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Black Flag Bearers

by Patrick Rapa
City Paper
April 4th, 2013

A new book chronicles a cross-country quest for meaning in an enigmatic punk tattoo

By the time Stewart Ebersole got his first Black Flag tattoo, the legendary ’80s hardcore band had already imploded and broken up. And, truth be told, he hadn’t much cared for their last few albums. But still, their killer early music, and the defiant punk ethos that went with it, was enough to send him into a tattoo shop with his copy of 1984’s Slip It In to get a tiny set of the “bars” inked onto his right leg.

Those four staggered bars were designed by artist Raymond Pettibon, brother of guitarist Greg Ginn, when the band was just getting started in Hermosa Beach, Calif., in the late ’70s. Meant to symbolize anarchy, a kind of antithesis to the white flag of surrender, the logo appeared on pretty much every album, flier and T-shirt the band produced.



Somewhere along the way, however, the bars picked up a new, less concrete meaning, something more ambiguous and oddly tribal. As detailed in Ebersole’s new book, Barred for Life: How Black Flag’s Iconic Logo Became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake (PM Press, March 1), the logo these days signifies not so much an appreciation for a band — it’s worth noting that Black Flag’s sound and fanbase mutated with each of its many lineup changes — but a vague sense that the person with the tattoo knows what it’s like to be a little different on some level.

“If Black Flag never got together again, people would still keep getting the bars,” Ebersole says when he and photographer Jared Castaldi sit down for an interview at Tattooed Mom. It’s Castaldi’s first look at the finished book, and he flips through it quietly. On each page there’s a large, black-and-white image of a knuckle or a wrist or a scalp permanently affixed with the bars.

Neal Santos

L-R: Stewart Ebersole and Jared Castaldi at Tattooed Mom.

The symbol’s resilience and mutability were a big part of what inspired Ebersole to assemble a crew and embark on a six-year mission to collect photos of and interviews with proud bar-bearers across the country. Having played and toured with a few basement-level punk bands in his day, he had the connections to book himself at rock clubs and bookstores in Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco and dozens more places. “It was basically us being in a punk band but not playing music,” Ebersole says. The largest tour put him and his crew on the road for more than 50 days straight.

It all could have added up to a zine — a medium Ebersole has dabbled in before — but he saw the potential for something more. The resulting Barred for Life is part photo book and part memoir, interspersed with lengthy interviews with Black Flag alums.

When considering if any other band has come close to matching what Black Flag and Pettibon achieved with the bars, the mouth logo John Pasche designed for the Rolling Stones comes to mind. “OK, so say you’re going to do Lipped for Life or Tongued for Life, what are those people going to say when you ask them about their tattoo? ‘Rolling Stones are the best band ever!’” shrugs Ebersole.


Barred’s subjects, some in their 20s, many in their 30s and 40s, are all over the map when it comes to the meaning behind their tattoos. “We got far more non-Black Flag answers than we got answers about the band,” says Ebersole. “Those kinds of tattoos are, like, ‘Oh, I got wasted at the Spectrum in ’85,’” jokes Castaldi. He helped launch the Barred project, but had to bail on the big tour when he landed a day job. His photos dominate the first 80 or so pages of the book, after which Ebersole did the shooting.

Several subjects make a point of saying Black Flag is not, in fact, their favorite band. A few allude to the bars as a secret handshake, or as symbolic of an unspoken bond that ties strangers together as punks and ex-punks on similar journeys, while by no means guaranteeing friendship. “You know they come from the same background,” says Ebersole. “I don’t think you have that with the lips and tongue.”

And then there are the tattoos themselves. So many of them, Ebersole points out, are just really, really ugly. “Most of the time they aren’t professionally done,” he smiles. “Or if they are professionally done, they still don’t look all so hot.”

“They’re pretty much all bad,” laughs Castaldi. “First of all, they’re not even black anymore, they’re blue. And they’re not — there’s nothing straight about the lines or anything.”

About a year into his project, Ebersole had a tattoo artist ink over his mini-bars, which had blobbed together, replacing them with a massive set that dominates his left leg. “I decided if I was gonna do the book I would have the biggest one,” he says. “It ended up not being the biggest.” Who took that title? “A guy named Jimi in Salt Lake City. He was in prison for 16 years, and over the course of 16 years he had this guy stick-and-poke it in his gut.”

You’ll find Jimi Germ and his gigantic bars on page 209 of the book. Instead of solid black rectangles, his tattoo bars frame a scene depicting the alleged crime that got him thrown in jail: he and some friends flipping over a cop car and setting it ablaze during a riot. “He’s out, and now he’s becoming a librarian,” says Ebersole.

The bars’ simplicity has led to myriad creative variations. A guy in Toronto has them made of bacon strips (p. 137), while a woman from Massachusetts went with a lipstick motif (p. 133).

One dude in Wisconsin let his brother brand the bars onto him below his navel (barely visible on p. 186). The bars on a hairy arm in Albany are overshadowed by a nearby mushroom cloud erupting from a toilet (p. 71). The bars never seem to be anybody’s only tattoo.

Ebersole lives in Nyack, N.Y., and works as a marine geologist, but he grew up in York and lived in South Philly until recently. As a result, a large number of locals made it into Barred for Life. The bars on the shin of Philadelphia rocker/competitive eater Ryan “Chubb” Pasquale (p. 19) look like crayon scrawls, but were actually the result of a tattoo machine he built with a small motor, a toothbrush, a pen and an eraser when he was 16. “Fuck if my dad didn’t walk in on me while I was doing it,” Pasquale says in the book.
Jared Castaldi

Jared Castaldi

All of Barred for Life’s subjects were asked to name their favorite singer, song and album from the Black Flag catalog. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answers often involved a lot of mixing and matching of eras.

The “fantasy game” responses would drive Ebersole a little nuts; he’s an outspoken guy, not averse to arguing music minutiae. But he gets it. After all, Black Flag’s roster changes are the stuff of legend, with guitarist Greg Ginn being the only constant and vocalist Henry Rollins — whose tenure started with the ’81 classic album Damaged and ended with the band’s breakup in ’86 — being the most famous.

In fact, as you read this, two versions of the band are prepping for summer tours. Both look like fantasy teams.

The simply titled Flag is composed of original singer Keith Morris backed by bassist Chuck Dukowski (’77-’83) and drummer Bill Stevenson (’81-’82, ’83-’85), along with guitarist Stephen Egerton (from fellow punk veterans the Descendents and ALL).

Ginn, meanwhile, has put together a new Black Flag, with singer Ron Reyes (whose original run with the band lasted a mere seven months from ’79 to ’80) and drummer Gregory Moore, best known for playing with Ginn’s other band, Gone.

Ebersole has little interest in these revivals — “you might as well go see the Grateful Dead minus all their members except Bob what’s-his-name” — but he did interview several alums for the book. He hung out with Morris in his L.A. backyard and watched a Super Bowl with singer and guitarist Dez Cadena (’80-’83). Ginn and Rollins, however, turned him down.

“I talked [Reyes] into an interview that he didn’t want to do. Now he’s in Black Flag again,”

Ebersole says. “[Dukowski] said he had no interest in reliving the past. Now he’s in Flag.”

“[Bassist Kira Roessler] said, ‘You sure you even want to interview me? If you aren’t a big Black Flag fan, why do you even want to know these things?’” he laughs. “And I was, like, ‘Don’t you think this makes a much more objective book if I thought you guys sucked when you were in the band?’ She thought that was hilarious and invited us over and we had a blast.”

Ebersole pulls no punches about his disgust for the later Black Flag albums. “I listened to Annihilate This Week and it’s horrible. I listened to Family Man and it’s intolerable,” he says.

“They had all this really great music before they became shitty.”

Did any of his subjects name songs and singers from the shitty era?

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, everybody did,” he says. “Are you familiar with the concept of patterning? When a duck or a chicken is hatched, they’ll become attached to the first thing they see.” When it comes to Black Flag, “That’s how everybody is. … I still listen to Damaged all the time. When I’m pissed off, it’s my go-to.”


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Stewart Dean Ebersole's Author Page




We Are Not Worth More, They Are Not Worth Less

by Greg King
The Sun
March 2013

The Odyssey Of S. Brian Willson


For several years during the last decade I gathered inspiration from a neighbor who often passed by my house on his bike. Actually he rode a “handcycle” — a tricycle he pedaled with his hands. His legs were gone below the knees, but with his arms he often cranked out hundreds of miles a week.

This old neighbor of mine is S. Brian Willson, a former U.S. Air Force officer. He served in Vietnam, but he didn’t lose his legs in the war. That happened on American soil.

