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Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats in The Newtown Review of Books

By Michael Jongen
The Newtown Review of Books
March 8th, 2018

Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette have created a loving homage to pulp fiction with its lurid covers and taglines.

This book, lavishly illustrated with pulp covers, is itself a beautiful thing. Its own lurid green cover features a number of pulp images such as the defiant stare of Mama, the chaos of The Spungers, the romantic mood of Hippie Doctor and a cyborg-like Charles Manson staring out from The Hippy Cult Murders.

There are around 400 full-colour covers reproduced in the book, many of which have not been reprinted before. These are a joy. Accompanying them are over 70 essays and in-depth interviews and previously unpublished articles. The layout invites instant perusal and encourages readers to dip into whatever takes their fancy.

Come for the covers — some of which may be familiar or indeed inspire a Proustian moment — but do stay for the essays. These are well researched, informative and fascinating. In his Foreword Peter Doyle looks at the successions of youth subcultures and how the post-World-War-II tabloids flourished in an atmosphere of ‘panic refrains’. (A business model which still seems to work if the tabloids’ current fixation with ‘African crime gangs’ is any indication.)

In the late 1940s, early 1950s it was juvenile delinquents, of course. Then came beatniks. And bikers. Gays and lesbians. Hard-dope fiends. Later on, hippies and counter cultural types, mods, rockers, surfers, skinheads, youthful revolutionaries. Trippers, pot heads and ravers. Rock musicians and groupies. Nearly always the subculture was characterised as a kind of cultish freemason-like quasi-conspiracy or secret society.

I went immediately to the last section of the book, devoted to the late 1960s and early 1970s, which looks at the rise of the teen novel. In Something in the Shadows we are introduced to Marijane Meaker who, I realised, was the woman who as ME Kerr wrote Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, one of the seminal YA novels (alongside SE Hinton’s The Outsiders) from this period. This is a fascinating look at the introduction of ‘realism’ to children’s books and the beginning of the YA genre. My librarian colleagues who studied under the wonderful Stella Lees will recognise how schooled we were in this emerging literature and will find this a fascinating read. Frank Bonham, Kin Platt and Go Ask Alice are also featured and the backstories of these writers are intriguing.

Meaker relates how she and children’s writer Louise Fitzhugh would lunch and exchange tips about their genres. In 1972, under the name Ann Aldrich, Meaker wrote two gay novels, including the gloriously titled Take a Lesbian to Lunch. I learned more about Meaker in the chapter on Ann Bannon, who published in the lesbian pulp genre.

Bannon speaks of a tentative approach to Meaker, who encouraged her writing:

It was kind of a fan letter. I did not realise she was getting them by the bushel from young women all around the world, but she responded … She said, if you have a manuscript and you can visit me, then I’d like to see it and maybe you can get to meet my editor. This was of course music to the ears of an aspiring young writer, since one of my perplexities had been how to get into print.

It is the writers’ stories that fascinate me. Bannon’s books began being reprinted each decade. On her enduring popularity Bannon muses:

Like my readers, I really thought what I was writing was ephemeral literature, although I wrote it as best I could. I understood the rules, and the rules were that these were throwaway books … Critics ignored us and we flew beneath the radar, which is probably one of the reasons we were allowed to exist. So I had no real belief that they would have a life beyond their initial 6-12 month period of publication.

In the 1990s Bannon was working in a university and owned up to being the author of these pulp titles when her students began submitting Masters and doctoral dissertations on her alter-ego. She suggests that the novels have acquired a very different readership than those ‘who were originally seeking anything about the lesbian experience’.

Another trope is the writers who disappear. Teddy Boy by Ernest Ryman, published in 1958, is tame, however it makes the link between poverty and youth crime. We are informed that history has no record of Ernest Ryman, but the personal histories of these writers of pulp literature are truly fascinating.

There is so much to love in this beautifully curated collection of covers, essays and extracts. There are sections devoted to the novels inspired by the badlands of Sydney’s Kings Cross. Hippie culture is explored, and its evil twin, the hippie cult murder pulps based on the Manson Family. Surf culture is explored by Patrick Morgan and his series featuring William (Bill) Cartwright aimed to cover ‘Surfing. women and whenever possible poking a crooked finger in the hairy eyeball of the establishment’. Librarians will be very familiar with the backstory of our anti-hero; he is the prototype of many a popular series written for the middle grades.

This book is a powerful history of the literature that was written for and about the marginalised. It is our history and I am grateful it has been published in such an inspiring format.

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Using Racist Images to Combat Racism and Encourage Resistance

By Paul Von Blum, JD
March 2017, Vol. 10 Issue 1, p382

For many years, in my UCLA classes and in presentations throughout the United States and the world on African American art, I have started with several examples of egregiously racist images from popular culture. From the thousands available, I often select such repulsive examples as “Darkie Toothpaste,” “Nigger Head Golf Tees,” and minstrel-like items from the Coon Chicken Inn, a fried chicken restaurant chain in the Pacific Northwest from the 1920s through the late 1940s. These grotesque racist caricatures are the visual foundation for my long-standing argument that African American art, in substantial part, constitutes an effective body of resistance to the dominant narrative of American history that conceals or understates the political and human implications of slavery and its progeny.

For my student and other audiences, I regularly recommend the Jim Crow Museum of Racism Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. This remarkable museum is the largest publicly accessible collection of racist artifacts. It consists primarily of memorabilia from the segregation era from the South, although many of the objects were distributed and widely available throughout the entire country. The chief objective of the museum is to highlight these objects to foster dialogues and understanding of historical and contemporary racism in America. It is an invaluable resource for scholars, journalists, and activists.

Understanding Jim Crow represents the Museum in book form. This is especially useful for readers who are unlikely to make a trip to Michigan to see the collection in person, however valuable such an experience would be. The volume contains several outstanding components, making it a splendid contribution to African American Studies and many cognate fields. Like the Museum itself, the book should attract multiple audiences, from academic specialists to lawpersons.

At the outset, the author, David Pilgrim, chronicles the personal story that was the genesis of the museum he founded. He grew up in the Deep South as that region began to transform from its overt segregation to its more benign but still institutionally racist environment. Chapter One is intriguingly titled “The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects.” Professor Pilgrim details his life story that catalyzed his desire, indeed his obsession, to collect the racist objects that later developed into the museum he founded.

As an undergraduate student at Jarvis Christian College, a small historically black institution, he learned from his professors what it meant to live as African Americans in a rigidly segregated society. It involved surviving as second-class citizens in every detail of daily life, where racial inferiority was understood and regularly enforced. Pilgrim began to see the close connections between racial oppression and the ways that Blacks were portrayed in popular culture as buffoons, apes, savages, and sexually voracious idiots and monsters.

This recognition impelled him to collect artifacts that reflected and reinforced this racist system. As a graduate student at Ohio State University, he acquired many items, mostly inexpensive, and he developed a deeper appreciation of his African American identity and obligation to work on behalf of his people. He credits his graduate school encounter with Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand as a major source of his consciousness.

In 1991, he visited an elderly Black woman who had a large collection of Jim Crow related objects. Seeing her massive collection, Pilgrim was appalled at the pervasive distortion of African Americans he discovered there. He describes it as a chamber of horrors, but he continued to visit her until her death. Those experiences reinforced his desire to continue purchasing and collecting racist objects, including musical records with racist lyrics, children’s games with dirty and naked Black children, items with Sambo imagery, and anything else he could personally afford. This was the genesis of the museum at Ferris State University after he became a member of the Sociology Department faculty there.

