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Damnificados reviewed on Helios

Damnificadosby Ken Finton
Helios
January 21st, 2016

 
JJ Amaworo Wilson’s Damnificados is based on real events, which seems almost incredible until you remember what a truly strange world we live in. These are the facts of the real-life story: In 1990 constuction began on an enormous skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, the Centro Financiero Confinanzas (more commonly referred to as the Tower of David). In 1994 Venezuela was hit by a banking crisis and construction on the tower halted, never to be resumed. Beginning in 2007 the half-completed tower, which is the third tallest in the city and the seventh tallest in all of South America, became occupied by homeless squatters, and eventually as many as 2,500 people lived in the building. They rigged up electricity and running water and set up businesses in the building. Contrary to popular perception, the building was far from a war zone. It was a functional city within a city, forgotten people reclaiming a forgotten relic of civilization. In the last year the government has relocated most of these tenants to new housing, and plans are being explored for how best to use the hulking structure. It is unlikely a better use will be found than free housing for a couple thousand homeless people.

Wilson takes this bizarre real-life story and molds it into a compelling fable about the collision between the haves and the have-nots in a fictional South American city. In Damnificados (the Spanish word for victims, most commonly victims of disaster) we follow the efforts of Nacho Morales, the physically disabled leader of a band of homeless outcasts. Nacho is brilliant–he knows a dozen languages and scrapes together a living doing translation work, though he could make far more if he was willing to abandon the ragged families who need him most. He is not willing to do this. He chooses poverty because to do otherwise would be to side with oppression; those with power and money in this city use it only to gain more, regardless of whom they trample in the process.

The book starts with Nacho leading his band of outsiders into the tower. We get our first taste of the book’s use of magical realism when the group discovers the tower’s first floor is currently being occupied by a pack of wolves, and the leader of the pack has two heads. They drug the wolves and relocate them and then begin turning the tower into a home. Nacho starts a school and teaches children and adults to read. Maria, a former beauty queen, starts a salon. A few brothers start a bakery. Nacho uses one of his contacts to get water to the building and has a homeless electrical engineer connect the tower to the city’s electrical grid. Word spreads and more and more homeless families come to the tower. Word also spreads to individuals who don’t like the idea of homeless folks taking over a rich man’s tower for free.

The tower was originally built by a man named Torres (the Spanish word for towers). The land it was built on was once the city’s trash dump, and it was occupied by thousands of poor families who were subsequently displaced when Torres decided to build his tower. He ran out of money and never finished the hulking building, and Nacho feels he is reclaiming land that belongs to the poor by taking over the abandoned structure. The Torres family, disinterested in the tower for decades since construction ceased, feels differently. Violence is threatened and violence is enacted. Prayers are offered and miracles occur. Magical realism plays a significant role in the book, and strange events take place. For the most part these integrate well with the realism of the story, though there are a few times when these feel like deus ex machina that retrieve the novel from a narrative dead end. However, given the parable-like feel of the novel, these never derail our investment in the book.

Wilson’s novel is an invigorating tale about human beings clinging by their fingertips not only to a sustainable way of life, but to their very dignity, and shouting back at the wealthy with what breath they have, proclaiming they will not be ignored or silently pushed aside. The novel is delightfully imaginative and cuttingly insightful. If Gabriel García Márquez wrote a politically-revolutionary novel with dystopian overtones and published it through an indie press, it would be something like this. That is a compliment. Damnificados is engaging, provocative, and wholly original.

 
David Nilsen is the editor and lead critic for Fourth & Sycamore and works at Greenville Public Library. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find more of his writing on his website and follow him on Twitter.

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Damnificados on The Discerning Reader

Damnificadosby Melinda
The Discerning Reader
January 11th, 2016


Damnificados is loosely based on the real-life occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, the Tower of David. In this fictional version, 600 “damnificados”—vagabonds and misfits—take over an abandoned urban tower and set up a community complete with schools, stores, beauty salons, bakeries, and a rag-tag defensive militia. Their always heroic (and often hilarious) struggle for survival and dignity pits them against corrupt police, the brutal military, and the tyrannical “owners.” Taking place in an unnamed country at an unspecified time, the novel has elements of magical realism: avenging wolves, biblical floods, massacres involving multilingual ghosts, arrow showers falling to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth, and a trash truck acting as a Trojan horse.

My Review

Damificados is full of wonderful magical realism, motley characters you become attached to, a narrative capturing your attention, sturdy writing. Imaginative and creative read.

Wilson demonstrates inventiveness with his dynamic characters. Magical realism plays an important part, as well as smart satire in the very clever narrative providing twists and turns when least expected – two-headed wolves, rescuing dragonflies, floods. Belonging, loss and love play a vital part among the colorful cast, the damificados might be fractured, certainly not broken.

The plot focuses on the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, privileged and burdened, power and politics. The outcasts struggle for dignity and a home in an abandoned skyscraper – which I found very symbolic.

A colorful landscape gives this book a boost of beauty – a wide variety of people coming together, working together despite their varying backgrounds and circumstances. Differences aside they form a team, an extended family of sorts in concert to fight for a mutual cause.

Wilson’s innovativeness really comes alive, a poignant tale, strong messages carried throughout the characters and narrative. Looking forward to more from this talented author.

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The Madness of Reason

by Ron Jacobs
Counterpunch
January 22nd, 2016


Europe. Waves of immigrants and refugees are being forced to move against their will. Many end up without documentation. Consequently, they cannot work legally and are subject to arrest for not having any documentation. Politicians in numerous countries pass legislation making it impossible for most refugees to obtain legal documents and authorizing their police forces to arrest undocumented residents. Many of those arrested end up in prison or in detention camps especially set up for these refugees.

Vigilante gangs stirred up by nativist and fascist organizations attack and beat those they consider the Other. Hardly anybody defends or protects those who are attacked, fearing their own status and the police. Meanwhile, regional wars slowly turn into proxy wars for different imperial alliances, creating even more refugees. In addition, laws based against the free movement of people from certain ethnicities and religions become more pointed and harsh. The fear of a world war increases with each day.

Now, imagine you are an adolescent boy whose parents sent you out of the country because they feared for your freedom and safety. You end up staying with relatives in Paris for a while, constantly hoping for a permanent refugee visa while doing odd jobs and occasional longer term work. Your life is uncertain, but adventurous as you meet street characters, left wing organizers, girls, and others. You stay in touch with news about your parents and sister back in the country you left—a Germany becoming more and more unfriendly to everyone but those they consider pure German. After a run of bad luck, you hear your family has been removed from their home and sent off. This puts you over the edge, so you go to the German consulate in Paris and kill a German official. You sit quietly until the police come.