After witnessing the effects of an American napalm raid on a peaceful Vietnamese village, Willson, a former all-conference athlete and scion of American conservatives, returned home to participate in antiwar protests. By the eighties Willson was organizing military veterans to oppose the Reagan administration’s three wars in Central America. Then, on September 1, 1987, he and fellow veterans David Duncombe and Duncan Murphy sat on a curving stretch of railroad track that crossed a public road. Their goal was to block munitions shipments from the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California to American proxy armies in Central America. As the train approached, traveling at more than three times the legal speed limit of five miles an hour, it became clear it wasn’t going to stop. The protesters scrambled. Murphy, a sixty-six-year-old World War II veteran, jumped up to grab the locomotive’s cowcatcher, then leapt to the side. Duncombe was also able to jump clear.

Willson was not. The train ran him over, severing one leg and mangling the other, and carving a chunk out of his skull. (He would end up losing both legs and his right frontal lobe.) A navy ambulance arrived quickly, but the medics refused to work on Willson, who was bleeding profusely, because, they said, they couldn’t treat people who were not technically on navy property. Seventeen minutes later a county ambulance arrived and rushed Willson to the hospital.

During a government inquiry navy officials acknowledged that they had anticipated a “confrontation sooner or later” with the veterans. The action had been widely publicized, and the tracks at that location had been blocked by protesters going back to the 1960s. So there was an established protocol for making arrests before the trains moved. No one, particularly not the three blockaders, expected the train to barrel through. None­theless the train’s engineer told investigators that his superiors had instructed him not to stop that day, to “prevent anyone from boarding the locomotive” and hijacking it. Willson was never able to determine exactly how high up the chain of command these orders originated, but former fbi agent Jack Ryan revealed that he had been fired for refusing to investigate veteran peace activists, including Murphy and Willson, as “domestic terrorists.”

Immediately after the incident thousands of people descended on Concord. Four days later, with Jesse Jackson and Joan Baez looking on, protesters ripped up the tracks at the naval weapons station. After the navy made repairs, a twenty-four-hour-a-day occupation of the tracks began. It blocked every munitions train leaving Concord for more than two years. More than two thousand people were arrested, and some were jailed for as long as six months.

I met Willson nearly twenty years later, when he lived near me in Arcata, California. We would chat at the post office or see each other in the neighborhood. He walked on prosthetics, and if anyone deserved to use a car it was him, but Willson pedaled almost everywhere to reduce his carbon footprint. Sometimes when we talked, he spoke of his frustration with writing a memoir.

It wasn’t coming easy.

When the book came out in 2011, I had to wonder if Willson’s frustration had been simply self-effacement. Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson is gripping and at times beautifully written. I’d place it among the most important American histories since Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Willson lucidly blends the personal and the political, and reaches well beyond U.S. activities in Southeast Asia and Central America to connect the dots of American exceptionalism, expansionism, and warfare around the globe since the country’s founding. He followed the memoir up in 2012 with My Country Is the World: Photo Journey of a Stumbling Western Satyagrahi.

Willson grew up in upstate New York. His parents were conservative Baptists, and his father belonged to the John Birch Society and contributed to the Ku Klux Klan. Willson was a top student, a captain of sports teams. He went to church, studied the Bible, and attended anticommunist Christian student gatherings. In 1964 Willson supported Republican Barry Goldwater for president, pleased that he was advocating bombing targets in North Vietnam and using tactical nuclear weapons to defoliate the demilitarized zone that separated North from South Vietnam.

Willson was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force when he finished his master’s degree in criminology at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC. Less than a year later, in 1969, he shipped out to Vietnam, where he served as a security-and-intelligence officer charged with protecting South Vietnamese air bases. While there he inspected a recently napalmed village “to perform a quick estimate of the pilots’ success at hitting their specified targets,” he says.

Arriving at the village less than an hour after it had been strafed and bombed, Willson writes that he “saw one young girl trying to get up on her feet . . . but she quickly fell down. A few other people were moving ever so slightly as they cried and moaned on the ground. Most of the . . . victims I saw were women and children, the vast majority lying motionless. Most, I am sure, were dead.” As he walked, Willson’s forward progress was stymied by bodies. “I began sobbing and gagging. . . . I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed.”

It was in this moment that Willson became a war resister. Back on base he began questioning his superiors about reasons for the bombing raids, which led to his early return to the United States and, after another year at a base in Louisiana, an honorable discharge. He returned to American University, received a law degree, and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar.

In 1973 the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, hired Willson as a consultant on the construction of a new criminal-justice complex. As part of his research Willson lived for three months in the hundred-year-old Cincinnati Workhouse prison. Afterward he proposed a new prison half the size recommended by the state’s architect and emphasized the need for “constructive rehabilitation programs” in lieu of incarceration — suggestions that were ultimately ignored. In the midseventies Willson served as coordinator for the National Moratorium on Prison Construction, a project of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

In 1980 Willson became a legislative aide to Massachusetts state senator Jack Backman and advised the senator on prison and veterans’ issues. Willson made regular visits to Massachusetts prisons, especially Walpole, a notoriously violent institution where guards were known to torture prisoners with beatings and compulsory rectal searches. At Walpole Willson witnessed two guards “pull[ing] a prisoner out of a cell onto the walkway floor. One guard kicked the prisoner while the other hit him with a billy club, the prisoner screaming, the guards shouting.”

The experience sparked a flashback to the carnage he’d witnessed in Vietnam. It was, he says, “different from having a bad memory pop into your mind. When I looked around me, I could only see this woman’s eyes, dead children, the gored water buffalo lying on the ground. I smelled the burned corpses and buildings of that village. I literally could not see, hear, or smell the real world of the very noisy prison around me.”

The flashback compelled Willson to take a leave of absence from his job, which he eventually left altogether to join other vets who opposed U.S. foreign policy. In 1982 Willson cofounded the Veterans Education Project, and less than two years later he became executive director of a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in western Massachusetts. He also volunteered on the U.S. Senate campaign of fellow Vietnam veteran and war protester John Kerry. After being elected, Kerry appointed Willson to a veterans’ advisory committee. In 1986 Willson and three decorated veterans fasted for forty-seven days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to the Reagan administration’s funding and training of the Contras, a mercenary army seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government. One year later Willson lost his legs attempting to stop arms shipments to the Contras.

After recuperating from the incident in Concord, Willson traveled to Nicaragua several times, where he was greeted by cheering crowds and shared a podium with President Daniel Ortega. He also traveled to El Salvador, Colombia, the Palestinian territories, Ecuador, Brazil, Iraq, Cuba, and Chiapas, Mexico. U.S. society, he felt, was in need of physical and spiritual transformation. “Our obsessive pursuit of materialism has preempted the evolutionary social-biological compact that guided our species for millennia,” he writes. “I believe human beings come into the world with the archetypal characteristics of empathy, cooperation, and mutual respect. We are wired as social beings. Yet these fundamental characteristics have been buried under an avalanche of narcissistic, egocentric behavior fueled by modern materialist culture.”

During the late nineties Willson stopped traveling the globe and began moving across the landscape almost entirely by handcycle. He lived in small communities, where he and his partner, Becky Luening, practiced sustainable living by installing solar panels, growing their own food, and buying locally. “Part of me wanted to drop out completely,” he says. Instead he organized bike rides. In 2006 Willson and a dozen other cyclists, many of them veterans, rode from Eugene, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, and back to attend the Veterans for Peace National Convention. During the summer of 2011, at the age of seventy, Willson handcycled from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco, “pedaling” his book at speaking engagements along the way. He figures that, since he first began using a handcycle in 1997, he has logged sixty thousand miles.

On September 1, 2012, Willson and dozens of other peace activists gathered in Concord to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the train assault. Several luminaries attended, including former high-ranking cia official Ray McGovern and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. The day’s events were documented by Bo Boudart, a film­maker who is planning a feature film on Willson’s life titled Paying the Price for Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson and the Peace Movement (payingthepriceforpeace.com).

I interviewed Willson last year in the Portland home he shares with Luening. Willson gave me a tour of their converted urban landscape. Much of their food comes from a permaculture garden, solar panels provide most of their electricity, rainwater irrigates the plants, and a composting toilet eliminates the need to join a centralized sewage system. These efforts, Willson said ruefully, amount to little more than gestures verging on “greenwashing.” Yet Willson and Luening continue to work closely with like-minded neighbors to eschew centralized, fossil-fuel-dependent systems as a path toward even higher levels of community sustainability and, by extension, peace.
 
King: In Vietnam you accompanied a South Vietnamese lieutenant into a village that had been napalmed just an hour before. Burned and blown-up bodies of women and children lay scattered about. But when you broke down, the lieutenant couldn’t figure out what your problem was. How was his reaction humanly possible?