Much of the text of Understanding Jim Crow consists of an analytical treatment of the stereotypes deployed against African Americans over the years. He addresses the common stereotypes including mammies, Toms, picaninnies, tragic mulattos, jezebels, coons, brutes, bucks, and others that a racist society has created and perpetuated throughout its history and popular culture.

His treatment covers most of the popular culture forms, including films and television. Pilgrim’s treatment of television’s use of racist caricatures for well over half a century, in fact, is a damning indictment of the medium that hundreds of millions of people watch on a daily basis.

His account is a powerful complement to Donald Bogle’s Toms, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, the iconic history of Blacks in American film. The present volume is richly illustrated with examples drawn from the Museum’s collection. These images are mostly shocking and disgusting; they add a dramatic visual presence to the specific textual analysis that the author elaborates in his book. They vary in content and include examples that are merely stupid caricatures of Black men, women, and children to thoroughly grotesque images of lynchings and depictions of African Americans as animals.

The common element is that these depictions normalize millions of human of African descent as entirely inferior beings. The central point is that these images, disseminated repetitively, lead the majority population to reinforce and rationalize their destructive attitudes and their conduct toward their fellow human beings. Popular culture is not a trivial adjunct to the course of history; rather, it plays a central role in producing and perpetuating the patterns of oppression that have scarred and despoiled our history for four centuries. That realization is the most significant theme emerging from this important book.

Understanding Jim Crow also has two other features that contribute to its overall excellence. The first is an insightful Foreward by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. Gates’s essay discusses the meaning and impact of a museum devoted to presenting the stereotypes of Black people as shiftless, guileless, terrified, conniving, and other horrific clichés that have dehumanized them over the centuries. He acknowledges his initial misgivings about visiting the museum and his understandable reaction that some of the objects understandably “turn the stomach.”

But Professor Gates makes an especially important point about why the Jim Crow Museum is such an invaluable resource. He acknowledges that some or even all of these memorabilia might unwittingly contribute to the brainwashing of actual and potential racists and might normalize violence through repetition in that setting, despite the warnings from the wall text and museum guides. Gates argues persuasively, however, that these racist objects can actually promote a healing power and engender a new commitment for anti-racist action.

He makes the case effectively: “Instead, by confronting our fears, we learn to master them, and from that learning comes the wisdom to see a nemesis like Jim Crow for what it really was––a systematic attempt to undermine a people, by framing and justifying, their second-class status. . . .”

We need not hide from these racist signs and objects. Instead, we need to expose them to the light of day in order to have a fuller if more disconcerting sense of the past. Then––and only then––can America move towards genuine equality and racial justice.

The final segment of the volume is the most engaging. It reproduces a colorful mural by African American artist and Ferris State University professor Jon McDonald. Entitled “Cloud of Whiteness,” the 2012 artwork in the Museum features a moving tribute to some of the people who sacrificed their lives during the Civil Rights Movement era. This striking mural complements perfectly the disgraceful imagery in the Museum itself. Like the objects in the collection, it also encourages viewers to probe deeply and reinforce collective memory about recent U.S. history.

Seventeen figures of Black and White victims of racial violence are pictured in the clouds, hovering over the landscape. Their faces, situated in the heavens, look down upon the earth. They remind audiences that they gave their lives in the eternal struggle for freedom. Many of these figures are well known and have dramatically entered the annals of recent historical memory. Iconic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, all of whom were assassinated in the prime of their lives, are prominently displayed in this magnificent mural.

So too are other significant martyrs from that era, who are generally well recognized among civil rights activists and historians: James Reeb, the white Unitarian Universalist minister who died after being savagely beaten by racist white men in Selma, Alabama in 1965; Viola Liuzzo, a wife and mother from Detroit who was shot to death by Klansmen while transporting civil rights marchers between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama in 1965––she was the only white woman martyred during that era; and Michael Schwerner, James Earl Cheney, and Andrew Goodman, who were tortured and murdered by Klansmen following their bogus arrest in Mississippi in 1964.

Still others pictured in McDonald’s mural also paid the ultimate price, but their specific names have never had the name recognition of the other martyrs in the artwork. On September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, just a few weeks after the historic March on Washington. Although this horrific event galvanized national attention on racist violence in America, few people now remember the names of the four young girls who died in that bombing: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. The mural memorializes them and reinforces the reality that racism is no abstraction, but rather a malignant force that can kill real human beings.

Finally, this powerful artwork highlights four other African Americans who lost their lives and who are not on the public radar: Johnnie Mae Chappell, a wife and mother who was murdered in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida when several young white men, during a period of racial tension, decided to “get a nigger”; and Delano Herman Middlelton, Samuel Ephesians Hammond, and Henry Ezekiel Smith, African American teenagers killed by police during a civil rights protest in 1988 in Orangeburg, South Carolina. They too join the others and achieve a level of immortality through this brilliant example of public mural art.

“Cloud of Whiteness” makes perfect sense in the setting of the Jim Crow Museum because it encourages visitors to understand that racist popular culture is inextricably linked to racist violence. Above all, it encourages a deeper understanding that resistance is the hallmark of African American history. The book itself effectively underscores that message. The recognition of the power and significance of resistance, at the dawn of the Donald Trump administration in 2017, has never been more important for all people of goodwill.


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Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors in Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
March 5th, 2018

Sociologist and museum curator Pilgrim provocatively confronts racist stereotypes using objects from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which he founded in 2012, at Ferris State University, in Michigan. The array of objects he presents that caricature black people as simians, watermelon-lovers, mammies, and worse—figurines and postcards, paperweights and ceramic plates, toys, T-shirts, sheet music, buttons, children’s books, a ticket to a hanging—brazenly exemplify racist notions. In their mundane variety, Pilgrim writes, they serve as “shorthand ways of saying that black people are others, specifically, Lesser Others.” Pilgrim presents the objects as a sort of genealogy of stereotypes that he argues still persist today. For example, he notes the subtle differences between a “coon” and a “brute” (the former reserves his violence for other black people, a characteristic popularized in “coon songs” from the 1880s, which used black-on-black crime as a form of entertainment, while the latter characterizes black people as innately savage) and connects the stereotypes behind them—that Black men are violent—to contemporary culture: “Black men, like Michael Brown or the looters televised after his death at the hand of police officers... are still portrayed as brutes or beasts,” he writes. The book draws on film, music, literature, social science, and ample history to survey how white supremacy operates, from 19th century minstrel shows to the Obama monkey memes of the past decade. The graphics featured throughout will likely cause more than a little discomfort, but that’s clearly the point as Pilgrim boldly challenges readers to confront racist taboos. Color photos.

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Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats in The Spectator

By Max Décharné
The Spectator
February 17th, 2018

Mary Whitehouse’s publishers also produced Gang Girls, The Degenerates and Bikers at War

The most lurid pulp fiction titles of the 1970s were dreamt up by New English Library — who also gave us Mary Whitehouse’s autobiography

The contributors’ appreciation of the novels under discussion is obvious, and there is much that is valuable here, but some have a tendency towards plain statements which do not hold water, making this book overall a resource of variable reliability. ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley & His Comets is said to have been ‘originally an obscure B-side’ until used in the film Blackboard Jungle (1955), yet it was reviewed and advertised multiple times as the clear A-side in Billboard magazine on its initial release in 1954.

