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Eric Drooker Takes Aim With Slingshot

By Ben Terrall
San Francisco Bay Guardian

I met Eric Drooker when we were both callow teens experiencing the joys of a coed Quaker socialist hippie camp in Vermont. We skinny-dipped, which was part of the camp's official policy, and smoked pot, which wasn't. Drooker has lived in the Bay Area since the mid-1990s, but his art is closely associated with New York City. A lanky, laconic man in his late 40s, he was born and raised in Manhattan, and the city still dominates his imagery. This is true of his wordless graphic novel Flood: A Novel in Pictures (Dark Horse), which won an American Book Award in 1993. It also applies to the haunting silent ballad Blood Song (Harvest Books), published in 2002.

Yet Drooker is perhaps best known for oil paintings that grace covers of The New Yorker — in early September last year, his 15th cover for the magazine appeared on newsstands. Some of these paintings are also included in 2006's Illuminated Poems (Running Press), which pairs his art with writing by the late Allen Ginsberg. Most recently Drooker published a book of postcards titled Slingshot (PM Press, 68 pages, $14.05). It consists of 32 images created with razor blade on scratchboard.

Drooker's work is widely disseminated in leftist circles, at times in ways that make the idea of a body politic quite literal — the PM Press Web site notes that his art is "plastered on brick walls from New York to Berlin, tattooed on bodies from Kansas to Mexico City." He's largely bypassed the more lucrative realm of art galleries, while allowing activists to access and use (via his images free. "I enjoy working on diverse projects that will be seen by a cross-section of the public — not just the gallery-goers," he says.

The grandson of lower East Side socialists, Drooker was born at the tail end of the post-World War II baby boom. As a teenager, he began participating in progressive politics on a neighborhood level. Early influences on his artistic style included the woodcut novels of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward and the underground comics of Robert Crumb. During his time in Manhattan, Drooker was active in the late-1980s struggles against gentrification, and in countless antiwar campaigns. Many of the images on display at stem from those political battles. Today, he believes his hometown has "become inhospitable" to anyone other than the wealthy. "It's not even a city for the middle class anymore," he says. "Unless you have big money, the message is: don't show up."

Nonetheless, Drooker still dreams about New York: "It wasn't until I moved away from Manhattan that I became more obsessed with it, and started to really appreciate its significance." He calls Manhattan "the archetypal city," and admits that its infrastructure continues to fascinate him. This quality is apparent in the meticulously detailed attention that his work pays to water towers on rooftops, subway tunnel walls, and myriad types of urban pedestrians.

As a youth, Drooker spent many hours watching vintage cartoons. His sense of humor sometimes betrays a still-evident love for Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He also haunted New York's repertory movie houses in the 1970s, where he watched films made by the era's anti-Hollywood rebels, and giants of international cinema such as Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, and Federico Fellini. Given that much of this impressively prolific artist's longer form work has the narrative feel of both classic animation and the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, it isn't surprising to learn that he's been collaborating with an SF animation studio on an animation project for the last year.

Given Drooker's decades of political engagement, it's no surprise that he's opinionated about the political challenges artists face today, from economic instability and increasing gaps between rich and poor to global war and global warming. He cites Sue Coe ("amazing, hard-hitting") and Seth Tobocman as two favorite peers. Drooker is a long-time contributor to World War 3 Illustrated, the comics collection Tobocman cofounded in 1980. He has a new piece in the next issue, due soon.

Drooker maintains that the most common contemporary political art is "right wing": namely, advertising imagery, a form he considers "as much propaganda as any mural Diego Rivera did." He says he sympathizes with people who produce commercial art to keep their families fed, but that the work is "selling you this myth of consumer culture: 'Buy this and maybe you won't feel so bad.'"

"We're surrounded by political art wherever we turn," he added during a follow-up e-mail discussion. "Advertising art is ubiquitous, it grabs us by our emotions — as all art does — and tries to sell us things. Its aesthetics are powerful, and its politics are clear. The mural-sized billboards in our public spaces were all created by artists who went to art school. What is the political message? Faith in consumerism. Until the Renaissance, artists were employed by the church. What was the message of medieval religious art? Fear god. Worship a Jewish guy being tortured to death on a cross. Obey the Vatican — or else." 

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Announcing the Release of Peter Kuper's Diario de Oaxaca

PM Press is very proud to announce the release of Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico, an incredible view into the politics and culture of Oxaca during the uprising of 2006.














Peter Kuper is a cofounder and editorial board member of political graphics magazine World War 3 Illustrated and a teacher who has taught at New York's School of Visual Arts and Parsons The New School for Design. Best known for drawing Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy comic since 1997, he has also illustrated covers for Newsweek and Time magazine. He is the author of the graphic novel Sticks and Stones, which won the New York Society of Illustrators gold medal, and his autobiography, Stop Forgetting to Remember. He lives in New York City. 

More about the book
Meet Peter Kuper
Advance reviews

Diario de Oaxaca

Diario de Mexico: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Oaxaca
By Peter Kuper
Publisher: PM Press and Sexto Piso Editorial
ISBN: 978-1-60486-071-9
Published Sept. 2009
Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 208 Pages
Size: 9.25 by 6.5
Language(s): English and Spanish
Subjects: Art, Politics


Painting a vivid, personal portrait of social and political upheaval in Oaxaca, Mexico, this unique memoir employs comics, bilingual essays, photos, and sketches to chronicle the events that unfolded around a teachers’ strike and led to a seven-month siege.

