Join Our Mailing List

Bookmark and Share

  Home > News > Additional Stories

Anarchist Pedagogies Reviewed in Maximum Rock N Roll

by Alex Cruse
Maximum Rock N Roll
January 2013

In his essay "Ends and Means," Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote, "All of us, without exception, are obliged to live more or less in contradiction with our ideals." This philosophy both haunts and challenges the authors of Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, a collection that frames radical education reform in the contexts of historiography and political theory. Throughout, the authors (among them, David Gabbard, Isabelle Fremeaux, and Alex Khasnabish) take on the onerous task of enacting Anarchist praxes from within "institutionalized" academia—a space in which such theories may never be functionally realized.

This text throughly and elegantly explains the project of tyrannical educational establishments: they hermetically seal-off the production and consumption of information to an elite—who also mediates the valuation process of this information. By working symbiotically with other State-run institutions, certain social and economic narratives are reinforced and normalized. Thus, activists and students of Radicalism/Anarchism may find themselves suspended in and disempowered by the dominate ideological complex and, in the words of Stephen Shukatis, "re-incorporated into the workings of state and capital… creating the image of subversion." This compelling tension is one that contributors revisit in chapter after chapter.

As Nathan Jun notes in his section, "Paideia for Praxis," university-level curricula are insidiously designed by the joint edifices of State and Capital: they codify, organize and promote social hegemony. Academic institutions, then may be read as closed systems, in which agendas strategically (though covertly) replicate the conditions which allow these hierarchies to thrive. Using the logic of Kropotkin, Jun calls for transformative university programs (as opposed to outright abandonment of them) which could unite theory and practice and retain a humanist ethos at their core. Here, he echoes Ivan Illich, who stated that traditional schools are mired in social ritual—and it is the ritual which must be changed before radical reform can be enacted.

While these analyses should not be revelatory to most readers, the authors' proposed educational alternatives may prove more so. A new, Anarchist pedagogy, as described by these authors, entails: (1) the promotion of a type of learning that necessitates self-directedness and autonomy; (2) the production of spaces that emphasize community participation and social/political progressiveness, whose architecture is (3) lateralized and decentralized, as are the power dynamics therein.

Yet, I found that this framework only generated more questions. Is it tenable with the notion of a liberated, atomized self? How can Radicals socially constitute themselves in a way that would satisfy Anarchist telos—that would not simply replicate the top-down authority model of the current system? If we are ontologically defined by our social relationships, can true "autonomy" ever be achieved?

In her chapter, "Anarchism, Pedagogy, Queer Theory, and Post-Structuralism," Lucy Nicholas addresses such fundamental problems using Foucault-dian theory. She argues that, "autonomy can be understood not as a natural proclivity, but as a situated capacity,"or potentially (italics hers.) Additionally, she re-valorizes knowledge, distinguishing basic knowledge0transmission from authoritarian practices. I found such (re-)definitions to be crucial in understanding the structural and semiotic barriers which we, as Radicals, must negotiate.

The text additionally succeeds in its characterization of Anarchy as a workable, embodied approach to existence. Multiple examples of liberated educational spaces within myriad countries were provided in order to demonstrate how new infrastructures of resistance can and have been engineered. In his chapter on "The Anarchist Free Skool," Jeff Shantz discusses the concept of a "temporary autonomous zone." His account of this "heterotopic" environment (a counter-site, or alternative space) echoes the comments made by Jun. Rebuilding programs, rather than dropping out of extant ones, is key to evading capitalistic conferment and debunking the "myth of social mobility," to which advanced educational credentials contribute. However, while such theories are persuasive and eloquently relayed, he comments, "[t]he persistent lack of analysis and vision along with a failure to assess the political context for action and develop useful strategies for meeting stated goals consistently undermined the collectives' capacities to do political work. Clearly good intentions were not enough" (141). Yet Shantz optimistically alludes to the reinvigoration of similar spaces; he too emphasizes that effective resistance must be lived.

Other sections explicate disparate issues such as intersectionality, academic privilege, anarcho-feminims, and the actual mechanics of "free skools," such as Escuela Moderna and the Really Open University (ROU). But because the individual authors return to the philosophies of lived-resistance and collective action, the chapters feel thematically well-integrated; marked tonal shifts do not disorient the reader so much as they create a textual metaphor for the box populi.