It is similarly unwise to mock Ed Wood Jr for his ‘imperfect grasp of slang e.g. using “jazz” as a silly euphemism for “fuck”’, when this had been a legitimate usage for several decades, and was employed as such by Jim Thompson in his 1952 hard-boiled pulp masterpiece The Killer Inside Me. Elsewhere, Soho is referred to as a ‘suburb’ of London, and a short article about Ernest Ryman’s 1958 novel Teddy Boy concludes by stating outright that ‘history has left us no clues about the identity of Ernest Ryman’. Actually, he went to school in Edmonton, read English at Wadham College, Oxford, served in the Royal Navy in minesweepers alongside Ross McWhirter, and had a distinguished postwar academic career as a lecturer in Winchester and Brighton.

There are many fine cover illustrations from books not dealt with in the main text, but it is unclear whether the writers themselves have read them all, since they include a scan of The Immortal by Walter Ross in a picture section headed ‘Pulp Fiction Music Novels,’ despite the fact that it is actually the most famous fictionalised account of the film career of James Dean.

However, it was a real pleasure to read Andrew Nette’s sympathetic piece about Jane Gallion, self-described ‘fuckbook writer’, author of the novels Stoned and Biker, and editor for the Los Angeles pulp publishers Essex House and Brandon House. There, she co-authored numerous sex manuals such as Coito Ergo Sum, and occasionally attempted to sneak some humour into the company’s output despite the wishes of her boss — an incident she recalled in a lengthy autobiographical letter reproduced here. ‘Jane,’ he said grimly, ‘no satire. Ya can’t laugh and keep a hard-on.’

In the midst of it all even the authors sometimes made money, not least Mary Whitehouse, who, according to Laurence James of New English Library, would order by the thousand from the publisher at trade price, and ‘did very well out of it’.


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Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats in Criminal Elements

By David Cranmer

February 8th, 2018


Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, is the first comprehensive account of how the rise of postwar youth culture was depicted in mass-market pulp fiction—a must-read for anyone interested in pulp fiction, lost literary history, retro and subcultural style, and the history of postwar youth culture.

I enjoy delving into a book that I previously would have thought I’d have no interest in sampling and then spending hours reading and rereading the passages. Understand, I love pulp, but teenage angst, women behind bars, and titles like The Hippy Cult Murders and Skinhead Farewell are not normally my preference. Actually, I had zero interest until Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980 landed in my lap.

I’ve known Andrew Nette for years now (he’s a superb fiction writer himself), and I’ve appreciated the various pulp covers he posts on Twitter almost daily—how he can dig and unearth such lost treasures is quite admirable. And along with Iain McIntyre (who also collaborated on the forthcoming Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction), they have crammed a lot into 336 pages, ranging from the lost and forgotten authors to legends like Harlan Ellison, S. E. Hinton, and Salvatore A. Lombino, aka Evan Hunter. Hunter would find everlasting fame with his 87th Precinct series that became the modern blueprint for the police procedural, and he later penned the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). But first came The Blackboard Jungle.

A moral panic over teenage violence had created a market for juvenile delinquency stories. Hunter was one of the genre’s earliest and most successful practitioners. The novel and film adaptation of The Blackboard Jungle appeared midway between The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), films that enshrined the irresistible iconography of the delinquent in the popular imagination—Marlon Brando and James Dean, switchblades and bomber jackets.

Like almost everything else written or filmed within the JD genre, Hunter’s work operated on the blurry border between moral condemnation of crime and lurid exploitation. The format in which Hunter’s fiction was published—and sometimes republished under other names—largely determined its reception. It could be a serious ‘sociological’ look at a perceived social problem—or a contributor to the menace itself. The wily Hunter cashed in from both sides.

The highlight of this scintillating collection (of which there are many peaks) is the interview with Marijane Meaker, aka Vin Packer. Years ago, I was putting together a collection of pulp stories for BEAT to a PULP: Round Two and looked to bridge the gap between modern crime and mystery tales with the past. I believe it was Ed Gorman that directed me to Ms. Meaker, and she was kind enough to contribute a tale called “Far from Home.” What a pleasure she was to work with, a class act of professionalism and kindness. In Girl Gangs, she talks about one of the many genres she is famed for:

I also wrote some ‘confessions’. I was very good at them, because all you had to do was think of an interesting title that would pull the reader in, and then make sure that the story did not live up to the title. For example, the first story I sold was called ‘I Lost My Baby at a Pot Party’. It was a story in which a woman had the Teflon pot people come to her house for a demonstration, and while this was going on her little child ran out the door.

The confession magazines like True Romances and True Confessions just love that sort of thing, because they weren’t printing anything they had to defend yet were pulling in readers with those titles.

A terrific foreword by Peter Doyle sets everything in motion, followed by insightful contributors, to name a few, that include Mike Stax, James Cockington, Molly Grattan, and Criminal Element’s very own hard-hitter, Brian Greene. What can I say? This is a must for fans of pulp fiction and youth culture. And the next time I’m doing my monthly browsing for something to read, I’m more than likely to look for covers featuring girl gangs, biker boys, or real cool cats. Dig it.

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Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats on Dangerous Minds

By Ariel Schudson
Dangerous Minds
February 2nd, 2018

Recently I have become rather mopey and down-in-the-mouth, to be quite honest. No, it’s not politics and it’s not due to some dumb horrible break-up either. It’s simply due to the realization that I will never have the chance to live my best life and rock out to bands like Wild Asparagus or The Ding Dings. I will never be able to see shit go down at The Sound Spot or The Stomp House.

These things have been keeping me up at night. It’s just not fair. Why can’t I go back in time to the East Village and have a drink with Beebo Brinker? And why the fuck isn’t North Beach in San Francisco as steamy, sexy and crime-laden as it used to be? I wanna get myself a grumpy-ass detective man who hates hippies and reluctantly gets dragged into investigating a drugged-out cult killing. I never got my shot to take up with some doped-up horn player who lives in a jazz club and parties until dawn, dammit.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Ever since I read the shatteringly great Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, I am a mess! If I was once nostalgic for a past I wasn’t even alive for, I am now pining for characters and circumstances that never happened at all! Editors and authors Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette have created something unbelievable with this volume. Something that seems almost unthinkable: it is a reference book for pulp work written in a pulp-style. What I mean by this is that it is addictive, a quick read, and it leaves you wanting more.

All pulp is of the “betcha can’t eat just one” variety and so is this book. You can’t just read the chapter on 1960s British Youthsploitation Novels and you can’t just read the bits on early juvenile delinquent pulps. It’s simply not possible with this book. The way that Girl Gangs infiltrates your senses could easily be equated to the experiences of the characters in the counterculture pulps it documents: the volume starts slow like a neatly rolled joint, then kicks off mad like a killer acid trip and doesn’t let go until the contributors page and acknowledgements, at which point you find yourself the last person to leave the party, saying: “That’s it? No more? Should I just start it again from page one? I probably missed something. Okay. Here goes!” Drop that tab. Just smoke that bowl. There’s many layers to this book. It goes down just as smooth the second time around.

There are many writers who attend the Girl Gangs shindig, and every one of them should be well praised for their hard work. On a personal note, the inclusion of the YA fiction work at the close was so brilliant as there is an entire world of literature that I treasure that (apparently) only the writers of this book and perhaps a few others have recognized as pulpy, dangerous, subversive and REAL. And no, I’m not talking about Go Ask Alice (although that is one of the books discussed).

