What are your plans for this year’s Day of the Dead, a festival that features so vividly in the book?

PK: Since both my parents died during the last year, I will have a full schedule of celebrating their lives and welcoming their spirits back for a visit over a mezcal, which is an extremely potent liquor made from the agave cactus.

PR: How would you characterize the effects of spending two years away from your New York life?

PK: It’s hard for me to determine given how many other forces have been at work since our return. The economic crash, my parents dying, the changing political climate and my own artistic metamorphosis, which is still taking place, has made it difficult to separate the impact of our time in Mexico from the seismic world shift that everyone is experiencing. It has been over a year since we returned and I am only just feeling my feet settling back on the city pavement.

PR: What advice would you give to others who want to re-root for an extended period of time?

PK: Get as much language under your belt as possible to help you get your footing. Through the internet find out as much as you can about the place and make connections with locals and other travelers before you go. Also, bring plenty of quality sketchbooks!

PR: I didn’t see a book design credit - did I overlook something?

PK: I did the design, with a bit of help on typography from a Mexican designer. The Mexican publisher let me have all the bells and whistles I wanted and I ran with it. The U.S. publisher came on the scene later. They were both so hands off  that I ended up dealing with every aspect of the book from finding the printer to negotiating the shipping!

PR: Well congratulations again, Peter, and I’d like to tell DART readers what a remarkable book this is - certainly one that I’ll treasure.

Editor’s note: Peter Kuper will be doing a series of events around Diario de Oaxaca including an exhibition of original art that will open at MOCCA (The Musum of Comic and Cartoon Art) next Thursday, September 17th at 7:00 pm, with a talk and book signing. For complete details, click here.

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Prison Comix

By Jim Ridgeway
Unsilent Generation

With more and more older people going to prison there is a growing demand for educational materials to keep their minds alive and well amid the deadening atmosphere of the American correctional system—created in large part by government and supervised and informed by the judiciary. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of young and middle-aged people whose “rehabilitation” has been cut short by the cruel sentencing laws. There are all sorts of projects afoot in this area, but one is of special interest. It is called the Real Cost of Prisons, and is run by Lois Ahrens of Northampton, Mass., on a shoestring. You can get a feel for her work by obtaining the Real Cost of Prisons Comix book which includes three comics: Prison Town about the financing and placement of prisons and their effect on rural communities; Prisoners of the war on Drugs, a history of the war on drugs; and Prisoners of a hard Life,which includes stories of women trapped by mandatory sentencing. To me, this last book is the most telling. PM Press publishes the book at $12.95 a copy.

Ahrens got the idea of doing comic books,partly because she wanted to find a way of communicating with prisoners in a simple,direct way providing them especially up to date information and new research. She hit on the idea,in part from years of going to Mexico, and watching women engrossed in photo novellas while tending market stalls or sitting on park benches. Then trade unionists from South Africa gave her publications chock full of graphics, pictures and text that they were using to educate people in their campaign to stop privatization and in the fight against globalization. She also got ideas from “A Field Guide to the US Economy” by James Heintz and Nancy Foibre which also uses graphs, cartoons and ordinary language to explain the economy.

Because prisoners can’t ordinarily take advantage of the information that currently proliferates on the internet, comic books which speak to their lives and needs, are available and free, she says.

Comic books have been received by prisoners in every state prison system,every federal prison and numerous jails. Thousands more have been sent to prisoners through 13 Books through Bars organizations. We know that comic books are passed hand to hand by prisoners,since as soon as a set is sent to one prisoner,not a week passes before we begin receiving requests from other prisoners at that prison..One prisoner wrotethat he found one on a pew in the prison

Ahrens web site is an up to date resource on prison news.

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CliffsNotes to the food revolution

The co-founder of Bitch magazine talks about living the Michael Pollan way and the gender politics of the kitchen
By Jaclyn Friedman

Aug. 31, 2009 | Mention the name Lisa Jervis in certain feminist circles, and you'll be met with the kind of breathlessness and swooning more often lavished on the Jonas Brothers. Jervis is the co-founder and former editor of Bitch magazine, for many the defining publication of a new generation of feminist critique.

