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Revolutionary Mothering in Black Girl Dangerous

by Cantrice Janelle Penn
Black Girl Dangerous
July 15th, 2016

I lick my lips, encrusted with bits of sea salt, as I text Alexis Pauline Gumbs—co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines—from the sandy coast of the Carolinas about my forthcoming review of her book. After heading to the water’s edge without sunscreen, I now find myself nursing my first-ever sunburn on both brown shoulders, anointing them with my own kisses and a few drops of aloe vera. When I was little, other kids used to say that asunburn retained heat because the sun itself would literally get into your skin and stay there long after a day at the beach.

Revolutionary Mothering does just that—pulsing with electrifying storytelling, this anthology gets into your skin.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens and Mai’a Williams have carved out a collaborative space in the shape of love, by offering us this broader definition of “motherhood.” They have effortlessly weaved together storythreads from all corners of the globe to produce this urgent, necessary project—one with the potential to serve as a working blueprint for our communities.

Inspired by its radical, feminist-of-color predecessor, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, this latest incarnation—originally entitled, This Bridge Called My Baby—is a loving meditation on multiply marginalized mama figures trying to make it work with what they got within the confines of the anti-Black, white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, cisheteropatriarchal systems that pin the proverbial boot against our chests, attempting to slowly suffocate us all as we struggle to draw a collective breath in the name of liberation.

This anthology centers the voices of Black mothers and mothers of color, queer mothers, poor and working-class mothers, disabled mothers, and immigrant mothers who offer their lived experiences in the form of poetry, essays, manifestos, photo montages and play scripts. But as a “non-parent” with my own complicated relationship with mothering, I didn’t think I’d be able to relate.

Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I cracked open Revolutionary Mothering, finding story after story detailing real shit—the raw, the unpopular, the vulnerable. Stuff we’re not supposed to admit to in “woke” communities. Like the mother with dark skin who secretly hopes that her unborn child won’t inherit her own melanin and seems quite aware of how deep the well of internal oppression can run. Or the mother in the US who attempts to adopt a child from her home country, only to find herself navigating the very western, white systems that she otherwise actively resists. Or the mother who reflects on a heteronormative relationship maintained with her then-husband whom she carried financially through school while suppressing her budding identities.

What Revolutionary Mothering is not is another collection of writings by revolutionary-minded folks using all the right social-justice language and providing all the right answers as to how to mother children the “radical” way. It is also not an attempt to stuff marginalized parents or parenting into some other hegemonic box patterned after the oppressive systems that shape most of our world.

Instead, this anthology explodes with textured, necessary truth-telling, penned by the voices of those pushed to the margins and crushed by the state. Revolutionary Mothering offers tools of hope to help us redefine what “mothering” can mean for each of us. The emotionally charged accounts of motherhood lighting up these pages indeed challenge that tired, “having-it-all” narrative force-fed to all of us by mainstream media outlets, and instead, presents us with mother figures who operate in spiritual abundance through the communities that sustain them, whether a job, partner(s), or children are in the picture or not.

Brimming with rare treats and gems of wisdom—like June Jordan’s powerful essay, “The Creative Spirit: Children’s Literature,” in which she proclaims at the start, “Love is lifeforce” (a mantra that Gumbs affirms repeatedly), and Lisa Factora-Borchers’ line, “Transformation does not have a name or a label, it has a sound,” in the essay, “Birthing a New Feminism”—Revolutionary Mothering provides a loving home for stories on mothering our children, our communities and ourselves. I must also note the anthology’s beautifully illustrated cover—courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez’s artistic brilliance—with colors that pop and crackle against equally searing testimony.

As I return from my sojourn at the ocean, I now look to my blistered shoulders, which have lost a bit of their sun-scorched, violet hue. While the pain has subsided under my skin, its delicate layers are beginning to shed. After turning the last page of Revolutionary Mothering, I notice that my soul feels anew. My own spiritual layers peeled back. My heart open and ready to receive.

In times like these, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines teaches me that hope, love and change are always possible.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mai’a Williams Author Page | Back to Alexis Pauline Gumbs's Author Page | Back to China Marten's Author Page

Unmasking the Black Bloc: Who they are, What they do, How they work

By Devon Douglas-Bowers
December 18th, 2014

“The Black Bloc always defend the demonstrations when the police come here.” - Ariane Santos, 26-year-old Brazilian student

“The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement.” - Chris Hedges

The Black Bloc: some love it, others hate it. Many condemn Black Blockers for engaging in property destruction and lack of central organization, yet others appreciate them and see their divisive actions as a positive, arguing for a diversity of tactics. However, what many are lacking is an understanding of the Black Bloc, it's history, the types of people who are in it, and the problems within.

While this is a brief exploration of the Black Bloc, those who are interested further should read "Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs? Anarchy In Action Around the World," by Francis Dupuis-Déri (translated by Lazer Lederhendler), which not only provided the research for this article, but also explores on a deeper level what the black block is, the tactics and beliefs of black blockers, and criticism of the Black Bloc.

To begin to discuss black blocs, there must first be an understanding of what a black bloc is. Black blocs are “ad hoc assemblages of individuals or affinity groups that last for the duration of a march or rally” in which members retain their anonymity via head-to-toe black clothing. While there may be uses of force, “more often than not they are content to protest peacefully” with the main objective being to “embody within a demonstration a radical critique of the economic and political system.” A black bloc can be one person or thousands. It should be noted the black bloc isn't a group, but rather a tactic to allow for radicals to engage in direct action without fear of arrest; while many black blockers are anarchist, not all of them are.


Black blocs came out of the autonomous movement in Germany in the 1980s, specifically West Germany where “radical feminists had a profound effect on the Automen, injecting the movement with a more anarchist spirit than was the case elsewhere in Western Europe.” The Automen expressed their politics via “rent strikes and re-appropriating hundreds of buildings which were turned into squats” that doubled as spaces for political activity.

There is no definitive moment when the term black bloc came into usage, although there are different stories. The first major arrival of a black bloc was in 1986 when a massive black bloc was formed to defend the Hafenstrasse squat where 1,500 black blockers and 10,000 other demonstrators confronted the police and saved the squat.

Black bloc ideas and tactics soon spread to North America via fanzines, personal contacts and punk music groups, but there is also a more interesting reason as to how black bloc tactics spread. Sociologists Charles Tilly, Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht, all of whom specialize in social movements, have shown that “for different periods and places there exist repertoires of collective action deemed effective and legitimate for the defense and promotion of a cause. These repertories are transformed and disseminated over time and across borders from one social movement to another, in accordance with the experiences of militants and the changes in the political sphere.”

Essentially, tactics and ideas spread over time from one social movement to another depending on their effectiveness and how the tactics will work within the context of each movement. Two modern day examples of this could be the physical encampment of spaces from the Occupy movement and the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture from the anti-police brutality movement that has recently sprung up surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

The first time the black bloc made a major move in North America was during a January 1991 rally against the Persian Gulf war where the World Bank building was targeted. Black bloc tactics were also used by the militant anti-racist group Anti-Racist Action, which focuses on directly confronting neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Who They Are, How They are Organized

While the black bloc may be made up of militants, they are consistently categorized as hooligans, thugs and youths who take joy in private property destruction. Thus, there needs to be further exploration of the types of people under the masks.

It should be noted the black blocs, at least in the U.S. and Europe, are generally overwhelmingly white and male. However, there is some diversity. In a communiqué published days after the demonstrations against the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, Mary Black (a pseudonym for a protester who took part in the protests) noted that most of the people she knew who used black bloc tactics “have days jobs working for nonprofits. Some are schoolteachers, labor organizers, or students. Some don't have full-time jobs, but instead spend most of their time working for change in their communities.[...] These are thinking and caring folks who, if they did not have radical political and social agendas, would be compared with nuns, monks, and others who live their lives in service.”

Dupuis-Déri himself stated that in interviews he has had with black blockers, many had been involved in the social sciences and that “in a number of cases, their research projects dealt with the political significance and consequences of demonstrations and direct actions,” suggesting “that their political involvement was grounded in serious political thinking.”

Thus, those who involve themselves in black bloc tactics are not necessarily people who are at protests solely to break things, although such types of people do come in and cause problems.

Before discussing the issue of property destruction, it would be pertinent to know how black blocs are organized. Black bloc groups attempt to function in a horizontal manner, with each person having equal say in deliberating issues and where the goal is consensus rather than voting. In order to do this, black blockers form affinity groups, which are groups “generally composed of between a half-dozen and several dozen individuals whose affinity results from ties that bind them, such as belonging to the same school, workplace, or political organization.” By having previous ties to one another, members in affinity groups are able to coordinate much easier.