What makes McIntyre and Nette’s book such an achievement is the fact that not only does it include actual passages from extremely difficult and impossible to find pulp novels, many works are not US-based. Due to the fact that many of the contributing writers are UK or Australian-based, this book has one of the most uniquely international looks at pulp I have ever come across, period. It is glorious.

I have seen plenty of coffee table books on pulp cover art, academic publications, and merchandising galore (who hasn’t seen the card holders/compacts/cigarette cases for Don Elliot’s Hot Rod Sinners or Edward De Roo’s Go, Man, Go!) but I have never met a book that is as pleasingly exhaustive as Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, And Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980. I have never been so aware of Australian crime, women pulp writers, queerness in pulp and the influence of social/political events on the genre. I was well aware of how subversive the genre was, but the interviews with authors floored me and the amount of deep research in this book on a rather obscure literary genre blew my mind.

I don’t care who you are you this book will thrill you. It’s a bookcase necessity. If you have any interest in rock ‘n roll, lesbians, cult murder, car racing, leather jackets, skinhead violence, surfing spies, girl gangs or adolescents trying pot for the first time, THIS IS YOUR BAG, BABY. You will not get most of this material anywhere else. Trust me, I’ve looked. I have a list now of the things I want to read/find but I know I will be screwed when it comes to getting them. Most of them are either out of my price range collectibles or simply nowhere to be found except in the hands of exceptional weirdo wonderfuls like Iain McIntyre, Andrew Nette and their fearless crew. As an archivist, I trust them with these treasures implicitly. And await their next title with bated breath!

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Unfree Labour?: Struggles of Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada: A Review


By Sarah Marsden
BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly

Canada has a long history of reliance on the labour of both permanent immigrants and migrant workers. In recent decades, the number of migrant workers entering Canada has increased significantly relative to permanent immigrants.

A core component of Canada’s policy on migrant labour is to restrict the labour mobility of migrant workers: in many cases, they are only permitted to work for the employer who has obtained permission to hire them, and only in the specific job for which they were hired. Many migrant workers thus cannot circulate freely in the labour market as can permanent residents and Canadian citizens, which leads to a heightened power differential between migrant workers and their employers. These workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation at worksites is well documented, as is their social and economic marginalization.

Drawing on the Marxist concept of unfree labour, the chapters in Unfree Labour? offer analytical and practical responses to the subordination of immigrant and migrant workers in Canada in the context of domestic and globalized neoliberal policy. As a whole, the work acknowledges the structural causes of these workers’ subordination and emphasizes local sites of organization and resistance and their potential for effecting material change in workers’ conditions.

The volume’s contributors are scholars and/or front line activists. The collection emphasizes migrant workers rather than immigrant workers, but many analytical components are applicable to immigrant workers as well; some chapters, such as Polanco’s on fast-food work, touch directly on the interests of immigrant workers.

Most of the chapters in Unfree Labour? consider specific labour segments in which migrant labour is prevalent. Mark Thomas demonstrates the role of the state in reproducing modern forms of unfree labour through the example of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker program. Adriana Paz Ramirez and Jennifer Jihye Chun provide a historical perspective on migrant farmworker organizing and emphasize the need to call out migrant farmworker programs as a form of racial apartheid and to consider multifaceted organizing approaches. Chris Ramsaroop critiques Canada’s failure to provide Employment Insurance benefits to migrant farmworkers and takes issue with organized labour’s advocacy in this area, arguing that transnationalism provides an alternative frame for the distribution of bene ts. In the context of domestic workers, Jah-Hon Koo and Jill Hanley draw on empirical work to document workers’ resistance strategies and to implicate the state’s requirement of private sphere worksites as a barrier to e ective labour organizing. Geraldina Polanco considers the use of migrant labour in fast-food services, drawing on eldwork to highlight the devaluing impact of foreign work programs on vulnerable domestic workers and emphasizing the need to organize domestic and migrant workers alongside each other. The remaining chapters deal with grassroots and policy responses to migrant worker struggles.

Calugay, Malhaire, and Shragge emphasize the importance of understanding structural factors in workers’ countries of origin as well as developing trusting relationships and organizing across ethno-cultural lines. They elaborate on the material and political challenges of organizing workers and the importance of organizing across cultural communities, building relationships, and utilizing both legal and extralegal strategies.

In terms of more policy-based responses, Abigail Bakan offers a critique of federal employment equity law based on its inefiectiveness in dealing with embedded forms of systemic discrimination such as those inherent in the live-in caregiver program. Sedef Arat-Koç situates Canada’s foreign work programs within the context of neoliberal policy and labour market restructuring, framing the migrant work program not only as a source of cheap labour but also as a subsidy for Canada’s welfare state. She argues that, in order to respond meaningfully to migrant workers’ struggles, it is necessary to overcome romanticized nationalist narratives and make oppositional politics more explicit. Two chapters (Paz Ramirez and Chun, and Polanco) draw on eldwork and organizing experience with migrant worker groups in British Columbia, specifically with regard to the agriculture and fast-food industries.

As a whole, this collection addresses the impact of national policy and organizing methods that bear directly on the situation of migrant workers in British Columbia, whose labour market engagement and barriers to equality are closely analogous to those evident in Ontario and Quebec (the focus of several chapters). This collection is significant in its contribution to labour migration studies. It includes multiple empirical chapters in which critiques of law and policy draw directly on interviews with migrant workers. It also contributes theoretically, elucidating critical relationships between Canada’s labour migration policies and transnational relations, considering the potential of grassroots organizing, and problematizing the relationship between migrant workers’ struggles and the “traditional” (white, union-based) labour movement, particularly in terms of its failure to adequately contest racism. Its greatest strength, however, lies in the grounding of its analysis in the insights of organizers and activist-scholars directly involved with the material struggles of migrant workers. This work will be of interest to advocates, scholars, and activists involved with migrant workers. It will also appeal to those interested in critical perspectives on labour in the new economy and to anyone who wishes to consider strategies to resist the subordination of migrant workers in Canada.

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Not a Riot Grrrl Band: Musician Michelle Cruz Gonzales Sounds off on Punk Feminism

by Kitty Lindsay
Los Angeles Review of Books
February 3rd, 2018

FOR WOMEN WHO came of age in the 1990s, women-led rock bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile struck an empowering chord with their in-your-face hardcore punk style and patriarchy-smashing lyrics. The introduction of these female-fronted bands into pop culture kick-started the feminist-focused punk rock revolution Riot Grrrl, a music movement that continues to reverberate today in the girl-powered anthems of Ex Hex, Pussy Riot, and Tacocat.

Spitboy, a hardcore punk band formed in 1990 in Berkeley by drummer-lyricist Michelle Cruz Gonzales, was not a Riot Grrrl band — and she won’t let you to forget it. In her memoir, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band, Gonzales hits all the right notes in the telling of her band’s unique contributions to punk and feminism, with unabashed details of the sexism, classism, and racism they incurred.

Recently, I spoke with Gonzales about Spitboy’s unapologetically feminist agenda and her inspiring journey of self-discovery.


KITTY LINDSAY: What did the punk rock scene in the Bay Area look like at the time you started Spitboy?

MICHELLE CRUZ GONZALES: I lived in San Francisco for about a year and a half, then I moved to the East Bay, and the punk scene was definitely male and predominantly white. There were a lot of women and people of color in the scene — I was there and I’m a Xicana — but they just weren’t as visible. I definitely saw other people like me in those days, but as a woman playing music in that scene, you felt a little bit like a novelty act.

In your experience, did you find the punk rock scene to be a welcoming space for women?