As a whole, Anarchist Pedagogies functions as a hybrid manifest/historical anthology/field guide—while it does not ignore the daunting complexities of revolutionizing our education system, each experience and infrastructural critique lead one to conclude that such revolution is irrefutably needed now. Appropriately, the afterword is entitled, "Let the Riots Begin."

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Robert Haworth's Author Page

Between The Bars: Barred for Life on Phawker

by Jonathan Valania
April 19th, 2013

Perhaps you've seen Stewart Ebersole bike messenger-ing around town over the years. He no longer lives in Philadelphia but for many years he cut a pretty dashing profile, a tall drink of water with the gift of gab and miles of style, always changing up his look, sometimes a mod, sometimes a rocker, sometimes shaggy-haired, bearded and Rapsutin-like, but always a punk. Always. Black Flag is his brand, having cut his punk rock teeth back in the early '80s as a mohawked college radio DJ, and he's a lifer. He's got the Black Flag 'bars' logo tattooed on his lower leg. Over the years he met a lot of people inked with the Black Flag bars. Young and old. From near and far. Slowly but surely it occurred to him that the bars tattoo was the secret handshake of punk rock. Six years ago he embarked on an improbable odyssey: to meet, interview and photograph as many people around the world with the Black bars tattoo as he could and publish a book about it. Earlier this month, after hundreds of man hours and thousands of miles traveled, he published BARRED FOR LIFE. Stewart will be in town Sunday to celebrate the publication of the book at Tattooed Mom's on South Street from 7-10. Show your bars to the bartender for a deep discount on drinks. We got him on the horn from his current home in upstate New York where he currently resides.

PHAWKER: Why don't you explain the concept of the book?

STEWART EBERSOLE: In short, it's a collection of photographs and interviews with people from all over the world that have the Black Flag bars tattoo.

PHAWKER: Explain the tattoo. How it came about, what it means, etc.

The bars are four slightly offset rectangles, they are close to one another but as they progress from left to right, they're high low, high low, to create the image of a waving flag. Historically the Black Flag was used as the pirate flag, that was probably from the 1500s all the way to the 1900s, then the anarchists took it over, not like people hell bent on destroying things but the anarchist political movement of the early 20th Century, they picked it up as their flag. In the late '70s Black Flag was called Panic, and they were looking for a new logo and new name and [band leader] Greg Ginn's brother Raymond Pettibon came up with the design based on the cover art for a book called The Black Flag of Anarchism which is sort of the ABC's of what anarchism is and had the Black Flag name attached to it, at that time Black Flag was a roach spray. They were about to be sued by a band in the UK who called themselves Panic first, so they changed the name to Black Flag, and they already had the readymade logo.

PHAWKER: So what made you want to do this?

STEWART EBERSOLE: Originally it started as a joke amongst friends who all had the Black Flag bars tattooed on them. I'd say since Black Flag broke up in 1986, I've probably known about 25 or 30 people with the tattoo, and zero of those 25 or 30 people don't have issues with their tattoo - fading, white blotches, bars running together etc. - so when I met up with four or five of my friends in Columbus, Ohio in 2006, to get a touch up on my bars we were all talking about this. We talked about starting a magazine where all the contributors have the bars. When we started doing some research we found people from all over the world with this tattoo, which is ironic because Black Flag as a band never really extensively toured outside of the US. They are an American band, even more so a regional band from the west coast.

For people all over the world to have this tattoo there had to be more to it. It's not like they are Led Zeppelin, there's not a huge fandom for Black Flag. During my research, I asked people what motivated them to get the bars tattoo. It was always something different, like, 'It connects me to the punk community from which I came, I feel like its dying now' or 'I feel like I am getting older and it is the best way for me to stay connected,' or 'It's a great way to meet other people because if that person has the same tattoo you know they came from the same background.' So I put out the word and set up a tour of the U.S., Canada and Europe to meet and interview all these people and photograph them.

Because the band, for the most part, declined to participate, everything had to be told through the fans, the people that we interviewed and photographed, and then I just sort of laid a narrative under it about participating in the scene, why someone would want to be a punk rocker in the 80's despite being constantly tormented, fucked with and threatened with grievous bodily harm and what not. What would make a person do that? One unexpected twist was that the average age of people contributing to the book was 25, and when we did the tour Black Flag had been broken up for 26 years, so the vast majority of people in our book were not even alive when Black Flag was active. I think that is a testament to the enduring power of the music and the scene that Black Flag created.

