Join Our Mailing List

Bookmark and Share

  Home > News > Additional Stories

On the Fly in The Washington Post

The Washington Post

July 24th, 2018

In 1915, Charlie Chaplin, to the delight of moviegoers, created “The Tramp,” an enduring image of the sooty and bumbling yet lovable vagrant. Although distinctions were drawn between hobos and tramps, they were American migrants who hopped freight and passenger trains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some traveling in search of work, some others for less uplifting reasons.

“On the Fly,” an anthology billed as the first of its kind, guides us through the literature of “hobohemia” — the “jungles” (camps), “decks” (tops of passenger trains) and “main stems” (main streets) haunted by characters such as Sugar Butt Sam, Long Coat Lizy and Slicker Fastblack.

Editor Iain McIntyre has included writing from 1879 to America’s entry into the Second World War, by which time many migrants had taken to highways in automobiles. The tales and ballads demonstrate how hobos inspired both fear and envy in people trapped in domestic routines.

Popular portrayals such as Chaplin’s naïf belie just how literary hobos could be. Harry Kemp describes how he avoided jail a couple of times because sheriffs were awed “to find a tramp reading Shakespeare.” Meanwhile, in Glen Mullin’s white-knuckle tale of “riding the rods” — from his 1925 memoir “Adventures of a Scholar Tramp” — the author imagines the train passengers above him, who have no clue that “under their feet, hanging precariously to a rod, was a grimy hobo reading a socialistic pamphlet by Oscar Wilde.”

Women also rode the rails. Ben Reitman, writing as Boxcar Bertha, describes “the best known of the queens,” Lizzie Davis, who reminded him “of a great turbine engine, throbbing away. She had tremendous sex appeal, in spite of her hundred and seventy pounds and her ill-fitting, shabby gowns.”

Life on the road was not all ad­ven­ture. Many accounts, such as Edwin Brown’s 1920 book “Broke: The Man Without a Dime,” tell of severe deprivation, including one tragic image of an old man lying on the ground, covered in tobacco juice, while vermin scampered around, feasting on last night’s dinner scraps.

Men ride on the “pilot” or “cowcatcher” of a train in the 1890s. (Courtesy of PM Press)

Morley Roberts, one of several English writers who “tramped around” America in search of material, wrote in 1904 that “America is a hard place, for it has been made by hard men . . . the unconquerable rebel, the natural adventurer, the desperado seeking a lawless realm.” Starting in the 1890s, Jack Black spent grueling years as a thief and opium addict before becoming a librarian and writing such books as “You Can’t Win,” a model for William S. Burroughs’s “Junky.”

African American writer William Attaway — who would go on to write “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” with Harry Belafonte — describes horrendous conditions for a group of travelers in 1919, during the Great Migration. He reports that migrants “squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years.”

Hobos of all kinds avoided the American South, where they were often rounded up and placed in forced-labor camps.

Who were these men exactly? Some dreamed not of freedom but of “standing at their machines in their factories . . . lined up at the office window on pay day.” For others, life “on the fly” was not about excitement or employment. Writer and transient Henri Tascheraud describes those like him as “for the most part throwbacks, pure and simple. We don’t fit, and that is why we love vagabondage, and disdain respectability.”

McIntyre includes lyrics to folk ballads, protest songs and blues songs, the most affecting being those like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which yearns for a promised land “where all the cops have wooden legs . . . and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.”

The spirit of these roving authors lived on in Jack Kerouac’s restless dreamers, Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and Jack Nicholson’s drifter Bobby Dupea in “Five Easy Pieces.”

In an era when tent cities spring up in prosperous American metropolitan areas, the lives captured in “On the Fly” feel less comfortably distant than we might like. That is perhaps why the best of these classic accounts of “bumming around” retain all their simmering anger and desperate optimism.

Ernest Hilbert is a poet and dealer in rare books.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Iain McIntyre's Author Page

Whatever happened to those radical boomer activists from the '60s and '70s?

Boston, MA - 10/15/1969: Participants in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstration hold up peace signs while gathered on Boston Common on Oct. 15, 1969. (Paul Connell/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 180111_BS_003
The Boston Globe/File
Antiwar protesters on Boston Common in 1969.

The “Me Generation” propelled an age of dissent, and then seemed to lose interest. Or so the story goes. 

TOM WOLFE FAMOUSLY TAGGED the 1970s the “Me Decade.” The era marked the coming of age of the baby boomers, who had been outraged students in the late 1960s: for civil rights and feminism, against the war in Vietnam and police brutality. When the world didn’t change fast enough, they sought personal gain and fulfillment instead. The “Me Generation” gorged on the most prosperous period in American history and left a mess for subsequent generations to clean up. Over time they’ve become the “worst generation,” even a “generation of sociopaths.

Or so we’ve been told.

That’s a little harsh, say those who lived it. The “leading edge” boomers — those born between 1946 and 1955 — grew up with regular reminders of the existential threats that lurked beyond the cul-de-sac: “duck-and-cover” drills in case of nuclear attack, a president assassinated for the first time since 1901, civil rights protests and race rioting, and escalating involvement in Vietnam. Then came 1968. The year had just begun when the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s massive effort to inspire rebellion among the South Vietnamese and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement, launched on the Vietnamese new year in late January.


Lew Finfer was a high school senior in suburban New York in the spring of 1968, organizing marchers for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. For him, the reports out of Vietnam that year put the lie to “three things a lot of the boomers were raised with: that our government always tells the truth, that whenever we fight a war we’re completely right and moral, and that the communists are the evil, godless ones.” Finfer never stopped organizing, moving on to school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. Today, at 67, he serves as co-director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network in Dorchester.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.

“There’s a certain mythology that the boomers gave up on their idealism,” says Allen Young, who was a staff member of the Liberation News Service, the “underground” news organization founded in Washington, D.C., in 1967 by Amherst College grad Marshall Bloom and Boston University alum Ray Mungo. Like Finfer, Young, who was born in 1941, begs to differ with that assessment. “I know a number of people who became nurses, doctors, social workers, and therapists,” he says. Even many of the lawyers he knew ended up working on social and environmental issues.

In truth, most boomers did not join protests against Vietnam or anything else. The ’60s did see rallies of sizes unprecedented at the time, with 250,000 people attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and by some estimates 2 million turning out nationwide for 1969’s first Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (100,000 came to Boston Common). Relative to the population, the moratorium was probably the biggest protest the country had seen before last year’s Women’s Marches, which drew as many as 5 million Americans. The perception of the boomers as activists extraordinaire lingers, however, perhaps because they were the first generation whose iconic events were widely broadcast on television. Certainly, Doonesbury’s Zonker, Megaphone Mark, Joanie, and the rest of Garry Trudeau’s original Walden Commune residents have kept the cartoon archetypes of the boomers in the public eye.

BTM1582397:TET OFFENSIVE:HUE,SOUTH VIETNAM-FILE PHOTO 7FEB68-His own clothes drenched with his buddies blood, a US Marine looks up in disbelief as he tries to comfort his wounded friend during action at the Citadel wall at Hue, February 3, 1968. U1582397 CREDIT: BETTMANN ARCHIVE
A US soldier tends to a fallen comrade during the Tet Offensive.

One big spark for the era’s activism was the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 in Chicago, where antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy faced off against Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Tens of thousands of student protesters gathered on the city’s streets to demonstrate against the war. Many of them had responded to the call of organizers including the Yippies, the Youth International Party, founded by Worcester’s Abbie Hoffman and friends. The Yippies were notorious for pranks that included dumping fistfuls of money onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and promising to “levitate” the Pentagon. In Chicago, they would nominate a pig as their party’s presidential candidate. But they were also savvy manipulators of the still relatively new medium of television, and effective organizers.

“There was an incredible feeling there was going to be something happening” in Chicago, says Ron Pownall, now a Boston-based rock photographer, then a college student covering the protests as a cub photographer for the Chicago Tribune. “The tension was palpable.”