Gilman Street strove to be a welcoming space for women because it has always, and still does, strived to be a place for everybody and a safe place for young people; no alcohol, no violence. But it wasn’t always a safe place for women. I was groped in the pit several times at Gilman and other places, too. There are always people who come with evil intentions and there are guys who don’t care anything about consent. I remember having my rear end pinched, and I turned around and punched the guy who did it.

Punk rock is an aggressive art form. What attracted you to the hardcore genre of music?

It started with The Clash being very political, singing about Latin America and Latin American issues and struggles. I grew up during the Reagan era in Tuolumne, which is a very small, very white, conservative town in California, and my mom was a single mom. There really is nothing like being a single mom in a conservative American era, than being the daughter of a Xicana single mom in a conservative era to politicize you at an early age. I became very aware that things weren’t fair in my life and for my mother, and that the government was using us as examples of people who ought to be criticized for being drains on the economy. That made me very angry.

I was also bullied a lot at school; bullying puts a chip on your shoulder. I looked like an outsider; I was Othered by people from a very early age, and then being politicized through Reagan and through having a single mom, I just latched on to the anger of punk rock. When I found that some bands were actually singing about political issues that I could relate to, it seemed like a no-brainer.

What inspired Spitboy?

My first band, Bitch Fight, broke up and I was really sad. I joined another band, Kamala and the Karnivores, briefly, playing guitar. It was a pop-punk band that I loved, but it wasn’t a political band. The songs were very, very feminist, but they were more feminist break-up songs, feminist love songs; which is cool, but at the time, I wanted to get back to playing drums and writing lyrics.

So when Kamala and the Karnivores broke up, I started looking for women who wanted to be in another female band like Kamala and the Karnivores and Bitch Fight, but who wanted to play harder music and wanted to be political and sing about women’s issues and I just happened to cobble together the right people.

Why was it important that Spitboy was an all-female band?

I didn’t ever really want to play music with men. From a very early age, I remember being around men thinking, “They’re a club and I will never be a part of that club.” There were subtle things; language and mannerisms, that men have, that showed me that women might not be taken as seriously. It made me angry. So when I started playing music, I wanted to be in my own band. I never considered being in a band with a man. If I’m going to be in a band, I’m going to be in a band with my girlfriends.

Feminism plays such a large role in Spitboy’s artistry and identity. Was that a conscious choice?

Yes, it was conscious. When I met Adrienne Droogas [who would become Spitboy’s lead singer], she was making a feminist zine. I met her with [bassist] Paula Hibbs-Rines and I said, “I want to put together an all-female band and sing about women’s issues.” We came with this fully formed idea. Paula knew [guitarist] Karin Gembus and invited her. I had already written a song called “Seriously,” about being sexually harassed, so that sort of set the tone.

Did you ever worry that Spitboy’s hardcore feminist message might alienate some audiences?

We decided it wasn’t going to be a concern of ours. This is our message, and we won’t play places that aren’t into that. We figured the right places would book us.

But there was also this other element to it, too; that alcohol and men in the audience is a really bad combination for a band that sings about feminist issues. If you want to get harassed at a show, play at a bar and lecture men about feminism.

A lot of people don’t want to go to a punk show and get a lecture, but we didn’t care. We want to be a band for women in the scene and while we’re at it, we’d like to tell the young men a thing or two and maybe prevent harassment, prevent rape, or get people thinking about these issues. We knew that we were alienating some people, but the music was loud and fast and angry, so it was a combative, and we just thought, we’re never going to break into a major label. That wasn’t our aim, so we didn’t really spend a lot of time worrying about that.

In your book, you wrote about an uncomfortable moment during a gig when you announced to the audience, made up of Riot Grrrl musicians, that Spitboy was not a Riot Grrrl band. What were the differences between Spitboy and Riot Grrrl bands, and why was it important to you to distinguish yourselves from that movement?

We had been on tour for a couple of weeks and even before the tour, in interviews locally or around California, we’d always get asked about Riot Grrrl. Usually the question would be: “Are you a Riot Grrrl band?” We’d always say no, but we tried never to say anything negative because we believed pretty much everything that Riot Grrrl espoused.

We were all for the Riot Grrrl ideals about girl love and not being competitive and supporting one another, but as Bay Area feminists, we did not want to be called “girls.” That was just a really big thing in the Bay Area feminist scene, in particular. We felt like we were grown-ups and had earned the title “woman” and that’s what we wanted to be called.

Then we had an issue with the boys-to-the-back thing. Riot Grrrl bands would play and they’d tell all the boys to go stand in the back. It’s actually a brilliant thing that they did; it just made us really uncomfortable. As a woman of color, it felt a little like the back of the bus. Even though men are dominant in our culture and we live in a patriarchy, I didn’t like the separatism.

The reason why I said, “We’re not a Riot Grrrl band” onstage at that show in front of members of Bikini Kill was because the men had come up to us before we played and asked, “Do you want us in the back?” At the time, we didn’t know the Riot Grrrl rule, so we’re like, “What? No, that’s horrible.” We’re not here to tell people what to do. We’re here to share our ideas and tell you about some injustices that woman face. I could have been a little more diplomatic, but I was young and we were learning a lot of things as we went.

During the Spitboy years, you played drums under the stage name, Todd. How did that moniker come about? How did assuming this identity affect your visibility as an Xicana musician in the punk rock scene?

The name was originally given to me in high school by my crush, Kevin. He was a drummer in the jazz band. He showed me a couple of things when I started teaching myself how to play the drums. He had a foster brother who my Bitch Fight bandmate Nicole Lopez became friends with, and his foster brother could never remember my name. One day we were all hanging out and he called me Todd and I’m like, “Why are you calling me that?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know, when I lived in Modesto in this other foster home, I had a friend named Todd and his girlfriend’s name was Nicole, so I just think Nicole and Todd.” Then Kevin started calling me Todd. Kevin could’ve called me anything and I would’ve answered — so much for my feminism — and after that, everyone at school started calling me Todd.

When I first started getting into punk, I cut my hair really short. I’m a mountain girl and mountains girls are always somewhat androgynous, so the name Todd fit me right away. It’s somewhat cooler in punk to have a name that’s not so normal, but it hindered me because we only used our first names on our records and people didn’t see me as an Xicana. My name was never an indicator of my identity as a Mexican American, and I started having that prototypical fractured identities that a lot of Latinos and people of color have in the United States. People don’t see you as American, but you’re not a Mexican national either, so the name Todd didn’t really help because, in some ways, it prohibited other people from seeing me for who I really was.

Your book strikes a chord for me in terms of your personal journey toward understanding all the identities you inhabit — Xicana, drummer, and feminist — and all of their intersections. During your time in Spitboy, were these identities ever at odds with one another? If so, how did you reconcile them?

Sometimes I didn’t. For me, Mexican misma, was connected with class. In terms of the band, there were major class disparities between the rest of the band and myself. Two of my bandmates were very upper-middle class and, on tour in particular, the differences in the way we saw the world clashed and I realized, “Wow, they don’t see me the way I see myself,” and I thought, “How much have I participated in my own invisibility and the erasure of my ethnic identity? How much have I contributed to that or participated in that and how much of this is how they grew up and see the world beyond their own experiences?” I think it was a combination of both.

Much of it can be explained by the fact that we were very young. We were navigating some very sophisticated things in our early 20s and we didn’t always do it right. We didn’t know how to talk about class differences and we just said things based on how we saw the world and assumed everyone else saw the world that way.

As an Xicana feminist musician, what did you learn through your experience as a performer in Spitboy?

Mainly I learned that I’m in charge of my identity and that that means I have to be vocal about my identity. I have to be patient with people who don’t have direct experience with my culture. I also have to demand that people allow me to identify myself the way that I want.

There are so many practical things that we learned how to do on tour that I was able to apply once I went back to school and that I use at my own job as a teacher. I try to be interesting and dynamic and never boring in class, and all the years that I performed in Spitboy, I just learned about a sense of audience. I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to go on and do all the things I had if I hadn’t been in Spitboy. I didn’t grow up with a lot of privilege or around people who went to college. The women in Spitboy did go to college and that inspired me to go back once the band broke up.

The years in the band made me realize a band is not an identity. A band cannot be your identity. It’s just your job. Our identities are way more complex and meaningful than that. That’s probably the most important thing I learned.

The Spitboy Rule is as much a critical historical text as it is an intersectional exploration of personal identity. What do you hope resonates with readers?

The ideas about identity, and the gentleness with which I tried to approach writing about identity and the understanding that I try to have for the other people who were kind of navigating my identity with me — even though we didn’t all realize that was happening.

The fact that Spitboy was an all-female band that could easily be erased from history, especially since we weren’t a Riot Grrrl band; but we existed. When I first started writing the book, I just wanted to write about Spitboy; the experience of being in a feminist band and being the only person of color in that band. As I got about half way through writing it, Carrie Brownstein’s book [Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl] came out and Kim Gordon’s book [Girl in a Band] came out, and I realized I had to make sure that everyone understood that Spitboy was not a Riot Grrrl band, but that we were around at the same time and we were just as important.

In my book, the Riot Grrrl chapter was originally called “The Riot Grrrl Controversy.” But I changed it on purpose to “Not a Riot Grrrl Band” to create the opportunity to have that discussion about what it was like to be an all-women punk band that started at the same time as Riot Grrrl, but was not part of that scene. When people think of women’s punk bands, they think of Riot Grrrl. Those two things have become synonymous and that is really upsetting because it potentially erases a lot of bands. I realized that one of my jobs in finishing the book is to make sure that didn’t happen.


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and a regular weekend contributor at Hello Giggles. Her writing as appeared in Ms. magazine and on the Feminist Majority Foundation blog, The Establishment, Los Angeles Review of Books, AwesomenessTV, and Theatre Is Easy.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Michelle Cruz Gonzales’s Author Page 

A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense by Chad Kautzer

A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense

Image: The Library of Congress

Editor’s Note: This essay is an adapted excerpt from Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense (ed. scott crow).

In his 1964 speech “Communication and Reality,” Malcolm X said: “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Earlier that year, he made a similar point in his Harlem speech introducing the newly founded Organization of Afro-American Unity: “It’s hard for anyone intelligent to be nonviolent.”

To portray self-defensive violence as natural, in no need of justification, or as so commonsensical that it could barely be called violence has a depoliticizing effect. Since the goal of Malcolm X’s speeches was to undermine critiques of armed black resistance, this effect was intentional. For good reasons, he was attempting to normalize black people defending themselves against the violence of white rule. When Malcolm X did speak of self-defense as a form of violence, he emphasized that it was lawful and an individual right. In his most famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964), he explicitly stated: “We don’t do anything illegal.” This was also, of course, how the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense justified its armed shadowing of police in Oakland in the late 1960s: it was the members’ Second Amendment right to bear arms and their right under California law to openly carry them.

When conditions are so oppressive that one’s self is not recognized at all, self-defense is de facto insurrection, a necessary making oneself known through resistance.

To develop a critical theory of community defense, however, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights or the idea that all self-defensive violence is quasi-natural or nonpolitical. The self-defense I discuss in this essay is political because the self being defended is political, and as such it requires both normative and strategic considerations. This project seeks to articulate the dynamics of power at work in self-defense and the constitution of the self through its social relations and conflicts.

Because communities of color defend themselves as much against a culture of white supremacy as they do against bodily harm, their self-defense undermines existing social hierarchies, ideologies, and identities. If we were to limit ourselves to the language of individual rights, these interconnections would remain concealed. Violence against women (but not only women), for example, has a gendering function, enforcing norms of feminine subordination and vulnerability. Resistance to such violence not only defends the body but also undermines gender and sexual norms, subverting hetero-masculine dominance and the notions of femininity or queerness it perpetuates. Since the social structures and identities of race, gender, class, and ability intersect in our lives, practices of self-defense can and often must challenge structures of oppression on multiple fronts simultaneously.

In the following, I do not focus on the question of whether self-defensive violence is justifiable, but rather on why it is political; how it can transform self-understandings and community relations; in what contexts it can be insurrectionary; and why it must be understood against a background of structural violence. It is necessary to clarify these dimensions of self-defense for two reasons in particular. First, arguments advocating armed community defense too often discuss the use of violence and the preparations for it as somehow external to political subjectivity, as if taking up arms, training, or exercising self-defensive violence do not transform subjects and their social relations. The influence of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) on the early Black Panthers, Steve Biko, and others derives precisely from Fanon’s understanding of the transformative effects of resistance in the decolonizing of consciousness. “At the individual level,” Fanon writes, “violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.”

The second reason for clarification is to distinguish the strategies, ways of theorizing, and forms of social relations of liberatory movements from those of reactionary movements. There is an increasingly influential understanding of self-defense today that reinforces a particular notion of the self—a “sovereign subject”—that is corrosive to horizontal social relations and can only be sustained vis-à-vis state power. This notion of the self runs counter to the goals of non-statist movements and self-reliant communities. To be aware of these possibilities and pitfalls allows us to avoid them, a goal to which the following sketch of a critical theory of community self-defense seeks to contribute.

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Resistance and Structural Violence

At the National Negro Convention in 1843, Reverend Henry Highland Garnet issued a rare public call for large-scale resistance to slavery: “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.” I describe resistance as opposition to the existing social order from within, and, as Garnet suggested, it can take different forms, such as self-defense, insurrection, or revolution. We can think of an insurrection as a limited armed revolt or rebellion against an authority, such as a state government, occupying power, or even slave owner. It is a form of illegal resistance, often with localized objectives, as in Shays’ Rebellion (1786), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the insurrections on the Amistad (1839) and Creole (1841), the coal miner Battle of Blair Mountain (1921), Watts (1965), Stonewall (1969), and Attica (1971).

Distinguishing between defensive and insurrectionary violence can be complicated. In the Amistad case, for example, white officials initially described it as a rebellion and thus a violation of the law, but later reclassified it as self-defense when the original enslavement was found to be unlawful. In a rare reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the captives on the Amistad as having selves worthy of defense. That was never in question among those rebelling, of course, but it does indicate the political nature of the self and our assessments of resistance. “Since the Other was reluctant to recognize me,” writes Fanon, “there was only one answer: to make myself known.” On the Amistad, rebellion was the only way for the enslaved to make their selves known, meaning that their actions were simultaneously a defense of their lives and a political claim to recognition.

To develop a critical theory of community defense, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights.

A sustained insurrection can become revolutionary when it threatens to fundamentally transform or destroy the dominant political, social, or economic institutions, as with the rise of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico in 1994 and the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, including most significantly Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. The armed rebellion led by John Brown in 1859, which seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was intended to instigate a revolution against the institution of slavery. Although the insurrection was quickly put down, it inspired abolitionists around the country and contributed to the onset of the U.S. Civil War.