PHAWKER: Why do you think their music continued to speak to succeeding generations of angry young people?

STEWART EBERSOLE: In the '80s there were punk bands like the Dead Kennedys singing about Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan and the wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, they basically put a time stamp on their music. Their music is about 1981. People are looking for something more emotional than they are something political in music.  Black Flag was singing about the poltics of people's emotions, so their music doesn't have a time stamp. Ninety percent of the audience for punk rock in 1981 and 1982 was fucked up kids. I was kind of a mess and I know most of my friends were a mess but we were trying to make a go of it and if you didn't fit into the normal world, punk rock was great because you didn't have to. Black Flag was a band singing about about not wanting to go back to the normal world, not wanting to deal with the authority figures, not wanting to climb with the social ladder. Those songs spoke to pissed off kids. And they still do.

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

Boredom Is Always Counterrevolutionary: Donald Nicholson-Smith + Iain Boal at CIIS

by Steven Gray
Mar 5, 2013

‘In May of 1968 there were massive protests in France. They are often characterized as “student” protests in an attempt to limit the wider dimensions of the unrest and revolt. In fact, these protests led to a general strike involving nearly 10,000,000 workers. People know how to do things over there.

A small group called the Situationist International is thought to have sparked the uprising. They only had 10 or 20 members, but what they had to say resonated with an increasingly alienated population, and they knew how to spread their message, which had a Marxist as well as surrealist point of view. One of the Situationists, Guy Debord, “described official culture as a rigged game, where conservative powers forbid subversive ideas to have direct access to the public discourse” (from “Spectacle (critical theory)” on Wikipedia), and doesn’t that sound familiar. Third-party presidential candidates are not even allowed to participate in the debates in this country.

Two books were published in 1967 by members of the SI: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. Vaneigem was born in Belgium in 1934 and grew up in a “working class, socialist and anticlerical milieu.” He was familiar with miners’ strikes and Magritte. He was concerned about a society overrun with commodities and the rat-race that follows. “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary… A life governed by sanctioned greed is by no means freed thereby from the old tyranny of having to forfeit one’s life merely to pay for it” (The Revolution of Everyday Life, PM Press, 2012). The book is extremely quotable, and includes an author’s preface from 2010, where he states the following: “… the United States of America is now viewed by Europeans as a paradoxically archaic country. Its technological achievements would warrant only admiration were they not belied by a mental stagnation that allows the ‘icy waters of egotistical calculation’ to preside over an inhumanity cynically defended in the name of profit.”

On the subject of overcoming the influence of the church: “Behind the rent veil of superstition appeared, not naked truth… but the slime of ideologies.” There is a direct link from the SI (which lasted from 1957 to 1972) to the punks.

The other night, we went to the California Institute of Integral Studies to hear a discussion with the man who translated Vaneigem’s book, Donald Nicholson-Smith. He has long hair and a gray beard and was in the SI from 1965 to 1967. He is an Englishman with a sense of humor who has lived in New York City for many years. Though he was supposed to be in conversation with Sasha Lilley, co-host of “Against the Grain” on KPFA and co-author of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, she was having a baby and couldn’t make it. In her place was Iain Boal, a social historian who currently teaches at the University of London and is one of the editors of West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California. He is also one of the world’s foremost bicycle historians and has a book on that subject called The Green Machine. I spoke with him after the discussion, but I forgot to mention my own bicycle history – lying unconscious on a road one night with my bike nearby.

The two men had a conversation in front of a classroom which was more or less filled. I was sitting next to Csaba Polony, who publishes Left Curve. Nicholson-Smith read a selection from the book, and this was followed by questions from the audience. There was reference to “the organization of appearances” in a culture which is “dying for not surpassing the master-slave dialectic.”

“The organization of appearances is a system for shielding the facts. A racket. It represents the facts in a mediated reality to prevent immediate reality from presenting them… Fragmentary power organizes appearances as spectacle… Worsened by history, the incoherence of the spectacle turned into the spectacle of incoherence [thus Pop Art is at once a current example of consumable degeneracy and the expression of the current degeneration of consumption].” Vaneigem wrote this around the time that Andy Warhol had surfaced as a superstar of surfaces.

