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!


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