This is the premise of author Joseph Matthews’ latest novel, Everyone Has Their Reasons. Utilizing the Paris assassination of a German embassy official named vom Rath on November 7, 1938 by a 17-year old displaced Polish-German Jew that was manipulated by the Nazis into the German Kristallnacht, Matthews addresses issues of identity, immigration, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and collective punishment. The young assassin, named Herschel Gryntzmyn, is the narrator and protagonist. He tells his story of a life in the Paris underworld in the 1930s via a series of letters to an attorney appointed to him by the German government. The letters are written while he sits in prison awaiting his trial. They discuss his friendships, his exile, his means of survival and his discoveries.

There is a section of Thomas Pynchon’s masterwork Gravity’s Rainbow titled “In the Zone.” This section is a catalogue of perversion and deviance involving military men from all nations, black marketeers in everything from cocaine to flesh, arms dealers and child prostitutes of every gender; the transactions and experiences are undertaken in an atmosphere defined by the despair, desperation and just plain evil of total war. The underlying truth of this section is that war unleashes the worst attributes of humanity, making what was once forbidden common. Evil wins the moment. Everything is for sale. In a more light-hearted manner, Joseph Heller provides the reader with his character Milo Minderbinder, who makes money off of everything in the war and sells to all sides in the conflict.

Although Pynchon’s Zone seems to intentionally exaggerate the perversions of humanity, the world described in Herschel’s letters to his attorney is of a similar nature. He describes his experiences with pimps, cops on the take, prostitutes and porn dealers, and egocentric men whose only interest is in maintaining their pleasure, whether it is money or flesh. Herschel, in a manner similar to Pynchon’s protagonist Slothrop, is an innocent adrift, manipulated by powers beyond his control and understanding. In what is his most decisive attempt to take control of some aspect of his life, he kills the German consulate official. In so doing, he ends up losing any control at all; his world is forever controlled by the military, the politicians and the courts.

Everyone Has Their Reasons is a novel drawn from the modern human condition. Authoritarian politicians and fearful citizens combine to create a world where those denoted as scapegoats are made to pay for humanity’s trespasses. It is also a tale of survival and human dignity. Joseph Matthews has created a powerful narrative of a tragically human scenario. It is at turns warm, comedic, compelling, and provocative. Unfortunately, it is also all too contemporary in the concerns it addresses.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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Radical Doula Profiles: Alana Apfel

Radical Doula
January 2016

This is a series highlighting folks who identify as Radical Doulas. 

Alana ApfelAbout Alana Apfel: I am a doula, writer and birth activist currently living in the UK. In Bristol where I live I am part of a collective of doulas offering sliding scale community birth work. I recently moved from California where I was part of the San Francisco General Doula Program and the Birthways center. Both programs provide volunteer doulas for people without means to pay. As an activist writer I gathered stories from doulas working within these organisations as well as the Bay Area Doula Project, BirthKeepers, Birth Justice Project and SQUAT. These contributions are featured in my forthcoming book Birth Work as Care Work: Stories from Activist Birth Communities published by PM Press in Spring of next year. More info can be found here.

What inspired you to become a doula?
I was brought up by a family of healers, health activists and a mother who was a midwife. I was her fourth child born at home. I have always been taught that birthing women and others who give birth are strong powerful beings who are fully capable of doing so in their own way and on their own terms. This is never something I have doubted. This conviction directly shapes my doula practice today. The wonder of giving birth and supporting others through birth has always been with me. It is my legacy and my life’s passion.

Why do you identify with the term radical doula?
Radical birth work for me begins with the recognition that birth, and actually all reproductive processes, are both deeply personal and highly politicised events. We cannot separete the “personal” from the “political” in birth. How we birth, and how we support others through birth, is a direct reflection of society’s politics.

Radical birth work also requires confronting systems of privilege that run throughout society. Some continue to benefit whilst others continue to be harmed. What is unique about doulas in this case, is that while we work (most often) within hospitals, we work for ourselves. This enables us to bring a degree of institutional critique to our practice. From this position birth workers avoid being “medicalized” leaving us with the potential to confront and redress institutional forms of violence that are inflicted upon reproductive and birthing bodies. A radical doula is a caregiver whose activism holds the ability to literally reimagine lifes beginnings.

What is your doula philosophy and how does it fit into your broader political beliefs?
I recognise no “correct” way to give birth instead honoring the unique rhythms of each birth giver as they move through their own birthing process. Regardless of where or how you give birth – home, hospital, vaginal or c-section – every birth signifies a beautiful occurrence. Every birth giver and every kind of birth outcome deserves loving support and respect.

My sense is that we need to broaden the nature and language of care to incorporate a greater diversity of reproductive needs. Not everyone experiences their sexual and reproductive bodies in the same way. To subsume all birth givers within the same form of reproductive care is to erase individual identities and lived experiences. Birth workers hold space for others to discover their own inner potential, helping to facilitate, but never take charge of, the trials, joys and beauty that come from navigating one’s own reproductive journey.

What is your favorite thing about being a doula?
Witnessing the immense, surreal and mystical power of all birth givers as they move through their own birth journey and emerge triumphant to hold the children they carried, nurtured and brought into this world, for the first time.

If you could change one thing about the experience of pregnancy and birth, what would it be?
One problem with healthcare today is the framing of reproductive experiences as a matter of “choice.” This framework promotes a belief that the individual has full agency in decision making over their health whilst overlooking, and therefore masking, intersections of race, gender, sexuality, physical ability, citizenship and economics that differentially affect health outcomes and determine the quality and extent of care that is given. Economically disadvantaged communities, communities of colour, queer and gender nonconforming communities, in particular, bear the brunt of institutional forms of violence. Breaking cycles of oppression means directly engaging these systems in order to reimagine a language of birth that creates room for all birth givers to feel heard, affirmed and respected.


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Urusla K. Le Guin’s Late in the Day Asks You to Put Down the Smartphone

by Lizzy Acker
Willamette Week
January 15th


Never before has a book so perfectly coincided with the circumstances of reading it than Late in the Day (PM Press, 112 pages, $18.95).

The new poetry collection from Portland author/hero Ursula K. Le Guin had been sitting on my desk for about a week when the Internet went down, someone borrowed my phone to make a call and suddenly I was distressingly deviceless and needed something immediately to occupy my brain and eyeballs.

"But here, in the midst of our orgy of being lords of creation, texting as we drive," Le Guin writes on the book's first page, "it's hard to put down the smartphone and stop looking for the next technofix."

"Fuck," I thought. "Is Ursula Le Guin watching me?"

But that's exactly what humans would think, that the whole thing is about them. Le Guin's poems are about the rocks, the creeks, the planets, the more-permanent-than-us furniture of the universe that looks still to us, but only because we're moving so quickly. Le Guin sees motion in everything and demands that we, too, look up from our phones and notice the details and histories of things, as she does in her poem "Salt": "The salt in the small bowl looks up at me/with all its little glittering eyes and says:/I am the dry sea./Your blood tastes of me."

