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.


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.

A February Night Ten Years Ago: 2

23 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.

Detail from Trayvon Martin mural, Oakland (photo: Tennessee Reed)

cartwheel on the blacktop (Trayvon Martin 2.0)

Alexis Pauline Gumbs

he has wings in his shoes

Trayvon yawns and stretches in the crook of the tree. Slept til dark again. Shrugs. Stretches out his retractable shoe gliders and hangs a slow swinging backflip out of the branches. Into the world again. Blows a kiss at one leaf. Turns to face home.

a rainbow in his mouth

Notices he is on tilt two-thousand. Off-balance more than the sway of waking up. Sugar low. Annoyed to have to hunt for convenience and its stores of chemical fructose. This is a manicured neighborhood. No fruit in these trees but him himself at twilight.

he has sweet tea time travel in a can

Sweetness reloading he blinks at the mission message in his eyelids. Find the little brother. Teach him about sugar. Teach him that he too can fly as nonchalant as hammock rope. Give him one swift hug and then return to the future to plug in his fingers. Banjo music a much better charge than this watered down fuel. Can’t wait to get home. He slept into dark. On this world of all worlds. Right during the time of the nightvision nearsightedness. Sigh. He might be late. His shoes brush the sidewalk.

his hooded sweatshirt forcefield threaded through with angel kevlar

Behind him the loud machine for the heavyfooted hunter slows down. He has been detected. Will his teenage camouflage help him or hurt. He sighs. He is so young. Only four hundred years old. He shakes his head and looks back. Remember how they used guns. Remember how they never felt safe enough to breathe or whole enough to listen. Overslept. Over. He sends one telepathic message to the little brother waiting. Quickly embroiders it with sweetness. Love.

At the moment of the explosion the sweatshirt flickers hieroglyphics. Blue light math. He squeezes the can. Liquid sprays everywhere. Hands to the pavement. He wonders if the little brother will understand what he must do.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black troublemaker, a black feminist love evangelist, a prayer poet priestess with a PhD from Duke University. Her books include Dub: Finding Ceremony, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals and 101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive, among others. She is co-editor of a volume on legacies of radical mothering, This Bridge Called My Baby. 

Press the Home button above for more.

A February Night Ten Years Ago: 1

21 02 2022

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin went out on a drizzly night in Sanford, Florida, and never came home. His killing at the hands of George Zimmerman marked the beginning of the contemporary movement for black freedom and against police violence, vigilante violence and shoot-first laws like Stand Your Ground. This week we’ll be 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 (Kopkinders all). We begin with a bit slightly adapted from the book’s introduction.

We didn’t gather up the voices here to settle what must remain unsettled, unsettling. What dissonance there is among the offerings, what gaps in the story, is the story – of life, of death – and no neat tie-up would bring comfort, or that insipid concept closure, or let Trayvon live again.

Trayvon Martin, as bell hooks says here, was “just being a regular teenager,” walking in no particular hurry, chatting on the phone, on his way home during halftime of the NBA All Star Game – “anyone’s son,” to echo the title of Tara Skurtu’s closing poem, and he is dead. That ordinariness is partly what sparked the viral commemorations, the “million hoodie marches,” the countless symbolic and material remembrances, of which the artwork in this book, from a mural in Oakland, is a signal example. Mimi Thi Nguyen, who has written about the hoodie’s symbolism for Signs, catalogued some of those memorializing acts in a public talk:

In mourning, militancy and mimicry, posed hoodie photographs – most often consisting of a simple frontal snapshot of a person in a hooded sweatshirt, hood up – proliferated in the aftermath of Martin’s murder. Tweeting the widely propagated photograph of the NBA’s Miami Heat – hoods raised, heads bowed and hands clasped – LeBron James tagged it: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin… #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.” In addition to photographs of celebrities in hoodies (Common, Jamie Foxx, Sean Combs, Wyclef Jean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Arsenio Hall, CNN contributor and journalist Roland Martin, LeVar Burton, US Representative Bobby Rush, the list goes on), others too sought solidarity through the same, seemingly simple act, including Harvard and Howard law students in front of ivy-covered buildings; elementary schoolchildren lined up along a wall holding bags of Skittles; “moms in hoodies”; New York state senators Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins and Eric Adams; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm; attendants at vigils and marches; black-and-white drawings of a range of humanity published in a special issue of The New Yorker; even professional portraiture as protest art. Thousands more appear on Facebook pages like A Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin and on Tumblrs (often tagged with #MillionHoodies), including I Am Trayvon Martin, featuring photograph after photograph – often snapped with webcams or mobile phones – of persons with their hoodies up. One well-trafficked photograph depicts a pregnant black woman in a hoodie gazing upon her bared stomach, marked with the words “Am I next?”

Ubiquitous and implicating the living with the dead, those photographs, Nguyen observed, “gesture toward a serial murder, the continuing threat that is realizable at any coming moment.”

They gesture toward something else as well: a refusal to be next.

Watch this space all week for more.

Sniffing the Zeitgeist, Winter 2021

21 12 2021

Again, Kopkind is bringing its annual end-of-year newsletter to you digitally.

Jasmine, Toronto (photo: Asam Ahmad, Kopkind 2014)

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Let’s start with Forward. As 2021 comes to a close, Kopkind is looking ahead to resume our signature summer seminar/retreats at Tree Frog Farm. We’re not under illusions that we’ll wake up one day and the coronavirus will have disappeared; having put the summer project on pause for the past two years of the pandemic, we’re simply determined to deal with new realities. Like the incongruous flowering in Asam Ahmad’s garden, above, we’re pushing up jasmine; like the rocky soil or soft woodlands of southern Vermont, we’re pushing up forsythia and forget-me-not, pushing up morels, anything but metaphorical daisies. Nature is real for Kopkind, part of why the project is not Zoomable. Kopkind is a social and sensory experience as much as an intellectual, political and creative one. Embedded in life, embedded in history and a feeling for freedom. So, to regeneration! That is our wish, for Kopkind, for you our friends and supporters, for our collective radical energies and our world. Come July and August of 2022 we expect to welcome back our ‘camps’ of political journalists, activists and documentary filmmakers, as we have done for twenty years. Please help us make that happen. There’s a Donate button at the bar up top on this site; we welcome every gift with open arms.

As to looking back, Kopkind wasn’t idle this year, and the hundreds of people who have been participants in or guests of the project since 1999, along with our network of members and advisers, are rocking in the world. Some of them contributed to “Scenes From a Pandemic,” the weekly series of short essays that Kopkind commissioned and edited, a collaboration with The Nation that was manifest on the magazine’s website and this blog from 2020 into ’21. Some of them released films, including one that was workshopped ten years ago at Film Camp and had its Vermont premier at an outdoor public screening at Tree Frog Farm in August. One alumna made national headlines.