Some phrases that came up in the discussion: the “seduction of the commodity” and the “imperialism of the market.” “Anthropology and revolutionary praxis.” “The first synthesis is community.” The world a few centuries ago was a “pregnant automaton.” The book seems to have aged well, considering most of it was written half a century ago.

Two nights later my wife and I watched an episode of Mad Men. It is set in the early 1960’s and gives a somewhat diluted sense of what people were dealing with back then. The advertising world has become more amplified over the years. We followed that with a video called “Obey”, a film informed by Death of the Liberal Class, a book by Chris Hedges.

Another idea flying around the CIIS classroom: the Marxist point of view is that nature is a worthy opponent. A man whose hair and beard were pretty wild raised his hand and spoke in a very reasonable voice, pointing out that nature is not always hostile; it is often a “congenial” force. There was general agreement that the word “nature” is very broad. There was some mention of how much the communists like industrial assembly lines and of the irony of such a subversive book being considered a classic. There was some question if the Left is sufficiently subjective and provisional – apparently not. There are “reified attempts at protest.”

All of this talk about keeping a population diverted (if not hypnotized) with spectacles, while maintaining a food supply, reminded me of the ancient Romans who had bread and circuses.

Iain Boal was a smooth moderator, choosing his words carefully. At the same time he would throw in quick and quiet asides that could be devastating. During a discussion of The Long Now - a 10,000 year perspective (according to Stewart Brand) – he noted it was similar to the Department of Defense estimates for the storage of atomic waste. At another point he threw off a phrase about the “valium-soaked suburbs.” He teaches sometimes at U.C. Berkeley, and the next time he is there I want to sit in on a class.

Nicholson-Smith mentioned the necessity of “historical memory.” Having such a perspective is downright subversive when the authorities want us to slip into amnesia with the aid of pharmaceuticals. We should never forget what has happened, what we have witnessed, including the crimes of the Cheney/Bush administration. When someone in a conservative think-tank (Fukuyama) postulates “the end of history,” there is probably another prison being built.


Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).

Buy book now
| Buy e-Book now | Back to Raoul Vaneigem's Author Page | Back to Donald Nicholson-Smith's Page | Back to Iain Boal's Page

‘Rama Rating: 8 of 10 for Kuper's Drawn to New York

by Michael C Lorah
March 19th, 2013

‘Rama Rating: 8 of 10

 A combination artbook/short story collection by New York adoptee Peter Kuper, Drawn to New York repurposes many of Kuper's illustrations, sketches and short comics to capture the energy, humanity, chaos and seediness of the Big Apple. As someone who works in Manhattan, I feel safe saying that Kuper succeeds on many levels. Everything is filtered through his political and economical prism, giving Drawn to New York a specific and personal vision, but the sum total of its components adds up to a distinctly New York experience.

The book's biggest success stems from Kuper’s not attempting to force a narrative or structure on its disparate elements - the sprawling, directionless, unbridled mass of the city is best captured in these snapshots and short narratives. Kuper mixes representative illustrations with impressionistic sketches to capture both the physicality and personality of neighborhoods. One sequence uses apartment building windows as panels in a comic book to support the city’s millions of individual stories. Of course, this glorified sketchbook approach may not work for all readers, but when you’ve been drawing city-inspired scenes as long as Kuper has, you have a tremendous catalog of sketches to show off. Appreciate the artwork if not the themes.

Kuper’s short comics stories bring readers into the lives and experiences, not necessarily literal, of Manhattan’s urban dwellers. “Jungleland” is a frenetic adventure of survival against the wilderness and the ceaseless greed of fellow man. “Chains” examines the interconnected nature of our lives and our sins, and “The Wall” takes a satirical approach to the disparity of economic classes living side by side and the exploitation of the poor. Kuper also brings readers inside his September 11, 2001 experience as a resident, a father, and a politically active cartoonist (Kuper is cofounder of and contributor to the superb World War 3 Illustrated).