Maybe it's a function of getting old, this reverence for the parts of nature that decay at a much slower rate than we do. But one could argue that the long view isn't new for Le Guin, whose work frequently involves the solid pieces of the world and the misty cover of myth.

Le Guin believes that poetry is the tool we need to repair our broken relationship with the physical world. "One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills as 'natural resources,'" she writes in her foreword, "is to class them as fellow beings—kinfolk."

Late in the Day intertwines our human stories with those of gnats and fireflies and stars and distant galaxies, in the hope that readers will look up, look out and see the world before, for them, it's gone.

"It will be dark in that night when/the deep basalt shifts and sighs,/headlands collapse, cliffs fail." she writes in "Geology of the Northwest Coast." "Then/the tumult of the seas returning./And silence./The slow drift of stars."

GO: Ursula K. Le Guin reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005
W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Jan. 13. Free.

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Jewish Noir Reviewed on Promoting Crime Fiction

by Marsali Taylor
Promoting Crime Fiction
January 4th 2016

This collection of thirty-three stories is well up to the standard set by the excellent noir series. It begins with a fascinating introduction by Wishnia, in which he tries to analyse what being Jewish means: a people whose name, Hebrew, comes from the word ebra meaning ‘to cross over’, or whose Egyptian glyph denotes ‘a people without a place’; a people whose religious books include the individual fighting against society; a people whose elders were lost in the Holocaust, and whose grandmothers still keep a bag packed, just in case they have to flee the next pogrom.

The book is divided into seven sections. All the stories were good, so I’ve picked out particular favourites to comment on. The first section, Bitter Herbs focuses on individuals caught up in the machinery of the modern world, and my favourite here was ‘Living Water’, B K Stevens’ wonderful satire on modern school assessment (there is a writer who’s suffered too many touchy-feely powerpoints). The satire was spot-on, and the ending totally unexpected. The Golden Land looks at the difficulties in assimilation into a new culture, and the stand-out for me here was ‘The Lost Pages of the books of Judith’, Kenneth Wishnia’s tale of young college boys fighting prejudice in the late 40s – a prejudice that cropped up horrifyingly often in other stories from the land of freedom and equal opportunities.  Night and Fog looked at the noir motif of a cause doomed from the beginning, and my favourite here was Melissa Yi’s haunting Blood Diamonds, which traces the legacy of the Holocaust through three generations. The longer section L’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) looks at the noir motif of mortality and the passing of time; I particularly enjoyed Stephen Jay Schwartz’s gentle ‘Yahrzeit Candle’ which dealt with heart disease passing through a family, and the tough voice of Alan Orloff’s ‘One of Them’.

 Suburban Sprawl opened with a wonderful monologue by Rabbi Adam D Fischer, parodying a mother’s talk about her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and continued with several tales of bullying. 

Kaffee mit Schlock went for the ‘adrenaline-fueled gut punch of hardboiled pulp fiction’; I enjoyed the sting-in-the-tail story of a nurse and her patient, ‘Doc’s Oscar’ by Eddie Muller. The final section was Vintage Reprint, with an essay and short story from the 60s by Harlan Ellison, of a famous comedian returning to the small town that mistreated him as a child.

A wonderful collection of short stories with the bleakest, blackest of noir feel about them all. Highly recommended.


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Mitchell Abidor interviewed on Bookslut

By Corinna Cliff
Bookslut
January 2016

In March 1871, after France lost the war against Prussia, the French army was driven out of Paris, leaving the city in the control of the National Guard and its citizens who formed the Commune, a democratically elected council that held the power in the city for two months before it was crushed by the French Army.

As a unique example of people standing up against the establishment and seizing the power, the Paris Commune continues to be a point of reference for leftist movements, especially anarchists and Marxists.

At the same time it is also one of the saddest and most violent stories in French history, with thousands of civilians killed during the "Bloody Week" when the French army entered the city. Louise Michel, one of the "voices of the Commune," described it as "an immense abattoir where after eight days of slaughter, the hordes of flies over the mass graves put an end to the killings for they feared the plague."

In Voices of the Paris Commune, Mitchell Abidor assembled accounts of people who, in one way or another, took part in the Commune. The largest part of the book is composed of responses to a call for papers issued by the journal La Revue Blanche in 1897, asking participants to write about their role in the Commune and to share their views on it. Abidor dedicated the first part of the book to articles by journalist Jules Vallès written during the Commune, followed by scripts from debates in the Commune.

Abidor translates historical texts for the Marxist Internet Archive, and has published the following books among others: A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès; Anarchists Never Surrender by Victor Serge; Death to Bourgeois Society, a collection of writing by and about the anarchist propagandists of the deed; Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought for It; and Emmanuel Bove's novella A Raskolnikoff.


This is your second book about the Paris Commune. What interests you about the Paris Commune? Why do you want people to listen to the voices from the Commune?

Though I've translated documents from all phases of left-wing activity in France, from Jean Meslier, the first great atheist -- who incidentally was a priest -- to the Maoist movement in the period after May '68, it's the French Revolution, the Commune and the individualist anarchists of the early twentieth century I love the most. With the Commune it's got to do with how remarkable it was that the people of Paris were actually able to establish their own government, one that functioned under constant bombardment and attack, and that they were able to maintain a democracy throughout it all, though it was, to be honest, slightly curtailed in its final days. But to see a marginalized people, the workers, and political opponent of the empire of Napoleon III, people who had been imprisoned and exiled just months before, be able to stand on their own is an impressive sight. But I also think that the Commune can serve as an example for us today. Not that the workers of New York are going to follow the Parisians and rise up and seize power, but as an alternative form of radical left, what the French philosopher Michel Onfray calls la gauche communarde, the Communard left. A left that doesn't follow behind infallible leaders, that has no canonic texts, and that preserves democracy. It's about time the Commune was restored to its true place in history.

La gauche communarde -- Is it just a term from Onfray, or is this a way many French leftists see themselves?

It's a term I've only heard from Onfray, but it certainly explains a current, one that needs to spread all over the world. With the death of the old structures of the left there needs to be some principle all can stand behind, and I really can't think of a better one than the notion of a Communard left, inspired by a whole city that stood up for the rights of the people while ensuring that all voices are freely heard.

You said that the book received more attention than you expected. Do you have ideas why there is a lot of interest in the Commune at the moment?