India Walton (Kopkind 2019)

In June, India Walton and her campaign stunned a four-term incumbent and the broader political establishment by winning the Democratic Party primary for mayor of Buffalo. A lot of people said she came out of nowhere, but they hadn’t been paying attention. When she came to Kopkind in 2019, she had recently started a community land trust aiming to secure permanent affordability in a black neighborhood threatened by gentrification. Long before that, a social movement infrastructure had been growing in Buffalo that helped her find her people and add to the struggle for a more equitable city. Our theme in 2019 was Democratizing the Economy. The experience, she says, made her feel like a “wild woman,” which is another way of saying a free woman: it helped build political and personal confidence. This year she put together a new kind of rainbow coalition to contest electorally. The subsequent general election campaign was long and ugly, and India didn’t prevail. (For more on the background and aftermath, see here and here, respectively.) Her campaign did succeed, though, in putting inequality at the center of the table in a city whose media and dominant political class have been too busy touting ‘Renaissance’ to bother much about the people left out. (Now the mayor is talking about them.) The campaign cross-pollinated with the young workers in Buffalo who in December won the first union drive in the country at Starbucks. It provided a real-world testing ground for Our City Action Buffalo, a new multiracial organization that aims to build power through electoral change. It created a sense of possibility, and drew in new people, breaking longstanding barriers. Those are themes close to Kopkind’s hearthow the left engages in every area of struggle, and how it expands the realm of participation, thought and action.

* * *

Some primary voters in Buffalo said it was the pandemic that convinced them there needed to be a change in priorities at the top. As the crisis hit, the city’s social movement infrastructure had organized to meet people’s needs when little else would. That was a familiar story around the country.

Two years in, the pandemic continues to structure the spirit of the time. Somehow it seems darker now, the uncertainties of last year compounded by the normalization of distance and the gulf between social solidarity and bloody-mindedness. (Let alone the latest variant.) “Scenes From a Pandemic” continued with songs of experience, but the tone seemed different. Endurance formed the base line, the improvisations of the period conveying hopes for regeneration refracted in multiple ways across time.

Asam: On the cusp of another surreal spring, I have never felt simultaneously more at home and more afraid of being unmoored.

At the start of the pandemic, Asam and his boyfriend had been evicted. They’d found a place far from the center of prohibitive Toronto and planted a garden, whose bounty Asam catalogued lavishly, the flower and vegetable names cascading one on top of another like poetry, the garden revealed as, at once, a balm, a distraction, a point of connection with neighbors, an anchor and warning amidst precarious life. The day his story appeared on The Nation’s site, Asam learned that the landlord was selling the house, and they were being evicted again.

At the start of the pandemic, Angela Ards, who was a Kopkind camper in 2000, a mentor in 2015 and has been an ongoing adviser, made a local dog park a respite from isolation together with other dog owners in Newton, Massachusetts. Diversion became something deeper, both nourishing and more complicated in 2021.

Angela: It’s been almost a year. Wildlife is back in hiding; smog in New Delhi and Los Angeles has returned; yet, we still gather … The Vizsla’s dad, who was laid off and then rehired at a much lower salary, says the pandemic has changed his mind about a lot. Perhaps “building wealth” sounded more like a scam after losing his job. Following the January 6 insurrection, he asked if I thought Trump supporters would have a change of heart having seen the violence. I doubt it. I think it’s more like the Shih Tzus’ dad. He does work harder now to make small talk, to connect, but he persists in showing up without a mask despite a statewide mandate. Standing on the hill by the oak trees, he wishes “Good morning” to the rest of us, masked, standing below. He seems to want to show us that he’s not like those people who stormed the Capitol.

Sticker, New York City (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Globally, a year with Covid coincided with the tenth anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. From Kyoto, Lisa Torio (Kopkind 2016) began with the image of a spring market, lush, luscious; and the hushed manner in which some continued to speak of calamity.

Lisa: Coming of age in the years following the nuclear disaster, I learned from the way adults spoke in measured tones, from their pauses and awkward glances, that talking about tragedies has an expiration date. On March 11, at 2:46 pm, people across the country prayed in silence, remembering those who lost their lives in the Tohoku earthquake-tsunami and those still missing … The government’s promise of recovery in the wake of that disaster meant erasure. It meant covering up the full extent of radiation and lifting evacuation orders without proper evaluation and evidence. It meant cutting subsidized housing for tens of thousands of people who were simply dropped from the “official count” of evacuees. Two years after the disaster, the Japanese prime minister declared, “Japan is back.” With that, mourning became something reserved for official days only. We traded reflection for a version of recovery that requires a finite past. Fukushima became a tragic thing that once happened but that we overcame, a testament to our resilience as a nation. Such recovery requires us to reconstruct our lives around the official narrative, to draw a line between those who bore the brunt of the disaster and the rest of us, their world and ours. It requires our silence—we repress the dismay, fear, rage and sorrow we feel to go on as if everything is back to the way things were, the way things always are. It becomes harder and harder to remember—what is happening, what it feels like, what is being erased. The current of all the unsaid things running beneath the silence

Another spring with Covid coincided with more agony in Gaza. Writing from Lahore, Hira Nabi (Kopkind 2011): “There is nothing else to talk about but Palestine. There is nowhere else to look but Palestine. There is everything in the world but hope. There is nothing in the world without hope.”

Another September with Covid, another hurricane season, another year since an uncle of Joël Díaz (Kopkind 2015) had gone missing after trying to escape devastation in Dominican Republic by sea.

Joël: No one is certain about what actually unfolded. The tale goes that, either begrudged or wary of his companions, my uncle split from the group once he reached shore. Unfamiliar with that part of the island, he went into the forest to make his way toward the closest inhabited town. During one of the police searches, a pair of shorts were found. They are believed to be his. When I asked for updates, all details amounted to nothing, some wispy trace, deteriorating in an instant … One rumor was that he’d been taken by Haitian kidnapés, who would soon request ransom, said to be stalled because of police searches. It is uncertain if those claims are rooted in anti-blackness or in the realities of the kidnappings plaguing Haiti and neighboring towns in Dominican Republic. Legend will say that there is a man who roams the town in his underwear, searching for his family. And there he stays, neither fully clothed nor whole. Just a memory. A rumor. A hope.

Murk, between Dominican Republic and the world (photo: Joël Díaz)

* * *

To paraphrase Andrew Kopkind, then writing of the war in Vietnam, what the pandemic has done to the societyquite apart from the cost in lives and healthis only beginning to be understood. Its presence as background rather than subject in so many stories speaks less to the ways that Covid is becoming endemic than to a pattern of crises in the neoliberal order that made that inevitable. How the roots of this reality are perceived and what anyone does with the knowledge is a point of politics. That in the US some see a cabal of Satanic pedophiles and others see systems of exploitation, that the elite are split between advancing versions of the welfare state and hoarding the goodies while they can, indicate the volatility of the situation. On one level, the nonchalance toward mass death (1 out of 100 elders cut down) is stunning, though we’ve been throwing granny away for some time now, not to mention soldiers and foreign populations. Yet the shock of Covid remains so profound on an individual and systems level that however much one might want to turn away from the numbers, and however normalized some pandemic routines may have become (working from home, alone, wearing pajamas all day), the now-ordinary incapacitations (of bodies, hospitals, supply chains) call into question so much else that’s been taken as normal. Disposability is hardly new, just harder to ignore.

