Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Wake, The Walk, and the Horizon

Assessments, Next Steps & Visions from the Intergalactic and the Other Campaign

Banner from the first Encounter between the Zapatista Villages and the Peoples of the World (Dec 30, '06 to Jan 2, '07)

There's alot so far and I will continue to update this post as more reports come in throughout January...

* For a zapatista-inspired vision of the next quarter-of-a-century, check out Rebecca Solnit's "End of the Year Review, 2026" at Tomdispatch.

* For a solid, up-to-date, and lengthy(!) discussion of where things are at in Mexico, with special emphasis on the Other Campaign and Oaxaca, check out Gustavo Esteva's three-part series published at ZNet...Part 1. Mexico's Political Transition, Part 2: How to go Beyond Capital, and Part 3 - At the Crossroads.

* On the Intergalactic front:

The first Encounter between the Zapatista Villages and the Peoples of the World is underway!

From the Encounter's first informational bulletin:
In an unprecedented event in the EZLN’s 13 years of public struggle, 232 authorities from the various levels of the Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in Rebellion (Municipios Autónomos Rebeldes Zapatistas – MAREZ) and the five Good Government Councils (civilian structures of the autonomous government in resistance) got together to launch the Encounter, during which they will share the construction of their autonomy in the areas of health, education, commerce, gender, land recovery, media, art, and culture. And they will listen to experiences in struggle and resistance against neoliberalism from other peoples of the world. Also present at the encounter was Teniente Coronel Insurgente Moisés, from the EZLN’s Intergalactic Commission.
For up-to-the-minute coverage, you can listen to the Encounter live or read transcripts of the presentations at Zezta Internazional. This is the website of the Intergalactic Commission of the Zapatistas and is almost entirely in Spanish. Some things, however, such as the first and second informational bulletins of the Encounter, are also available in English. Narco News has translated the third informational bulletin...they have also published articles from the "Other Education", "Other Health", and "Land and Territory" sessions, as well as the session on "Women".

Chiapas Indymedia is covering the Encounter in both Spanish and English...including a Day 1 summary co-written by one of the organizers of our childcare crew, Regeneración.

* And Mexico's Other Campaign:

The Other Campaign has been undergoing a National Consultation of all Mexican adherents to the Sixth Declaration to provide basic definitions of its "other way of doing politics".

This consultation mainly pertains to "the six points" that adherents to the Other Campaign have been discussing since they were created for its first plenary in mid-September 2005. The six points are:

1. The fundamental characteristics of the Other Campaign
2. Who is invited and who isn’t?
3. Organizational structure
4. What are the special spaces for including differences (i.e. indigenous, women, gays, lesbians, children)
5. The positioning of the Other Campaign before other national forces
6. Immediate tasks at hand

This national consultation has been underway since December 4th and the first partial summary of results (in Spanish) was released on December 20th. More results are expected to be released in the first days of stay tuned!
...and here is the second partial summary of results, just released this Tuesday (again, only in Spanish).

Read More!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy 60th Kuwasi!

Kuwasi Balagoon (1946-1986)

Yesterday would've actually been Kuwasi's 60th birthday but, then again, Kuwasi took this name because it means "born on Sunday," so I feel like it all works out :)

I am more than excited to present the first ever written biography of Kuwasi Balagoon created by my compañero, the incomparable, Kazembe Balagun. I think you will see why, even though his death pre-dates the public emergence of the zapatistas by over seven years, a recounting and homage to Kuwasi's legacy is perfect here at zapagringo. You can also find more writings by and about Kuwasi at kersplebedeb's site. Much thanks to Kazembe for creating and sharing this powerful piece!

Kuwasi at 60
By Kazembe Balagun
December 24, 2006

On December 16, 2006 over 75 people gathered at LAVA in West Philadelphia. The crowd was a mix of Black liberation movement veterans (young and old), anarchist punks and white queer activists from ACT UP. They came together to pay homage to the late Kuwasi Balagoon, who would have turned 60 years old this year. Balagoon is not an immediately recognizable name in the pantheon of revolutionaries, yet he has developed into an underground hero 20 years after his death. This is due in large part to the maze of contradictions that constructed Balagoon’s life.

As a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, he was the quintessential outlaw, escaping prison twice and leading units in the expropriation of banks, including the infamous Nyack armored car heist in 1983 (an incident that served as a basis for the film Dead Presidents). Balagoon was also a humanist, who enjoyed painting, writing poetry and baking for his fellow inmates. However, it was Kuwasi’s identification as a queer anarchist that has sparked renewed interest in his life. “He was an anarchist in a black nationalist movement, he was queer in a straight dominated movement, he was a guerrilla fighter after it was "chic," and he never backed down from his ideals, his beliefs, the struggle or him self. And he demanded to be seen not as a revolutionary icon, but as a person, beautiful and flawed,” said Walidah Imarisha, poet and one of the presenters at the Balagoon memorial.

Early Life

Kuwasi Balagoon was born Donald Weems in Lakeland, Maryland on December 23, 1946. He was the youngest of three children and his parents were both employees of the federal government. Kuwasi was influenced early on by a deep maternal instinct, primarily through his grandmother (“Mama Shine”) and Miss Reed, his elementary school teacher for whom he described having a fleeting crush. Kuwasi was a self-described “wild child” who had once jumped out of the second story window of his house in imitation of Superman. For the most part, Kuwasi had a comfortable childhood, where he played high school football (he missed the March on Washington for practice) and wanted to become a veterinarian.

Two major events lead to Kuwasi’s political awakening. The first was the rebellion in nearby Cambridge, Maryland. In 1963, the local Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (under the leadership of Gloria Richardson) led a series of sit-ins aimed at desegregating public facilities. The sit-ins brought national attention to Cambridge, a town that prided itself on being able to maintain “racial peace.” Nevertheless that peace was exploded when two young students were arrested for staging a pray-in. Their indefinite incarceration angered the Black community. For two days, white businesses were fire-bombed. On the Maryland Governor’s request, the National Guard entered and occupied Cambridge’s Black community for a year, leading to more rebellions. The event shook Kuwasi’s consciousness, even as he was debating the tactics espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, "[The rebellion] that took place [in] Cambridge, Maryland showed a far better action for Black people to take even then.”

The other event was more personal in nature. Kuwasi’s eldest sister, Mary, began to date Jimmy. Kuwasi describes Jimmy as a [cool guitar] player and was like a big brother to me.” The two ran the streets together, sneaking drinks and enjoying life. As a truck driver for a local department store, Jimmy also played the role of Robin Hood, often expropriating merchandise from the store. “The Christmas I was thirteen was a super Christmas for a materialistic youth…Good God he liberated, we couldn’t get everything under the tree.” Kuwasi’s friendship with Jimmy only ended with Jimmy’s arrest for raping a white woman. A typical charge leveled against Black men in the south, the case was flimsy but within fifteen minutes an all white jury convicted him. Jimmy would spend seven years in the state penitentiary before he escaped. Jimmy’s expropriations and prison escape would serve as a template for Kuwasi’s life.


After high school, Kuwasi worked a series of odd jobs before enlisting into the military. Stationed at an Army base in Germany, Kuwasi and other Black soldiers were subjected to racist treatment by their white commanding officers. This included having to pick up cigarette butts in the rain and being written up for minor charges. To combat racism on the base, Kuwasi and his comrades formed a collective dubbed “De Legislators”. Pre-figuring the rebellion of GIs during the Vietnam War, De Legislators vowed to meet racist repression with resistance:

“Every time white G.I.s ganged a Black G.I. we moved to more than even the score. One at a time we would catch up with them and beat and stomp them so bad that helicopters would have to be used to take them to better hospitals in the area…. Afterward we would have critiques, just like in the end of war games; get our alibis together; and keep the whole thing under our hats.”

With the De Legislators as an example, Latino and Asian soldiers also began to rebel. This ushered in a new respect for soldiers of color and struck fear into the heart of the brass.

During his stint in the military, Kuwasi had the opportunity to travel to Spain and London. The burgeoning Third World consciousness that emanated from the anti-colonial struggles and the Bandung conferences gripped the African and Asian communities in the metropole. In London, Kuwasi met Black power activists and vowed to shear his “conk”, or straightened, hair. “Relaxing, partying, learning and teaching about what was happening with Black people all over the world, was a natural tonic,” Kuwasi wrote.

Becoming a Panther

Kuwasi would return to Lakeland and serve as a clerk for the US government. On his weekends, he ventured to Harlem. At the time, Harlem served as the crossroads of revolutionary political activism.

For a disillusioned veteran like Kuwasi, New York looked like a promise land. He soon moved to Harlem to get closer to the struggle and found a job as a tenant organizer alongside the legendary Black Nationalist Jesse Gray. Gray led a major rent strike to protest the dilapidated living conditions faced by Harlem residents. Indeed, as Kuwasi would later note, many of the health problems faced by Harlem residents (particularly children) were in direct result of poor housing conditions, including lead paint as well as the vermin infestations that led to rat bites. Seeing the power of direct action, Kuwasi would organize tenants to confront their landlords at their homes. In a few instances, he and tenants armed themselves with machetes. Needless to say, the tenants rarely lost a battle.

Kuwasi’s ascent as an organizer coincided with the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). Founded in Oakland, CA by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the BPP formed as a response to police brutality. Trained in Marx, Lenin, Fanon and guerilla tactics, the BPP combined both a political program (The 10-point platform) alongside direct action including armed patrols. In this sense, the BPP synthesized the multiple political tendencies within the Black community, from cultural nationalist to communist. After Seale and his armed comrades walked into the California Capitol to protest the Mulford Act, which would have made it illegal to carry weapons (a bill many felt was in response to the BPP’s armed patrols of the Black community) the BPP shot into national prominence. Soon afterwards, BPP chapters spread like wildfire across the country.

In New York, the BPP came as a previous incarnation, the Black Panther Party for Political Power fell apart, primarily due to interference by law enforcement. The BPP served as a catalyst for a new generation of Blacks, many of whom moved to New York from the South and the Caribbean. This is an important point missed by many, because while many scholars and activist focus on the West coast-East Coast divide in the BPP, it was not only a matter of personality but geography. Whereas Oakland faces Asia and Mexico, producing a mestizo radical politic, New York faces the Caribbean and Africa. As such, many of the transplants who come to New York carry with them what Winston James called a “majority consciousness.” This could be seen in the activism of Marcus Garvey down to the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, while many of the West coast Panthers were going by Huey, Bobby, Eldridge and Kathleen, the New York Panthers were changing their names to reflect this majority consciousness: Assata, Afeni, Zayd, Sundiata, and Lumumba. It was in this period that the young Weems became Kuwasi Balagoon, a name derived from the Yoruba people: Kuwasi meaning “Born on Sunday” and Balagoon meaning “warrior.”

The NYC BPP was a big fish operating in a bigger pond. They worked alongside groups like CORE to place Black history inside Public Schools, most notably during the 1969 school strike when communities of color began to exercise control of the schools (Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother served as a kindergarten teacher during the strike.) Safiya Bukari and Assata Shakur helped lead the Feeding Programs as well as Liberation Schools. The NYC BPP also worked alongside the revolutionary Puerto Rican group, the Young Lords, demanding fair housing and an end to police brutality and community control of health care institutions, including Lincoln Hospital.

As the Panthers slowly made inroads in the community, they were soon derailed by state repression. In 1969, 21 Panther leaders were arrested on conspiracy charges including a plot to blow up the Botanical Gardens, subways, and police precincts. The 21 Panthers (Kuwasi included) were held on $100,000 bond a piece or $2.1 million(in 1969 terms that was unbelievable.)

Known as the “Panther 21” trial, the case was part and parcel of attempts by the federal government to suppress the Black Panther Party. The BPP national leadership was such as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were in jail; Panther spokesman Eldridge Cleaver was in exile in Algeria, while Bobby Hutton, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton would be slain by the police.

The charges against the Black Panther Party by the District Attorney Robert Morgantheau were to serve two goals: one, to neutralize their leadership and two, to provoke fear of the BPP into the hearts and minds of potential supporters. However, the subsequent Panther trial had the opposite effect; many white liberals came to the Panthers aid, as it was clear that their civil rights were violated.

The Panthers under trial were separated throughout prisons in the city. Rather than surrender, the Panthers began to organize against the horrific conditions in the jails. Kuwasi and other comrades in the Queens House of Detention soon staged a rebellion that resulted in five guards being taken hostage. In Manhattan a similar rebellion took place at the infamous Central processing prison known as “The Tombs.” The demands put forth by the prisoners were better food, the right to worship (particularly for Muslim prisoners), and speedier processing for trials.

It is interesting to note how the Queens prison rebellion served as a catalyst for Kuwasi’s later anarchist leanings. During the rebellion his primary concern was a consensus process for all inmates in decision-making including access to food being brought to the outside. Fearing that the weight of the Panther leadership was too influential on the general consensus of other prisoners, Kuwasi and his comrades skipped out of general meetings in order for prisoners to “determine what was true and what was bullshit.” The Panthers also promised to go with the majority.

In the end the guards were released. Kuwasi had mixed feelings about letting the hostages go feeling that the prisoners could have “[fought] to the death and taken as many pigs with us as possible.” Despite the beatings that the prisoners took after the prison was retaken over, nothing could stop the euphoria felt that power to the people was not a slogan, but a reality. Indeed, the prisoners, many of whom were locked up on petty charges and told throughout their lives that they could not accomplish anything were able to hold the state at bay. As Kuwasi noted “We are going to have our freedom and we’ll tear down the jails with bars and the jails without bars and America will be unusable for the pigs and fit for the people. All Power to the People!”

The Black Liberation Army

After deliberating for 30 minutes, the Panther 21 were found not guilty on all charges. Still, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Police repression coupled with internal fissures within the BPP left many members stranded ideologically. A split occurred within the national leadership. Newton’s release from prison marked the beginning of a moderate approach for the Panthers. Focusing on “survival programs,” Newton sought to curb the image of the BPP as violent. Cleaver, now head of the International Panther Branch in Algiers, was in favor of urban guerilla warfare. Meeting with leaders of Third World liberation struggles, Cleaver was convinced that the time was right for armed struggle. The split would spill over the states as Newton and Cleaver argued on a local morning show. Words turned into violence when two of the BPP’s best cadre, Robert “Spider” Webb and Samuel Napier, were killed. The New York Chapter of the BPP began to go underground and form the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

The BLA was conceptually part and parcel of the development of the BPP. Point six of the BPP rules states “No other party member can join any army forces except the BLACK LIBERATION ARMY.” Additionally, within the party structure below the Central Committee was an anonymous committee of Field Marshals, some of whom included Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter (killed by members of the nationalist US organization), Donald Cox (exiled in Algeria along with Cleaver), and Elmer “Geronimo Ji-Jaga” Pratt, a former Green Beret. Within the primarily white anti-war movement, members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed the Weather Underground faction, which bombed several institutions throughout the United States.

For the NYC BPP, the formation of the BLA units was in response to particular crises facing the urban Black community: police brutality and drugs. As the revolutionary fervor and activity of Black people increased, there was a growing drug epidemic. In addition, police killed several people, including 10-year old Clifford Glover. The BLA lead campaigns against drug dealers and their suppliers while sabotaging the ability of the police to wage war on the Black community. Expropriating banks, damaging patrol cars and attacking station houses was seen as an offensive measure against years of brutality.

Kuwasi was in the mix from the start. Convicted of sniping a police station, he and another comrade escaped from the Brooklyn House of Detention. Between 1971-1975, Kuwasi would lead a number of actions to “liberate” funds for the movement. “Kuwasi loved hitting those armored cars,” Said one former BLA member. Though he was arrested twice, he was able to escape both times, including in 1978. Kuwasi was also thought to have been part of the unit that liberated Assata Shakur from a New Jersey jail.

Brinks Robbery and Prison

The fevered pitch of 1960s radicalism ended during the 1970s. The combination of repression, burnout and political disorientation led to a collapse of movements. While some moved towards non-profit work, others dug in their heels and became participants in the growing New Communist Movement. The BLA suffered major defeats after arrests and killings of leaders such as Twymon Myers. By 1975, the BLA’s fighting capacity was decimated.

During this period Kuwasi lived underground, taking assumed names. While he could have stayed underground, he re-emerged for the Brinks job in 1981. Members of the BLA and the Weather Underground formed the Revolutionary Armed Task Force. “It was an attempted expropriation. That means taking money from those who amassed wealth by exploiting the people and using that money to finance the resistance. Every revolution has had to use expropriation as a method of finance. You’re just not going to get donations from the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. This particular expropriation was under the leadership of the Black Liberation Army with white revolutionaries participating in alliance with them. The BLA communiqué after the action said that the funds had been intended to build the army, and for nationalist programs, especially for youth in the Black community,” said David Gilbert, a member of the RATF and political prisoner.

While the plan called for disarming guards and taking the cash from the armored truck, the result was three officers dead and five members of RATF arrested: Kuwasi, Gilbert, Sekou Odinga, Judy Clark and Kathy Boudin. Marilyn Buck and Mutulu Shakur were also arrested for their involved in the Brinks job as well as the liberation of Shakur. Kuwasi, who was wanted by New Jersey police for escaping prison, eluded capture only to be arrested later.

During the trial, all of the RATF comrades took the stance that they were prisoners of war and did not recognize the jurisdiction of the court. Kuwasi was particularly articulate. In his opening trial statement, he linked his actions with the 400 year history of Black people being brutalized in this country. This served to turn the tables and place the entire system of US oppression on trial:

“The US doesn’t intend to make fundamental changes, it intends to bully New Afrikans forever and maintain this colonial relationship based on coercion, or worse, a “final solution” This means that some New Afrikan soldiers like myself must make our stand clear and encourage New Afrikan people to prepare to defend themselves from genocide by the American nazis---study our mistakes; build a political program based on land and independence… and be ready to fight and organize our people to resist on every level. My duty as a revolutionary in this matter is to tell the truth, disrespect this court and make it clear that the greatest consequence would be failing to step forward.”

For the audacity to act as Prisoners of War and not be shamed as criminals, the judge gave Kuwasi 75 years to life in prison. Kuwasi wrote in a letter, “As to the seventy five years [in prison], I am not really worried, not only because I am in the habit of not completing sentences or waiting on parole or any of that nonsense but also because the State simply isn’t going to last seventy five or even fifty years.”

As Anarchist

The 1980s represented an ebb in the overall revolutionary movement. As conservatives continued their assault on the poor, many on the left were bewildered by the new circumstances. In prison, Kuwasi was politically principled, maintaining a revolutionary position, but worried about the future of the movement. Indeed, many of the left press denounced the RATF as “adventurists ”, sometimes just as hard as the mainstream press did.

Looking for answers, Kuwasi began a study of anarchism. He was not the only Black Panther to do so; Frankie Zitts and Ashanti Alston also began to read anarchist literature and apply the theories of Wilhelm Reich, Emma Goldman and others to the Black liberation struggle. This was an outgrowth of the organizing work put forward by anarchists in the prison system, particularly groups like Anarchist Black Cross.

For Kuwasi, anarchy served as a framework for his direct action ethos and a means to understanding the shortcomings of the Black Panther Party. For Kuwasi, anarchism meant building the fighting capacity and leadership of the masses through struggle.

In looking back on his Panther days, Kuwasi saw shortcomings in the model of centralized leadership, particularly in its relationship to the rank and file. While Kuwasi embraced anarchism, he did so as a constant nationalist. Looking squarely at the reality of American racism, he still maintained the correct position that Black people were oppressed as a nation and had a right to self-determination. This was in direct refutation of anarchists engaged in a pure class analysis such as the late Freddy Perlman, the target of Kuwasi’s critique “The Continuing Appeal of Anti-Imperialism.”

It would be a failure to simply read Kuwasi’s embrace of anarchism in purely political terms. Anarchism was a theoretical framework for Kuwasi’s unabiding individualism. Within the context of movements, individualism is often seen as a vice and indeed Kuwasi did commit serious errors because of his refusal to abide by collective decision making. Nevertheless, individualism also means choice. The Russian nihilist Nechayev once wrote “The revolutionary is a doomed man”. In Kuwasi’s sense the term “doom” refers to choice; either die a quiet death obeying the dictates of an oppressive system or give up one’s life to fight for freedom.
This is not a romantic notion. The state as a whole operates on a “play or pay” model where those who follow the rules receive small rewards and those who rebel are crushed, silenced and forgotten about.

What makes Kuwasi a revolutionary hero is that, like George Jackson, Ella Baker and other Black revolutionaries, he put the struggle for freedom ahead of any personal gain:

“That sentence [75 years after the Brinks robbery] was to effect others to frighten others into giving up their lives altogether without fighting for real control of their lives. But if I worked thirty years at the post office and went bowling on Thursdays or doing anything but opposing the U.S. I’d be worse off, it would be like making a rope so my children and myself could be tied up.”

As Queer

One of the silences that engulfed Kuwasi’s life was his bisexuality. The official eulogies offered by the New Afrikan People’s Organization and others omitted his sexuality or that he died of AIDS-related complications. These erasures are a reflection of the on-going internal struggle against homophobia and patriarchy within the larger society in general and the movement in particular.

The Black liberation movement has had a complex relationship with the question of sexuality. Black people’s sexuality has always been defined from the outside. In the media, Black men and women are portrayed as sexual deviants. As such, protecting the image of Black people as firmly masculine and feminine was a project of much of the Black liberation movement.

Adding fuel to the fire is the in-roads by conservatives, particularly the Christian Right in creating a wedge between Black, feminist and queer movements. The Christian right’s moves have manifested in a number of ways, from accusing queers of benefiting from the Black blood spilled in the civil rights movement to the myth of the “Down-Low” brother infecting Black women with AIDS.

Of course homophobia is a cover for a larger push for forcing “traditional” family structures including condemnation of single family households. Since the Moynihan report of the 1970s that linked Black oppression to the “pathologies of single mothers”, money has flooded people of color communities from “Faith Based” initiatives encouraging abstinence instead of safe sex and forcing single mothers to marry the fathers of their children in order to receive benefits.

Unfortunately some of the Black liberation movement has been taken in by these arguments, although the work of the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Marlon Riggs, and Dorothy Roberts among others have fashioned space for queer/feminist thought within a larger Black liberation framework. Still, Kuwasi’s life as a queer man presents the Black liberation struggle with the fundamental question of what kind of society are we fighting for. Many feel that there should be unity at all costs and therefore there should be a pragmatic focus on jobs, healthcare and housing. I agree these are key demands and needs in our community; however it’s important not to forget the goal of revolution is not only to lay hands and seize state power but also to smash the state. This means fundamentally smashing the social relationships that reproduce oppression, including homophobia, sexism and patriarchy. This is what we can gather from Kuwasi’s sexuality.

Meaning of Kuwasi for Today

The word meaning comes from moaning. To find meaning is also to find moaning. Often times we get our most contemplative and find meaning in times of distress (i.e.-breaking up with a partner, losing a job) rather than in times of comfort. In the past two years, the activist movement has experienced the moaning of Katrina, a global war perpetuated by the US, and a greater disciplining of the working class, both through unemployment and prison. This is rocky ground in which to grow a social movement and the challenges of being a revolutionary are greater.

However in this moaning, people are finding meaning and truly challenging what the system is all about. There is a growing discontent with the ways things are. In a large sense, the Empire has lost some of its clothes. However, we radicals have not responded in kind. There’s a tendency to put comfort before our activism. There is the mad dash to apply for graduate school or the demand that one has to have a $30,000 salary to be a grassroots organizer.

Kuwasi’s legacy of being a queer Black anarchist freedom fighter, with armed desire, is that the revolutionary is always in discomfort with the status quo. As such, he/she is the disturber of peace, awakening the consciousness of the masses and putting fear into the rulers.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Estación Libre (Part 1: Karl Jagbandhansingh)

Founded in 1997, Estación Libre (EL) works to strengthen the connections between communities of color (in the U.S.) with each other and the Zapatista movement. I've already included here at Zapagringo an interview with EL member Ashanti Alston and I hope to continue highlighting the amazing work of Estación Libre's chapters and members as time goes on...Here's an interview with Karl Jagbandhansingh, co-founder of EL...special thanks to the folks at Matrix Magazine in Humboldt, California for allowing us to republish this interview...

Karl Singh
Interviewed by Dina Rodriguez & Victoria Gutierrez
Originally appeared in print in The Matrix Magazine (Spring 2006)

Karl Jagbandhansingh is a longtime activist and organizer inspired by the Zapatistas. He recently moved out to Oakland in the bay area of California, after years of work in the East Coast. His main efforts are focused around and with Estación Libre (EL), a collective created by and for people of color. EL, which means “Freedom Station”, operates a physical space in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, where folks of color from the U.S. can engage in struggle with the Zapatistas; with the intention that EL folks apply their developed skills and connect their experiences in Chiapas to their various communities in struggle within the U.S. This past February, Karl accompanied former Black Panther Party member and Zapatista–inspired anarchist Ashanti Alston to Arcata as part of Black Liberation Month at HSU. During this visit, they participated in a series of spaces that included a film screening and discussion of Lee Lew Lee’s documentary “All Power to the People,” a mitote, and some intimate spaces for dialogue and community building. What follows is a tidbit of our cherished conversation with Karl, where he shares his past and present struggles, inspirations, frustrations and hopes around the Zapatista movement and beyond.

The Matrix: Could you tell us a little bit about some of the organizing spaces you are currently involved with?

Karl Jagbandhansingh: Well basically, I’ve only been working with one group, EL, since ‘97. It’s been my primary focus, and I just moved out to the bay area. We used to have an EL chapter here a number of years ago but it since kind of disintegrated ... I’m sure eventually we’ll start up a chapter here out in the bay area but I’m still working with EL–even though it’s not a geographical space where we’re all together, it’s a liberated territory of minds. At the same time, Estación Libre is a network/organization of local collectives of Zapatista inspired people of color. There are now Estación Libre collectives in Durham, North Carolina; Los Angeles and New York City.

Could you elaborate a little on what EL is exactly and what you all do?

EL is a people of color organization which focuses on building ties between struggles of communities of color in the United States with the Zapatista struggle, with the goal of learning from the living model of the Zapatistas and trying to figure out how we can apply the lessons learned back here in what Ashanti calls “the brain of the empire.” So what do we do?

I guess a lot of the tangible work that we do is host delegations of folks of color, get a chance to network and work with folks of color, activists from different parts of the country, from different ethnic backgrounds and try to work some stuff out amongst ourselves; but then also get a chance to see how the Zapatistas are practicing and building autonomy in their own communities. And then there’s folks in EL who are involved in a lot of different kinds of work up here. So in Durham they’ll actually be opening up a physical space, a community space. It’s a great space they they’ve been building with their own hands. Putting up walls as well as painting them. It’s a space where they can show films as well as have meetings. One of their first classes will be ESL classes for the quickly growing Mexican immigrant community. They’re opening on May 1st. In Los Angeles folks have been ignited by La Otra Campaña and have been busy organizing around that. They’ve also been working with the Autonomous People’s Collective, and people are involved with great projects around environmental racism or projects like Homeboy Industries and La Causa Youth Build. In New York we’ve had an inspired and inspiring infusion of fresh blood and I’m excited to see what happens. A lot of the New York OGs have been involved with Critical Resistance and Casa Atabex Aché.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background, with regards to how you got involved in political activism and organizing?

I was fortunate enough to have parents who were at least peripherally involved with some movement stuff. My dad, whose side of the family originally comes from India, was down south in the ‘50s and so a lot of his consciousness came into being by being a person of color in racist white America. I got a lot of racial politic stuff from him, just from being around him. But it wasn’t really until I got to college I was fortunate – I guess in some ways – because of a pivotal experience in my life, to be able to experience the brutal nature of racist America up close. I had been a little bit naïve [until then] and I had heard my dad ranting and raving about the racist white power structure but never really understood it.

During this attack, it was me and a friend, an Asian guy, who were attacked by three drunk white guys and we actually sent someone to get the campus security and when the campus security – and it was a racial incident, they started off calling us racial epithets: chink, etc. – when the campus security, who later became cops that year ... when they finally arrived at the scene, they jumped us and held us down and the three white attackers ran out never to be found. And so that was a big wake up for me that this stuff was going on; and then as we tried to address the situation we came up against the administration which talked all kinds of pretty words at us ... but on the bottom line, dollars were more important to them then all the good words that they were talking about. And so they never followed through on all the things that they had promised us ...

We had an unresponsive university administration; when we would talk with them [they] would agree with all the stuff we were saying ... would agree that racism was bad, would agree that there needed to be racism awareness classes ... but when push came to shove they would always drop our stuff because it cost them money. There was an example of that, [that] we had learned that the university ... (that) had happened earlier – and I forget the exact dates – but I think it had happened in the late ‘60s ... there was this tradition that they had at the university called ‘Cakewalk’, and what it would be would be a group of white students, frat students, who would dress up with black face and dance around as slaves were made to do back during slavery days for the white master and as a reward for this dance they would get a cake, so it’s called ‘cakewalk’. And this was part of the tradition. Now, there was a movement started by the few black students who were at the University of Vermont at that time to stop this racist thing from taking place. It was a movement that the student body managed to get behind and the student government at the time actually voted it down and asked them to change this cakewalk from taking place. What ended up happening though ... so the university administration decided to take away this tradition called cakewalk – they decided that it was racist and bad to be doing this racist dance thing – and then donors came out and said, ‘If you take away this tradition, we’re not going to give you any money.’ And so, even though the university, the administration, the student body, the faculty, and all them think that this is a racist tradition that they were taking part of, when it came down to the money versus doing what’s right, they went for the money. And this is the same thing that happened to us, and it was really eye opening for us because a lot of us were really naïve in thinking, ‘Okay this is an institution that’s supposed to be about higher education’ and really it’s a big business. And we were lucky enough to be able to go back in history and look for a solution to our dilemma.

So we looked at what happened with the issue of Cakewalk; we saw white folks in power selling out their morals, their principles, their ethics, their humanity for a dollar. And there are two versions to the story that I have heard. One is that there was a group of black Saint Michael’s students (a neighboring university), and the other is that it was a group of Black Panthers. Anyway the story goes that after this political stuggle which managed to win public opinion to it’s side... which managed to secure student and faculty support... and after folks buckled under the heavy weight of the dollar... a group of young black folks threatened to come by and help them live up to their own principles... and they promised that they would be very convincing. This effective counter-pressure helped shift the campaign back on track and Cakewalk was ended at the University of Vermont.

I guess part of what was also fortunate for our development in our dealings with this unresponsive administration is that after they would talk all kinds of good stuff to us and then not be willing to do any of it [is] then we had to decide, Well, what are we going to do about it and then we thought – if they’re not going to provide this kind of stuff for us – then we’re going to do it for ourselves. And so we began organizing amongst ourselves to try and address what was going on ... and again, fortunately, our numbers were so small, unlike in other big cities and a lot of other institutions where you have larger numbers of folks of color ... our numbers were so small that we were forced to work together just to have some strength and alliances. So the Black Student Union, the Asian Student Union, the Latino Alliance, which were all started up after we got there, by the same group of students who didn’t even have those clubs in existence before we got there, we were all forced to work together and get to know each other and deal with some of our issues that normally folks don’t get a chance to deal with. And even beyond that, our numbers were still very small, so along with having these alliances amongst folks of color, there were also alliances with women’s organizations, gay and lesbian, bisexual alliance, with the Disabled Students Union ... so we began to have a broader perspective of what it meant to be engaged in struggle.

We know that it’s easy for a space, focused on the empowerment of people of color, like EL, to be labeled as being divisive or perpetuating factionalism. How do you respond to these types of claims when made against EL?

Well, first of all, it’s not like we don’t interact with white folks. We have alliances with white folks, which allows us to do our work better. We’ve even done delegations, we’ve had delegations, hosted delegations where white folks were a part of it, but our focus is people of color. For better or for worse, we all are victims of this dehumanizing system and some of us experience that victimization differently than others. For example, would it be factionalizing or...what was the word you used?


...divisive, to say to a woman’s organization, “Oh, you have to have men in there,” when some of these women have suffered some brutal abuse by men in their lives, have been victims of rape ... ? There are traumas that we experience that sometimes we need to have a safe space where we can be amongst ourselves and heal our wounds. During that phase, you need to keep the other element out, whether that’s men in the group, well intentioned as we might be, sometimes exhibit the sexist behavior that we’ve learned from the system. And the same way with white folks. Whether they like it or not, they’ve been socialized by this racist system. When we have these delegations and a white person wants to participate, if there’s one person of color in the group who doesn’t feel comfortable with that, then that white person isn’t allowed. So it’s not that we’re not allowing folks, but were putting our needs first, and there is no other organization out there that does that for us.

For better or for worse, again, it’s just the way that it ends up happening, you have a lot of groups out there that end up being white groups. So there are other folks doing this kind of work and their delegations and nobody’s picking on them and I’m not even picking on them ... maybe I’m picking on them ... I should pick on them a little for being exclusively white groups ... Why don’t they focus on, ‘Why did we need to come into existence as EL?’ Because of the fact that there was a need – because everybody that was down there was white, pretty much. It wasn’t until we started doing our work that some of these organizations began to become conscious of the fact that they were white and then began to start reaching out to other folks of color.

We were just curious if you, being in EL, do you get those types of comments your way, or does the group in itself?

We get that a lot actually. When Miguel and myself first started working on EL...

Who’s Miguel again?

Miguel Rodriguez. Miguel was down in Chiapas in ‘97 as part of an advanced team that was sent by a number of Chicano organizations in Los Angeles to help set up for the Chicano Indigenous Cultural Encuentro, which took place in Oventik in the summer of ’97 – I believe it was August but I’m not positive. And during the course of that organizing of that conference for the Encuentro, the Chicano folks from these organizations realized the need – that they wanted to have a more permanent space in Chiapas, so that folks can continually be coming through and being in alliance with the Zapatista struggle. Of those folks, only Miguel was able to stay down there at that time. It was through the organizing of this conference that I met Miguel ... and me, not being Chicano myself, wanted us to broaden up the concept a little bit of what they were talking about, to have a people of color space; instead of it [being] just a purely Chicano-focused space. So that Miguel ... what was I saying?

When we first met, when we first started talking our about future plans – in our discussions about race and racism ... we were starting to meet college professors in Mexico who wanted us to come talk to them about race, because a lot of the general knowledge that we have about race as folks of color within the United States ... it’s like part of our culture in a lot of different ways in [the] understanding of race. Even though we may not be as articulate as other folks; we have an understanding of race; we have an understanding of white skin privilege, that ... I think in general, the folks in Mexico don’t have – the same kind of analysis on race. I think there’s probably a lot of reasons for that – the fact that there were slaves here is a big difference. So that they don’t have the same type of articulations about race, but they do have in general, a much deeper class analysis in general than we think folks in the United States have. So in the very beginning, even folks down there ... other folks who are involved – like Mexicans – who are involved in different kinds of struggle in different levels, have the same kinds of questions for us, that white folks were questioning us with, like, ‘Hey, you guys are being exclusionary, you guys are being divisive’, and we would have to take the time to go and explain this again and again. People eventually got it, and I think you do see a different kind of articulation about race in general that you find out there. Uh, I think I’m gonna have a cigarette – I’m losing my words...

You can smoke and talk at the same time, right? Speaking about Chiapas ... what inspires you most about what’s going on within Chiapas and the Zapatista movement, and what frustrates you the most?

Okay, I guess we’ll start with what inspires me most – I think there’s lots of things about the Zapatista struggle that inspires me a whole heck of a lot. I think it’s because they bring together a lot of different pieces of what we need to see in struggle. So they have, for example, effectively, creatively used the media to help spread their word. They put women at the forefront of the struggle; they have been able to make bridges across ethnic lines, across barriers of language. They have created institutions that are needed in the community that meet the needs of folks in their own communities. So they have these women’s cooperatives, or coffee cooperatives. They have created their own educational system; their own junior high school–and I guess the high school is in the process of being created– but their own junior high school with their own curriculum ... With their own teachers – which they don’t call teachers, they call them promotores – because a teacher kind of represents ... the notion of teacher has somebody up above and somebody below, and somebody trying to teach something to somebody else ... but it’s just folks who promote education. They have created their own clinic, and then trained their own folks to learn how to do different kinds of basic medicine that were lacking in these communities. They’ve been able to focus upon very local stuff, but recognize how that plays out on the global scheme of things. And um, uh... let me take another puff...


Wait a second, wait a second, I’m not done.

You have more inspirations then.

Yeah yeah ... and they’ve managed to put out this long-term political vision which doesn’t get caught up in some kind of dogmatic close-minded expression. Their language is very human and very simple – at some times – I mean then sometimes they talk about very complex ideas as well, which is harder to read through sometimes, but their langage in general is accessible to a lot of different folks. And they put humanity, life, dignity, at the very center of their struggle. They’re rooted in their indigenous traditions even while they’re accepting things from outside, uh, they recognized the need for armed struggle, but very uniquely – in comparison to other Latin American struggles –they very uniquely placed their military structure clearly subservient to their democratic community structures.

And I think perhaps, most importantly ... most inspiring of all is that the Zapatistas are not gods and goddesses. The Zapatistas are not supermen and superwomen; the Zapatistas are human beings, just like you and I. And what the Zapatistas have done, as very ordinary, down to earth human beings, is decided to say, “Okay, enough. No more begging from the government. No more pleading for them not attack us or harass us. No more scraping for these crumbs. We’re not even going to ask the government for anything; we’re going to create for our own. As ordinary human beings.” And as ordinary human beings, some of them without even shoes, [they’ve] managed to organize like this. I think we can too. This is part of what inspired me and Miguel when we first started talking about this [EL] informally; we were like, ‘Well, who are we to start this big organization with these lofty goals that we want to see take place? Who are we to try to create this?’ – and sometimes the system makes you feel so powerless, so little, that the efforts that you have to give are nowhere near enough. And this is what we thought to ourselves: ‘Okay, we haven’t even graduated from college, we’re not articulate enough, we’re not well-read enough.’

But, like the Zapatistas, who put out that model – that as an ordinary human being, you must organize and do what you can ... your small piece in the struggle to be able to help change this world. And in being engaged in that process, you realize that, Hey, this really might just work. If we can learn to recognize our own power that we’ve always had, that the people have always had, and that the masters of this global empire have tried to disguise from us with the illusion of their power.

Well what about the frustrations?

(Laughs) The frustrations... (laughs again) Am I being too long-winded?

No not all, we have hours for this...

So, um, frustrations. I just have a lot of frustrations. I don’t know how much I want to talk about them in public. But I guess some of the big ones – which is part of why we created this organization – the frustrations with “well-intentioned” white folks who haven’t really grappled with their own racism. Which is something you need to deal with on a daily level if you’re really gonna deal with this internalized crap that we all carry with us. I mean, I don’t mean to downplay the beneficial roles that lots of really good white folks have played – I don’t mean to undercut that at all –but I do have a lot of frustrations with folks who haven’t dealt with their own stuff, going into a foreign country to help ‘exotic, third-world peoples’, in a way that makes them feel like the messiah. The same folks who, when they come back here (or to Europe, or wherever they come from), manage to ignore the very same problems, or similar problems, different manifestations of the same problems, that are taking place in their own communities.

So I have a problem with somebody who goes to Chiapas to help these ‘exotic’ folks because they’re talking about humanity and they make you feel good ... but you can’t help folks who are struggling against the prison industrial complex, which is locking up Black and Brown folks up like it’s going out of style!? I have a problem with that. I have a problem with the fact that they’re cutting education here; they’re doing terrible stuff to our environment here, and folks can’t get on board with that, but they can go somewhere else. One of the things that the Zapatistas had talked about, and this impressed us from the very beginning; every single time when we had a delegation that went to meet with the Zapatistas, the question would arise: ‘What can we do to help you in your struggle?’ And the Zapatistas – once in a while they would ask us for help; monetary help with their clinic; or they would need medicines for their clinic; or sometimes they would ask for help selling the coffee at the cooperatives – but inevitably, and every single time, they would say, ‘Most important of all is you go back to where you come from, and organize there. If you want to help us in our struggle, go back to where you come from and organize there.’ And we feel this very strongly as Estación Libre; the best way that we could help the Zapatistas is to build movement here in the United States, within the brain of the empire.

Okay, on the frustrations ... I guess another frustration that I’ve had, and this was kind of interesting and eye-opening ... I had a chance to have some discussions with some folks about this with some Zapatistas in some of the communities –is that change is slow. (chuckles) Sometimes we want change to happen overnight, and so, for example, you have this kind of very harsh critique, and I think it’s a critique which just comes out of a different cultural background, a different viewpoint on life; but you have this critique that has come down by white feminists who will point out the fact that there’s inequalities in Zapatista communities. And, you know, I can’t argue with that – and this is even after the Zapatistas, they’ll talk about the first revolution, the first rebellion that they had, was the rebellion of the woman within the organizations, and they came up with the Women’s Revolutionary Laws. So that was like pretty basic for them; and to become a Zapatista community member, you have to take on the Women’s Revolutionary Laws – which was a big struggle for some folks! But even after that time, you still see inequality taking place; you will have meetings where men will talk more than women. But I think if you open your eyes you can notice that there have been incredible changes – that there is this incredible path of progress that they’ve embarked upon. And so, the change hasn’t happened overnight. But what the – we were talking with these folks up in Oventik one time – they were talking about the rate of change that they’re engaging is a very real rate of change; it’s a real human rate of change. And some of these things do take time. Uh, and so I guess that’s another frustration, is I always want – I mean like a lot of us – we want change to happen much more quickly. But sometimes building community is a long process.

This is kind of related to the last question: how do you think the Zapatistas have influenced change in the ways organizing is done in the U.S.?

‘How has the Zapatista struggle influenced the struggles within the United States?’ I guess what I want to say is... I don’t know what I want to say, I’m getting tired I guess, from talking so much. Let me see ... well, it gives us a lot of cool t-shirts to wear...

(Laughs) This is true, this is true.

And uh, people could talk all kinds of smack about, ‘Oh yeah, well, I’m doing this autonomous project’ and it’s really not autonomous (mocking tone). We have like cool language that we can use...

Ahh... (Laughs) Whoa...

‘I want to have a mitote...’ (laughs) Oh shit, no, okay, I’m just talking smack, I’m just talking smack. Sorry, sorry.

People could also go around on speaking tours on behalf of the Zapatistas ...

Yeah, right? ‘Zapapimpin.’

And have a lot of white hipsters show up...

Yeah, so I guess [the question was] ‘How it’s changed ...?’

We’re gonna call you ‘Tangent man’...

Uh, I think the Zapatistas in one of their earlier communiqués called ‘The Southeast and Two Winds’ – they talk about the wind from above and the wind from below. The wind from above from above would be the wind that these greed-driven maniacal vampires utilized – and the wind from below is our wind – you know, is the wind of the oppressed; is the wind of us organized together in unity against that oppression. The Zapatista wind, the wind from below, sets ablaze once again our inner fire. The Zapatista wind gives us hope in a world where we’re told that it’s hopeless. The Zapatista wind gives us a fresh breath of wind for our tired wings. The Zapatista wind not only helped to revitalize and spark a movement within all of Mexico, but within the United States – and really, around the world.

So, above and beyond anything else, the Zapatista wind, the Zapatista struggle, gave us all again hope; the feeling that we could do this. A lot of us were feeling tired and crushed and burnt out and that the power mongers were just gonna be winning, winning, winning. Because they were folks who come from such dire circumstances, with very few material resources at their disposal, without the same kind of access to education that we had. And yet these folks were able to organize themselves and confront the onslaught of this capitalist empire against them, withstand that, and then sustain themselves in face of considerable repression.

So I think it’s given us all hope, above and beyond anything else. So, there are lots of folks ... who were involved in Seattle ... they claim the Zapatistas as their inspiration. The oil workers who struck in Tabasco – claim the Zapatistas as their inspiration. You have groups in Europe who claim the Zapatistas as their inspiration. Claiming the Zapatistas as your inspiration, then, holds you into account in some way. So when you claim the Zapatistas as your inspiration you also then have to look at their model of leadership and say, ‘Okay, well then, we have to deal with these hierarchies within our organization, so we’re gonna try and organize in a non-hierarchal way. Okay, if we look at the model then we’re gonna really have to make sure we put women in the forefront of our struggle – that it’s not us men taking over all the time.’ If we’re really focused on the Zapatistas it’s gotta be about people – it’s gotta be about theory and practice.

Um, uh... and so I think a lot of the types of models of organizing that you see out there are ... there’s a lot of them that are really inspired and trying to draw from those lessons, in different ways. I think you see it manifest differently in different organizations. But I think there’s a general kind of understanding then, about the need for these autonomous institutions, about the need for us to deal with our local issues. And I think, my sense, is that we also see a new strengthened attempt – that’s not even the word I want to use – a new step that we’re taking again, to form the alliances that we need to form, so that we can actually build movements. I see a lot of folks in a lot of different areas, independently of each other, who have been struggling for a long time – and they’ve made us feel isolated and weak – because we’ve been so separated. And I see now more and more folks trying to bridge the differences in out many different struggles.


(Sigh of relief)

This kind segways into our last question – can you talk about the importance of allied behavior within organizing spaces, with regards to racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression and domination?

‘Allied behavior’ you said?

Uh-huh, you know, Ashanti was talking about the importance of white folks standing up and telling other white folks, putting them in check – and the same thing with men checking other men on their sexism, etc.

(Sighs again, pause)

...or do you not think that’s important?

Yeah, it’s not really that important.

Okay, let’s just skip over it...

No, no, no ... I’m just talking shit. I think that ‘allied behavior’ – I’ve never used that term – allied behavior I think is intensely important. I mean again it goes back to what the Zapatistas have said about ... ‘the best way that you can help us is to organize where you are’. So organize with your people. And I know it’s really tough for like, white folks who live in suburbia, for example, who might be activists, who attempt to organize some of those white activists. But really, they’re uniquely situated to be able to reach those other white folks in their area; much better situated then we are, for example. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to listen to this guy Tim Wise..?

Yeah, he came up here ... we didn’t attend but we’ve read some of his stuff.

He does a great speech that he gives, where it’s basically Racism 101. And I think what’s so great about it is because he’s this white guy, who acknowledges his own privilege – he’s able to speak in a way that it’s much harder for white folks to ignore – and to just dismiss his anger, his indignation at the state of affairs ... it makes it much more difficult for them to just dismiss that. And then it forces them to confront their own stuff a lot more directly.

Uh, where was I going with this? (laughs) Oh shit. It’s hard to do so much talking like this. I don’t know how Ashanti does it. I guess it’s that – white folks have to organize white folks because nobody else can really do it for white folks – to organize themselves against racism. I’m not really sure how to talk about this so I can give you this little story one time when ... well I’ll give a couple stories I guess ...

Are they just about white folks?

Mm-mm, no. For example, when I’m talking to Ashanti, and we’ll talk about the Panthers, and the Counter-Intelligence programs of the sixties that the federal government engaged upon in their attack upon what they called ‘Public Enemy #1.’ They used, as we all know, really underhanded and illegal tactics to kill, frame, set up, destroy, movement and people’s lives. One of the things in talking with Ashanti, that he makes clear, is that it wasn’t just an attack from outside. What makes the Counter-Intelligence Program so successful is not just that they would just kill folks outright, which the police had no qualms about doing; the federal government had no qualms about doing a just straight-up frontal military assault, against people who were organizing to feed their communities and stop police brutality. And the government had no qualms in destroying them ... because they were providing this ray of hope; they were providing an alternative to the system. They were providing folks with a way out. They were giving folks another alternative to hustling on the street, or just buying into the system. So what the Counter-Intelligence Program did is not just kill folks, because when you kill folks then that helps to organize folks against the brutality of the system. It gives you a very clear understanding of the fact that these guys are enemies, that they have declared war on us; and our humanity; and our life – and it helps to galvanize communities against that attack. So a much more effective strategy for them was to prey upon the weaknesses that we have within our own movements; and so they would prey upon the ‘natural’ kind of tendencies that we all carry around – that haven’t been effectively dealt with. And so, maybe as a man, I have a difficult time struggling with my sexism, but in order for us to win – and we must win, we will win – but in order for us to win, if we’re not gonna get be torn down from inside, I have to confront my own sexism. And the only way I can do that is by engaging in anti-sexist practice, in being an ally, a real ally, to my women comrades. There is no other way. If we have all these weaknesses that this society tries to teach us to have, like sexism ... that makes it very easy for somebody else to come in, prey upon that weakness, and split the divide between us, to pit us one against another.

So this reminds me of my second story, which was, when the O.J. Simpson trial came out, it was amazing to me the kind of rhetoric that was coming out in the mainstream media. Because what you had was, a lot of times – and this is one of the more extreme examples – but you would have white feminists who would get on the television, and say, ‘We should lynch the nigger.’! And then you had Black men, who, when they would come out, would say, ‘That bitch deserved it.’ They utilized the weaknesses that we have to pit us one against another. So, in order for us to win – in order for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish – we have to deal with these different issues that don’t just exist in society, but exist amongst ourselves in our organizations.

Any closing statements or questions?

Yeah hold on ... um, uh, um, uh ... My closing statement would be this: We live in volatile times. We must never forget that, whether we like it or not, there is a war going on. There is a war going on against life itself. Not only are they cutting down trees to make way for grass so that McDonald’s can have hamburgers. Not only are they dumping mercury into our environment from these energy producing coal plants, when they have the technology to reduce this toxic dumping of mercury. Not only are they building more prisons and closing down schools. And not only do they have economic policies in place which produce or maintain a system where there are millions of people dying of preventable illnesses, but there are millions of people who are literally starving to death. Every single year, there are six million children –according to the United Nations, which is not the most radical of organizations–but according to the United Nations there are six million children who starve to death every single year, in a world where there are some of us who have, who live, in a heap of abundance. Six million children die of starvation every year – and this is not counting the millions of other children who die from diarrhea because they don’t have clean drinking water, or people who die of AIDS, or people who die of pneumonia–but six million children who starve to death every single year.

During WWII, the Nazis engaged in a brutal genocidal attack on the Jews. And during the course of WWII, over the course of several years, four-and-a-half million Jews died in the Holocaust. So, there’s a holocaust going on today; we must never forget this fact. It is a battle for the very life of the planet; for our own lives; for our own humanity. And in every war, there are victims; some of those victims are starving children in Ethiopia – and some of those victims are us. We are the psychological victims of a psychological war that they have been engaged in for many decades now. So in our embracing of the struggle, in our learning to organize and confront the system, in our attempt to build alternatives to this system that has no way out, in our participation in our own lives ... we first end up having to liberate ourselves. So, engaged in the process of struggle, we not only provide the possibility of a future, of a new tomorrow, but we free ourselves in the process.

We can’t give up until we win. We will win. We must win. ¡La Luche Sigue! ¡Que Vivan los Zapatistas!

Well, thank you very much ... we don’t really have a smooth transition to conclude, but that’s pretty much it. Thanks for your time and your words.
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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Revolutionary Childcare

Regeneración's 1st Birthday!

Some of us at today's birthday party at the Natural History Museum!

A year ago we had our first large gathering for what has become known as "Regeneración Childcare NYC." I'm writing here a little bit about "revolutionary childcare," although Regeneración's vision statement, included here at the end, really kinda says it all...

While I'm still an abolitionist, for personal and practical reasons, my main local organizing has shifted from Critical Resistance NYC to Regeneración...and the two still crossover alot, like when doing childcare for CR meetings and events or connecting childcare to the transformative justice work of Generation Five and, of course, the work of figuring out how to not reproduce oppressive systems while hanging out with children and working with their parents.

Building up our capacity to take care of eachother while pushing back on and tearing down the systems that oppress are the two interlocking elements of creating a better world, right?

Seems like too much revolutionary activity over the years has privileged one over the other...either breaking away to form the alternative society and not challenging the current system or just becoming hardened "militants" and not transforming and improving those interpersonal and community relationships (and sometimes making them worse or abandoning them altogether).

One of the things that most inspires me about the Zapatistas is their commitment to both confronting the local, national, and global systems that harm them AND intensely cultivating transformative ways of doing politics, gender relations, healthcare, education, justice and so on...

A little over a year ago, some of us who had already been doing childcare with Critical Resistance and/or with the Bushwick Childcare Cooperative (later became Pachamama) decided that it would be really great to start organizing childcare volunteers to support all the amazing women of color organizing that was popping up and needing childcare throughout the city.

We went forward with it and so many things over the past year have confirmed for me what an important (and undervalued) piece of work it is to commit to sharing in the work of childcare.

Here's an example:
I went to my friend Dan Berger's book release (Outlaws of America) at the end of February and one of the speakers happened to be Michael Tarif Warren from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. This was a discussion about a book on the Weather Underground so I really wasn't expecting to hear anything about childcare but, to my surprise, Warren recounted a conversation he had with New Afrikan political prisoner Dr. Mutulu Shakur about his stepson, the legendary martyred rapper, Tupac Shakur. The crux of the conversation was that perhaps if there had been more attention given to taking care of children amidst all the repression against Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups that perhaps "panther cubs", like Tupac, would've grown up less angry and able to channel more of their life into carrying on the struggle! That did it for me...and there's been lots more since.

The hot off the press Jan/Feb '07 issue of Left Turn magazine has a great article by Bay-area activist Rahula Janowski called "Collective Parenting for Collective Liberation." And it looks like some of us from Regeneración are gonna pull together a childcare forum for Left Turn's April/May issue!

This type of work is going on all over the country and world in all different ways. How we do it, and how we connect it up with the rest of the work of radical social transformation, is perhaps the big challenge...

We're still defining who we are as Regeneración...and it will probably always be changing...

Some of the groups we'ver worked with over the past year are Sista II Sista & Pachamama, the Community Birthing Project, Sisterfire NYC (local chapter of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence), Critical Resistance NYC, Casa Atabex Aché, the Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project and Domestic Workers United, Families for Freedom, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and I'm sure I'm leaving some out...

Here is Regeneración's vision statement...we'll probably come back to in a year or two...along with how we structure ourselves. Please get in touch for more info and also keep an eye out for the website (it'll get done one of these days!).

Vision Statement for REGENERACIÓN Childcare NYC

What IS Regeneración?

In this city that never sleeps, in which we are constantly moving, running on concrete and breathing clogged air, squeezing into small spaces that are stacked on top of each other, involving kids into our organizing work is a struggle in itself.

Across the city, many women of color led projects recognize kids and families as integral to movement building. Inspired by these projects, a group of organizers pulled together Regeneración. We participate in child-raising as a form of resistance that builds radical communities and relationships.

The name Regeneración has a lot of meanings. It suggests our capacity to regenerate community, culture, and resistance. Regeneración is a word that looks very similar in the two main languages that we work in, Spanish and English. We are inspired by movements throughout Latin America, in particular our connections with movements in Argentina and Mexico. Regeneración was the name of the newspaper of the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón, a key figure in the Mexican Revolution who was eventually killed in the United States’ Leavenworth Prison. We raise the name of Regeneración to honor our prisoners, those who cross borders to build a better world, and the radical movements that continue to surge from the South.

How are we doing this?

Regeneración focuses on building relationships between childcare volunteers, children, parents, families, and organizations. We provide childcare at organizational meetings, events, and in collaboration with community based childcare collectives and cooperatives. Our partner organizations are those whose visions inspire us.

We seek honest and healthy communication between the organizations, kids, parents, and families with whom we work. In constant reflection, we provide spaces for dialogue around identity and privilege. We challenge ourselves and our communities, in a healthy and loving way, to overcome our internalized oppressions. We organize trainings, skill-sharing, and educational gatherings to continue to expand our understanding of children and community autonomy and educate ourselves as volunteers, members, and partners.

We recognize that kids are in a constant process of transformation. We promote a childcare process that respects the autonomy, growth, safety, and health of children. We reach out and make ourselves accessible to kids and families, listening and acting with humility and patience.

Who's Doing Childcare?

We come in many colors, genders, and styles. Some of us have less money, some of us have more money, some of us used to have more money, and some of us used to have less money.

We work within and come from many movements and histories of struggle. We are people remembering and learning the stories of those before us in order to carry them into our future. We are people committed to building a multi-generational movement for collective liberation. We are especially committed to the kids and families of low-income women and queer folks of color.

This is a collective project that each of us must actively grow. We are people talking and listening to each other across age, class, race, language, and gender. We are people accessing and building our collective resources to radically transform the world around and within us. We will make mistakes. We want to be changing, learning, and growing. Walking we ask questions.

We Value:

KIDS, and the way they affect our perspective in ‘political’ spaces.
CREATIVITY: rather than being reactionary, this project is part of global movements to build positive, autonomous, self-sustaining communities that respect life.
COMMITMENT: We show up on time and get things done.
COMMUNICATION: We are in an ongoing conversation.
LEARNING from other efforts to create children-centric and multi-generational movements.
HUMILITY: Working with kids and parents gets to the core of us, and what we think this world should look like. We’ve got to really listen to each other.
RE-CLAIMING ‘FAMILY’ and child rearing as a communal process.
RETHINKING SOLIDARITY: Our struggles are bound together and yet we find ourselves in different spaces of privilege and oppression. We talk about this. As people of color and white folks with more privilege/mobility, we question and explore our desire to be accountable to communities of color that are struggling.
LOVE, HEALING, AND RESPECT: Everyone brings vulnerability to the space.
FLEXIBILITY: We work on family time, nothing is predictable!
ORGANIZING: This can’t be the only thing that we do, and we can’t be doing this to be a part of a ‘scene’. This is one thread in a larger web of action.
ACCOUNTABILITY, instead of guilt.
REVOLUTION: This work is part of a larger political project and serves to deepen our understanding and application of critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Weathering the Storm

Political Prisoners, Repression, and Organizing to Win in Mexico and the USA

Atenco solidarity encampment outside of Santiaguito Prison

Some people I spoke with about the elections while in Oaxaca at the beginning of the year would remark that if Obrador of the PRD won they would see the creation of a "new neoliberal state", if Madero of the PRI won they would see a return to the old regime's paternalism and corporativismo, and if Calderón of the PAN won they would see the rise of neo-fascism in Mexico.

Well, as has been well documented, the PAN's Calderón didn't win the election but a coup d'etat (in alliance with the PRI) secured that he was sworn in on friday, amidst protests inside and outside the halls of Congress. With the legitimacy of the PAN presidential victory in crisis and the governorship of the PRI's Ulises Ruiz Ortiz under attack in Oaxaca, a PAN-PRI alliance has deepened to prop up and defend these dying regimes. The left in Mexico, from La Jornada to the APPO to the Other Campaign, has been analyzing the transition underway.

Weathering the Storm

Outgoing president Vicente Fox's last act in office was to oversee the creation of a police state in Oaxaca, driving the APPO into hiding and sending over a hundred detainees to out-of-state prisons. Calderón's first act as president was to appoint leaders for the major branches of Mexico's military and police forces, what he is calling his "security cabinet." On at least three occasions since assuming the presidency, Calderón has stated that "to bring security back to the country it will take time, it will cost money, and, unfortunately, there will be a loss of life."

Heading up the repression will be Francisco Ramírez Acuña, Calderón's appointee as Minister of the Interior. As governor of the state of Jalisco, Ramírez Acuña oversaw the brutal repression of global justice activists protesting the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union in 2004 in Guadalajara. He has vowed to make the resolution of the conflict in Oaxaca his first priority in office.

I spent a good amount of time while in Oaxaca with members of a political prisoner solidarity collective called Todxs Somxs Presxs ("We Are All Prisoners"). They originally formed to free those imprisoned from the 2004 repression in Guadalajara. They recounted for me that a pivotal moment in their development came when, in a meeting with Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, those in attendance were asked to recount the names of the prisoners. To Marcos' astonishment, they could not produce a list of the detained. For Todxs Somxs Presxs, this story emphasized for them the importance of not letting the state disappear the struggle through imprisonment. The collective quickly got to work learning about, meeting with, and building bridges to political prisoners throughout their home state of Oaxaca.

The Other Campaign was prioritizing listening to the voices of political prisoners and fighting for their freedom well before the May attack on Atenco. And well before the recent conversion of Oaxaca into a police state, or even the formation of the APPO and a popular movement to oust their corrupt governor, the state coordination of the Other Campaign in Oaxaca began building "a national movement against police brutality, for the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and for the cancellation of all arrest warrants against fighters for social justice."

It was never a question for the Other Campaign of whether or not there would be repression. There's not much room for selling out or "buying in" when you're building an uncompromising anti-capitalist movement for freedom, justice, and democracy and against the rich and political classes. The people of Oaxaca are living under a suffocating federal occupation and 32 members of Atenco's popular movement are still in prison, but the APPO continues to organize and the Other Campaign continues to grow.

Political Prisoners, ¡Presente!

And so the Other Campaign is prepared to continue in spite of, and against, state and paramilitary repression. And political prisoners are continuing to play an active role not only in the fight for their own freedom, but in the struggle that they have already sacrificed so much to build. Women political prisoners from two facilities outside of Mexico City released an incredible letter in solidarity with the people of Oaxaca in early November. The Other Campaign recently held its Third National Gathering for Freedom, Justice, and the Safe Return and Repatriation of those Imprisoned, Murdered, Disappeared, and Exiled for Political Reasons.

Seeing all of this organizing in Mexico against repression, and the mobilizations here sparked by the murder of Brad Will (whose killers have reportedly just been released!), brings me back to the struggle here in the US. The NYPD just-WITH FIFTY SHOTS FIRED-killed Sean Bell and injured two of his friends while leaving a party. Echoes of Diallo, Dorsimond, Heyward, Jr., Zongo, and Louima...if this were Cincinnati I'd have to add Timothy Thomas, Roger Owensby, and many's not the town you live in, it's the system itself.

The US Prison Industrial Complex continues to grow with over 2.2 million people now behind bars and over 4.3 million more living under some form of probation or parole. To get deeper into these connections, zapagringo-style, here is a letter that some of us members of the NYC chapter of Critical Resistance wrote to the Zapatistas shortly after the release of their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in June of 2005.

One of the people that members of Todxs Somxs Presxs wanted me to discuss with them during my two appearances on their show "Jails for Your Loved Ones" on Radio Plantón was Mumia Abu-Jamal. They were prepared to spend the whole hour of their program discussing him. That's what made Mumia's beautiful recent piece on Oaxaca all the more amazing to listen to and read. From the outskirts of Mexico City, to Oaxaca, to Pennsylvania, and back again, political prisoners are paying attention and prepared to be active participants in struggles at home and throughout the world.

As friend and mentor Ashanti Alston has pointed out, "Prisoners don't just want to be freed, but want to see that the struggle they were imprisoned for continues to be fought, and they want to be a part of it!" As this blog transitions again from its recent Oaxaca focus back to organizing here in the US, let's start with the political prisoners...Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal were early windows into the world of political prisoners for many in the global justice movement...more recently are the victims of the Green Scare...and we've just won some small victories for people still inside such as Russell "Maroon" Shoatz and Herman Wallace of the Angola 3. Organizations such as Critical Resistance and the Jericho Movement continue the work of breaking down the walls that the state erects to divide families, communities, and movements.

If you are looking to get started learning more about our political prisoners (or for a good gift for the winter holidays!), perhaps you will start with the beautiful, and educational, Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar. After all, if we're gonna build a successful movement for radical change in this country, we're gonna have to be prepared to weather the storm...

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