Willson: I think we’re all capable of being in denial of our humanity. And we’re all capable of participating in evil.

When I looked into the eyes of a dead woman I saw there, what I experienced wasn’t a thought; it was an overwhelming sensation that hit my body. The lieutenant asked me what was wrong, and my brain and nervous system struggled to come up with words. “She’s my sister,” I finally said. It was just an interpretation of what I felt. It’s like when a father goes home and sees his child and just wants to hug her. It’s a response that comes out of your whole being. It’s love. It has nothing to do with thought.

King:
But how was the lieutenant able to shrug at such a massacre in his own country?

Willson: Many of us are conditioned to be obedient to some master or ideology. The ideology usually includes a class structure in which some members of society are more privileged. You constantly have to demonize other people in order to justify such privilege. I had that conditioning. The lieutenant had it too. He was from an upper-class Vietnamese family that had collaborated with the French for many generations, and he’d been sent to a French school and also educated in the United States.

I was kind of a lower-middle-class kid who was trying to become rich and successful. The experience I had in Vietnam caught me by surprise. Before that, I’d been a creature of compliance, concerned with making money, saying the right things, dressing the right way.

The question is: What causes the break from that conditioning and the recovery of one’s empathy and sense of cooperation? I don’t really know. I recently read The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford prison experiment. [In 1971 Stanford student volunteers were randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week the study was shut down because the “guards” had become brutal and sadistic. — Ed.] In the book Zimbardo is trying to figure out how good people can do evil things — and how some can then revert to being humane and caring.

I hesitate to say that my transformation after visiting the bombed village was automatic. I knew that I was the bad guy, but I also wondered: How could that be? How could I be a bad guy? I hadn’t pulled the trigger. I hadn’t dropped the bombs. But I was complicit in this whole system. By protecting the air base from attack, I’d enabled the planes to conduct their bombing missions. Maybe it was my removal from the actual act of killing that enabled me to see it as the horror it was.

Before Vietnam I’d thought that being born in the U.S. was enough to make me a “good guy.”

But seeing that woman’s eyes, it was so clear. It was such an overwhelming truth. It was irreversible. The only options were just to get drunk or high and stay that way my whole life, or to embrace the truth.

Sometimes I wonder: Why was I asked to do that extra duty? It was very unusual that I was even in that village, assessing bombings. I didn’t know any other air-force officer who was doing that. It was just a fluke. I like to think of it as divine intervention. It was the Great Spirit talking to me, telling me I was not going to slide through this world. I wanted to slide through it. I wanted to go to graduate school, not study too hard, get my degree, get a nice job, and make a lot of money. But that’s not real, the Great Spirit said. I was going to have to deal with the hard truths.

I can still hear the moaning from the villagers who hadn’t died yet. I left that village while people were moaning. I didn’t even summon any medical help.

Their moaning is now my moaning. I am connected to them, not separate. We’re all connected by empathy. I believe there is a soul in everything. God is in everything, and it’s all connected.

If you can really feel that type of connection, then your life will be radically changed. You will make completely different choices. And it’s not enough to know you’re connected. You need to feel the connection. Feeling is a wisdom that we’ve lost. During the Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eight­eenth centuries, rationality was emphasized over feelings, with damaging effects. The Enlightenment thinkers made interesting contributions to reductionist principles, but not to holistic principles.

King: Your memoir came out around the time of your seventieth birthday. Can you give us a synopsis of your story?

Willson: I think of myself as a recovering white male, recovering from my early conditioning about how to be successful. The value system I was raised with dehumanized me to the point that I followed an order to travel nine thousand miles to participate in destroying another people. It’s incredible that I could do that, and without really thinking much about it. That’s why I wrote the book — to understand how it was so easy for me to do that. I’m still recovering from it. It’s a lifetime journey, and there’s no happy ending. But it is a story that contains a certain amount of joy: the joy of learning the truth.

King: You have called the incident in which you lost your legs “attempted murder.” Why?

Willson: The navy’s protocol was for the train to stop and wait for arrests. Remember, I was once a military-installation security commander. I know how to secure equipment. Because they were carrying munitions, they were required to stop. Suppose I’d had a satchel of charges strapped to my body: I could have blown up the whole train, and a lot of people would have been killed. So not stopping was against protocol. And it was also intentional. Subsequent testimony revealed that the engineer had been ordered not to stop, and the train had sped up to three times the legal five-mile-an-hour limit.

King: You have said you were surprised the engineer didn’t stop, but you were not surprised that the government assaulted you.

Willson: In Concord I experienced what people all over the world experience when they stand up to power: they get clobbered. Look at the history of the U.S. labor movement. About seven hundred labor organizers and strikers were killed between 1880 and 1930. Our history is violent. But the official history says that we are the greatest country in the history of the world, because we defeated fascism in World War ii.

King: Did you go through a period of mourning for your lost legs?

Willson: I did, but it wasn’t until years later — about 1993. I started crying a lot. I didn’t want to go anywhere, because I didn’t know when I was going to break down. In my mind nothing was prompting this. It was spontaneous. I was crying that I didn’t have my feet, but at the same time I was thanking my legs for adapting to these prosthetics and getting me around. I would caress my stumps, sometimes for hours a day, just appreciating what I had. They do such a phenomenal job, because I’m active, and I don’t give them much of a break.

King: When did you start riding a handcycle?

Willson: In 1997. Until then I hadn’t even known they existed. I discovered them in Northampton, Massachusetts. The state had an office that was loaning out handcycles. They weren’t like the one I have now — they were more like wheelchairs — but I was hooked right away. I used that borrowed handcycle every day for probably a month. Then I bought one, and I’ve been riding ever since.

I often wish that back in 1900 people had been able to think more clearly about the implications of burning fossil fuels. The internal-combustion engine arrived on the scene about the same time that bicycles had come into their own, with pneumatic tires and ball bearings. We went for speed, comfort, and convenience. These are not holistic principles. And we had a technology that would have enabled us to live simpler, more efficiently, and healthier.

Economist E.F. Schumacher said that “small is beautiful.” According to his fellow economist Leopold Kohr and social critic Ivan Illich, the most efficient speed for human society is that of a bicycle: twelve to fifteen miles an hour. So slow is beautiful, too. And so are less and local.

Those may seem like just words, but really they are guidelines for an alternate vision.
King: You and your partner, Becky, have tried to live that vision. Are you satisfied with the results?

Willson: We’ve been trying to downsize because, for humanity to survive, we all need to radically simplify our lives. Becky and I have insulated our house. We’ve got double- and triple-paned windows. We’ve got solar panels. We heat with wood, and it’s all local wood. We have an efficient stove. We eat dinner by oil lamp year-round. And we keep track of our kilowatt-hours, trying constantly to reduce our energy use. We actually have charts. We terminated all gas coming in the house. We use solar-tube skylights. We grow food. We collect rainwater. We recycle. We compost our sewage.

King: Those sound like significant achievements.

Willson: Yes, but now I think we have to figure out a way to live without grid electricity, which means another radical downsizing. I meet regularly with a small group to discuss these subjects. We encourage one another to stretch our boundaries and push against perceived limitations. We ask questions such as “What is the embedded energy in a solar panel?”

King: What is “embedded energy”?

Willson: It’s all the energy it took to produce that product. For instance, this chair. A lot of energy was used to bring this chair into being and get it to this room. Materials had to be mined, and for that, extraction equipment had to be built, and a factory had to be constructed to make the extraction equipment. You had to get the extraction equipment to the mining site, and you had to extract the raw materials out of the earth and load them into a truck that was manufactured in another facility. Each of these manufacturing facilities requires thousands of parts. Fossil fuels are utilized at every stage of the process. Then you have to move the finished product to distribution centers, and from the distribution centers to the point of use.

You have to build more roads and more trucks and fuel them. And that’s just a chair. A solar panel requires even more energy and materials.

King: These things also usually require a fair amount of fresh water.

Willson:
Absolutely, which results in pollution. In all of these processes you’re putting carbon molecules in the air. Just to make a computer chip for a smartphone they have to cook it to 4,500 degrees to embed the memory. It takes a lot of energy to get that much heat, and huge amounts of water. But we are addicted to our technology and our way of life.

King: People in Portland seem to be ahead of the curve in terms of steering neighborhoods away from dependence on fossil fuels, but you have said that’s not enough. How so?

Willson: We had 220 people at our place one Saturday during a Portland “green tour.” It was fun, but deep down I was thinking, This still isn’t the truth. I’ve done what the capitalists want.

For example, I’ve created three solar houses: I built a straw-bale solar house in Massachusetts, I retrofitted a house in Arcata, California, and I retrofitted this house. And I’ve done it all the way the green experts say I should. But I bought all I needed for the projects from the capitalist system.

