Sniffing the Zeitgeist, Winter 2022

24 12 2022

Holiday greetings! Please help Kopkind feed the future by enriching the thought, work and spirit of political journalists, activists and documentary filmmakers today. Your holiday-season gift means so much to us, and to people and projects like those discussed below. Kopkind is part of the infrastructure of political and cultural change. Where there’s a fight, our people are in it. We’re bringing you this annual newsletter digitally again this year because printing and mailing costs weigh too heavy.

Night-time screening of Amir Amirani’s documentary We Are Many, July 2022

Continuity and Change

Kopkind returned after two years, with intense, ranging, feisty conversations under blue skies at day and fairy lights at night. No one got covid. That was the fundamental achievement of summer 2022, upon which all others depended. But before going further a pause is required, to remember someone we lost this year.

“Billy took his own life yesterday.” I woke up to the text on October 1. Groggy, wondering, Billy…? Then I recognized the New Orleans area code. It felt like it was raining all over the world. 

Billy Sothern was a death penalty lawyer. That’s how he represented himself when he applied to Kopkind in 2005. He didn’t say innocence lawyer. He had been in New Orleans for only four years at that point, having left New York for the Southern Death Belt right out of law school, and he was tired. He was thinking of quitting, but … He wanted to write, but so much got in the way. He quoted poetry and told stories. Even the funny ones often had a sly or mournful streak. Oh, Billy was charming. 

“What impressed me at the time was that he didn’t seem to be driven by anger. He carried a lot of sadness,” Jeff Sharlet, one of the mentors in 2005, remembered. “Sadness is in the work, what you do when you have no idea what the solution is, but … We shouldn’t kill these guys. He wasn’t romantic about his clients. He understood brokenness. He knew he was breakable.”

Billy Sothern (photo: Nikki Page Sothern)

Billy didn’t quit criminal defense work after that summer. When he died, New York Times obituary eulogized him as “a defense lawyer renowned for taking on some of Louisiana’s toughest capital cases—including the wrongful conviction of Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit.” Woodfox and the other members of the Angola 3, who spent more time in solitary than anyone in US history, were not formally condemned to death; they were subjected to an institutional regime that tried to destroy them by torture. Two of them had previously organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party inside to oppose brutal conditions in the former slave plantation turned prison. They survived because of solidarity, shouting to one another from their cells, teaching one another and looking to the outside, as Woodfox said, “to keep our focus on society.” There, an international campaign and lawyers like Billy fought alongside them for their release. It was a celebrated case where most are not; we use the term ‘victory’ because there is none to characterize the mix of elation, over a person’s release from bonds, and dread, contemplating the depths to which systems and persons will go to deny another’s humanity.

Albert Woodfox was released in 2016 and died of covid on August 4, 2022. He was 75. Billy contracted covid in the spring of 2020 and suffered severe damage. His friend Katy Reckdahl (Kopkind 2002), an excellent journalist in New Orleans, said that after getting off a ventilator he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t speak properly and had to teach himself those things again. His wife told the Times that he was also dealing with thyroid cancer and depression. He was 45.

That summer of 2005 religion and politics was Kopkind’s theme, a constant through American history. A few weeks on, as officials in Louisiana implored citizens to “pray down” an approaching hurricane, one of the biggest stories of the decade would find Billy. We introduced him to The Nation, and his dispatches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were intense and original; they later became the basis for his book, Down in New Orleans: Reflections From a Drowned City.

For all the seriousness and deep explorations of that camp, I wish to enter into the record of remembrance one moment of ecstatic joy. As a warm-up for a morning’s seminar, Jeff broke our assembled camp into three groups, giving each a singing assignment. To one: Om ben zar sa to sa ma ya, a Tibetan Buddhist mantra. To the second: There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the lamb, from a sturdy Christian hymn; Jeff and his co-author on Killing the Buddha, Peter Manseau, had encountered it being sung at a vengeance church praying for an execution in Florida. To the third, which included Billy: Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals; I don’t need to be forgiven!, an elision of lyrics from The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”—the song often mistakenly called by its refrain, “teenage wasteland,” a subject with which Billy was also intimately acquainted.

Here is how this exercise went: each group sang its part alone once; then all three groups sang at the same time, three times. A “Cacophony Choir,” Jeff called it. At the end he said, “This is the sound of religion in America.” Horrible, wonderful; consider the agreement to sing with your neighbor every week, whether or not they can sing, or sing the right way. I was in Billy’s group. He had been reserved the previous days, but he leaned hard into the lyric, passionate and free, inspiring the rest of us to do the same. Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals; I don’t need to be forgiven! he bellowed. Billy would spend much of his life on behalf of people in need of forgiveness, people reduced to the worst thing they’d ever done, declared forever irredeemable. He was brave and beautiful, and it seems he embodied, for as long as he could, that raucous, defiant howl. 

* * *

L to R (zigzag, mostly): John Scagliotti, Ritti Singh, Janet Hernandez, Tristan Call, Regina Mahone, JoAnn Wypijewski, Harper Bishop, Aaron Fernando, Sarah Hurd, Jing Wang, Pamela Allen at the golden hour (photo: Aaron Fernando)

The relationship between social movements and electoral politics was the theme of 2022’s political camp. It’s a subject that Andy Kopkind had written about a lot, notably in his reporting on Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s, and that in various fora Kopkind had addressed across about twenty years. “A complete movement creates useful activities and a political culture that will carry its members through the long years on the margins of power,” Andy wrote in 1988; it organizes itself while working to shift consciousness beyond its dedicated base, thereby expanding that base, at least potentially, and working for tangible gains because, as the ’60s civil rights movement used to say, “the people need victories.” For anyone who takes seriously the dictum to engage in every area of struggle, the electoral arena cannot be ignored. 

If all that seems obvious now, electoral strategy had fallen into disfavor on the left when Jack O’Dell was a mentor at Kopkind in 2004, talking about linkages between the postwar labor organizing, socialist organizing and civil rights organizing that had laid the critical ground for his later involvement with the Rainbow. Skepticism was high in 2008 when Obama had tapped the national mood, and filmmaker Shola Lynch gave a public screening of her documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbowed. A tempest knocked out the power that night, and we talked by lantern light in the barn about candidates’ tendency to take their personal gains but leave the people disempowered. The questions raised then—about organizing and collective leverage—weren’t settled in 2015, when Kevin Gray, a past mentor (who discussed his Rainbow experience in a Zoom conversation with campers this year), analyzed Bernie Sanders’ campaign at a Kopkind public talk, and audience members wondered aloud: How is it that someone is in progressive politics for thirty years but when he’s at his kitchen table sketching out his presidential campaign where’s the black friend, the gay friend, the latino friend, the Arab friend, the women’s liberationist friend—not diversity face cards but people with deep relationships to help build a coalition of all the constituencies that need change most and might fight for it the hardest? So many questions about electoral engagement aren’t settled now (as the Zapatistas say, “we walk with questions”), but the necessity of a politics that acknowledges that people experience class in multiple dimensions, and the importance of an electoral strategy as part of that politics to shift power to the many from the few, is no longer just a history lesson.

In 2022 we had people in residence who’d worked for Bernie’s second, more conscious campaign; people who worked on tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, reproductive justice and cross-border campaigns; people working in print, digital media, television (shout out to The Laura Flanders Show) and film. Some had covered legislative or other political moves; all had come up against the evidence of the left’s electoral weakness, especially in local and state bodies, and were chipping away, thinking of ways to build popular power.

Aaron Fernando, the Kopkind/Nation fellow for 2022, sketched out the twinned media and electoral strategy that housing activists in Ithaca, New York, were developing. He shared his outline for a Guerrilla Media Field School to train people in under-represented communities to amplify their issues/voices by creating their own media, with low overhead, high quality and high independence. Filmmaker/activist Jing Wang took us into the world of immigrant Chinese delivery workers in New York with a camera mounted on a driver’s bike, visually linking working conditions with organizing for legislative change where voting is not an option. Sarah Hurd and Pamela Allen of DSA Chicago and New York, respectively, discussed the practicalities, highs and lows, of running candidates for office as part of a politics for human values versus market or military values. Our mentor, Harper Bishop, a force of nature rooted in Buffalo’s social and economic justice efforts, was in the midst of a fight over a gerrymandered city redistricting map, which even the status quo-ite local newspaper said “makes a hash of the city, splitting neighborhoods, disrespecting minorities and all but ignoring the requirement to keep districts compact and with regular shapes. The resulting map looks more like an incumbent protection program.”

The story Harper diagramed at camp exemplifies the movement/electoral nexus. The coalition he helped found, Our City Action Buffalo, grew out of the same organizing tradition that had spurred India Walton (Kopkind 2019) to challenge the city’s four-term incumbent mayor in 2021. When India won the Democratic primary, shocking the mayor, the political establishment and hopeful leftists too, Harper and OCAB organized door to door. When she lost the general election, he wrote a thorough, unsentimental analysis, and OCAB went after a source of systemic disempowerment, the Common Council district lines. It did political education. It used the council’s map to illustrate structural neglect and the dilution of black voting power (by extension, people’s power to shape decisions affecting their lives). It worked with experts to draw up an alternate map based on equity and geographic logic. When the council insulted their coalition and ignored their arguments, people mobilized by OCAB loudly warned the councilmen (they are all men) that their jobs weren’t safe. Recently, a judge ruled that the council broke no laws in adopting a self-serving gerrymander. So OCAB lost this round. Meanwhile, more people are organized, engaged in creating the “useful activities and political culture” of which Andy spoke. Since India’s run, city and state officials have discovered that the long-ignored black East Side is in need of public investment, but people aren’t just waiting on promises.

This story is not finished.

* * *

Regina Mahone stepped onto the deck during a seminar break on July 19 with a live feed from C-Span on her phone. Renee Bracey Sherman (Kopkind 2015), Regina’s collaborator on a book-in-progress about abortion stigma, structural racism and the struggle for reproductive freedom, was about to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Renee founded We Testify in 2016 to take the shame out of abortion and emphasize people’s experiences and rightful power of decision-making. Her prepared text promised to describe the protocol for a self-managed abortion—likely the first time such a plainspoken instruction had ever been broadcast.

In Historic First, Witness Explains How To Self-Manage Abortion In ...
Renee Bracey Sherman (Kopkind 2015) speaking to Congress

Near the end of her remarks, Renee did just that:

“It is one mifepristone pill followed by four misoprostol pills dissolved under the tongue 24 to 48 hours later, or a series of 12 misoprostol pills, four at a time, dissolved under the tongue every three hours. There’s no way to test it in the blood stream and a person doesn’t need to tell the police what they took. I share that to exercise my right to free speech, because there are organizations and legislators who want to make what I just said a crime.”

The tension in her voice was unmistakable. A month or so earlier I had got a call from a Kopkinder who is involved in an underground network that distributes the pills Renee mentioned from activists in Mexico to US activists in ‘safe’ states to people in states where abortion has been banned or virtually banned. The network includes people skilled in helping women take the pills and accompany them through the process. Renee’s reference to criminalization was not hyperbole. Community care, represented by thousands of volunteers, like Renee, linked to local abortion funds to support others seeking abortions, is under threat or outright attack. It’s too risky for me to name that other Kopkinder, who lives in a reproductive police state. Back in 2020, the Kopkind/Nation collaboration “Scenes From a Pandemic” included a story from a Mexican doctor specializing in sexual and reproductive health, a Kopkind mentor in 2011, who wrote under a pseudonym because abortion was largely prohibited. That is no longer the case in Mexico, where feminists tell their US counterparts, When we needed solidarity, you were there; now it’s our turn.

That moment of Renee’s testimony condensed our theme, telescoped across time. At one end is Roe v Wade, the 1972 decision carried along by the spirit of the time but bereft of the radical ethic of women’s liberation and the other ’60s-era freedom movements. (Read the decision; the Supreme Court put the doctor in the driver’s seat.) At the other end is the persistence of reproductive rights organizers that would be evidenced electorally a few weeks later, on August 2, when voters in Kansas rejected a ballot measure that would have banned abortion in the state; and evidenced again in the midterms, when every ballot measure on abortion resulted in an affirmation of reproductive rights. Vermont, California, Michigan, Kentucky.

Between those two poles has been the long backlash—the right’s combination of grassroots organizing, electoral strategy and blunt exercise of political power—and the efforts by liberationist scholars, writers and activists, centering the experience of black women, to defend abortion rights but also push beyond them, to make a fundamental claim on freedom. Regina and Renee are in that tradition. Our late beloved Pamela Bridgewater Toure—a Kopkind participant (2001), guest speaker (2004), mentor (2006) and board member—argued for reproductive freedom under the 13th Amendment, given that forced birth was a condition of slavery. Following the leak of Justice Alito’s opinion in the Dobbs decision, Pamela’s legal scholarship has had a new life in public discourse. Two notable examples: articles by UMass professor Laura Briggs, author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics in The Washington Post and a Harvard Law School blog.

As John Scagliotti, Andy’s life partner, gay media pioneer and our administrator, has long emphasized in Kopkind discussions on the cycle of liberation and backlash, there is no contradiction in pressing for legal and political reform while also demanding, Why are some people’s rights considered valid grist for opinion polls? Why are some people’s lives votable? “Everyone loves someone who has abortions,” Renee told Congress. “Ask yourself: who do you love that you’d be willing to lock up simply because they had abortions?” In the wake of the midterm victories, she told the press, “We’re doubling down.”

* * *

L to R (zigzag, partly): Immy Humes, Brian Lu, Emily Adams, Tiffany Jackson, John Scagliotti with Li’l Bro, Cheryl Furjanic, Augusta Palmer, Marc Smolowitz, JoAnn Wypijewski, Mac Christopher, Amir Amirani, at film camp with a 1963 Valiant (photo: Amir Amirani)

Cheryl Furjanic, a wonderful filmmaker whose Op-Doc on the Stonewall riots we discussed here a few years ago, came to film camp, Kopkind’s collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, to workshop a film-in-progress about miscarriage. She’s been working on it for some years, inspired by personal experience. It never occurred to her when she had a miscarriage, or even when she started working on the film, that she might have been suspected as a criminal for seeking medical treatment, depending on where she lived, what color she is, the caprice of health and law enforcement professionals. But that’s a reality now. How the political moment might affect the film’s future isn’t something that gets settled at film camp—the workshops are typically part of the progress of a work, not its endpoint—but it made for provocative conversation on a subject that has in so many ways, and for so long, been shrouded in silence.

That’s how it is with film camp: people come at first with technical questions, distribution questions, story questions, etc. Invariably, politics enters the conversation. This year we had filmmakers telling stories about K-pop fan rituals, and a collab-oration between hippies and blues musicians in segregated Memphis; about Gifted ed programs, and a ’60s-era game show; about a loner remaking an old ghost town in the West, and Shirley Clarke, the only woman at the dawn of the avant garde film movement; about a solitary, eccentric white artist in the Vermont hills, and a curious African American adventurer, experiencing conflicting emotions touring the black diaspora. That’s how it is with movies: in the best case, they make you think and want to talk and talk…

We were gratified by the cooperation and good spirits of all our participants, in both camps, in abiding by our covid protocols. It’s always something of a roll of the dice in a pandemic, but our success in keeping everyone healthy depended on a lot of people. It created some extra effort on the part of everyone who makes Kopkind happen behind the scenes. We want to thank, especially, Mary Lewis, our chef; Tom Gogola, a “Swiss army knife,” as they say in sports, who assisted; Christopher Dawes and Jonathan Jensen, who handled technical issues and projection; everyone who pitched in when a storm destroyed the tent, and everyone from the Packer Corners hill who helped raise it anew. A shout out also to Susi Walsh of Center for Independent Documentary, who worked digitally: we hope to see her in person in 2023!

At the top of this newsletter is a shot of an al fresco film screening. Amir Amirani happened to be in the US this summer (he lives in London) and happened to be in Brattleboro in July during the political camp, so we asked him to come for a semi-public screening; then he joined film camp. Kismet. We Are Many commemorates one of the most remarkable displays of human solidarity, the worldwide protests of February 15, 2003, which sought to prevent the US war on Iraq. It didn’t. It did, though, affect the lives of many who were part of it, or who witnessed it from afar. The film took eleven years to make and is told in the memories of numerous participants from across the globe. A lot of us remember “the day the world said no to war,” to quote Phyllis Bennis (Kopkind public speaker, 2004). Now on the cusp of the protest’s 20th anniversary, with so much of the world saying yes to war, “Peace on earth” ought to be more than a holiday slogan.

“If you keep coming back,” an activist says in the film, “at some point, you will make the change.” That’s a motto for us all, for Kopkind, for 2023. On behalf of John and the board of directors, I want to thank everyone who has brought us this far. Please keep coming back. For love and solidarity, and making change for the better in the new year, JoAnn Wypijewski, president

And now before you go, please remember Kopkind in this season of presents. You can do so by pressing the Donate button above. (If you’re not using PayPal, enter the amount before entering other payment information.) Or send a check made out to Kopkind, 158 Kopkind Road, Guilford, VT 05301. All contributions are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. Wishing you all the best. To everyone dealing with cold and snow, courage. Happy New Year!





No Time Like the Present

24 11 2022

… for a present. We have another Zapatista story to share with you, a whimsical reminder that history is not static. We all have a part, from time to time, in shaping it. For more than 20 years, Kopkind has nourished doers and dreamers—radical journalists, organizers, filmmakers, thinkers and creators allworking toward a more humane world. Please help us if you can. The Donate button is just above. And from our Sometimes family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.

images: Beatriz Aurora

Forever and Never against Sometimes

September 12, 1998

Once upon a time, there were two times. One was called One Time and the other was called Another TimeOne Time and Another Time together made the Sometimes family, who lived and ate from time to time. The great dominant empires were Forever and Never, which, as you would imagine, loathed the Sometimes family. Forever and Never couldn’t stand the very existence of the Sometimes family. Forever could not allow One Time to live in its kingdom, because it would stop being Forever, since the existence of one time means there is no forever. Similarly, Never could not allow Another Time to appear another time in its kingdom, because Never cannot live with one time, much less so if that time is another time. But One Time and Another Time continued to bother Forever and Never time and time again. So it was until Forever left them in peace forever, and Never did not bother them ever again. After that, One Time and Another Time passed their time playing, all the time.

“What is it this time?” One Time would ask, and Another Time would reply, “Can’t you see?” And so, as you can see, they lived happily—from time to time and forever remained One Time and Another Time and never stopped being Sometimes

Tan tan.

Moral 1: Sometimes, it is very hard to distinguish between one time and another time.

Moral 2: You must never say forever (well, sometimes it’s okay).

Moral 3: The Forevers and Nevers are imposed from above, but below there appear, time and time again, “the troublemakers,” which sometimes is another name for “those who are different” or, at times, “rebels.” 

Moral No. 4: Never ever again will I write a story like this one, and I always do what I say (well, okay, sometimes I don’t).

Vale y salud, and sometimes Forever and Never come from below (below the belly, for instance).

This is excerpted from Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World (PM Press), a new translation of timeless tales written between 1992 and 2000 by Subcomandante Marcos, collected by solidaristas around the world, and brought to us now in English with commentaries by the Lightning Collective, among whose members is our dear friend, adviser and supporter Margaret Cerullo. A slim volume with sumptuous resonance, it makes a great present, too! (For a time, PM is offering a 50 percent discount on all titles involving indigenous resistance and stories, with the coupon code GIFT.) Below, a bit from the translators’ introduction:

In the spring of 2021, the Zapatistas launched … a five-continent expedition of learning and solidarity. Beginning with a sea voyage to Europe (reversing the voyage of the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521), they visit[ed] collectives all over the European continent, returning the extraordinary solidarity that Europeans have shown them over the years, and revealing to many of us an-“other” Europe, below and to the left … The first small group arrived in Vigo, Basque Country, Spain, where Marijose, a trans woman, turning history upside down, proclaimed with characteristic Zapatista humor and seriousness:

‘In the name of the Zapatista women, children, men, elderly, and, of course, others, I declare that from now on this place, currently referred to as “Europe” by those who live here, be called: SLUMIL K ́AJXEMK ́OP, which means “Rebellious Land” or “Land which does not give in or give up.” And that is how it will be known by its own people and by others for as long as there is at least someone here who does not surrender, sell out, or give up.’

A final note about images: the detail above and the illustration at the top are part of what the artist, Beatriz Aurora, calls “painted stories.” Originally from Chile, Aurora went into exile in Spain in the 1970s, following the US-backed coup against Salvador Allende. After spending time in Nicaragua and El Salvador, she settled in Mexico. “Anyone who loves nature has to be a revolutionary,” she has said.





Stories for Dreaming An-Other World

13 11 2022
Zapatista mural (https://tempetedecielbleu.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/zapatista-visita/)

Andy Kopkind wrote perhaps the most incisive analysis in the immediate wake of the Zapatistas’ January 1, 1994, emergence onto the world stage: “The revolt of the Chiapanecos is something stunningly new, the first shots of a rebellion consciously aimed at the new world order, the dire consequences of a history that did not die as predicted but intrudes in the most pernicious manner on the way of life of people always overlooked. It is a war against the globalization of the market, against the destruction of nature and the confiscation of resources, against the termination of indigenous peoples and their lands, against the growing maldistribution of wealth and the consequent decline in standards of living for all but the rich … The shots fired in Mexico in the first week of the new year have been heard around the world, and their echoes will not soon stop.” Andy is quoted by the Lightning Collective, of which our friend and adviser Margaret Cerullo is a member, in the introduction to its just-published English translation of Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World. The allegorical story below was written by Subcomandante Marcos in a communiqué published on Andy’s last birthday, as it happens, three days after national elections in Mexico, as indigenous communal assemblies were in the process of discussing the direction of their struggle for autonomy, for humanity—a new politics, a new language, a new world to imagine.

The Lion Kills by Looking

August 24, 1994

Old Antonio hunted a mountain lion with his ancient shotgun. I had made fun of his weapon just days before: “They were using weapons like that when Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico,” I had said to him. He defended himself: “Sure, but look who’s wielding it now.” Now he is taking the last shreds of flesh from the hide to tan it. He proudly shows me the hide. It doesn’t have a single hole in it. “Right in the eye,” he boasts. “That’s the only way to keep the hide intact.” “What are you going to do with it?” I ask. Old Antonio does not answer. He continues scraping the hide with his machete in silence. I sit down next to him and after filling my pipe attempt to roll him a corn husk cigarette. I silently offer it to him. He examines it and takes it apart. “You’re not there yet,” he tells me, as he rerolls it. We sit down and begin the ceremony of smoking together.

Between puffs, Old Antonio spins the story.

“The lion is strong because the other animals are weak. The lion eats their flesh because they allow him to eat it. The lion does not kill with claws or fangs. The lion kills by looking. 

“First, he approaches slowly—in silence, because he has clouds on his paws that dampen the noise. Next, he pounces and, with a swipe, takes his victim down, more by surprise than by force. After that, he just stares at his prey. The lion looks at his prey like this . . .” Old Antonio furrows his brow and fixes his black eyes on me. “The poor little animal who is going to die just stares: all it can do is look at the lion looking at it. The little animal no longer sees itself. It sees what the lion sees. It sees the image of a little animal, and in that gaze it is small and weak. Before this, the little animal had never thought about whether or not it was small or weak; it was just a little animal, neither big nor small, neither strong nor weak. But, now, seeing itself in the eyes of the lion, it sees fear. And, seeing how it appears to the lion, the little animal, all on its own, convinces itself that it is small and weak. And seeing the fear that the lion sees, it is afraid. Then the little animal stops looking at anything, and its bones become numb, like when we get caught in the rain in the mountains, in the night, in the cold. And the little animal surrenders, gives up, and the lion gobbles it down, just like that. This is how the lion kills. He kills by looking. 

“But there is one little animal that doesn’t respond in this way. When he comes across the lion, he ignores him and continues as usual. And if the lion swipes at him, he answers by clawing with his hands, which may be tiny, but the blood they draw certainly hurts. This little animal does not back down, because he does not see the lion staring at him. He is blind. ‘Mole’ is what they call this little animal.”

Old Antonio seems to have finished talking. I venture a “Yes, but . . .” Old Antonio doesn’t let me finish and continues telling the story while he rolls another cigarette. He does it slowly, turning to look at me every so often to make sure I am still paying attention.

“The mole went blind because, instead of looking outward, he began to look into his heart; he insisted on looking inward. No one knows how this idea of looking inward got into the mole’s head. The mole was so stubborn about looking into his heart that he didn’t worry about things like strong or weak, big or small, because the heart is the heart, and it isn’t measured the way things and animals are. However, it so happens that only the gods were permitted to look inward, so they punished the mole and didn’t allow him to look outward anymore. Even worse, they condemned him to live and crawl under the earth. That’s why the mole lives underground, because the gods punished him. But the mole wasn’t even upset, since he continued looking inward. 

“That’s why the mole is not afraid of the lion. And neither is the man who knows how to look into his heart. Because the man who knows how to look into his heart does not see the strength of the lion, what he sees is the strength of his heart, and then he looks at the lion who sees the man looking at him. There, in the man’s gaze, the lion sees that he is a mere lion, and sees himself being stared at, and he is afraid and runs away.”

“So did you look into your heart to kill this lion?” I interrupt. “Me?” he answers.” “No way! I concentrated on where the gun was aimed and where the lion’s eye was and fired, just like that. My heart didn’t even cross my mind.” I scratch my head the way they do around here whenever they don’t understand something. Old Antonio stands up slowly. He takes the hide and examines it carefully. Then he rolls it up and hands it to me. “Take it,” he says. “It’s for you so that you never forget that the lion and fear are both killed by knowing where to look.”

Old Antonio turns around and goes inside his home. In Old Antonio’s language, that means: “I’m done. Adiós.” I put the hide of the lion in my nylon bag and leave . . .

Lightning Collective, translators and Zapatista solidarity activists based in Amherst, Massachusetts, provide commentaries illuminating the historical, political and literary contexts of each of the lustrous fables. As the publisher, PM Press, notes, “this timeless, elegiac volume is perfect for lovers of literature and lovers of revolution”. For more information on the book, pictured below, and how to buy it, click here.





Many Thanks, and Onward

21 10 2022
Weatherhead Hollow Pond at the height of color (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

A big thank you to everyone who came to Tree Frog Farm for Kopkind’s Harvest events on October 8-9, and everyone who sent good wishes and made a contribution. (The Donate button on this page, above, is always just a finger stroke away.)

We may have more to post on that later, but for now, with election-season rhetoric aboil and inflation being used as a torch by right-wing candidates to set voters’ hair on fire while neoliberals urge a continued attack on workers in the form of higher interest rates, we want to share a recently published article by our dear friend Bob Pollin, who puts the issue in perspective. Bob co-directs the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass Amherst and has been coming to Kopkind every summer since 1999 for dinner and an informal talk with journalist/activist participants in our political camp. This past summer we asked him to speak on the political economy of inflation. The editor of The Nation heard about the talk afterward, and asked Bob to write it up, hence the piece below.

Notes From Inflation Economics 101

by Robert Pollin

The Federal Reserve is now engaged in a concerted program to increase unemploy-ment from its current low official rate of 3.5 percent and to strip US workers of the small gains in bargaining power they have achieved in the aftermath of the Covid economic lockdown. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged this clearly, if demurely, in a major speech in August, where he predicted that there would “very likely be some softening of labor market conditions” resulting from current Fed policy. The Fed is advancing this program in order to bring down the high inflation rate that has emerged in the past year. As of the most recent figures, average prices for US consumers (measured by the Consumer Price Index) rose by 8.2 percent in September relative to a year ago. (The figure for August was 8.3 percent; for July, 8.5 percent.) Though lower than the 9.1 percent peak figure for June, this is still higher than at any other point in the previous 40 years.

The Fed is attacking workers’ bargaining power because, as of June, average wages rose by 5.1 percent relative to the previous year. The Fed, along with most mainstream economists, assume that businesses raise their prices to cover those wage increases, and so wage increases automatically drive inflation. But this does not necessarily follow. At least in part, businesses could also absorb higher wages—either by increasing the productivity of their operations or accepting somewhat lower profits. In fact, businesses have been raising prices faster than wages have gone up, so that profits have kept rising in the post-lockdown recovery. Meanwhile, for average workers, because their 5.1 percent wage increase is lower than the rise in overall prices, it really amounts to about a 3 percent pay cut in terms of what the workers can buy with their wages.

The Fed’s program to attack workers’ bargaining power is straightforward. It entails raising interest rates to make it more costly for businesses and households to borrow money. With credit becoming more expensive, households should then reduce their spending, especially for big-ticket items such as houses, cars and appliances. Businesses will respond to this decline in overall spending by tightening their operations. Workers will face layoffs as a result.

Fed policymakers and virtually all mainstream economists agree that the US working class needs to swallow this bitter medicine for the greater good of controlling inflation. The current debate within these circles focuses on a narrower question: Can the Fed bring down inflation to around 2 percent without inducing a deep recession? Optimists at the Fed argue that a “soft landing” is still possible, citing evidence that labor market conditions have been loosening. Pessimists such as Larry Summers counter that the plan cannot work without a major recession in which unemployment rises to 6 percent or higher.

The touchstone for this debate is the experience of the 1970s and early 1980s. Inflation averaged 9.0 percent between 1974 and 1982, peaking at 13.6 percent in 1980. To stop this persistent inflationary spiral, Fed chair Paul Volcker raised the Fed’s policy interest rate massively, peaking at an extraordinary 19.1 percent in January 1981. This did produce a precipitous fall in inflation, to 3.2 percent by 1983. It also created a severe global recession, with US unemployment rising to 9.7 percent in 1982, and Latin America descending into a debt crisis and a “lost decade” of economic decline.

Despite these huge costs, both sides of the current debate portray Volcker’s actions in heroic terms, worthy of emulation. In doing so, both sides overlook the critically different circumstances between the Volcker era and now, beginning with how high inflation emerged in both periods.

OIL SHOCKS VS. COVID LOCKDOWN

Inflation in the 1970s and early 1980s resulted from the oil-producing countries (OPEC members) and private oil corporations such as Exxon exercising monopoly power to quadruple oil prices in 1973, and then to double prices again in 1979. By contrast, the current bout of high inflation resulted from policies in the United States and other advanced economies to prevent an all-out economic collapse—on the order of the Great Depression or worse—in the face of the Covid pandemic and March 2020 global lockdown. In the United States, the federal government injected nearly $5 trillion in spending to prop up the economy between March 2020 and March 2021—equal to nearly 25 percent of GDP. The Fed itself bought another $4 trillion in financial assets to keep Wall Street afloat. There were enormous disparities in who got what from these government spending injections. Big corporations, for example, received billions in bailout funds without even being required to keep their employees on payroll. Nevertheless, these measures did prevent an economic collapse and powered a rapid recovery.

As a result of the March 2020 Covid lockdown, unemployment jumped from 3.5 percent in February to 14.7 percent in April, creating more than 18 million newly unemployed people. Due to the stimulus programs, unemployment fell back to 3.5 percent in less than two years. By comparison, it took more than ten years for unemployment to fall from 10 percent to 3.5 percent in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis—even though Obama’s 2009 stimulus, at nearly 10 percent of GDP, was the largest peacetime intervention prior to 2020.

In short, the outsized stimulus measures under Covid reflected the view expressed by Fed chair Powell in 2021: “I’m much more worried about falling short of a complete recovery, and losing people’s careers and lives that they built, because they don’t get back to work in time.”

Powell recognized that, without the stimulus policies, we would have experienced deflation instead of inflation—i.e., sharply falling prices, wages, and incomes along with a rise in loan defaults and a teetering financial system; in short, a 1930s-type scenario. Moreover, the risks of deflation and depression in 2020-21 were global in scope, just as the emergence of high inflation from late 2021 until now has been a global pattern. The overall European Union inflation rate is currently 10.9 percent, up from 2.5 percent a year ago.

Powell’s 2020-21 stimulus policies were intended to expand overall demand in the economy—and they did. But they also created the unintended effect of demand outstripping supply. Supply shortages resulted, especially given that production of goods had been scaled back sharply across the board during the lockdown. Businesses took advantage of these supply shortages to mark up prices as much as they could. In particular, energy prices rose by nearly 33 percent, and food prices by nearly 11 percent, between July 2021 and July 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February worsened the supply shortages for food and energy, and speculative trading on global commodities markets pushed those prices up further. The stimulus programs also created a financial bubble on Wall Street. It is telling that those policymakers and mainstream economists now adamant about stopping 5 percent wage gains raised no objections to stock market prices rising by 46 percent during the lockdown, with speculators’ profits spiking as a result.


If, between 1972 and today, average wages had risen in step with productivity gains, and not a penny more, the average nonsupervisory worker’s hourly wage in 2021 would have been $60.55. Instead, it was $25.90, only 67 cents more than in ’72, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, compensation for big corporate CEOs, which was 33 times higher than the average worker’s pay in the late 1970s, was 366 times higher in 2019. Holding real wages stagnant while redistributing wealth upward has been a cornerstone of neoliberal policy.


40 YEARS OF WAGE STAGNATION

The other big difference between the early 1980s and the present is the relative conditions faced by the working class in both periods. Average real wages in the United States—i.e., after controlling for inflation—had risen by nearly 50 percent between 1960 and 1972, just prior to the first 1973 oil price spike. But real wages have stagnated ever since. In 1972, the average nonsupervisory worker earned $25.23 per hour, adjusted for inflation, while, as of 2021, the average worker earned $25.90, only 67 cents more than in 1972. This at a time when labor productivity—the average amount each worker produces over the course of a day—increased by nearly 250 percent between 1972 and 2021. If, between 1972 and today, average wages had risen in step with productivity gains, and not a penny more, the average worker’s hourly wage in 2021 would have been $60.50, not $25.90.

The idea of holding real wages stagnant for over 40 years has been a cornerstone of neoliberal policy, as initiated in the early 1980s by Ronald Reagan along with Volcker in the US, as well as by Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Indeed, this was the most important force holding inflation down, even when unemployment fell to relatively low levels, such as in the late 1990s. Alan Greenspan, who succeeded Volcker as Fed chair in 1987, acknowledged as much when he described the US working class as having become “traumatized” by global outsourcing and the decline of union strength, even when unemployment was low. 

More generally, wage stagnation in conjunction with rising productivity has been central to the persistent rise of inequality in the United States. This is straightforward: if workers aren’t receiving raises in step with the growing economic pie, then somebody else must be getting bigger and bigger pie slices. Under neoliberalism, the pay for big corporate CEOs rose from being 33 times higher than the average worker in 1978 to 366 times higher in 2019—i.e., a more than tenfold increase in relative pay. The Fed’s current policy amounts to embracing the principle that US workers cannot be allowed to gain enough bargaining strength to push up wages and reverse 40 years of rising inequality.

ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES?

Of course. For starters, both Fed officials and mainstream economists are fixated on bringing inflation down to 2 percent. Why 2 percent? In fact, there is no consistent relationship between rates of inflation, economic growth and unemployment. Focusing on just the high-income (i.e., OECD) economies since the 1960s, relatively high inflation, even in the range of 10 percent or higher, has been associated with periods of both high and low growth, depending on the specific circumstances. By itself, an average inflation rate in the range of 3-4 percent, as opposed to 1-2 percent, is not a serious problem, as long as that somewhat higher inflation rate results from increased wages and a more equal distribution of the economy’s overall pie.

With respect to the energy sector, where prices have risen most sharply, government policy needs to support large-scale investments in energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and industrial activity. Greatly expanding public transportation offerings is one place to start. Government policy then needs to accelerate massively the production of clean renewable energy sources to supplant our existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure. It is already the case that the costs of generating electricity with solar and wind power are at parity or lower than with fossil fuels.

Such measures are also imperative for fighting climate change, which is why they are included as major features of the Inflation Reduction Act which became law in August. Not all of these energy efficiency and renewable energy investments will have immediate impacts. In the short term the government should provide people with energy tax rebates to protect them against temporary spikes in energy prices. The revenues for such rebates should come from the windfall profits tax proposals that have been introduced in Congress by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Ro Khanna. Federal policy can also stop the speculative rise of food and energy prices simply by enforcing financial regulations already in place.

Corporate profits and CEO pay also need to be scaled back relative to the bloated levels achieved under neoliberalism. US businesses cannot expect wage stagnation and persistently rising inequality to remain as bedrocks of US capitalism for another 40 years. To the extent that corporations try to cover any and all wage increases, and then some, by raising consumer prices, the Biden administration should continue pursuing aggressive enforcement of existing anti-trust (i.e., anti-monopoly) policies to prevent these price mark-ups.

Details aside, the basic policy approach should be clear: we must not allow neoliberalism to bask in a new wave of legitimacy in the name of controlling inflation.

Robert Pollin is Distinguished University Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com in September; a shorter version, with updated data, was published in the print edition of the magazine for October 31/November 7. We’ve posted the longer version here and incorporated the updates.





Save the Dates: October 8-9

16 09 2022

Return of the Fabulous!

Photo: Seiya Maeda on Unsplash

CineSlam lgbtq film festival, Oct. 8, 1 pm

Harvest late brunch benefit, Oct. 9, 2 pm

Fall is upon us, and with it Kopkind’s Harvest Festival at height of color, October 8th and 9th. We’ll have an afternoon of screenings as CineSlam LGBTQ Short Film Festival returns on Saturday, the 8th, from 1 to 6 pm. We’ll have Pride Cake at intermission! We’ll have sparkling cider! Most of all we’ll have a cornucopia of creative work that, to borrow the words of Andy Kopkind, “reaches back to the radical roots of liberation, to the joyously skewed visions of sex, love, culture and camp that lie outside the conventions of the straight world.” At the Organ Barn at Tree Frog Farm in Guilford. Free.

On Sunday, the 9th, Kopkind’s Harvest Late Brunch returns. We’ll have a sumptuous spread beginning at 2 pm, followed by a talk by JoAnn Wypijewski. In part it’s a celebration of her 2020 book, What We Don’t Talk About: Sex & the Mess of Life (we’re catching up after a two-year pandemic pause); in larger part, a discussion of sexual politics at the critical center of a struggle for human values over market values, military values, in the contest between liberation and backlash. For freedom to be. Tickets are $35; $10, student and low-income.

Community — people thinking and acting together — is vital to every movement for change and assertion of marvelous humanity. Please join us, at the height of color in beautiful southern Vermont, as we come together again for fabulous films, provocative discussion and great food!

Please RSVP for the late brunch to jwyp@earthlink.net. You may buy tickets via the Donate button at the top of this site, or by check to Kopkind, 158 Kopkind Rd., Guilford, VT 05301, or on the day of. In any case, please shoot us an email to reserve. Weather permitting, Sunday’s events will be outdoors. The film screening Saturday will be in the barn. Guests must wear a mask inside, and we’re asking people to have a negative Covid test before they arrive at Tree Frog Farm. For directions: stonewal@sover.net.





‘Pick Up Your Rock’

24 06 2022

Almost 40 years ago Jesse Jackson made a speech detailing part of the reason Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 — “the fracture of our coalition” and “the margin of despair.” Jackson was registering voters and running for the presidential nomination when he made this speech, so he focussed on votes-that-never-were: “rocks, just laying around.” The genius of the 1984 and 1988 Rainbow Coalition, though, was that it considered every fight of any one part of the coalition to be a fight that implicated every other part. Central was the recognition of social movement constituencies and a coherent electoral strategy. Today’s Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case was 50 years in the making, the product of right-wing social movement organizing, agitating, electioneering, vying for office at every level, legislating, gerrymandering, court-stuffing, propagandizing, protesting and lawbreaking. As the decision makes clear, banning abortion is not the right’s only goal. It never was. Just as its electoral strategy was never its only one. This is a raw day. We remember the ‘Little David’ part of Jackson’s speech as a clarion against despair.

This year’s political camp for journalists, activists and other media makers, from July 17 through 24, will address the theme Social Movements and Electoral Politics, a Critical Relationship. The struggle for reproductive freedom as everyone’s struggle will be a vital part of our discussions.





Fern Feather

16 04 2022
Fern, 2014, at Tree Frog Farm (photos: Asam Ahmad)

Fern Feather was a flowerboy when we met in 2014, a flowergirl, a sparkle of fairy dust, a glowing presence in a dark world, an aesthete, a bit of a scamp, a loving soul, a live soul, until April 12, 2022, when someone put an end to all that. No in memoriam should start with murder, but how do you keep something like that to the side, especially when the contrast between living and dying is so sharp, so shocking? Fern was 22 when we met, would have been 30 on April 22. He, she, they, Fern had come out as trans this past March but wasn’t too concerned about pronouns, friends have said, maybe because Fern in full defied all categoriesno more or less a month ago than when s/he came to Kopkind quite unexpectedly, to fill a breach when we needed a cook in an emergency. In flew Fern, saronged and wearing a light shirt, bangles; be-ringed fingers deftly arranging rainbow platters of heirloom tomatoes, gracefully gesturing toward each dish, which s/he always introduced with a flourish.

What a whirl of a time. There was Fern organizing the campers in the preparation of dinnermentors Scot Nakagawa chopping cilantro, Peter Linebaugh lazily stirring brownie batter … There was Fern ambling across the back field gathering wild flowers …

Asam Ahmad, who was a camper in 2014 and took all the photographs in this post, remembers Fern as having “a kind of exuberance and openness to the world that was so unafraid yet simultaneously kind of terrifying.” Fern told wild stories, of hitchhiking through the US and Latin America. Fern, beautiful adventurer. A few days before the murder, Fern picked up a hitchhiker, a “good guy,” a “special friend,” s/he told a real friend, according to police reports. Fern and the hitchhiker spent some time together, and then one morning the hitchhiker called another real friend to say he had killed Fern. Fern had gone “crazy” and attacked him after a sexual advance, the man said; “I wasn’t gay,” he told police. Past tense. We don’t know much more, except that there was no sign of a struggle; the self-confessed killer, a 43-year-old transient who had previously stabbed someone and previously spent time in a psych ward, was not injured, and was found sitting in a car at the scene of the crime when police arrived, as Fern lay dead on the ground from a stab wound to the chest, with two dogs grieving.

Vermont is not associated with violent death, and consistently has one of the lowest murder rates in the country. “In Vermont, we’ve seen primarily males killing other males as a result of an argument or some kind of emotional provocation between them,” Penny Shtull, a professor of criminology at Norwich University, told the press at the close of 2021, a year when state police investigated a total of nine homicides. But this is not the first ever killing of a trans or nonconforming person in the Green Mountain State, either, and nationally 2021 was the most gruesome year on record. The Human Rights Campaign lists Fern as the eleventh trans or nonconforming person in the country to be killed in 2022.

Fern Feather … such a perfect name. Fern loved the birds of the air, the green of the field and all its bounty, all things marvelous, common and strange. S/he floated among them. In the numerous expressions of grief that have circulated, a friend recalled meeting Fern at a bonfire. “You’re too pretty to be standing alone,” Fern had said. Letting anyone stand alone wasn’t Fern’s style.

Queer people in Vermont have been gathering in Fern’s memory, and will continue to do so. We join in gratitude for Fern’s life, and in sorrow.





A February Night Ten Years Ago: 4

26 02 2022

Anyone’s Son

Tara Skurtu

for the family of Trayvon Martin

This poem wants to write itself backwards.

Wishes it were born memory instead, skipping

time like a record needle stuck on the line

of your last second. You sit up. Brush not blood,

but dirt from your chest. You sit up. You’re in bed.

Bad dream. Back to sleep. You sit up. Rise and shine.

Good morning. This is the poem of a people united

in the uniform of your last day. Pockets full

of candy, hooded sweatshirt, sweet tea. This poem

wants to stand its ground, silence force

with simple words, pray you alive anyone’s

son — tall boy, eye-smile, walk on home.

Tara Skurtu, a Florida native, currently lives in Bucharest. The recipient of two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Marcia Keach Poetry Prize and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, she is the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania and the full poetry collection The Amoeba Game. In 2020 Tara founded the online arts initiative International Poetry Circle. She’s also on the steering committee of Writers for Democratic Action. “Anyone’s Son” was originally published by The Huffington Post, July 14, 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. It is the final piece in Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.





Interlude

25 02 2022

The twinned images appeared in different forms after February 26, 2012, and gave way, with the years, to others, multiples. The image below, by Brooklyn artist Dáreece Walker, was reprinted by The Nation in March of 2020. The twinning calls to mind another poem, by the great Gwendolyn Brooks, from her 1960 book, The Bean Eaters. Readers are encouraged to see also a companion poem by Brooks, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.”

(artwork: Dáreece Walker)

The Last Quatrain of Emmett Till

    after the murder,
    after the burial

Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
    the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
    drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
    And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
    through a red prairie.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917 and lived most of her life in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Her many other books include A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950), Maud Martha and In the Mecca. She was the US Poet Laureate in 1985-86. The Morgan Library in New York City has a wonderful exhibition called “Magnitude and Bond: The Work of Gwendolyn Brooks in Community,” now until June 5, 2022.





A February Night Ten Years Ago: 3

24 02 2022

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin went out on a drizzly night in Sanford, Florida, and never came home. This week we’re commemorating Trayvon’s life and the upsurge sparked by his death, mostly through poetry included in Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, a collection of writings, documents and poems on Martin’s case and related ones, edited by Kevin Alexander Gray, Jeffrey St. Clair and JoAnn Wypijewski, with contributions from many Kopkind alums and friends.

(artwork: Merlo Levy)

Trayvon, Redux

Rita Dove

It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.

– William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”

Move along, you don’t belong here.
This is what you’re thinking. Thinking
drives you nuts these days, all that
talk about rights and law abidance when
you can’t even walk your own neighborhood
in peace and quiet, get your black ass gone.
You’re thinking again. Then what?
Matlock’s on TV and here you are,
vigilant, weary, exposed to the elements
on a wet winter’s evening in Florida
when all’s not right but no one sees it.
Where are they – the law, the enforcers
blind as a bunch of lazy bats can be,
holsters dangling from coat hooks above their desks
as they jaw the news between donuts?

Hey! It tastes good, shoving your voice
down a throat thinking only of sweetness.
Go on, choke on that. Did you say something?
Are you thinking again? Stop!— and
get your ass gone, your blackness,
that casual little red riding hood
I’m just on my way home attitude
as if this street was his to walk on.
Do you hear me talking to you? Boy. 
How dare he smile, jiggling his goodies
in that tiny shiny bag, his black paw crinkling it,
how dare he tinkle their laughter at you.

Here’s a fine basket of riddles: 
If a mouth shoots off and no one’s around
to hear it, who can say which came first—
push or shove, bang or whimper? 
Which is news fit to write home about?

Rita Dove is a former US Poet Laureate (1993-1995) and recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book Thomas and Beulah. Her poetry collections include Sonata Mulattica and American Smooth, and she was sole editor of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. She is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. “Trayvon, Redux” originally appeared on The Root, July 16, 2013.