Since leaving Bitch in March 2006, Jervis has stayed largely out of the public eye. But now she's returned to publishing with a different and somewhat unexpected project -- a cookbook.

"Cook Food" is what you would get if you combined CliffsNotes of Michael Pollan's foodie insta-classic "The Omnivore's Dilemma" with the vegan parts of Mark Bittman's "The Minimalist" cooking column in the New York Times, added a healthy pour of DIY attitude and ran it all through a blender. The book's subtitle calls it a "manualfesto," and that's just about right -- it's a nitty-gritty how-to with a political agenda: to give those of us with good intentions but limited budgets, skills, confidence or time a chance to participate in the burgeoning local food revolution.

Jervis' approach to what she calls "healthy, light-footprint eating" is refreshingly non-doctrinaire. She confesses her own food sins up front ("I indulge my junk food cravings when I really want to, and I end up eating cheese of unknown provenance much more often than I'd like to admit") and takes an informal, let's-just-do-our-best tone throughout. She's still a food geek -- from her detailed shop talk about kitchen equipment to her "novellini on the art of roasting vegetables," you can tell she's clocked plenty of hours thinking about, cooking and eating food -- and loving every minute of it. But she doesn't expect you to share her obsession. She just wants you to put aside your resistance long enough to share her technique for sautéeing dried herbs in oil, and her recipes for "chili-style beans 'n' greens" and "spicy brownies."

So how does a gal go from feminist icon to food writer? I caught up with her (disclosure: I've worked with Jervis on several projects) recently to ask -- appropriately enough, right around dinnertime, when she was snacking on almonds and preparing a hasty, nonfoodie meal: whole wheat pasta with sauce from a jar.

 So how does a feminist pop culture critic become a locavore cookbook writer?

 First, she likes to eat a lot. And likes to cook.

I've always been extremely skeptical of mainstream messages about what's healthy and acceptable and also very skeptical about the profit messages behind those messages. I mean, the diet industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry that tells people that having a larger body makes them automatically unhealthy, that they have the capacity to change their large body through different food choices and that if they just follow the "right" plan, they will be successful in that. And all of those things are basically lies, and all of them are things that ultimately result in profit for pharmaceutical companies and diet food companies.

The sensibility I bring to food and cooking and thinking about what's healthy is very feminist, in that it's all about: How does this make my body feel? I really don't care about how it makes my body look. I'm interested in giving people the tools they need to eat what makes their bodies feel good and function better.

How is "Cook Food" different from all the other locavore/food ethics books out there right now?

 I think the main thing is that it actually has instructions. You can't read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and then go cook dinner unless you already know how to cook dinner. It's really hard to make better choices if you don't have basic cooking skills.

It seems like the stereotype of the person who cares about these issues is a white, upper-middle-class liberal NPR listener with two small children who eat nothing but organic. Why does the pro-food movement come off as precious and smug so much of the time?

 Farmers' markets do tend to spring up in places where middle-class and upper-middle-class people live. There's some truth to that. Organic food is obviously just more expensive than conventionally grown food.

As far as smug goes, one element of the current pro-food culture is that there's this focus on fancy ingredients and celebrity chefs and complicated preparations, and it makes people feel like cooking is this really specialized skill set. So I think people are intimidated by the idea that, if I'm going to cook, it has to be something special, and I have to have an excellent palate to see what's good. And you know what? You've been eating all your life. You know what's going to taste good to you. That is good food. It doesn't have to be what Alice Waters thinks is good food. What I really set out to do is to show people that it's in fact incredibly easy to put together a simple meal with fresh ingredients.

But it's not always that easy. Tonight I had to choose between going to the gym and cooking myself a healthy meal, even with all your handy easy recipes. Should I have planned better? What is going on there?

What's going on there is that you're a busy person, and a lot of people are busy, and we do have to make choices. I told you what I'm going to make for dinner, and that's because I had long day at work, and then I had a meeting, and now I'm having another meeting. We can't do everything every single day. And I'm all about accepting that, and being like, OK, this is how it is today, but tomorrow I can make beans and greens and have it for the rest of the week. Lightening your footprint and feeding yourself more healthy, whole foods is something that you have the opportunity to do three times a day, every day. That doesn't mean that you've failed if you aren't able to take that opportunity three times a day, every day.