Whatever the next groovy idea is, the capitalists are going to figure out how to make money on it. I enjoy generating electricity from the sun, but in the big picture I want to be part of a community that isn’t dependent upon electricity at all.

King: Has anyone in your group actually moved beyond using new “green” technologies?

Willson: Not yet. There was a couple who lived without electricity for a year. They just shut it off. But they found that it was very difficult without help from a larger community.

Real community can replace our dependence on unsustainable systems. The community is the system. I want to facilitate local relationships, local commerce, local interactions. I want to help people understand that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods, and now our task is to recover our humanity. And we do that by asking questions and experimenting. Can we live a whole year without buying food that comes from more than a hundred miles away? There are some people doing that. But now we’re talking about a “hundred-foot diet.” A perma­culture advocate in this neighborhood says she’s going to grow all her food on her five-thousand-square-foot lot.

The fact that there are people thinking like this is exciting. I mean, what Becky and I have here is ok , but it’s pretty bourgeois for a couple of activists. If I had my dream, I would be living in a group of about fifty people and using draft horses and growing all our food. I want to live in a community where neighbors are constantly interacting around food.

King: Is it possible for everybody in a city the size of Portland to scale that far back? Can everybody do what you’ve done? It’s hard enough getting the kids to school and getting to work on time, much less growing a permaculture garden and living without electricity.

Willson: Well, I think anybody can do what we’ve done, but you have to want to do it, and it does take some money. If our nation weren’t spending $14 billion a month on wars, we could be redistributing wealth, but that’s not going to happen, because we have a plutocracy. No savior from outside is going to help us, including the federal government — especially the federal government.

People ask, “How can we create more jobs?” I don’t want to create more jobs. Having a job is not natural or healthy. Humans are meant to have work, to be fully engaged with the life of food — planting, harvesting, celebrating, and eating it. But to have a job where you work for somebody else? That’s a relatively new phenomenon in human evolution, only about five thousand years old. You work for the king or one of the king’s managers. That’s not normal.
That’s not healthy.

You can grow your own food. You can also learn about the forest, about mushrooms, about natural food sources. You can learn that you’re part of nature. In Portland a lot of people are growing food who weren’t before. They are growing food in the strips of grass beside the curb. This is a radical step. People are beginning to understand the limits of our industrial, centralized systems. Even if we can’t grow all our own food, we can eat food that’s been grown locally.

The earth is finite. There’s not enough carrying capacity on the planet to feed 7 billion people.

Yet we continue to live as if there were no limits. We have separated ourselves from nature. We think we are superior to nature, and we believe our technology will always come up with a solution for shortages or pollution or whatever problems we’re facing. It’s a Faustian bargain. Most scientists agree that ecological changes and global climate instability are making it difficult for people to survive, and it’s only going to get worse, especially for those who live along the coastlines.

Our economic system requires endless removal of resources all over the planet. We continue exploiting the earth even when the exploitation itself threatens our survival. We are running out of clean water. We are running out of easily accessible, cheap oil, which has been the basis for the last century’s worth of industrial development. When oil supplies start getting short — say, 3 percent or 4 percent below demand — it will cause a panic, because trucks won’t be able to get to every store with the food people are dependent upon, food grown 1,500 miles away.

Look at the resources being used every day to maintain this modern life, and then look at how much pain and suffering is necessary to enable this life.

King: What about modern devices such as cellphones and the Internet? Are there no redeeming values to them? I have enjoyed your blog and Facebook postings many times.

Willson: The rare metals used in computers and cellphones have not just an ecological price but a human price as well. I have a friend, Keith Snow, who’s been a journalist in the Congo off and on for the last fifteen years. He has seen the plunder of resources for high-tech devices: metals such as cobalt, coltan, niobium, and germanium. Keith says 10 to 12 million Congolese have died since 1995 in wars fomented by corporations and Western governments who want access to these metals.

I don’t own a cellphone. I might die on my cycle someday because I have an accident and don’t have a cellphone, but that’s ok.

That said, I’m not going to tell people what to do. I’m just going to say that the human and environmental consequences of the electronic-gadget revolution are devastating. And, yes, I do have a laptop.

King: Jet fuel is a major contributor to global warming. Do you fly in planes?

Willson: I stopped flying eleven years ago, but I can’t tell people not to fly. I flew half a million miles before I was sixty, and I gained a tremendous amount of cultural experience because of it. Refusing to fly in airplanes now is a move toward mutual aid and respect, but it’s a mere gesture. I live in incredible comfort when so many are suffering. I continue to make choices each day that remain at odds with mutual aid and respect.


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Terry Bisson: Personal Alternate History

Locus Online
April 10th, 2013

Terry Ballantine Bisson was born February 12, 1942 in Kentucky. After attending Grinnell College in Iowa from 1960-62, and batting around LA and NY, he received a BA from the University of Louisville in 1964. In 1962, he married Deirde Holst, mother of his two sons and daughter; they divorced in 1966. From 1966-70 he lived in New York with second wife Mary Corey, scripting comics and saucer tales for tabloids and serving as editor of Web of Horror and True Intimate Confessions. He left the city to join the Red Rockers commune in the Colorado mountains (world’s largest hippy-built geodesic dome!) and other communes in the West and South while working as an auto mechanic. He returned to New York in 1976, serving as an editor and copy chief at Berkley and Ace until 1985, when he became a full-time writer. Meanwhile he was active in the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee with his current wife Judy Jensen (with whom he raised another son and two daughters). In the mid-’90s he was a consultant at HarperCollins and Avon, and taught in the writing program at The New School in New York and at Clarion and Odyssey. He and Jensen moved to the Bay Area in 2002, where he edits the ‘‘Outspoken Authors’’ series for PM Press, and hosts the SF in SF reading series.

First novel Wyrldmaker appeared in 1981, followed by World Fantasy finalist Talking Man (1986) and Fire on the Mountain (1988). Other novels include Voyage to the Red Planet (1990), Pirates of the Universe (1990), The Pickup Artist (2001), and Any Day Now (2012). He completed the late Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997), and has co-written YA novels with Stephanie Spinner, written children’s books about NASCAR racing as ‘‘T.B. Calhoun,’’ produced numerous film and TV novelizations and media tie-ins, and written non-fiction titles, notably On A Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal (2001).

Bisson rose to prominence in the SF field with Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Nebula Award-winning story ‘‘Bears Discover Fire’’ (1990). Other notable short stories include Hugo finalists ‘‘Press Ann’’ (1991), ‘‘The Shadow Knows’’ (1993), ‘‘Dead Man’s Curve’’ (1994), ‘‘Get Me to the Church on Time’’ (1998); Nebula Award nominees ‘‘They’re Made out of Meat’’ (1991) and ‘‘Necronauts’’ (1995); Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘England Underway’’ (1993); Nebula Award winner and Hugo and Sturgeon finalist ‘‘macs’’ (1999); and novellas Dear Abbey (2003) and Planet of Mystery (2008). His short fiction has been collected in Bears Discover Fire (1993), In the Upper Room and Other Likely Stories (2000), Numbers Don’t Lie (2003), Greetings & Other Stories (2005), Billy’s Book (2009), and TVA Baby (2011). The Left Left Behind (2009) includes the title story, a play, and an interview and autobiography.
Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘People used to say to me, ‘You were involved in the ’60s, the counterculture, the commune scene, the anti-war movement, the New Left and all that. You should write something about it.’ My answer was, ‘Me and a million others. Plus everybody knows how it all turned out, so what’s the point?’ Then one day I thought: What if it turned out differently? Any Day Now is definitely a science fiction novel, an alternate history, even though it’s more about political than technological change. The only device in the book is the geodesic dome. It’s set in 1968, the ‘hinge of the ’60s,’ you might say (though the ’60s really started in the ’50s, the breaking wave of the postwar boom), and the ‘hinge’ of the novel is a disputed presidential succession. The idea was actually swiped from Philip Roth, who apparently never knew The Plot Against America was alternate history. He thought he invented the form!

‘‘Any Day Now started as an alternate history, and then took on a little more weight for me personally as the back story developed, since the protagonist (the Dorothy, if you will) starts in small-town middle America, then scoots off to college, veers through boho New York, then lands in the hippy Southwest. He’s part of the whole ’60s mix of radical politics and counterculture. I began to feel that this was the book I should write, the more personal story I usually manage to avoid. At the same time I realized it was sort of paradigmatic, not really my own story but a common, archetypal story, not just of that era but in all of Western literature: the kid goes from the boonies to the metropolis (Paris, London, New York) and flies or flops or whatever. But mostly it’s the story of a whole generation of young people. Where did 1968 come from? I got there on the same train as 150,000 others and I described the ride.”