Christopher “Kit” Binns drove his Volkswagen Beetle from Princeton, where he was a student, to Chicago to support McCarthy. He found himself in the middle of the so-called Battle of Michigan Avenue. Binns, a South Shore native who is now a 71-year-old retiree living in Dorchester, remembers how the police began charging the crowd “like fish through the sea. They just kind of barged around like that all evening long.”

Pownall’s photos told the story as it unfolded, from the rows of helmeted police forming a human wall to the young man who was pummeled for pulling down an American flag. One image captures a bloodied protester on the ground, glasses in hand, while others tend to his injuries. Pownall learned months later that the injured man was Rennie Davis, another Yippie and one of eight protest organizers, including Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who would be tried for incitement to riot in the infamous Chicago Seven trial of 1969. (The eighth, Bobby Seale, was tried separately.) An independent report pinned the violence on a minority of officers who engaged in what “can only be termed a police riot.”

Televised nightly on the network news, the footage of Chicago police clubbing and tear-gassing young demonstrators revealed two Americas, literally lined up in opposition. There were the youth, who were being sent overseas to a war they did not support, and the authorities, many of them — such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover — men who had lived through the Great Depression, men who would not tolerate dissent. “I do remember Walter Cronkite looking straight into the camera with his tortoiseshell glasses,” says Judy Gumbo, who was a leader of the Yippies along with her late husband, Stew Albert. She recalls Cronkite commenting, “ ‘They’re beating our children.’ ”

0 WAS97:CAMPAIGN-HOTEL:WASHINGTON,20AUG96 - FILE PHOTO AUG68 - Chicago police and anti-war demonstrators fight on Michigan Avenue during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. As Chicago prepares to host the Democratic National Convention beginning August 26, local sites remember the riots and confusion that occurre d the last time the city hosted the Democratic National Convention.jw/CORBIS-BETTMANN-UPI REUTERS ++FOR ONE TIME EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITHIN 90 DAYS OF TRANSM ISSION++ Library Tag 07252004 National/Foreign
The New York Times
Police and protesters clash in Chicago in 1968.

At one point, as police were herding protesters into police wagons, the crowd began chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

“We knew it was true,” says Gumbo, “and it gave us confidence. We knew we were on the side of the righteous.” During the primaries, a majority of votes cast had been for antiwar candidates. But most delegates were assigned in party caucuses, and the Democrats nominated Humphrey to run against Richard Nixon.


After Chicago, boomers and their slightly older counterparts ramped up their demands for attention. Across Greater Boston, students seemed to be out in the streets as often as they were in the classroom. Campus buildings were occupied by students at Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College, where African-American students aired a list of grievances, bringing the aims of the Black Power movement to Chestnut Hill. At MIT, students engaged in a six-day standoff with officials in late fall 1968 when they created a “sanctuary” for a soldier who had deserted after turning against the war.

MIT student George Katsiaficas was the son of an Army man; he’d been considering military service himself until the war changed his mind. He was the only undergraduate MIT named to a blue-ribbon panel to evaluate the school’s innocuously named Instrumentation Laboratory, which researched technologies for NASA and the US Department of Defense. “It opened my eyes,” says Katsiaficas. “I had no idea that MIT was so directly involved in developing weapons systems.”

The research center was eventually spun off from the school as the independent nonprofit Draper Laboratory. Katsiaficas became an ardent protester, spurred both by his work on the panel and the death of a lacrosse teammate, Paul Baker, who’d joined the Marines and was killed in Quang Tri. Katsiaficas missed his graduation while serving a 45-day sentence at the Middlesex House of Correction in Billerica for “disturbing a school.” In graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, he studied with radical Marxist Herbert Marcuse, then came back to Boston to teach social science at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, publishing more than a dozen books on leftist politics. His next, The Global Imagination of 1968, is out next month.

“Even for people who were not against the war, those events revealed the character of the world,” says Katsiaficas. “Something about the world and the way it was perceived changed. . . . The United States I thought I knew was not the United States that existed. I was totally shocked, surprised, and horrified at what was on the evening news every night.”

BTM1608809:YIPPIE:WASHINGTON-FILE PHOTO 5OCT68-Before there were Yuppies, there were Yippies. Abbie Hoffman, leader of Youth International Party is arrested in Washington, October 5, 1968. U1608809 CREDIT: BETTMANN-UPI library tag 08272000 new england
bettman upi
Police in Washington, D.C., arrest Abbie Hoffman in 1968.

The unrest continued into the early 1970s. BU even canceled undergraduate finals and commencement in 1970, after a rash of fires set in school buildings. Violence created a rift between protesters who shunned aggression and those who believed it necessary for true change. Surveys have shown that protests, for all their drama, were supported by a small percentage of Americans, and they began to die down. The draft, a hot-button issue for activists, ended in 1973, and boomer activism began to shift to the Equal Rights Amendment, while the country as a whole was buffeted by the oil crisis and then stagflation. Some of the Yippies became Yuppies in the go-go 1980s — Jerry Rubin famously became a stockbroker. But Rubin also marketed a health drink made with bee pollen, ginseng, and kelp. It was called Wow!

Pownall thinks the number of boomers “who went that way, to the money side, is way less percentage-wise than it had been in previous generations. There were still a lot of people with liberal cred.” In fact, polls have shown that older boomers have consistently leaned Democrat, while those born after the mid-1950s, coming of age during the Carter and Reagan presidencies, have tended to be more conservative.

Yet even on campus in the 1960s, the boomers weren’t uniformly hippie. Reid Ashe covered the soldier-sanctuary incident as a reporter for MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech. Ashe, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, only attended protests as a reporter. “I certainly believed that the war was wrong, that things needed to change,” he says. But while some students “were committed to the movement,” of the students he knew at MIT, many more “were too busy doing other stuff, studying for the next exam.” Ashe became a managing editor at The Tech and then went into newspaper management.

He witnessed another side of boomer activism as president and publisher of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas in 1991, when the “Summer of Mercy” took over the city for six weeks of protests against three abortion clinics. Thousands of advocates on both sides showed up on the streets; by the end, more than 2,500 demonstrators were arrested. It was one example of conservative boomers adopting the language and tactics of social protest associated with their more liberal peers.

Somerville, MA--5/29/2018-- Photographer Ron Pownall poses for a portrait inside his studio in Somerville. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 061018BoomActivism Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Ron Pownall in his Somerville studio, with photos he took at the Chicago protests.

There was no single response to the events of the times, says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. She and her husband, Bill Skocpol, had married as students at Michigan State University and came to Cambridge in 1969 to do graduate work at Harvard. “People took different lessons from it all. For me, all those events cemented a lifelong commitment to social justice.”

She does think the ’60s and ’70s were a freer time for activism. “People were not as fearful then as they are now,” she says. “The atmosphere of students being afraid for their futures if they got involved in protest, that was not then.”

Some members of the generation have revisited their youthful spirit of protest since fellow boomer Donald Trump was elected president. They’ve been outspoken on Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, and shown up for the Women’s Marches, where thousands of boomer women joined their younger counterparts in donning pink “pussy hats.”

Boomers are supporting younger activists now. As Finfer sees it, these new generations are carrying on the healthy brand of skepticism the boomers introduced into the national discourse. Ask anyone from subsequent generations if they ever believed their government would always tell the truth, he says, “and they’ll look at you like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

In this new age of division and despair, Finfer still sees plenty of reasons to be hopeful. He points, for example, to the young people pushing for gun control laws in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Florida. It may be years before those young activists see any results, he says. “It’s not like they’re going to demonstrate every day forever. But that’s a major event some of them are passing through, the same way our generation had to deal with the Vietnam War and civil rights and so forth.

“Every generation has its idealism and people who live that in lots of ways, and obviously some people who fall short of that in lots of ways,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a choice between Mother Teresa and Jerry Rubin. There’s a lot of space in between.”

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to George Katsiaficas 's Author Page

A new bill aims to send masked Antifa activists to jail for 15 years

By Dakin Andone

Antifa activists could be jailed for up to 15 years for wearing masks under a bill introduced by a US congressman.
If passed, Bill HR 6054 would punish anyone wearing a mask or disguise who "injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates" someone else exercising a right guaranteed under the Constitution.
The title of the bill -- "Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018" -- makes it clear that Antifa activists are its intended target, but the bill's text never explicitly mentions them.