I think a lot of it has to do with the Occupy movement, which sparked an interest in movements that sprung up spontaneously to challenge those in power. If you look at it, there are two books other than mine that came out in 2015, Communal Luxury by Kristin Ross and Massacre by John Merriman, and given the timeline in publishing it seems safe to say that Occupy played a role in their gestation. In fact, Ross in her book talks about how the existence of the Occupy encampments led her to go back and examine the questions raised by the Commune. She goes no further than saying they share "resonances," but whenever I speak about the Commune, people try to tie them much more closely together. This, I think, is the falsest of false connections and I oppose it adamantly: the Commune was a real government, voted for by real voters in a real election with real departments that really managed a real city.

Occupy brought the issue of income inequality to the forefront, but in the end it was more a moral than a practical movement, and doesn't deserve to share the same page as the Commune.

In your introduction you say that the best accounts of the Commune are fictional. Why is that?

What makes writing historical accounts about it difficult? Has it to do with the Commune never having been able to fully develop its potential, which might make it more suitable for fiction?

The main historical account, that of P.O. Lissagaray, who was a participant, is one I never was able to warm up to. By the way, it was translated into English by Eleanor Marx, Karl's daughter. Perhaps the failing is in me. But the fictional accounts I chose, Jules Vallès's L'Insurgé and Jean Vautrin's The Cry of the People [Le Cri du peuple in original, trans. as The Voice of the People -- Ed.], are very particular kinds of fiction. Vallès was a member of the Commune and edited the most important of the Commune's newspapers, Le Cri du peuple: The Cry of the People. His novel, the third volume of a trilogy covering his childhood, his adolescence, and the Commune, is less a novel than a first person account of the events, but a first-person account by one of the great writers. Vautrin is a novelist of the left, and his book takes a cast of mainly working-class characters through the life of the Commune. He's clearly studied the writings of the time at great length, and the combination of this and his political sympathies makes The [Voice] of the People an exciting book.

Some of the problem with historical accounts is that the short life of the Commune, only 72 days, prevented it from doing all it would have, which is expressly why John Merriman's excellent Massacre concentrates mostly on the eradication of the Commune, the defeats that led to 20,000 dead. But what disappoints me in historical accounts is that writers come into them with their preconceived notions and don't let the Commune speak for itself. It's presented as anarchist, as a forerunner of Bolshevism, as a precursor of Occupy, and I find all of that simply wrong. My preference, in this and all my other books, is to simply let the participants explain their actions and then let the reader decide. I have my opinion, but I might very well not be right. So let the reader see what those who were there had to say.

How did you choose the texts you included in the book? Which were your criteria?

In my first book on the Commune, Communards, I chose memoirs by people from all ranges of political opinion within the Commune, which was really varied. There were neo-Jacobins, followers of the great August Blanqui, and members of the First International. Voices of the Paris Commune was meant as a kind of primer using first person accounts, so I chose a representative figure like Vallès, and to show that the Commune was a real government there's the minutes of a stormy discussion there in its final days about the execution of the hostages and the establishing of a Committee of Public Safety. But the heart of the book is a large selection of responses to questions about the Commune posed to Communards by the literary magazine La Revue Blanche in 1897. I wanted to show just how wide the diversity of opinion was among those who fought for it, answers to questions like "Could it have won?" and "What were its failings?" For us, nearly a century and a half later, this is an event that's all of a piece; for those who were there it was anything but that, and I thought it important to show how lively the debates were during its life and after its death.

How was it to translate political texts from two-and-a-half centuries ago? The English versions are all very accessible. Did you have to make difficult choices?

This is what I do, how I've chosen to spend my time, translating revolutionary texts from the mid-seventeenth century to the period after May '68 in France, as well as from particular movements in Argentina, Italy, Portugal, and the world of Esperanto. A friend in London made me my business card with my name and profession: "Militant Translator."

The only difficulty with the texts in Voices of the Paris Commune was limiting them. The selections from the discussion in La Revue Blanche, with the Communards looking back a quarter of a century later on the events, is just a fraction of the full discussion, and I wish I could have done the whole thing. In fact, it's inspired me to do a similar investigation of May '68 in France, which will be published in 2018, the fiftieth anniversary of the events.

Do you have a favorite character from the Commune?

Jules Vallès stands out for me as someone who was both revolutionary and a firm defender of democracy, insisting on the freedom of the press until the final day. But there are individual stories that particularly touch me. The saddest is probably that of the death of the elder of the Commune, Charles Delescluze. The Commune was the culmination of a lifetime of his political activity, and in its final days he walked to the Commune's outer barricades so he could examine the situation. While he was there, he was mocked by the National Guard, as if he was seeking to flee and leave the workers to die. He was devastated, and went back to his office. He sat there for a while, signed some orders, then stood up and left and, not saying a word to anyone, walked directly into enemy fire to be killed. If there was a more noble death in the history of the revolutionary movement I don't know what it was.

The political backgrounds of the Communards were quite diverse -- there were anarchists, Marxists, republicans. Was there a social vision for a state that was shared by all?

Anarchists were few, the movement not yet having really gained hold in France, aside from Proudhonians. Marxists, too, were pretty rare. Such as they were they were members of the First International and their faction within the Commune was called the Minority. They, in fact, fought against the majority, who were followers of Blanqui and various forms of neo-Jacobins, when the majority wanted to become more dictatorial and set up a Committee of Public Safety.

They even threatened to stop attending sessions of the Commune, but in the end they did.

But let me get back to the social vision of all the groups: every one of them wanted a republic, but a social republic, one that ensured a decent life and living for all, that wanted everyone -- well, every male, but who knows, with time they might have added women -- to have equal political rights and the ability to express their opinions, and wanted to remove any official involvement in religion. The Commune burned the guillotine, banned night work for bakers, suspended rent payments, freed goods held in the national pawn shop, did away with the standing army... It didn't have the time to implement specifically socialist measures, but they would have, since every current within it believed in equality and social justice. When elections were held for the Commune they happened throughout Paris even in the bourgeois quarters, and those elected from those areas chose not to sit, leaving the Commune unified at least on a general vision of society, though not on some of the specifics.

What is your stance on the fight between the minority and the majority in the Commune?

Though I understand the impulse behind the majority's drive to ensure the Commune's survival through the same measures the French Revolution had implemented, my sympathies are all with the minority. The majority was a prisoner of the schemas of 1792, the minority were admirers of the great Revolution, but feared falling into the mistakes that tarnished its image and caused it great harm.

Do you think the Commune had a chance at survival at all?

No, and as some of the veterans of the Commune who are in my book say, few of them did. This was a war between Paris and rural France -- indeed, the rest of France -- and even had the forces in Versailles led by Thiers not crushed the Commune, the Prussians would have stepped in and finished the job. This makes the Commune even more impressive: that they stood by their ideas and attempted all they did as the bombs were falling on their heads, while they were dead men on reprieve.

Women had no voting rights and very little opportunity to contribute to its politics. They were able to join the National Guard though, and many of the texts in the book mention women fighting on the barricades. I find it strange that women were accepted as soldiers in the army when they weren't even allowed to vote. I was wondering why there were many women who were so passionate about the Commune that they were ready to die for it even though they were excluded from all decision making.

Let's be clear: women fought but not as formal members of the National Guard, which was all male. They went to the barricades just as did so many workers out of uniform: to defend a government that was theirs, that granted even unmarried women the rights to benefits owed to their fallen male companions. Women established their own organizations, which were encouraged and supported by the Commune, and several of them, most importantly Louise Michel and Elisabeth Dmitrieff became emblematic figures. But women were also used as a negative symbol of the Commune, as the pétroleuses, the women who supposedly spread gas around the city and set it alight. The city burned, both as a result of being bombarded and also because it was consciously set on fire, though not by brigades of gas-wielding women. Putting the blame for this entirely on women was another way to demonize the Commune for unleashing a horde of savage Amazons, for upsetting the gender cart.

About women in the National Guard: That must be false information that got copy-pasted over the Internet, then, because I found it in more than one article.

They fought, but weren't formally in the National Guard. They served more as support staff and nurses, courageously so, doing it at the front lines, and dying courageously as well. I don't want to downplay the role of women, and the brave way they took up their roles can't be stressed strongly enough, but I think we have to stick with the historical truth and not make the Commune what it wasn't. But don't kick yourself over false information: it's all over the place, on the right and the left. This is why I think it's so important to read the original sources, and for me to make them available in English.

When I give talks about the Commune I usually start by saying that the Commune is a blank screen that every element of the left projects its refereed image onto. Let me give you a perfect example of how much wishful thinking goes into examining the Commune. Recently I was interviewed by an anarchist, who insisted that the Commune was more anarchist than not, and he gave as proof the fact that National Guard officers were elected, like in the anarchist armies of Spain during the Civil War. I read him an account of the election to a National Guard unit, of how workers were elected to leading positions (though quickly replaced by experienced soldiers), but then told him when the election took place: September 1870, five months before the Commune was even established! Elected officers were a National Guard thing, not a Commune thing, but if you look at what happened between March and May without looking at the context you can easily change the meaning of an act.

I was going to ask you about the pétroleuses. How did this rumor come to pass? Was it widely believed?

Not only was it widely believed, it's a notion that still has to be debunked today, though scholars have pretty much proved it false. After all, of the thousands of women put on trial after the crushing of the Commune, not a one was found guilty of setting any buildings on fire. That said, an official organization of Communard women did call for its members to stock up on rifles and petrol, but again, there's no indication that groups of women then set out to burn buildings like the Hôtel de Ville down.

The legend of the pétroleuses is part of the generally dark legend that grew up around the Commune, as an event of unimaginable savagery unleashed by barely human workers. With the pétroleuses was added the element of misogyny, Communard women being depicted as unnatural, bestial women burning down the very city they lived in. Their burning down the city joined the killing of the hostages -- around sixty victims -- as the image of the Commune in the public's eye, or at least the image the bourgeois press and writers projected. 20,000 workers killed by the forces of order? Never heard of it. Or they deserved it.

In which ways can the Commune serve as an example today?

In a direct sense, it's hard to say. It certainly isn't in the cards that the workers of any of the great cities of the world will be taking over their cities and running them as independent governments. It's really far more as an example of that alternative left I mentioned, one that doesn't fall into silly sectarianism that discounts people with differing views or who fail to follow a line laid out by Lenin in 1905 or Trotsky in 1936. And it's also one that responds to a country's own reality, not falling back on the dicta of long-dead authorities.

Are there social movements at the moment that carry the spirit of the Commune, or that you find otherwise inspiring?

I would say that Podemos in Spain, with its vision of a pluralist left and a more democratic country contains much of the spirit of the Commune. They reject social democracy, but also reject turning their backs on the daily reality, the quotidian sufferings of the people of Spain in the name of some kind of intellectual or doctrinal purity. The free debate within Podemos, its ability to take in all progressive points of view, is in the direct line of the Commune.

Why did you choose to end the book with a letter by General de Gallifet who says nothing but that he is unable to answer the questions about his role in the Commune and his opinions on it?

Gallifet was the man who completed the crushing of the Commune. I thought it was a dramatic way to close the discussion. Maybe I should have made that clearer. Maybe in a second edition...


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Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance

By Bill Berkowitz
Truthout
January 9th, 2016


The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, contains thousands of items of despicable racist ephemera - mostly, but not entirely, emanating from the era of Jim Crow - but has as its overarching goal the promotion of racial understanding and the improvement of racial relations. While the museum's displays mostly come from the era of Jim Crow, museum officials emphasize that negative caricatures of Black people did not end with that period. A large display of racist objects produced in the 21st century demonstrates the ways in which Jim Crow-era attitudes and behavior continue to exist.

Each year, thousands of people visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. (Photo: David Pilgrim/PM Press)

Nevertheless, the majority of the museum's grotesquely racist artifacts date back to the Jim Crow era. They include a 1930s party game called "72 Pictured Party Stunts," which includes a card depicting a dark Black boy with bulging eyes and blood-red lips eating a watermelon as large as he is and instructs players to "go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon?" Other racist memorabilia include the "N***** Milk" cartoon, in which a sweet, little Black baby is suckling out of an ink jar, countless mammy renderings on salt and pepper shakers, and postcards of Black people being whipped and hanging from trees.

The racist memorabilia in the museum was all collected over the past three decades by David Pilgrim, an African-American former sociology professor who has devoted his adult life to raising awareness about racism through the museum and its traveling exhibits. In addition to founding the museum, Pilgrim is a filmmaker, who in 2004, produced - with Clayton Rye - the award-winning documentary, Jim Crow's Museum, to explain his approach to battling racism.

Early on in his book, Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, Pilgrim identifies himself as "a garbage collector," as he has painstakingly, and often emotionally painfully, gathered thousands of items "that portray blacks as coons, Toms, Sambos, mammies, picaninnies, and other dehumanizing racial caricatures."

Pilgrim's collection contains "items that defame and belittle Africans and their American descendants."

The Jim Crow Museum is curated to guide visitors through developing a deeper understanding and critique of the many violent ways in which Black people have been caricatured. (Photo: David Pilgrim/PM Press)


Pilgrim didn't go to garage sales, visit flea markets and later use the internet to buy memorabilia merely to build his personal collection, auction it off or resell it on eBay. Nor was he sitting at home hoarding his collection. And, most of all, he didn't collect scads of repugnant artifacts in order to remove them from plain sight. In fact, Pilgrim believes that "items of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance and promote social justice."