Worker revolts (including the wave of resignations), uprisings against police violence, electoral campaigns like Walton’s, all represent a rejection of devalued life. In different ways, Malkia Devitch-Cyril (Kopkind 2002) and Bri M. (Kopkind 2018) wrote about this.

Malkia: It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death. In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it.

Bri: I have never been normal. As a black, disabled trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to? … I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work … tell[ing] the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never alone. Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward.

Work, Bri, Los Angeles (photo: Prerna Sampat, Kopkind 2009)

Malkia’s and Bri’s stories were ultimately about culture as a necessitypersonally, politically, reflecting and shaping the Zeitgeist.

* * *

As noted, a couple films that were workshopped in Kopkind’s Film Camp, a collaboration with the Center for Independent Documentary, premiered this year. WBCN and the American Revolution, by Bill Lichtenstein (Kopkind/CID, 2014), aired on PBS in the fall, documenting the relationship between left media and left movements through the story of a radio station that grew out of the sixties-era counterculture in Boston. (John Scagliotti and Andy Kopkind, who both appear in the film, worked in the news department at BCN in the 1970s and also created the first gay and lesbian commercial radio show there, “The Lavender Hour.”) The Faithful, by Annie Berman (Kopkind/CID 2010), was released in March, taking an innovative approach to open streaming sponsored by Grant for the Web, which aims to seed a digital ecosystem that is equitable, inclusive, attentive to privacy and creative control. (It’s notable that Malkia, as the founding executive director and now senior fellow of MediaJustice in Oakland, has spent more than twenty years fighting for digital rights, conscious of the Internet’s “troubled terrain” but also of its connective power, using it in the pandemic to create a weekly meeting place called Pandemic Joy, among other online groups.) We screened Annie’s film, a meditation on cultural icons and popular devotions, along with a sneak peak of Chuck Light and Daniel Keller’s Far Out: Life On & After the Commune, under a late summer sky, in an open tent, after a repast of marvelous dishes brought by community members whose delight at gathering again in person was palpable.

The Bonuses or main posts on this site from across the year contain many samples of the cultural work of some of Kopkind’s alums and friends: Daniela Broitman’s doc on the great Brazilian composer Dorival Cayymi. Jon Crawford’s archive of lgbtq experience, Tell Me a Memory. Tracy Heather Strain’s PBS film on The Wizard of Oz. Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s doc on two Cuban-born virtuosos, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, now up for Oscar consideration. Suchi Branfman’s account of making Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic and, as a bonus to the same post, Katja Esson and Ann Bennett’s film-in-progress on the struggle over Miami’s historic Liberty City. Divad Durant’s account of transnational collaboration in making his short film Goodnight Sun. David Ferry’s haunting translations and observations on the “lamenting pleasure” of writing and reading poetry in relation to grief.

Alex Halkin (Kopkind/CID 2014), whose wonderful collaborative work with Cuban artists we featured as a Bonus to Nos. 5 and 19 of “Scenes From a Pandemic,” in May and August of 2020, respectively, has sent along a new collaborative video. Like the earlier works, this one is part of the Americas Media Initiative (AMI), which Halkin directs and which is focused on community-based media in the hemisphere. We gladly share it here:

As Alex writes: “To this date there are still no means for Cubans living in the US to send money to their loved ones on the island. AMI Is sending royalty payments to Cuban filmmakers with two friends who are traveling there.” Behind the lighthearted form of superhero animation is serious business: the obligation of US citizens to object to our government’s proclivity to wield suffering as a weapon.

* * *

“What kinds of coalitions, of we‘s, are possible in this protracted, still expanding historical moment of catastrophe?” Asam asked in closing his dispatch from Toronto. “What kinds of routes are available to make one another’s lives less vulnerable? Like Gramsci, I keep reminding myself that it is painful to be alive at the time of a new birth; that it is painful to witness newness being born.”

India Walton called her experience at Kopkind “transformational.” We’ve heard that a lot over twenty years from people who work every day to change conditions, to change consciousness, and we think it has to do with the combination of people, political discussion, setting, history, culture, pleasure. Finding pleasure in ideas, in human company, in nature and attention. It has to do with everyone who believes in this project and has contributed to it in any waywith appreciation for all that it means to love life, as our chef Mary Lewis suggested in her post to “Scenes From a Pandemic.”

Mary: I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects. Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks that Andy and John had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

Andy, Tree Frog Farm (photo: John Scagliotti)

“We love life whenever we can,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Every word captures the truth of the thing: there’s nothing fainthearted about love.

“Scenes From a Pandemic” has been a series of love offerings, written under trying circumstances, with intention. For a holiday treat, you can find Mary’s salmon recipe here, and can scroll down for all sixty-one essays from the pandemic series (including Scot Nakagawa’s 2020 kimchee recipe here, for another treat) plus Bonuses. We are so grateful to everyone who put in the effort. We are grateful to The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Don Guttenplan, our friends, who made it possible for people to earn a little money while opening windows onto experience. (And to everyone at the magazine who worked to put it up every week, especially Robert Best, Ricky D’Ambrose, Anna Hiatt and Sandy McCroskey.) We are grateful to our readers, to you right now, and we really need your help. The Donate button is a click away.

The political moment presents challenge and opportunity, and we’re going forward, baby.

Here’s to you, with every warm wish. Here’s to a new year. Here’s to solidarity.

JoAnn Wypijewski, for everyone at Kopkind

PS: anyone who would prefer to write a check may surely do so. Please make it out to Kopkind and mail to John Scagliotti, 158 Kopkind Road, Guilford, VT 05301. John is having the mail forwarded to his winter HQ, so it may take a bit longer to receive an acknowledgment. Gifts to Kopkind are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Thank you!

Socialism, a Story in Fragments

15 12 2021
Mural of India Walton (Kopkind 2019) on Eugene V. Debs Hall, Buffalo (photos: JoAnn Wypijewski)

This piece, by JoAnn Wypijewski, first appeared on New Left Review‘s blog, Sidecar, for December 7, 2021. It is reprinted here with a different title and additional photos.

Socialism is a story on the streets of the twenty-first century city. A lot depends on the teller. There was a mayor’s race here on November 2. One of the candidates called herself ‘a proud socialist’, a ‘democratic socialist’. Her opponents called her a ‘radical leftist’ and ‘dangerous’. An editorial cartoon in the daily newspaper in June, shortly after she upset the four-term incumbent mayor of this Democratic city in the Democratic Party primary, depicted her benevolently extending City Hall to a throng of outstretched arms. By October, the incumbent having decided to run a write-in campaign premised on the unique peril posed by this upstart, the newspaper decided that it too found her a ‘threat’. She is four feet eleven inches tall. In her pitch to voters, socialism amounted to advocating an economy and society that worked for everyone; she seldom used the term. Leftish commentators nationally rhapsodized about socialism taking the reins of power in Buffalo, and got almost everything wrong. The Erie County Democratic Party chair said talk of radicalism was ridiculous: ‘she sounds like FDR’. ‘Write-In’ came out ahead on November 2, an indistinguishable heap that didn’t officially return the incumbent mayor to City Hall until late November, once his votes were separated out from those for Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback and a few candidates who also ran as write-ins, though mostly invisibly. Election night returns were robust enough, though, to relieve some contributors to the newspaper’s letters section that Buffalo had been spared from becoming North Korea on Lake Erie.

