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The Struggles and Victories of a Xicana Woman in a Hardcore Band

By Leilani Clark

April 10th, 2016

I first saw the East Bay feminist hardcore band Spitboy in 1993. I remember the moment the four women, the only ones on a packed bill, took the stage at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma. Wearing ripped shorts, combat boots, Converse and worn tank tops, they were tough, intimidating, and mind-blowing with a driving, abrasive sound I’d never heard women produce before. Sure, I loved punk rock. But I’d never seen it done like this. Spitboy’s lead singer Adrienne sang about gender oppression, sexual violence, and the mismeasure of women in American society like a no-holds barred assault. It was exhilarating, hardcore, and life-affirming;  I loved every second.

I idolized Spitboy from that day, adding them to a stable of bands that would inform my experience as a young feminist woman fronting an (almost) all-girl band a few years later.


In her new book, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press) Michelle Cruz Gonzales writes about being a “Spitwoman” in those heady days. Gonzales — known back then as “Todd” — was the drummer in Spitboy and one of the band’s founding members. She still makes her home in Oakland, where she lives with her family.

The book, based on a zine of the same name, doesn’t function as a straightforward narrative. Rather, the collection of essays jumps around in time and consciousness, anchored by Gonzales’ reflections on the varied experiences of being a young, working-class Chicana woman in a well-known touring band at a time when women in punk rock were rare.


As such, it’s an engrossing account of a particular period in music history. A historical moment when, as Mimi Thi Ngyuyen writes in the preface, “some consciousness about women in music broke through, briefly.” (Read anything by Jessica Hopper for more on this.) Gonzales writes about her journey from Tuolomne, a “dysfunctional, limiting, broken” town in California’s Gold Rush country, to San Francisco, hellbent on playing music like her heroes the Clash — first with Bitch Fight, and later with Spitboy and Instant Girl. It isn’t an easy journey, and it’s exacerbated by class shame, a neglected Chicana identity, and sexist and abusive vitriol lobbed at Spitboy during live performances.

“As aggressively unapologetic women in a (still) bro-dominant scene, Spitboy shouldered both misogynist hostility and the burden of representation,” writes Gonzales, after relaying a story of one particularly disgusting comment from a male audience member.

Spitboy rectoWhat’s most refreshing about The Spitboy Rule is Gonzales’ ability to closely examine the class and race issues woven through the mid-’90s Bay Area punk scene. Yes, she found community, friendship, and unfettered artistic expression with the band. But, as she writes, she always felt like an outsider; the only woman of color amidst all white women. The only band member who didn’t come from a fairly comfortable middle-class background.

These cultural differences come to the forefront after the band stops to visit Gonzales’ grandmother in East Los Angeles. It’s a stop she later regrets:

Stopping had not been a good idea at all. We should have stayed on the I-5. I should not have suggested we veer off into the second-largest Mexican city in the world. I had made everyone uncomfortable, and now I was outside my body, seeing my adored Grandma and her shabby East L.A. home, which I’d always found tidy and comforting, her knick-knacks — which they probably called tchotchkes — and all her family photos of Mexicans, and now myself through different eyes, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Most working-class kids have experienced similar moments — even within the punk scene, where lots of middle class kids went to hide — the feeling of shabbiness, of not quite fitting in, which is disconcerting when you’re with a peer group that professes to accept pretty much everything except Republicans and SUVs. In truth, the punk scene suffered from elitism, mansplaining, and race/class privilege as much as any other cultural movement.

Gonzales writes honestly about being Chicana in an overwhelmingly white punk scene. “I didn’t often make references to being Mexican, a Xicana, in a mostly white band in a mostly white punk scene. It was just easier to try to blend in with my short hair, my tattoo, and my punk uniform.” She dates white guys (including Cometbus editor Aaron Elliott) and struggles towards an acceptance of her identity, first through learning Spanish, and later as an ethnic studies minor at Mills College.

There are victorious moments as well. Gonzales writes of the thrill of touring Europe with Citizen Fish, traveling to Japan for the first time where one rabid fan cried upon meeting her, and playing in New Zealand to enthusiastic crowds. All experiences she couldn’t have imagined as a young, isolated punk in Tuolumne, listening to the Clash and dreaming of England. Later, she meets Los Crudos, a Latino hardcore band out of Chicago that sings in Spanish and proudly displays their cultural heritage. “I began to feel more comfortable with my multiple identities,” she writes, “Spitboy drummer, feminist, Xicana.”

Gonzales is now in her mid-forties; Spitboy played that show at the Phoenix Theater almost 25 years ago. The stories and observations in The Spitboy Rule benefit from years of reflection, schooling, and life lived. This would have been a much different book if Gonzales had written it 20 years ago. It is a privilege to grow older, to have the chance to reflect on the formative struggles and building of consciousness that happens when we are young. And, for Spitboy fans like me, the true thrill comes from getting the inside story on the four radical women who took that stage in 1993 and blew us all away.

Michelle Cruz Gonzales appears on Wednesday, April 27, at Pegasus Books on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Details here.

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

Waging Peace: A Review in National Catholic Reporter

By Martha Hennessy
National Catholic Reporter
March 16th, 2016

David Hartsough has given us a remarkable story of his life as a persistent and insightful peacemaker of our times. His wanderlust and astute eye for critical events around the world brought him to many of the right places at the right times.

A fine example was set for Hartsough in his childhood through the work of his father, a Congregational minister. Ray Hartsough answered the call of the Quaker service organization and was sent to Gaza in 1948 to lend assistance to refugees as a result of the Arab-Israeli War. As a child, David gained an immediate sense of the suffering of others and what is required to put one's faith into action to help bring peace and justice into the world.

As a young man in 1960, Hartsough spent a year in divided Berlin, where he studied postwar effects just 15 years after the end of World War II. Three critical observations came to him in these formative years. The ravages and suffering of war were still evident in the souls and neighborhoods of the German people. The U.S. and Soviet rivalry for influence and control dictated how the people lived, forcing them from hot war to cold war.

A second revelation came to Hartsough as he witnessed the depth of faith practiced by both Catholics and Protestants while visiting churches. This prompted him to take a serious look at what it means to be a Christian, asking how we are to practice the teachings of Matthew 25 within the reality of a world of mass suffering, starvation and the ever-present threat of nuclear self-annihilation.

Hartsough's third query strove to understand the human desire not only for adequate work, housing, food and health care, but also our yearning for freedom and self-actualization. Neither the West nor the East allowed a place for people to honestly speak out against cultural materialism, a restrictive bureaucracy and the constant demonization of each other. Where is true democracy to be found when society, churches, universities and media fail to question this siege mentality?

The long history of insatiable empire-building on the part of the United States is well-documented in this revealing book. In a meeting at the Soviet Peace Council in Moscow, Hartsough was told by the director and editor of the Young Communist newspaper that efforts were made on the part of Russia to de-escalate the mounting tensions at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall. It was felt that the U.S. continued the arms race despite the efforts made by the USSR for disarmament with a unilateral halting of nuclear testing in 1958, abolishing all military bases outside of its borders, and cutting 2 million troops from its forces.

Within a year of this meeting and five months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, in May 1962, Hartsough and a delegation of Quakers met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Hartsough was the youngest person present, and the group asked the president to unilaterally stop the testing of nuclear bombs and to challenge the Soviets to a "peace race."

The president's attention was caught by these peacemaking Quakers. In a speech at American University, he did propose a ban on nuclear testing and the idea of a peace race. Kennedy was killed five months after that speech.

Hartsough's history of peacemaking includes his witness to the U.S.-backed wars in Central America in the 1980s. Again, the suffering of innocent people struggling to sustain themselves on the land while enduring assaults from corporate-driven interests is an appalling history. The effect of such unspeakable violence continues to haunt these small countries to this day.

In reading this book, we are forced to look at ourselves and to acknowledge that our chosen lifestyles rely on war-making to attain such a high standard of living. The practice of American exceptionalism attempts to justify our consumption of massive amounts of the world's resources at the expense of the majority of the population.

Hartsough unfailingly identifies the places where nonviolent witness remains desperately needed. But beyond that, he also suggests the means by which we can confront the evil of greed-induced violence and sustain a long-term effort in bringing the transformative power of peacemaking efforts into the 21st century.

This means going to the margins and accompanying the people who suffer the results of U.S. foreign policy. It means living a simple life so that resources are more equitably shared.

Perhaps most importantly, Hartsough reminds us of the crucial role that community, family and friends play in carrying on the work of peacemaking.

[Martha Hennessy divides her time between family in Vermont and work at Mary House Catholic Worker. Her peacemaking efforts include travels to war-torn and occupied countries.]