The Issue of Property Destruction

Not all black blockers engage in property destruction. While one may use black bloc tactics, there are different roles one can play. Groups take into account things such as a person's immigration status, health problems, previous arrest record and the like, and at-risk individuals can engage in low-risk tasks such as being “in charge of legal support in the event of arrests, or responsible for transportation, lodging, water and food supplies, media contacts, psychological support” and whatnot.

Black blocs meet to plan and organize before hand, but also during protests as well. One black blocker who took part in the protests against the G8 Summit in 2003 noted in her reflection of the events:

"I found it extraordinary that we could hold delegates' meetings right in the middle of the blocking action. There were barricades, fires had been lit, the police were slinging a lot of tear gas. And still, a meeting was called with someone yelling, 'meeting in ten minutes near the road sign.' The meeting took place barely a few hundred meters from where the police stood, and it allowed us to decide on our course of action. [...] The police officers see you as a crowd and assume you're going to act like a crowd, The affinity group model disrupts that dynamic: you don't act like a crowd anymore but like a rational being."

With regards to property damage, for black blockers, the target is the message. Targets are often chosen for their symbolic value. “On principle, Black Blocs do not strike community centers, public libraries, the offices of women's committees or even small independent businesses.” While this may be true generally, the use of property destruction by some black blockers can cause problems, such as can be seen in the recent Berkeley protests, where people were protesting the death of Eric Garner and individuals came and broke the windows of a number of banks. This is deeply problematic as it took the attention off the death of Eric Garner and the larger issues surrounding police brutality against the black community, and put the attention on banks. Actions such as these can potentially create a space for the police to justify a crackdown on all protesters.

The fetishization of property destruction is a problem with the black bloc, as in some cases “violent direct action becomes a means for a would-be militant to affirm [their] political identity in the eyes of other militants. This makes it very tempting for that person to look down on and exclude those who do not equate radicalism with violence.” Yet, not all black blockers engage in this fetishization and are aware of the dangers, such as with a participant of the Quebec city black blocs who stated: “I have no patience for dogmatic pacifism, but there is also dogmatic violence, which sees violence as the only and only means to wage the struggle.” The protester Sofiane noted that “We don't advocate violence; it's not a program... Because you can easily acquire a taste for violence, you get used to it... But when it comes to doing militant work, not many people show up.”

Diversity of Tactics

However, there are solutions to the problem of those wanting to engage in direct action and others who want to peacefully protest that should be quoted at some length. Around 2000, there were a few mobilizations in which it was proposed that certain areas of a city be identified by colors in order to allow different types of protests simultaneously:

"This was done at the Reclaim the Street rally in London on June 18, 1999; at the first Global Day of Action called by the People's Global Action, an anti-capitalist network founded in Geneva in 1998 and close to the Zapatista rebels.[...] Color coding made it possible to distinguish among three separate marches: blue for the Black Bloc, accompanied by the Infernal Noise Brigade band; yellow for the Tute Bianche [a militant Italian social movement]; pink for the Pink and Silver Bloc."

The organization Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles used a similar tactic at demonstrations in which there were three zones: green, yellow, and red. "The green zone was a sanctuary where demonstrators were, theoretically, in no danger of being arrested. The yellow zone was for those undertaking nonviolent civil disobedience and involved a minor risk of being arrested. The red zone was for protesters who were ready for more aggressive tactics, including skirmishes with the police."

This allowed for the concept of a diversity of tactics to be respected, as well as for protesters to have spaces where more or less militant tactics were accepted, all while maintaining the safety of peaceful protesters.

Though the debate surrounding property violence is the largest and loudest of all, there are other problems within black blocs such as sexism and accusations of alienating the working class.

With regards to sexism, many critics of black blocs argue that militant direct action “partakes of a macho mystique and does not encourage women to join in” and that expressing one's anger through destruction “simply [confirms] and [amplifies] aggressive masculinity.” Furthermore, the sexual division of labor is often reproduced, with a woman who took part in a number of black blocs in the 2012 Quebec student strike saying that it was women who often did the shopping “when fabric was needed to make flags and banners.”

Dupuis-Déri noted that the situation hadn't changed, writing that “more than a decade earlier, during a meeting to prepare a black bloc in Montreal, the men ended up in the backyard of an apartment honing their slingshot skills while the women were in the kitchen making Molotov cocktails.” Thus, masculinity is not only reproduced in many black bloc circles, but also creates a space that rejects the participation of women and devalues their labor and thus their importance to the movement.

Some argue that black blocs alienate the working-class “with their clothing and lifestyle choices, which are associated with the anarchist counterculture.” While some may argue that there are those in the working-class who support and take part in black blocs, it should be noted that these are not fully representative of the working-class; there is a lack of people of color and women and so the black blocs are more representative of the young, white working-class.

Black blocs tactics are divisive and create a large amount of tension, even within far-left circles. Many condemn black blockers as being nothing but hooligans who want to break things. But by unmasking who they are, one can better understand them and their tactics and ideas, even if one disagrees.

NOTE: does not in any shape or form support or encourage property destruction or other violent activities associated with the Black Bloc.

Black Bloc, Automen, Hands Up Don't Shoot, Michael Brown, Ferguson protests, Anti-Racist Action, Francis Dupuis-Déri, affinity groups, property destruction, diversity of tactics, Eric Garner, anti-police brutality protests

Buy Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs? | Buy Who's Afraid of the Black Blocs e-book | Back to Francis Dupuis-Déri's Author Page

Crashing the Party: A Review in Friends Journal

by J.E. McNeil
Friends Journal
June 1st, 2016

The author, a legal worker (non-lawyer) member of the National Lawyers Guild, stated early on that he proposed “to write about the legal and political events as both a firsthand participant and an objective observer.” From what I knew from various accounts—the press, the National Lawyers Guild’s, and my nephew’s (he had been arrested during the events in the book)—few, if any, of the participants in the horrific events surrounding the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., were “objective” about what happened.

But I was wrong. The book is a detailed, exacting retelling of the events before, during, and after—long after—the convention had left Philadelphia. It is a chilling story, well told. In it are many accounts of solidarity, betrayal, bravery, and brutality.

The basic story is about the groups who sought to protest many issues during and around the Republican gathering in Philadelphia in August 2000. Hermes notes that some of the actions had foreshadowing in the Seattle World Trade Organization protests. In those protests, the activists ably used various educational, street theater, and arrest-and-trial strategies as well as legal observers. And the government effectively used disinformation tactics, initially convincing the general public that the protests were largely led by violent, black-clad anarchists.

The alliances who sought to protest the convention spent more than a year planning and preparing—as did the police. The activists were spied upon, infiltrated, harassed, and eventually—in many cases before the events—arrested. In particular, the proposed peaceful street theater’s puppets, float, and banners were destroyed prior to the event, with everyone in the staging area arrested whether they were connected to it or not. The treatment of the activists by the police during the arrests and while in custody without bail hearings in jail was vicious. The criminal charges were outrageous violations of constitutional rights. People in authority lied and colluded. Eventually, 95 percent of those arrested were not convicted.

Many of the methods and strategies used by the activists will not be new to Friends, such as consensus decision making. Others will be things with which we are not in accord, such as “a pushback against the rigidity of ‘nonviolence.’” Hermes explains coherently the strategies of arrest solidarity, jail solidarity, and court solidarity as well. But he also includes mistakes and failures of the activists. He relates, for example, a story of activists robbed when they handed bail money to a young African American man whom they failed to vet as they normally would have. This event led to a discussion among the activists of the inherent racism in trusting people more because they are members of an oppressed class.

Hermes relates all of this in great detail, using transcripts, interviews, and media reports.
The book ends with his own analysis of the events and strategy and that of many of the other participants, by itself well worth reading. And clearly the events had several important results.

One result, and foremost for me, was the understanding at a new depth by the predominantly young, white, affluent protesters of just how horrible and racist the prison and justice system is in our country. Reading and hearing about something is very different from experiencing and witnessing it. Another result was the strengthening of direct action trends among young activists of color. As Kazembe Balagun, a SLAM (Student Liberation Action Movement) member noted: “direct action, done correctly, can foster solidarity across racial and gender lines, and that’s something we definitely learned.”

But even as some were radicalized, others such as Ryan Harvey, political activist and organizer, realized:

We have a lot of work to do, and most of it is not going to get done in the streets. It’s going to get done on the doorsteps, the libraries, the churches, the labor halls, the schools, the military bases, the parks, the prisons, the abortion clinics, the neighborhood associations, the PTAs.

Even if you do not share all of the beliefs of the activists, Crashing the Party is an important read for those who would like to understand the various anti-globalization actions before and since. Even if some of the political analysis leaves you cringing, Crashing the Party provides useful insights for peace work in our meetings. Even if you do not choose to engage in direct action or even protest, Crashing the Party is a revealing take about the dysfunction of our legal system, prison systems, and society.