Whether you live or work on the island, visit as a tourist, or absorb the city’s iconography through its omnipresent pop culture presence, everybody takes something unique away from New York City. Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City is Peter Kuper's New York, and anybody who's spent any time here, physically or otherwise, will recognize the energy and architecture, the grime and crowds, the beautiful humanity, the foods and odors (on one page, he uses smears of color in an attempt to show the smells of parts of the city) and sights. Love it or not, there’s no place on Earth quite like New York City, and few people have captured it as effectively as Kuper.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Peter Kuper's Author Page

Bring Your Black Flag Tattoos to Vinal Edge This Saturday

by Craig HIavaty
Houston Press
April 10th, 2013

Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m., tattooed Black Flag disciples are encouraged to stop by Vinal Edge in the Heights for sweaty fellowship with their fellow "barred" brethren to celebrate the release of Stewart Dean Ebersole's Barred for Life: How Black Flag's Iconic Logo Became Punk Rock's Secret Handshake.

The book looks at people who have tattooed Black Flag's iconic four bars logo onto their skin, whether it be on their neck, hands, bicep, or ankle. I have even seen the bars inside a gal's lower lip.
According to Flag history, the bars were Raymond Pettibon's idea after the band changed their name from Panic. As the band's in-house graphic designer, he also created their iconic album art, posters, and flyers, and he also happened to be guitarist Greg Ginn's brother.
(Wanna know a fun semi-secret about Fred Durst, from Limp Bizkit? He's got the bars inked onto one of his index fingers. How do I know? I met him in 2010 at a Buzzfest meet-and-greet on a lark with Buxton's Chris Wise, and Durst noticed my bars near my left wrist and decided to show me that he also had the bars. I shit you all not.)
Ebersole's work began on the book years back when he first spread word that he was looking to photograph the bars on punker skin in the wild. Along the way he also asked fans to tell their stories behind their tattoos, which he compiled into the book, which you can get on Amazon.

Saturday at Vinal Edge, Hates drummer and occasional Rocks Off contributor David Ensminger will be shooting video and taking pictures of the festivities. The Barred project will continue on, even now after the book has been released. Ensminger helped edit Barred for Life for PM Press, and has a Black Flag tattoo himself, natch.

He's also singing and playing drums in Black Flag cover band My War, which features members of 500 Megatons of Boogie and Super Dragon. Locals Ex-Girlfriends will also be performing.

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

Barred For Life: A Review on Blogtrotter

by  John L Murphy
April 7th, 2013

How "The Bars" signify not only Black Flag's relevance three decades after their career, but the impact of punk upon those who in this collection were usually far too young to have seen a gig makes this photographic and journalistic anthology compelling. As I was born the same year as Dez Cadena and Henry Rollins, and as I grew up watching this L.A. scene, I admit some surprise.

Everybody interviewed with the icon is younger (with one exception: Ron Spellman, a second-generation tattoo artist a few years older) than me--or therefore the famous Hank whose arms, torso, and back became ever more inked as his power as the band's longest-lasting singer dominated the band's image and presence. Why tattoos perch or crawl over the bodies of the hirsute or hairless hundreds in these pages portrayed, whereas earlier punks did not tend (as chronicler Stewart Dean Ebersole, Spellman, and Chuck Dukowski concur) to decorate themselves with so many or so "graphic" an array of body art remains more an observation than a consideration. Yet, the generational gap between those who come after the band who choose to don The Bars and those who heard the band in its heyday persists.

While I wish this aspect was explored more, this isn't a sociological treatise. It's an angular presentation that mingles Ebersole's own rambling memoir of life in Red Lion PA with his coming-of-age with the Flag. Interspersed are intelligent interviews with band members, Spellman, and photographer Glen E. Friedman. (Greg Ginn no longer talks to the press; Rollins talks to them but not here.) I share what Ebersole wrestles over: feeling that by the 1984 "My War" LP (if not the title track, which was punchier than most other tracks) the band's move away from hardcore to jazzier and sludgier textures did not do the ensemble justice. Ebersole returns to this over and over, and many who identify (as all tattooed do here) their favorite song, singer, and album by the band list "My War" often in both categories. The editor locates this pivotal point (before the band ended in '86; note the current revival on two tours by a version of Black Flag and one of Flag) as a very punk rock one.