Buy Waging Peace | Buy Waging Peace e-Book | Back to David Hartsough's Author Page

Dismantling Corporate Control Isn’t a Spectator Sport: An Interview with Thomas Linzey

By Simon Davis-Cohen
In These Times
March 15th, 2016

Thomas Linzey is the cofounder and executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).   (

Editor’s Note: Thomas Linzey is no stranger to Rural America readers. His Community Rights Papers are a staple on the site. In fact, his essay, "The Spirit of 1773 and the Right to Local Self-Government," was the very first story this project published one year ago. In the months since, we’ve featured seven other of his essays, but until now we have never interviewed the man behind America’s “community rights movement.”

For 20 years, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been taking a stand against the long-held—though rarely discussed—assumption that corporations in the United States have the power to override a community when the locality passes a law that compromises profitability. 

To date, the Pennsylvania-based, non-profit law firm has advised almost 200 municipalities in 10 states in drafting and defending “Community Bills of Rights.” These documents are often adopted to stop harmful corporate projects by elevating local governments’ authority above anti-democratic state preemption and the legal protections corporations enjoy as “persons” under the U.S. Constitution (and international trade agreements).

CELDF has spearheaded the introduction of legally enforceable rights for ecosystems; over three dozen of the communities they work with have enshrined such “rights of nature” into local law. CELDF has also aided the special Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly in its successful effort to include enforceable rights of nature in the country’s 2008 constitution. Most recently in 2016, the Green Party of England & Wales worked with CELDF to include rights of nature in its official party platform.

People are taking notice. The Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico warned against CELDF’s community rights organizing, calling it, “the beginning of a social movement that is greater than just the oil and gas industry, it is a potential game changer for all of corporate America.” In Benton, Ore., the county attorney recently suggested those petitioning for a Community Bills of Rights to ban GMO agriculture be labeled “domestic terrorists.”

Liberal activists who work to appeal regulatory permits and support direct action also criticize CELDF for abandoning the regulatory system and challenging the logic of direct action. The concept of local control is often criticized as well. Yet in places where CELDF has proposed state constitutional change, we see the movement advocating not for total local control but rather for communities' authority to raise and improve state standards.

I sat down with CELDF executive director and co-founder Thomas Linzey to discuss some of the ideas, differences of opinion and miscommunications surrounding the group’s work.

Self-governance, collective direct action and not giving up when your community gets sued

Rural America: CELDF’s theory of change can be summarized as follows: Local law-making can be used as an ends to stop activities that harm people’s lives, and as a means to organize a broader grassroots movement to drive state and eventually federal constitutional change. The case for such constitutional change is embodied in each local laws’ elevation of community self-determination (for both human and natural communities) above the power of corporations and other levels of government to override core aspects of local democracy.

CELDF has helped close to 200 U.S. communities pass such laws. Now, in seven states, networks of these local communities are banding together to change their state constitutions. Then, once enough states sign on, the federal social contract can be changed—thus giving birth to both a state and federal constitutional right of local, community self-government that trumps both corporate “rights” and legal doctrines that currently make municipalities completely subordinate to their state.

When I talk to people about CELDF’s approach, some people say they don’t have faith that change can come through a legal system where so many judges and lawyers have been captured by the status quo. What do you think of this critique?

Linzey: It’s not a legal strategy, first of all. While we believe that there may be some judges and courts out there ready to embrace a right of local, community self-government, our communities aren’t betting on it. Eventually, they understand that for this type of change to happen, they’ll have to drive that change into their constitutions and override the courts. After all, it’s the courts that have created many of these doctrines over the past hundred years or so; to turn back to them to undo them would be pretty naive. So, we pursue two tracks—vigorously defending these communities in the courts when they get sued by corporations or their own state; and second, assisting communities to come together to drive local self-government guarantees into constitutional structures.

Rural America:  You have said that CELDF’s work is compatible with direct action. Direct action can involve breaking a law to convey a message or trying physically to prevent harm from proceeding—there are endless examples.  For example, we can imagine a scenario where, after passing a Community Bill of Rights, citizens might resort to protest in order to stop corporate activities that do not acknowledge or honor the Community Bill of Rights. How do you view direct action?

Linzey: We would argue that the local laws themselves are direct action—that they are collective direct action and civil disobedience, rather than individual direct action. In other words, by their very existence and adoption by the community, they are a repudiation of a structure of law that ordinarily subordinates the community to corporate control. The local laws thus nullify the three primary legal doctrines that create that overarching corporate control, and in the process, they break those laws across the board. So, instead of one person sitting in front of a bulldozer, these local laws mean the entire community is sitting in front of the bulldozer, and using the municipal government as their weapon against corporate power. In addition, many of these local laws now legalize direct action to enforce the laws—prohibiting local law enforcement from arresting individuals for directly enforcing the local laws, for example.

Rural America: If you were to draw a Venn diagram, with direct action and community rights activism representing the two circles, what would you include in the “overlap” portion of the diagram—what do they have in common?

Linzey: Breaking the law frontally, directly and forcibly.

Rural America: What about the “Community Rights” portion—what does Community Rights activism encompass that direct action does not.

Linzey: Traditional direct action involves breaking criminal laws. The community rights activism understands the need to “take back” the law itself—to change the lawmaking platform, so that traditional direct action, if it proceeds, is built on that lawmaking, thus making the direct action not “against the law,” but to “enforce the law.” It places the power of majorities behind civil disobedience, rather than having civil disobedience remain some kind of tool of “protest.” It’s about resetting the default.

Rural America: Lastly, the “direct action” portion—what does direct action activism encompass that community rights activism does not.

Linzey: Community rights activism changes the forum—away from the streets and the jail to challenging the very authority of the corporation to use the system of law. It’s about going upstream to the source, rather than simply accepting that the law will always be used to punish those who stand in the way of endless economic growth. There is a clear distinction. One opposes a law; the other defends a law. Oppositional direct action sends a message about what activists don’t want, whereas defenders of a Community Bill of Rights have first organized around what they want: the values and rights enshrined in their Community Bill of Rights. If community rights activists resort to direct action, their protest embodies a vision.




Rural America: Civil disobedience means the breaking of the specific law you want to change. But our culture often tells us that it is not the law, but how it is enforced that is the problem. How do you see CELDF’s work as a form of modern civil disobedience?

Linzey: Yes, I think that over the years the phrase civil disobedience has been stripped of most of its meaning in the culture. The corporate culture that we live in has worked very hard to rid us of the very language that prior generations have used to frontally challenge the system. Part of our work is to help people re-discover that right language and history. What makes America great isn’t all of the things that the presidential candidates talk about it, our “greatness” lies with the courage of the Abolitionists, the resoluteness of the farmer/soldiers without shoes at Valley Forge, and the sheer determination of the Suffragists—all men and women outside of traditional power structures who succeeded in changing those structures.

Rural America: Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s new Podemos political party, has written that the country must “confront…the political myopia of those who only feel comfortable as part of a minority.” Activists want to identify at being part of an enlightened minority can stop them from planning what to do with power should they gain a majority in a community, county, region or state. Why is this a particularly good time to think about what to do with power, rather than merely fixating on how to gain power?

Linzey: I think the time is ripe because a lot is becoming very clear—in terms of the loss of community democratic control and the continuing implosion of the planet. I think we’re coming to a point where more and more people are having their minds freed from the constraints of the crap that’s put out by those in control. I think the only majority we feel a part of is sanity; and the belief that when people are able to see through the charade, they end up with a belief system similar to ours—that centralized power, in whatever form, is a bad thing and that the only place real solutions are going to emerge from is our communities.



(Image: Matt Wuerker /


Rural America: Any vision must include economic alternatives. Clearly, the community rights movement is a political one but it is not hard to see community rights activism’s compatibility with cooperatives, mutual aide networks, community-owned renewable energy, etc.—movements that engage in and foster economic alternatives. In your view, what is stopping movements for democratic control, like community rights activism, from working more closely with movements that push economic alternatives? And what’s one way they could work more closely?

Linzey: For those economic alternatives to grow, we have to clear the way for them by ridding the system of corporate and governmental power. We also have to get used to what makes us uncomfortable—using our governments to actually promote and mandate those alternatives. Liberals are particularly uncomfortable with, say, a local law that requires that the only agriculture done in a community is organic; or a local law that requires grocery stores to carry 30 percent locally-produced vegetables. Yet the corporate boys have no worries about using the law that way—it’s why they use farm laws, for example, to prohibit neighbors from suing over factory farms. They use government and laws to actually support the type of production that favors them. We have to begin doing the same thing – seeing law and government as a way to fashion the markets that we want. But we haven’t done that over the past 50 years—instead, we keep pretending that the corporate boys will leave us alone to build these alternatives. The problem is that when the alternatives get big and threatening enough, they use their power to shut them down. It’s why we can talk about “alternative” economics all we want, but without dealing with corporate power, it goes nowhere.