We have a lot of work to do.

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

Battling Convention Kris Hermes in Jacobin Magazine

 Police dogs at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. Casa del libro

By Kris Hermes
Jacobin Magazine
July 19th, 2016

Inside the police’s playbook for repressing protests at national conventions.

Police dogs at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. Casa del libro

In 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, police violently cleared the streets of antiwar protesters, smashing heads and clubbing with abandon. Inside, even some Democratic Party officials blanched at the level of brutality. Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, denounced the police’s “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of the convention hall, earning the ire of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and the applause of many delegates.

In the decades since, domestic law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to quell political dissent. While no convention since has devolved into such chaotic brutality, policing today is arguably more planned, militarized, and indiscriminately violent.

The contemporary policing model — one of “strategic incapacitation,” as the sociologist Patrick Gillham terms it — developed as a reaction to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

After the “Battle in Seattle,” during which protesters shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization summit, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney and other officials traveled to the Pacific Northwest to study protest tactics and the police response, and to prepare for the Republican Convention scheduled in Philadelphia just a few months later.

Lessons well learned, Timoney oversaw the crackdown at the GOP gathering in 2000 and then, as Miami police chief, presided over one of the most brutal responses to political protest in modern history: the repression of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.

The “Miami model” established the rules of engagement that the host cities of political conventions now habitually employ to quash dissent. Chances are, officials in Cleveland (site of the Republican National Convention) and Philadelphia (site of the Democratic National Convention) will crib from the same playbook.

Advance Repression

The effort to thwart convention protests begins months before any delegate sets foot in the host city. Since 2000, every political convention has been designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE), which allows officials to establish a robust, multi-agency law enforcement apparatus (with the FBI and Secret Service at the top) and to have to access to millions of federal dollars for police equipment, weaponry, and personnel.

As the intelligence community sets up shop and local police stockpile weapons, public officials engage in a calculated effort to frighten residents. They warn of “outside agitators” and “violent anarchists,” seeking to foment divisions between the public and protesters and build support for the inevitable crackdown.

Meanwhile, FBI agents visit the homes and workplaces of known activists to ratchet up the pressure. Law enforcement infiltrate and spy on activist groups, even if there’s no credible threat of terrorist or violent activity.

The information gathered is shared at local or regional fusion centers and then used to disrupt political organizing. (While fusion centers are already set up in Philadelphia and Cleveland, it might be harder for Philadelphia police to carry out this part of the plan: thanks to a historic lawsuit and “mayoral directive” in the 1980s, city police must receive permission from the city’s managing director before infiltrating political groups.)

As the conventions approach, police descend on “convergence centers” or other designated protest spaces used to distribute literature, connect protesters, and provide trainings. The raids are carried out to deliberately disorient political activists, making it harder to build momentum and organize.

In the lead-up to the 2008 RNC in St Paul, law enforcement spied on the activist group The Welcome Committee for months, preemptively raided multiple activists’ homes, and arrested several organizers on conspiracy and terrorism charges. (Some activists sued over the house raids, and the city eventually dropped the terrorism charges.)

In addition, paid FBI informants entrapped two young activists, prodding them to make Molotov cocktails. Because of the FBI’s manufactured plot, the two men spent years in prison for building — but never using — the fire bombs.

Before the 2012 RNC, the Tampa Police Department inserted itself into many protest groups, employing “widespread use of undercover operatives to gather intelligence.” Tampa Police Department major Marc Hamlin later bragged at a security conference that the “organizational structure [of protesters] was extremely weak,” allowing undercover officers to penetrate and “take over” a protest group. When the dust settled, only the dismantled political group faced any consequences.

To justify their actions, police often craft outlandish, unsubstantiated claims about protesters. For example, in 2000, Pennsylvania state troopers spent a week searching a West Philadelphia warehouse full of art and protest materials. Despite finding no legal reason to shut down the building, Timoney falsely claimed that police found explosives and acid-filled balloons.

Before his fabrications were uncovered, police arrested more than seventy people and destroyed all of the First Amendment–protected banners, puppets, and literature they found.

An additional tactic used to stop protests before they start is to deny official sanction to disfavored groups. Both in 2000 and this year, Philadelphia rejected the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s application for a march permit. Last time, the PPEHRC took to the street under threat of arrest, but this time the group mounted a successful legal challenge and will march with a permit.

In 2004, ahead of the RNC, New York City refused to issue a permit to antiwar groups looking to protest in Central Park. Although activists eventually won their suit, the city successfully prevented people from gathering in the park.

Just for good measure, host cities also typically impose sweeping “no-protest” or “security” zones in advance, banning everyday items and curtailing free-speech activity. In 2008, in addition to instating tight controls on rally locations and logistics, St Paul drew a parade route that, in certain sections, was completely fenced-in and lined with heavily armed police. And at the 2012 RNC, despite expectations of few protesters, Tampa’s security zone covered the entire downtown area.

On the Ground

Pre-convention repression is just a warm-up for the main event. Once the convention begins, heavily militarized police show massive displays of force, at times outnumbering protesters; use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, tasers, and sound cannons to attack protesters; and detain hundreds after unlawful arrests.

Once protesters are in jail, police and city officials often do everything they can to keep them in detention. They slap excessive charges on protesters, impose prohibitively high bail, and refuse to release arrestees or allow them access to legal counsel, preventing them from getting back on the streets until the convention ends. At the 2004 RNC, police arrested nearly two thousand people and held them in conditions so squalid that New York City eventually settled civil litigation for $18 million.

During the 2000 RNC, Philadelphia police locked up some four hundred people, charging more than forty with felonies and the rest with as many as ten misdemeanors each.

The average bail ranged between $15,000 and $20,000, but those who police accused of being “ringleaders” were held on $500,000 and $1 million bails. Most were denied access to legal counsel and detained for several days before arraignment.

It has also become common practice for cities hosting NSSEs to obtain insurance policies.

The trend started in Philadelphia, when it bought insurance for the 2000 RNC to protect the city and its police from liability for rights violations, including assault and battery, false arrest, wrongful detention and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The city used the policy to pay for settlements from several civil lawsuits and arguably gave police license to act even more violently.

In the years since, St Paul, Tampa, and Charlotte (the site of the 2012 DNC) have all purchased similar policies.

What to Expect

To what extent will Cleveland and Philadelphia follow the same template as other host cities?

Neither city has disclosed what weapons they’ve purchased with the roughly $50 million the federal government has given each of them. But we know that Cleveland has bought riot gear and batons, and Philadelphia considered buying an armored vehicle.

We can assume that police will act like an occupying force. Cleveland police are likely already infiltrating activist groups — in April, they held a training to build “cohesion” between undercover operatives and uniformed police during periods of “civil unrest.”

If history repeats itself, law enforcement in Philadelphia will infiltrate political groups, statutes against it notwithstanding. Advances in communication technology like stingray devices will allow police to eavesdrop on cell phone communication without a warrant.

Challenges in the courts have moderately loosened the hold officials have over protest activity. Philadelphia’s refusal to issue certain protest permits and its ban on rush-hour demonstrations was successfully challenged and resulted in a court-ordered settlement. Cleveland announced a three-and-a-half-square-mile security zone and time-and-place restrictions on marches and rallies, only to see them struck down.

However, the court-ordered settlement in Cleveland still bans marches for most of the afternoon and all of the evening, an unrealistic and arguably unconstitutional policy that will certainly invite mass arrests.

Even in the best-case scenario, protesters in Cleveland and Philadelphia will take to the streets in a decidedly inhospitable environment. Activists and organizers will have to adopt innovative and creative strategies to try to circumvent state repression. Establishing a base of support with host city residents and solidarity with workers — especially those integral to the convention infrastructure — would be a good place to start.

Activists will also have to counter the prevailing media narratives, reminding residents that their cities are throwing expensive and often publicly funded private parties at the same time they shutter public schools, lay off public workers, and slash social services.

Regardless of what happens inside the convention halls, it’s outrageous that millions of dollars are being spent to suppress political speech — especially at time when both parties tell us that addressing our education, health care, and housing needs is just too costly.

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

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel in Hypercultura

By Sorina Georgescu
vol 6(15) 2014

1 At the crossroads between a coursebook[i], a piece of writing about life and a feminist manifesto, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel. Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture is, as the subtitle suggests, both an enlightening insight into Israeli intra‐racism and an orginal and valuable connection between two seemingly unrelated concepts: bureaucracy and torture.

2 The book is structured in thirteen parts: a “Note on Transliteration”, a “List of Illustrations”, an “Introduction”, six chapters – each with several subchapters, a “Glossary of Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish Terms”, “References”, “Acknowledgements” and an “Index”. The main theoretical concepts throughout the book are “GendeRace”, “Zionism”, “Agency” and “Identity Politics”, each having its own way of using bureaucracy and perpetrating torture on the Mizrahi single mothers.

3 The author also draws from epidemiologist Nancy Krieger’s theory that links “chronic bureaucratic entanglements, hypertension, chronic pain and death”. This she further develops as “divine cosmology”, de ined as “the Divinity of the Jewish State” – Jewish people’s ’promised land’, now a real state, and the “Divinity of Chance” – “the goals the faithful have when they go on pilgrimage”. As these “divinities” suggest, we also have lots of humor in this book:

“A welfare mother petitioning a bureaucrat is like a pilgrim beseeching the jawbone of a saint. Mother and pilgrim are bound by the strict script of religious ritual on the one hand, and by serendipity on the other. A mother trying to track down her income augmentation might consult a bureaucrat at the NSB, the post of ice clerk, an appointed bank of icial, a case worker at the municipal welfare of ice, or others. All the while, she is constantly praying for a miracle. None of the avenues is guaranteed to succeed. She has no choice but to subject herself to this godly roulette. Godly it is because both mother and bureaucrat conceive themselves as integral parts of the miraculous ingathering of the Jewish diaspora in the promised land. This is the land of divine bureaucracy governed by ETSBA’ ELOKIM (the inger of God), where citizenship is one guaranteed miracle, so long as you can prove ive generations back of Jewish mothers. The other guaranteed miracle of Israeli Jews is an IDF draft notice to report of duty at age eighteen (19).”

4 The book is all the more interesting for being Smadar Lavie’s personal experience. The daughter of a Mizrahi/Arab/Yemeni[ii] mother and of an Ashkenazi father, she bene itted from a much better education than most Mizrahi women, being raised in a “largely Ashkenazi working‐to‐middle‐class neighborhood less than ten miles south of Tel Aviv” (11). Thus, unlike the average Mizrahi girls, she had access to superior education, leading her to the US as a researcher‐anthropologist. However, divorce from a violent husband and the loss of her 9‐year‐child’s custody, through a controversial Parental Alienation Syndrome charge[iii], make her take her child back to her family, in Israel. Here starts her drama as a welfare mother, after having resigned her tenured associate professorship at the University of California, Davis: her color – the Arab phenotype[iv], and her politics – anti‐Zionism – exclude her ”from academic positions that paid a living wage” (13). Here, she becomes the member of a feminist NGO which actively supports the anti‐governmental protests of poor Mizrahi women, such as Vicky Knafo, a protest – the Knafoland – that begins and ends Lavie’s book.

5 As the author declares in the “Introduction”, the purpose of her book is “my simultaneous existence as Mizrahi single mother on welfare, former university professor turned into feminist‐of‐color activist, and media personality” (22). To which she adds an “attempt to counter Israeli Anthropology’s insistence on harmonious inals” (22).

6 The irst important concept, the equivalence between “GendeRace”, bureaucracy and torture, can be explained by starting with the educational system in Israel, a gender‐segregated one, with “far fewer classrooms for girls than for boys” (50), with mainly vocational highschools (seamstresses, knitting, weaving), with fewer kindergartens only in the evenings. In other words, “inferior education, if any at all” (50). Bureaucracy, associated with physical force, is the educational of icials’ argument for enrolling “into boarding schools or kibbutzim any children about the normative two‐child family” (51). There, ”the Ashkenazi educators made sure that the boarded Mizrahi children would not intermingle with the superior Ashkenazi children” (51).

7 Work in Israel is another “GendeRaced” issue. Not only did and do the favored Ashkenazi women have dif iculties in inding a job and face lower wages than Ashkenazi men, but, well into the 1960s, the Arab Jews were the domestic servants, cleaners, launderers and agricultural workers. They were battered by their employers, they were victims of “sexual abuse and rape”. As feminists in the 1990s and the 2000s, Mizrahi ONGs are not allowed to ”educate our communities on feminism of color” (61).

8 As single mothers, they are too fond of the Jewish State to be really able‐willing to ight ”the somatic pain in licted upon them by the state’s bureaucracy”, which means queuing in huge lines at the welfare bureau, with endless papers to be illed in, in order to try to obtain their monthly income check:

“Even though she moves through time and space, she can only move through the time and space allotted by the regime. Because she loves her Jewish homeland and fears that genuine resistance will weaken her homeland’s stand against the Goyim[v], she can enact only a igurative simulacrum of resistance. The regime merely lays its web in wait for her to entangle herself (81).”

9 Another bureaucratic shortcoming is ambiguity and evasiveness, lack of any obvious rules, plus the demand of sexual favors by the clerks and/or potential employers, turning any success at the bureau into “a miracle”. The mother does not know and has no way of knowing, which actions correlate with success or failure” (82). Finally, the single mother is practically denied even the chances of obtaining her money through court. All judges care for are endless fees, papers, signatures and stamps, all these involving much more money than any Mizrahi single mother may produce. In other words, “Government bureaus are where the Divinity of Chance meets the Divinity of the State” (84).

10 Speaking about this “Divinity of the State”, Zionism is another central factor linked with bureaucracy and torture.

11 De ined as a “European ideology of Jewish nationalism whose main goal was to colonize Palestine in order to establish a Jewish State” (61), an ideology which perceives Arabs as “primitives”, Zionism is the “destruction of Palestinian villages” (61) and the portrayal of counter‐reactions as “pogroms” (61). Today, it means a huge social‐economic gap between the Ashkenazi ruling minority and the Mizrahi lower‐class majority. It means discriminatory education, employment and wages, plus the denial of “Arab culture and Orthodox Judaism”. It means the master narrative of the ight against the Goyim. And it means that “from the craddle to donning military fatigues at age eighteen, all Israel citizens tracing Jewish lineage learned that their most vital responsibility to the state was in creating new generations of Jewish citizens. Judaism is citizenship” (61). Finally, for Smadar Lavie, it meant not being allowed to study Jewish intra‐racism as a tenured professor, the only recommended ield being the binary Israel‐Palestinian con lict.

12 The last two inter‐twined concepts, “agency” and “identity politics” are direct consequences of GendeRace and Zionism. We are talking about Hebrew media stereotypes of Mizrahi single mothers[vi] and we are talking about the denial of their agency through the “mirage of Mizrahi Ashkenazi Jewish unity to narrate how all Jews should ight on a single front so Israel – the little David – can survive surrounded by Arab Goyim Goliath” (79). As Smadar Lavie explains, this is just a mask to hide the State’s use of bureacracy “to crush, marginalize, contain and buy out individuals or groups within social protest movements”. The only protests allowed are those that “showcase the ’chosen people’s’ national unity devoid of race, class or religious observance. Movements that do not showcase this national unity are ignored. Eventually, all Mizrahi movements become sucked into the Palestine‐Israel binary and then disappear from the public sphere” (80).

13 Another way of denying such agency is the impossibility of turning bureaucratic pain into discourse. According to our author’s direct observation, single mothers did not even make the connection between the moment of opening and reading a letter about a new allowance cut or a new paper to be illed in, and their consequent burning of food or yelling at their children.

14 Unfortunately, Smadar Lavie’s Knafoland has no happy end. Being a book about reality, one of Israel’s realities happened to be a “Palestinian suicide bomber” who killed 23 and injured 130, thus ending both the truce between Israel and Hamas and the national and international media attention towards the Mizrahi feminist protest. No solutions to their problems. Only the warning that, should their children fail to be at school come 1 September, they would be reported “as delinquents to the Youth and Family Courts. The judges could then order the removal of the children from their homes to be forcibly placed into boarding schools” (145).

15 Only one possible ending:
“In a press corps’ caravan, they sped across town to cover the carnage at the border. Afterwards, they went to the American Colony Hotel Bar to get drunk. So did I, with my converted food coupons to purchase a drink I would muse for hours and my California English to gather info. Forever the anthropologist, forever collecting data (145).”