When award-winning cartoonist Peter Kuper and his wife and daughter moved to the beautiful 16th-century colonial town of Oaxaca in 2006, they planned to spend a quiet year or two enjoying a different culture and taking a break from the U.S. political climate under the Bush administration. What they hadn’t counted on was landing in the epicenter of Mexico’s biggest political struggle in recent years. Timely and compelling, this extraordinary firsthand account presents a distinct artistic vision of Oaxacan life, from explorations of the beauty of the environment to graphic portrayals of the fight between strikers and government troops that left more than 20 people dead, including American journalist Brad Will.














The Buzz

“Kuper is a colossus; I have been in awe of him for over 20 years. Teachers and students everywhere take heart: Kuper has in these pages borne witness to our seemingly endless struggle to educate and to be educated in the face of institutions that really don’t give a damn. In this ruined age we need Kuper’s unsparing compassionate visionary artistry like we need hope.”
—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“An artist at the top of his form.” —
Publishers Weekly

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October 29, 2009 7PM

University of Michigan
Lecture /presentation

October 30, 2009
Toledo, OH
Toledo Ohio Museum: LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel( Keynote address)

November 28-29, 2009
Guadalajara Book fair


Praise for Diario de Oaxaca

Diario de Oaxaca
By Bruce Jensen
Library Journal

In 2006, illustrator Kuper moved from New York to the impoverished but ethnically and historically rich southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, bringing his wife and pre-teen daughter. The region was wracked by a massive teachers’ strike that made headlines worldwide, by the corruption of the state’s notorious governor, and by conflicts in the streets involving tens of thousands of protesters and troops—an interesting place for a politically minded artist to be. Kuper has done covers and other illustrations for a host of major topical publications including TIME, Newsweek, the Progressive, and the New York Times, and has for more than a decade drawn the “Spy vs. Spy” comic series for MAD Magazine. This is the appealing product of his two years in Mexico. Kuper’s diary entries, paired with a side-by-side translation into Spanish, help set the context for the 150-odd pages of paintings, sketches, cartoons, and collages that are the highlight of this book. Kuper’s offbeat eye and his MAD sensibility make for some striking images—comical ones, too, such as his Day of the Dead tribute to the Peanuts gang, which shows the skeletal dog Znupé digging through a boneyard while his Charlie Brown ruminates about death. Fans of comics and art lovers will appreciate Kuper’s unusual take on a remarkable place. Recommended for libraries, particularly those with graphic art and design collections, as well as general bookstores.—Bruce Jensen, Rohrbach Lib., Kutztown, PA

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Diario de Oaxaca
By Michael C Lorah

A warning: this book missed Diamond's cutoff numbers, so you may have a hard time finding it in your local comics shop.  But it's worth the extra effort to track down a copy.  Peter Kuper, co-founder and co-editor of "World War 3 Illustrated" and current author of "Mad"'s "Spy vs. Spy", spent two years living in the southern Mexican state Oaxaca, arriving just in time for an annual teachers' strike in the cause of increased wages to turn violent, leaving dozens of people dead.
Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico
Fiction Book Review

Kuper has long been among the most politically engaged and stylistically distinctive artists working in comics, and both qualities take center stage here. This dazzling annotated sketchbook recounts two years Kuper and his family spent living in Oaxaca, Mexico. Anticipating a sojourn from American politics, Kuper instead found himself in a city roiled by a teachers' strike that was violently suppressed by the regional government. He recorded his observations in his sketchbook and in illustrated letters home, crisply reproduced in this bilingual (English and Spanish) book. Kuper's facility with diverse art media shines in early pages covering political action, as colorfully penciled protestors stand against rigidly inked military barricades set against the lush backdrops of Oaxaca. As the populist forces are rapidly suppressed, Kuper records a panoply of further visual impressions: beaches, stores, dogs, vendors, ancient ruins, street art and many, many insects. Throughout, Kuper's letters, rooted in personal observation but clearly intended as eyewitness reports for public consumption, provide helpful context. And if his increasingly profuse style mixing suggests a departure from earlier visual in the book, the final observations about a beautiful, merciless natural order obliquely ratify the political convictions that open the book. (Sept.)

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Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico
ForeWord Magazine

Kuper’s hardcover opus Diario de Oaxaca, excerpted briefly in Wordless Worlds, is not as distant as it might appear at first glance. Peter Kuper is probably stuck with his best known credit, “Spy vs Spy” in Mad magazine, at least until this publication (in its second half-century and now reduced to quarterly appearance) goes out of business. Kuper inherited the spy piece from another era of Mad, and it has been noticeably wordless all these decades (Kuper took over it over in 1997). The author of arguably the only pantomime strip in widely-distributed comic art, Kuper explored the wordless form throughout his career in graphic novels like The System and Sticks and Stones. With Diario, his sketchbook journal from two years of living in Mexico, he is the observer removed not by silence so much as a keen awareness of his personal status: as visitor.

Read more | Buy book now | Download PDF now 


A Poet's Confession

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Examiner Columnist | 3/31/09 9:23 AM

I know this man, I assert, picking up E. Ethelbert Miller’s new memoir, The 5th Inning (PM Press/Busboys and Poets), released earlier this month. I have known him since I first arrived in the District wearing a wild Afro hairstyle and an attitude to match.

But after reading the book, I realize the fallacy about the breadth of my knowledge. Everyone has secrets, deep and personal, aggressively protected from others’ discovery. And then, there is the soul, a shy, intensely private creature.

“Traditionally, it’s viewed as a female occupation, to strip away the layers and examine the experience of relationships with a partner, with children, within one’s own interior emotional life,” author Joyce Maynard said about The 5th Inning.

“Here comes a strong, real male voice, exploring the terrifying territory of growing older,” Maynard added. “... Ethelbert Miller writes with naked honesty and courage about what it is to be a man no longer young. Youth may have left him. Passion has not.”

“It’s a blues book,” Miller explained, a day after a signing party at Busboys and Poets, owned by Andy Shallal and located on 14th Street Northwest.

It’s clear that baseball is Miller’s religion and the organizing metaphor for his life: “Balls and strikes can also stand for BS. How much is thrown at a person by the time they reach 50?”

This column isn’t a book review — although there is much to appreciate in Miller’s second memoir. It’s experimental: part jazz riff, part poetic meditation reminiscent of Pablo Neruda and filled with multiple voices. It’s haunting. Rather, this is a salute to a South Bronx transplant who has enriched the cultural and political life of the District for more than three decades.

Miller is “literary man”; he’s been that since the 1970s.

“Ethelbert’s name always comes up as the person to see and to get to help promote your career,” said Misty Brown, the literary editor for the Washington Informer newspaper who has known him for more than two decades. “He’s a poet’s poet.”

In the beginning, Miller’s outpost was principally Howard University. He’s the director of the school’s African American Resource Center — a trove of all things related to blacks in America and the Diaspora. From 1974 through 2000, he ran the off-campus Ascension Poetry Reading Series, showcasing emerging and established poets and fiction writers. For a time, he also published, with now-deceased author Ahmos Zu-Bolton, groundbreaking anthologies. He was the force behind the District establishing a poet laureate.

In the past decade, Miller has gone global. He has helped build an international community of political and literary activists. Maybe I should say politically active literary artists.

He is the chairman of the powerful Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank involved in anti-war efforts and immigration reform. This month, he was a guest at Abu Dhabi’s International Book Fair. A collection of his poetry was translated this year into Arabic.

“He put D.C. back on the map as a literary capital,” Brown said. “Citizens, artists, the entire city have benefited. We’re happy he’s here.“

Jonetta Rose Barras, an author and political analyst, can be reached at

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Eat Food, Cook Food, and Don’t Forget the Salt

By Sarah Henry
Lettuce eat Kale

Perhaps the best thing about Cook Food: a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating by Lisa Jervis is that it’s a slim little volume.

That’s not some snarky reviewer comment. Writer Jervis, founding editor and publisher of the feminist mag Bitch, aims to demystify how to eat well and cook real, simple food by keeping her book brief. She includes some 20 recipes of the beans, greens, grains, tofu, and tempeh variety. Well seasoned, as Jervis advocates, these ingredients can form the basis of a decent recipe repertoire for the eco-conscious (both environmental and financial).

lisa-jervisPhoto: Sarah Henry

This guide may hit a chord with people interested in food politics who don’t have a clue about what to cook in the kitchen and don’t need pretty pictures to motivate them to make a meal. (This is not your typical photo-driven cookbook.) Folks inspired by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Stuffed & Starved author Raj Patel, whose book blurb adorns the back cover, come to mind. And Cook Food might also serve as a handy reference for college students, making the switch from dorm life to truly independent living, who need assistance figuring out essential equipment, pantry basics, and practical tips and techniques (note to self: ditch the lame-o rice cooker and get a jelly roll pan for roasting veggies to perfection.)

Regardless, if Jervis, who sports a cool beet tattoo, happens to be reading in your neighborhood do stop by. At The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco last Friday, it feels like I’ve entered the kitchen of a friend who could use a little help getting the dinner on.  More group discussion and less typical book reading, Jervis distractedly composes a farmers’ market salad for her audience to sample — and to support her thesis that preparing satisfying food is within everyone’s reach.

She fields questions while she chops. We learn she’s politically aware (conscious of her carbon footprint, locavore advocate, mostly vegan), and a bit of a renegade (a liberal user of oil and salt, she signs her book, salt early, salt often). She also confesses in the course of her cooking demo that she’s confused an Asian melon for a lemon cucumber. It doesn’t seem to faze her. There’s nothing slick going on here, which leaves you feeling comfortable that you, too, can cook food.

In this era of celebrity chefs and network cooking shows, it’s easy to feel intimidated by food. Jervis serves as a reminder that we don’t need to be.

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It's Gary Phillips' World

BSC Review
July 31, 2009

2009 is the year of Gary Phillips. A spate of releases confirms what some already know, that its Gary’s world and the rest of us just live in it. The different releases offer a range of voices in a range of styles in a range of mediums.

The Jook

Zelmont Raines has slid a long way since his ability to jook, to out maneuver his opponents on the field, made him a Super Bowl winning wide receiver, earning him lucrative endorsement deals and more than his share of female attention. But Zee hasn’t always been good at saying no, so a series of missteps involving drugs, a paternity suit or two, legal entanglements, shaky investments and recurring injuries have virtually sidelined his career.

That is until Los Angeles gets a new pro franchise, the Barons, and Zelmont has one last chance at the big time he dearly misses. Just as it seems he might be getting back in the flow, he’s enraptured by Wilma Wells, the leggy and brainy lawyer for the team–who has a ruthless game plan all her own. And it’s Zelmont who might get jooked.

The Jook was originally published in 1999 and is being reprinted by Switchblade, the new imprint of PM Press.

Yes, as Nerd pointed out already, one of the main hooks (and the thing you notice immediately) is the voice. Too often fiction told in a first person POV lacks a distinct voice but Zelmont Raines has a rhythm and style that is all his own. And quite frankly it is a rhythm that we don’t often hear in crime fiction; the rhythm of black men. I would partly attribute this to Gary Phillips’ unabashed acknowledgement of the so-called street lit books as an influence, maybe not the current 50-Cent crop of books but certainly the classics (Iceberg Slim, Robert Deane Pharr) and to the influence of Chester Himes.

If the black man is lacking from crime fiction then the black woman is absent. As black woman have come to dominate the world of street lit they have been largely absent from crime fiction and if crime fiction readers aren’t aware of the dynamics of the experiences felt by characters like Gena (True to the Game) and Winter (The Coldest Winter Ever) then they should be. This is a round about way of saying that Wilma Wells, the prime female lead in The Jook is a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, she’s sexual, she never veers into femme fatale territory and she dominates the men by being better then them at everything. The Jook of the title is just as much her move as anyone else’s in the story.

Part of Phillips’ strength, and what sets him apart from the others, is that he has taken an influence that others don’t have and married it with the traditional crime novel to come up with something else.

High Rollers

High Rollers is a graphic novel by Gary Phillips from Boom! Comics. The story is of the rising through the criminal organization ranks variety. The story is crisp and well told with some interesting characters. Some of the art didn’t work for me, achieving a rotoscopic (I guess) type effect that looks, at times, overly cartoonish. My only complaint is that the story just ends, leaving the reader with a feeling that the story is incomplete. This will be easily resolved if there are future issues/volumes with these characters I just don’t know if that is the case or not.


In addition to a dark crime fiction noir and a rise-to-power comic Gary Phillips also has a standout story in the anthology Black Noir called The House of Tears and a historical novel about black soldiers in World War II called Freedom’s Flight.

Bottom line: Gary Phillips is one of the best kept secrets in crime fiction.

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Jena 6 on Political Media Review

By Bill Templer
University of Malaya
Political Media Review 

“The DA’s pen has replaced the lynching noose” -Mumia Abu Jamal

Barely noticed In the midst of the hullabaloo and media hype over the death of Michael Jackson, a notorious case of racial injustice against six working-class African-American youths came to a quiet conclusion in the LaSalle Parish courthouse on June 25, 2009, in the parish (county) seat of Jena, state of Louisiana.

Five of the six teenagers, originally charged by LaSalle Parish DA Reed Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy against a white fellow student, agreed to plead ‘no contest’ to a greatly reduced minimal charge of misdemeanor simple battery. That plea does not admit guilt (1). The sixth, Mychal Bell, was convicted on a charge of second-degree battery and served 18 months in juvenile detention, nearly killing himself in despair last December. Mychal is now free and planning to go on to college this fall. One defendant, Bryant Purvis, is already in college, and the four others have similar plans.

Public pressure and the biggest civil rights demonstration the South has seen in 50 years served to save these high school kids from a massive miscarriage of justice and long-term incarceration in the American Prison-Industrial Complex.

The PIC now has 2.3 million behind bars, nearly half African-American. In the process, supporters managed to raise $275,000 to hire a strong defense team for the six. Hundreds of thousands of others are not so lucky (2). Their sentence when originally accused in late 2006 was a potential 100 years, and in the process of struggle was reduced to seven days on probation — quite a victory.

This DVD is powerfully narrated by long-incarcerated African-American radio journalist Mumia Abu Jamal (a trailer here: It recaps the case from its inception, with two nooses found hanging from a high school tree in August 2006 after Black students attempt to integrate the schoolyard. In the aftermath, Reed Walters told a school assembly, his eye reportedly on the Black students: “I can destroy your life with the stroke of a pen.”

In retrospect, that racist statement was the spark. Racial tensions under Jena’s crust flared at the high school. The school was mysteriously set ablaze in November. A fight at the reopened school on December 4, 2006 left a white youth, Justin Barker, with an injured eye and a concussion — although that same evening, Justin attended a major school event. Soon after, six of his fellow African-American classmates were charged by DA Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy, and Walters promised to seek the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Shocked, the families decided to fight this injustice. On September 20, 2007, the movement built by their initiative peaked in the largest civil rights protest North America had seen for five decades. The film chronicles this in 18 short chapters.

But the film does not deal with later developments, which ultimately led to the incarceration of Mychal Bell in December 2007, his attempted suicide a year later, and recent release. So coverage is in fact partial. One critic feels the docu-film is poorly structured, far too brief for the complexity of its topic, “while interviews with several closed-minded locals establish quick hero-villain roles early on” (3).

Yet I think it captures well the political core of the Jena events. As Mumia sums it up: “North and South, we all live in Jena. And despite our denials, some of Jena lives in us.”

The Jena 6 brings the case home in numerous interviews, strong visuals and Abu Jamal’s riveting commentary. The film is a compelling chronicle

  • of how working African-American parents can be politicized, self-empowered by circumstance to struggle against injustice, exemplified especially in the person of Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey’s mom. Marcus Jones, father of Mychal, ends the film stressing that “the day he sets foot out of jail, I’m gonna tell him, I’m gonna tell him again: you know what it is to be black now. Here, here it is.”
  • of how to forge bonds of solidarity, local and beyond, as people come out of the silos of their isolation and oppression.
  • of concrete class struggle, as poor Black families, literally ‘from the other side of the tracks,’ living in a ghetto outside Jena’s municipal perimeter, fight to oppose bogus charges against their kids and the bourgeois power establishment in LaSalle Parish. It’s about racial justice, but at the core of that is class justice, the poor versus the privileged. Much has been written about this case, but not about the wealthy elite that actually runs the parish and much of central Louisiana.

The DVD is also a window onto how working-class white folks in Jena, themselves victims and products of that same System, are blind to its gross inequities. Racist policies are spread and reproduced by exploiting racial divisions and the various economic, cultural and political anxieties and biases of whites, especially in the working-class. “This is part of the familiar divide and conquer strategy which pits poor whites against people of color for the sake of profit and power” (4).

And in a new turn of the old racist screw, Jena’s mayor Murphy McMillan has been busy this past year promoting the opening of the LaSalle Detention Center in town, a newly refurbished facility for incarcerating ‘illegal aliens’ dedicated a year ago. This is to be Jena’s new involvement in the booming ‘detention industry’ under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (5). That center is probably seen as a plum by the parish moneyed elite whom the mayor represents.

This is a film for consciousness-raising and critical pedagogy. It can be

  • used in examining the PIC and criminal justice system in the U.S. and elsewhere. It can be combined with the DVD film The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation, recently reviewed in PMR.
  • viewed and discussed in labor organizing, showing how solidarity among working families can be catalyzed and built.
  • incorporated into classrooms by social justice educators, like Linda Christensen, who reminds us: “I try to find fiction and nonfiction about people who disrupt the script society set for them. I want students to see that history is not inevitable, that there are spaces where it can bend, change, become more just” (6)

It’s a war on the workers waged in part through the justice system, and the work of resistance must and will go on. Organizations like the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland, a prison abolitionist collective, can forge paths forward (7). Mumia, long on death row, has to be acquitted and freed (8). Leonard Peltier has to be finally set free, his case up for a parole hearing in late July 2009 (9). Countless others, of all hues of the rainbow, have to be released from the grip of the PIC.

As John Mellencamp’s song “Jena” reflects: “Some day some way sanity will prevail / But who knows when that day might come / A shot in the dark, well it just might find its way / To the hearts of those that hold the keys to kingdom come” (10) And throughout this tale of a nooses hung on a schoolyard tree, the lyrics echo of Abel Meeropol’s and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (11).

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1. See ; see also ; for a more bourgeois liberal view of the case and its complexities, see Amy Waldman’s article:

2. See also in PMR:

3. See

4. See’s-divide-and-conquer-politics/

5. See

6. See

7. See

8. See

9. See

10. See

11. See

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ForeWord Magazine on Diario de Oaxaca

Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico
ForeWord Magazine

Kuper’s hardcover opus Diario de Oaxaca, excerpted briefly in Wordless Worlds, is not as distant as it might appear at first glance. Peter Kuper is probably stuck with his best known credit, “Spy vs Spy” in Mad magazine, at least until this publication (in its second half-century and now reduced to quarterly appearance) goes out of business. Kuper inherited the spy piece from another era of Mad, and it has been noticeably wordless all these decades (Kuper took over it over in 1997). The author of arguably the only pantomime strip in widely-distributed comic art, Kuper explored the wordless form throughout his career in graphic novels like The System and Sticks and Stones. With Diario, his sketchbook journal from two years of living in Mexico, he is the observer removed not by silence so much as a keen awareness of his personal status: as visitor.

He is not a tourist exactly. He came to Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka) in 2006 with his wife and child to take a sabbatical from the Bush-administered United States, as well as to broaden a young daughter’s linguistic skills and sensibilities. It just so happens that earth-shaking developments sweep through the city while he is there: the struggles of Oaxacans against a staggeringly corrupt government, seeking decent wages for public service, turn into class and cultural warfare. Kuper might almost have been the Courbet of the modern Paris Commune, but this uprising is crushed with great violence and dozens of casualties, including American journalist Brad Will. Kuper captures the dramatic events through his writing, drawings, and photos as they unfold, as well as when the city returns to its status as tourist center for foreigners seeking a warm, relaxing good time, close to archeological sites of lost civilizations. During the interim, all kinds of rebellious art and artistic graffiti appears on city walls, some of it reproduced here in drawings and photographs, while he sketches his own family’s daily lives, with equally heavy emphasis on natural surroundings.

Throughout, Kuper demonstrates his fascination with insects, not only the Monarch butterflies (whose breeding grounds are nearby) but also bugs of every variety. From stinging scorpions to corrupt politicians, Kuper draws parallels between the natural beauty and the dangerous reality that Mexicans encounter every day. The insects represent the “jungle of freedom” of the surrealist world view, the proliferation of life forms absent in Western cities but so much a part of homo sapiens’ transhistorical experiences—that is, of the species launched in the hot climates only gradually advancing to colder places.

The wondrous character of the sketches is in no small part their color, as it overflows with the sampling of Mexican art of everyday life. Understandably, the “Day of the Dead” makes a huge impression on the artist, but so do Aztec memories, the masks of assorted celebrations, the colorful dress, the omnipresent dogs, the occupying soldiers armed against an unarmed population, endangered sea turtles, professional wrestlers, pyramids, and other highly assorted phenomena. One is tempted to say “All in Living Color”—but of course, the Dead are among the most vivid inhabitants, and the long-dead civilizations as well. In any case, this is an artist-traveler’s notebook to cherish and flip through almost endlessly. Each visit to its pages will bring the reader some new gift.

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Beyond Attica: The Untold Story of Women's Resistance Behind Bars

By Hans Bennett
July 21, 2009

As the incarceration rate of U.S. women skyrockets, an important book shines new light on the struggles of women prisoners. 

"When I was 15, my friends started going to jail," says Victoria Law, a native New Yorker. "Chinatown's gangs were recruiting in the high schools in Queens and, faced with the choice of stultifying days learning nothing in overcrowded classrooms or easy money, many of my friends had dropped out to join a gang."

"One by one," Law recalls, "they landed in Rikers Island, an entire island in New York City devoted to pretrial detainment for those who can not afford bail."

Law shares this and other recollections in her new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press). At 16, she herself decided to join a gang, but was arrested for the armed robbery that she committed for her initiation into the gang. "Because it was my first arrest -- and probably because 16-year-old Chinese girls who get straight As in school did not seem particularly menacing -- I was eventually let off with probation," she writes.

Before her release from jail, Law was held in the "Tombs" awaiting arraignment. While the adult women she met there had all been arrested for prostitution, she also met three teenagers arrested for unarmed assault. "Two of the girls were black lesbian lovers. In a scenario that would be repeated 13 years later in the case of the New Jersey Four, they had been out with friends when they encountered a cab driver who had tried to grab one of them. Her friends intervened, the cab driver called the police and the girls were arrested for assault." Law notes that "both of my cellmates were subsequently sent to Rikers Island."

These early experiences, coupled with her later discovery of radical politics, pushed Law "to think about who goes to prison and why." She got involved in several projects to support prisoners, which included helping to start Books Through Bars in New York City, sending free books to prisoners. In college, she "began researching current prisoner organizing and resistance," and upon discovering almost zero documentation of resistance from women prisoners, she began her own documentation and directly contacted women prisoners who were resisting. A college paper became a widely distributed pamphlet, and at the request of several women prisoners she'd corresponded with, Law helped to publish their writings in a zine called Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison. Law writes that the zine and pamphlet "heightened awareness not only about incarcerated women's issues, but also women's actions to challenge and change the injustices they faced on a daily basis."

"This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison," Law says about Resistance Behind Bars, noting that each chapter in her book "focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important." The chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education, and resistance among women in immigration detention. Resistance Behind Bars paints a picture of women prisoners resisting a deeply flawed prison system, which Law hopes will help to empower both the women held in cages and those on the outside working to support them.

Who Goes To Prison?

Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, from 300,000 to over 2.3 million. According to the U.S. Justice Department, this staggering increase has not resulted from a rise in crime. In fact, since 1993, the prison population has increased by over one million, but during this same period, both property offenses and serious violent crime have been steadily declining. The New York Times recently cited a 2008 report by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London documenting that the U.S. has more prisoners than any other country. Furthermore, with 751 out of 100,000 people, and one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, the U.S. also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only five percent of the world's population, the U.S. has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

While women comprise only nine percent of the U.S. prison population, their numbers have been increasing at a faster rate than men. As Law documents, "between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison rose 108 percent, from 44,065 to 93,234. (The male prison population grew 77 percent during that same time period.) By the end of 2006, 112,498 women were behind bars."

Like with male incarceration rates, women behind bars are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Law writes that "only 40 percent of all incarcerated women had been employed full-time before incarceration. Of those, most had 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 37 percent earned less than $600 per month."

A 2007 Bureau of Justice study documented that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are incarcerated. Explaining this racial discrepancy, Law argues that inner-city Black and Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. She cites a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice study which concluded that Blacks and Latinos are "three times as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, threatened or subdued with force when stopped by the police."

The so-called "War on Drugs" has played a key role in the growth of the U.S. prison population. Law writes about the impact of New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, "which required a sentence of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic, regardless of circumstances or prior history. That year, only 400 women were imprisoned in New York State. As of January 1, 2001, there were 3,133. Over 50 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and 20 percent were convicted solely of possession. Other states passed similar laws, causing the number of women imprisoned nationwide for drug offenses to rise 888 percent from 1986 to 1996."

Distinguishing women prisoners from their male counterparts, Law cites a Bureau of Justice study which "found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration."

Women Prisoners Don't Resist?

The central thesis of Resistance Behind Bars is truly profound. In clear, non-academic language, Law argues that recent scholarship documenting and radically criticizing the increased incarceration rates and mistreatment of women prisoners "largely ignores what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances, thus reinforcing the belief that incarcerated women do not organize." Alongside academia, Law also harshly criticizes radical prison activists, arguing that "just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s downplayed the role of women in favor of highlighting male spokesmen and leaders, the prisoners' rights movement has focused and continues to focus on men to speak for the masses."

Law gives honorable mention to two books that documented women's resistance at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State: Juanita Diaz-Cotto's Gender, Ethnicity, and the State (1996) and the collectively written Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998). Since these two books "no other book-length work has focused on incarcerated women's activism and resistance," writes Law. As a result, Law argues that women prisoners "lack a commonly known history of resistance. While male prisoners can draw on the examples of George Jackson, the Attica uprising and other well-publicized cases of prisoner activism, incarcerated women remain unaware of precedents relevant to them."

Epitomizing the scholarship that Law criticizes, author Virginia High Brislin wrote that "women inmates themselves have called very little attention to their situations," and "are hardly ever involved in violent encounters with officials (i.e. riots), nor do they initiate litigation as often as do males in prison."

To challenge Brislin's assertion, Law gives numerous examples of women rioting and initiating litigation, including the "August Rebellion" in 1974 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. On July 2, 1974, prisoner Carol Crooks won a lawsuit against prison authorities, with the court "issuing a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the prison from placing women in segregation without 24-hour notice and a hearing of these charges," writes Law. In response, "five male guards beat Crooks and placed her in segregation. Her fellow prisoners protested by holding seven staff members hostage for two and a half hours. However, 'the August Rebellion' is virtually unknown today despite that fact that male state troopers and (male) guards from men's prisons were called to suppress the uprising, resulting in 25 women being injured and 24 women being transferred to Matteawan Complex for the Criminally Insane without the required commitment hearings."

Law also criticizes author Karlene Faith, who acknowledges that women resist, but who wrote that in the 1970s, women prisoners "were not as politicized as the men [prisoners], and they did not engage in the kinds of protest actions that aroused media attention." To challenge Faith's argument, Law cites several rebellions that received significant media attention, including one that the New York Times wrote two stories about. As Law recounts, "in 1975, women at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women held a sit-down demonstration to demand better medical care, improved counseling services, and the closing of the prison laundry. When prison guards attempted to end the protest by herding the women into the gymnasium and beating them, the women fought back, using volleyball net poles, chunks of concrete and hoe handles to drive the guards out of the prison. Over 100 guards from other prisons were summoned to quell the rebellion."

In light of the many such stories documented in Resistance Behind Bars, Law argues that "instead of claiming that women in prison did not engage in riots and protest actions that captured media attention, scholars and researchers should examine why these acts of organizing fail to attract the same critical and scholarly attention as that given to similar male actions."

Resisting With Media-Activism

In the chapter "Grievances, Lawsuits, and the Power of the Media," Law observes that "gaining media attention often gains quicker results than filing lawsuits." Among the many organizing victories that were significantly aided by media attention, in 1999, Nightline focused on conditions at California's Valley State Prison for Women. Law explains that "after prisoner after prisoner told Nightline anchor Ted Koppel about being given a pelvic exam as 'part of the treatment' for any ailment, including stomach problems or diabetes, Koppel asked the prison's chief medical officer Dr. Anthony DiDomenico, for an explanation."

DiDomenico was apparently so confident that he would not be held accountable for his misconduct, that he answered Koppel by saying "I've heard inmates tell me they would deliberately like to be examined. It's the only male contact they get." After this interview was aired, DiDomenico was reassigned to a desk job, and as of 2001 he had been criminally indicted, along with a second doctor.

Demonstrating the power of this media coverage, Law notes that the "prisoner advocacy organization Legal Services for Prisoners with Children had been reporting the prisoners' complaints about medical staff's sexual misconduct to the CDC for four years with no result."

Along with agitating for coverage in the mainstream media, women prisoners have also created their own media projects. The chapter titled "Breaking The Silence: Incarcerated Women's Media" documents many important projects. Law explains that these projects are necessary because women prisoners' "voices and stories still remain unheard by both mainstream and activist-oriented media. Articles about both prison conditions and prisoners often portray the male prisoner experience, ignoring the different issues facing women in prison." Therefore, "women's acts of writing -- and publishing -- often serve a dual purpose: they challenge existing stereotypes and distortions of prisoners and prison life, framing and correcting prevailing (mis) perceptions. They also boost women's sense of self-worth and agency in a system designed to not only isolate and alienate its prisoners but also erase all traces of individuality."

Some activist-oriented publications have been receptive and have published prisoners' writings. From 1999 until its final issue in 2002, the radical feminist magazine Sojourner: A Women's Forum featured a section on women prisoner issues which included writings from the prisoners themselves. Law writes that this section, entitled "Inside/Outside" covered many topics, including "working conditions in women's facilities, the dehumanizing treatment of children visiting their mothers, and prisoner suicides.

Law spotlights many different projects. From 2002 to 2006, Perceptions was a monthly newspaper published by and for the women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. Because of censorship from prison warden Charlotte Blackwell, Perceptions was forced to limit its criticism of the prison, but the women published what they could. For example, in one issue, women wrote about how they would run the prison differently if they were in charge. Law notes that "their fantasies revealed the absence of programming for older women and those in the maximum custody unit, emergency counseling and therapeutic interventions and opportunities for mother-child interactions. It also drew attention to the facility's overcrowding and increased potentials for violence and conflict among prisoners."

Tenacious, the zine published by Law, was initiated by women prisoners who sought the help of friends outside the prison to actually publish and distribute it. "Free from the need to seek administrative approval, incarcerated women wrote about the difficulties of parenting from prison, dangerously inadequate health care, sexual assault by prison staff and the scarcity of educational and vocational opportunities, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. Although circulation remained small, the women's stories provoked public response," writes Law.

"Prison officials do whatever they can to strip prisoners of their dignity and self-worth," stated Barrilee Bannister, one of the founders of Tenacious. "Writing is my way to escape the confines of prison and the debilitating ailments of prison life. It's me putting on boxing gloves and stepping into the rink of freedom of speech and opinion."

Arguing For Prison Abolition

When Victoria Law was first introduced to radical politics, shortly after her own stint behind bars, she "discovered groups and literature espousing prison abolition."

"These analyses -- coupled with what I had seen firsthand -- made sense, steering me to work towards the dismantling, rather than the reform, of the prison system." Law's subsequent research has only served to affirm her belief in the need for abolition. She states clearly that "this book should not be mistaken for a call for more humane or 'gender responsive' prisons."

Some readers may view Law's prison abolitionist politics as being abstract or overly theoretical. However, to support her abolitionist viewpoint, she makes the practical argument that prisons simply don't work to reduce crime or increase public safety. She writes that "incarceration has not decreased crime; instead, 'tough on crime' policies have led to the criminalization … of more activities, leading to higher rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration while shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment, and other societal supports. The growing popularity of abolitionist thought can be seen in the expansion of organizations such as Critical Resistance, an organization fighting to end the need for a prison-industrial complex, and the formation of groups working to address issues of crime and victimization without relying on the police or prisons."

Towards the end of Resistance Behind Bars, Law quotes Angela Y. Davis, who is a leading activist intellectual of the prison abolitionist movement. In her recent book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis writes that "a major challenge of this movement is to do the work that will create more human, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system. How, then, do we accomplish this balancing act of passionately attending to the needs of prisoners -- calling for less violent conditions, an end to sexual assault, improved physical and mental health care, greater access to drug programs, better educational work opportunities, unionization of prison labor, more connections with families and communities, shorter or alternative sentencing -- and at the same time call for alternatives to sentencing altogether, no more prison construction, and abolitionist strategies that question the place of the prison in our future?"

As if answering Davis' question, Law concludes that while striving for prison abolition "we need to also reach in, make contact with those who have been isolated by prison walls and societal indifference and listen to those who are speaking out, like many of the women who have shared their stories within this book. Because abolishing prisons will not happen tomorrow, next week or even next year, we need to break through these barriers, communicate, work with and support women who are in resistance today."

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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix in Feminist Review

By Jeanne Vacaro
Feminist Review

As activists know all too well, crafting a political message and effectively mobilizing an audience is an elusive task. In The Real Cost Of Prisons, Lois Ahrens and her contributors beautifully stage a difficult dialogue—about mass incarceration, mandatory sentencing, and the “war on drugs”—with comics. Comics are an accessible, popular form of education, and most importantly, addictive, and hence become a subversive way to raise awareness. The Real Cost of Prisons Project has distributed 115,000 comics to the incarcerated, affected families, and social justice organizations free of charge. Comics are just one part of the organization’s mission to end mass incarceration; since Lois Ahrens founded organization in 2000 a coalition of artists, activists, and researchers has produced and distributed educational materials about the costs—material and affective—of the prison industrial complex and it’s devastating impact on family preservation, women’s reproductive rights, rural economies, and much more.

“What does it cost to lock up 2.3 million people each day in the world’s biggest prison system?” ask Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore in the introduction to The Real Cost Of Prisons. In addition to the staggering economic costs (the U.S. spends $60 billion per year on prisons) that could otherwise be directed at health care, public education, and other social services, the human costs are immeasurable. In the comic “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children,” illustrated by Susan Willmarth, we learn about the cost of incarceration for women and their children:

  • One out of every 109 women in American is incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.
  • Half of all women in prison are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their families.
  • Seven million children have a parent in prison, on probation, or on parole.
  • Seventy-nine percent of all women in New York State’s prisons are Black or Hispanic.

The Real Cost Of Prisons documents the vital efforts of the movement to end mass incarceration, and is an exceptional resource for all activists seeking creative ways to build and sustain a political movement.

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Anarchism, Marxism, and Zapatismo

By Hans Bennett
Upside Down World
15 July 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website it

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

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

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


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