Rural America: Increasingly, the labor movement in this country is turning to local law making to do things like raise the minimum wage, establish fair scheduling policies or pass paid sick leave legislation. In response, corporate lobbies, like National Restaurant Association and American Legislative Exchange Council, are pushing preemption bills to remove localities’ power to legislate on these issues. However, the worker movements are not directly targeting preemption itself, though it is clear that preemption is a primary tool used against them. What do you say to this? What would it take for these movements to challenge preemption itself?

Linzey: Community rights activism directly targets preemption, because preemption itself is caused by corporate control over the governmental system. When something becomes a big enough problem, the corporate boys in a particular industry simply use government to shut down local activism around the issue. I haven’t seen any of these movements begin to directly target preemption—the power of preemption—rather, they lobby to stop the preemption from happening. Almost nobody questions the authority of the state or federal government to preempt community lawmaking—the authority itself—it’s just accepted that the federal should be able to trump the state and the state trump the local. But, the operation of that machine is exactly the opposite of democracy—it pulls decision making into hands further away from where the problem is, and into fewer hands.


(Image: Matt Wuerker /


People don’t understand that preemption itself (the state/local relationship, where most preemption occurs) is a purely judicial construct, invented by the courts, and built on the fact that municipalities are deemed to be wholly creatures of the state, for the state to use and abolish as the state sees fit. If that’s the underlying truth, then preemption makes perfect sense.

Rural America: Many people have tracked a modern decline in the power of nation states. As Pablo Iglesias wrote: “The transfer of sovereign power (military, economic, judicial, etc.) from the so-called nation-states to supranational organisms (Troika, IMF, World Bank, NATO, mammoth private corporations credit rating agencies, etc.) has drained power away from the fundamental political institution upon which democratic control was supposed to be exerted: the state.” What is your definition of sovereignty? How does it inform your work?

Linzey: The people are sovereign. As all of our state constitutions declare, people are the source of all governing authority. But, in reality, that’s the furthest from the truth, of course. The system distrusts democracy, much in the same way that this nation’s founders distrusted democracy. Hence, in our system, there are all kinds of overrides, including corporate “rights” and other protections for property. If anything, under our current system of law, property is sovereign. The more property you own, the more power you can exercise. Part of this work is changing that—restoring an original understanding that community majorities have the power to mandate a shift to economic and environmental sustainability, even when it threatens those power centers who hold large amounts of property.



Rural America: CELDF’s work challenges a legal doctrine called Dillon’s Rule, created by an old corporate lawyer named John F. Dillon (1831–1914) and adopted by the U.S. Court in 1903. The Rule defines the relationship between local governments and state legislatures. A relationship that permits the wave of state preemption we are experiencing today. As the Supreme Court wrote in 1903:

"Municipal corporations [local governments] areonly auxiliaries of the state for the purposes of local government. They may be created, or, having been created, may be destroyed, or their powers may be restricted, enlarged, or withdrawn at the will of the [state] legislature."

The acceleration of state preemption is a direct progeny of Dillon’s Rule. We see states across the nation preempting localities’ power to provide “sanctuary” for undocumented refugees, make laws in any way impacting employer-employee relations, regulate rent, or ban certain forms of natural resource extraction, etc. Community rights-based organizing challenges the doctrine by asserting that citizens have a basic right to local self-governance that cannot be take away or preempted. As a fellow lawyer, in what ways do you actually respect Dillon? What do you think he understood about law that ultimately made him so successful?

Linzey: The same way we respect the conservative foundations that people generally laughed at in the 1970s, but who have now changed the face of the law—like the Heritage Foundation. Dillon and those foundations worked from the same premise—that the law should service economic growth at all costs, and when law deviated from that, there should be a higher power to reverse it. They had fertile ground from the beginning—building on a foundation of the U.S. Constitution, which is about as anti-democratic a document as has ever been written; elevating the rights of property and commerce above the rights of people, communities, and nature. Dillon and others have simply continued to expand that foundation, and have contoured the law to support that expansion. It’s not hard work, but these folks have gone at in a fervor; and they’re rewarded for it. On the other side are the people’s movements who have gone against that grain over the past 200 years. It’s that work which is the hardest; but it’s that work that must be done if we are to survive.

Rural America: The concept of Rights of Nature is undeniably gaining in popularity. In his September 2015 address to the United Nations Pope Francis said: “It must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.” And in his encyclical on climate change he calls for “The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems.” In your view, what is the significance of this popularity, and what message do you have for people interested in the idea of rights for the environment/Nature?

Linzey: To do it. Recently, the Ho-Chunk Nation became the first in the country to recognize the legally enforceable rights of nature into their tribal constitution. This isn’t about gawking while others do it—or treating it as a spectator sport—everyone can do it where they are. Organize a group of people, propose a law to your town council, qualify an initiative. Watch as all of the liberal progressives and others say why you can’t do it, and do it anyway. The planet is waiting for us to get off of our duffs and actually do it.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Thomas Linzey's Editor Page

Wolves, Gates, & Radical Faith

MarkBy Jared Byas
Pete Enns
April 6th, 2016

The first time
Mark Van Steenwyk and I (Jared) met, I was picking him and a group of mutual friends up from a Conference in Phoenix, where I was living and teaching at the time. Our destination: the closest karaoke bar we could find. Our mission: sing our hearts out to the 7 locals that were there until late into the night. Here it is, 4 years later, and his highly reviewed first children’s book, A Wolf at the Gate, is now being re-published by PM Press. So, I asked him a few questions about it.

1. Your first two books are That Holy Anarchist and The Unkingdom of God. Not really kids lit. What was going on in your life that inspired you to take a crack at writing a children’s book?

When I started writing it, I had a 6 year old who found books about war and fighting and knights and pirates thrilling. Since I wanted to stir a love for justice and peace in my son, I started looking for kid books about nonviolence. Most of the ones I found weren’t very exciting. Since I’ve been a fan of kid lit my entire life, I thought I’d tackle writing an exciting book that promotes peace.

At the same time, I was at a low point in my life as an activist and writer. I think I was burnt out on trying to convince adults to take Jesus’ radical message seriously. It takes an imagination to consider alternative ways of seeing the world, which is essential if we’re going to work for liberation. If an adult is unimaginative, it is extremely difficult to reach them with a message of liberation. That led me to consider focusing my creative energy on younger people. Not exclusively–I still plan on doing some of the stuff I’ve been doing the past 15 years–but I think writing for younger audiences is something I’m going to take much more seriously.

2. As a Dad to 4 little ones, I know there’s a million children’s books out there. Why this one? What’s unique about A Wolf at the Gate?51vxBfyJoVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

A few things. First of all, it tackles issues that rarely get addressed in children’s books: economic injustice, violence, and ecology. Secondly, it tackles them with a story that, while timely, feels timeless. A lot of reviewers have told me it feels like a classic. Finally, the illustrations by Joel Hedstrom are amazing. Absolutely wonderful. His images are bold…inspired by woodcuts and tattoo art. The combination of theme, writing style, and art make it the sort of book that a parent could read to their grade-schooler or give to their middle grade students to read on their own. And adults have enjoyed it too.

3. I have friends who grew up conservative but don’t want to raise their children with the same views about the Christian faith but aren’t sure how to go about it. Did writing this book shape how you present the Christian faith to your kid? If so, how?

Yes. The story is based off of a legend about Saint Francis, but isn’t overtly religious in content. It shows faith in action, relying on the narrative to challenge one’s faith rather than building an argument. Because of that, it has been picked up by a secular leftist publisher (PM Press out of Oakland) while still being celebrated by deeply religious folks (like the Catholic school in Florida that used it for their school retreat).

4. What is your favorite part of the book and why?

There are three parts that I love the most…when the three parental figures in the book (the wolf mother, the wolf father, and the Beggar King) go on a walk with the red wolf and try to help her understand some fundamental truth about the world. Her father teaches her about the cruelty of humanity. Her mother teaches her about the importance of being a neighbor. But it is the third vignette that is the most interesting to me. At this point, she is talking to the Beggar King as a peer. He teaches her a bit about the selfishness of humanity, but (as we see later in the book) she refuses to accept it.

5. Was A Wolf at the Gate a break from what you’ve written in the past or do you see it as part of the same themes and trajectory?