[i]The book explains a lot of facts and concepts regarding history, ideology, laws

[ii]Mizrahi – 50% of Israel population; they are Easterners or Orientals and have their origins in the Arab and Muslim world and the margins of the Ottoman Empire (Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, India); they are the majority of Israel’s disenfranchised; Ashkenazi – 30%; they come from Central and Eastern Europe; they spoke Yiddish; they control the division of power and privilege in the State; other ethnic groups/races: Sephardim Jews (Spaniards), Palestinians (20%), Russim (10‐12%), Kavkazim plus Gruzinim (2‐4%)

[iii]Parental Alienation Syndrome – PAS – the assumption that a child estrangement from a violent father most likely precipitates from the mother causing alienation between the father and child (26)

[iv]Yemeni race marks: olive‐chocolate skin and dark brown eyes, wide eyelids, high cheekbones, prominent collarbone and wrist bones, narrow waistline with wide hips, short torso and Asian height (14)

[v]Goyim – non‐Jew; Arab
[vi]Mizrahi single mothers: ”bleached blonde hair, skinny jeans, smoking expensive import cigarettes – proof of their loose morals and wastefulness” (68)

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Wrapped in the Flag of Israel in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work

by Barbara Levy Simon
August 2016

Smadar Lavie has written a brave and scholarly autoethnography, using an extended case study method, of a social movement in contemporary Israel made up of single mothers within the Mizra- him, those Jews of color whose ancestors were formerly part of Muslim and Arab worlds. The Miz- rahim mostly came to Israel in the 1950s from countries of the former Ottoman Empire—nations in Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Although they make up 50% of the current population of Israel, the Mizrahim constitute the majority of Israel’s disenfranchised resi- dents and citizens (p. 1).

The author is a feminist anthropologist and Mizrahi single mother of Yemini ancestry. In 1999, she fled with her son to Tel Aviv, Israel, from her home in Berkeley, CA, where she had lived and worked as a tenured professor at the University of California, Davis, in order to protect her 9-year- old boy from her violent ex-husband who had just been granted full custody of the child. She pro- vides a firsthand account and analysis of her research and life experiences between 1999 and 2007 in Israel. While there, Dr. Lavie became an activist in and member of the executive board of a feminist nongovernmental organizational known as Ahoti, Hebrew for ‘‘Sistah—for women in Israel.’’

In 2003, Israel’s National Security Bureau (NSB), the equivalent of the U.S. Social Security Administration, mailed a notice to all single mothers informing them that the national government was immediately slashing their monthly income assurances (welfare checks), rent assistance, and income supplements. This set of drastic, welfare cutbacks left most Mizrahi single mothers without sufficient money for food, rent, or clothing.

Ahoti responded by organizing the Single Mothers’ March in 2003 on Jerusalem’s NSB. Because most Ashkenazi single mothers (Jews with European roots) were able to find financial and residen- tial help from their middle-class kin, the Single Mothers’ March was composed of only Mizrahi women, women of color living with their children in poverty. The author details what she sees as the impossibility of protesters succeeding in making demands on a state that they love. Lavie argues persuasively that single mothers of color in Israel, who are immigrants and refugees beholden to a state that has taken them in as citizens, are constitutionally unable to be sustained agents of their own liberation. Despite the racism and poverty they endure daily, the Mizrahi single mothers, suggests Lavie, are not psychologically or morally equipped to hold the State of Israel responsible for their oppression and poverty.

With theoretical sophistication and granular accounts of day-to-day struggles of her own and other single mothers’ efforts to survive and gain access to resources and entitlements as Israelis, Lavie sets forth a theory of bureaucracy as a system torture. She identifies in nuanced fashion the mental, physical, and existential torments that accompany the processes of requesting hearings, appeals, and procedural fairness. Kafka’s (1957) The Trial comes to mind as Lavie illuminates through diary entries, narrative accounts, and analytic paragraphs the intra-Jewish racism and class discrimination she and many other Mizrahim experienced and continue to undergo in seeking administrative and legal redress in Israel.

This is a painful account well worth reading. Social workers from many nations who are involved in difficult macro- and mezzo-practice would find illuminating the many elements of social move- ment activity and peer-group support that Lavie characterizes and theorizes so powerfully.


Kafka, F. (1957). The trial (Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir; rev., and with additional materials trans. E. M. But- ler; Illustrated by George Salter). New York, NY: Knopf.

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PM Press Feature in Sapling Newsletter

Originally published in the Sapling Newsletter
May 30th, 2016
This week Sapling talks with the editors at PM Press.

Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with PM Press?
PM Press: In less than 10 years, PM Press has managed to release nearly 400 books that have slowly and steadily sold over a million copies (combined) without any mainstream or corporate support. Our staff has gone from fully volunteer to full-time paid employees with very few changes. Unlike traditional publishers, our sales rely heavily on grassroots events (hand to hand bookselling) from coast to coast, word of mouth and small press reviews, and the support of the DIY and global political activist communities. We’d like to think that at our best we’ve been an example for folks interested in starting their own independent publishing ventures, and as an amplifier for writers, artists, and activists working on social/political justice issues ignored by the celebrity-driven mainstream media; and at our worst, proof that the world does not really need any more fantasy novels or tenure-driven Marxist analysis of the world (regardless of how well-intentioned, of course).
Sapling: How did your name come about?
PM Press: We needed a name quickly; a list was drawn up with options ranging from large motorcycle engine sizes (1200cc) to book related terms (Crooked Spine) to initialed phrases (FTW). PM was a friendly set of initials that could be used for any purpose that the occasion required (print matters, pogue mahone, piano man etc.). It didn’t hurt that most of the productive work in the early days was taking place late at night, in the PM!
Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?
PM Press: Am I excited to read the topic or story? Is the writer able to communicate an idea or am I left puzzled? Sometimes I'm excited to read a manuscript based on the synopsis and the writer hasn't been able to follow through beyond that initial spark.
The deal breakers are sort of boring. Nothing racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Otherwise we're open to publishing an eclectic range of nonfiction, fiction, and comics as long as it's something a few of us find interesting.
 Where do you imagine PM Press to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?
PM Press: We'll keep trucking along releasing lots more books by authors old and new while covering a diverse range of ideas both in fiction and nonfiction. Hopefully some graphic novels and comic collections. Occasionally a book that left me puzzled but through a lot of hard work has come together at last.
Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
PM Press: The hardest thing for me as an editor is to give everything the care and vigilance it deserves, moving it all the way from the submitted manuscript to its polished final form, the main reason being a burdensome workload. It’s a lot of ground to cover. There’s so much worthy stuff that we want to publish yet we’re only a tiny crew.
The best part is any time a reader finds one of our books inspiring or engaging. If something we publish sheds light on a neglected issue, voice, or history, or serves as a tool to think about how to make the world better, then whatever it took to get it out there was worth it.
Sapling:  If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
PM Press: Walden and Resistance to Civil Government (Norton Critical Edition), Henry David Thoreau: A favorite book for most of my life. I could spend months (years?) on an island reading this without exhausting its store of valuable things.
Kindred, Octavia Butler: The most recent novel I bought, last week. While stuck on a desert island I’d want something that could transport me to another place and time, and Kindred relates to the protagonist’s struggle to survive in a frightening and unfamiliar world, that of American slavery.
Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner: Assuming I’d have brought my laptop, I’d probably want to get caught up on some editing as long as my battery held out, and Garner’s book is an indispensable reference book I wouldn’t want to be without.
Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if PM Press was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
PM Press: If PM Press was a person (and what a strange person that would be), the three things we would be thinking about obsessively would be:
1) How to make Google previews work more easily for our titles,
2) Finding new ways to get books into people's hands that focus on social/cultural and political justice and inspire change,
3) Smashing Capital and the State.
PM Press was founded at the end of 2007 by a small collection of folks with decades of publishing, media, and organizing experience. PM Press co-conspirators have published and distributed hundreds of books, pamphlets, CDs, and DVDs. Members of PM have founded enduring book fairs, spearheaded victorious tenant organizing campaigns, and worked closely with bookstores, academic conferences, and even rock bands to deliver political and challenging ideas to all walks of life. We’re old enough to know what we’re doing and young enough to know what’s at stake. We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books, pamphlets, T-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire you.
 For more info: 

Urusla K. Le Guin’s Late in the Day In Rain Taxi

Klausner's Bookshelf
Midwest Book Review
February 2012

Ursula K. Le Guin’s newest book includes poems, an essay on poetic cra , and a postscript on the state of literature. The poems are well cra ed, each with a poignant message about humanity or nature.
 Le Guin says in her forward: “by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.” In both cra and theme, this new collec- tion meets her ideal.

Le Guin is better known as a novelist, the author of The Le Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, Earthsea, and so many others. Throughout her career, however, she has also been a poet. Her new collection is a worthy addition to her lifework, in which she has continually looked at the relationship of humans to the natural world and sought solutions to con ict and violence.

In “The Old Music” she uses the form of Goethe’s “Nachtgesang”:

The tunes of my own choosing
all sounded false and wrong

I sought a newer music,

I found an older song.

In returning to an older song, Le Guin uses traditional forms, free verse, and “free form.” She says: “By free form I mean a discernible pattern—involving a regularity, repetition of stanzas, line lengths, metric beat . . . that is unique to a certain poem.” “The Canada Lynx,” here in its entirety, is free form:

We know how to know and how to think
how to exhibit what is known

to heaven’s bright ignorant eye

how to be busy and to multiply.