That is, the band challenged its followers not to expect conformity, and undermined its own fan base. "Upon exiting, Black Flag seemed to kick down the temple." (255) They always tried to take charge. Friedman reminds readers how the band, under SST's aegis and Ginn's command, forged a collective identity itself at "The Church" and its relentless devotion to rehearsing and touring, and managing itself. While Ginn's brother, Raymond Pettibon, earns full credit for his design of their logo, I recall that its symbolism might have eluded those who first saw it on records and flyers (if not yet tattoos). The four black rectangles always remind me of a row of amps.
The band's name evokes for me--as Chuck Dukowski reminisces--the bug spray slogan "Kills ants on contact" famously borrowed by the band in a Hollywood Blvd. counter-PR, anti-Adam Ant stunt, and the popular insecticide of the era. The anarchic connection appears to have motivated Ginn to change the name of the group from Panic, coupled with his brother's icon as a memorable non-verbal logo and a rallying image of its vision. Ebersole finds that its lyrics (unlike the Dead Kennedys or I may add the Clash) have not dated as much for they were not paired to Reaganesque depredations. The deeper anarchic resonance may, however, intentionally or accidentally matter less to some who don the four staggered, as if pixillated, dramatic and stark black bars.

Billy Atwell sums this up (one of nearly four hundred wearers featured) as therefore pure hardcore. "They say something without saying something at all." (89) Ron Reyes reflects: "People don't get the cereal brand they eat in the morning tattooed on them." (125) So, what does this "secret handshake" register as? As I lack tattoos, and as Black Flag is a band I like with some songs but pass by with many more from that problematic later period, I approached this volume of those who had heard this music a decade or two after me--and often far from its home turf--with curiosity.

Scanning the testimonies from band members, Ebersole and his mates (his own tattoo is via a girlfriend's birthday gift), and those inked, the whole counterculture-as-commodity connection appears underexamined. (A couple of slips on pg. 276: Kira Roessler went not to "Yumi" but "Uni[versity]" H.S. near UCLA; so did Paul not "Bean" but "Beahm" aka Darby Crash.) Rightly, many who were in L.A. around '80 lament the turn to violence that kept such as me from the mosh pits as they grew increasingly full of the jocks who used to pummel the artsier and the lonelier who tended to comprise the first punks and the band themselves (not sure about Rollins, although certainly he was less pumped up when he joined...). Ebersole notes NYC scenesters featured more tattoos but that this faded with British bands and then earlier American ones--only to return with Rollins and mid-80s hardcore. But I kept wondering if this ink-as-marker identification was less radical or subversive than its wearers often assumed. As with many features promoted by those who place themselves outside the norm, the norm tends to catch up, surround, and profit off of their promotion.

One encounter moved me. "Chaz" returns from Iraq after leaving part of his leg behind. At Walter Reed VA, he wakes from a coma and tries to get back together. He finds Henry Rollins as part of a USO tour standing there at bedside. Chaz tells him about his ambition, and he soon dons his Bars.

I am not sure how many have tattoos of the Bars on more inaccessible or intimate areas; the ratio of males to females here appears to balance that of those inked overall in American (and Canadian, British, and Continental) cultures where many get by as bartenders, skilled workers (or not workers!), artists, or creative or casual laborers a bit off the corporate or mainstream grids. I kept turning the pages--which mimic punk collage as you need to find your way around the text and images and odd juxtapositions--expecting to find a familiar face. While I did not, I saw people that I'd like to meet--an indication of Jared Castoldi and Ebersole's casual but approachable style behind the lens.

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

Barred For Life: A Review on Jaded Punk

by Dan Ozzi
Jaded Punk
April 10th, 2013

If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that you have a Black Flag bars tattoo. And you probably think it makes you pretty special, huh? Well, bad news:It doesn’t. Thousands of people have The Bars permanently branded on their flesh. Tens of thousands, even. It’s arguably the most common music-related tattoo out there. But is it more meaningful than just a tattoo? Barred For Life is a book that seeks an answer to that question.

The 8x10” book features interviews with all Black Flag members except for two who declined: Henry Rollins, who was probably busy doing deadlifts and Greg Ginn, who was probably too high to answer the phone. The interviews give some insights into the background of the band which, if you’re enough of a fan of the band to read this book, chances are you’ve heard before. But the band members’ reflections on the tattoo and the logo itself are uncharted territory for most Black Flag aficionados and are most relevant to the crux of the book’s story.