It is certainly a different genre, but entirely in keeping with themes I’ve worked with before–violence and nonviolence, hospitality and alienation, poverty and wealth. It is, I believe, my most important book. And it is a signal of things to come. I’m finding myself less constrained by genre. I no longer feel a need to write or do the sorts of things someone like me (a pastor and activist) is “supposed” to write or do. But, while I am giving myself permission to experiment with the shape of my work, the underlying themes will continue to stay the same.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mark Van Steennwyk’s Author Page

'Radical caretaking': Poet, activist Mai'a Williams on building real communities

By Marcia Ratliff
Winona Daily News
April 3rd, 2016

Mai’a Williams’s life could be described many ways, but boring is not one of them.

The thirty-something is a journalist, poet, human rights worker, artist, midwife, and mom. She’s lived in Palestine, southern Mexico, Egypt, Ecuador, and Germany. Her home base for the past year has been Winona, though she admitted the town is a little quiet for her taste.

Currently, Williams is on a book tour for the recently published anthology “Revolutionary Mothering,” and she’ll read in Winona April 5 before continuing on to Minneapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the coming months.

The book is about motherhood on the margins of society, which is a common theme for her, Williams said in an interview on a recent weekday.

“Most of the work that I do is centered around these themes of being a mother, and political revolutions — which I realize is a strange juxtaposition to have — and the third world, because that’s where I’ve lived for the past few years, and women of color. I just really like color in general,” she said.

She spoke with the Daily News from a café in Ecuador, where she was on retreat in anticipation of the book tour. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did a self-described nomad like yourself end up in Winona?

I have asked myself that question (laughs). My daughter Theresa’s father and grandparents live in Winona. Long story short, she’s eight years old and I promised her one year of normal American life, Norman Rockwell stuff. She’s never been to a U.S. school, she’s never lived in the states for that long.

Tell me about the book “Revolutionary Mothering.”

Well, I worked on this anthology with two other editors for seven years. It has 40 contributing writers from all across the United States, and it arose out of a zine and blog called Revolutionary Motherhood.

It basically looks at mothering on the margins, so looking at mothering and poverty, mothering and race, mothering and sexuality, and building communities of mothering.

Its main precept is this: When you don’t fit into the mainstream hegemonic view of what mothering looks like, your access to basic resources, your access to being able to create community, becomes much lessened.

And so one of our jobs was to use this book as a way to begin conversations about creating communities that are supportive, that are more focused on caretaking, and that are placing mothers on the margins at the center.

How do you define revolutionary mothering?

It’s definitely not the mother, father, two kids, and a dog and have a minivan kind of thing. What I’m more talking about is what I’ve called radical caretaking. It’s not just biological—it’s taking care of people, especially old people. It’s all the different ways that we take care of each other, where the compensation for it isn’t something you can put on your tax form. And it’s work that has been unpaid and undervalued.

Girls and women are the ones that have been forced to learn these skills culturally, but they’re really good skills to have. I would really prefer that everyone from a young age learned these skills, and we would all be better human beings.

What is the main push of the book? Healing? Organizing? Empowering?

I think it’s a community building—that’s where I would place it. It was always about the fact that as a marginalized mother, you don’t really have a community. So your community starts to happen through letters, zines, online, blogs.

It grows because it has to and that’s what you need. So this is sort of part of a conversation about how we create those communities, and how we nurture them, and seed them, and grow them.

I have a really strong belief that doing so is a form of activism and is a way of creating the kind of structures that we need to be able to survive the violence that exists in the world, whether that be capitalism, or sexism, or racism.

What are some of the qualities you’ve seen in those communities, in your experience and in the process of editing the book?

One of the things I like to say is, we are not the ones destroying the earth. Starting in the 1980s or so was this idea of the welfare mother or the poor mothers or immigrant mothers and their children somehow being the ones who were responsible for all of the turmoil. The reason you don’t have jobs is because of immigrants, and the reason that you can’t do x, y and z with your life is because of people giving money to these welfare mothers.

Not only is that inaccurate, but the reality is quite the flip. Your 1 percent of your taxes that go to welfare don’t ruin your economic state. We didn’t cause the 2008 Wall Street crash. We aren’t the reason the environment is being destroyed. We are none of this.

We are actually the ones who are on the front lines, we’re the ones who are getting hurt the most by those things. We are the ones who are most likely to lose our house first. We’re the ones who are most likely to live in environments and cityscapes that are going to have the most horrible environmental damage. We’re the most likely to have, you know, look at the Flint, Michigan water situation. This is not happening in other neighborhoods.

What I feel like we’ve done, through talking about this for eight years now, is to encourage people to begin to create systems and communities that take care of themselves. Because people who have the least are oftentimes likely to do the most with what they have—that’s just human nature.

I see caregiving and community-building as a primary skill, and a primary resource. We’ve seen this in places like Detroit, even before Flint, we see it in communities with mothers coming together and providing afterschool childcare for each other, resources, activism against the impoverishment of their cities.

We saw this book as one, to encourage that, and two, to kind of reflect that back to people, so they have other models for how to do this, and then to bring the conversation to people who are interested but who aren’t mothers, per se.

So is the book saying these communities are here because of the failure of society, or is it saying this is where we need to go because it works better?

I think both. Part of it comes from having needs that aren’t fulfilled. I mean, community organizing kind of assumes that you are not being provided with basic resources.

Part is also going to be necessary. I don’t really see a lot of movement or space left for environmental degradation and climate change to not change the landscape in which we live to such a point that there will just be fewer resources available.

So in that case, it won’t be about how there’s some people who get what they need—well there will still always be that—but you’ll have more and more people who actually need to have the skills of creating community and taking care of each other in order to survive.

The problem is, we’re highly individualistic. The basic assumption is that you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and go out into the world, and you make something of yourself, as if most of the things that you’re relying didn’t come from your government and community. Like access to education as a kid, having a car with government-regulated safety standards, driving on roads… I could go on.

But at a certain point, and I’ve seen this happen myself in Egypt and everywhere else, all that falls apart. In Egypt during the revolution, money lost value by half in two years. And then you start to see people really coming together to build and create community. Or they become horribly vicious—there’s two sides to humanity.

But it’s safe to say we’ll need to do a lot more sharing, living as a community. And the good thing about marginalized mothers is we are really good at that. It’s a skill to know how to organize, both in your household and out into the community itself, and to do so with not a lot of resources.

I saw it in Egypt, Palestine, Chiapas—but even the first world will need those skills. It would be best if we created communities and situations where those skills were nurtured, and they were centered.

You’ve traveled so extensively. How did you start on this whole path?

My father was a Black Panther in southern California, and I was born to a single mother in Washington, D.C. in 1979. So I grew up in a family where you analyzed the world from a certain perspective.

When I was a little kid I really, really, really wanted to travel. I would read everything I could, I taught myself Spanish. I was just so determined that I was going to travel. And that’s what happened.

Even while I was still studying at Sarah Lawrence College, I did delegations, specifically with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. I saw people breaking away from oppressive elements of state, creating their own thing, organizing around that.

In the early 2000s, we did not have that in the states. 9/11 happened, everyone was freaking out for the next ten years. So I left, because I wasn’t it finding it that much here. I left, and I kept going.

I think it’s important to point out that I find living in the states to be weird too. When we first got to Winona, I was like, telling my daughter, who had lived in Egypt and Berlin and Ecuador, okay, we’re going to treat Winona like it’s just a whole new country.

So we went to the state fair and tried different exotic deep-fried foods, Theresa learned to ice skate, and she goes fishing, and we have chickens, and it feels about as surreal as someone else coming to another country. Other than the fact that everyone speaks English, which is awesome. But it feels very foreign.

I was curious to know too—you’re doing everything from being a mom to midwifery to poetry to activism. How do you see them connect and relate to each other?

For me it’s always been centering—doing community work and community organizing and all of that, and centering the person or people or group or needs which are most marginalized.

So you flip the script: You always put at the center of your work those who are the most marginalized and are the most disempowered, and have the weakest amplification of their voice in the world.

You mix that with the fact that I’m a writer, and that’s really what I do. I mean, I can’t build a house or anything.

Most of my poems come from that sort of perspective. Most of my poems aren’t political, they’re more personal, but they usually somehow are aiming for that.

How can people participate or be allies in the work you do with revolutionary mothering and justice?

On an individual level, I think it’s important to embrace kids.

When I was in Egypt, everybody had a kid, and it wasn’t a big deal if your kid got squirmy or upset during a meeting—there was always someone there to play with the kids. Nobody complains, and you can do your job.

That was the ethos of Cairo—everyone knows where the kid is and talks to it. I don’t know how I could have done the same kind of work in the states.