He knows how to walk

into the trees alone not looking back,
so light on his so feet he does not sink
into the snow. How to leave no track,
no sound, no shadow. How to be gone.

Here Le Guin shows her trademark respect for the environment; with irony and humility, she acknowledges that the lynx may know more than we imagine. But she also exempli es the kind of freedom she es- pouses. “We can use rhyme, meter, repetition, however and whenever we choose—in conventional forms, or semi-conventional forms, or in once-only patterns we discover or invent. This, I think, is true freedom of verse.” In “Artemisia Tridentata,” she uses end rhyme and a single quatrain:

Some ruthlessness be ts old age.

Tender young herbs are generous and pliant,
but in dry solitudes the grey-leaved sage
stands unforthcoming and de ant.

She may be de ant—she’s an unapologetic anarchist and feminist, and certainly a literary sage—however Le Guin is anything but unforthcom- ing and ruthless. Goethe, in “Nachtgesang,” wrote: “Those eternal feelings / li me sublimely high, / away from the earthly crowd.” As she observes the world, Le Guin is as sublime as Goethe and yet more grounded in solid form, imaginative imagery, and empathy.

In the book’s postscript, Le Guin says, “Resistance and change o en begin in art . . . I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publish- ing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t pro t. Its name is freedom.” With such a view, Late in the Day is a tting capstone to Ursula K. Le Guin’s long career. The poems, with their diverse topics and varied forms, show versatility and compassion.

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Jon Felton and his Soulmobile // Songs for A Wolf at the Gate

Spirit You All Music
June 7th, 2016

Frostburg, Maryland's Jon Felton has been at the wheel of his Soulmobile band for almost a decade now, but their latest effort brings their Kingdom-heralding, punk-flavored folk to a brand-new audience: kids. The album is a companion to Mark Van Steenwyk's book A Wolf at the Gate, which retells the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio for children with beautiful woodblock-print illustrations and the author's characteristically Mennonite emphasis on peacemaking and non-violence; Soulmobile's music retains those weighty themes while sharpening them with charm and humor at every turn. As the cliché goes, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate is kids' music that grown-ups will appreciate, too.

After the wonderful opener "The Prayer of the Beggar King", which is one of the most memorable renditions of St. Francis' prayer yet put to music, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate acquaints listeners with its large cast. Van Steenwyk's book turns the legend of Francis taming a town-terrorizing wolf into a society-wide morality tale, so here the different levels of the town's social strata, along with the beasts of the nearby forest, each get a tune with its own distinct lesson. Felton goes full-Aesop on "The Song of the Raven", where he sweetly admonishes the hoarding bird for stealing away the other animals' food ("Raven, Raven, don't you know that's no way to live and grow?/Raven, Raven, it's better to go hungry with friends than it is to be full alone"), while on "The Song of the Nobles", the ruling class's raucous gang vocals sneer at the peasants they casually exploit.

Though this is his first kids' album, Felton is an old hand at playfully illuminating serious issues - he's a founding member and performer in the Carnival de Resistance, a circus aimed at spiritual renewal and ecological justice. Many of those Carnival accomplices lend their voices to Songs for A Wolf at the Gate. Most notably, there's Jay Beck, whose unmistakable booming baritone shows up throughout, with other contributions from Aimee Wilson, Seth Martin, members of Psalters and The Hollands!, and many more.

Another contribution is from Soulmobile's multi-instrumentalist BJ Lewis - the hilarious "12 Days of Christmas"-style "Kneeuhmajeans", which accrues new descriptors of the Beggars' destitute state with each repetition: "There is a hole in the tip of my cap/Toe of my sock/Knee of my jeans..."  That, along with songs like "Simple Gifts" (which has the classic accelerating chorus without which any children's album would be impoverished) are just a few of many indications that Felton and company didn't take the route musicians sometimes default to when creating for tykes: dumb down song structures, garnish with banjo, and call it kids' music. Instead, they have respect for the form and, after the pattern of masters like Ella Jenkins and Raffi, a deep respect for their young audience. It's that respect, combined with grin-inducing humor and good old-fashioned Appalachian folk music, that makes Songs for A Wolf at the Gate such a pleasure, no matter how long it's been since you've read a picture book.

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Strike: A Review

By Dale Heckerman
The International Marxist-Humanist
May 28th, 2016

In the field of radical labor history, Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! is held in high esteem by fellow leftists and labor historians and is considered one of the standard go-to reference books for anyone aspiring to learn labor history. I agree that this book is a must-read source of information on labor’s struggles in the United States during the period from 1877 to today. I believe that Jeremy Brecher genuinely cares about the plight of the working class as he painstakingly details numerous labor actions over the past, nearly one-hundred-forty years of labor history. I learned a lot from this book and it would be very difficult to sum up all the various strikes and labor actions he covers. I recommend that everyone read it for the wealth of information and insight this book contains.

We learn a lot from Brecher concerning the creativity and co-operation between workers that has been hidden from “conventional” history. A critical examination of the history of unions and union leaders is taken up, as well, which ranges from the heroic, e.g., Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones), to the development of parasitic business unionism.

Brecher begins his book by briefly discussing the fact that strikes occurred during the building of the Great Pyramids of Egypt and that strikes had occurred as early as 1636 in North America, where the strikers were prosecuted as illegal conspirators. After recounting a few interesting observations by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, which will remind folks of what will be developed dialectically by Karl Marx in the following decade, Brecher starts his labor narrative in the year 1877.

Brecher’s Chapter 1, “The Great Upheaval,” marks the first great American mass strike, which occurred primarily on the railroads in the year 1877. In addition to the mass strikes, Brecher lists several pertinent facts relating to 1877 beginning with what became a monument to the Great Upheaval, the construction of armories in many major cities, built to protect “America not against invasion from abroad but against popular revolt at home.” 1877 was four years into the longest depression, which began in 1873, that capitalism had known. The Paris Commune was still fresh in everyone’s mind and its effect on the working class was particularly unnerving to the capitalists. The 1877 General Strike grew out of the failure of less violent forms of struggle. Brecher also covers the use of federal troops to break the strikes.

All these facts are indeed important, but if we try to trace the self-development of labor dialectically we see that some important facts are left out, beginning with the fact that 1877 was the year that Federal Troops were removed from the South, thus ending Reconstruction and consequently freeing up more federal troops for use in the class war against labor.
The Unfinished State of America’s Second Revolution

Marxist-Humanists regard 1877 as the year of betrayal in the history of Black liberation, which has had lasting consequences to this day for Black liberation and labor. However, the unfinished state of America’s second revolution (America’s Civil War) isn’t the ground where Brecher starts his narrative. The following quotes may help explain what we mean by the unfinished state of America’s second revolution. The first quote is from Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 and concerns the effects of slavery in America on labor:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the agitation for the eight-hour day.”

The following quotes describing capitalism in the United States following the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War are from Raya Dunayevskaya’s book, American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (ACOT):

“American capitalism… has been both raised up, and thrown back by the unfinished state of its revolution. Capitalism, not capitalism in general, but American capitalism as it expanded after the Civil War, sharpened the basic contradictions of the historic environment in which it functioned. This capitalism was tied to the cotton plantations.” (ACOT, p. 5, emphasis in original).
“No wonder we have advanced so little from 1877 when Union, ‘one and indivisible,’ meant unity forged in the struggle against labor for imperialist adventures. To understand todays racism as well as tokenism, it is necessary to return to that page in history when the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of Northern capital with the South set the stage for the unbridled violence against labor” (ACOT, p 12).

To understand the dialectic of labor we must turn to the past. We cannot understand history in the United States unless we understand Black history. The Black dimension has put American civilization on trial for nearly four hundred years since the arrival of Africans as slaves in 1619 and has been the “touchstone” of American history ever since.
Divide and Conquer

I think those of us who are even remotely acquainted with labor history are aware of the divide-and-conquer strategy used by capitalists to defeat the working class. Racism as the most commonly used form of betrayal is also familiar to most. But what happened to African-Americans following the Civil War has to rank as one of the most heinous examples:

“The three basic constituents of the betrayal, that is to say, the unfinished state of revolution, were (1) the freedmen did not get ‘the 40 acres and a mule’ they were promised; (2) the old slave owners did get back their plantations and thus the power to institute a mode of production to suit cotton culture; and (3) the crop lien system was introduced with ‘new’ labor; share cropping…. Once Congress, in 1867, failed to pass Thaddeus Stevens’ Land Division Act which would have given each freedman 40 acres and $50 for a homestead, the rest was inevitable” (ACOT, p. 11).

Consequently, most Black workers were to remain isolated in the South for several decades, divided from white workers and from most forms of labor organization bringing Black and white workers together against the capitalists.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to establish the ground needed to give a sense of the conditions on which labor, both Black and white have had to navigate in America. Jeremy Brecher covers most of the labor strikes from 1877 through to our time, but without the category of the Black dimension as touchstone of American as well as labor history, one can easily miss key moments in the dialectic of labor’s self-development. One such moment is that of Populism, which Brecher doesn’t mention and which briefly challenged the rulers of the benighted South.

Populism was in some ways a greater threat to the southern “plantocracy” than the Civil War because it was a revolutionary challenge from “within” the South, not from “without”. Populism succeeded in temporarily establishing white and Black solidarity. Unfortunately, Populism came to an end with monopoly capitalism’s transformation into imperialism that not only re-invigorated racism in the South but brought it to the North.

Brecher takes up the year 1886, the year that became the dividing line in American labor, and the year when no less than 80,000 were out on strike for the eight-hour day[1]. That year, the counter-revolution broke the back of labor by hanging its leaders, the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel. Brecher also gives us a very detailed account of the strikes of 1892-94, which included the Homestead Massacre, Coeur d’Alene’s mining strikes, and Briceville, Tennessee miners’ strike where miners gave armed resistance to military attack. Brecher also recounts how “The New Orleans General Strike revealed an extraordinary solidarity among all races and strata of labor.” Brecher ends this chapter with the great Pullman Strike, writing that Eugene Victor Debs ended that strike because “it might have eventuated in a revolution.”

Brecher’s focus is on “peak periods” of mass strikes and therefore he doesn’t necessarily cover strikes that don’t fit into that pattern, e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado.

The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard and company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914. Approximately twenty-four people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed.

Some consider the Ludlow Massacre a watershed moment in American labor relations and perhaps one of the most violent struggles between capital and labor. The outrage over the Ludlow Massacre was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour workday.
From the IWW to the Depression Decade

Following shortly after the end of Populism came the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Brecher very nearly dismisses the IWW as “more of a social movement than a union.” The IWW was industrial unionism 30 years ahead of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was built along militant class struggle lines. At its height, the IWW claimed over 100,000 members, with a not insignificant number of Black members.  Moreover, the IWW had unions in the prejudice-ridden South. The IWW (or Wobblies) was a militant revolutionary organization born out of the desperate conditions workers were experiencing during the turn of the twentieth century and brought together, for a time, the poorest and most downtrodden working people from every race and group, along with some larger-than-life characters. What other union has evoked the attention of poets, novelists, and radicals as much as the Wobblies? The Wobblies were imbued with the message of an alternative society run by and for the benefit of common folk. This message was explained, preached and sung around campfires of itinerant workers and in meeting halls across North America and around the world.
The Wobblies were always anti-war and advocated against suspicion and hatred of “foreigners.”

The turn of the twentieth century was a very intense period of class war that gave birth to an appreciation of spontaneity and of revolutionary ideas. Many Wobblies enjoyed reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. And it was during this period that the Black labor activist Lucy Parsons, the widow of Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons and a founding member of the IWW, advocated the tactic of “Sit Down Strikes. This was nearly thirty years in advance of the formation of the CIO and its successful sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan in 1936-37.
The IWW led many successful strikes, the most famous being the so-called “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 World War I and red baiting led to the persecution of the IWW and imprisonment of its leaders, which brought about the decline of the IWW (ACOT, p. 18).

The next period of mass strikes Brecher covers is 1919, which is obviously a very turbulent period in world history with the end of World War I, and, for a brief period of time, the success of the Russian Revolution. The wave of strikes in 1919 was truly massive and extremely diverse, and Brecher does a comprehensive job of covering this period. Of particular interest to me was the Seattle Strike of 1919, where the strikers not only took care of themselves, but also conducted “social services” by the various trades providing necessary services for the entire city of Seattle. In the case of the steel districts of Pennsylvania and the surrounding region in 1919, Brecher writes about the use by capital of between 30,000 and 40,000 Black workers as strikebreakers. These workers had little compunction about this because most American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions had been white only.

One problem here is that Brecher doesn’t write about the migration of 1-1/2 million Black workers who moved North before, during and after WWI only to do the worst jobs imaginable and who had to live in oppressive ghettos. Black soldiers who went to fight in WWI for “democracy”, came home at the end of the war to “Jim Crow”, the KKK (who followed the Black migration North) and the “Red Summer of 1919”. During the Red Summer of 1919, there were 26 race riots. Some of the Black soldiers who went back home to the South after the war were lynched in their uniforms. Can anyone now wonder why so many Black folks were attracted to Garveyism and Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa campaign?

The next period Brecher covers is the Depression Decade and again, he details the creativity and cooperation of workers this time, while they endured the extreme hardships imposed by the Depression. Brecher’s attention to detail makes it all the more inexplicable that he misses the key role Black workers played in the formation of the CIO. Without Black labor, the CIO could not have organized the basic industries where Black labor was pivotal. Furthermore, Black and white unity was now a fact of life that could never again be denied.

Moving on to the next period, “The War and Post-War Strike Wave,” Brecher’s blindspot regarding Black labor continues by not including A. Philip Randolph’s attempt to organize a Black “March on Washington Movement,” which prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive order number 8802 barring discrimination in war industries and thus prevented the march. The next notable period of agitation by Black workers ignored by Brecher is that of the 1943 Black rebellions in New York and Detroit. Brecher does mention very briefly the miners’ strike, also in 1943, but doesn’t give it the attention it deserves as the only major union-recognized strike of WWII. Moreover, it could have been mentioned that there were a great number of Black workers in the mines.

Brecher explains how WWII had integrated the economy more than ever before and how conditions affecting workers across industry lines created the best conditions the country had ever known for a nationwide general strike. In response, the government took over the regulation of wages and worked out agreements between industry and the unions to control the workers. Brecher ends this chapter with the fact that despite these agreements, there were still wildcat strikes, but fails to mention a most important postwar strike, the 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike[2].
The Postwar Era
The 1949-50 Miners’ General Strike was the first strike against the new stage of production, automation, which had taken the form of the continuous miner, and which created a whole new stage of cognition that questioned the very foundation of capitalist production.  They raised issues like what kind of labor must humanity perform, and why must there be such a division between mental and manual labor, between work and life. And as alluded to above concerning the miners’ strike of 1943, the mining industry was where Black labor was both significantly numerous and integrated into the union. The 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike conditioned the dialectic of both white and Black labor’s self-development from that point on. When taking the subsequent Civil Rights Movement together with the workers’ battles against automation of the 1950’s and 1960’s, one could consider these movements in terms of both race and class. Brecher ends his Chapter 6, “The War and Post-War Strike Wave,” roughly in the year 1947, just short of President Harry Truman’s integrating the Army in 1948 at A. Philip Randolph’s prodding, as well as the 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike.

Brecher then proceeds with his Chapter 7, “The Unknown Labor Dimension of the Vietnam War Era Revolt.” After a cursory review of the 1960’s revolts Brecher resumes his labor narrative with the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Brecher acknowledges the changed attitude of workers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and their desire for more control over production, but doesn’t link this with the fundamental question workers have raised since 1950, “what kind of labor should people do”. Consequently, the workers’ desire for more control over production seems to appear ab novo around the year 1970.

Brecher covers the bigger strikes of the period of 1970 through to our time beginning with the U.S. Postal strike of 1970 and the use of federal troops to break that strike[3]. Brecher’s begins his exposition for the 1970’s by explaining, “workers’ action in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was increasingly independent of union leaderships, with wildcat strikes, contract rejections, informal direct action on the jobs, and rank and file caucuses all reaching their highest levels in the post-World War II era.” Add to this mix the deepest recession since the Great Depression beginning in 1973, declining profit rates, decreasing wages due to union busting and free trade agreements sending jobs overseas. We can thus easily visualize the end of the so-called “golden age of capitalism”, the period from 1947 through 1973. Workers have been in a downward spiral ever since.
The End of the Postwar Boom

I doubt if the above description depicting the end of the so-called golden age of capitalism will be new to many of us folks who lived through it. At any rate, we need to go beyond the mere phrase “declining profit rates” to state bluntly that there will be no return to any “golden age of capitalism” (which I think Brecher would agree with). To better grasp that fact, we need to grasp Marx’s concept of “The Tendential Fall in The Rate of Profit,” where he argues that the decline in the rate of profit is organic to the law of motion of capitalism.

I believe the following quotes from Michael Roberts’s blog are relevant here: “The key tests of the validity of the law in modern capitalist economies would be to show whether 1) the rate of profit falls over time as the organic composition of capital[4] rises; 2) the rate of profit rises when the organic composition falls or when the rate of surplus value[5] rises faster than the organic composition of capital; 3) the rate of profit rises, if there is sharp fall in the organic composition of capital as in a slump.  These would be the empirical tests and there is plenty of empirical evidence for the US and world economy to show that the answer is yes to all these questions.”