The bill, which was introduced by Republican Rep. Dan Donovan of New York last month, has drawn widespread condemnation from critics who claim it unfairly targets Antifa activists, while it could embolden the far-right demonstrators Antifa protests against.

"This is another draconian measure to actually criminalize dissent in the United States," said Scott Crow, a former Antifa organizer and author.

"Because the law, even if it doesn't explicitly state 'leftists who mask up,' that's who the largest potential target of the law is," he said, "far more than white nationalists."

The term "Antifa," short for "anti-fascist," is used to refer to a loose coalition of individuals with left-leaning political views that often fall outside of the mainstream Democratic Party's platform.

The group has no figurehead or official governing body, but members -- some of whom turn to radical or militant tactics to make their views known -- generally oppose the inequality of wealth by corporations and discrimination against marginalized communities. They often wear black and obscure their faces while protesting.

The Antifa movement's profile has significantly risen in recent years, especially after members clashed with self-described "white nationalists" in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer -- a day that ended in tragedy when a James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one demonstrator, Heather Heyer.

Crow said the bill is an attempt by lawmakers to avoid tackling the issue of hate speech and instead address a "symptom" of it by targeting protests.

"Instead of dealing with that, they'd just rather deal with this," he said, "which is to put a band aid on something."

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted about the bill on Tuesday, suggesting it advanced "authoritarianism."
"Two groups go to Charlottesville. A big group chants racist filth, wields semi-automatic assault rifles, fires a gun into a crowd & murders a woman with a car," he wrote. "A small group wears masks. It's the small group these Congressmen want to lock up for 15 years. Authoritarianism rises."

Unmasking the leftist Antifa movement
Donovan's office sent out a fact sheet that pointed out other instances in which Antifa activists exhibited violence, including an instance in February 2017 where they turned up to protest at a speaking event held by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulous at UC Berkeley.

Donovan's spokesman Patrick Ryan also pointed out that the bill would simply add a section to federal civil rights statutes to include a penalty for wearing a mask.

"My bill expands upon long-standing civil rights statutes to make it a crime to deprive someone of Constitutionally-guaranteed protections while masked or disguised," Donovan said in a statement sent to CNN.

"Americans have the natural right to speak and protest freely; it is not a right to throw Molotov cocktails and beat people while hiding behind a mask."

But regardless of whether the bill becomes law, Crow said it won't stop protesters from wearing masks.
"If they take away the right to mask up," he said, "people will still do it anyway to fight against authoritarianism in any form."

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to scott crow's Author Page

Repression & Resistance: From RNC 2000 to Trump

By Eric Laursen
The Fifth Estate
Summer 2018

Crashing the Party
was published three years ago, but it couldn’t be more timely in the age of Trump and Sessions. Kris Hermes’s book is an in-depth account of the legal saga that began with the repression and mass arrests of activists at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Much of the groundwork for the hyper-aggressive style of protest policing that’s since become common practice, and that reached a new intensity with the outlandish charges against activists at the Trump inaugural, was laid in Philly that summer. Fortunately, it was answered by new techniques of response by arrestees and a renaissance of legal collectives that carry resistance from the streets and police wagons to the jails and courtrooms.

Hermes, who threw himself into the legal campaign for the Philly RNC arrestees as part of the R2K Legal Collective, is an excellent storyteller. He lucidly teases out the many volatile elements that made the convention a powder-keg: the city’s extreme cop culture, the seething racial tensions encapsulated by the politically motivated incarceration of activist-journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the city’s splurge of taxpayer dollars to accommodate the orgy of influence-peddling that was the RNC, and the systematic demonization of protesters labeled violent by a compliant mainstream media.

He detaiLs tHe preparations by activists for a national convergence opposing the convention, and the efforts of the city and the national security state to stop them, from illegal surveillance and infiltration to unprovoked raids, to an extraordinary, secretly negotiated insurance policy immunizing the city from liability for actions such as false arrest, libel, and malicious prosecution.

From the beginning, anarchists were specifically targeted. One a davit submitted by the police listing organizations tagged for search and seizure included the blanket entry, “Anarchists.”
Inside the convention, George W. Bush was anointed Republican presidential nominee. Outside, the city’s insurance policy licensed police to engage in a free-for-all of beatings, preemptive arrests, harassment, and mass round- ups–420 arrests in total.

While the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized that protesters “acted as if they didn’t realize that breaking the law meant you go to jail,” much of the police tactics were blatantly illegal. Arrestees were detained sometimes for weeks and charged under a sealed a davit that was later revealed to contain next to no evidence.

What those arrested in Philadelphia and their fellow activists had going for them was the grim experience gained during the vast mobilization in Seattle against the World Trade Organization a year earlier.

In some detention facilities in Seattle, Hermes notes, WTO arrestees were “dragged across the floor, sometimes through broken glass, doused with pep- per spray, hogtied hand-to-ankle, and handcuffed tightly enough to cause bleeding.” Some were beaten unconscious.

Later, reports of sexuaL abuse (six counts) and threats of rape surfaced. e lack of support shown by the ACLU in Seattle and the efforts of some attorneys to get individual defendants to break ranks are still distressing to read about today. In 2000, they convinced activists of the need to form a legal collective in Philadelphia that wasn’t dependent on mainstream liberal organizations.

Also, many veterans of the Seattle actions who were arrested in Philadelphia were experienced at jail solidarity.

They and their comrades had good support from civil rights lawyers and their comrades on the outside were organized to provide support as long as a single activist was inside.

R2K Legal got busy raising bail, raising more funds, publicizing police and jail abuses, developing a media strategy, and building a movement to drop the charges. When the district attorney and mayor stood their ground, the collective and its attorneys worked to organize trial trainings and push for pretrial dismissals, some of which were obtained.

They researched and exposed the spectacularly biased judge who heard many of the cases and (un- successfully) tried to get him recused. “While it was a long-short legal strategy,” the recusal effort “became a political success story” by “giving the public a glimpse into the style of justice that gets meted out every day” in cities like Philadelphia, Hermes writes.

One felony arrestee, activist Kate Sorenson, was found to have been subjected to months of police surveillance and harassment prior to the RNC. She was acquitted. Ultimately, fewer than 20 of the over 400 arrestees were convicted, and none was sentenced to jail time.

The police abuses provoked a rash of civil lawsuits, resulting in settlements by the city amounting to $18 million (disclosure: this writer was deposed in one of the civil cases.) e monetary awards aside, was it worth it?

Sometimes, civil litigation exposes crimes by the authorities and results in some measure of reform; on the other hand, the process is long and exhaust- ing and taxes the limited resources of legal collectives and their allies, surely one of the aims of the State.

Yet, activists re ned their skills at jail and court solidarity and took them to other cities and street-level protests, including actions over the Iraq war and at later political conventions.
Crashing the Party is thorough— perhaps too exhaustive for many readers—but the record Hermes compiles is an indispensable part of our experience as activists against the State.

He doesn’t neglect the vast expansion of surveillance by police, the FBI, joint terrorism task forces, and other agencies as a result of Seattle, the RNC, and other mass mobilizations, when law enforcement branded anarchists and “summit hoppers” the nucleus of a new domestic terrorism.

All that expanded vastly after 9/11 and the formulation of the War on Terror. But the State response to the RNC protests undoubtedly was a watershed in making the use of its resources to suppress dissent, often at the behest of private interests, commonplace. Recent example: the suppression of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest community at Standing Rock.

The great question since the RNC has remained much the same: how to join mass protests, often by white radicals, more firmly and productively with existing local activism in communities of color and among impoverished populations.

Hermes makes a strong case that the real legacy of R2K is the proliferation of legal collectives over the succeeding decade, from Midnight Special in Oak- land to the People’s Law Collective and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City. These groups not only help arrestees to better leverage their position in the jails and courts, but to use those contexts to extend their activism and build ties to other victims of the system, something a more fragmented legal strategy, dictated by conventional defense attorneys, can’t accomplish.