Pilgrim bought his first racist object (a mammy salt shaker, which he immediately smashed) at age 12 or 13 in Mobile, Alabama, the home of his youth. Collecting racist objects eventually turned into the obsession that evolved into Pilgrim's essential project: the founding and curating of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which houses the nation's largest publicly accessible collection of racist artifacts.


If, as a character in Darrin Bell's comic strip "Candorville" put it, "sometimes your outrage muscle needs a rest," then Pilgrim's book on understanding Jim Crow, which presents the message and contents of his museum in book form, might not be for you.

The images displayed in the book certainly are vile and hateful, carefully crafted to elicit the racist ideas that their creators wanted their fellow Americans to perceive, understand and internalize.

Malaak Shabazz, daughter of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, visits the museum in 2012. (Photo: David Pilgrim/PM Press)

As Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University professor at Harvard University, points out in the foreword to the book, "Racist imagery essentializing blacks as inferior beings [in Jim Crow's United States] was as exaggerated as it was ubiquitous. The onslaught was constant."
And despite African Americans pulling off "a miracle of human history, of enduring centuries of bondage to claim their freedom," Gates writes, "Jim Crow's propaganda ... was exhausting," and pervasive in the culture. "There was nothing understated about Jim Crow."

Pilgrim's thoughtful and passionately told story makes the book more than just another, albeit unique, history of US racism.

Pilgrim recognizes that "All racial groups have been caricatured in this country, but none has been caricatured as often or in as many ways as have black Americans. Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society." As Robbin Henderson, former director of the Berkeley Art Center, has said, "Derogatory imagery enables people to absorb stereotypes, which in turn allows them to ignore and condone injustice, discrimination, segregation and racism."


Racist narratives about Black children being "alligator bait" are apparent in this postcard from the 1930s. (Photo: David Pilgrim/PM Press)

Understanding Jim Crow contains images of racist book covers, cereal and soapboxes, dishes, endless sets of postcards, greeting cards, records, minstrel joke books and sheet music, and other examples of racist memorabilia. However, it is Pilgrim's thoughtful and passionately told story that makes the book more than just another, albeit unique, history of US racism. Essentially, the book is about Pilgrim's dedication to turning garbage collecting into tools for teaching about racism.

As a graduate student at Ohio State University, Pilgrim started buying items he could afford, paying a couple of bucks for "a postcard that showed a terrified black man being eaten by an alligator," and "for a matchbook that showed a Sambo-like character with oversized genitalia." By the time he joined the sociology faculty at Ferris State University, his collection - still housed at his home - contained more than a thousand items, some of which he brought to public appearances, mainly at local high schools.


A section of the Jim Crow Museum presents the history of representations of the "tragic mulatto" in the United States. (Photo: David Pilgrim/PM Press)

In 1991, Pilgrim managed to see the collection of an elderly Black antique dealer in a small town. After promising not to "pester" her to sell the objects, she closed the shop door, put the "closed sign in the window, and motioned for me to follow," Pilgrim writes.

"If I live to be a hundred," Pilgrim continues in the book, "I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw her collection; it was sadness, a thick, cold sadness. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of objects, side by side, on shelves that reached to the ceiling. All four walls were covered with the most racist objects imaginable." Although Pilgrim already owned some of the items he saw, he was "stunned" by "every conceivable distortion of black people, our people, [that] was on display."

That moment, filled with sadness, disgust, anger and outrage, led Pilgrim to decide to create a museum. And five years after the visit to the elderly Black woman's antique shop, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia opened at Ferris State University.

Understanding Jim Crow is far from being an angry book. But it is disturbing and uncomfortable. It is as James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, wrote in a blurb, a unique effort "to bring out from our dank closets the racial skeletons of our past." However, judging from the numerous racist images that have popped up in all sorts of venues during the years of the Obama presidency, this historical study also hangs onto the present.

Pilgrim describes the museum he created as a place that "use[s] items of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice," by "examining[ing] the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions."

As Pilgrim points out, "The twenty-first century has brought a fear and unwillingness to look at racism in a deep systematic manner." Many Americans prefer to "forget the past and move forward." Nevertheless, in an age of more awareness of police brutality, presidential candidates like Donald Trump stirring up racial animus, "[r]acial stereotypes, sometimes yelled, sometimes whispered, [continue to be] common."

Three years ago, the Jim Crow Museum moved into larger headquarters, which allowed for the integration of stories of "accomplishments of black artists, scholars, scientists, inventors, politicians, military personnel, and athletes who thrived despite living under Jim Crow." A civil rights movement section has also been added.

While cautiously optimistic about the future, Pilgrim refuses to downplay the past or ignore the present. The museum's website has a section called "... and it doesn't stop," which features examples of blatantly racist objects that are still being created.

The United States has never had a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the country's racial divide. Yet we always seem to be in the midst of some sort of discussion about race, a discussion that frequently gets blown off course, and winds up going nowhere and achieving little. Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls the Jim Crow Museum, a "truth and reconciliation commission, formed out of the detritus of Jim Crow, with an interpretive story encasing it that would help witnesses state down the grotesqueries and, through a shared experience, confront hard truths."

The mission and tagline of the Jim Crow Museum is deceptively simple: "Using Objects of Intolerance to Teach Tolerance." Unfortunately, the production of racist caricatures of Black people did not end with the Jim Crow era. "Blatantly racist objects," like shooting targets depicting Trayvon Martin, were sold in the aftermath of his murder in 2012, Pilgrim points out. There is still much work to be done.

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Joe Hill Again!

By Paul Buhle
Portside
December 21st, 2015

The centennial celebration of Joe Hill's execution is being marked by concerts, symposiums, meetings and forums, and the publication of new books, or new editions. Labor historian Paul Buhle reviews two of these. Franklin Rosemont's Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, with a new introduction by David Roediger; and Philip S

Whenever Joe Hill disappears, he is likely to turn up again. Like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)--whose vision of common people running society remains as vital as ever, and whose mobilization of the poor through songs and humor as well as unionization seems still more relevant-Joe Hill's memory is a keeper. In fact, these two subjects are largely the same because the songster, jokester and organizer combined in himself the modest totality of Wobbly aura. He lived the part and died a martyr, a detail that never hurts in commemorations.

The IWW itself never really recovered as an influential mass movement or a functioning union from the combination of US government repression during the First World War and a split in the remaining ranks in 1924. Younger radicals tended to go into the Communist Party, even if coming out again, disillusioned (or just as likely, bored of frequent and lengthy meetings) all too often. Weakened, the Wobblies retained a lively press, an agitational apparatus and a functioning national office for generations after, reviving from time to time and then going back to a bare-bones operation. The collective memory of their role before 1920, the examples they set in many different ways, have been the subject of every form of art and documentation, including novels, murals, film documentaries and the comics anthology, co-edited by this reviewer, marking the centenary in 2005: Wobblies!

None of these efforts approach the singular impact of one song: "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill One Night," composed in Communist-connected summer camp in 1938 by a future screenwriter, and sung most gloriously by Paul Robeson. Endlessly delivered to Popular Front cultural events and union halls in the 1940s-50s, the song gained new resonance with Joan Baez's version at Woodstock. Like the larger memory of the Wobblies, the song comes back, again and again, a paean to suffering and endurance, if not the famous Wobbly humor. How closely the song related to the real life of the Swedish immigrant born Joel Hagglund in 1879, recruited to the IWW only a few years before his death, in 1910, but renowned for his agitational labor lyrics, remains naturally to be seen.

The centenary of Joe Hill's execution by the state of Utah, in November, 1916, offers another occasion for pondering the hero and his-little understood life. Perhaps it is best to start with the totemic volume written by the leading figure in the Surrealist movement, Franklin Rosemont (1943-2009), because the gargantuan investigation of Hill's occluded life story and the larger argument for Hill's significance are made here, more decisively than anywhere else made or likely ever to be made in historical scholarship. One might rightly call this book Rosemont's own life work, because he met oldtime Wobblies and their friends during his teenage years, in the Chicago of the 1950s early 1960s. Son of a local typographic union leader (who named the boy after newspaperman Benjamin Franklin), he soaked up the atmosphere, just then dissipating, of skidrow didactic intellectuals of the local "hobo university," likewise the working class bohemianism including figures like Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel, and the "Beatnik for President" campaign of 1960 launched from the definitely noninstitutional College of Complexes with its in-house leader, Slim Brundage, who described himself only as "the janitor." This, it is safe to say, was a radical milieu like none other, and among the Wobbly oldtimers and their friends, the Joe Hill memory was held aloft.

Every known detail of Hill's life is looked over here, but most memorably for myself, every detail in the legend of Joe Hill mainly takes the stage. Famed regional novelist Walter Stegner gets the worst of Rosemont's saga, almost as bad as the Mormon authorities who executed Joe on a frame-up charge, because Stegner claimed that he had found evidence of Hill as a criminal and the actual guilty party in the robbery-murder. Stegner essentially invented the evidence for his novel, The Preacher and the Slave (1950), but why?  Moving away from a wartime reputation as a contributor to Popular Front magazines and into the new opportunities offered by the Cold War and Red Scare, Stegner was on his way..to becoming the in-house historian of Aramco Saudi Arabia, as well as a Stanford professor and literary icon. A small handful of disappointed Wobblies themselves went rightward, seeking careers through "disillusionment narratives," none with quite this effective degree of venom. But even in the pages of We Shall Be All (1970), labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky's weighty history inspired in part by the mass movements of the 1960s, the Wobblies came off as marginal, near-derelict figures who simply could not fit into society. Not quite fit for organized unions--thus not really the victims of capitalism, exclusion by craft-limited, all white and all male AFL bodies nor of repression-they became victims of their own demographics.

No review can be equal to the richness of Rosemont's Joe Hill, and as David Roediger's introduction suggests, it is best suited to the repeated perusing by readers at every level of historical sophistication. He does not say that the author spends a bit too much time adrift, wandering from Joe Hill-related topic to topic and leaving the reader bemused. But there is no harm in being bemused within a subject as large and symbolic as this one. The Letters of Joe Hill, by contrast, is brief and to the point. A demon researcher aided by his surviving brother, Henry and his nephew, the famed historian Eric, Phil Foner brought to light the packet of correspondence written from the Utah prison. Given how little is ever likely to be known about Joe Hill's personal life and mental framework, these letters are small treasures, to which Foner and his successors have added Hill's own lively if primitive cartoons and many of the song lyrics that made him famous and have kept him famous. Alexis Buss, a recent General Secretary of the IWW, adds useful archival notes, while one of the most prominent singers of Wobbly songs in recent decades, Tom Morello, offers up his personal dedication: Joe is the famed artist's "favorite singer. the poet-laureate of the working class in the early twentieth century." (vii).

Every labor enthusiast has a favorite Joe Hill song, and everyone who relishes a satirical attack upon capitalism will surely enjoy "The Preacher and the Slave," "Nearer My Job to Thee," or "Casey Jones-The Union Scab." It is safe to say that none has been sung quite so often or fervently as "There Is Power in the Union." (Peter K. Siegel and Eli Smith's recent CD with that title has brought it back to life once more, and memorably). The Swedish-American lad Joel Hagglund is going to be around for as long as capitalism makes us all suffer.

[Paul Buhle is an aged labor historian whose many volumes include a history of the US labor bureaucracy, Taking Care of Business.]

- See more at: http://portside.org/2015-12-24/joe-hill-again#sthash.34ibvOzv.dpuf

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Solidarity Not Charity

By Chris Steele
Counter Punch
December 24th, 2015

scott crow’s Black Flags and Windmills throws racist media sound bites of looting into the recycle bin of the internet and places the reader inside the battlefield of hope in New Orleans after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  crow’s personal writing is not hampered down with stale homogenized statistics, instead he shares personal stories of struggle and tragedy that read more like a novel at times than a current affairs political memoir.  The essence of crow’s book is inspired from Miguel de Cervantes work Don Quixote.

While Don Quixote saw thirty or forty “hulking giants” that he planned to fight, Sancho Panza explained that those weren’t “giants but windmills.”  Whether one sees the state and racist ideology as giants or windmills, crow’s story explains the remedy is to organize in solidarity with others.

Author John P. Clarke and Kathleen Cleaver provide forwards for Black Flags and Windmills.  Clarke highlights that with climate collapse, economic exploitation, and absolute poverty “we live in a state of emergency.”  The significance of crow’s story is “being there for the community” explains Clarke, and the Common Ground Collective, which crow, Sharon Johnson, and Malik Rahim helped create is one based on community based mutual aid and solidarity.

 Cleaver writes that Rahim “saw nineteen black people killed, and local authorities — black and white– refused to listen to his accounts.”  “The bloody past of the toxic war to restore white supremacy after the collapse of the Confederacy,” writes Cleaver, “still nourishes violence in Louisiana — right there in Algiers where Common Ground had hundreds camping on their grounds.”