“And Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall makes an even more fundamental prediction: that the capitalist mode of production will not be eternal, that it is transitory in the history of human social organization. The law of the tendency predicts that, over time, there will be a fall in the rate of profit globally, delivering more crises of a devastating character. Work has been done by modern Marxist analysis that confirms that the world rate of profit has fallen over the last 150 years.”

“As Esteban Maito concludes: ‘The tendency of the rate of profit to fall and its empirical confirmation highlights the historically limited nature of capitalist production. If the rate of profit measures the vitality of the capitalist system, the logical conclusion is that it is getting closer to its endpoint.  There are many ways that capital can attempt to overcome crises and regenerate constantly. Periodic crises are specific to the capitalist mode of production and allow, ultimately, a partial recovery of profitability. This is a characteristic aspect of capital and the cyclical nature of the capitalist economy. But the periodic nature of these crises has not stopped the downward trend of the rate of profit over the long term.  So the arguments claiming that there is an inexhaustible capacity of capital to restore the rate of profit and its own vitality and which therefore considers the capitalist mode of production as a natural and a-historical phenomenon, are refuted by the empirical evidence’.”

“Capitalism has a ‘use-by-date’.”

Brecher traces labor’s struggles through the last decades of the twentieth century that saw newer strategies for employer demands for concessions that were often backed by lockouts and the hiring of replacement workers. These forms of employer oppression were met by new and creative strategies of resistance from workers. One of the unlikely concentrations of resistance was Decatur, Illinois, where Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and A.F. Staley Manufacturing were all located at the time. The strikes at these enterprises started separately and eventually converged into a regional mass strike. Brecher ends his strike coverage on the eve of the millennium with a detailed exposition of the UPS Strike of 1997.

Brecher’s last chapter “Beyond One-Sided Class War” ends the book with what he calls “mini-revolts”, the very broad range of mass movements more commonly known as, “The 1999 Battle of Seattle”, “2006 Immigration Protests”, “Wisconsin Uprising”, “Occupy Wall Street”, “2012 Chicago Teachers Strike”, and “Fight for 15”. I can only give a whiff of the different movements covered during the past 17 years or so and highly recommend reading Brecher’s account of what he calls mini-revolts for yourselves. Brecher’s very nuanced and detailed coverage of these movements demonstrates the interconnectedness and new broader forms of solidarity and organization developing between labor (union and non-union), social justice movements, immigrant rights, anti-globalism, anti-austerity, anti-war, environmentalism, the whole range of activism under the umbrella of intersectionality, etc. All these aspects of human experience are interconnected and should be examined together as well as separately. This can be heartening to us older workers who were wondering how we were going to achieve a revolution for a better life, especially given that presently, only about 12% of the workforce is organized in the work place through unions. Despite the decline of “institutional” unions, I believe we workers have more options than ever before and are no longer restricted to old narrow forms of bureaucratized unionism centered on manufacturing and service industries.

Labor is developing links with more and more diverse groups that hadn’t even been thought of previous to the new millennium. One example was the recent support shown between the Chicago Teachers, the low-wage “Fight for 15,” and the anti-Nato Summit protests of May 2012. The 1999 Battle of Seattle had emerged from the anti-globalization movement and found allies with Seattle’s King County Labor Council because of the connection they saw between the anti-millennium World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle with the 80th anniversary of the 1919 Seattle General Strike. The year 2006 saw the largest demonstrations for immigrant rights the world had ever seen with close to 5 million people participating, which was supported by both traditional labor unions and by less formal networks. The participants were from all walks of life, including both legal and undocumented immigrants.

Also, as we wrote in 2011: “In Wisconsin, the intersectionality of the protestors was remarkable and saw professors protesting alongside construction workers, African-American and Latin@ high school students rallying with 80-year-old white farmers. University of Wisconsin faculty pledged solidarity with state workers across the system, the elementary and high school teachers, corrections officers and nurses. One of the most active participating groups was the ‘Teaching Assistant Association’ and was involved in every phase of the protests.”

In addition to taking on the banks and allying with many social movements, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) had numerous links with labor worldwide. The most significant labor action by OWS to me was when Occupy Oakland shutdown the Port of Oakland and Longview, Washington terminals on November 2, 2011. At that time, the organizers stated openly that they wanted to stop the “flow of capital.”
This is the last paragraph of Jeremy Brecher’s 2014 edition of “STRIKE!”: “Working people, along with the rest of humanity, are faced with a future that is unsustainable economically, socially, and environmentally. It will take more than a revolt to put that future on a sustainable basis. Ultimately it will take a transformation of human civilization. But when those in power perpetuate unsustainability, the world can only be put on a sustainable basis when people take control of their own activity and support each other to resist the authority of those in power.

Whatever may happen in the future, the heritage of worker self-organization will therefore continue to be a resource that we can draw on to construct collective responses to the problems we face.”

As I was completing this review, a colleague pointed out that the 1972 first edition of Strike! ended with a completely different chapter titled “From Mass Strike to New Society”. This version of “Chapter 9” ended with expositions of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Italian Factory Occupations of 1920, and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-37. (This missing content from the 1997 and 2014 editions is something that other reviews I have read have failed to mention.) While Jeremy Brecher’s coverage of these revolutionary events wasn’t the most comprehensive, it is definitely still worth reading.

In conclusion, Brecher’s Strike! is a most valuable and revolutionary-minded study of working class self-activity and self-organization whose republication should be celebrated.  The book’s republication is especially timely during a period when young people and workers are questioning capitalism at a level not seen for over a generation.

At the same time, I have pointed to two problems in the book. First, by not discussing the dialectic of Black liberation and its integrality to the dialectic of labor and consequently, the integrality of race and class, Brecher is unable to establish as fully as he could have done the revolutionary praxis through which humanity self-develops. Second, Brecher’s neglect of the IWW points to his spontaneist [6] position, which neglects even revolutionary forms of organization, which do not necessarily have to be top-down.

My second criticism is not limited to Brecher’s book, but points to a broader problem of our age, how to work out a viable alternative to the existing forms of revolutionary organization (spontaneist or vanguardist), one rooted in a philosophy of liberation that points toward a humanist alternative to capitalism. Thus, Brecher provides us with a cogent critique of top-down labor organization, but does not offer a real alternative.  That is something that the present generation needs to develop.
Dale Heckerman is a roofer working in the Denver area.

[1] I think more needs to be said about the importance to both capitalism and the working class in establishing the eight-hour workday. To begin with, the history of labor has shown that if the capitalists had had their way, they would have worked the working class to death. This fact confirms the next fact, that the eight-hour day saved capitalism itself (temporarily), by preventing the capitalists from destroying capitalism’s only value-creating substance, labor. The eight-hour day forced capital to increase productivity through the development of technology that increased the costs of production, thus speeding up the decline in the rate of profit, and consequently, aiding in the demise of capitalism. Finally, the increased productivity through the development of technology helps to insure the success of developing an alternative to capitalism by freely associated labor.

[2] See the pamphlet by Raya Dunayevskaya and Andy Phillips, The 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike, to grasp the full importance of that historic strike.

[3] To those who like to distinguish between the use of federal troops and the National Guard as if the National Guard were kinder, gentler goons, Brecher points out that the National Guard is equipped, trained and supported by the US Army. One only needs to think about the Ludlow Massacre, et al. and the fact that in 1970, 4 students were murdered at Kent State, Ohio by national guardsmen which inspired the murder of 2 students killed by cops soon afterwards at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

[4] From Marx’s Capital, Volume I, Chapter 25: “The composition of capital is to be understood in a two-fold sense. On the side of value, it is determined by the proportion in which it is divided into constant capital or value of the means of production, and variable capital or value of labor power, the sum total of wages. On the side of material, as it functions in the process of production, all capital is divided into means of production and living labor power. This latter composition is determined by the relation between the mass of the means of production employed, on the one hand, and the mass of labor necessary for their employment on the other. I call the former the value-composition, the latter the technical composition of capital. Between the two there is a strict correlation. To express this, I call the value composition of capital, in so far as it is determined by its technical composition and mirrors the changes of the latter, the organic composition of capital.”

[5] According to Marx, workers under capitalism are paid the minimum amount necessary for the workers to reproduce themselves, the minimum that is necessary to stay alive and provide future workers for capitalism through their children. Therefore, surplus value is equal to the new value created by workers in excess of their own labor-cost and the other costs of production.

[6] The tendency to believe that social revolution can and should occur spontaneously from below, without the aid or guidance of a vanguard party, and that it cannot and should not be brought about by the actions of individuals or parties who might attempt to foment such a revolution.

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