For me, the concept of harm reduction is key. There's no way to feed, house or clothe yourself without doing some level of damage to the environment or other beings -- but reducing that harm in whatever way you can is still meaningful. I'm a fan of "aspiring," as in "aspiring locavore" or "aspiring vegan."

When Michael Pollan recently called for Americans to get back into the kitchen, a lot of feminists pointed out that, given the division of labor in American households, that would likely mean women getting back into the kitchen. Are you at all worried about the gendered implications of your work?

I love Michael Pollan, but the way that he talked about American feminists' attitude toward cooking was incredibly reductive and, frankly, pretty ahistorical. Articles like Pollan's (and anything that makes people feel like they are failing their obligations to themselves and their families by not cooking) produce a lot of guilt, and that guilt is gendered. That is a problem.

But I don't think the solution to that is to stop trying to get people to cook. The solution is to make sure that the household work is distributed more equitably. And I say that with full understanding of how little things have changed since the '70s, in terms of getting men to fucking do their share around the house. And I also think that it's no accident that the kind of rarefied, chef-dominated cooking discourse that I was talking about earlier, that often makes people feel like they can't cook rather than helping them feel that they can, is very male-dominated. Whereas the quotidian meal prep in this country is still mostly female-dominated. The feminist movement has generated a lot of good analysis around that. However, we have not moved the needle very much. I don't have an answer for that.

I also have a lot of frustrations with the way Pollan talks about "obesity." He talks about how obesity rates rise as rates of cooking fall. And I'm sure that's true, but it doesn't actually matter. Because obesity is not a good measure of health.

What really saddens me about the state of the pro-food discourse about obesity right now is that when Monsanto says genetically modified soybeans are not an environmental problem or a health problem, the pro-food movement is extremely skeptical, and they call that out as total bullshit. Whereas when the medical industry says "fat kills," they're not like: Actually, no, diabetes may kill, but the cause and effect relationship between the two is not as uncomplicated as you'd have us believe.

Speaking of Monsanto, doesn't all of the talk about individual meal choices distract us from focusing on the big-picture problems with our food supply, at the industry and policy level?

 I see this cookbook as an organizing tool. People get very overwhelmed when they start talking about food politics and they feel like, well, I don't know what to do about this. It goes back to -- this is something that people do three times a day every single day. That adds up to a lot of actions. I am no fan of market solutions as a rule, but we're still living under capitalism. There has to be a market component to any support for local farmers. So encouraging people, and giving them the concrete tools they need in order to purchase fresh food locally and use it well -- that adds up to a lot as far as concrete support for local food economies. Ditto giving people the tools they need if they want to cook animal-free meals. Movements are made up of individual actions.

Let's talk about the kinds of people who may be resistant to your message. What would you say to someone who hates to cook?

I would want to know what they don't like about it. Do they feel like they're going to produce something that's not good? Are they nervous about the result? Does their hand cramp when they hold the knife? Are they afraid they're going to cut themselves? Are they too tired at the end of the day? Maybe it's lonely in the kitchen. There are solutions to a lot of those problems.

What about someone who doesn't live near a grocery store?

That is a really tough one. I was in Detroit recently, and there are no big grocery stores in the entire city of Detroit. But there are also 600 community gardens in Detroit right now. That's one solution -- start a garden. Another one is: Get to know your neighbors, find out who has a car, try to figure out ways to band together with other people to source some better food for your neighborhood. These answers are not going to be realistic for everybody. But as awareness is raised about these issues, there are more and more places to turn to get help with this stuff. I'd recommend and to start.

And someone with a severely limited food budget?

A lot of farmers' markets take food stamps -- that's really important to know. Also, dried beans are your friend. They're incredibly cheap, and they're actually better for you than canned. If you can go to a market where stuff is available in bulk, you'll pay a lot less. Again, team up with your friends. Have a potluck cooking fest where everyone just brings one ingredient. You get together and you can make a really hearty meal and you may even have leftovers.

People do talk a lot about how expensive fresh food is, but packaged food is really expensive, too. A box of cereal is like five or six dollars, and that's crazy when you think about what you're paying for. You could get several times more breakfast for that money with just a bag of rolled oats, some nuts and some dried fruit.