The Common Ground Collective (CGC) became the largest anarchist-influenced organization in modern U.S. history stating that, “With support from small organizations like ours, communities all over the region fought on many levels to have access to basic health care, to reopen their schools, to have decent jobs, to return to their homes and neighborhoods, and ultimately decide their own fates.”

crow’s story began after Hurricane Katrina, he hadn’t heard from his friend Robert H. King, who was a former member of the Black Panther Party and served twenty-nine years in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison.  crow and Brandon Darby (later discovered to be an FBI informant) left for New Orleans with a johnboat and rifle to find King.  Surrounded by spewed trash, hissing exposed natural gas lines, police roadblocks, and the faint sound of gunshots in the distance, they made their way to an abandoned warehouse.  Describing the hellish scene as similar to Apocalypse Now, crow thoroughly explained how social constructs deteriorated and that the government response was incompetent as they were surrounded by death.  Helicopters with large fifty-caliber machine guns were carrying soldiers with guns but weren’t dropping any rescue lines to people, crow posed the question, “This country’s military could muster enough bodies to shoot to kill but not to send help.  What kind of world were we living in?”

Known for his political organizing and being under FBI surveillance, crow is described as a “puppetmaster involved in direct action,” according to an internal memo by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.  The FBI failed to mention that along with organizing, crow is also a talented writer as displayed in the following lines, “Smoke filled the air and my lungs with a haze as lonely helicopters creased the misty grey skies. Somehow, cranes and other waterfowl ignored everything around them and continued to hunt for fish on the swollen shores of the canal.”

crow explained that he came to New Orleans on a humanitarian mission but found himself in “the beginnings of a possible racial war.”  Pointing out the conflict of this situation, crow explained how the majority of law enforcement and rescuers they met were white men, “while the majority of people in distress were a low-income and black population.” Hitting the essence of praxis (putting theory and reflection into practice), crow and Darby decided to leave the situation knowing that they were armed and ready to shoot in self-defense if need be but not worth it to “hurt someone to aid someone else.”

While back in Austin, crow received a call from his friend Malik Rahim who said, “‘…we got racist white vigilantes driving around in pick up trucks terrorizing black people on the street.  It’s very serious.  We need supplies and support.’” The call prompted crow and Darby to return to New Orleans, they went to the neighborhood of Algiers, where the city was in shambles as dead bodies laid on the ground.

To counter the white militias they established neighborhood security.  The white militia was essentially deputized by the police silence allowing them to function. The militia had openly bragged about killing unarmed blacks and routinely patrolled neighborhoods and pointed guns at Malik yelling, “‘get ‘im.’” Their first security plan was to stand on Malik’s porch, armed.  The white vigilantes came by the house in their truck shouting racist remarks, crow explained they nervously held their ground, the militia eventually left and the group became more empowered bringing the community together.

CGC was officially founded on September 5, 2005.  Aside from security, the group sought to provide food, water, and medical attention while maintaining a horizontal, non-hierarchical power structure drawing inspiration from Zapatista and Black Panther Party principles.  Defying the old anti-anarchist saying, “‘If there is no state, who will take out the garbage,’” the group went house to house helping people take their rotting garbage to a safe spot.

CGC set up their first medical clinic in Algiers at a mosque in the neighborhood.  The first doctor they tried to get into the neighborhood was denied entry because he was black, crow wrote, “It was as if they had set up an apartheid system to determine who come into the area.

 Unfortunately, his story was being replicated everywhere.” The Bay Area Radical Health Collective later helped CGC bringing holistic health care workers and an official doctor.

Told by state workers that CGC wasn’t even supposed to exist, crow explained, “The government’s agenda was simple; clear the area of people by force or starvation.”  Discussing his privilege of being a white able-bodied male, crow wrote how he tossed away his guilt and used his privilege to access resources such as people, money, and media.  crow discussed the hostility of police describing how helicopters often circled above them and that drive-bys in marked and unmarked black vehicles were frequent.

CGC also became a hub for grassroots media and radio.  Volunteers brought UHF radios, microradio transmitters, Infoshop.org gave support, and the Indymedia movement “helped tell the deeper stories of New Orleans.”  Another example of decentralized collaboration came from the  Food Not Bombs (FNB) chapter from Hartford.  FNB is a network of people who cook and give out vegetarian food for free to people in need.  While the Red Cross would not go into the Seventh and Ninth Wards to help people who were stranded, FNB was there and gave out food.

All of CGC’s problems weren’t external, crow wrote of internal issues with patriarchy and oppression.  In an effort to combat these issues, CGC drew up Guidelines of Respect (all communiques, documents, activities and programs are in the appendix), held antioppression workshops, and created women-only safe temporary shelters.  On top of constructing a culture for their collective, the group typically worked for sixteen to eighteen hours a day.

To make matters worse, the category 5 Hurricane Rita soon descended on New Orleans intensifying Martial law and Shoot-to-kill orders.  “The military were not there to protect and serve”, crow wrote, “they were there to do whatever they wanted with impunity.”  CGC was threatened by two soldiers to shut down their aid operations, leading to a raid on their distribution center deeming it a “compound” and a “fortress.” With guns pointed and a helicopter blowing their supplies around, police yelled racial epithets as they rummaged through the group’s food, water, and medical supplies without a warrant.  When the Red Cross finally arrived in Algiers, crow told of how the crowd of people in need were greeted with three fifty-foot trailers full of plastic utensils, napkins, and antiseptic cloths; no food or water!

To combat police hostility, CGC started a Copwatch group with cameras that were donated.

 One incident involved a volunteer named Greg who was filming the police beat a young black man.  Greg maintained a safe distance and was detained by police, where they made threats on his life saying they would “‘drop him in the river’ if Copwatch didn’t stop videotaping.”

Copwatch also discovered “Camp Greyhound,” which was a makeshift FEMA jail inside of a Greyhound bus station full of mostly black and Latino men.  In addition, the facility lacked access to food and water; and people were “being held with no processing, without any documentation of their arrests, access to representation or means to communicate with anyone to where they were.”

As people started coming back to New Orleans nearly three months after Katrina, so did the developers.  “For city officials,” crow writes, “poor people were a low priority in terms of reconnecting services; but some of their homes were of the highest priority from the coming demolitions.”  crow explained that in some places “residential rents went from $400 to $1200 overnight.”  As a way to fight back against illegal evictions and eminent domain, housing advocates used direct action and un-evicted people by helping them to move back into their homes.

A decade after Hurricane Katrina, bureaucrats and politicians continue to pat themselves on the back in the name of “progress,” while New Orleans is still devastated and has been struck with the bayonets of privatization.  As pointed out by crow, cynicism and apathy are big obstacles in the U.S. but CGC is an example of how community and solidarity can combat tragedy.  CGC is a reminder of the importance of telling your story so others can’t speak for you and misinterpret your message.  John P. Clarke writes, “Common Ground is part of an enduring, age-old-counter-history, the history that writes itself against History.”  Whether you see hulking giants or windmills, perception is everything and crow’s perception of solidarity and mutual aid are more needed than ever.

Chris Steele is a journalist.  He can be reached at: csteele@regis.edu.  


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