So, appreciate kids. Be cool with them for five minutes. Don’t give people a hard time. Create a culture where people can show up with a kid and it’s fine, they are welcome.

If you’re an activist in community organizations and you’re wondering why there are no people of color there, or why there are no women of color there, historically, women of color just have children earlier. And they aren’t going to be able to get paid childcare, necessarily.

So if you make it clear that you guys are cool with kids, you’re going to start to see more and more people showing up.


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#LatinoLit Review – The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band by Michelle Cruz Gonzαlez

By Charlie Vázquez
Latino Rebels
April 1, 2016

This slim and mean volume of punk memoir brought me back to my years on the West Coast, when I befriended filmmakers and musicians from the Bay Area punk scene who’d moved to Portland in 1989, where I was living at the time. They introduced me to the smoldering punk underground that was thriving in San Francisco when they moved back not too long afterward, as Operation Desert Storm terrorized the networks and protests of No Blood for Oil! filled Portland’s streets and avenues.

Xicana-identified musician Michelle Cruz González joined Spitboy at around that time, an all-female punk group committed to confronting the rampant misogyny plaguing the underground and society in general. González takes us back to that exciting development through compelling storytelling, making it clear that her bandmates originated from more privileged backgrounds, what would be a constant source of tension within the group—an invisible and turbulent fault line that fueled their music.

González revisits the various factions of the punk rock scene of those years, sects divided by aesthetic, faction and sound, when punks would connect to others based on patches they’d pin or sew onto their clothes or where they bought their records; who they listened to and where they hung out when real-time triumphed, before Wi-fi and smartphones. Her story’s central tension is driven by her being Latina in a mostly white male underground, where equality was often trespassed.


I identified with this tale for two reasons: as the grandson and son of struggling Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and for not fitting in anywhere as a bicultural artist who championed experience over the mundane. I also dove headfirst into the underground of those years—as a musician and then as a writer—to seek liberation from the patriarchal strictures that denied me equality and respect as a queer, working-class artist from the Bronx, floating through the music underground as she did.

Spitboy would tour the world and meet many of their heroes; falling in and out of love while losing and gaining new members as they did. González’s raw and unfiltered writing reads with the adrenaline of those times—in your face whether you like it or not. Included in these pages are the moments when Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke the airwaves, when punks realized they were growing up and away from an underground slipping quickly toward the Lollapalooza mainstream.

González’s story is about challenging your obstacles however possible, in tough times before political correctness and policing of speech; when four angry young women came together to play as loud and as nasty as the boys did—who refused Riot Grrrl status and segregation of the genders at their shows. The Spitboy Rule follows the difficult and courageous journey of a young woman who wasn’t afraid to venture into a mostly white underground scene, to hold mirrors up to the faces of her worst critics.


Author Charlie Vázquez is a founding member of Latino Rebels and the director of the Bronx Writers Center. You can follow him @charlievazquez.

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To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: A Review

to defend the revolutionby Marc James Léger
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
March 17th 2016

The main hypothesis of Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s important new book on the cultural policies pursued in Revolutionary Cuba is that there exist possibilities for relations to be created between art and society that are not premised on the profit motive. In the preamble to the book, titled “Cuba as an Antidote to Neoliberalism,” Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear that what motivated her project in militant research is the current market fundamentalism that consigns all cultural production to the needs of economic growth, shaping cultural production into an ideological weapon of capitalist globalization. As a Marxist art theorist with a keen interest in policy I often find myself reading essays on contemporary art waiting for a kernel of wisdom from its author, something that can put contemporary theory into some kind of relation with the history of radical cultural theory. In this instance, readers are richly rewarded as they are immersed in a case study where some of the perennial debates among artists and writers of conscience are worked out in concrete historical circumstances in which a socialist society attempts to bring into existence the best of what humanist Marxism has promised, along with the necessity of struggle against the results of centuries of colonialism, the pressures of capitalist imperialism and the failures of Soviet Stalinism. However, as Gordon-Nesbitt makes clear, the political event of the Cuban Revolution is not only a matter of history, but has implications for the future (xxiii).

Aside from the introductory texts, which includes a foreword by Jorge Fornet (the son of Ambrosio Fornet, one of the key cultural figures in this account), and a brief conclusion, the book is essentially divided into two parts, with the first three chapters approaching the subject of cultural policy in Revolutionary Cuba through a historically-specific perspective on theoretical issues, and a second part with four chapters that follows a more chronological trajectory from the earliest days after the victory of the 26 July Movement in 1959 to roughly the late 1970s.

In this period, debates between “liberal” and “orthodox” tendencies vied for primacy, interacted with international comrades and led eventually to the ratification of the Revolutionary humanist vision of leaders like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, which sought to allow “everything within the Revolution and nothing against the Revolution” (69, 163). The role of militant leadership and of state functions are therefore affirmed not only as a matter of record, but as a point of solidarity by Gordon-Nesbitt, who notes with keen lucidity a meeting of cultural producers at which Fidel intervened by placing his pistol on the table, reminding all those present that the Revolution had been achieved at a great cost and that whatever freedoms had been won by the people of Cuba, artists and intellectuals were mandated with the task to pursue their work in the interest of social, political and cultural transformation and the needs of a socialist society.

In this first part, the author takes the broadest view possible on what a radical cultural policy, in any context, would need to consider. Beyond the mechanisms of socio-economic support for artists and writers, the relation between culture and the state is shown to be essentially different in a capitalist and a socialist context. Since the enlightenment, the aesthetic has been associated with human emancipation, a notion that has been tailored by different political perspectives and government agencies. Insofar as the United States and the United Kingdom have associated culture with commerce and economic growth, they ignore United Nations stipulations that art should be supported but not reduced to the status of a consumer good or a site for speculation. Since the solution to neoliberalization cannot be a return to romantic and modernist notions of autonomy, the policies experimented with in Cuba provide some ideas on how culture can offer a means beyond socio-economic contradictions. It is significant that the Revolution did not originate in strictly communist circles and that Cuban communists of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) only belatedly joined the insurrection, leading to longstanding skepticism towards communism. Rather, the Cuban Revolution was led by new left intellectuals who considered themselves post-Stalinist. Yet, insofar as U.S. aggression was an ever-present danger, ties were maintained with the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism was applied to matters of political economy. The flipside to this, however, was a vision of socialism and of a humanist Marxism that sought to protect freedoms and human happiness as well as national cultural characteristics. This took the form of a Marxism influenced by the ideas of the Cuban intellectual José Marti, which were introduced by Che Guevara as a means to devise a continent-wide resistance to imperialism. The goals of freeing people from economic pressure, to overcome alienation and restore individuals’ capacity to relate themselves to humanity and nature are keystones of proletarian humanism that were given expression in the creation of a better life in both a material and spiritual sense. While literacy was a first objective of the 26 July Movement (with Cuba having today the second highest literacy rate and the U.S. and the U.K. coming in 44th and 45th place), the creation of cultural institutions was undertaken as early as 1961 with the building of national art schools, professional training for art instructors and an outreach programme to rural areas so as to abolish the distinctions between town and country and between manual and intellectual labour. In a short period, the amateur aficionados art education campaign would produce more than a million amateur artists within a population of seven million.

Throughout the 1960s, steps were taken in the development of an infrastructure for the administration of Cuban culture: in 1959 the government established the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industries (ICAIC) as well as the Casa de las Américas; in 1961 intellectuals formed the National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC); the pre-Revolutionary Nuestro Tiempo cultural society represented the ideas of the PSP; and the National Council of Culture (CNC) was created in 1961 – a group that Gordon-Nesbitt reproaches for its orthodox misreading of Marxian dialectics and separating art from the historical processes of the Revolution. (In fact, the entire fourth chapter is dedicated to a brilliant theoretical and historical elucidation of the pitfalls of ideological orthodoxy). In addition, in 1961 the National Art Schools (ENA) were established for training across the disciplines and in 1963 a National Museums Commission was formed, exhibiting art recovered from the elite, building a dozen new museums and touring exhibitions around the island and abroad. All of these institutions were committed to contributing to collective consciousness while sustaining creativity, supporting artists, developing pedagogical programmes and engaging with the world though cultural exchanges. In an early statement by Roberto Fernández Retamar, editor of the journal of the Casa de las Américas, the Revolution is described as a process whose course is not exact, but that the Cuban people are immersed in (65). One can see how different a statement this is from artists in the capitalist world who see themselves as an enclave, detached from the rest of society and at the same time immersed in the economic logic of the culture industries.