Brown’s rebellion was not a slave revolt (and thus not an act of self-defense), but it did highlight the nature of structural violence. Henry David Thoreau, the inspiration for Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience and, in turn, that of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the most insightful analysis of this violence at the time. In his essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau defends Brown’s armed resistance and identifies the daily state violence of white rule against which the insurrection took place:

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. . . . I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause [i.e., Brown’s insurrection].

In this passage Thoreau highlights how the so-called security of one community was achieved by oppressing another and making it insecure. To properly understand the insurrection, he therefore argues, one must view it as a response to illegitimate structural violence. He enumerates the commonplace mechanisms of this rule, which, for whites, fades into the background of their everyday lives: law and order upheld by a neutral police force, enforced by an objective legal system and carceral institutions, and defended by an army supported by the Constitution and blessed by religious authorities. The violence of white supremacy becomes naturalized and its beneficiaries see no need for its justification; it is nearly invisible to them, though not, of course, to those it oppresses. “The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system,” writes Robert Williams in Negroes with Guns (1962). “The Afro-American militant is a ‘militant’ because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself.”

We all exist within hierarchical social structures and the meaning and function of violence, self-defensive or otherwise, will be determined by our position vis-à-vis others in these structures. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, for example, described the self-defensive practices of the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and thus insurrectionary, if not revolutionary. Surely his assessment had more to do with the threat self-reliant black communities posed to white domination in the country than with the security of government institutions. “When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence,’” writes Williams, “what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.” These structures of domination and monopolies of violence are forms of rule that operate in the family, the city, and the colony, and resistance to their violence, both dramatic and mundane, “makes known” the selves of the subjugated.

‘The Afro-American militant . . . does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence . . . has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself.’

A satisfactory notion of self-defense is not obvious when we view self-defensive acts within the context of structural violence and understand the self as both embodied and social. Writing specifically of armed self-defense, Akinyele Omowale Umoja defines it as “the protection of life, persons, and property from aggressive assault through the application of force necessary to thwart or neutralize attack.” While this is appropriate in many contexts, the primary association of self-defense with protection does not capture how it can also reproduce or undermine existing social norms and relations, depending on the social location of the self being defended. Describing the effects of his defense against a slaveholder, Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote that he “was a changed being after that fight,” for “repelling the unjust and cruel aggressions of a tyrant” had an emancipatory effect “on my spirit.” This act of self-defense, he asserts, “was the end of the brutification to which slavery had subjected me.” Our understanding of self-defense must, therefore, account for the transformative power of self-defense for oppressed groups as well as the stabilizing effect of self-defense for oppressor groups.

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Social Hierarchies and Subject Formation

To see how self-defense can have several effects and why a critical theory of self-defense must, therefore, always account for relations of domination, we need to understand in what way the self is both embodied and social. By embodied I mean that it is through the body that we experience and come to know the world and ourselves, rather than through an abstract or disembodied mind. The body orients our perspective, and is socially visible, vulnerable, and limited. Much of our knowledge about the social and physical world is exercised by the body. Our bodies are sexed, raced, and gendered, not only “externally” by how others view us or how institutions order us—as, for example, feminine, masculine, queer, disabled, white, and black—but also “internally” by how we self-identify and perform these social identities in our conscious behavior and bodily habits. By the time we are able to challenge our identities, we have already been habituated within social hierarchies, so resistance involves unlearning our habits in thought and practice as well as transforming social institutions. As David Graeber writes, “forms of social domination come to be experienced in the most intimate possible ways—in physical habits, instincts of desire or revulsion—that often seem essential to our very sense of being in the world.”

Self-defensive violence can transform self-understandings and community relations; it can be insurrectionary; and it must be understood against a background of structural violence.

Since our location within social hierarchies in part determines our social identities, the self that develops is social and political from the start. This does not mean that we are “stuck” or doomed to a certain social identity or location, nor that we can simply decide to identify ourselves elsewhere within social hierarchies or somehow just exit them. To be sure, we have great leeway in terms of self-identification, but self-identification does not itself change institutional relations or degrees of agency, respect, risk, opportunity, or access to resources. These kinds of changes can only be achieved through social and political struggles. Our embodied identities are sites of conflict, formed and reformed through our practical routines and relations as well as through social struggle. Since the actions and perceptions of others are integral to the development of our own, including our self-understanding, we say that the self is mediated, or is formed through our relations with others in systems of production, consumption, education, law, and so forth.

In The Souls of Black Folks (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois theorized black life in a white supremacist society as experiencing one’s self as split in two, a kind of internalization of a social division that produced what he called “double-consciousness,” or “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Although one may view oneself as capable, beautiful, intelligent, and worthy of respect, the social institutions one inhabits can express the opposite view. Part of the experience of oppression is to live this othering form of categorization in everyday social life. Even when one consciously strives to resist denigration and to hold fast to a positive self-relation, the social hierarchy insinuates itself into one’s self-understanding. In the most intimate moments of introspection, a unified self-consciousness escapes us because our self-understanding can never completely break from the social relations and ideologies that engender it. Social conflict is internalized, and it takes great strength just to hold oneself together; to live as a subject when others view and treat you as little more than an object, and when you are denied the freedoms, security, and resources enjoyed by others. Ultimately, only by undermining the social conditions of oppression through collective resistance can the double-consciousness Du Bois describes become one.

Racism produces race and not the other way around. Racial categories emerge from practical relations of domination, unlike ethnic groups, which are cultural forms of collective life that do not need to define themselves in opposition to others. Racial categories are neither abstract nor biological, but are social constructions initially imposed from without but soon after reconfigured from within through social struggles. As with all relations of domination, the original shared meanings attributed to one group are contrary to the shared meanings attributed to other groups and, thus, often exist as general dichotomies. This oppositional relation in meaning mirrors the hierarchical opposition of the groups in practical life—a fact that is neither natural nor contingent.

Masculinity and femininity, for example, are not natural categories: they are social roles within a social order and thus have a history just as racial groups do. Yet, like those of race, the social and symbolic relations of gender are not contingent. Indeed, masculinity and femininity exhibit a certain kind of logic that we find in every institutionalized form of social domination. Because gender is a way of hierarchically ordering human relations, the characteristics associated with the dominant group function to justify their domination. Group members are said to be, for example, stronger, more intelligent, and more moral and rational. Nearly every aspect of social life will reflect this, from the division of labor to the forms of entertainment.

In reality, the dominant group does not dominate because it is more virtuous or rational—indeed, the depth of its viciousness is limitless—but due to its dominance it can propagate the idea that it is more virtuous, rational, or civilized. “The colonial ‘civilizing mission,’” writes María Lugones, “was the euphemistic mask of brutal access to people’s bodies through unimaginable exploitation, violent sexual violation, control of reproduction, and systematic terror.”

The fundamental dependency of the oppressor on the oppressed is concealed in all ideologies of social domination. Although the very existence of the colonist, capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarch relies on the continuous exploitation of others, they propagate the idea of an inverted world in which they are free from all dependencies. This is the camera obscura of ideology that Karl Marx discusses in The German Ideology (1845–46). The supposedly natural lack of autonomy of the subordinated groups is, we are told, the reason for social hierarchy. Workers depend on capitalists to employ and pay them, women need men to support and protect them, people of color require whites to control and decide for them, and so forth.

Resistance to domination reveals the deception of this inverted world, destabilizing the practical operations of hierarchy and undermining its myths, for example of masculine sovereignty, white superiority, compulsory heterosexuality, and capital’s self-creation of value. Violence and various forms of coercion support these myths, but such violence would be ineffective if some groups were not socially, politically, and legally structured to be vulnerable to it.

While self-defensive practices can’t eliminate vulnerability, they can undermine it as a structuring principle of oppression.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Indeed, to be vulnerable to violence, exploitation, discrimination, and toxic environments is never the choice of the individual. Any radical liberatory agenda must therefore include among its aims the reduction of such group-differentiated vulnerabilities, which would strike a blow to many forms of social domination, including by not limited to race. This is not to say that vulnerability can be completely overcome. The social nature of our selves guarantees that the conditions that enable or disable us can never be completely under our control, and those very same conditions render us vulnerable to both symbolic and physical harm.

Turning specifically to consider self-defensive practices, while they cannot therefore eliminate vulnerability, they can reduce it for particular groups and undermine it at a structuring principle of oppression. Training in self-defense, writes Martha McCaughey in Real Knockouts (1997), “makes possible the identification of not only some of the mechanisms that create and sustain gender inequality but also a means to subvert them.”

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The Politics of Self-Defense

If we accept a social, historical, and materialist account of group and subject formation, and understand that groups are reproduced with the help of violence, both mundane and spectacular, then we can see why self-defense functions as more than protection from bodily harm. It will also be clear why self-defense is not external to questions of our political subjectivity. If we acknowledge that we are hierarchically organized in groups—by race, gender, and class, for example—which makes some groups the beneficiaries of structural violence and others disabled, harmed, or killed by it, we see how self-defense can either stabilize or undermine domination and exploitation.

Self-defense as resistance from below is a fundamental violation of the most prevalent social and political norms, as well as our bodily habits. As McCaughey writes: “The feminine demeanor that comes so ‘naturally’ to women, a collection of specific habits that otherwise may not seem problematic, is precisely what makes us terrible fighters. Suddenly we see how these habits that make us vulnerable and that aestheticize that vulnerability are encouraged in us by a sexist culture.” Organized examples of resistance to this structured vulnerability include the Gulabi or Pink Sari Gang in Uttar Pradesh, India; Edith Garrud’s Bodyguard suffragettes, who trained in jujitsu; as well as numerous queer and feminist street patrol groups, including the Pink Panthers. McCaughey calls these self-defensive practices “feminism in the flesh,” because they are simultaneously resisting the violence of patriarchy, while reconfiguring and empowering one’s body and self-understanding. We could similarly think of the self-defensive practices of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Deacons for Defense and Justice, Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement as anti-racist, as decolonization in the flesh.

Organized examples of self-defensive resistance include the Gulabi or Pink Sari Gang in India, Edith Garrud’s Bodyguard suffragettes, the Pink Panthers, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Deacons for Defense and Justice, Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement.

Although self-defense is not sufficient to transform institutionalized relations of domination, unequal distributions of resources and risk, or the experience of double-consciousness, it is a form of decolonization and necessary for other kinds of mobilizations. The praxis of resistance is also an important form of self-education about the nature of power, the operations of oppression, and the practice of autonomy. When conditions are so oppressive that one’s self is not recognized at all, self-defense is de facto insurrection, a necessary making oneself known through resistance. While the most common form of self-defense is individual and uncoordinated, this does not make it any less political or any less important to the struggle, and this is true regardless of the mind-set or intentions of those exercising resistance.

We must, however, also be attentive to how resistance, and even preparations for it, can instrumentalize and reinforce problematic gender and race norms, political strategies, or sovereign politics. A critical theory of community self-defense should reveal these potentially problematic effects and identify how to counter them. There is, for example, an influential pamphlet, The Catechism of the Revolutionist (1869), written by Sergey Nechayev and republished by the Black Panthers, which describes the revolutionist as having “no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name.” This nameless, yet masculine, figure “has broken all the bonds which tie him to the civil order.” But who provides for the revolutionist and who labors to reproduce the material conditions of his revolutionary life? Upon whom, in short, does the supposed independence of the revolutionist depend?

Although the machismo and narcissism here is extreme to the point of being mythical—George Jackson said it was “too cold, very much like the fascist psychology”—it does speak to a twofold danger in practices of resistance. The first danger is that self-defensive practices are part of a division of labor that falls along the traditional fault lines of social hierarchies within groups. Men have, for instance, too often taken up the task of community defense in all contexts of resistance, which has the effect of reproducing traditional gender hierarchies and myths of masculine sovereignty. Considerations of self-defense must therefore be intersectionalist and aware of the transformative power and embodied nature of resistance, as discussed above. The group INCITE!, for example, seeks to defend women, gender nonconforming, and trans people of color from “violence directed against communities (i.e., police brutality, prisons, racism, economic exploitation, etc.)” as well as from “violence within communities (sexual/domestic violence).”

The second danger is a commitment to the notion of a sovereign subject, which is the centerpiece of authoritarian political ideologies and motivates so many reactionary movements. The growing number of white militias, the sovereign citizen movement, as well as major shifts in interpretations of the Second Amendment and natural rights, are contributing to an increasingly influential politics of self-defense with a sovereign subject at its core. For this sovereign subject—whose freedom can only be actualized through domination—the absolute identification with abstract individual rights always reflects an implicit dependency on state violence, much the way Nechayev’s revolutionist implicitly relies on a community he refuses to acknowledge. The sovereign subject’s disavowal of the social conditions of its own possibility produces an authoritarian concept of the self, whose so-called independence always has the effect of undermining the conditions of freedom for others.

Although one objective of self-defense is protection from bodily harm, the social and political nature of the self being defended makes such resistance political as well. Self-defense can help dismantle oppressive identities, lessen group vulnerability, and destabilize social hierarchies supported by structural violence. The notion of a sovereign subject conceals these empowering dimensions of self-defense and inhibits the creation of self-reliant communities in which the autonomy of each is enabled by nonhierarchical (and non-sovereign) social relations being afforded to all.

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5 Star Review of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats on Shindig von Hersch
February 2018

5 stars

With the lifting of paper shortages and the breakdown of the pulp magazine distribution system after WWII, the more compact, mass market paperback became the prevailing format for fiction publishers – they were cheaply priced, handy on “spinner” racks everywhere, often poorly written and scandalously plotted. Also, like their pre-war pulp antecedents, they frequently had lurid, eye-catching cover art that broadly hinted at the often hastily composed, wildly exaggerated prose inside – more than 400 lovingly reprinted here in full colour.
This ambitious book, in scholarly and roughly chronological fashion, runs through three decades of public apprehension, alarm and allurement in The United States, Britain and Australia centred around an increasingly delinquent and defiant post- war youth culture along with the voracious genius of pulp publishers in exploiting every sensational trend to sell books. Co-editor Nette, in his introductory essay, quotes Susan Stryker from her prescient work Queer Pulp: “Pulp fiction acts as a vast cultural consciousness. Deposited there were fantasies of fulfilment as well as desperate yearnings, petty betrayals, unrequited passions, and unreasoning violence that troubled the margins of the longed-for world.”

With 70 in-depth author interviews (including Harlan Ellison and Lawrence Block), illustrated biographies and articles by 22 pop culture critics, this book goes full-disclosure with the sub-genre’s writers and their inspirations and, most interestingly, with the inside operations of their canny publishers and, usually lost in all the hustle, the real words they wrote. I found the sections titled Teenage Jungle, Groupies And Immortals and Love Tribes particularly accessible.

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