Where did you learn how to cook?

I spent a lot of time as a kid and even as a teenager hanging out in the kitchen with my mom, watching her cook, talking to her about it, learning stuff about how food works. (And I have to point out here that my father always cleaned up after dinner, because my mother always says when you talk about it like that, you make it sound like we had this totally gender-normative household. And we didn't. My father is an ace kitchen cleaner.) And my mom's pretty improvisational, too; she'll turn leftovers into several different meals just by adding things. So I really learned to trust my instincts in that way. From so much observation and helping.

But a lot of it was also trial and error. I did not emerge from my parents' household knowing how to cook. I spent a lot of time making bad stir-frys in my early 20s.

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For All The People Reviewed in The Berkeley Daily Planet

By Richard Brenneman
The Berkeley Daily Planet
Thursday August 27, 2009

Though his hair has turned white, John Curl’s passion burns undiminished by the passage of nearly seven decades.

“We can’t create a utopia,” he says. “But we can restructure the world so that competition and repression aren’t the bases on which we build our society.”

While he’s well-known as a master woodworker, Curl’s also a wordsmith, and in his latest book, For All the People, he offers his vision of the tools for building a better world.

The answers are spelled out in the subtitle: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America.

Just published by Oakland’s PM Press, his work has been hailed in a jacket note by noted alternative historian Howard Zinn, who writes, “It is indeed inspiring, in the face of all the misguided praise of ‘the market,’ to be reminded by John Curl’s new book of the noble history of cooperative work in the United States.”

Curl, a 30-year member of Heartwood Cooperative Workshop—located in West Berkeley’s landmark Sawtooth Building—has devoted his life to exploring the world outside the boss–employee paradigm.

And in that world, he says, lies hope for a world now ravaged by economic crisis, exploding population and the perils of global warming.

“In the globalized corporate world, either you’re an employee or you’re marginalized, a ‘useless person,’ ” he said, and one of the consequences is perennial unemployment. “Capitalism can’t live without unemployment,” he said. “It needs enough to get people to compete ferociously for shitty jobs, but not so much that it provokes a dangerous response.”

The vision that he wasn’t cut out for the role of the salaried worker came early, during his youth in New York in the 1950s and ’60s.

“When I was young, people had started getting together to form group houses,” he said. “That’s when I first learned about cooperatives, about young people getting together. It’s a natural function of human beings, but our society leaves that just for people’s personal lives and organizes the economy around a command structure.”

For most of his life—except for brief spells as a public-sector worker and as a fledging worker in a New Mexico sweatshop—Curl has worked in the cooperative sector.

He was also a member of what was perhaps the first widely publicized commune of the 1960s, Drop City, an artists’ commune near Trinidad, Colorado.

“In 1966 I headed west. I realized there was no life for me in New York that I wanted to be part of, and I was looking for a home, for a place where there was more community. I really wanted community,” he recalled. “I had heard about this commune in Colorado, and about the communal homes in San Francisco.”

After a stop in Drop City, he headed for the City by the Bay, spending the summer in San Francisco before heading back to Colorado.

While he still treasures his time in Colorado, “the main thing I got out of Drop City was that, in working with other people in an intentional community, people don’t leave their baggage at the door.”

Though the commune ultimately suffered the schisms that wracked most of the 1,500 or more communes that started in the ’60s and early ’70s, he learned that “the intentionality of trying to create a social structure was wonderful. The one rule we had was that nobody was boss.” Evolving simultaneously with the communal movement were the first of the latter-day cooperatives.

“The first ones I heard about were co-ops for books, and then food stores. By the time I got to the Bay Area in 1971, there were quite a few worker co-op groups.”

Curl’s knowledge of woodworking drew him to one of Berkeley’s more eclectic cooperatives, the Bay Warehouse Collective, a large building on the north side of Gilman Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.

John became a member of Bay Woodshop, while other participants created a print shop, an auto shop, a photo studio, a pottery studio and a theatrical troupe. “All the money went into a central kitty, and salaries were paid out of that. Unfortunately, we didn’t make very much money,” he said.