Barred For Life is held together by the personal narrative of the author, Stewart Dean Ebersole, who reflects on Black Flag, The Bars, and the meaning of the Punk Rock movement. (His capitalizations, not ours.) While not uninteresting, it is a distraction from the book’s main eye candy: Dozens and dozens of black and white photos of people with their Bars tattoos and their brief thoughts on it. Each subject is asked for the following: name, age, location, occupation, favorite singer, favorite song, favorite album (amazingly, someone said Family Man), and what the band/logo means to them. Through hundreds of pages of these featurettes, we get a comprehensive picture of what kind of people get The Bars tattoo. And the answer is all kinds.

Flipping through Barred For Life is a bit like looking through a high school yearbook. Chances are pretty good that you’ll spot someone you know, either personally or from a band/record label/venue you’re a fan of. A former member of Avail makes an appearance, as does the drummer for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the founder of Equal Vision Records. Frank Turner is featured on the book’s final page. Some punk notables, like former Indecision and Milhouse singer, Artie Phillie, aren’t even credited as such. Everyone from 44-year-old NYU psychology professors to 25-year-old bike messengers in the UK are included. Some are self-professed bums and others are city councilmembers or Daily Show producers. Some seem to have intimate and deep connections with the logo and the band, whereas others profess to having gotten it to fit in to a scene.

There is an especially moving story from a wounded U.S. Army veteran who met Henry Rollins. “[Rollins] asked me now that I lost my leg what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to go back into combat with my buddies. He left the room and came back in red-faced. I think that he was crying.”

The tattoos of the iconic logo themselves tell a larger story as well. It’s a story of a movement that acts as a Rorschach test, meaning something different to each person it touches. Some tats are timeworn and faded while others are crisp and new. Some are small and subtle while others prominently take up an entire limb. They adorn people’s asses and people’s throats.

Some folks got them in prison and some were the result of late night drunken tattoo sessions in basements. Some people got theirs at 18, others got them at 48. Liberties were taken with the logo, like the guy who got the Bars as bacon strips.

While it would’ve been a much easier undertaking for the author to publish a book of general punk tattoos, he instead narrowed in on one specific logo, did the subject due diligence, and the results are infinitely more impressive. It’s amazing that four simple sticks can capture such a comprehensive story, but much like Black Flag did for the punk scene, Barred For Life ties it all together.

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

Barred For Life: A Review in Big Wheel Magazine

by Louie Bones
Big Wheel Magazine
April 13th, 2013

Fans of Black Flag have a lot to be excited about this year and with the addition of Barred For Life: How Black Flags Iconic Logo Became Punk Rock's Secret Handshake, fans have another awesome Black Flag-related book to add to their collection of Black Flag reading material.

Although not a release endorsed by Greg Ginn, this book is a must have and an insightful look at Black Flags loyal fan base. More specifically it’s about that percentage of loyal fans with Black Flag tattoos, fans who are Barred For Life.
The books author is a long time Black Flag fan who set out to meet, photograph and interview like minded fans around the globe and that’s exactly what he’s accomplished. Over his lengthy excursions he was able to photograph hundreds of fans from all different walks of life who share a common love for Black Flags music and message.
 Some fans prefer Keith Morris, others prefer Ron Reyes and some even express their distaste for Henry Rollins but all agree on one thing and that is that getting into Black Flag is a life changing moment and others with the “bars” are like extended family members.

The black and white photos that adorn the 322 pages of Barred For Life create this honest appeal that sets this book apart from many tattoo focused publications around today. The interviews with ex Black Flag members and colleagues add another dimension to it as well, one that adds a personal touch and truth.

Ron Reyes, Edward Colver, Glen E. Friedman, Kira Roessler, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Keith Morris and Tattoo Artist Rick Spellman shed light on what it was like around Black Flag during the bands original incarnation both on and off stage. Their inclusion make this a must have for fans of Black Flag's music and art while the hundreds of photos make this a must have for both fans of Black Flag and tattoo culture. If you love Black Flag, tattoos and Black Flag tattoos then you will need this book!

We highly recommend getting this book!













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

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 (

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.

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.

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.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to the Author's Page


Quick Access to:



New Releases

Featured Releases

Verita$: Harvard's Hidden History

To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution