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Notes From Underground

by Steven Heller
John Wilcock Blog

December 11, 2011
Post image for Notes From Underground

Between 1967 and 1972, when the baby-boom counterculture was at its height, many lives were dramatically altered and futures were shaped. Mine was one of them. During 1968, my last year in high school, I had been drawing cartoons that explored adolescent fixations with sex and death. People who saw them presumed I had a disturbed childhood and urged me to seek therapy. Instead I took my makeshift portfolio around to four Manhattan-based influential underground papers: the New York Free Press, the East Village Other, the Rat, and the Avatar.

The Underground Press, as it was called, was a groundswell of media activity running the gamut from radically political to seriously satirical. A new book, On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. (PM Press) Edited by Sean Stewart (who between 2007 and 2009 owned and operated Babylon Falling, a bookstore and gallery in San Francisco), recalls the Underground epoch. Through interlacing interviews with Emory Douglas (Black Panther), Paul Krassner (The Realist), Art Kunkin (The L.A. Free Press), Abe Peck (The Chicago Seed), John Wilcock (Other Scenes), Jeff Shero (The Rat), Trina Robbins (Gothic Blimp Works) and many more (including Al Goldstein of Screw), the remarkable journals that shaped my life (and career) are revived as oral history.

In this moment when the OCCUPY movement is seeking its visual identity, its instructive to see how the anti-war, anti-racism, pro-sex, drugs and rock n' roll generative movement sought to define is many disparate parts through media, and especially tabloid papers. There were many agendas and graphically many styles, but as a whole the Underground Press defined a moment.

Also, watch my podcast on designing in the Sixties for more on the Underground and its cultural context.

Underground Press

Underground Press

Underground Press

Underground Press

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Love and Struggle . . . is a well-written, intellectually and politically exciting, and emotionally moving autobiography.

By Bob Feldman
NYC IndyMedia
April 27, 2012

Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond is a well-written, intellectually and politically exciting, and emotionally moving autobiography. Published by the alternative non-commercial collective PM Press, it presents a more balanced picture of Gilbert than has been portrayed in the U.S. mass media since his arrest in 1981. Most people have previously had the chance to hear Gilbert speak for himself only in Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s 2003 Academy Award-nominated documentary film, The Weather Underground.

Love and Struggle provides its readers with a sweeping history of the growth and development of the Movement of the 1960s that reflects the historical perspective of politically radical anti-racist and anti-imperialist activist/organizers of the 1960s. Gilbert explains how he—the son of a toy company production manager and scoutmaster who grew up in upper middle-class Brookline, Massachusetts in the 1950s, “went on to become an Eagle Scout and also to win the highest religious medal for Jewish scouts” and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1966—ended up, at the age of 37, “handcuffed and getting worked over in the back of a police car” on the night of October 20, 1981; before being, subsequently, indicted, tried and convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 75 years-to-life in prison. Like Dave Dellinger’s autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Gilbert’s Love and Struggle documents the sweeping life changes experienced by many radicals of the time.

He recalls how the impact of Martin Luther King and the late 1950s/early 1960s Civil Rights Movement led him to approach religious leaders in Greater Boston’s white community about allowing the local NAACP chapter to set up anti-racist education programs for white people. A friend’s acquaintance with a Vietnamese exchange student inspired him to write an article in his school’s student newspaper in 1961 “saying America was in danger of getting drawn into a major civil war in South Vietnam, and on the wrong side at that,” while still a liberal anti-communist high school senior.

Love and Struggle then revisits Gilbert’s political, academic and personal life and the history of the New Left Movement of the Sixties after his arrival on Columbia University’s campus in the Morningside Heights/West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. In one section, “The 1960s and The Making Of A Revolutionary,” Gilbert explains why he and other New Left anti-war and anti-racist activists, along with Black Liberation Movement activists, became more politically radicalized, anti-imperialist and militant in their political thinking and street actions during the decade; and he also describes how he went about organizing students into SDS chapters at Columbia, Barnard and the New School for Social Research prior to the historic Columbia Student Revolt that shut-down Columbia University in 1968. He recalls, for example, how, in the spring of 1965, anti-war student activists at Columbia “set-up literature tables on the main plaza on campus, and we’d be there all day discussing and debating with those who stopped by.” He incisively observes:

“I don’t want to give the wrong impression that our great arguments immediately turned people around. It is rare indeed that someone will give up on presuppositions in the course of a discussion. Ideas don’t change that quickly, and ego makes it hard for most of us to readily admit we are wrong. Organizers who expect instant conversions will become overbearing. Instead, our educational work, planted seeds and helped people see there were alternative interpretations and sources of information, so that once events developed to create more stress—the war intensified and the military draft expanded—people had a way to see that something was wrong, instead of just becoming more fervent about escalations to 'win.’”

Given the decisions of university administrations at Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford in 2011 to bring ROTC back to U.S. elite university campuses that had terminated their campus programs in response to late 1960s anti-ROTC campaigns of campus SDS chapters, Gilbert’s timely reference to his participation in a May 1965 anti-ROTC protest on Columbia’s campus may also be of special interest to 21st-century anti-war student activists:

“We carried out a valuable early example of civil disobedience against university complicity with the war machine. This action was initiated by the civil rights group CORE, which planned to repeat an action done the preceding year, when a few of them sat-in to disrupt a Naval ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) ceremony. . . . The administration moved the ceremony inside and when we marched to the door we were locked out, so people jammed up in the doorway and refused to disperse. The university called in the police, who started to pull people away, one by one. . . .The cops twisted the tie around my neck, choking me, until, fortunately, it broke. They dragged me away and threw me down, ripping my jacket almost in half. . . .
Afterward, Columbia threatened to suspend the `ringleaders,’ but we were able to rally a lot of support. . . .Some liberals wanted to reduce all organizing to defense of the right to dissent; but we maintained a balance, building a coalition on those terms while continuing to speak out against having the military on campus. And there was a tendency for students to get pumped up about how they had been subject to `police brutality.’ . . . But I knew from my civil rights work that our bruises were minor compared to what was done routinely in Harlem.”

In the following section, “The Most Sane/Insane of Times,” Gilbert looks back in a self-critical way at the 1969/1970 period of New Left Movement history. During this period, the Weatherman faction attempted to mobilize anti-war youth to “bring the war home” to Chicago in the October 1969 “Days of Rage” protests; the Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial began; Black Panther Party organizers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated; and Gilbert’s best friend, former Columbia SDS Vice-Chairman Ted Gold, and two other members of the Weatherman faction were accidentally killed in a West Village townhouse explosion, while building bombs to target a military base, possibly including civilians. Living in a Weatherman collective in Denver at the time, Gilbert provides readers with an interesting sense of how members and leaders of the Weatherman faction reacted on a political and emotional level to the shock of hearing the news about the deaths of their three comrades.

“Love and Struggle”’s next section, “Underground,” provides an exciting and vivid recollection by Gilbert of what it was like to be a member of the Weather Underground Organization [WUO] whose members were being hunted by the FBI. He also discusses the internal political differences and divisive debates that contributed to the demise of the WUO by the late 1970s.

The last four sections of Gilbert’s autobiography tell of his life in the nearly thirty-five years since the collapse of the WUO. He recalls his aboveground life as a furniture mover and Men Against Sexism activist in Denver in the late 1970s; some of the political, emotional and psychological reasons that he chose to resume his underground lifestyle in 1979; his return East and involvement in underground activity in support of the Black Liberation Army [BLA]. Stating that “I deeply regret the loss of lives and the pain for those families caused by our actions on October 20, 1981,” Gilbert also engages in self-criticism and self-analysis about the political appropriateness of his decision in 1979 to begin working in a clandestine way as an ally of a BLA unit “on such a high-risk tactical level with so little knowledge of the political context.” He cites “my corruption of ego” as possibly influencing the political choices he made after the collapse of the WUO, when he “was anxious to reestablish myself as a `revolutionary on the highest level,’ and `as the most anti-racist white activist.’”

Gilbert also describes, in an emotionally open way, how he reunited underground with fellow WUO member Kathy Boudin and their decision to become parents while underground. His account of how they prepared for the birth of their son in August 1980, how he felt at the time of his son’s birth and during the first year of his life and the sadness of his separation from both after his and Boudin’s arrests (she was released in 2003 after serving twenty-two years) are some of his most moving passages.

Some readers who were politically active in the Movement of the 1960s and 1970s may have a different political view of U.S. white working-class people’s historical revolutionary potential or the primacy of internal national liberation struggles within the US than what Gilbert presents in “Love and Struggle.” But there’s so much great political and psychological analysis of both U.S. society and the inter-personal dynamics within the U.S. left movement in this fascinating book—which also resembles an exciting mystery novel in some parts—that “Love and Struggle” should be required reading for everyone interested in 1960s and 1970s U.S. Movement history and how this history relates to current struggles.

Since David Gilbert has already been a political prisoner for more than 30 years he (as well as over 60 other U.S. political prisoners) should finally be released by U.S. state and federal government officials in 2012. In the North of Ireland, Italy and Germany, most of the political activists of the 1970s and 1980s who were involved in armed actions similar in nature to the one Gilbert was involved in were generally released from prison by the early twenty-first century. So why shouldn’t Love and Struggle author Gilbert and the BLA members who are also still imprisoned now also be released by the government authorities in the United States? For as Gilbert concludes in Love and Struggle’s “Afterward” section: “The book ends here; the struggle of course continues . . . with love and for the unity of humankind.”

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Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail! on City Book Review

by Glenn Dallas
City Book Review
April 4, 2012

The spirit of revolution is alive and well within the pages of Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!, a collection of crime stories centered around acts of rebellion, protest, and unrest. In less than four hundred pages, you’ll encounter miners on the moon fighting for better safety, black students plotting against a Klan rally, and Jewish craftsmen defending their unionizing efforts with brutal force. There’s a cop scrambling to solve a mystery amidst rampant rioting, elderly women aspiring to civil disobedience, and visions from a near-future Paris that has descended into warring factions.

The stories of Send My Love span the spectrum from noir to historical fiction, and there are some real gems between its covers. Major names from not only the crime beat, but also the sci-fi and fantasy genres, make worthwhile contributions to the set, including names like Cory Doctorow, Sara Paretsky, and Kim Stanley Robinson.

As with any short story collection, there are a few clunkers, but overall, Send My Love offers a great twist on the familiar. Heck, it’s hard to find fault with any collection that kicks off with a story by Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

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Moments of Excess: Essential Reading for Occupy and Quebec Student Activists

By Stefan Christoff
May 11, 2012

As attention turns toward the mass student strike on the streets of Montreal, ongoing for three months, the Quebec student movement clearly exemplifies the power that activism holds to shape our collective imagination.

The student protests distant from the halls of political power in Quebec City, are largely setting the terms of political debate on moves by the Quebec government to significantly hike post-secondary tuition fees.

Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life, a standout collection of anarchist writings published by PM Press in Oakland, has been an excellent read on Montreal's metro traveling between protests over recent weeks.

As a collective project, Moments of Excess is a meaningful read for readers in Quebec and across Canada, as students' sustain a collective uprising to fight for accessible education, a movement clearly inspired by anarchist models of horizontal activism deeply explored in the book.

Moments of Excess also offers important reflections for participants in the grassroots Occupy movement for economic justice across North America, sparked by Occupy Wall Street this past fall. The mass Occupy collective actions have been rooted in anarchist practices, exemplified in the general assembly decision making model and vocalized by the human mic echoing on city streets across the continent.

In 11 essays, written from 2001-2011 by UK-based collective The Free Association, the book explores movement building, in relation to different mobilizations in Europe and globally, examining the complexities of protest movements too often made invisible in mainstream media narratives.

The curious title, "Moments of Excess" points to fascinating ideas on both the inspiration and challenges sparked by mass collective protest movements:

"Every now and then, in all sorts of different social arenas, we can see moments of obvious collective creation, where our 'excess of life' explodes," writes The Free Association, " in these moments of excess, everything appears to be up for grabs and time and creativity accelerates. From our own lives, we're thinking of punk in the mid to late 1970s, and the struggle against the poll tax in the late 1980s/early '90s, and the recent moments within the anti-globalization movement. At these times, which may have spanned several years or literally a few moments, we have glimpsed whole new worlds."

Today in Quebec, as the student strike continues with inspiring night protests, we are clearly living in one of these moments.

Many of the essays in Moments of Excess were originally written to distribute at anti-capitalist mobilizations in Europe over the past decade, like the European Social Forum, the major 2005 protests against the G8 summit, or the 2008 Climate Action Camp actions promoting environmental justice via direct action. These powerful pieces are vivid—and reflect the energy of street protest and dissent.

"Anti-capitalist movements, then, are movement of social relations," writes The Free Association in the "Anti-capitalist movements" essay. "One of the key characteristics about the current movement is its immediately global nature. In this respect 'globalization', far from being a one-sided extension of capital's power, entangling the whole world in the logic of the market, is actually a response to the flexing of our muscles in the 1960s and 1970s—which temporarily forced capital on the defensive."

Beyond outlining collective analysis recent activist history, Moments of Excess looks back at past left generations, while challenging concepts of linear history in unique ways.

"We're used to thinking of time as a straight line," writes The Free Association in the "Event horizon" essay, "but history isn't a straight line. It moves in a series of uncontrolled breaks, jots and ruptures. Every now and then we get events that seem to have popped out of an alternate dimension. Events that don't seem to belong to the time-line we were just on. These events carry their own time-lines. Then they appear, history seems to shift to accommodate them."

Moments of Excess
points to events, or brief periods in time, that fundamentally shifted the course of history, often through mass popular protest movements that resulted in social change. Beyond stereotypical images and understandings of historic events, the book challenges us to reflect on concepts of history and social change in fascinating ways.

Throughout the book a sense of urgency is reflected, an immediacy that is inspiring, words reflecting on the euphoria of collective power, writings that reject individualism, rising above state-sanctioned politics that compound cynicism.

Difficult questions directed to anti-capitalists are also presented in the book:

"If all forms of action are socially productive, and if capital is amoral and infinitely malleable, isn't our resistance simply the creative cutting edge of capital? Will we turn round in ten years time to find that the things we're fighting for now appear against us? Will we close down Starbucks only to find a chain of organic fair-trade coffee houses clogging up our cities? Are we stuck in an eternal return where all struggles are recuperated?"

At times Moments of Excess offers more questions than answers, a refreshing and totally anarchist inspired take on political writing.

Organizing tactics used and developed by activists at global justice protests, inaccurately labeled by mainstream media the 'anti-globalization' movement, seen in Quebec City in April 2001, are creatively examined in Moments of Excess, from spokes councils, to mass direct action led by autonomous affinity groups.

Ideas dancing around definitions of globalization in recent years, speak to a striking energy in Moments of Excess, a unique drive to collectively interrogate both the practices and terminology of protest movements that The Free Association authors are rooted in.

"One of the key novelties of the movement of movements over the past decade or so has been its openness, unity-in-diversity and sense of affirmation," writes The Free Association. "From startling alliances on the streets of Seattle to experiments in political forms, we've been swept up in its global reach and sense of potential. At times it has gone far beyond the declaration that 'another world is possible', as we've found ourselves involved in the creation of actual new worlds."

Clearly Moments of Excess is written by activists, essays like "On the road" reflect on direct actions taken by the Dissent! network to block access roads, via civil disobedience, around the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005.

An open and artistic tone drives the collective essays in Moments of Excess, making the essays an interesting read for political minds across the spectrum.

As our attention turns to the mass student protests in Quebec, or as we reflect on the revolutionary street protest movements that have ignited across the world in 2012, from Tahrir Square in Egypt, to Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan, Moments of Excess sparks layered reflection, breaking open paradigms of mainstream political thinking.

Blurring the lines between political essay and philosophy, Moments of Excess is a uniquely inspiring book to critically read and re-read.—Stefan Christoff

For more information on The Free Association and Moments of Excess visit the website.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, musician and community organizer who contributes to and is @spirodon.

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Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?

by dalai
Ben and Birdy Blog

April 27, 2012

A few weeks ago I got the most delightful email that said, "So, you like free stuff, Ben likes pink, and Birdy's a bad-ass. I'm putting together a little care package for you." [full disclosure: it actually said, "and Birdy likes to read."] It turns out that Craig Wiesner owns Reach and Teach: the peace and social justice learning company, which is a book/toy/education store in San Mateo, California. Gender, race, sexuality, class, poverty, global economic injustice, different abilities, different family configurations . . . they have all kinds of amazing stuff, about all kinds of important things. As evidenced by the care package that arrived in the mail, which included these awesome coloring books:
I love these coloring books, because they manage to be simultaneously witty and political.  Which is what this photo caption would be like, if it were witty. And political.

There's nothing that makes your kids seem more grown-up than their suddenly being *not* offended by coloring books! Mine have passed through the humiliated loathing of them and are now at the stage of ironic appreciation.

I used to have a fluorescent-green Queer Nation "Fuck the Patriarchy" sticker on the back of my thrift-store suede jacket. Sigh. Those were the days (of my badass glory).
We had a Big Gay Wedding to go to, and so I xeroxed a few pages so the kids could make their cards.

Which came out simultaneously beautiful and corny and fun. (For long-time readers: one of the brides was our friend Anni, who lived with us the year her baby Frankie was born. Ben played the Kris Delmhorst song "Birds of Belfast" on the piano during their ceremony, and we all sang and cried.)
We actually xeroxed some extra pages for kids (and grown-ups) at the wedding to color, but we were too busy rejoicing to get out the crayons.

Coincidentallyor, um, not reallythe kids picked out fabulous outfits for the wedding. Birdy is so psyched about this jacket that she just inherited from Ben. And the tie, which my mom bought her after Birdy oohed and ahhed over it at the Salvation Army. 
Even Strawberry got cool and fancy in his awesome off-the-shoulder pink cashmere dress.

Ben is the kind of kid who has to politely ask the inn-keepers if they might happen to have a lint-roller he can borrow.
How did I become the straight dresser? I'm almost offended by myself!
Anyways, congratulations Anni and Gree, and thank you again, Craig. And I hope you guys will hit up Reach and Teach for all your social justice and coloring book needs. They are so completely awesomeand not just because they sent me free stuff. Seriously.

Have a good weekend, my darlings!

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scott crow on Writerscast

by David Wilk
April 19, 2012

I knew I would be interested in reading Black Flags and Windmills after reading the publisher’s description of this book:

When both levees and governments failed in New Orleans in the Fall of 2005, scott crow headed into the political storm, co-founding a relief effort called the Common Ground Collective. In the absence of local government, FEMA, and the Red Cross, this unusual volunteer organization, based on "solidarity not charity," built medical clinics, set up food and water distribution, and created community gardens. They also resisted home demolitions, white militias, police brutality and FEMA incompetence side by side with the people of New Orleans.

crow’s vivid memoir maps the intertwining of his radical experience and ideas with Katrina’s reality, and community efforts to translate ideals into action. It is a story of resisting indifference, rebuilding hope amidst collapse, and struggling against the grain. Black Flags and Windmills invites and challenges all of us to learn from our histories, and dream of better worlds. And gives us some of the tools to do so.

This short description made me realize that I had not really thought about what it was like in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during and after Katrina, beyond the media images of human suffering and devastation we all saw on television and online. And that I really had no idea what was going on there in the weeks and months after this massive dislocation. I think I suspected that things were pretty grim, but I wanted to learn more first hand.

crow is an anarchist organizer who went to New Orleans immediately after the storm hit, mainly to look for a colleague and friend he knew had stayed in the city throughout.  His story about the early days there, where he and a few other people tried to assist, outside of all official structures and organizations, is mind blowing and powerful. But the ongoing story of the work that he and others did to help create community based self-help structures is really at the heart of his memoir, and is at once uplifting and inspiring for anyone who is searching for ideas and principles that will help us, not just in times of stress and turmoil, but all of the time and forever, as we try to find better ways to build community and live together on a crowded planet without falling into authoritarian and top down structures and systems.

No doubt that not every reader will agree with everything that scott believes in and does, but this is a valuable story for anyone interested in how human beings can work together for the common good.

Here’s his official bio, for those who want to know more about his background and current work: scott crow is an Austin, TX based anarchist community organizer, writer, and trainer who began working on anti-apartheid, international political prisoner and animal rights issues in the mid 1980s. He is the co-founder and co-organizer of several social justice groups and education projects throughout Texas and the South including Common Ground Collective (with Malik Rahim), Radical Encuentro Camp, UPROAR (United People Resisting Oppression and Racism), Dirty South Earth First!, and North Texas Coalition for a Just Peace. He has trained and organized for Greenpeace, Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network, A.C.O.R.N., Forest Ethics, and Ralph Nader, and many smaller grassroots groups. He is currently collaborating on long-term sustainable democratic economic mutual aid projects within Austin.

This is a talk that I think is well worth a listen. To listen click HERE.

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Black Flags and Windmills on STIR Magazine

By Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
STIR Magazine
April 2012

I interviewed scott crow about his book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective, how the Occupy movement has been both inspiring and challenging, and how today’s protestors are no longer looking to politicians for social change because of the self-realisation that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

STIR: At the beginning of your new book, Black Flags and Windmills, you quote June Jordan’s famous saying: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  Do you think that more people are now beginning to look to themselves for social change rather than expecting it to be delivered by political elites, and thus avoiding the classic disappointments that come, as Cornel West recently put it, with the “appointments” of experts and political saviours?

scott crow: Well, I don’t think it is the first time ever but I think it is the first time in a long while. I hate to say this because I don’t like to go back to it, but it is probably the first time since the ‘60s and ‘70s where people feel that the policies have failed for long enough and that it affects them. There were huge movements for self determination/community control in the national liberation struggles of the ‘60s and even the anti-nuke movements of the ‘70s.

Since the turn of the millennium, there was a major uprising in the alternative globalisation movement of the late ‘90s and early-2000s that achieved the first international networked solidarity, but it subsided so quickly because of the events of September 11, 2001—it didn’t have time to fully develop. However, I think what is happening today across the globe  are natural outgrowths of those movements. I think with the failure of the war on terror, the wars on the poor, the wars around the world, what happened in New Orleans, and the global financial collapse, it all represents failure after failure on behalf of governments, which has eroded the last vestiges of credibility that the state or corporations were going to help the common person. I think we have historically had resistance currents that have risen to the surface in crisis—also, there has been twenty years of anarchist organising and growth in the United States, and globally, there is lots of horizontal organising going on everywhere.

The thing is, I think people actually believe it again—that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and I would add that our history is now. The best things didn’t happen in the past. They are happening now as we make them. I think that’s a crucial change in people’s attitudes. Because I think people still, in the United States, had finite hope in Obama, because [his election] was a historically important thing on one level. I was moved by it also, and I don’t care about electoral politics at all—but I was moved by the idea of what was happening, even though I have analysis about it. But I think the failures of business as usual just continued under his watch, and some things have increased like the invasion of privacy and the war on terror, and that’s why the ‘movement of movements’ has risen up in the Occupy Movements in the United States and worldwide.

It’s also cyclical where things come and go. Having been in political movements for over twenty years, I have seen things rise and fall. But I’ve just never seen anything on the scale that we’re seeing it now—and that’s inspiring.

S: One of the most overused images from the recent splurge of post-apocalyptic films —where the state and other large agencies are either incapable or unwilling to help is the presentation of a helpless community that is unable to provide itself with essential services.  Can you tell me in what ways the communities The Common Ground Collective worked with in post-Katrina New Orleans provided an inspiring counterpoint to this vision?

sc: By asking the question first: “What do you need for support? And how can we help you build your own power within a community? Block by block. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Community after community.” To say that people were helpless is not true. To say that people didn’t have resources would be true, but they had the skills, they had the knowledge, they had analysis about it, they just needed support to make that happen. And so Common Ground in New Orleans, in all its ways, was able to come in very under the radar to provide the support —but support with analysis in it. We were trying to provide support to build political power and self determination for these communities, not for our own political power.

The government couldn’t see it coming because they were so large and bureaucratic. We had horizontal organising but we also had networks we could rely on. We could be really efficient and flexible anywhere we went because we didn’t have huge hierarchies and overhead of administration. If somebody saw a need in a community, and asked the community if they wanted it, we started the project. Or if we saw a need like health care, we started it. We didn’t have to wait for a chain of command.

We just saw an opening where we could move in to these spaces. The original dream was to create these autonomous zones like the Zapatistas did, but we weren’t able to do that. But we were able to de-legitimize the state at every turn. It wasn’t just governments, though. We’re also talking about the Red Cross who had fundamental failings themselves, and needed to be held accountable, especially in those first few weeks afterwards. The fact that we wanted to treat people with dignity and respect, and to find them where they were at, is really important. Instead of seeing them as victims, we saw them as people who had gotten knocked off balance and we just picked them up and said, “Hey, let’s move on forward together.”

S: The guiding principle of your efforts was “solidarity not charity.” How does a group from the outside make sure it does not become a principled vanguard—however well-intentioned—by thinking it knows what is best for the community it is coming to support?

sc: I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t. I think that it’s a mixed bag—some things we did in deep solidarity; and some things we did were just charity band-aids. When people were starving, we didn’t just say, “Hey, we’ll feed you”. We also asked, “Why are you hungry? Is it because there is no quality education nearby? Are there no decent jobs nearby?” That’s solidarity: To say there is no food in your area, and not only because of the storm, but also because of the long, slow history of disasters that came decades before—of the neglect and abandonment of these communities. And so we said we’ll help you to provide your own local food security; we’ll provide close access to basic health care; and we’ll provide job training. These things are all steps towards alleviating poverty. But does that mean that we did that with every program we did? No. Some were absolute band-aids because the state failed to do what they were “supposed to do.”  So, there were times when we just provided aid because it was necessary—you have to remember that there were life and death situations in the first few weeks and months and we simply had to do as much as we could do, because if we didn’t do it no one else would have.

All of this work met with different challenges, successes and even failures. You have to understand that at everything we undertook, even with the best intentions, we were often our own worst enemies. This, in addition to all of the surrounding crisis, combined with the bullying and overt threats from the state.

We started an organisation based on horizontal principles that I would argue is the largest anarchist-inspired organisation in modern U.S. history. We started with a few people who knew each other but grew so rapidly that we had to learn along the way. The politics that I want to talk about for one second are super important. Even though we inspired to be anarchist and horizontal in many ways, there was also much traditional organising that featured hierarchical structures. It was a mash-up of the two because of the tendencies that people came out of, the thoughts people had, and the skill levels we all possessed.

In the United States we have a very reactionary political nature and with very little practice in terms of anarchist practice. Anarchist ideas have only really risen to the surface again in the last ten to twleve years herein the late ‘90s and at the turn of the millennium. Thus, there has not been a lot of experience at practice in long-term organisations and these things were working against us. Sure, we had a lot of failures along the way but we recognised that if we could consciously learn from them we could hopefully prevent other movements from repeating the same failures. There were some challenges that we could not get over because they were so large and because we grew so fast. However, there were many things where we could say, “We’re never going to do that again.” The point is, I don’t want to look through rose-coloured lenses, which suggests everything was perfect, but it wasn’t awful either.  Movements always start to look better in hindsight through the rear-view mirror as you are leaving them.

S: The practice of horizontal decision-making has been given a much higher profile because of the Occupy movement, but as Marianne Maeckelbergh argues in the case of Occupy Wall Street, because of the “far greater disparity in terms of backgrounds, starting assumptions, aims and discursive styles” of those taking part in the general assemblies, it quickly became very complicated. This description seems to reverberate with your experience of the volunteers that arrived in New Orleans.  How did you make sure the organisation maintained these values while also encouraging those who may be unaccustomed to the horizontal decision-making model to continue their involvement?

sc: We did it with mixed success. I think the Occupy Movement is a great comparative example because so many of the people involved are coming from different ideas. One difference to us, though, is that we had a large organisation and also a closed collective, whereas Occupy camps have large general assemblies. It also depended from week-to-week, or month-to-month, and even meeting-to-meeting, how well they were facilitated and how well the principles of unity were used within it, and how much experience the participants had before they arrived.

We could have two solid weeks of really good meetings and then have two weeks of really terrible meetings that were atrocious. It was always various tendencies of how to organize and always a tension that went back and forth in the organisation, but I would say ultimately, if you asked the 20,000 volunteers that were part of the Common Ground Collective in the first three and half years how horizontal it was or how well it functioned, their response depended on when that person came in and when they exited.

Now, as far as your question about allowing voices that don’t normally practice horizontal decision-making to take part, we didn’t. We had to marginalize them because of the crisis generally and then later because of the size of the organisation. You have to understand that when it was full-blown, we would have 5,000 people in any given week within the organisation. There could be 200 to 300 people at a meeting, 100 coordinators in the core collective, and 150 projects going on. Some of those acted like affinity groups and some of them functioned very well because there was a lot of practice and trust amongst the participants. Other groups were completely dysfunctional.

One thing we tried to do was create a vessel of common values and common culture. It didn’t always work well and the vessel blew apart continually, so we had to put the vessel back together. We also had to reinvent these core values and principles as the volunteers changed and as time moved on. One thing I have taken from that, and it is something that concerns Occupy, is that we have to change the way general assemblies operate. While general assemblies are good to share experiences they are not good as a meeting of common values.  We need to break this up into smaller groups and find out what affinities people have with each other. One example, here at Occupy in Austin, Texas, is that some participants still want to vote for Ron Paul, some participants only care about student debt, and some participants only care about ending the Fed. While, they may have common values like everyone should have clean air and water, this is not enough to gather around. So, what if these people broke-off into their affinity groups where they really had a voice, and then we could start to work together with spoke-council models to find out how we want to resist the current systems and how we want to create new systems.

It is a continual problem in open groups where we have to reinvent the wheel about doing these things.

S: One idea this provokes is the difference between formal democracy and substantive democracy. Marianne Maeckelbergh speaks critically in her most recent piece about Occupy Wall Street, of the starting assumptions that many of the participants held (such as scarcity). So, we are starting from a huge legacy of capitalist logic and bringing it to a formally democratic organisation (general assembly). While, the alterglobalization movement has quite rightly focused on the ‘how’ of decision-making, it has also in some ways deemphasized the "what" of those decisions—what we are actually deciding about.

sc: I totally agree. What happens is that people mistake the process for “democracy” and they think that if they execute excellent process and everybody’s voice has been heard then it’s necessarily democratic. Well, this is just not true. On the other hand, all of this takes practice in our daily lives we all have bosses, landlords, elected officials and corporations trying to sell us shit or tell us what to do.  So, the point is democratic decision-making and participatory democracy takes practice.

I have been to more than 22 Occupy camps and it is a common theme that depends on the respective community and the level of involvement, interest and time working together they have all had. We ran into that in New Orleans but we also had the crisis, so really we had multiple crises. We sometimes had to force decisions through to make things happen and that was the most horrible experience because it would be undemocratic. Sometimes, though, we were talking about real life and death situations which matter more than everyone’s voices.  But again it was difficult in general assemblies to make decisions with people who just walked off the streets having the same value as those who were there day after day for months. Giving weight to all of those voices didn’t necessarily make it more horizontal, more functional or democratic.



S: Did you find long-term activists accepted these pressures on the decision-making process?

sc: No. By some ideologues we were called the most unanarchist organisation there ever was! (laughs) If you look at my writings at the time, I issued several communiqués to address people’s questions and concerns. You talked about assumptions and many anarchists and anti-authoritarians brought huge amounts of assumptions about anarchism to Common Ground, and I found that to be as problematic, if not more so, than those who had no experience whatsoever. This was a problem because they would say, “You are not doing this right”; to which I would respond, “How many organisations have you been in and how many situations like this have you experienced?” The answer would be, “Never,” and I would say, “Well, how do you know if it’s right or not?” And we ended up cutting people off when things like this happened. An example of this is when a group of kids wanted to serve only vegan food. This was a noble and beautiful thing but the people who lived in Algiers weren’t vegan and it was their community we were in. So, these kids decided to go on strike against us because they considered us to be authoritarian. I should say, we didn’t stop them from serving vegan food but stopped them from serving only vegan food. And they didn’t have to be in the kitchen, there were plenty of other projects that needed attention!

S: Throughout Black Flags and Windmills you refer to the Zapatistas’ “living revolution” as a source of inspiration and experience. Your own approach reflects this prefigurative "everyday" politics. Do you think this “new impatience” for a better today is starting to replace the abstract promises of a better tomorrow?

sc: Absolutely. A couple examples of this are the fact that there are more worker-cooperatives in the world today than ever before; there are more indigenous groups taking back their lands since the creation of the modern nation-state. There are local food and local currency movements. That the banks, corporations, unilateral world governments such as the WTO are all too big to fail but yet fail governments constantly, are all indications of the fact that something is beginning to happen.

The fact that anarchism as a tendency, as an idea, as a philosophy, has gained so much ground in The United States, and I would also argue in Europe, more than it has for a long time, shows that people are hungry and waiting for openings like this happen.

I’m not sure how you’ve been politically organising in Europe, but here even when I first started to identify myself as an anarchist in the late ‘90s, and especially in Texas where I’m from, it was not cool. It was very outsider and very difficult to explain to people—and I am talking about people on the Left. Communism and Socialism was very easy to explain but to explain anarchism was really difficult, and to be an anarchist was almost a dirty word.  If you look now, it is not like that anymore—there are mainstream articles about it. There are discussions about it and it has even been turned into a commodity at stores. These things show that people want to rely on themselves in cooperation without being consumers or voters. I think is really important and indicates that we are moving towards prefigurative projects.

Does it make all perfect today or tomorrow? No, because we still have reactionary culture and politics (as I mentioned earlier). Until we start to dream bigger futures and start to make strategies to move towards those futures, we will be stuck in a reactionary trap or only building in very small places.

I think one of the things that has happened in our movements is the extension of anarchist ideas, and this is small ‘a’ anarchism—I am not talking of every tendency of anarchism, where we are not building mass movements but rather movements of movements. This is very much like what we did in the alterglobalisation movement but much more clearly now. The Occupy groups around the United States (and possibly worldwide) reflect this: they are unified on some aspects but are really a movement of movements. This is a development that we’ve never had in this country before and now the next step is for us to ask, “What do we want a just and sustainable world to look like?” The point I always make is that while we can always resist capitalism until we really focus on building better worlds for all of us, we will always be fighting against the things that are chipping away at our lives.  If we want people to leave capitalism then we have to create something better and show them. I don’t think that worker-cooperatives are the answer but they are step in that direction. I don’t have the answers but we have to start asking these questions. Then we can all think about our futures and begin to make them a reality.

S: This reminds me of the saying, “You make the path by walking it.”     

sc: Definitely. I cannot say that enough. The beauty of a movement like the Zapatistas for me is the fact that you don’t have to have the answer. You just have to know that there is something better and strive for it—even if it is different than you originally imagined.

S: Lastly, during So We Stand’s recent Aviation Justice Tour, they said, “A healthy community is a radical thing.”  As a long time activist, how would you describe a healthy community?

sc: On an individual level it is the ability to take care of yourself and to recognise that revolutionary paths take a long time. It is the maintenance of good relationships with others, access to health care, and healthy food. It is also the recognition that we don’t always have to resist.  On a community level it would look like small, autonomous communities that are networked together for common good. These communities who have their own food security, their own energy sources, access to fresh water, and the ability for people to organise in ways that they want to because there is not one model that fits all. In other ways it could be the re-wilding of a place and the space for those who want to hunt and gather and live ferally, to do so without conflict over the natural world.

Basically, it would be communities built in cooperation—not perfect harmony but cooperation.  The idea that we are raising children on the merit of cooperation not their own merits, that we take care of our elderly people, that we take care of the dirty work, of the trash that we generate, the things we create, and maintain the planet with truly sustainable practices beyond cheap oil. All of these things are small scale and it is really about scaling down everything we think we know about civilization. It also means the hard work of “policing” ourselves, where we know our neighbours and we follow guidelines instead of laws because we want to and it is mutually beneficial, and not because something or someone is going to force them upon us.

These are some of my ideas of a just future. It takes all of us to do this. No one is going to lead us out of this. We are going to have to do it ourselves.


scott crow is a community organizer, writer, strategist and speaker who advocates the philosophy and practices of anarchism for social, environmental, and economic aims.

He is the only son of a working class mother who started his political journey in the anti-apartheid, political prisoner and animals rights movements during the Reagan years. In the late ’80s he fronted two political electronic industrial bands and through the ’90s ran a successful antique/art cooperative business.

For over almost two decades he has continued to use his experience and ideas in co-founding and co-organizing numerous radical grassroots projects in Texas, including Treasure City Thrift, Radical Encuentro Camp, UPROAR (United People Resisting Oppression and Racism), Dirty South Earth First! and the Common Ground Collective, the largest anarchist influenced organization in modern U.S. history to date.

He is also author of Blag Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective

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The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow on

May 8, 2012

Does Cory Doctorow Think The Matrix Got It Wrong?

Cory Doctorow’s The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is a little book divided into three parts. The first part is a novella by Doctorow. The second is a transcript of his address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention titled “Creativity vs. Copyright” in which Doctorow argues that DRM technologies are bad for content creators. The final section is a wonderful interview with Doctorow on his thinking and the writing process.

At first it may not seem that these three different pieces of writing would fit together very well in a single volume. A closer reading, though, shows they provide a surprisingly coherent view into Doctorow’s thought and work. The address and the interview are more easily understood, but without a careful reading the novella can seem to contradict them. Placing it in context with the other two pieces will require some spoilers. If you are interested in reading the novella before you finish this review, you can read an electronic copy from the publisher and then come back. (You can also purchase a paperback copy on Amazon. The publisher’s site is the only way to get a digital version.) It should only take you a couple of hours to read the novella. Just a note, as the back cover of the book states the story revolves around “a transhuman teenager in a toxic post-Disney dystopia, who is forced to choose between immortality and sex.” So there is one explicit sex scene in the book. This isn’t part of Doctorow’s YA fiction. It is for adults. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

As the cover blurb indicates, the hero, Jimmy Yensid (spell that backwards), is a trans-human child created to be nearly immortal. He will die someday, but that is in a future in which it is said you wouldn’t recognize the continents because of the tectonic drift. Jimmy and his father live in a post-technology world where any desired change is possible. At one point in the book Jimmy Yensid says that his world has “outgrown progress” and what was left was only “change.” Changes either became popular or they fade away. Yet from Jimmy’s perspective change no longer brings with it growth. Jimmy and his father long for a time when the growth from technology was clearer, linear and easy. The angst created by this post technology environment has caused Jimmy’s father to reject both change and progress. He has spent his life trying to preserve Detroit, the last remaining American city, from Wumpuses. Wumpuses are robots which eat inorganic matter and turn it back into arable soil. The two of them live there alone, mostly isolated from other human beings. Jimmy’s father’s prize possession is the Carousel of Progress created by Walt Disney for the 1964 New York World’s Fair which he has painstakingly restored. Early in the story, Jimmy’s father disappears in an attack on Detroit by eco-terrorists. Jimmy escapes and spends the next couple of decades of his life preserving the carousel and giving out rides to a group of cult members who share an emotional consciousness.

The multi-layered ironies in Doctorow’s writing are rich and wonderful particularly when it comes to Jimmy’s father. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to preserving an artifact which declares that humans should embrace change and accept progress. Yet even the ride itself is a kind of irony. It is a carousel which spins in a circle doing the same thing over and over again. It never moves and it never changes, even as it speaks about the wonders of the future, a future which is long past. Jimmy’s father is certainly not afraid of technology. After all he built a child who for all intents and purposes is immortal. However Jimmy’s father only uses technology in the service of preservation. Before his father disappears, change only happens in Jimmy’s world in order to preserve the existing order. This is truly a world in which the vision of Walt Disney runs in reverse. Technology is used to preserve the status quo, to entomb the present in the past, rather than to bring humans into The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

The Carousel of Progress. Credit: Wikimedia CCCarousel of Progress

My favorite exposition of this irony comes from Jimmy himself who spends much of the story fulfilling his father’s vision. He criticizes his only friend Lacey for creating a transgenic goat that gives spider silk rather than milk. “You think she enjoys giving silk? Somewhere in her head she knows she is supposed to be giving milk.” Goats should be left alone the way nature intended them, argues Jimmy. The rich irony of those words coming from the mouth of the first trans-human are just wonderful. Yet at the time he says it Jimmy doesn’t even perceive the irony. He is technology used to preserve the past. He has no vision for the future. His existence is merely a “change,” not “progress.”

This scene is about as sharp a scalpel as an author can create. But this only becomes apparent if the reader understands that trans-genetic goats who give spider silk protein in their milk already exist. (Watch New York Times reporter David Pogue’s Nova series Making Stuff to see these goats in action.) The reader is forced by Doctorow to ask how they view technology. Do we see technology as a means to preserve the status quo or as a means to better human existence, as progress? Even more than that, Doctorow challenges us to recognize that we are products of technology ourselves. We cannot oppose progress through technology without irony, because we are products of medical science, information technology and the industrial revolution. (In some sense, I think Doctorow seems to be saying that we are already trans-human.)

According to Doctorow, to use technology to preserve the status quo is to deny something about what we are as human beings and this powerful observation is the thread which ties the novella to the other essays in the book and to the rest of Doctorow’s work. It explains his distaste for DRM technologies—the subject of the address in the book—and guides all his fiction —the subject of the interview which closes the book.

Throughout his life Jimmy Yensid remains unhappy. Jimmy eventually tires of his body’s glacial pace of change. The catalyst for his decision to alter his future is a run-in with the only girl—now woman—for whom he has felt sexual attraction. Lacey returns mid-way through the book as a thirty-something woman of the world. Jimmy remains an early pubescent forever trapped in the body his father made for him. Their love affair acts as a catalyst for Jimmy to seek a way to grow older more quickly so that he can be with Lacey. No more will Jimmy seek to use technology to stop progress.

Doctorow’s ending to Jimmy’s hero’s journey is fascinating. For the last third of the story Jimmy fights off clones himself who want to “mind rape” him and place his consciousness in a computer. After a great chase scene, Jimmy is defeated and ironically achieves his hero’s victory. Inside this Matrixesque world Jimmy finds both his girl and his father waiting for him. Jimmy and Lacey are able to age together through the power of technology and are free to love each other as they have desired. While not perfect, their existence is portrayed as idyllic. Jimmy only finds peace with himself and the life he desires when he embraces the possibilities and progress technology offers, when he becomes literally part of the machine.

What makes Doctorow’s story so unique is that in almost every science fiction story meat-space is privileged over cyber-space. The hero wins when they successfully resist technology and establish their humanity as an opposing force against the tyranny of the machine. Doctorow and other techno-positive thinkers like him argue forcefully that such thinking can only lead to dystopia and suffering. In a world of ever-quickening technological upheaval the question remains important for us: Change or Progress?

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Alpine Anarchist Meets scott crow

by Gabriel Kuhn
Alpine Anarchist
May 2012

scott crow, a long-time anarchist activist based in Austin, Texas, and a co-founder of the Common Ground Relief project in post-Katrina New Orleans has recently released the book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective with PM Press. Alpine Anarchist has talked to him about the publication, Common Ground Relief, and grassroots organizing.

For those not familiar with Common Ground Relief: can you tell us about the project in a few sentences?

Common Ground Relief was the largest anarchist-inspired organization in modern U.S. history. We combined many anarchist/horizontal practices and principles throughout the organization including direct action, mutual aid, autonomy, and participatory democracy. Our motto was “solidarity not charity”, which was the idea that we didn’t want to just help people, but to actually support them in rebuilding their communities and their own political power and self-determination from below. We did this by providing aid and basic infrastructure to assist people getting on their feet
as the Black Panther Party called it, “survival programs pending revolution.”

In 2011, your book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective was released. Can you tell us what the book is about and explain the title?

The book is a combination of several elements. It’s part personal memoir of how an organizer from a working-class background from Texas ended up in New Orleans, and part an organizing manual of how to look at organizing with elements of “little-a anarchism” as a path for transforming civil society.

The title is an allusion to two things. The first is the black flags that anarchists have carried throughout their long storied histories worldwide. The second is my personal affinity to feeling like the Miguel de Cervante character Don Quixote. All my life I have been a dreamer and fighter against injustice. Sometimes I have slain giants and other times just chased windmills.

If we are talking about self-management, it seems that you were facing extraordinary circumstances in New Orleans. Most self-managed projects, whether it is workers’ co-ops or rural communes, self-manage in a framework set by governmental institutions and the capitalist market. It appears that when you set up Common Ground Relief, the only framework you had were the people
the institutions and the market had disappeared almost entirely. Is this perception correct?

We were self-managed from the beginning. For us it was never a question of whether we would be or not. The question for us was how would we set it all up from the models available? I had a lot of experience within horizontal/anarchist organizations over the years and had used quite a few different models, but could not decide which would be the most appropriate one for this context. My personal experience within large and small groups
both open and closedhad led me to only participate in small, closed collectives. I believe this is the only way that we can really balance internal power dynamics, build true trust amongst the participants, and develop strong political praxis based on shared understood principles. But what we were embarking on was a scale that was far beyond the largest open assemblies any of us had ever participated in, with a wide spectrum of people. We actively sought out more experienced anarchist organizers who began to come to the area, which allowed us to draw on all of our collective historical experiences. Over the first three years we experimented with many different models with varying degrees of success, challenges, and some failures. We were drawing on common threads from the traditions, ideas, and histories of three somewhat disparate movements: the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, and anarchism (specifically the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s). We were drawing from their internal organizing experiences as well as the connected programs and projects.

How was working with Common Ground Relief different from other self-management projects you have been involved with?

There are few “professional” horizontal worker cooperatives or collectives within the United States. Additionally, there is not much government “support” for these structures. In most cases the hierarchical bureaucracies of the state find them to be confusing. In the United States, most anarchist/horizontal collectives are volunteer-based with a few worker cooperatives that are truly democratic. The grassroots is where the culture of power-sharing goes on. There has been very little support for horizontal cooperatives or self-management on the government level. Most of it has only been in certain cities or regions, with a few states that have laws that either recognize it or support its growth. That is changing, but only slowly and with much government confusion.

My own personal experiences both in activism and in the work world have shown me that bottom-up collective organizing with many perspectives, experiences, and thoughts has been more effective than relying on one person or small group of people to plan and direct something. Common Ground wasn’t always completely horizontal, but that was the ideal we tried to attain. We operated most of the projects like “affinity groups” under an umbrella of the Common Ground Collective. Some of the others
like the health clinics for exampleoperated mostly autonomously. We were a network where we shared principles and resources. In all of these projects and programs we shared information while consulting and operating in coordinated efforts to support the residents of New Orleans and help them build their power from below.

It is important to know that these structures were fluid, morphing and changing over time. We didn’t always have a clear blueprint of what the organizational structures were while we were in them. They were very organic, every time we formalized them, something would lead us to change or fine-tune them. Then, there were the hierarchal tendencies within the organization, which always caused tensions within the core coordinators and how we operated. It was largely borne of four factors.

First, there were the people who didn’t have experience with anarchist organizing or self-management. This was by far the largest grouping. In the United States, there is not much experience in participatory democracy or sharing our voices expect in small isolated spaces like small collectives, in tree-sits, or mass summits for example. And once out of those spaces, people have to return to their work with a boss or landlord etc. There isn’t a continuum of exercising those voices.

Second, some people didn’t value it. They had bad experiences with bad horizontal processes or just completely disagreed and wanted to be the “the leader” of something. It’s hard to break those patterns which are reinforced and rewarded in civil society.

Third, we often executed really bad processes within many of the open meetings due to lack of experience or group dynamics; blurring the lines between where concrete decisions needed to be made and where spaces were opened for peoples’ voices to be heard, while achieving neither.

Fourth, some of our administration or projects were very centralized by necessity. Some examples were the security teams, the finances of the organization, and long-term visions or projects. These were things that were held to a smaller group to keep relative control due to security, health of the organization, or allocation of our scarce resources.

While some people say that disasters bring out the best in people, others like to cite Lord of the Flies, suggesting that you actually get to see the worst in people. What did you see in New Orleans?

I saw both extremes while there. I saw chaos on one hand where situations were out of control and people were desperate enough to do desperate things for their own survival
especially in the early days. But I have to say that of the thousands of people I interacted with, this was the minority. The white vigilantes and the police would be extreme examples of the “Lord of the Flies” to me. But the majority of what I did seethe part that gave me absolute love of humanitywere those with absolutely nothing, who shared what little they had. People realized quite quickly when they were left to die that they would have to help each other and they did. If someone who had lost everything had a bottle of water, they would give it to someone who needed it morejust because they asked. It was mutual aid and cooperation for survival that morphed into rebuilding their lives together.

I also experienced people begin to self-organize without leaders or governments. In political terms, it was direct action and mutual aid. In these cases neighbours organized their own search and rescue missions of people trapped, distributed supplies to those with the greatest need, and later worked to decide what they wanted for the future. People put aside their differences when it mattered for a common good.

That phenomenon is illustrated historically here in the United States by a wonderful book from my friend Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. It gives numerous examples about disasters leading to growing social movements. Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath was one of those examples, just like the Mexico City earthquake in the 1980’s.

If it is true that disasters, or severe crises, mainly strengthen principles of solidarity and mutual aid, what are the political lessons we can learn from this? After all, it would be cynical to hope for more disasters and crises just to see more solidarity and mutual aid.

We, as movements, are excellent at reacting to socio-political situations and mobilizing under crisis as I talked about earlier. The biggest challenges I see, and what I want to us to do, are to create these spaces, infrastructure, and movements without reacting, without the crisis, without disaster. If we have these pieces in place
even on small scalesand long-term goals or strategies, we can build grassroots power and have more capacity to resist Power when the crisis situations arise. We can build solidarity and mutual aid on small scales in all of our communities. That isn’t always going to be exciting, but it can provide communities with great power.

Given the unique circumstances under which Common Ground Relief was founded: what are the lessons to be learned for self-management in everyday life?

Some things I think I have drawn from this are:

* We need to recognize that we have incredible decentralized networks within horizontal/anarchist movements that can mobilize effectively and well with great flexibility.

* We need more ongoing projects on larger scales that are networked so that when crisis does occur we don’t have to re-invent everything. Networked projects or groups could plug in more easily to something on the ground.

* We need to create movements built on long-term strategies, not reactionary politics.

* We need, as movements, to connect the struggles on a daily basis not just in solidarity, but in actual day-to-day organizing that resists Power and builds counter-institutions simultaneously.

* We need to recognize that people in the real world will never look like our ideal politics and we need to meet people where they are. Otherwise we are always going to be relegated to being a subculture or, worse, a vanguard.

Perhaps most important is the belief that we can do things for ourselves as individuals and communities. That we absolutely do have the collective power to make sweeping changes across the world and in our lives without appealing to Power. It’s like that old cliché Think global but act local, where we need to connect and support struggles elsewhere but recognize that the changes we are proposing need to be done, and can be done, collectively in our own backyards.

Participatory democracy takes practice and commitment to unlearn the past and to learn new things about ourselves. It takes time to unwind all of our habits, prejudices, and biases, while learning to hear others differently and learning to trust our own voices about decisions.

It is also important to recognize the Zapatista saying that “We are building the road by walking”. The path is the journey to revolutionary change. We will make mistakes along the way, but it’s okay, we will continue walking.

We may not be able to stop global capital from destroying the planet, but we can still create pre-figurative communities and projects where we change our relationships with each other and the environment, restructure our local food and water security, rethink how we do or don’t use energy, how to defend our communities, create alternative economies and counter-institutions, reshape our work, culture, arts, and child care, etc.

You’ve been on book tours with Black Flags and Windmills, sharing your experiences with people across the United States. What have the reactions been like?

Overwhelmingly positive. I hadn’t left Texas since 2006. I was working on the book and recovering from the traumas of New Orleans and its aftermath. I had no real gauge on how the ideas, the history, and the book would be received. I am grateful for the engaging dialog that ensues in every city, small or large, where I present the book. My presentation is unusual in that it has roots in the book but goes far beyond it. I ask a lot of questions about our current movements and challenge us to begin to think differently about who we are and how we engage in transformative politics for the future. Communities everywhere are thinking about or acting on some of these ideas; I am just giving them a language and narrative.

The other thing that I have found is how fast we forget our radical histories. In such a short time the history of New Orleans has been largely forgotten except superficially
like the levees’ failure, the government’s failed response and sheer brutality. But even in radical circles, the bottom-up resistance to oblivion was not known that well, especially not the grassroots organizing of Common Ground and all the other groups who were doing work in the region. I think my book is creating an opening to re-examine those experiences and histories, which I hope will widen and continue. I believe there is a lot of practicality that is relevant to the Occupy movements and other horizontal efforts today and for the future.

How strong are notions of self-management in the United States today in general? What do you expect from the future?

It has been gaining ground for the last twenty-thirty years, but has been moving at hyperspeed for the last ten or so. It reaches from volunteer collectives to professional non-profits to businesses that are all examining, or re-examining, the way we make decisions and how power sharing affects our work and lives.

Where is Common Ground Relief today? And where are you?

Common Ground Relief is still very much around, albeit in a smaller capacity than it once was. The anarchist heyday is over, as it has become a more traditional grassroots non-profit. We made a conscious effort in 2008 to scale back. That combined with the forces of the large NGO movement for funding sources led it to becoming much more traditionally structured, but still with the “solidarity not charity” analysis throughout its programs.

I still live in Austin, Texas, where for the last five years I have stayed busy working a “green collar” manual labour job at an anarchist recycling worker cooperative, co-founded another worker coop thrift store called Treasure City Thrift, and consult with others on building horizontal worker coops as alternative economic engines to fund community-based projects. I also contended with being labelled a “domestic terrorist’ by the U.S. government and political far right, outing a “friend” as an undercover FBI agent, and dealing with all of the repercussions around it. I have also continued to consult with various Occupy camps and other groups on some of the best horizontal practices for power sharing, decision-making processes, etc., as they continue to build their grassroots political power.

Let’s say you had three sentences to summarize the most valuable personal lessons from Common Ground Relief: what would we get to hear?

That ordinary people
you, me, and everyone elsecompelled in extraordinary situations can do amazing things beyond what we can imagine. That we should continue to do so. And that our time to do something is now because our collective futures are unwritten.

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A Mix of Bricks & Valentines in Trust Magazine

by Dolf Hermannstädter
Trust Magazine

A book with more than 250 songs of agitprop lyrics from the singer und co-founder of the Dutch band The Ex. The band started in 1979 and G.W. Sok decided to leave them in late 2008 this book documents his writing in chronological order, more or less. At first it might seem odd to imagine to read that many lyrics, but it is not! You can see how G.W. develops, from bold classic "anti," to socially engaged, to deep intellectual analysis of geopolitics onto poems. Sok shares his thoughts with the reader and takes you on a trip of three decades of insightful socio-political standpoints. During a certain period one can tell much more "work" went into writing the lyrics, which, I think, was not necessarily for the best, since I do believe that a text should be understood immediately and not only after putting a lot of thought and effort into finding out what the author means to say. But I know the other side of the coin, it can take the beauty out of a text . . . anyway, it is funny to read in 2012 a text that was written in 1982 and to see it still can be screamed at the audience nowadays:
"Punk (Aversion 2"Hey ho fake punks/here's news for you/this is 1982/"scaring people"time is over/we don't wanna play for you/The times you fight on our side/are nothing but coincidence/when you're satisfying needs/you could try to use some brains/Why don't you rip off your badges/you look like a Christmas-tree/your dope, your beer, your swastikas/show nothing but stupidity or interesting and at the same time funny stuff like "The Idunno Law" I do not quite remember/I'll have to look it up/That's not in my recollection/I guess no one has told me/I don't understand the question/It's hard for me to answer/I can't recall, I told you/Did I write what note?/Apparently I said so/It's all unknown to me/What do you wish I'd tell you?/These facts I can't recall/Maybe it has happened/I really do not know/Did I have this conversation?/I assume that it took place/Yes, I didn't know that/I guess that it could be/Who do you say has told you?/And who you say told me?/I can't remember everything/Did I lead what discussion?/This happened long ago/Why shouldn't you believe me?/Would I lie to you?/That's the first time that I hear this/You say I had a conflict?/No one did inform me/Maybe I should know/What can I say about it?/I feel no urge to answer/If only I remembered or one of the later texts "Shop Drop"Let us pretend for a minute or three/that we all agree/that no conflicts can be seen between/the rich and poorer nations of this civilization/and therefore we assume/that there is no competition/that we've ran out of all friction/concerning resources except, of course, if through natural causes-/then a future lies ahead/in which all experts expect/a yearly steady growth/of the economy as we know it/with all the tacky side-effects/enabling us to blow it/If this rate is sustained/then a rough calculation/makes it very clear/that within a 100 years/we'll be X-times as rich/and X-times as fucked/as we're asking the question/that the experts have ducked:/what to do with this wealth?/how on earth do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/but how can we end it?/what to do with this wealth?/why do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/how can we end it?/what to do with this wealth?/why do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/why don't we end it?/Do we shop till we drop?/do we buy till we die?/do we use till we lose?/do we go with that flow?/do we build till we're filled?/do we suck till we're fucked?/do we do we/do we?/Do we never have enough?/do we really need that stuff?/do we stick to the greed?/do we knock us off our feet?/do we climb up to the gutter?/do we wise up like a nutter?/do we do we/do we?

While the band was always experimenting with the music, G.W. Sok was doing the same with the lyrics of the songs, without losing the big picture. A must for The Ex fans and also a good inspiration not only for your average band singer. 350 pages with a foreword by John Robb and a introduction by the author himself. A few small b/w photos are there too. Paperback. (Dolf)

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