*

‘‘I don’t read a lot of modern novels. I read historicals or go back and read Victorian stuff. The modern novelists I admire most are what they call ‘women’s mid-list’, where the old rules of fiction are still in play. Writers like Jane Smiley, Cecelia Holland, and Ann Tyler still have that greater level of sincerity and involvement, instead of trying to stay aloof.”

*

‘‘I’m doing quite a bit of editing for PM Press, the ‘Outspoken Authors’ series, too. We do two or three books a year, all the same format: a short story or two, a lefty or at least progressive rant, and an extended interview. Science fiction authors only. PM is a small anarchist press in Oakland, and Ramsey Kanaan, the publisher, wanted to get into SF, so I got tagged, since I have a history editing with small lefty presses.

‘‘The first book I published in the series was actually my own, The Left Left Behind, which was a satire of the Left Behind series – Christian novels about the Rapture, (which are, by the way, probably the best selling fantasy books in America today). Then I did The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson. Of course Stan is a big name. That’s what Ramsey wanted: identifiable big names in science fiction. The third book I did was by Eleanor Arnason, who is not a big name (she’s more like me) but a heavyweight writer. Huge names like Le Guin or Moorcock were easy to work with. Ursula was great, and Moorcock was just a sweetheart, very generous with his time. I put the material together, and I also do the interviews. With Le Guin, I would ask a long question and get a short answer, but it was great! With Moorcock, all I had to do was ask a very short question, and I’d get a long, beautiful answer.”

*

‘‘I’ve also been working on movies. A fool’s errand, but hey. Two guys in Brooklyn have optioned ‘The Hole in the Hole’, a junkyard-on-the-moon story that’s about 20 years old. ‘Necronauts’, my first Playboy story, got optioned by the guys who did Reanimator, but that’s gone on for about four years and they can’t get any traction. I’ve written a few independent screenplays where I get paid, but not Hollywood (WGA) money. I did a screenplay about Paul Robeson that looks like it’s going to get made next year. To see your name in Variety is a thrill.

(Variety is the Locus of Hollywood.) Have we mentioned comics? I’m also doing a script for a graphic novel version of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. And hoping it finds a home. If all this sounds like fun, well, it is. Writers chase lots of dreams – like fame, fortune, immortality – that may or may not come true. But what you do get if you’re lucky, like me, is a life in literature. And that’s a great privilege.’’

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Bicycle! A Repair & Maintenance Manifesto reviewed in Carbusters

by Kelly Nelson
Carbusters
April 2013

These books represent the yin and yang of bicycle guides.

Bicycle! is dense and technical. Heels on Wheels is charming and breezy.

Bicycle! has 19 chapters with headings like Drivetrains, Control Cables and Hubs.

Heels on Wheels has 6 chapters with titles such as “How to Incorporate Cycling into Your Lifestyle” and “Parking (Or, How to Ensure Your Bike Isn’t Stolen”).

Bicycle! features black and white photos including close ups of sidepull brakes, a tapered spindle crank extractor and bicicles on the bottom bracket shell of a bike in Minnesota winter.

Heels on Wheels is packed with pastel-colored illustrations of women on bikes, dogs in bike baskets, bells, lights and cable locks. By now you’ve likely sorted out which guide would appeal to you more.

Sam Tracy, a bike mechanic and former bike messenger, also wrote Roadside Bicycle Repair: A Pocket Manifesto and How to Rock and Roll: A City Rider’s Repair Manual. This third book in Tracy’s bike-care trilogy has been updated to include low-cost and no-cost solutions he learned during his Peace Corps stint in Mauritania. It’s geared toward people who are seriously into their bikes. Owning it is like having a bike mechanic to chat with while you undertake repairs yourself. You get tons of technical advice such as “loosen the rear derailleur cable before adjusting the H screw” and “we like the straddle hanger’s intersection to end up sitting just above the fender hole.” You also get opinion (“The cheap cranks won’t let you do this, because they suck”), tips of the trade (“The ubiquitous Parmesan cheese container can come in handy for storing road kits”) and a few stories (“I’ll never forget the reaction I got from a couple punk rockers up by the local art school…”).

Is this what it takes to get men out of their cars—making a mechanically-simple alternative so technical that it requires 256 pages to explain how to keep it running right?

Heels on Wheels is aimed at women who don’t yet own bikes or are just getting started riding around town. Katie Dailey is a journalist and copywriter who establishes her street cred in her bio by saying she has ridden a bike to London Fashion Week several times. More impressively, as we learn in the intro, she’s been a bike commuter on the hectic streets of London for ten years. Her experience shows in the small details peppered throughout the book: “sticky lip-glosses should be avoided”; “a traditional plastic mac, that you’d wear to a festival, is not suitable for cycling as it acts like a sweat-box”; “If you’re wearing a winter coat, take out the belt as it’s likely to get caught in your spokes”; “ballet pumps are easy to ride in at first, but aren’t tough enough for long trips.”

Is this what it takes to get women out of their cars—reassurance that they can still look good while riding a bike?

If so, should carfree and car-lite campaigns make radically different appeals to men and women?

In the end, these books have the same goal: to get more people riding bikes. In their own distinctive ways they are doing the good work of encouraging people to drive less.


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Notes on a Life in Struggle

by Sara Falconer
The Monthly Review
Volume 64, Issue 10
March 2013

I started writing to David Gilbert and several other North American political prisoners in 2001, shortly after 9/11. To say that these correspondences, beginning at such a turning point in history, played a huge role in my political development feels like something of an understatement.

Everything in me has grown stronger through my work with prisoners. My analysis of movements, past and present. My understanding of the brutal lengths the state will go to crush dissent. My awareness of the prolonged nature of this struggle. My commitment to it.

David was a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and when the group split into different ideological factions in 1969 he became a Weatherman (later the Weather Underground Organization). He spent more than ten years underground before being captured in an armed action with the Black Liberation Army in 1981. And that’s about all I knew when I started writing to him.

With prisoners, that awkward “getting to know you” phase becomes an even more self-conscious and frustrating process than usual. Letters in both directions are torn open, read, even confiscated or destroyed by prison mailroom censors. Visits are too brief and too infrequent, always under the looming presence of armed guards. There are questions I’m not sure if I should ask, and details he may feel too closely watched to share.

Despite it all, through it all, David has been a tremendously gifted communicator. His letters burst with life and passion, and his quirky, sometimes painfully nerdy, sort of humor. He is so real and so charming in those pages that he breaks down some of the barriers between us—the walls, the razor wire, the hundreds of miles, the years. He is warm in the coldest of environments. He asks about my mother and jokes about my cats. He asks if I’m taking care of myself.

David’s contributions to the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar and other publications demonstrate his ongoing commitment to building a better world and fostering stronger movements. He is constantly reading, thinking, probing. He wants to know where things went wrong and what we can do better. In our political discussions he is a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration and mentorship. Yet these are slow conversations, drawn out over months and years. Working on a variety of projects together, we are often more concerned with the task at hand than delving into the details of his own political development and life outside of prison.

To fill in blanks, I pieced together some of David’s history and ideals from pamphlets and web pages—they painted him as a murderous criminal, a martyr, and everything in between. Years ago I spent a whole afternoon staring at his mug shot, his face beaten and bruised almost beyond recognition. I wondered what had led him to that moment, and what those torturous first days after arrest were like.

In 2004 he released No Surrender, a collection of his prison writings. I read it ravenously, thrilled to have more insight into his story and the trajectory of his thinking over the years. It covered his trial statements, struggles against white supremacy and male supremacy, AIDS work behind bars, musings on international popular movements, and even several humor pieces and children’s stories that he wrote for his young son.

Many of the insights in these collected writings are invaluable. For David, there is a lesson in everything, and he practices self-criticism more actively and honestly than anyone I’ve ever encountered. For a whole new generation facing repression for our own activism, these articles help us learn from both the failures and successes of the movements that came before us.

Yet it still felt like there were so many things, even after all those years and writings, that I didn’t know about David’s story. And I wasn’t alone. His son, Chesa, now an accomplished scholar, put it bluntly: “Honestly, Dad, I’m not enthusiastic about No Surrender. I mean, you have some good stuff there, but it’s almost all analytical. People relate much better to personal experiences. I wish you’d write about yours, about what life in prison is like” (6).

With Love and Struggle David finally begins to open a more personal side of himself up to us. In his typically humble fashion, he resisted telling his life story for many years. “I always said I wanted to live my life rather than write about it, and memoir as a form always felt too self-involved, and often too self-justifying, for me,” he explains in his introduction (7).