Donald Trump and Je Sessions, his attorney general, are embarked on a vast (and underreported) project to harden the criminal injustice system and heighten suppression of disfavored communities.

Protest, accordingly, is ratcheting up, but so is repression. “The likelihood of the state conceding to protester demands depends on the amount of political pressure that movements can muster,” Hermes concludes.

A strategy for carrying activism onto the criminal injustice system’s own turf is more important than ever. Kris Hermes’s fine book shows us how legal collectives can continue to play a vital role.

Eric Laursen is an anarchist writer and activist living in Buckland, Mass. His most recent book is The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort (AK Press, 2018).

Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page

The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

Buy book now | Buy the eBook now | Back to Samuel Delany's Author Page

Insurgent Supremacists: Truthout Pick of the Week

In his new book, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, Matthew N. Lyons takes issue with the notion that the far right is a united force. Lyons dissects what is different and what is the same about groups that have varying visions of what is the priority in governance vis-à-vis the status quo of the state. The following excerpt is from the introduction to Insurgent Supremacists.

For people who thought the US far right was an irrelevant lunatic fringe, the 2016 presidential race seemed like madness. It was bad enough that the victor was a right-wing populist who called for excluding people from the country based on ethnicity or religion, advocated torture, boasted about sexually assaulting women, and encouraged his supporters to beat up dissenters at campaign rallies. But on top of that, his campaign received important help from a network of activists known as the alternative right or alt-right, who want to break up the United States into racially segregated “ethno-states.” Styling themselves “fashy goys” (fascistic non-Jews), alt-rightists bombarded social media with gas chamber jokes, rape and death threats against women, and internet memes that vilified both liberal multiculturalists and mainstream conservatives. The alt-right helped Donald Trump score upset victories over his Republican rivals and Democrat Hillary Clinton, gaining unprecedented visibility and attention in return. But alt-rightists were never committed Trump fans, and just a few months after he took office they were bitterly criticizing Trump for abandoning the “America First” nationalism of his campaign for a more conventional conservatism. Around the same time, many began to shift their focus from online activism to street protests and fighting.

Before 2015 or 2016, most mainstream reporters and political pundits had never heard of the alt-right, and they scrambled to figure out what the movement was and what it stood for. Because alt-rightists didn’t look or act like stereotypical Neo-Nazis, people accused them of trying to hide their white supremacist politics behind a “benign” label, even though in fact many of them went out of their way to sound as offensive and bigoted as possible. Because alt-rightists were explicitly white nationalist, many observers didn’t notice that they also promoted a misogyny so extreme that even many Neo-Nazis criticized it. And because some “anti-globalist” conservatives started using the alt-right label, many critics missed the distinction between fellow travelers and committed adherents — between those Trump supporters who wanted to reclaim control of the American republic for white Christian men and those who hoped for the republic’s collapse. Although media coverage of the alt-right gradually improved, this initial confusion underscored the need to rethink superficial, overgeneralized, and outmoded conceptions, and to recognize the far right as a dynamic, changing collection of movements.

This book is about far right politics in the United States. It is an effort to understand movements such as the alt-right: what they want, what they do, who they appeal to, and how they interact with other political forces. It is also an effort to place these movements in historical context, to analyze how and why they have developed over the past half-century, and how current circumstances affect their strengths and limitations.

The term “far right” needs clarification, since it has been used in many different ways. Depending on the user and the context, far right may refer to white supremacist ideology or hard-line conservatism, authoritarianism or laissez-faire economics, a fascist vision of a new order, or a reactionary drive to turn back the clock. Each of these concepts is relevant to the subject of this book to some degree, but none of them really describes what it is about.

Instead of focusing on a specific doctrine, my approach begins with a specific historical turning point: in the 1970s and 1980s, for the first time since World War II, rightists in significant numbers began to withdraw their loyalty from the US government. This marked a sharp break with the right’s traditional role as defender of the established order, as one of the forces helping economic and political elites to maintain social control. In my view, the resulting division between oppositional and system-loyal rightists is more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, economics, or other factors.

As an imprecise working definition (not for all times and places but for the United States today), “far right” is used here to mean political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and (b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system. This definition cuts across standard ideological divisions. It includes insurgent factions among both white supremacists (whose supremacist vision centers on race) and Christian rightists (who advocate social and political hierarchy based on gender and religion, among other factors). It also includes many Patriot movement activists, who may or may not advocate racial or religious oppression but who champion unregulated capitalism and the economic inequality it produces. The definition excludes system-loyal white supremacists, Christian rightists, and Patriot activists, as well as other rightists who want to roll back liberal reforms but leave the basic state apparatus in place. The definition also draws a line between the far right and radical leftists, who reject the existing political system but, at least in theory, seek to transform society based on egalitarian principles.

My analysis of the far right is based on a number of core premises:

The far right is made up of regular human beings…. Far right organizations attract and keep supporters because they speak to human hopes and fears, grievances and aspirations, and because they offer appealing explanations for big problems and confusing changes in society. Understanding the far right’s human appeal is important because it helps us to combat it more effectively and relate that struggle to the larger struggles for human liberation.

The far right grows out of an oppressive social order. The far right is often described as an extremist threat to democracy, yet the United States is not and never has been a democracy. It is a deeply unequal society where a tiny capitalist elite holds most economic and political power and multiple systems of dominance/subordination shape most human relations. These systems foster scapegoating and demonization of oppressed groups — and violence against them — by far right and mainstream forces alike, a dynamic that will not be eradicated as long as these systems remain in place.

This doesn’t mean that the United States is a dictatorship. It has always been a shifting mix of pluralistic openness and repression, where real political space has been won for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. Pluralistic space has provided an important tool for managing conflict and a safety valve for popular discontent. Yet those who seriously challenge the underlying structures of power risk jail or worse, and many people (especially low-income people of color) routinely face police harassment and the threat or reality of violence — up to and including death. Such political repression has increased during various crisis periods in US history and has been trending upward for the past several decades.

The far right is politically autonomous. While some liberals have glossed over the deep connections between far right politics and mainstream institutions, some leftists have made the opposite mistake by treating far rightists simply as tools of the ruling class. It is certainly true that economic or political elites have sometimes found white supremacist and fascist forces useful — for attacking the left or the labor movement, for example — but the relationship between them is at best ambivalent. In calling for the US political system to be abolished or broken up, far rightists do not speak for any significant faction of the capitalist elite, although that could change.

The US far right has a contradictory relationship with the established order, reinforcing it in some ways and attacking it in others. This tension is often expressed in a kind of double-edged ideology. On the one side, far right groups offer people a way to defend the relative social privileges and power that they enjoy over oppressed groups such as people of color, women, LGBT people, and immigrants, and speak to fears that traditional privileges have been lost or are under threat. But the far right also speaks to people’s sense of being disempowered and downtrodden by groups above them, by denouncing groups that they identify with elite power, such as the federal government, liberal intellectuals, global corporations, or Jewish bankers.

Far right ideology is not just about race. When people say “far right” they often mean white supremacist or white nationalist. There are several problems with this. For one thing, people who want a society dominated and defined by people of European descent don’t all necessarily want to overthrow or secede from the United States. And equating the far right with white nationalism leaves out important rightist forces that reject the legitimacy of the US political system but don’t put race at the center of their ideology. A prime example is the Christian right’s hardline faction — embodied most clearly in Christian Reconstructionism — which wants to replace the US government with a full-scale theocracy based on biblical law. In addition, while all major far right currents in the United States are predominantly white, some have made real efforts to recruit people of color, and these efforts could grow.

Far right politics don’t stand still. The Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher commented once that after World War I, many German leftists thought the main danger from the right was going to be efforts to restore the monarchy. They were blindsided when the main rightist danger turned out to be a movement that had no interest in restoring the monarchy, but instead carried a red flag and put both “Socialist” and “Workers” in the name of its organization — the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazis.