Words are pesky when they have no agreed-upon meaning.

Young woman waiting for the bus: ‘Socialism? I heard that word back in school, in history class, but …  I can’t remember.’

Young man waiting for the bus: ‘I know exactly what it means. To be sociable, you know, just socializing, talking with people, over the internet, just everywhere, everywhere.’

Old man getting on the bus: ‘I wish you’d asked me first. [gruffly] I’ll tell you: Joe Biden.’

* * *

Socialism is a history in fragments in a fragmented city. Walking distance from my natal home there is an empty lot. There are many, actually, but 1644 Genesee Street, next to Ike and BG’s BBQ and across from Island Food Mart, a bodega defenced by door and window grates, once denoted the East Side Labor Lyceum. The building is said to have survived until 1991, though I don’t remember it. A stone’s throw away, a small but handsome brick structure where I checked out books as a girl has not been a library for decades, but the central library downtown yielded a few details. A Sanborn map from 1939 is allusive: a deep, narrow building; a ‘Hall’ on the second floor. A squib from the Buffalo Courier in 1915 announces that the lyceum’s cornerstone would be laid on April 11 of that year, a Sunday. ‘Preceding the ceremony there will be a parade of children and men and women interested in the project.’ A ‘Socialist organizer of Buffalo’ got top billing among the speakers, who also included a Presbyterian clergyman and Mrs. Frank J. Shuler, representative of the Woman Suffrage party. A reminiscence in the Courier Express from 1950 mentions ‘the old time Socialist soapboxes … They used to hold forth regularly, orating from improvised stands at Main and Mohawk, Main and Genesee and other points throughout the city’. The card catalogue in the local history reference room discloses little more, but the librarian found regular announcements of meetings, socialist lectures and card parties at the East Side Labor Lyceum while scrolling through a news database. A dissertation on the role of interior spaces in the formation of working-class consciousness reports that Buffalo had a kind of floating lyceum, a regular lecture series or salon under various roofs, as early as 1904. A sentence in a Daily Worker story from 1924 mentions a Labor Lyceum in another part of the city’s East Side, this one at 376 William Street, near Jefferson, the commercial drag of black Buffalo by the time of my youth. That address today is also an empty lot.

1644 Genesee Street (part of the lot in distance) today

Nothing marks the radical past. Labor Lyceums, typically the undertakings of socialist German immigrants, replaced saloons as primary spaces for union meetings, educational events and working-class entertainments in many industrial cities around the US in the early twentieth century, but I hadn’t thought about their existence in Buffalo until I stepped into a saloon, sort of – the Eugene V. Debs Hall, a former Polish bar, beautifully restored last year and, once the state approves its liquor license, one of two taverns that remain in an East Side neighbourhood that used to be thick with them. People, some my relatives, once crowded the streets of this area; wildlife is common now. A deer loped across the street toward my car the night I visited the Debs Hall to talk with its founder and principal manager, Chris Hawley. The flock of wild turkeys that also frequent the neighbourhood must have been sleeping or shy.

Hawley is a senior planner for the City of Buffalo. He lives in the back of the tavern with a cat named Sputnik, whom he rescued from certain death on the street, and bikes to City Hall, fifteen minutes away. As an avocation he researches the histories that have been erased in what, in so many other ways, is a landscape of memory. Ten years ago, thousands of preservationists from across the country gathered for a conference in Buffalo, marvelling at the works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, at the daylight factories and grain elevators that had inspired Le Corbusier but, even in those cases, abstracting the architecture from the lives that had built and animated it. Hawley wasn’t in his present job at the time. He was born here forty years ago, into a family that, on one side, traces its early twentieth century heritage to skilled work and upward mobility from the beginnings of the once-gargantuan Bethlehem Steel works; and that, on the other side, preserved the silences of a working class left to fend for itself – the railroad worker killed on the job, his widow with eleven children, the rough boarders to whom she’d rent out the children’s beds, the violence of everyday life. Hawley’s parents were part of the migration out of Western New York to the Sun Belt. He began unearthing labour histories when he moved to Buffalo after university, piecing together the shards of experience that help decipher a project like the Eugene V. Debs Hall today.

Workers associations were numerous when the building was erected in the Broadway/Fillmore district not far from the city’s vast railyard and stockyards in 1899. It was always a bar, and because, according to a 1901 report by Temperance advocates, all but six of Buffalo’s sixty-nine labour organizations met in saloons or halls connected to saloons, it’s possible that the proprietors of this place augmented their income by renting space to unions. In any event – even allowing for the contradictions of the saloon as a male space, a white ethnic (here specifically Polish) space, a drinking and so potentially disabling space – the bar would have been a communal hearth, locus for workers to forge bonds against the fragmenting processes of industrial capitalism. Especially once it was spruced up in 1914, it likely played the social role of so many taverns, as a site for small wedding parties or funeral repasts, christening fetes and other celebrations. By then, Hawley says, ‘Buffalo was a hotbed of the Socialist Party. Debs had come here in 1898 to form the first local. There were twelve locals in the city, several in the outlying towns; mainly they met in taverns or other halls.’ The East Side Labor Lyceum was a step up, built by the Socialist Party specifically for socialists. He has a picture of its drum corps, a cartoon from 1917 of ‘The Regular Meeting of the Branch’, a reproduction of its mission statement: ‘Dedicated to intellectual advancement of working people and to prepare them for the abolishment of the system of exploitation and profit.’

Graduate student, political philosophy, 30-ish [coolly]: ‘Socialism is the first stage of state control of all means of production and distribution. It’s command central … Socialists are communists.’

Firefighter, middle-aged: ‘Socialism is the practice – the practice – of equality.’

* * *

Whatever else it was, the recent mayor’s race was a public confrontation with inequality. The dominant boosterist story of contemporary Buffalo is abbreviated as ‘Renaissance’. In the miserablist press the story is typically abbreviated ‘disaster’. Neither suits the whole.

Deer are not wandering everywhere in the city, and even where they tread, the grassy plots represent progress from the thousands of firetraps, shooting galleries and condemned hulks that a working class stripped of its livelihood – by the collapse of steel and then domino-like deindustrialization – had once called home. Buffalo’s population was 532,759 in 1960; it is now 278,349, a bit higher than in 1890. The latest census reflects an uptick, driven most dramatically by new migrants. On the East Side, which for decades has been predominantly black with a Polish remnant, the newcomers include at least 10,000 (possibly 20,000) Bangladeshis, many who fled the high costs of New York City and then encouraged relatives from the old country to join them, transforming some abandoned Catholic churches into mosques and community centers. Not far from the Debs Hall, a Spanish-speaking enclave has taken root, climate refugees from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

East Side landmark, the Central Terminal, with the author’s 1963 Valiant

The bones of the walkable city have not been obliterated. Housing is typically two-story, two-family wood-frame residences, ‘the Buffalo double’ in the vernacular, like my grandfather built a bit farther east in 1924; or the lower profile, extended ‘telescope cottage’. Until the pandemic-fueled real estate price boom, a house could be had here for $25,000 to $50,000, often less. Residential lots tend to be long and narrow, and as in every poor urban district I know, what people call ‘good blocks’ might be a cross-walk away from blight; ‘good houses’, alongside vacant or tumble-down properties; side streets intact with contiguous houses whose owners are trying, bracketed on each end by broad stretches of near-nothingness – the radial commercial streets that lead downtown and are mute testimony that for sixteen years the city’s first black mayor, incumbent Byron Brown, has not tried very hard for what is considered the black side of town.

Supporters of his challenger, India Walton, pointed out that the mayor’s enthusiasm for bulldozing vacant buildings was excessive (his five-year plan of ‘a thousand a year’ ultimately totaled 8,000); in any case, it had no second act beyond some incongruous suburban-style housing here and there. The city’s poverty rate – about 30 percent, persistent across his tenure – is most starkly visible on the East Side (though hardly unique to it). Among black city residents the rate is 35 percent, three points higher than their rate of home ownership. A stinging report by the University of Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies comparing the state of black Buffalo in 1990 and the present, called ‘The Harder We Run’, concludes: ‘Everything changed, but everything remained the same.’ For some of us crossing town on broken pavement or riding laggardly buses, low-boil rage is a familiar emotion.

And yet, and yet …

Man in a wheelchair, on disability, in front of his group home off Broadway: ‘I don’t know about socialism, but I think the mayor’s done a good job. You look at the Medical Campus, it’s beautiful. Look at the waterfront, it’s beautiful.’

Retired housing cop, East Side homeowner: ‘I’ve got nothing against India Walton or her campaign. I’m for the mayor for three reasons: affirmative action (I remember what the police department was like before, okay?); property values (I bought my house fifteen years ago for $30,000, someone offered me $170,000 the other day, that’s $140,000 of wealth); and the waterfront (I mean, it’s beautiful).’

Less than two miles from the Debs Hall, the university’s Medical Campus and the expansion of hospitals and other medical facilities have generated jobs, optimism and angry battles over displacement and disrespect in the nearest, largely black residential community. On Main Street and its downtown environs, long-abandoned hotels, department stores and office buildings have been repurposed or are in the process, with apartments priced and designed mainly to attract a niche public: empty-nesters sick of their suburban baggage, young professionals attracted to the city’s craft beer and arts scene, medical workers and students, a few pro football players, notable because they’ve long been associated with suburban residency. The transformation is by turns welcome and aggravating: welcome because no one yearns for the time when a plastic bag blowing across Main Street could symbolize downtown; aggravating because of the revivalists’ apparent contentment with the clichés of inequity. Years of official rhetoric notwithstanding, there remains the reality of the child growing up in a landscape of destitution, crossing over to one of increasing plenty. Farther west on the lakefront, the Canal district offers the city a glimpse of its long-obscured Erie Canal history along with myriad pass-times. The Outer Harbor is for now a relatively unspoiled stretch of nature trails, parkland, marina and beach where on any given summer weekend Buffalo shows up in rainbow streaks: women in plaid shirts and cutoffs towing boats from the water, latin families grilling skirt steak, mixed couples kissing, black elders watching the sun set from folding chairs, women swathed in black reclining under trees with their children.

All of this development has been accomplished with public money on what in large part was or is public land. ‘Socialism for the rich’, Walton’s supporters sometimes said breezily. The bon mot is inadequate when socialism for everyone is ill defined; it seemed especially counterproductive here, given its note of derision in a political context where ‘socialism’ was deployed most often only to deride.

What the phrase discounted, grievously, was not only the full experience of people and place but also the shape-shifting emotional aspect of urban life, the feeling for the city, which doesn’t resolve the contradiction represented by the man in the wheelchair exalting the nice new things while foot-padding along a street deprived of any of them, but does help explain it. ‘I’m Josh’, he said twice to be sure I remembered his name. His friend Marcus was more critical of the incumbent mayor but similarly admiring of the waterfront. What their expressed pride tacitly acknowledged was a sense of ownership: the lake as ‘the wealth of the people’, in Chris Hawley’s phrase, once befouled, effectively privatized by steelworks, now recovered as a zone of pleasure.

Disconcertingly, this store of collective wealth did not figure much in anyone’s electioneering – even though grass-roots action had been critical in determining the shape of the waterfront’s recovery as a public asset; and developers, who’ve already taken their bites, are perched to take more and ruin it.

Kelly, campaign volunteer for Brown, middle-aged: ‘A free for all, that’s what I think when I hear the word, just unrealistic … I think some of it is very fair, like universal health care. But it’s undefined; I think enough people when they use the word don’t know what they’re talking about, including me.’

* * *

A column inch in the Buffalo Morning Express for November 6, 1919, reports that in the steel company town of Lackawanna, just south of the city line, the Socialist ticket’s candidate scored a surprise victory as mayor amidst heavy repression against striking steel workers; his first order of business, ‘re-establish free speech’. Until India Walton’s surprise primary victory, no one remembered John H. Gibbons. Few know anything about Anna Reinstein, whose name graces another library I used as a child, in a town just east of the city line – Anna, a Polish Jew, politically radical, a doctor who came to Buffalo in 1891 and began practicing gynaecology. When she was honoured in 1941 by the Erie County Medical Society for fifty years of practice, a local paper noted: ‘Incidentally, she is the wife of Boris Reinstein, a former Buffalo druggist, now a commissar in Russia.’ Chris Hawley has a photograph of Boris seated at Lenin’s elbow. ‘Incidentally’ is a nice touch. Boris left Buffalo to serve the revolution in 1917, and never returned. Anna was a member of Buffalo’s Communist Party when she was arrested with forty-two other party members in an anti-Red roundup in 1920. When, at the same time, eighty-three mostly immigrant alleged anarchists were arrested on the East Side and in surrounding towns, a left-wing paper ridiculed them for ‘phrase-radicalism’. Confusion about aims and definitions, an undisciplined language, only encouraged a crackdown, it argued. Clarity would unlikely have deterred police raids. The first Red Scare … The second Red Scare … Decoupling words from meaning is a tactic and legacy of hysteria. Anna and Boris’s children climbed the social ladder, the son buying up land and getting into development; they secured her name on the library, but sealed the archive of her letters and papers, which became available only in the 1990s.

From a library scrapbook of local newspaper clippings

Socialism, in the deceptively mystic serenity of the Eugene V. Debs Hall’s setting, is a reclamation project. Of place, first, and, with it, confidence in the neighbourhood’s future; of social bonds, frayed by post-industrial fragmenting processes; of local labour history for workers largely unmoored from it. The professed goal is to make a social space, a political and cultural space. In conviviality – the exchange of knowledge, the appreciation of experience, the practice of economic cooperation and mutual aid – the class might see itself, and begin to act for itself if only, as a start, through that act of seeing. Much depends on who will be seeing whom, and how.

The hall itself has a spare elegance. A high tin ceiling, a leaded glass transom across big front windows hand-painted with the hall’s name and Debsian red banner, the original dark-panelled wainscoting, the original patinaed bar and tables, a refinished floor which Hawley and friends uncovered from beneath layers of asbestos tile whose evidence is burned into a diamond pattern on the wood, the ghost of ages of spilled beer and dirty mop water seeping through the seams. Above the barback mirror a photograph of Debs is flanked by small black busts of FDR and Marx. Atop the gleaming Art Moderne cash register, a purely decorative effect, sits an unassuming cast iron bust of Debs in his prison clothes.

Try not to get nostalgic, I thought. Balancing past and present is a delicate business, not unique in a city where memory has been a balm against so much loss. ‘Sentimentality is the only reason we exist as a city’, Hawley says. ‘There’s no reason it’s survived except that people love the place.’ That is simultaneously true and not. Love may be a bet on the future, but all bets are not equal.

This part of the East Side, where some people clawed to stay alive and others settled because property was a bargain, is now an area ‘in transition’ because others volunteered to save one remarkable architectural landmark – the Central Terminal, whose 1929 Art Deco tower looms above the grassy flats – and still others have drawn up a redevelopment plan around it. After decades in the dark, the tower now lights up the night sky in dramatic colours. The plan for creating a Civic Commons around it strikes all the right notes until you get to the word ‘destination’. If history is a guide, the commons will be contested. Ironically, but that feels like the wrong word, in his official capacity Chris Hawley authored a new rezoning plan for the city that does not have inclusionary mandates for affordable housing. That was supposed to be worked out by the mayor, he says. ‘Development without displacement’, the cry of poor and working-class residents everywhere, may well be raised within shouting distance of the Debs Hall. Stripped of its disguise as a mark of shame, vacant land is also the wealth of the people.

Alexandria, activist, 19, immigrant from southern Sudan: ‘You know the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”; socialism means this to me. Buffalo is the child, and the people are the village who must raise it.’

* * *

Formally, the Debs Hall is a social club. Unlike taverns, Hawley discovered, non-profit social halls tend to survive their founders; he and the 250 founding members – who each contributed $250 to buy the property and, for that, get $1 off beer for life – take the long view. Membership is $10, ‘open to anyone who has an interest in the labour history of Buffalo or the United States’. There is no political litmus test. Hawley is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, as is India Walton – the plainest explanation for how socialism entered the discourse this political season. An outside wall of the building bears her portrait. (As the only member of city administration who’d backed her publicly, Hawley figured his support ought to be big so that if he were fired that would be big too.) The local DSA chapter meets there, as have the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and neighbourhood koi pond enthusiasts. Any community-based organization can book the hall for free. Walton’s canvassers converged there during the campaign. Volunteer bartenders encourage their networks to come out. Hawley has made presentations around the city about labour history and the hall to groups as obscure as the Greater Western New York Bottle Collectors Association.

Floor, Debs Hall

It is, he says, an explicitly socialist hall (the Connolly Forum in Troy, NY, may be the country’s only other) ‘because the ideas are still relevant … how to empower everyday working people to better their lives collectively.’ But ‘if you look at the old socialist halls, they weren’t sitting around all the time talking about socialism; they were interested in whatever the working class was interested in’.

Segregation, and not just by colour, splinters the nominative singular. It always has. The Walton campaign lost the election (out of inflated fears of socialism, ‘defund the police’ and inexperience), but in spotlighting poverty, land use and uneven development it succeeded in organizing a coalition that crossed barriers of colour, ethnicity, age, income, geography, education, national origin. It did not juice turnout on the East Side or ‘win the working class’, as some have reported, unless one wants to write out most of the city’s unions and all of Brown’s working-class voters, including the firefighters, police and other city workers in historically Irish South Buffalo, which powered his victory. But it felt like something new, as if the ground might be shifting. The Debs Hall is in a majority-white slice of a district that, overall, is 48 percent Asian (mainly Bangladeshi), 24 percent black, 8 percent latin and 13 percent white. Walton lost the district by about 650 votes. Almost 17 percent of the people in that white slice are officially poor, and as in the rest of the district, and the East Side, and the city, or anywhere actually, what it means to be poor is as open for political redefinition as what it means to be a socialist or even working class.

Back when John Gibbons became the region’s first and only Socialist mayor, to be a steel worker meant all the things it means to be poor today: to live always on edge and to die young, your housing substandard, the rent too high for your income, your education inadequate, your psychic and physical environment unhealthy. At the time of the great strike of 1919, steel work meant compulsory twenty-four hour shifts every other day. Organized labourers changed what it meant to be a worker by challenging and ultimately changing factory conditions. Henry Louis Taylor of UB’s Center for Urban Studies argues that the point of attack now is the set of ‘conditions that make some neighbourhoods the factories that produce low-wage workers’: change the conditions and so too what it means to be poor.

People tend not to recognize that workers died to change their conditions, died to ‘bring you the weekend’, as an old union slogan once put it. Maybe because work still leaves them poor, running behind, or because it’s absurd to think ‘dying for the weekend’ might ever have been meant literally. Maybe because, as for so many in this region who are linked by ancestry to vanished industry, death was normalized but collective struggle was not. My father’s father, who built the house not so far from the Labor Lyceum, was a railroad machinist: his lungs gave out in early middle age; his daughter died at 4 of diphtheria; a son was stillborn. I grew up with pictures of the dead, knowing my father assumed responsibility for the family at 17; it didn’t seem weird. My grandmother seemed happy. I think she was: my father became a tool and die maker and didn’t die young, and nor did his wife or his children, and nor did my grandmother, who was never alone. No one talked about historical context.

A century after the heyday of Labor Lyceums, socialism is fetishized, like democracy. As words, like any other, even the most abstract – ‘God’ comes to mind – they are animated only in practice, experience. It would be interesting to observe an election that prompted discussion about democracy. In Buffalo the incumbent mayor, so intimate with cronyism, might have had a problem with that one.

Hawley often begins telling people about Debs the man by saying he was imprisoned in 1920 for giving an anti-war speech and ran for president from behind bars. He begins telling about the Debs project’s first labour history memorial with the story of Casimer Mazurek, a 26-year-old decorated World War I veteran shot to death when Lackawanna Steel guards opened fire on 5,000 men, women and children on a picket line in the opening days of the great steel strike. In both cases, he reports, listeners are amazed. The many whose family histories intersect in some way with steel often know almost nothing beyond that convergence. A plaque, sponsored by the Debs Hall and the Area Labor Federation, sits propped against a wall in the tavern, awaiting deployment. When it is finally erected to commemorate the violence, the failed strike, and the success, twenty-two years later, of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at Bethlehem Steel, it will be the first public historic marker to recognize the labour history of Western New York.

Lola, university student, political science/pre-law, 19, at a picket line of striking hospital workers: ‘Socialism? It means you’re for the people.’

Jackie, her mother, gift shop manager: ‘I think the word, … I think it’s evolving.’

Pick Up the Stone

6 10 2021

October 7, 2021, marks twenty years since the US invasion of Afghanistan. Revenge and vigilantism, as discussed below, have formed the spine of politics abroad and at home for decades, a cord linking that lost war to deputizing bounty hunters against abortion in Texas to an earlier lost war and its aftermath. That cord is not unbreakable. On October 2 women across the country marched for reproductive justice. On October 7, a peace coalition in New York will protest continuing US violence abroad.

From the first San Francisco march against the impending war in Afghanistan, September 29, 2001. (photo: David Bacon, from a recent photo-essay in The Progressive)

by John Scagliotti and JoAnn Wypijewski

“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and for this reason there is a peculiar perversity to the spectacle of fanatical Christians embracing vigilantism and de facto bounty hunting to “save the children,” punish the women, avenge the fetuses consigned by law to limbo ever since Roe v. Wade allowed women a measure of bodily autonomy in 1973. The Lord, after all, did not say, “Vengeance is yours; go get ’em!”

The fundamentalists and their opportunistic secular brethren, for whom oppression has always been primarily a political organizing project, are not unused to playing God, but with the Texas law they have abandoned even the trappings of civic petition for a refinement on freelance violence. Today’s enraged righteous might not get to bomb abortion clinics, shoot down or physically threaten doctors and other workers, as their co-religionists have since the 1990s. But there is more than one way to pick up the stone. The rock is in a million hands—legally this time. We’re not so far removed from Afghanistan, after all.

And yet, notwithstanding Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s vehement dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the law, what seems a departure from legal and political norms is really an extension.

Courts consider cases in light of their particulars, legal process, and precedent; hence Sotomayor’s ire and the Justice Department’s new challenge. But law or abortion—or anything, actually—doesn’t exist in such a tight box; it exists in, and is shaped by, the flows and eddies of culture. That bears remembering, because for decades now what has suffused the common law of the culture, the reigning ideas and practices indulged across the political spectrum, is the thrill of revenge—along with an accommodation to what we don’t call vigilantism but which bears its stink.

The coincidence of this latest battle in “the culture wars” with the twentieth anniversary of the War on Terror is more than an accident of the calendar. Talk about picking up the stone… Marred as this year’s commemoration of the 9/11 attack was by recriminations for the US defeat in Afghanistan, the essential features of the ritual—the God-bothering, the claims of unique suffering, the beams of pure blue light piercing the night sky—again reinscribed the idea of America as innocent victim who deserved to be avenged. The Global War on Terror, which was officially announced on September 20, 2001, had many causes beyond the suffering and death on 9/11: imperial fantasies, beclouded imaginations, fear, corruption, money, and the opportunities war presents for greasing many wheels. But the reason proffered to the public always played to Americans’ sense of virtue: the victim-nation would make the world safe, secure justice for its dead, and free Afghani girls, to boot.

How easily vengeance was called justice. The declaration seemed so bold, but only because shreds of decorum prevented a more brutal honesty. Bush and Cheney could hardly have told the people: “Look, Smedley Butler was right: War is a racket. Halliburton is on the line!” Working alongside the regular armed forces, private contractors and subcontractors supplied mercenaries, translators, and torturers. They supplied services and equipment that were shoddy or worse. They reorganized Abu Ghraib as an American prison in Iraq, and supplied spoiled food that sickened US soldiers and prisoners alike. They assisted the CIA’s metastasis into a shadow army and torture operation. And they have profited mightily.

That public-private vengeance campaign was prosecuted under a wisp of law—and by kidnapping, by rendition to foreign dungeons, by deals with local death squads, by bounties, by drone, by Republicans and Democrats. Legitimized violence, contract violence, freelance violence, they all have rubbed shoulders. Presidents weren’t vigilantes, exactly; they had legal memorandums and special exceptions devised by their hirelings, if not a formal declaration of war. In the Oval Office they were Dirty Harry. Bush kept kill lists. Obama expanded the geographic kill zone. He invited The New York Times to report how he picked targets for assassination every Tuesday, and to advertise his moral agita. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” he is said to have told his staff. Under Bush, Saddam Hussein was hanged by the puppet Iraqi government at a joint military base called Camp Justice. Obama had Osama bin Laden executed rather than arrested and then pronounced:

Justice has been done…. tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to…. we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(photo: Ken Cedeno / Corbis via Getty Images)

Pick up the stone… “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said, shortly before a US drone fired a missile at a car full of children in Afghanistan on August 29, killing them and the adults nearby, 10 civilians in all, as the US army beat its final retreat.

The United States didn’t need 9/11 or the War on Terror to become vengeful, or to outsource havoc round the world, or to prod Americans into public-private exercises of cruelty and call it good. History groans with our pretenses to innocence. Now that the war is soundly lost (though hardly over), and we clearly cannot do “whatever we set our mind to,” we confront, again, the prospect of derangement in defeat.

And so full circle to the Texas law, a pivot point, coming as it does in the wake of one lost war while rooted in the political backlash that defined the aftermath of the first major defeat, in Vietnam.

Marsha P. Johnson pickets Bellevue Hospital for mistreatment of street people and gays (photo: Diana Davies, New York Public Library digital collections, 1968-75)

Pick up the stone… Someone had to pay. Back then, antiwar and civil rights actions that made the connections between systems of oppression had bloomed into a bouquet of movements that saw the beginnings of fundamental change reaching into every institution of America. Who knew that these advances were also creating an opportunity for the right? A new power base would be built from new threats with a new story line. “Save the unborn!” cried holy warriors, caring nothing for the born, exploiting every opening in Roe’s spongey reasoning to constrain women’s autonomy legally, and stoking the violent passions that would, at their extralegal extreme, lead to hit lists and blood. “Save our children!” cried those same warriors bent on strangling the post-Stonewall gay rights baby in its cradle. Their leader, an orange juice pitchwoman and former beauty queen, sang “Glory, glory, hallelujah” rallying voters to deny homosexuals civil rights, while vice squads raided cruising spots around the country and entrapped gay men and teenagers. “Save the family!” cried legions of women organized to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, roused by the specter of loneliness, lost status, and unisex public lavatories. Their leader, an anticommunist hawk, didn’t believe any of it; she recognized a ripe constituency that would support Ronald Reagan and, willy-nilly, a proxy army in the Hindu Kush that brought on bin Laden and the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Black people and poor people paid the most. The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the roundups of young black men, prison as a rite of passage. The war on sex, on porno and sex workers and single mothers. Liberal politicians joined the vengeance game partly to capture the flag from the right, partly out of a futile politics of accommodation, partly out of their own prejudices. Clinton’s end of “welfare as we know it” also entailed the forced contraception of women receiving public benefits, and shackles clapped on pregnant women addicted to crack. Panic begot legislation by pitchfork. Spineless Democrats, caving to religious fanatics, passed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although sex-crazed strangers had been killing children for centuries, an extreme rarity, devastated parents forced a series of laws named for their dead children, which with every iteration have elaborated and expanded the machinery of punishment. That machinery has so transformed criminal prosecutors into advocates for aggrieved individuals or their families under the banner of victims’ rights that collectively we no longer remember why the state still claims to be representing “the people.”

Through it all there were real social dislocations and real fears, real frustrations and harms and material effects that were almost never honestly addressed, and real resistance. But bookended as we are at this moment between two imperial defeats—Vietnam and Afghanistan—it’s clear how much punch the idea of Victim America has had. All this and still we’re not safe? No wonder people pick up a gun, or a stone.

The Texas state guardians of fetal heartbeats abdicate responsibility not only for the people—the society of beating hearts from whose consent the government ostensibly derives its power—but for their own law enforcement. Of course, they’re cynical, as are the justices whose failure to enjoin a law designed to evade federal review undermines their very reason for being. All of which suggests that either abortion is a threat to the republic so grave that the Supreme Court might slash its own wrists to stop it—or this is really about something else.

War hawk and right-wing power maven Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. (photo: Bettmann/Corbis}

Pick up the stone… “Remember the Ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John, shortly before the founding fathers threw them out of “We the People.” Abigail insisted, “Your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical,” but John’s response—“We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems”—admits that patriarchal subjugation is a choice. Like offensive war. Like the police state. Like stoning women literally or figuratively. If oppression were immutable in men’s nature, why would anyone resist? (And why would women join in the fun?)

But just because something is a choice doesn’t mean that persistent tutelage can’t make it seem like nature. Imperial aspirants and their cultural appendages have historically had to work at welding “masculinity” to glorified violence and disdain for womanish things. (Even now, China’s government is campaigning against “sissies” and conscious slackers to man up for its future as global top dog.) Part of the 1960s counterculture was a rejection of that tutelage. Though halting and not without contradictions, the changes brought on by the counterculture were destabilizing to some men who’d identified with male headship, militarism, and brutalizing work—especially once women rebelled, Vietnam was lost, and industrial jobs disappeared. All the reasons these guys might feel “stiffed”— in Susan Faludi’s term—could be buried in payback for the Feminazis who’d magically turned them into girly men, forcing them to be bottoms. In the right-wing culture war paradigm, all routes to male emancipation led to Fight Club—right on up to January 6 and the explosion of vigilantes (overwhelmingly men) screaming “Where’s Nancy?” as they clobbered cops with flag poles.

(photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

They were losers. It seems important to underscore that. Losers who’d been promised that they would “get so tired of winning.” Now they and their cohort have been enlisted in another battle, to spy on their neighbors, snitch on their kin, pick up the stone. It’s not very dignified. In common parlance, people engaged in such activity aren’t soldiers but rats. Dignity, though, and even “protection of innocent life” aren’t the main points in the opportunistic politics of setting people at one another’s throats.

As with the War on Terror, the culture war has a machine to grease. It’s a racket, too. This past summer our friend Jeff Sharlet, who’s long been reporting on the Christian right, returned from a tour of churches that have largely whisked Jesus away. In one, the Lamb of God didn’t get a mention and Jeff couldn’t spy a cross. The preacher had an altar made of swords. Wherever Jeff went, he recounted with some mixture of awe and dread, the talk was of civil war.

Christians deprived of Christ, Oath Keepers naming names, baby-savers reduced to rats: there’s something desperate about it all. The backlash machine that had kept its troops in order for 50 years seems to be sputtering. There’s danger here; when hasn’t there been? But the old paradigm has shaken loose, a new one is not yet clear, and we are at the fulcrum.

John Scagliotti and JoAnn Wypijewski founded the Kopkind Colony in 1998. John is an Emmy Award–winning producer of documentaries exploring lgbtq history. His latest film, Before Homosexuals, can be found here. JoAnn is the author of What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, now in paperback from Verso. This story originally appeared in The Nation on September 22, 2021.

Films and Picnic on the Farm, August 28

22 08 2021


5:30 pm: Potluck Barbecue

7-ish: Film screenings


Tree Frog Farm, 158 Kopkind Rd. Guilford, Vermon

Elvis died on August 16, 1977, and as the Memphis Flyer said in advance of the premier of The Faithful in the city he made his home just a few days before the anniversary, it’s a wonderful surprise after so long to “encounter an angle that allows us to see him in a new light. So it is with the work of filmmaker Annie Berman, whose remarkable documentary … is a fascinating examination of cultural icons and how they are remembered”.

Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary are proud to have played a part in the early development of the documentary when Annie came to Film Camp, and are thrilled to be presenting it now, as the feature presentation of our late-summer gathering on Saturday, August 28, at Tree Frog Farm.

The event will begin with a potluck barbecue at 5:30. We’ll provide the grilled fare; bring a covered dish! We’ll raise a toast to Andy’s birthday (August 24) and to his living memorial which since 1999 has been a source of inspiration, information, intellectual stimulation and rest for hundreds of people who are making a difference in the world today. These are hard times for imagining the joy of politics, but imagine we must. It’s what people have done throughout history to make change.

After the repast, we’ll start off the screening (outdoors) with a sneak peak of Far Out, Chuck Light and Daniel Keller’s work-in-progress about life on and after the commune days in Vermont and Massachusetts — an exploration of not just an era’s history but broad themes of how we grapple with idealism, relationships, morality, spirituality, civic engagement and finding home.

Chuck will be on hand, as will Annie. In true Kopkind style, along with good food, good films, there will be lively banter with the filmmakers.

Annie’s film examines the popular allure of not only Elvis but also Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana, and the rites of their devotees. “The words we express for grief, or the messages you see written on the wall of Graceland or in messages to Diana, can sound cliché”, Annie has said. “Like ‘We’ll never stop loving you,’ ‘We’ll never forget you,’ ‘You’re always in our heart.’ But in that moment when it’s happening to you, it’s not cliché at all. It just feels true.” As the Flyer‘s reviewer put it: “More than interviews with the faithful, Berman’s documentary delves into the quality of perceptions of fame. There are insights into how these global figures appeared to the public, the things they said, the expressions on their faces in unguarded moments. You may believe you know who they were, but it takes an artist like Berman to show you something you hadn’t imagined.”

Please join us on Saturday, the 28th. RSVP to John Scagliotti at stonewal@sover.net; or to JoAnn Wypijewski at jwyp@earthlink.net.

And let’s remember everyone, past and present, friends and lovers and comrades, who ever made us feel lucky to be alive.

Andy at his birthday party, 1984, with Kathryn Kilgore, Alexander Cockburn and John