But Chesa was right; in adding more of the personal to his writings, the political message becomes even more powerful. In a series of vignettes David takes us through some of the key moments in his life as an activist. I finally get a more complete picture of his brutal arrest and what led to it:

Surprising that they’re hitting me in the face too. Aren’t they worried about visible signs of the beating? Are they so enraged that they’re not thinking? Or do they feel that the car crash that ended the chase gives them cover for any bruises?…It’s October 20, 1981. The little drama of my “interrogation” follows the much bigger one of a Brink’s armored car robbery that went terribly wrong: Unexpected gunshots at the scene; someone who just happens to be looking out a rear window at an otherwise deserted and obscure spot sees the sloppy switch of vehicles; the escape truck gets caught at a red light, by the entrance to the NY Thruway, as police come to set up a roadblock; a shootout; a car chase on unfamiliar streets; a crash, relatively mild but enough to stop the car, as our Honda can’t quite negotiate a sudden right-angle turn. Maybe at that point revolutionary ideals call for a shootout, but I don’t have a gun and wouldn’t be effective if I did. So it is capture instead. (11)

David describes the long night of interrogation, beatings, and threats in vivid detail. But as always, he offers a lesson: “As tense as things are, I’m spared any anxiety at all about whether to talk. That’s a bedrock principle, one based on the reality that, however bad a situation is, ratting throws others into the same cauldron. So my focus is on bobbing and weaving—physically and psychologically—trying to minimize the damage I sustain. It’s not even defiance or resolve; it’s just that talking is never even an option that enters into my mind” (13). David’s lack of bravado but steadfastness in such a terrifying situation sets an example for activists who continue to face arrests and interrogations—many less harsh than what he endured.

“How the hell did I end up in such dire straights?” he asks, and with that returns to the starting point of his journey, weaving the tale through his comfortable childhood in upper middle-class Brookline, Massachusetts, awakening to the reality of racism through Martin Luther King, Jr., the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina, years as a student organizer at Columbia University during the 1960s, anti-racist work with white working class youth, resistance against the war in Vietnam, split from SDS to become part of Weather, and life underground. Throughout it all David shares his thought process as he transforms from a liberal to a revolutionary.

On February 18, 1965, Malcolm spoke to a capacity audience in the Barnard gymnasium. I was there, although with mixed feelings. I felt favorably toward him because I supported Black militancy, but his nationalism made me uneasy—would I be rejected just because I was white? What role did we have in the struggle?

It is rare that a mere speech has lasting impact on one’s consciousness. But seeing Malcolm speak was one of the formative experiences of my life. I had never encountered such a clear exposition of social reality. He explained that the division in the world wasn’t between Black and white but rather the oppressed, who were mostly people of color, and the oppressors who were mostly white. He also put forward a positive role for whites—but not within the Black struggle. Our role was to fight the system and organize within our own communities. Three days later, he was dead. (28)

David also traces the development of his anti-sexist analysis, beginning with an honest accounting of the damage he inflicted on others while racking up sexual conquests in the era of free love: “My scoring mentality ended up hurting people in situations where they were emotionally vulnerable. In retrospect, given the era, I can understand the context for my cavalier attitudes—but it is still hard to accept that the hurt on Corrine’s face didn’t break through my male conditioning. And not incidentally, her subsequent need to avoid me meant that the Vietnam Committee lost a valuable member” (53).

Beyond David’s candor, he also looks more broadly at the ways in which sexism weakened the entire movement: “Anti-imperialist men, with our crass sexism, have a major share of the responsibility for this setback of historic proportions: the failure at that time to forge a strong alliance and synergy between anti-imperialism and feminism. Such an alliance would have made both sides’ politics more revolutionary and humane, with the Left developing a fuller program around women, and feminists becoming a major force to move an oppressed sector of whites toward anti-racism” (60–61).

David’s political development continued at a breakneck pace as the war intensified both abroad and in America’s cities:

It was the most insane of times; it was the most sane of times. Those nine months, from the split of SDS (June 8, 1969) to the tragic townhouse explosion where three bright and idealistic but badly off-course activists were killed (March 6, 1970), were the most frenetic, transforming, and out-of-kilter months imaginable….

How can I say that it was also the most sane of times? The sad reality is that the status quo, the day-to-day comfort, the conventional wisdom of empire is insanely anti-human. True human sanity does not consist of remaining calm, cool, collected—going on with life as usual—while the government murders Black activists, carpet-bombs Vietnam, trains torturers to “disappear” trade-union organizers in Latin America, and enforces the global economics of hunger on Africa. (121–22)

David’s recollections of life underground in Denver are riveting and probably the strongest in the book in terms of narrative writing: all-night self-criticism sessions, awkward orgies, fighting cops in the streets, headline-grabbing actions, close calls, and attempted infiltrations. It’s almost hard to believe, in the same way that it’s hard to grasp how close the possibility of “revolution in our lifetime” was during that explosive era. There are lessons here too—but David seems to relax into the storytelling a bit more, and it’s an effective shift.

He says few words about his relationship with Kathy Boudin, but their mutual love for their son is evident in one of the most poignant sections of the book, detailing the challenges and joys of having a baby in such a precarious situation. The moment when they must leave him with friends to serve their prison sentences is heartbreaking, and a reminder of the very real sacrifices these men and women made in order to resist imperialism.

With this book David has given us a gift with many layers to explore, though he has yet to satisfy his son Chesa’s request to write about life in prison. There are thirty more years of the story we’re still waiting to hear, and beyond.


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We, the Children of Cats: A Review

by Ash Brown
Experiments in Manga
April 10th, 2013

We, the Children of Cats is a collection of Tomoyuki Hoshino's early short works. Published in 2012 by PM Press under its Found in Translation imprint, the volume gathers together five short stories and three novellas which were originally released in Japan between 1998 and 2006. (PM Press is also the publisher of the only novel by Hoshino that is currently available in English, Lonely Hearts Killer.) Three of the stories in We, the Children of Cats were previously translated and released in English, but the others are appearing for the first time. Although one story, "Chino," was translated by Lucy Fraser, Brian Bergstrom was primarily responsible for editing and translating the collection as a whole. Bergstrom also contributes a substantial afterword to the volume, "The Politics of Impossible Transformation." We, the Children of Cats was my introduction to Hoshino's work.

After a newly written preface by Hoshino for the collection, "To All of You Reading This in English," We, the Children of Cats begins with the short story "Paper Woman." This story ended up being my favorite piece included in the volume and made me want to read everything that Hoshino has ever written. This set my expectations pretty high for the rest of We, the Children of Cats; for the most part, I wasn't disappointed. I did tend to prefer Hoshino's short stories ("Paper Woman, "The No Fathers Club," "Chino," "We, the Children of Cats," and "Air") over his longer novellas (Sand Planet, Treason Diary, and A Milonga for the Melted Moon.) For me, reading Hoshino's works was often a heady and even dizzying experience; his shorter pieces are still mystifying but more grounded, immediately accessible, and easily grasped as a whole.

The stories collected in We, the Children of Cats are not directly related to one another although many share common elements and themes. Faint echoes of Hoshino's earlier stories can often be seen in his later works. Latin America is a frequent touchstone in We, the Children of Cats. Which, considering Hoshino's personal interest and time spent in the area, shouldn't be too surprising. The influence of magical realism, which has strong ties to Latin American literature, is also readily apparent in Hoshino's stories. Perhaps my favorite recurring theme to be found in We, the Children of Cats is that of the power granted to words and language and their ability to change, process, create, restore, and transform truth and reality.

As Bergstrom's illuminating afterword asserts, transformation is the key to We, the Children of Cats. Some of the stories are more realistic (some are even based on or inspired by actual events) while others are more fantastic, but they all deal with transitions, growth, and changing identity in some way. Hoshino's writing style tends to be discursive and his stories aren't always particularly straightforward, but his imagery is powerful and poetic. Every once in a while there would be a thought, idea, or phrase that would momentarily floor me. After reading We, the Children of Cats, even I felt changed or transformed in some nearly indescribable way. We, the Children of Cats isn't an easy collection, at times it can be difficult and even troubling, but I am glad that I put in the effort needed to truly appreciate it.

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HoCoPoLitSo's writer-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown seeks to inspire the poet within us all

by L'Oreal Thompson
The Baltimore Sun
March 20th, 2013

“Attention, attention … the mic is now open.”

It is only fitting that Derrick Weston Brown begins his presentation at local high schools with an original poem beckoning “all poets and lovers of the word.”

“Poetry is for everybody,” Brown, 36, tells the students at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City. “Everyone is born a poet, but society takes that away.”

As the writer-in-residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), Brown’s goal is to nurture young poets in the area. During his recent visit to Mt. Hebron, the Charlotte, N.C., native read some of his poetry, then encouraged students to interpret the work.

For example, there’s “Forgiveness Poem,” about a young girl who was bullied because of her dark skin; “Till’s Skin,” which was inspired by Brown’s own experience with an interracial relationship and derived its title from Emmett Till, a young black man who was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955; and “Hourglass Flow,” about breaking out of writer’s block. At the end, Brown asks the students if they’d like to share some of their own poetry.

“I want [the students] to go away with a different sense of what poetry is,” he says. “It’s contemporary. It’s reachable. It’s not exclusive to academics and old stuffy professors.”

Brown discovered poetry in middle school, but it wasn’t love at first sight as he compared it to an “old, decrepit building that you don’t want to go into.” Later, he was introduced to the works of Shel Silverstein, a famed American poet and author of children’s books, and the rest is literary history.

“Poetry gives us many ways in which to tell a story or to document particular moments,” he explains.

Brown, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from American University and also is a graduate of Cave Canem, a summer workshop for black poets and writers, published his first poetry collection, “Wisdom Teeth,” in April 2011. His work has also appeared in literary journals such as “The Columbia Poetry Review,” “The Little Patuxent Review” and Howard University’s “Amistad.”

“I’ve always enjoyed reading. Both my aunts were librarians, and both of my grandmothers were elementary school teachers, so books were always available,” he says. “I’ve always had an active imagination, so writing naturally followed. I love a good story.”

Brown, who currently lives in Mount Rainier, Md., also is a creative writing instructor at Emerson College Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and the publications advocate for Teaching for Change, a nonprofit organization for social justice based in D.C. As such, Brown works at Teaching for Change’s Busboys and Poets Bookstore, where he served as the store’s first poet-in-residence and founded the monthly poetry series, “The Nine on the Ninth.”

HoCoPoLitSo was founded in 1974 to bring the best writers in the country and the world to Howard County, according to Tara Hart, co-chair of the board of directors. Each year, the HoCoPoLitSo board of directors selects a writer-in-residence. The program is designed to expose local high school students to fine arts through poetry and literature.

“We’d had several women in a row, and we were hoping to find someone who would appeal to young men,” says Hart. “We also admire Busboys and Poets and admire them for sharing our mission, for celebrating poetry and really making a place for it.”

Previous writers-in-residence include Lucille Clifton, a former poet laureate of Maryland; Grace Cavalieri, an essayist, novelist and professor; and Truth Thomas, a poet, singer and songwriter.

“We are all, without exception, people who love literature, and some of us are teachers,” explains Hart. “We’re always keeping our eye on local writers who are of distinction. We want a rich and diverse mixture of writers so students see different ages, genders and backgrounds.”

For aspiring poets, Brown suggests they “read, read and then read some more.” He encourages them to read other poets, as well as a “little bit of everything,” such as books, newspapers, magazines and even comic books.

“If you enjoy reading, that will feed your poems,” he says. “It’s about what’s going on in your world.”

Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/explore/howard/publications/howard-magazine/bs-exho-hocopolitsos-writerinresidence-derrick-weston-brown-seeks-to-inspire-the-poet-within-us-all-20130320,0,2528130.story#ixzz2RP4rHCrW

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Towards Collective Liberation : A Review

by Stacy Kono
Asian American Movement Ezine
April 24th, 2013


Have you hugged an anarchist today?

After reading Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, by Chris Crass, I’m inclined to seek out my anarchist friends to acknowledge them for their courage and principled commitment to, and the long history of their tradition’s, organizing for people’s power and freedom.

The book’s first essay, “A New World in Our Hearts: Anarchism and the Need for Dynamic and Visionary Left Politics” clarifies the core of anarchism – rooted in the “principles of mutual aid, grassroots democracy, and equality” (23); underscoring how the political tradition has been vilified by the ruling class which emphasizes the call for revolution as violent and destructive. The oversimplification of anarchism as “creating chaos” serves to erase the history of radical organizing and the deeper values of cooperation and peace.

Chris highlights leaders like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who worked in the US in the 1880s for reproductive freedom, against the draft during WWI, and for worker organizing. Both were sent to prison and deported. During that same period, the International Workers of the World (IWW) were vocal opponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act – a sole voice within the left and labor movements.

Anarcho-pacifists of the 1940s and 1950s organized workers, spoke out against the incarceration of Japanese Americans families, like mine, the holocaust, and protested the atomic bombing of Japan.  

In the more recent history, the collection lifts up the important role anarchists have played in the environmental movement, WTO protests in Seattle and globally, and the Occupy movement. Chris shares his personal story of work with San Francisco Food Not Bombs and interviews with anti-racist, feminist organizers across the country, highlights the radical contributions of the Groundwork Collective, the Rural Organizing Project and Catalyst Project, of which Chris was a founding member.

Through the stories, interviews and history, Chris invites radical activists and organizers, to engage in liberation praxis. “We can be radical, relevant, strategic and visionary as we participate in the reality of everyday life to build the new world in the shell of the old.” (34-35) Whether we identify as anarchists or not, we need to be willing to be flexible and open given the complex and contradictory conditions we are organizing in. In reflecting on his own experiences as well as including interviews with other white anti-racist, feminist organizers he lifts up the ways radical organizing is changing our communities.

As a woman of color, who has experienced working with white activists who are struggling to figure out their role as an ally, I was struck by Chris’ sharing of his personal praxis, his willingness to describe the challenges he faced and continues to engage with in his own development as an organizer to be aware of and understand his privilege as a white man. This is something that many other white activists have a hard time acknowledging out of shame or fear – as if admitting the challenge will somehow delegitimize their commitment. Chris’ vulnerability and honesty models how our commitment to social justice movement building can and needs to be drawn from an “ethic of love.”

Towards Collective Liberation
is a thoughtful and generous invitation to organizers to build off the history of radical movement building with creativity, authenticity, and love.

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New Book Explores Organizing Strategies for Anarchists

by James Tracy
Left Eye Books
March 25th, 2013


Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis and Movement Building Strategy, may be the “Rules for Radicals” for a growing trend of anarcho-practicos who up until this point have had little literature to make their case with.

Chris Crass is an anarchist organizer. For those whose perception of anarchism begins and ends with broken windows, this may seem like an oxymoron. The tradition has a tortured relationship with organizing. Anarchism’s fingerprints can be found on many of the important social movements since the late 1980s; ranging from the AIDS activism of ACT-UP to the anti-nuclear and Global Justice Movements. Other currents within the anarchist tradition hold organizing leads to hierarchy, compromise and cooptation. The anti-organizing voice of anarchism is at its most articulate in recent tracts such as “The Coming Insurrection” and a wealth of books and manifestos from the Crimethinc collective.

Crass walks anarchism down a very different road. His anarchism, and that of the political organizations he helped build, isn’t afraid of community organizing. It also isn’t afraid to reach across the radical aisle and work with marxists, feminists, liberals and just about any other category that makes it to the meeting. His new book, Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy may be the “Rules for Radicals” for a growing trend of anarcho-practicos who up until this point have had little literature to make their case with. (In 1993, Tom Knoche formulated a case for anarchist participation in reform organizing, see Organizing Communities in the journal Social Anarchism.)

Towards Collective Liberation is an impressive contribution to radical thought. Crass outlines a vision of anarchism rooted deeply in the anti-racist tradition, and influenced by feminism.

He’s most at home when teasing out the lessons of his own politicization. The exploration of Food Not Bombs (FNB) is a delightful surprise—combining a sober assessment of the movement’s weaknesses with a nuanced description of their accomplishments under fire during San Francisco’s War For Space. Here, he carefully avoids demonizing FNB personalities who made destructive mistakes, but pulls no punches in the final analysis. He sets a high bar for constructive discourse without stooping to polemics.

His ability to grapple with the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement and draw implications for anti-authoritarians is unique. Instead of approaching social movements in terms of all-or-nothing reductionism Crass identifies ways for radical organizers to engage with them and think outside the Infoshop.

The book isn’t without some key weaknesses. In some essays, Crass’ over-reliance on jargon obscures his otherwise salient power of observation. He raises important points, “we need a revitalized, dynamic, and visionary Left politics that draws from many traditions, not just anarchism, but also Marxism, feminism, revolutionary nationalism and others;” then only scratches the surface of the mechanics of doing so.

Other themes left under-examined are the strengths and weaknesses of the interventions his organization, the Catalyst Project made in the name of racial justice in key moments such as the response to hurricane Katrina and the immigrant rights upsurge. I find it odd that the process of committed anarchists traveling to other cities in order to challenge “white supremacy” in the movement didn’t yield deeper reflection. What were the moments when this strategy bolstered local organizing? When was it unwelcome by locals? Did it ever feel a bit vanguardist, and if so, what was to be done?

Thankfully, Crass’ has a political vision of anti-racism, separated from individualistic notions of white guilt and “invisible back packs.” He recognizes white supremacy as a system and a historic roadblock to social transformation. While centering race and colonization, he also avoids reducing race to the only dilemma facing organizers today. In this sense, he snatches anti-racism from the jaws of the professional diversity trainers polluting today’s discourse.

Taken as a whole, the book makes the case for an anarchist practice relevant to, and a part of, the lives of everyday people, and the larger Left. With humility and optimism, Crass offers critical insights hard won through a life on the frontlines. “Towards Collective Liberation” is an important read, not just for anarchists, but anyone pondering the road forward.

James Tracy is a native of Oakland, California and a long-time economic justice organizer. He is the co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Melville House).

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Towards Collective Liberation: Building Successful Social Movements

by Holly Roach
Emergent Voices
April 1st, 2013

It wasn’t until recently I realized that I had somehow lost a bunch of digital files off my computer. It was mainly photos and newspaper articles from my activist work when I lived in the San Francisco/Bay Area from the late 90′s to the mid 2000′s. That loss left me feeling sick with the thought that a deeply formative part of my life was gone. My experience with Occupy Movement organizing left me longing to reconstruct what was good, strategic and expansive about our activism back in the day and put those lessons back to work.

Sometimes the very thing that’s needed comes to being and luckily Chris Crass came along with his new book Towards Mutual Liberation: Anti Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis and Movement Building Strategy.

The book came across my Facebook feed at the most incredible time. I had been writing on intentional movement building and praxis in relationship to the Emergence Christianity Movement. As a relative newcomer encountering the Emergent movement as a non-evangelical with new age Buddhist leanings, I had a lot to learn in just getting to know the movement, its culture, language and friendships. Prior to this, I had almost literally no idea that there was a thing called Progressive Christianity in the United States. I had encountered faith-based groups in organizing, but never knew the theology behind it. It’s been incredibly life-giving for me and brought me back to the core of my spirituality. So when I say that I am engaged in critiquing the way we go about building our movement, please know that I am doing it from a deep level of love and investment in the Emergent Movement.


This book comes to us at such a lovely time, a time when we are asking ourselves what collective potential we have to build a better world together.We are asking ourselves if we are a conversation or a movement, a network of talkers or doers, and some of us are getting impatient to live out the call toward Justice that we feel compelled by our faith to enact.

Rather than re-create the social movement wheel we can look to the lessons and gains that movements who’ve come before us have struggled towards. Chris does a beautiful job contextualizing the movement culture that we activists inherited back in the 80′s and 90′s and weaves a narrative that is both engaging and informative about the things we learned. I first met Chris when I was organizing in the Art & Revolution Collective and Chris was a Food Not Bombs organizer in San Francisco. Our collectives worked together a lot, and we both ended up at a lot of the the same protests and the 15-week Challenging White Supremacy workshop with the brilliant Sharon Martinez in collaboration with the People’s Institute’s Betita Martinez. Betita had just written a provocative essay entitled “Where Was the Color In Seattle: Looking for Reasons the Great Battle Was So White” written in response to the mass protests in Seattle at the World Trade Organization Ministerial On November 30th, 1999. She starts the piece off with a quote:

“I was at the jail where a lot of protesters were being held and a big crowd of people was chanting ‘This Is What Democracy Looks Like!’
At first it sounded kind of nice. But then I thought: is this really what democracy looks like? Nobody here looks like me.”
—Jinee Kim, Bay Area youth organizer

This essay threw the progressive social profit sector up and down the west coast into an upheaval of challenging built-in white supremacist organizational structures and dynamics. We witnessed numerous NGOs fall apart, completely deconstructing their culture and process and starting over again. We saw a lot of progress and experienced the shift in how our organizing was called upon to evolve and become more focused around bridge building. So as I hang around Emergent Movement conferences and hear that same call again from people of color and white allies, I’m thinking, “Wait, we activists have done this work, and we learned a lot that we can share!” And this is where Toward Collective Liberation becomes an amazing tool for progressive Christians in the U.S. Chris Dixon says it better than anyone in his Introduction to the book:

“Transformative social movements are always much more dynamic and intelligent than individual organizers, no matter how reflective, tireless and courageous such individuals may be.  This is one of the amazing things about collective struggle for justice. At the same time there are always individuals who crystallize movement experiences, who distill and share hard won insights and help to catalyze much needed discussions. Chris Crass is one of these people. For two decades, he has consistently given expression to the ideas, questions, and lessons of a generational cohort of radical organizers and activists in the United States.”

In his first essay, Chris does an amazing job of illustrating how anarchist politics and organizing influenced our shared organizing culture. Consensus-based organizing was the norm, many of us working in collectives that practiced feminist,  transparent, non-hierarchical leadership structures but still manage to collaborate with more top-down structured NGOs. I want to challenge us here not to dismiss the strategic politics of anarchists organizing as the chaos and destruction that language and media have portrayed them to be. Much of what we saw in the Global Justice movement, the anti-war movement, and Occupy was based in liberatory anarchist politics, which is a testimony to the contributions of anarchist politics thought this century.

Chris also does a really beautiful job of narrating why anti-oppression work and challenging systemic racism is absolutely essential to movement building. Chris Crass went on to found the Heads Up Collective and anti-racism training collective called Catalyst Project. He has some serious chops around this work, and we’re lucky Chris has a passion for documenting our shared lessons and passing on the knowledge. He’s written countless resources and made them widely available to Occupy movements. Chris understands and rises to the responsibility of passing on the gains that we have achieved in building movement cultures that work.

Chris understands that social movements don’t only just win gains from institutions on behalf of communities, they also embody, live into and become those gains that better serve their community. Let’s briefly look at some of the components of transformative social movements:

Prefigurative Politics


One of the things I’d like us to look at is what Chris has to say about prefigurative politics. We talk about “living into” visions for what we like to see for our lives, we quote Gandhi, and we sloganize his call for us to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

This concept may come from other sources, as truth has a way of cropping up in varied and multiple ways, but I think it’s good to unpack this further. Prefigurative politics is the strategy of incorporating the vision of the future society into the struggle to get there.

Chris writes:

“Social change is not replacing one ruling class for another, but transforming the social relationships of society away from domination toward democracy and equality … Prefigurative politics challenges us to create liberatory processes and practices in the here and now while we fight for the future. This means bringing feminist politics into our daily lives and organizations as much as we can, while recognizing that we need to engage in long-term collective struggle against patriarchy as a system of oppression. Similarly, we should work to understand anti-racism as not only a politics against systemic racism, but for anti-racist culture, strategy, and practice in our organizations and lives that transform the ways we work for liberation.”

Straight to the Point


This is the absolute crux of my critique of the Emergent Church Movement. I feel strongly that if we are not prefigurative in our approach to our collective movement work, we are simply acting out the dynamics that keep people oppressed. If we wish to be a transformative force in our work together, we must work together in a way that challenges all the -isms and systemic means of oppression while working for the world we wish to see some into being — the kingdom of God on Earth. Anything less would be lacking integrity.

Movement Strategy Center

If you don’t know the Movement Strategy Center, I highly recommend checking out their literature. I can write a whole other essay just on the work of their director Taj James. What I want to leave you with is a quote from him that I feel deeply compelled by, and I hope you do to:

“There is a deep cultural change underway in the progressive movement which is radically transforming how we organize and work together. Ask not what your sector of the movement can do for mine — realize that if we do not unite, all of our movements will face continual defeats in the face of a unified and ascendant right wing. The brave organizations and leaders who are driving this change need support from the broader movements. We are not asking for mere words of support but rather for concrete acts of solidarity that demonstrate an embodied wisdom of our independence.”

Steps Forward Toward Mutual and Collective Liberation


I am honored to be teaching on this material this weekend at the TransFORM Southwest Regional Gathering in Fort Worth, TX, a gathering of missional-minded practitioners. I would also like to invite you to take part in a series of Open Conversations that we are having online around the many facets of movement building. On May 7th at 8pm EST we will be hosting another conversation online with Chris Crass, Anthony Smith, Steve Knight  along with other social movement folks and a few other Emergent Movement folks, which will be able to be viewed on SOGO Media TV on YouTube. Viewers will be able to chat in questions and comments. The goal with these conversations is to move forward our collective understanding of liberatory and transformative social movement building in an open and transparent way.  I hope that you join us.
 
Holly Roach is an activist, communications and development director, and artist currently living life in Santa Fe, NM.

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