It was only in 1976 that the CNC was dissolved and replaced by the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT), headed by Armando Hart, a lawyer and former urban guerrilla. The bulk of the entire book, one could say, is dedicated to describing the process that resulted in the creation of MINCULT. Whereas the first three chapters give an overview of this period, elaborating what was at stake in terms of the ideals of the Revolution and the emancipatory role of culture under socialism, the last four take the reader into more detailed analysis of the particulars, demonstrating how at every stage, the valences of the dialectic, as Fredric Jameson calls it, can lead to very different understandings of what is happening. Gordon-Nesbitt consistently shows how the leadership sought to encourage the freedom of creative expression while at the same time securing the Revolution for the existing generation and for those to come. In this process, culture was given an important role in galvanizing revolutionary ideas, artists were freed from the laws of supply and demand, subsidies replaced royalties and sales, and property rights for creative works were replaced by state-sponsored dissemination.

Although it is not possible to do justice here to all of the particular events that are related in the last four chapters – from Fidel’s “Words to the Intellectuals” after the 1961 Pasado Meridiano controversy, the First National Congress of Writers and Artists (August 1961), the CNC policies of the early 60s, Che’s 1965 text “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” the [International] Cultural Congress of Havana of 1968 and its many participants, the Padilla Case of 1968-71, the First National Congress of Education and Culture of 1970, the Five Grey Years of military control of culture from 1971-76, and the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party of 1975 – I would mention that throughout, Gordon-Nesbitt provides a rich and compelling analysis of the relationship between the political vanguard and artistic praxis that could easily be read alongside today’s discussions on socially engaged art, art activism, participatory art, transversal practice, relational and dialogical aesthetics, participatory art and other variants. Her book brings to the fore the problems that we in the capitalist universe would face if some of our political and cultural ambitions were to be realized. We would be able to go beyond confronting major institutions about the abuses of corporate management and sponsorship since they would be ours, people’s museums, universities and ministries, and we artists and intellectuals would have to decide amongst ourselves whether and how we support the Revolution, including its state mechanisms and infrastructures. We wouldn’t need to network or work without pay in order to accrue social capital like so many entrepreneurs of solidarity, but could dedicate ourselves to free exchange and authentic culture. Of course, even in the case of Cuba, there was never a moment when struggle was not required and protest against an imperialist foe was not a reality. The lessons of the Cuban experiment are not that liberal traditions are of no use to the Revolution, but that national culture should not be chauvinistic or elitist, that art and politics cannot be collapsed, nor can they be separated, and so, that aesthetic vanguards must work alongside political vanguards and vice versa. To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture thus provides Marxist aesthetics with a view of radical ideology and universality that goes beyond sociological reduction and challenges the immanentism of today’s global, neoliberal bureaucracies.

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Life Under Jolly Roger: A Review

Web_Soccer_GabrielKuhnBy JM Hielkema
The Tiger Manifesto

Recommended to me by a friend, Life Under the Jolly Roger proved to be a diverting and informative read that had much more heft than I initially assumed. Though the subject has been both vulgarized and sanitized by innumerable Hollywood adaptations, Golden Age piracy remains a fascinating period in history. Life Under the Jolly Roger is a relatively short but sophisticated and nuanced take on pirate history and myth.

Gabriel Kuhn, an anarchist from Sweden, draws on a range of theorists and historical accounts of piracy, notably Deleuze, Hobsbawm, and, surprisingly (at least to me) practitioners of guerrilla warfare from Che to Mao. The central political question of the book is how present-day radicals should relate to the pirates and their example. That’s particularly important because there is a lot of romanticization of pirates on and off the silver screen, particularly by radicals who see them as consummate egalitarians, precursors of modern anarchists and guerillas.

Kuhn, to his credit, dispels much of the glossy shine of the pirate legend. While it’s undeniable that pirates shared certain traits in common with nomadic societies and spontaneously developed certain democratic institutions––elective captains, more equitable sharing of plunder, etc.––they also frequently employed black and indigenous slaves and practiced cruel violence. Violently hyper-masculine and often brutally violent towards women, the pirates were never feminist paladins either. Kuhn weaves these details into an argument against radical fetishization of the pirates, bereft of criticism or proper historical analysis. Despite not being a Marxist, his approach fits quite comfortably in the historical materialist category, analyzing the pirates in the context of burgeoning European capitalism and imperialism, how they fit within that larger totality.

One of the author’s best insights is that the pirates, though lacking any conscious political motives, functioned objectively as an anti-state war machine, carving out their own lines of flight over a then-unbounded ocean. With numerous networked ports of call and even small pirate settlements like those in Madagascar or Tortuga, the pirates could ply the seas with relative impunity until the first half of the 18th century.

This fact is at the core of Kuhn’s argument for a critical appropriation of the pirate legacy, one that sees them as “social bandits” (after Hobsbawm) who functioned in opposition to and rebellion against capitalism even though unguided by revolutionary aims. In fact, Kuhn argues that the dismemberment of Spanish oceanic hegemony in the Atlantic––a revolutionary result, in his argument––was in large part thanks to pirate and privateer activities. Moreover, he makes an effective comparison between the Golden Age pirates and their military tactics and those of guerrilla armies, without claiming that pirates were some kind of liberation army.
I would disagree slightly with Kuhn’s claims that pirates constituted some kind of objectively revolutionary force, particularly because their armed actions lacked explicit political content.

However, I take his point that their rebellion and their egalitarian authority structures, not to mention their lackadaisical attitudes toward work, merit serious consideration. They’re certainly an inspirational bunch despite and partly because of their violent and unsavoury aspects. After all, a revolutionary has no business being respectable when it comes down to it. Not to say that I want to outfit myself in a pirate hat and shirt (not for political reasons, anyway), but with Kuhn’s help I have a much better idea of who the pirates really were, and hope to read more about them someday. If you’re someone whose knowledge of pirates stops with Errol Flynn and Jack Sparrow but you wanted to learn more, Life Under the Jolly Roger will be just the grog you’re thirsting for.

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Militancy and the Beautiful Game: An interview with Gabriel Kuhn

Illustration by Monica Kostas
March 3rd, 2016

Gabriel Kuhn is an anarchist activist living in Sweden and author of an impressive array of histories, translations, and collections published on anarchism, history of the left, and sports. His energy for writing is matched by a passion for soccer as a longtime fan and once professional athlete. We interviewed him about his experiences playing for a living, radical history, and controversies today. 

You played soccer competitively at one point in your life. How did being in the world of sports as a profession impact your relationship and view of the game?

It had a strong impact on me. I was very disappointed with the social dynamics of it. There was a lot of dishonesty and deceit. I don’t want to paint too negative a picture, but professional sports is full of people with their own interests – club owners, sponsors, managers – who care very little about the athletes themselves. This is particularly problematic in relation to young athletes who are unexperienced, naive, and easily exploitable, but it can also concern older players who, after years of dedication, are nonchalantly dropped if they no longer yield the results required. It is certainly a world where performance weighs much more than friendship or mutual respect. “Camaraderie” is upheld as a value, but it is often reduced to a mere public relations ploy or even a means to force players into submission. There is also competition among athletes, of course, but I felt this was offset by a sense of solidarity that also exists, at least among some.

Again, I don’t want too paint too negative a picture, and there were many moments when I really enjoyed playing and spending time with my teammates, but the overall structure was disheartening; and I would not say this if my experiences hadn’t been confirmed by many other athletes I’ve talked to over the past 25 years. Needless to say, differences between countries and individual sports exist, and if you’re fortunate enough to get to work with people treating you decently your experiences will be different; not all owners and managers are bad. But there exists a pattern. Basically, we are dealing with a microcosm of capitalism at its worst: at the end of the day, competition rules and success is all that matters. To survive in an environment like this, certain qualities are needed: strong egos, self-confidence, high competitiveness, and a personality able to handle critique and even abuse. Professional athletes might range from devout Christians to hard-partying “bad boys”, but they all share certain characteristics; and if you don’t share these characteristics, you will have a hard time finding a place in their world. None of this, of course, says anything about the games they are playing. The games are great. They just need to be liberated from an unhealthy environment.

What made you start thinking about sports as a topic for political study?

