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(en) US, You start with anti-sectarianism... and end in bed with Leninists and nationalists - A Critique of the Break the Chains Conference

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 21 Nov 2003 17:40:02 +0100 (CET)

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The Break the Chains Conference, which was held this past August in
Eugene, OR, was overall a meaningful event, yet contained some
questionable aspects (at least for some anarchists). It was the 2003
Anarchist Black Cross Network’s 2nd Annual Conference and took
on a larger scope than originally planned, including more openness
focused on prisoner support and prison abolition. Lots of work was put
into the organizing and outreach for the event, apparent from the several
hundred people in attendance over the weekend and the jam-packed
schedule. Break the Chains hoped to “exemplify the need for
continued and heightened prisoner support with the ultimate goal being
prison abolition.” In this regard they were successful. The many
powerful speakers included: Chrystos, a native land rights activist and
amazing poet; Splitting the Sky, who was an integral part of the Attica
Prison uprising and various native struggles, and continues to inspire with
his dynamic anti-government orations; Derrick Jensen, author and activist
who offers amazing insight into the interconnectedness of the horrors of
civilization; Jesús Sepúlveda, an author and activist who shared his
experiences of resistance to the repressive Pinochet regime and the
failure of the Left in Chile; and many other informative workshops on
transgender issues, prison healthcare, immigrant repression, the drug
war, forced psychiatric “treatment”, women in prisons,
perspectives on criminology, mandatory minimum sentencing, updates on
various struggles and prisoners, and general strategies for prisoner
support and abolition.

The most inspiring speaker at the conference was, no doubt, Ward
Churchill, with his two hour, explicitly anti-state and anti-reformist
rantings. After a historical look at the repression of ‘60s radicals, he
focused primarily on the police state, which is already here, and how the
tactics that have been employed against it have not been effective. He
ended with a long list of reformist tactics that have been futile, and
suggested that the only way to abolish the mechanisms of control was to
directly attack the state apparatus and , “Bring this muthafucka

Unfortunately, not all the speakers were as palatable to anarchists. Break
the Chains’ attempt to broaden the scope outside the often insular
anarchist movement was commendable, but what it ended up looking like
was sometimes disappointing. Prison effects lots of different people,
especially the politicized, the poor, and people of color, so it is important
to reach out to, and when possible, work with those who may not share
our anarchist beliefs (or may not even be aware they exist). For this
reason prison activists need to be more inclusive, but not by putting our
politics aside, as was suggested in the “Solidarity” workshop, and
often repeated throughout the weekend. Clearly stating our politics is not
sectarian. Let me repeat this: CLEARLY STATING OUR POLITICS IS
NOT SECTARIAN! If we are to form meaningful and effective
connections with non-anarchists (those who may not have a problem with
hierarchy, control, reform, the state, etc.) it has to be with an open
understanding of where one another is coming from and our differing
goals. Like all relationships, they need to be fluid, organic and based on
honesty. There are undertakings, and prisoner support projects can surely
be one of them, which may be seen as temporary associations of interest,
but we should never neglect what we are ultimately fighting for.

This was most disturbing when one looks at the numerous Marxists, and
in one case a socialist and Irish nationalist, who were invited to the
conference. Do these people have stories of struggle and repression to
share? Of course. Should they be placed on a pedestal and beyond
criticism? Definitely not. This, however, often appeared to be the case.
Folks like Ed Mead and Laura Whitehorn, who headlined the closing
night, have taken part in incredible actions against imperialism and have
done long stretches of time in prison for those actions, but it is vital that
we understand the world they are fighting for. However, some anarchists
get accused of “shit-talking” and being “divisive” when
they bring these questions up. Mead and Whitehorn are not naïve. They
are not fumbling through different political ideologies to figure out who
they are. They are long-time (over 30 years) Communists who have taken
up arms, gone to prison, and still fight for these objectives. This should
literally set off some red lights for anarchists! They seek a state and the
mechanisms of control to maintain it, not to mention global economic
systems and all the baggage that comes with it. This was most apparent
with Ed, who constantly advocates for authoritative leadership in our
communities, supports the Cuban government, and advocates for the
colonization space. Let us not forget our history, and what Communists
have done to seize and maintain power. Anarchists have been betrayed
many times by authoritarian leftists, as we should expect, because they
are only pursuing their political agenda. How could one be a keynote
speaker at a “prison abolition” conference when they have statist
politics? Good question, just be careful who you ask. Yes, there are some
projects these folks are working on which we could learn from, and
possibly contribute our efforts to, but with caution, and not without
criticism. The suppression of criticism is the first step towards
authoritarianism, and one as anarchists we should not accept. Along
these lines, BTC decided to omit a statement by one of Eugene’s own
political prisoners, Craig “Critter” Marshall for the
Conference’s main pamphlet. While his statement was sometimes
inaccurate, and could have probably reached more people had he not used
certain derogatory and offensive language, some of his criticisms of BTC
were valid and should have been heard alongside the glowing praise of
other prisoners. We must not close our eyes to criticism, pretend it
doesn’t exist, or do public relations for our organizations. Prisoners
already have such a limited and restricted voice, and while it is
understandable that some would be offended by or disagree with what
Critter had to say, it was unfortunate it that it could not be included in the
pamphlet. To BTC’s credit, there was a separate flyer with
Critter’s statement available at the conference.

Overall, however, the ideas raised, connections made, inspiration
obtained, and acknowledgment of work to be done was important. It was
unfortunate though, that the Anarchist Black Cross Network Conference
held what seemed to be a shadow conference within the larger one. There
were many people whose imagination and energy had been sparked that
weekend, and many others who currently engage in their own
anti-prison/prisoner support work who could have contributed and linked
up with the ABCN. Looking back, either the two conferences could have
run consecutively, instead of concurrently, so as to get more people
involved and to avoid some unintentional, yet perceived, elements of
elitism, or it could have been held at completely separate times. If it is to
become the constantly growing and effective network it has set out to be,
ABCN needs to become more open and transparent, and avoid becoming
the “specialists” who direct prison support work. The question of
efficient vs. dissipated, seems more to be one of controlled vs. open, and
people’s politics usually guide projects in either direction. Again,
thanks to those who made the conference happen. Thanks to BTC and
ABCN for the ongoing work they do. Hopefully, the prisoner support and
prison abolition struggles become a more integral part of the larger fight
against this system. tad.

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