Unable to meet the costs, the groups split up, and the warehouse closed in 1974. But the woodshop group remained intact, forming Heartwood, and the printers formed another lasting Berkeley institution, Inkworks. The car mechanics moved to Oakland.

“Quite a few of us are still around,” Curl said.

His book traces the history of the cooperative and communal movements in America, a social current that reaches back to the nation’s original inhabitants, and that accompanied the Pilgrims in the earliest years. Berkeley readers will find detailed histories of the much beloved and long lost Berkeley Co-op, of Pipe City in Oakland, and a surprising number of other ventures now mostly forgotten.

Curl sees co-ops and communes as counterinstitutions to the corporations empowered by the Industrial Revolution.

“The promise of machines and technology was the ability to create a good life for everyone. But the combination of technology and capitalism created something very different, where all the wealth created by industry is funneled into the hands of a very small elite.”

Curl said the first cooperatives were part of a wave of social movements that emerged in the nation’s earliest years, with journeymen workers who were also visionaries calling for different ways to organize communities and the workplace.

His book traces the colorful and fascinating history of American counterinstitutions, including phenomena such as Abolitionist communes, union cooperatives, and the brief period during the New Deal when the government aided the desperately unemployed who were in search of new ways to bring sustenance to their families.

Does the current economic crisis also pose a new opportunity for cooperation?

“It’s the only way to create more options for living at a time when people are unemployed and helpless or working at jobs they detest,” he said.

The same vision that inspired Curl’s exploration of the world of the cooperative and the communal is now driving his fight to preserve the West Berkeley Plan.

“Property owners have been keeping the land off the market to provoke a zoning crisis,” he said.

“During the 1980s, when we wrote the West Berkeley Plan, we had an excellent local government led by a populist mayor, Loni Hancock. The city staff had been given the direction, ‘Let’s see if a community can plan itself.’ ”

Now, he said, under Hancock’s spouse, Mayor Tom Bates, city government has sided with developers to break the consensus so carefully constructed two decades before.

One of the central concerns of the earlier plan “had been the recognition that there were very vulnerable parts of the community, with the arts and crafts especially vulnerable. But the profit motive is the only force for economic development that excludes the community. Viewed through the profit motive, you’re not an individual; you’re labor.”

As a leader of WEBAIC—West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies— Curl has been fighting to preserve the sense of community protected in the existing plan. And if history is any judge, the development community has roused a formidable foe.

Buy For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 2nd Edition | Download For All the People eBook now | Back to John Curl's Page

Real Cost of Prisons in Colorlines Magazine

Vivid comics show the impacts of mass incarceration on communities of color
By Jenna M. Lloyd

Locking 2.3 million people behind bars is a vast social project. It takes work to hide the equivalent of a large US city in plain sight. The explanations served up on the nightly news and by tough-on-crime politicians graphically focus on violent crime, despite its decline. More prisons, they say, will create safe and drug free communities.  The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press), winner of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s PASS Award, asks whether the billions of dollars invested annually in mass incarceration delivers on these promises.  Hidden behind these fear-provoking images, the book documents the steep human costs exacted on individual health and freedom, family unity, and community well being. What else could be done with the social wealth and creativity now trapped into cycles of cage-building and neighborhood abandonment?  Through powerful graphics and a wealth of grim statistics The Real Cost of Prisons Comix depicts how the past 30 years of unprecedented prison growth have reshaped the landscape of our urban and rural communities. By showing the concrete work that goes into building and maintaining the prison-industrial complex—from the peddlers of fear to the parole officer—the book serves as a smart, accessible primer on the politics and economics driving prison expansion. Prisons are filled with people who have dreams, raise children, and belong to communities most will rejoin.  

shows visceral narratives of their lives and the collision of racism, poverty, sexism to trace the systematic ways in which mass incarceration builds on and exacerbates these powerful inequities. Most importantly, it suggests concrete alternatives that can help rebuild safe, healthy communities.  Shrinking the system becomes as important a harm reduction strategy as needle exchange and drug treatment.Three accomplished comic artists collaborate with long time activists and draw on the work of dozens of researchers imprisoned people, and advocates, to examine one dimension of mass incarceration.  Kevin Pyle’s "Prison Town: Paying the Price" shows how millions of dollars poured into moving people hours away from their homes fails to generate promised economic growth for struggling rural communities.  In "Prisoners and the War on Drugs," Sabrina Jones takes on racial disparities in drug laws and policing practices that result in African American and Latino people comprising 93% of those incarcerated in New York, and that lock up more drug users than dealers.  Susan Willmarth’s "Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children" examines how women are the fastest growing group of people being imprisoned.  Most women are imprisoned for non-violent crimes, half of them drug offenses.  But lifetime bans on welfare, public housing, and student loans for felony drug convictions only exacerbate already serious problems of poverty, racism, abuse, and drugs women face in their daily lives.  The Real Cost of Prisons Comix grew out of a popular education project Lois Ahrens began in 2000. Since the first printing in 2005, over 115,000 copies have been distributed free of charge, and project’s website receives over 30,000 page views each month. One of the great things about this book as an organizing tool is that it includes letters from readers of the comic books—imprisoned people, political organizers, policy makers, teachers, social service providers—which give us a sense of how resonant these comics have been, and all of the ways they have been put to work on the ground.  

The economic depression and fiscal crises facing so many states make the alternatives to mass incarceration the book outlines all the more timely. But it’s also a time when the government is pouring even more money into locking up immigrants. Doing away with prisons isn’t just an issue of pure economics, but will also require confronting the racism, economic inequalities, and sexism that work to fuel the futureless future that they represent. 

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The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners

By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine,
February, 2009

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

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

Let Freedom Ring

Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free US Political Prisoners, is an epic 877-page compilation of both pre-existing documents and original articles. Explaining the context of its release, editor Matt Meyer cites the recent persecution of the San Francisco Eight, who are former Black Panther Party (BPP) members being charged with a 30-year old crime. Beginning with the 2006 grand jury, “the state threw down a gauntlet. When it became clear that the investigations were reopening cases based on evidence obtained primarily through torture, the message was unmistakable: Be afraid, be very afraid, and don’t even think of fighting back. When these same men stood strong, firm on the principle that they would not take part in a new, government sponsored witch-hunt, they sent a counter-message on behalf of us all: we will not allow our communities, our struggles, our communities, our very lives to be criminalized by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system.” This spirit of resistance to state repression flows throughout Let Freedom Ring.

The book’s many sections focus on a wide range of US political prisoners, featuring both facts about their case, and actual writing from the prisoners themselves. One particularly interesting section is titled Resisting Repression: Out and Proud, which includes the classic 1991 interview “Dykes and Fags Want to Know: Interview with Lesbian Political Prisoners,” featuring Laura Whitehorn (released in 1999), a well as Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg, who were both pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. Also notable is a 1991 speech given by former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, who was released after 19 years. Considered a groundbreaking speech from a Black Muslim revolutionary, Bin-Wahad declared that “we can not build a new society if we premise that society on the oppression of other people.” Continuing the legacy of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton, he argued that fighting the oppression of women and GLBTs is inseparable from the fight against capitalism, racism, and all oppression. Also featured is a tribute to the late Kuwasi Balagoon, who died in prison of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1986. In the words of poet Walidah Imarisha, Balagoon “was an anarchist in a Black nationalist movement, he was queer in a straight dominated movement, he was a guerrilla fighter after it was ‘chic,’ and he…demanded to be seen not as a revolutionary icon, but as a person, beautiful and flawed.”

An entire section focuses on death-row journalist, MOVE supporter, and former BPP member Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently asking the US Supreme Court to consider his case for a new guilt-phase trial. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was somewhat overturned in 2001 when the US District Court ruled that he needs a new sentencing-phase trial if the DA still wants to execute. The US Third Circuit Court affirmed this 2001 ruling in March, 2008, but Abu-Jamal has still never left his death-row cell, and the Philadelphia DA is appealing this 2001/2008 ruling to US Supreme Court. If the DA wins their appeal, Abu-Jamal could then be executed without a new sentencing-phase trial. A decision from the Court on whether it will consider these two appeals is expected in early 2009.

Buy this book now | Download eBook now | Back to Matt Meyer's Page


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