To be honest, it’s mainly the attempt to combine two passions, in that case publishing and sports. I love putting books together, everything from conceptualizing them to working with the texts to being involved in the layout. I did plenty of zines over the years, and, in a way, the books are just an extension. When you work with established publishers you have access to more resources. For example, doing a book with over a hundred full-color illustrations, such as Playing as if the World Mattered, would have been impossible to do on my own. So that’s one part. The other part is sports, which I like to play, watch, and discuss. In that sense, it was a natural combination. But there’s more to it. I also think sport is an underrated subject within the radical left. Think about all the books that we have not only on political organizing and economic theory but also on music, visual arts, or even food. Where are the books on sport? And sport is a subject that millions of people, not least working-class people, are very excited about. Dave Zirin has almost a monopoly on radical sports writing, and he does an excellent job, but his work focuses mainly on the US and the big professional leagues. There is still a lack of coverage when it comes to international angles and grassroots initiatives. In other words, I felt that they were voids to be filled. Judging from the mostly positive feedback I’ve received, others felt the same. And there is an increasing number of radical authors coming out with writings on sports. Matt Hern did a book for AK Press, One Game at a Time, and Freedom Through Football is a great history about the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls of Bristol, a pioneering community sports club with a radical edge. It’s all very promising.

The IWW had some intersections with sports through members who were professional athletes for instance Nicolaas Steelink who you write about in Soccer vs. the State, but I’ve also read that the union participated in soccer leagues with socialists and communists in the 30s. Do you know anything more about the history and context of these radical sports leagues in the US?

Workers’ sport wasn’t as big in the US as in Europe, where the headquarters of both the international socialist and communist sports organizations were based, namely the Socialist Workers’ Sport International and the Red Sport International. Nonetheless, there was a workers’ sport movement in the US, too, and wobblies were involved in it, for example in the foundation of the Labor Sports Union of America in 1927, where they worked alongside socialists of other stripes. However, the Labor Sports Union of America was soon in control of communist agitators and became the US chapter of the Red Sport International. As such, it was behind the probably best-known workers’ sport event organized in the US, the so-called Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932, an alternative to the “bourgeois” Olympics held in Los Angeles that same year.

Unfortunately, the history of socialist sports in the US hasn’t been studied much and plenty remains to be uncovered. In radical circles, we probably wouldn’t know about Nicolaas Steelink today hadn’t Dutch journalists traced his journey from football pitches in Holland to soap boxes in California. I’m sure many other inspiring stories remain to be told; let’s hope we’ll get to hear them soon.

In your books and interviews you’ve referenced briefly debates among anarchists that happened in places like Germany and Argentina in the early days of soccer. What were the positions amongst anarchists towards the game at that time? Clearly the situation has been radically transformed with the consolidation of professional sports as multibillion dollar industry, but are the corollaries of the same debates today?

I think that the critique of sport’s commercialization is particularly pronounced today, since its wheels have been turning frantically over the past thirty years. It was already an issue in the early twentieth century, however, especially with regard to the first corporate sponsorship deals and the betting industry. Yet, the bigger issue for left-wing critics was sport’s alleged role in distracting the masses from political organizing. The Romans would have called it “bread and circuses”, and the Marxists called it “the opium of the people”. Many anarchists shared those sentiments, and even those who didn’t often ignored sports as a supposedly apolitical and unimportant means of leisure. One of the most revealing aspects of the relationship between anarchism and sport is the latter’s almost complete absence from anarchist publications. But there have always been anarchists who criticized the rejection of sports as elitist and who stressed sport’s political potential in terms of uniting people, strengthening communal values, challenging class structures, and so on. Essentially, both leftist anti-sport and pro-sport arguments have remained the same during the past hundred years.

Each era seems to have its political challenges that emerge within the world of athletics that reflects the broader social conflicts of its day: perhaps it was collectivity and the anarchist clubs in South America at the turn of the century, black liberation and anti-colonial struggles in athletes in the 1960s. Where should we be situating things events today like the FIFA corruption scandals, Brazil and South Africa’s anti-world cup protests, and the Missouri college football anti-racism strike (to give a few non exhaustive samples)?

I think what we see today expresses both a growing mistrust of authority and a stronger sense of entitlement among the masses. People are fed up with corrupt and unaccountable rulers and they are not afraid to show it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t automatically translate into sweeping political change, as we are facing very complex power structures, but we live in times of strong social movements and protests, which includes widespread grassroots organizing. Even if common visions and strategies have yet to be developed to be effective on a broad scale, these are very encouraging signs. Luckily, challenging the forms in which sports are administered and played is a part of this process.

Are there any more texts on sports you’re working on now? Things in the sports world we should be paying attention to?

I have completed a small book about how, in the early twentieth century, the workers’ sport movement was tied into the European working class movement’s overall ideas of social transformation. The book focuses on the writings of Julius Deutsch, who was the president of the Socialist Workers’ Sport International. It will be out with PM Press this year under the title Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture. I have also outlined a book about Europe’s grassroots soccer culture, but realizing it would require a lot of traveling, which, in turn, needs both time and money, so I’m not sure when that will happen.

In terms of what we should pay attention to, it certainly entails the above-mentioned protest movements in sports, but also the increasing awareness among athletes regarding the corruption and misconduct of sports authorities. Sport’s international governing bodies are under increasing pressure, whether it’s FIFA, the IOC, or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). This opens up exciting prospects. Imagine high-profile athletes coming out in support of Soccer World Cup or Olympic Games boycotts. It would raise sports protests to a whole new level with far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. Let’s hope we’ll get there soon.

Gabriel was born in Austria but soon began moving around with his artist parents. He grew up in various countries, including Turkey, Italy, England and the US, but returned to Austria for most of his formal education and a four-year semi-professional soccer career. In 1996 he received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. The following ten years he spent hitchhiking and couchsurfing around five continents. He moved to Sweden in 2006.

Active in radical politics since the late 1980s, publishing projects have always been a focus. In the early 1990s, Gabriel worked with the Austrian autonomist journal TATblatt and anarchist publisher Monte Verita, before turning his attention to DIY zine publishing. Alpine Anarchist Productions was founded in 2000, and distributes pamphlets to this day. Since 2005 Gabriel has been working closely with radical German publisher Unrast. His book “‘Neuer Anarchismus’ in den USA. Seattle und die Folgen” was named “Book of the Year 2008” by Berlin’s Library of the Free. Gabriel also contributes regularly to the Swedish anarchist journal Brand. He has three books on sports and politics published by PM Press including “Soccer vs. the State: tackling football and radical politics”, “Playing as if the World Mattered: An illustrated history of activism in sports” and soon-to-be-released translation of Julius Deutsch’s “Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a militant working-class culture”.

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Reclaiming the American Commons

by John Curl
Roar Magazine
March 2016

A quiet upsurge of cooperative activity has been taking place across the US, where people are turning to the commons to rebuild a sense of community.

A quiet, sweeping upsurge of cooperative activity has been taking place throughout the United States in recent decades. All over the American map, millions of people now realize that the existing economic system has failed in the core purpose of any economic system: to offer a decent life and future to all.

Since everybody needs to survive, people everywhere are turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and commons of every sort. The story is not in the statistics. The vast majority of this activity is under the radar, in the informal, underground economy, in unincorporated associations. That is both a weakness and a strength.


America has historically always been a center of collective activity. That observation may seem to fly in the face of the stereotype of Americans being all about individualism and competition, but the truth is that from its earliest days the North American continent has been fertile soil to cooperative and communalist movements, based on people working together to provide for their mutual needs. Native American culture was built on those principles, and cooperative communities were integral to the entire project of working people immigrating here to escape poverty and oppression. Every wave of immigrants spontaneously created cooperative economic and social structures.

When settlers expanded westward in search of a better life, they often did so through cooperative means and formed cooperative settlements. The internal dynamics of American settler culture were intrinsically communalist in nature. But the entire colonial project also had a dark underside that can never be fully expunged: native people were already occupying the land, and the settlers were not only refugees, but also invaders--the vanguard of a tragic clash of civilizations.

The industrialization of the early 19th century brought a new form of oppression to America, and working people responded with the first modern social movements. Communalism was one of the earliest of these movements. It began in America in 1825, with the group of intentional communities inspired by New Harmony, and then renewed again in the 1840s. Like the movement of a century later, they too aimed at constructing a new society through communities based on collectivity and cooperation, but they eventually hit the limits of access to land and resources.

In the same era, worker cooperatives became an integral part of the early union movement. America was becoming increasingly dominated by capital, while working people were increasingly disenfranchised. The wage system, tied to the industrial revolution, was on the rise, and workers fought and resisted being made permanent wage slaves. They saw the wage system, in which people rent themselves to other people, as a form of bondage, and they formed worker-owned cooperatives to prevent themselves from being dragged down into it.

The early union and co-op movements culminated in the precipitous rise of the Knights of Labor and their counter-institutional challenge to capitalism through erecting an alternative economic system of cooperatives. They planned to replace capitalism with what they called the Cooperative Commonwealth. Their defeat in 1886 and the destruction of their worker co-ops by the forces of capital was a historic turning point in American social history. A few years later, their rural allies in the Farmers' Alliance suffered a parallel defeat with the destruction of their agricultural co-ops. These defeats resulted in the triumph of the "gilded age" reign of the robber barons.