One of the most striking features of the US far right over the past half-century has been its repeated efforts to develop new doctrines, arguments, strategies, and forms of organization. As an example, many opponents assume that far rightists remain oriented toward classical fascism’s vision of a strong state and a disciplined, top-down political organization. In reality huge swaths of the far right have abandoned this approach and have embraced some form of political decentralism, ranging from the Neo-Nazi-based “leaderless resistance” strategy to Christian Reconstructionism’s vision of a locally based theocracy enforced through the small-scale institutions of church and family.

The far right presents multiple kinds of threats. In the short term, it’s extremely unlikely that far rightists could seize power and bring about the kind of society they envision. While this cannot be ruled out in the longer term, there are several more immediate reasons to take the far right seriously. First, far rightists carry out harassment and violence against targeted groups, and they encourage other people to do the same. Second, far rightists create more space for system-loyal forces to intensify their own bigotry, scapegoating, and violence, both by offering an example for system-loyal groups to learn from, and also by providing an “extreme” example that helps more “moderate” versions look legitimate by comparison. Third, far rightists can exploit popular grievances to draw support away from left-wing liberatory alternatives. Fourth, far rightists can infect the left itself with their poisonous ideas or recruit leftists to work with them.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission

Buy book now | Buy the eBook now | Back to Matthew Lyon's Author Page

Donald Trump Uses Right-Wing Populism to Unite Divergent Groups

By Mark Karlin

July 8th, 2017

No, the right wing is not a monolithic force. One of the key points Matthew N. Lyons details in his book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire is that the right wing is composed of groups with different historical roots. Trump, Lyons argues in this interview, is a right-wing populist.

Mark Karlin: Why is it important to break the far right in the United States into distinctive components?

Matthew K. Lyons: Because different branches of the far right represent different types of threats. They have different social bases, target different scapegoats, pursue different strategies, and have different strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these differences helps us fight them more effectively.

For purposes of analysis in Insurgent Supremacists, I define the US far right as encompassing those political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural, desirable or inevitable; and (b) reject the legitimacy of the existing political system. That cuts across a lot of political divides. Many far rightists put race at the center of their program, but others focus more on religious doctrine, or gender or a more generic form of elitism. Some far rightists advocate paramilitary organizing while others focus on electoral activism, or building community institutions, or a “metapolitical” transformation of cultural norms and assumptions. Some sections of the far right are working-class oriented while others have a base that’s predominantly middle class or professional. Some recruit whole families while others are only interested in men.

Matthew N. Lyons.Matthew N. Lyons.PM Press

It’s not just the differences and divisions within the far right that are important, but also the interactions and creative tensions between different factions. Every far-right upsurge in the US over the past 40 years has been powered by different rightist currents coming together. In the 1980s, the convergence between Klan and Nazi forces — which had distrusted each other for half a century — gave us the modern white nationalist movement. In the 1990s, the explosion of Patriot/militia groups was fueled by a new mix of white nationalism, Christian Reconstructionism, John Birch-style conspiracism and gun rights ideology. Over the past decade, the rise of the “alt-right” has followed the same dynamic.

Where does the “alt-right” fit in?

The “alt-right” is the newest major far right current to emerge in the United States. It started to cohere around 2010, when Richard Spencer founded the online journal to foster intellectual debate and discussion among right-wing critics of mainstream conservatism. A lot of different ideological ingredients have gone into the mix, but some of the most notable ones have been paleoconservatism (a dissident branch of US conservatism that has advocated economic nationalism and white Christian cultural dominance and opposed most US military interventions abroad), the European New Right (a high-brow initiative to rework fascist ideology that started in France in the late 1960s) and the manosphere (an online anti-feminist subculture that has fostered some of the most virulent misogyny, in both theory and practice). White nationalism has always been a dominant force in the “alt-right,” and at this point, those “alt-rightists” who didn’t embrace white nationalism have apparently all left the movement. Both Nazi and non-Nazi versions of white nationalism are represented.

A key feature that sets the “alt-right” apart from earlier far-right movements is its emphasis on web culture, social media and the use of memes. Neo-Nazis have pioneered in the use of computer networks and information technology since the 1980s, but the “alt-right” started out by developing a major online presence and only later started to form member organizations and hold physical rallies. “Alt-rightists” got very skilled at using political irony and mounting meme campaigns, such as the #cuckservative campaign in 2016, which significantly helped Donald Trump in the presidential primaries by attacking his main Republican competitors. Borrowing a tactic from the manosphere’s Gamergate campaign, “alt-rightists” also barraged political opponents with vicious online harassment, such as flooding their inboxes with rape and death threats.

The “alt-right” has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, through a combination of internal failings and external pressures, and it’s a lot weaker and more isolated than it was when Trump was elected. But it’s had a lasting impact, not only by helping to put Trump in the White House, but also by fueling supremacist violence and injecting supremacist ideology into mainstream discourse. And even if the “alt-right” itself never recovers, it’s likely that sooner or later we’ll see a resurgence of another far-right movement that builds on its example, promoting similar ideas in different form.

Why do you think there are so many different perceptions of fascism?

To some extent, it’s because fascists have never developed an agreed-upon body of political theory the way Marxists, anarchists, liberals and even conservatives have done. Mussolini declared that fascists were more concerned with action than with doctrine, which has misled some critics into thinking that fascism doesn’t stand for anything except grabbing power and brutalizing people. But opponents also perceive fascism differently because of their different starting points, different ways of understanding the world. Is fascism fundamentally an expression of “hate,” a mass psychology of exclusion? Is it an outgrowth of capitalism, or even a “stage” of capitalism in decline, as many Marxists have claimed? Or is it, as some conservatives have argued, essentially “big government” run amok?

People on both the left and the right have often used “fascism” more as a political epithet, a way to denounce your opponents, than a term of analysis. There’s a long tradition of liberals and leftists denouncing every repressive move by right-wing politicians as “fascist,” from Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts to George W. Bush’s “war on terror” to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. To me, all of these are actually examples of authoritarian conservatism, which is a top-down impulse to defend the established order and ruling-class interests. I see fascism as an outgrowth of an organized mass movement that wants to sweep away established institutions and impose a new kind of supremacist order. Fascism may cut a deal with established elites, but is at root an autonomous force with its own agenda, not a ruling-class puppet. Contrary to popular usage, fascists are not the only ones who impose dictatorships, and they are not the only ones who carry out genocide.

Are many far right groups populist in nature?

Yes, in the United States, pretty much all of them are populist to one degree or another. I follow political scientist Margaret Canovan’s approach in defining populism as an effort to rally “the people” around some form of anti-elitism. There are a lot of different versions of populism, some of which have positive elements. But right-wing populism, as Chip Berlet and I and others have argued, is a subcategory in which anti-elitism is combined with a drive to bolster the oppression, exclusion or annihilation of one or more oppressed or marginalized groups. In addition, the anti-elitism that right-wing populists promote is distorted, in that it diverts people’s anger away from the actual systems of power (such as capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy) onto a scapegoat (such as “globalist elites,” or “liberal intellectuals” or “Jewish bankers”).

There have been many right-wing populist movements in US history, but most of them have been system loyal, in the sense that they have not really called the established political order into question. The far right of recent decades is part of a larger right-wing populist upsurge, which regards the limited gains made by oppressed social groups since the 1960s as the result of a plot by “sinister elites” to undermine Western civilization. There are different versions of this narrative — some racial, some religious, some economic, and so on. System-loyal right-wing populists essentially argue that the sinister elites can be put in their place through reforming the existing system, while far rightists believe that the system is beyond repair and a political revolution is needed — a revolution of the right, an insurgency to impose a new supremacist order.

What are the relationships between national security forces, law enforcement and the paramilitary right?

This is a complex story and delving into it is one of the elements that sets Insurgent Supremacists apart from most books about the US far right. There’s a long history of federal agencies colluding with — or actively sponsoring — right-wing violence against people of color, organized labor and the left. For example, in the early 1970s, federal agencies sponsored right-wing organizations in the Chicago area and southern California that carried out break-ins, physical attacks and assassination attempts against leftists. In 1979, an FBI informer and an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms both helped plan an operation in which neo-Nazi and Klan groups murdered five members and supporters of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Candidate Trump got more help from far rightists than any other major presidential candidate in living memory.

But when right-wing paramilitaries have turned against the state, federal agencies have cracked down hard on them. In the 1980s, security forces smashed The Order, a neo-Nazi group that had issued a declaration of war against the “Zionist Occupation Government” in Washington, and rounded up members of half a dozen other armed fascist organizations. In the 1990s, the FBI created a phony neo-Nazi organization called the Veterans Aryan Movement to help it gather intelligence about genuine far-right groups — a classic counterinsurgency tactic. The federal government has also sometimes used far-right violence as a useful scapegoat to justify increases in state repression. For example, the Clinton administration used the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to help push through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which civil liberties advocates have excoriated. Yet in recent years, federal security forces’ responses to the paramilitary right have been largely reactive, inconsistent and even passive. At the Bundy Ranch confrontation in 2014, federal officers backed down when confronted by armed Patriot movement activists pointing guns at them, and the government waited almost two years before bringing any charges for the incident.

This kind of cautious response partly reflects pressure from conservatives, but it may also point to awareness that federal government efforts to control the paramilitary right have sometimes backfired — spectacularly. In the 1960s, FBI infiltration of Ku Klux Klan groups (carried out not to end racist violence, but to bring to heel a heavily armed network operating outside government control) significantly weakened the Klan in the short term, but it massively discredited the Bureau in the eyes of white supremacists, and helped push many of them to embrace revolutionary, far-right politics. The 1992 assault on the home of white supremacist Randy Weaver — in which federal agents shot to death Weaver’s teenage son and gunned down his wife while she was holding their baby — helped spark the rise of the Patriot movement as a reaction against fears of government tyranny.

Federal security forces do their job clumsily at times and skillfully at others, are subject to a variety of internal biases and external pressures, and have to contend with shifting political circumstances. Fundamentally, however, their purpose is to protect ruling-class power. Broadly speaking, paramilitary rightists serve that purpose when they defend the existing order, and clash with that purpose when they seek to overthrow it.

How does Trump fit in with the history of insurgent supremacists in the United States?

I see Donald Trump as a right-wing populist who is system loyal, but whose rise is symbiotically connected to the far right. Trump has skillfully appealed to the double-edged sense of grievance that many Americans feel — a fear that their traditional privileges have been or are being eroded, coupled with an anger and resentment at economic, political and cultural elites above them. Many successful US politicians have done this, but few of them have opposed the political establishment as squarely as Trump did, and few of them have leaned on far-right support the way he has. Candidate Trump got more help from far rightists, especially the “alt-right,” than any other major presidential candidate in living memory. And in turn, his campaign helped “alt-rightists” gain visibility, media access and a degree of legitimation they would never have had otherwise. Several of the advisers Trump picked for his administration echoed the “alt-right” to varying degrees. Some of them (such as Steve Bannon) have left, but others (such as Stephen Miller) are still there.

Most “alt-rightists” supported Trump’s candidacy because of his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant positions, because he repudiated standard taboos (for example, advocating torture, calling for violence against political opponents and bragging about sexual assault) and because he made establishment conservatives look like fools. In the early days, long before anybody thought he could win, “alt-rightists” saw him as somebody who could destroy the Republican Party. Their view of Trump was essentially: He is not one of us, but he is useful to our cause, because he can buy us time and open up more space for us to get our message out. Since the inauguration, “alt-rightists” have applauded some of Trump’s moves, but they’ve also been frustrated and alienated by some of his actions (such as his missile strikes against Syria) and what they see as his capitulation to the conservative establishment on many issues.

As many “alt-rightists” have understood clearly from the beginning, Donald Trump is not a far rightist. His policies are racist but not white nationalist (because he doesn’t advocate a white ethno-state and the mass expulsion of people of color) and authoritarian but not fascist (because he wants to suppress opponents but doesn’t aim to impose one totalitarian ideology on all spheres of society). Also, unlike fascists, he did not build an independent organization, but instead cobbled together an elite coalition of “America First” nationalists and mainstream conservatives, and over time the latter have mostly come out on top. Despite some inconsistent steps away from the establishment line on free trade and foreign policy, Trump’s main impact has been to intensify conventional conservative policies, such as deregulating industry, making the tax system even more regressive and making life even harder for undocumented immigrants.

To be clear, Trump isn’t just more of the same. He builds on his predecessors (Republican and Democrat), but he is qualitatively worse than them. Trump is accelerating the decline of the United States’ liberal-pluralist system (often mislabeled “democracy”), and his rise has helped to mobilize popular forces that have the potential to turn toward more insurgent forms of right-wing politics. In this situation, it’s important for leftists to join with others in opposing the growth of repression, demonization and supremacist violence. At the same time, it’s also important for us to strengthen and amplify our own critiques of the established order, our own visions of radical change — and not let far rightists present themselves as the only real opposition force.

Progressive Pick

Insightful books, DVDs, and other products hand-picked weekly by Truthout staff. By purchasing a Progressive Pick you are supporting Truthout's non-profit mission.

Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire

There are many different strains to far right groups in the US. To take on their insidious challenge, Matthew Lyons educates us about their histories and ideologies.
Truthout Store
Copyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles (ranging from the failed 'war on drugs' to reviews relating to political art) for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout's Progressive Picks of the Week. Before linking with Truthout, Karlin conducted interviews with cultural figures, political progressives and innovative advocates on a weekly basis for 10 years. He authored many columns about the lies propagated to launch the Iraq War.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission

Read more at Truthout

Buy book now | Buy the eBook now | Back to Matthew Lyon's Author Page

The Dark Side of the Silicon Gold Rush

Q&A with Richard Walker, author Pictures of a Gone City

By Richard Florida
July 3rd, 2018

Pictures of a Gone City i
s the culmination of the life’s work of Richard A. Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. A student of the great Marxist geographer David Harvey, Walker brings a profoundly historical approach to his scholarship. His lens spans economics, urban design, politics, and the environment, to name just a few of his interests.

Walker’s new book is urban geography for our times. It illuminates the basic crisis and contradiction of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is an example of capitalism at its most innovative and dynamic, and simultaneously the site of severe inequality and failing public policies and infrastructure. Walker has lived and worked in the Bay Area for most of his life. I was delighted to speak with him about topics ranging from the real geographic definition of the Bay Area, to its history of innovation (stretching back to the Gold Rush days), to the contemporary movements that might help the Bay Area reclaim its radical roots.

One of the things I like most about your book is its historical perspective. The Bay Area has always been a much desired and relatively expensive place to live. What’s different now?

In the 1950s postwar era, when the Beats were going strong, and right through the 1960s, San Francisco was remarkably cheap, actually, because it wasn’t as in demand as New York. So people could find places to rent in North Beach, which now is regarded as very luxurious. What [happened] is, around 1970, there’s an inflection point where prices in California in general take off and start to outrun most of the rest the country. And then there’s another inflection point around the 1990s.

Trying to explain this, of course, is what everybody’s got their pet theory about—but it’s not simple. Certainly, it has to do with the unbelievable success of California, and particularly with the success of the Bay Area, which has outrun California. California created enormous numbers of jobs for a very long time, and then it’s generated massive wealth, particularly here in the Bay Area.

That means that the upper 20 percent of the population have an enormous amount of disposable income they can spend on rent, [so] they’ve bid the rents up for the desirable parts of the city.

What is it about the area that allowed it to create such an advantage in high-tech industries?

It’s always had a very high component of skilled labor. It always had tons of capital—it really was the number-two financial center in the country since World War II. And that had always supported new industries. There’s a certain social culture of openness and opportunity. It really goes back to the Gold Rush. This is something that runs very deep in the Bay Area, and California as a whole.

The Bay Area is a major tech economy, but not a one-industry economy, the way steel was to Pittsburgh or autos were to Detroit. Talk more about that breadth.

It’s much more on the New York model or even the Chicago model than some of these more one-horse places. It is “Tech Town,” the most dominated by the tech industry of any place in the world. But at the same time, it has this long history of manufacturing, especially related to agriculture, as well as mining and canning and food production.

Because of higher education and research, it developed biotech ahead of everybody. This is where the beginnings of gene splicing [were] done. So we have this huge medical-tech and health-service complex; [a] higher-education complex. And then a surprising amount of logistics, because of the Port of Oakland. San Francisco was the biggest port on the West Coast up until World War II. And then Oakland took over as one of the major container ports for many years, with all the associated warehousing and transport. That’s still pretty big.

And the tech industry is itself different because it is so fertile in terms of the potential uses of electronics and chips—that we could go from chip-making to the internet is a huge leap. And then you could leap into the software of the internet and social media and all the rest.

One of the things you also write about is how big and fractured the Bay Area is: 125 municipalities sprawling out in every direction—with its own Inland Empire. Give us a picture of what this region really looks like.

New York absorbed its challenger in Brooklyn in a way that San Francisco never was able to do with Oakland; and then Silicon Valley pops up, and so you have a third head. The book Edge Cities used the outer East Bay as one of the prime cases of the Edge City along the 680 corridor, with the decentralization of offices that was going on there starting in the 1980s. And now we have suburbs going all the way into Central Valley. We’re merging with Stockton and even Sacramento.

Even people here are just waking up to this. But it’s important to see that we have an Inland Empire, to see the whole and not just the parts. It’s important for people elsewhere to realize how enormous this place is. It’s the fourth biggest city [metro area] in the United States after Chicago.

In your book, you talk about the perils of prosperity. You outline the dynamism of the Bay Area and the problems that come with it—unaffordability, inequality, poverty, sprawl, environmental degradation, and more.

I call it the Communist Manifesto problem. Marx and Engels write one of the great paeans to capitalism in that statement. It has produced wonders far beyond any previous civilization—massive potential for well-being. And at the same time, tremendous immiseration of the working people, disruption, “all that is solid melts into air,” modernity that undermines all fixed conditions.

I try to keep juggling the two sides. I think it’s too easy—and I think the left often falls victim to this, and I’m on the left so I’m saying this sympathetically—to go for the low-hanging fruit. Like, the emptying out of Detroit is catastrophic, how could a country could let this happen?
But in this case, I want to show that this is the center of the dynamism of capitalism today. As one person put it, “Tech makes capitalism fun again.” And there is a sense of that. I think you have to recognize the excitement of this industry, the excitement that modernity has always generated.

My challenge is to say, “Okay, given that this place is so successful, perhaps the most successful place on Earth certainly in the last decade, what’s still wrong and how could it go so wrong?” How could you have this gross inequality, how could you have so many working people earning minimum wage? A quarter of them are earning minimum wage; a third of them can’t earn a living wage. And then the homeless situation is just beyond immoral. Perhaps the most disgusting homeless situation anywhere in this pretty heartless country. And so that’s what I do, is take it apart and show both sides.

So what are the things that have gone badly wrong in the Bay Area?

We are one of the leading generators of inequality, which is hidden because we look at our high median income—the highest in the world of any big city—and say, “Wow, that’s great.

Capitalism lifts all boats.” On the top you see that most of the big boats are bobbing around quite nicely, steaming ahead. But then the little boats are getting swamped.

The next thing is housing. The housing crisis is really grotesque here. Hundreds of thousands of people are being priced out of the city and having to move either far out into the Central Valley, where you’re 100 miles away from the center, or they give up and go to Las Vegas or Reno or Oregon, or wherever the possibilities seem better for ordinary working folks.

“You look at the revival of San Francisco and many of the centers, like Oakland. But at the same time, urban sprawl goes on forever, with all the negatives of that.”

Urban sprawl—that has not been solved at all. You look at the revival of San Francisco and many of the centers, like Oakland. But at the same time, urban sprawl goes on forever, with all the negatives of that, which I discuss in a whole chapter on environmental impacts, because that is still eating land like crazy and eating resources and water, and we’re dealing with its air pollution.

Another big thing is the ideology of the tech industry. The siren song of the innovators and of the tech moguls saying that they’re creating this new world, a much better world, which we’re all discovering is not the utopia that we were promised. Far from it: In some respects it’s a nightmare.

The last thing is, we have a long and pretty honorable tradition of progressive politics in the Bay Area. And the question is, where’s that going? Even though we’re still the bluest of the blue, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our radical edge, our progressive edge, is doing well. A lot of that has been blunted.

You made the point that tech made capitalism fun. But it doesn’t feel like fun anymore. As you say, it seems to be turning into a nightmare for many people and communities. We can all sense the growing backlash against Big Tech. What is causing this shift in the Bay Area, specifically?

I think it’s a problem Americans have always had, and illusions that we’ve always had about the promise of technology. We want to believe that technology will deliver us from evil without cost, which never turns out to be what you hoped. It may be wonderful and dynamic and deliver a lot of goods. But it delivers a lot of social change, social upheaval, new kinds of problems that you never imagined. And that’s what we’re getting: a lot of the unexpected consequences.

Americans have always thought that the market delivered competition and that we’re a country of small business. Now you may have a proliferation of little-guy startups, which seems very dynamic and kind of fulfills the American Dream, but what happens of course if the industry is really successful [is] a few of these guys turn into corporate giants like Google and Facebook, and then they start gobbling up the little guys.

That becomes the endpoint of a startup—it’s not to enter the market and compete, but to end up being acquired by a corporate giant, and you become a multimillionaire. You’re delivered your cut of the goodies, but it doesn’t deliver the promised competition, and instead you end up with these mega-monopolies who made most of their money off advertising. What could be more boringly American and less like the promised land than simply having to deal all the time with electronic billboards?


Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a University Professor and Director of Cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and a Distinguished Fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Richard Walker's Author Page

The Young C.L.R. James in Against the Current

By Jason Schulman
Against the Current
July-August 2018

The Making of C.L.R. James

The Young C.L.R. James:
A Graphic Novelette
Illustrated by Milton Knight
Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware
PM Press, 43 pages, $6.95 paper.

THERE’S LITERALLY NO reason for any socialist to not pick up this illustrated novellete, even if you’ve already read all of C.L.R. James’ writings and have read the biographies and studies of his works written by Paul Buhle (the novellete’s co-editor), James D. Young, Kent Worcester, Frank Rosengarten and others.

This pamphlet is a delight, a charming caricature drawn in a whimsical style by Milton Knight, an artist who’s worked on everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics to World War 3 Illustrated.

As one would expect from its title, The Young C.L.R. James mainly concentrates on the relatively little-known details of James’ early life. It also has much to say about culture in early-20th century Trinidad, then a British colony, such as the annual carnival in Tunapuna, described as “[a] celebration of West Indian Cultures” and “[a] festival of sport, music — and debauchery” which the British authorities consistently failed to repress.

This allowed for “a period of physical and emotional release” under “the incredible color-obsessed ‘order’” imposed by Britain. James himself finds escape from both racist colonialism and the “armor” of his household’s “respectability” though calypso music, magazines and literature, and — as anyone who’s read his book Beyond A Boundary knows well — cricket. (Young James’ growing obsession with cricket quickly makes his parents less than happy.)
Even as he studies British history, enters Queens Royal College and acts as a “good British subject,” James soon finds himself becoming a literary “bohemian” within the black Beacon Group, all of whom are devotees not only of calypso but the American jazz of Louis Armstrong.

A section of the pamphlet depicts the rise and fall of big band jazz and specifically swing dancing, which ends as a mass phenomenon with the closing of the Savoy Ballroom in 1958.
A text piece points out that James was a swing dance devotee, attracted to its “promise of freed and rhythmic motion” and presaging the insights into American popular culture found in his book American Civilization, written in 1950 though not published until 1992.

The increasingly radicalized James declares that “Blacks would be fools and worse to go through life as imtiation whites,” and while in London he writes Toussaint L’ouverture, an explicitly political three-act play about the best-known leader of the Haitian Revolution of 1791. James is surprised to find that the “Stage Society” will only produce it provided that renowned singer Paul Robeson accepts the leading role, which he does.

Perhaps ironically, Robeson, whom James greatly admired, would become a devout supporter of the Soviet Union, while James, in the heterodox wing of American Trotskyism, would denounce the USSR as totalitarian state capitalism.

James’ opposition to Stalinism is mentioned in the novellete’s opening text piece but is not depicted via graphics. Aside from Knight’s excursion into swing music history, The Young C.L.R. James ends with the first performance of Toussaint L’ouverture in 1936, even though James had become a Trotskyist in 1934.

Of course, there are many other sources where one can study James’ Trotskyist “career” as well as his later development into a forerunner of what was later labeled Autonomist Marxism. Biographies of James abound, and there’s little reason for another to appear.

Instead, The Young C.L.R. James does an excellent job at performing its particular task — as its co-editors describe, explaining “how such a universal mind could have grown from humble origins in a backwater of the British Empire.” It’s also a fun read.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Paul Buhle's Author Page | Back to Milton Knight's Author Page | Back to Lawrence Ware's Author Page

Q&A with Richard Walker, author Pictures of a Gone City in the San Jose Mercury News

By Kate Murphy
San Jose Mercury News
June 28th, 2018

The geographer Richard Walker is out with an unflinching examination of the San Francisco Bay Area, the epicenter of the tech boom — and he opens the book with a poem published more than a half-century before the iPhone:

“The world is a beautiful place / to be born into / if you don’t mind happiness / not always being / so very much fun / if you don’t mind a touch of hell / now and then / just when everything is fine / because even in heaven / they don’t sing / all the time,” it begins.

The work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — “Pictures of a Gone World” — has always resonated with Walker, and it inspired the title of his new book: “Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The 394-page volume is both literally and thematically heavy, discussing the winners and losers of the latest tech boom along with themes of racial and economic segregation, displacement, urban sprawl, the foreclosure crisis and today’s housing crisis. The retired UC Berkeley geography professor said he wrote it with the “educated public” in mind, people “who want to figure out what’s going on” in this prosperous, yet turbulent time.

We caught up with Walker, who still lives part-time in Berkeley, about his latest book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: What do you mean by “Gone City?”

A: There’s a book of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who opened City Lights bookstore and was one of the founding members of the beat movement in San Francisco in the early ‘50s. And there’s one poem in that collection that I have always loved. It speaks to the present reality. It speaks to the contradiction of living in a place that’s kind of fantastic — “gone,” in the lingo of the post-war era, meant good, but it also meant that it’s disappeared, a city that isn’t there anymore. Ferlinghetti’s poem speaks to that sense of being in a place and enjoying the life and the scene of a city as the writer moves through it, and at the same time having to step over homeless people. The poem is written in these couplets, of the world is a beautiful place if you don’t see the problems around you.

Q: There is one line where you talk about “the entire urban fabric being made over by forces beyond popular control and the powers of local government.” You write, “By the time it settles down again, the city will never be the same.” How so?

A: Having lived long enough and being an observer of this city since I was a teenager, I’ve been impressed, again and again, by the radical changes every decade or so. Every time there’s one of these major growth booms, the city is turned upside down. And then we forget. … We take the city again as normalized, we get used to it. And especially as young people come of age or people move into the Bay Area, you take the city as you find it and you think “Oh, that’s the way it’s always been.”

Q: You also take aim at a popular narrative that the fundamental problem behind the Bay Area’s high housing costs is artificially low housing supply, and that local restrictions on new development are largely to blame. Why is this wrong?

A: It’s wrong for a couple of reasons. It takes developers literally years to get a project off the ground, and that’s not the fault of regulation. It’s the reality of what it takes to assemble properties in a private market, to get financing, to get your architects and engineers and draw up the plans, organize your contractors, especially in a time where everyone wants contractors, and eventually get the darn thing built. Everybody knows it takes two, three, four, maybe five years. So the idea that a housing market can just respond like that if people get out of the way is nuts, it’s just completely false.

The second problem is that it ignores what’s going on right now, which is one of the greatest booms in the history of the Bay Area, in a city that is one of the most fast growing and the richest in the world. When you have a place that’s growing extraordinarily fast, extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily unequal and then to ignore all that and say, “Well the problem is the supply” — no, the problem is the demand, the demand generated by a boom, possibly a bubble, this extraordinarily high average income and enormous wealth at the top. In that kind of hot-house situation, prices rise very fast, there are extreme bottlenecks of supply that are generated by this exaggerated demand, and prices go through the roof.

Q: You also write that the housing crisis has produced a “flurry of policy debate and new legislation — most of which is based on erroneous ideas about how property markets work.” What do you mean by that?

A: This simple idea that if you just clobber all local governments and all local regulations, really come down hard on them, that will release this massive, pent-up supply, that’s what’s wrong. If you look at permitting in places like San Francisco or Berkeley you’ll find that there’s actually hundreds of permits for new units that are already approved but haven’t been built. It’s not like all local governments have been restraining the caged tiger of the developers.

Most local planning regulations actually make a lot of sense: Where are you going to build the building? How big is the building? Does it fit the neighborhood? … However it is true that there are a number of exclusive enclaves — like Palo Alto, Atherton, Orinda, most of Marin County — that could accommodate a lot more apartments and density, and they refuse.

Q: You predicted that the peak of the real-estate market would be in 2017, but prices are still going up. Will it be in 2018?

A: Looks like I’m wrong again. It peaked the first time in 2015, started softening in 2016, then it took off again in 2017 and there were signs of softening in 2018, but prices seem to still be going up. There have been repeated debates amongst economists and stock-market watchers over the the last three years about when is the next recession going to hit. Because it will, it always does — that’s the nature of capitalism, and there’s no getting away from it. The question is when?

Q: What do you make of the rent-control debate and the ballot initiative — which is eligible for the November ballot — to repeal Costa Hawkins, the state law restricting local policies?

A: Rent control is based on a battle between the class of renters and the class of property owners and landlords. There’s an awful lot of active intervention to drive up rents and transform who is living in these buildings, particularly in the very high-rent centers like San Francisco. Landlords are taking more money out of renters’ pockets every month. How do renters fight back? One way is politically, through rent control. When we had a movement in the ‘80s, the landlords went to the state with their very powerful lobbies and said we’ve got to cut these guys off at the knees, and that’s when they got Costa Hawkins in 1995. It was an effort to stop the rent control movement. It was a political battle that the landlords won in a much more conservative time, when California swung way to the right.

The point is not that rents don’t go up. It’s that you allow them to go up at a much more measured pace so that it keeps up with cost of living. You don’t put a lid on the market without a safety valve.

Q: Did you say you were a renter?

A: I have a rented house in West Berkeley. I have a very nice landlord — because there are some — who doesn’t raise the rent much. I’ve had some very good landlords. I’ve also had some crummy landlords in my day.

Q: What kind of reception has “Pictures of a Gone City” gotten?

A: It’s clearly hit a nerve. People are very engaged, very excited about a book that speaks to the problems that they see. Now, again, I don’t want people to get the wrong impression because this book is not simply a complaint. It’s about how important and dynamic and amazing this urban area is, and how vital it is to the world economy, especially the tech world.

Richard A. Walker

Age:  70

Hometown: Stanford

Education: Palo Alto High School, bachelor’s at Stanford University, Johns Hopkins for Ph.D

Career: professor of geography at Berkeley, teaching from 1975 to 2012

Family: one stepdaughter, age 41, one daughter age 25

Five things about Richard Walker

1. He splits his time between Berkeley and a village in Burgundy, France, where he owns a home.

2. His 25-year-old daughter lives with him in Berkeley because she can’t afford the rents.

3. He grew up at Stanford University in the 1950s and 60s and watched Santa Clara County turn into Silicon Valley — so his first scholarly project for his Ph.D was a study of the how and why of suburbanization.

4. He is “very old-stock American” who thinks this country was built on immigrants — his long-ago ancestors include a German who fought in the Revolutionary War.

5. He fell in love again at 70, “something I never thought would happen.”

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Richard Walker's Author Page


Quick Access to:



New Releases

Featured Releases

Collectives in the Spanish Revolution

Lago de Sangre: Un libro de misterio sobre Filomena Buscarsela