In the early 1900s and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, radical collectivist, syndicalist and cooperative movements surged again. But very little of them remained after World War II, leaving the US deeply regimented and militarized. Progressive ideas were expunged from schools and politics, and to express even mildly left opinions in the McCarthy era, you risked being branded a traitor. Parents feared losing their jobs and told their kids to keep their mouths shut in school. LIVING THE REVOLUTION

As the generation that grew up in this airless atmosphere came of age, we were suddenly told that we were being shipped off to Asia to defend "freedom" from Communism. Tens of thousands of young people were being ripped out of their lives and tossed as cannon fodder into a war they opposed. Their overwhelming response was to resist and to turn to each other to invent a new set of liberating social relations, to reject what the country had become and create an oppositional collective, communal and cooperative "counterculture".

We created communal living spaces in both rural and urban settings. Many never even had a name. Just to know about them, you needed to have connections through friends or friends of friends. They had no long-term sustainability, but formed and reformed. Since the world was so unstable and torn by social upheaval, the focus was on liberation, not sustainability. By today's standards, most were not stable intentional communities. Shared living spaces are of course still ubiquitous among young people today, and the main difference was the prevailing atmosphere in society.

The idea at the time was to _live_ the revolution. Unlike many radical organizations of previous generations, our internal organizations needed to reflect our goals. The purpose was liberation, and we could only accomplish that directly, by liberating ourselves. What was holding us all back from living in liberated ways? In some ways the structure of society was doing just that, while in other ways we were oppressing ourselves and each other. We need liberated spaces to experiment in, where each could help liberate the others.

Collectivity led to many cultural victories in that era. But these turned into political defeats as a frightened country retreated to law and order under Reaganism.


The current Communities Directory lists 2,364 intentional communities in America, including income-sharing communes, eco-villages, co-housing, residential land trusts, student co-ops and spiritual communities. These are all projects where people choose to live together sustainably, on the basis of common values, with goals of personal, cultural and social transformation. Intentional communities are just one aspect of collectivity, of the commons.

Much of the communalist and cooperative movement in the US is still underground, in the informal economy. But the above-ground movement is expanding rapidly today, in response to the economic crises of this century, which globalized capitalism is not geared to handle or solve.

Do an internet search for worker co-ops, collectives, farmer co-ops, housing co-ops, food co-ops, intentional communities, land trusts, any kind of co-op you can imagine, and you will discover vast numbers. You will also find an extensive network of organizations around the country doing cooperative education, innovation, funding and developing.

Large numbers of non-profits and social justice organizations have expanded their horizons to include co-ops, particularly worker co-ops and related social enterprises, community enterprises and solidarity enterprises. Go to the websites of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives and other regional networks. Cities are supporting worker co-ops as an economic development strategy. The New York City recently granted $1.2 million to fund worker co-operative development.

An Underground Railroad of Communes

For me, participation in the communalist and cooperative movement started back in the mid-1960s, when I lived at Drop City, the fabled commune in southern Colorado. At the height of the movement of that era, we were part of a loose network of intentional communities, and we entertained the notion that American society was collapsing and we were constructing the basis of a new social order.

No directory of communes existed, but if you knew where to go, you could cross the country and never have to stay at a motel. The Vietnam War was raging, and the draft was the spark that ignited the movement. Communal spaces formed a kind of underground railroad, where resistors could travel commune to commune until they reached refuge in Canada.

Each of the 1960s communes was organized around a space that belonged to no one person. Since the planet, the original commons, was almost entirely privatized, with everyone dispossessed except the elite, groups of dispossessed decided to start creating small commons of their own.

That was at the core of the movement. But we soon hit a wall: only those with significant financial resources could have access to land, and you cannot conjure up alternative real estate. It was that contradiction that stopped the movement in its tracks. With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many communes disbanded and few new ones formed.

Eventually intentional communities began to proliferate again, as experiments in new ways of living, and continued to draw many people, as they still do today. To some extent, the drive of this new communalism remains the same: to restore a sense of community in an economic system where families, neighborhoods and entire populations are at the mercy of developers and planners, where people are moved around like cattle, with profit maximization being the primary consideration.


But people need not necessarily form communes to restore a sense of community. Many movements today aim to defend communities by protecting the commons. In this sense, it is worth pointing out that historical experiences like the Paris Commune were by their very nature centered around reclaiming the commons and defending "social property" in the fight against privatization.

An inspiring example of a contemporary movement aiming to protect the commons from economic attacks and displacement can be found in West Berkeley, California. Outsiders who visit this area often wonder why in 2016 it has not been totally swept up in the relentless gentrification that has decimated and transformed so many other Bay Area neighborhoods.

Why it is still full of funky little homes, local businesses, artists, artisans and industries? The secret answer is the West Berkeley Plan, through which a long-established, mixed-use urban neighborhood successfully created, recognized and defended a threatened commons.

The West Berkeley Plan was a radical transformative structure right in the heart of mainstream society, which all the developers strenuously opposed, since it limited their capacity to exploit and extract profit. Yet the movement eventually rose above the opposition and implemented the Plan by a unanimous vote of the city council. We had allies in city hall. That turned out to be key.

It began in the 1980s, when, during an era of expansive Reaganism, I brought several council members down to West Berkeley and showed them around the thriving and economically diverse community that at was at risk of displacement. Meanwhile a community group formed called West Berkeley MAARS, which stood for Merchants, Artists, Artisans, and Residents. The city council passed an "urgency ordinance" to stop wild gentrification and stabilize the situation, because there was no area plan in place to govern development in the neighborhood.

The first thing we tried was a commercial rent stabilization ordinance for industrial spaces. Berkeley already had commercial rent regulations protecting small merchants in two gentrifying commercial districts across town, as well as residential rent control. These ordinances treated affordable rental space as a commons. The community needed to protect that commons to remain a diverse community. But within weeks after the city council passed the West Berkeley ordinance, the state legislature intervened with a law outlawing all commercial rent control in California. It was then that the city council initiated the West Berkeley Plan process.

The Plan was based on the radical concept of a neighborhood planning and administering itself by consensus. All the stakeholders attended big public meetings, refereed by the city. Over a period of several years large numbers of people participated, argued, fought and ultimately came to acceptable compromises in which every sector had enough of their needs met. All the groups in West Berkeley could stay. No one would be pushed out by unchecked gentrification. This was true community-based planning in the best sense of the term.

We managed to stabilize the situation through zoning. We created a series of industrial zones, in which industrial and arts-and-crafts spaces were protected. Industrial and art space was recognized as a commons. Once landlords realized they could only rent out an industrial space to an industry or artisan, and not convert it to a higher-paying use, they had to accept the situation and rents no longer escalated. Since an industrial or arts-and-crafts space use can only generate a modest income level, and since a landlord can only replace an industrial tenant with another industrial tenant, landlords had to accept community stability.

Although developers continued to attack the West Berkeley Plan before the ink was even dry, over the decades the plan has held. This continued success has been largely due to the ongoing efforts of another community organization called West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), which took over the struggle from MAARS.

The West Berkeley Plan showed a way forward. The Plan struck a great blow to gentrification, achieved a triumph for diversity and community, and successfully created and protected a commons. It is a living demonstration of how, when grassroots activist community groups and progressive elements in municipal government work together, the impossible can become possible.


Today's cooperative, communalist and collectivist movements emerged in the early years of the 21st century. While many intentional communities continue to thrive, living communally is not an option for the vast majority of the US population, who are struggling just to stay where they are and working to transform their existing communities.

Nevertheless, people everywhere are turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and the commons for an alternative.

Today the US is no longer a powerhouse of heavy industry (apart from munitions), and the civil economy is largely based on services and small production. Our movement is not capable of challenging the commanding heights of the economy, like the Knights of Labor once tried to do, but it _is_ taking over the margins. The objective now is to multiply and thrive, horizontally not hierarchically, in the age-old task of trying, under adversity, to create a sustainable humane society to live in, in balance with the natural world--a great commons.

Collectivity can involve many kinds of sharing, and they all enrich life. When we create collectivity among ourselves, we are creating commons. Collectivity and commons are of enormous value: by creating commons, by taking back and defending them, by filling our lives as much as we can with collectivity, with community, we bring about progressive and sustainable social change.

In a real sense, then, widespread collectivity and cooperation in our lives is already changing the world.

_[John Curl is the author of _For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperatives, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America_ (2009). He is a longtime member of Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop.]_
"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money." --Nineteenth century Nēhilawē (Cree) proverb


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