Introduction and explanation of the new Modern Slavery journal project.
“Modern Slavery” is the general term for the collection of all the institutionalized forms of enslavement which provide foundations for each of the local regimes of Modern Civilization.
El Errante “Mr. Errante … did you visit Syria?” The US Border Patrol officer stares at me through the bulletproof plastic that separates us. He shifts in his seat.
El Errante There is a small cemetery on the side of the 712 highway as it crawls its way westward out of Kobane. There are roughly 100 graves there,
Dispatches from France Two: Manifestación 5/27/16, Who’s on First, Losing a Friend in a Riot, and Black Bloc Logistics
(Paris, Ile de France, 28/05/16) The scene is becoming clearer and it doesn’t look good. On one side of the street a line of CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) stands in a wall, unmoving, silent, ready. And opposite them by about 100 meters is another solid row of CRS, hard rubber matraques held ready. I look down at Loni, whose view is obscured by the mob, and tell her to get ready, they may use gas. She and I both fish around in our backpacks for the red and black handkerchiefs that the Federation Anarchiste (FA) folks had given us. Movement is impossible in the crush, and I find myself less worried about being pummeled about the head and shoulders by CRS goons than the likelihood of being smothered or trampled should the crowd move or run suddenly. Two or three dull explosive thuds resound in the sunshine and a cloud of teargas, wafted by a slight breeze, moves ghostlike over the crowd. The sound of choking erupts immediately as the protestors begin to move away from grayish blue gas…
Earlier — I am walking with Leon, Loni, and a bunch of folks that we had met at the FA infoshop prior to the demonstration. As we walk I notice that we are headed to the front of the march, and that most of the anarchists and autonomists including the black bloc are positioning themselves there. I ask, “Are you always at the front of the march?”
“No,” Leon responds, “but with the way things are, we take the front and the unions let us. They don’t like diversity of tactics, but in this case they recognize that we are having an impact. Before this we were barely tolerated, now we lead.” And so it was. The manifestacións (manifs) sparked by the Loi du Travail have had a fundamental impact on street-based social contestation in France. The unions failed to respond quickly to the legislation, and initially tried to distance themselves from the autonomist and anarchist challenge. In the ensuing days of confrontation and riot someone, somewhere decided that the unions had better support what the radicals had started — and so the placement of the black bloc (and others) at the head of the march had become, for now at least, standard.
The march was huge, the unions put the number at 50,000, though the initial police estimate was 19,000. The largest reformist union — the CGT — its flags, posters, vehicles and t-shirts were everywhere. Stark, working-class reds glowed in the early afternoon shade. Other unions, professional organizations, and left political parties were out as well — the Force Ouvrier, French Communist Party, Trotskyite groupuscules, etc. As we waited for the march to begin I had time to ask Leon some more questions…
“So what is the bottom-line? What do the unions want out of all this?”
“The ideal would be for the law to be repealed, not amended, not have the debate restarted. Just, deleted.”
“And what is the likelihood of that? Has anything like this ever happened before?”
“It’s possible. Some unpopular legislation has been dropped at the last minute, but this is already law. To retract it now would be committing political suicide. Especially as it comes from a Socialist administration.”
“I still can’t believe that we’re at the front of the march.”
“Well, it’s still about control. CGT has a whole squad of security that march right behind us. If the cops really attacked the anarchists or autonomists, I think the union security squads would back us up.”
The march began to move slowly; the FA folks handed out copies of their new magazine and pasted up circle-A stamps on lamp posts and bus shelters as we walked along. A few “characters” moved through the crowd, one dressed as a clown seemed pretty well known and he would stop and talk to various libertarian groups. As we strolled down the Rue Diderot several explosions sounded up ahead — the black bloc had managed to lay hands on some impressive fireworks, likely M-60s or M-80s and were evidently tossing a few in the direction of CRS lines established to prevent people from splitting off from the main march.
The march then took an odd turn onto Rue Chaligny — we advanced perhaps fifty meters and then in an instant the people at the front of the march stopped, turned and began walking fast towards the back. Their faces immediately told the story — a line of CRS blocking the road up ahead. It’s a trap. Loni and I turned just in time to watch another row of CRS draw up, effectively blocking the street on both ends. She grabbed my hand and pulled me up onto the sidewalk, but that didn’t help matters, it was more crowded than the street and the cops had it blocked as well. I kept wondering what the hell do they want? They’ve blocked off the street, we’re trapped like rats — usually when cops pull this kind of shit they at least leave an outlet somewhere. The people around us began to mask up against the gas, and Loni and I did the same; then the thud of canisters being launched and the (almost beautiful) dispersion of teargas from multiple containers. I had never seen it this close before and just before my eyes began streaming tears I recall thinking, Wow, it’s like Fourth of July fireworks.
The crowd around us surged and I could feel Loni’s small hand slip from mine, and by the time I turned around she was gone — lost in the crowd, gas and fear. The CRS then backed off from the Rue Diderot side and allowed the crowd to return to the main thoroughfare. I met Leon and the rest of the anarchists under their red and black flag. They had brought water ampoules and after dousing my eyes and face my vision finally blurred back into sight. Evidently Loni had made it out safe, but had left the manif and was likely headed back to her hotel. I, on the other hand, wanted to see how it ended.
As I walked ahead of the FA group a commotion on my right caught my attention, it was the black bloc attacking the storefront of a Škoda dealership. The assault was spirited but the windows were proving to be pretty tough to get through. In fact with between 5 and 10 folks working on it took ten minutes to reduce the plate glass to whitish sand. As I watched the progress two things struck me, first there was a significant amount of communication between the attackers and folks standing next to me. This interaction took the form of both hand signals and yelling. Also the folks standing next to me were conspicuous in that one held a small red flag stapled to a dowel and the other occasionally held aloft a book that I recognized immediately, The Coming Insurrection. I also noted that they were constantly looking up and down the street, possibly for police, or more likely for warnings from other lookouts who were placed further away from the action, so as to increase the likelihood of escape if the cops intervened. Which they didn’t. I also noted the complete support of the crowd. As the glass began to give way applause and shouts of encouragement came from all sides. I reflected back on demos in the US where spray painting a Nike store would always draw some liberal out of the crowd to castigate the destruction of property — or the time honored refrain supporting cops — “Well, they are workers too.” Anyway as I observed the black bloc folks, they started to take an interest in me, or rather my t-shirt, which depicted two nihilists in Italy kneecapping a nuclear power executive as they rode by on a motorbike. Rydra had given me the shirt at the East Bay Anarchist Book Fair, and the members of the black bloc obviously recognized the scene and after giving me (or the shirt) a thumbs up, they indicated I should follow them. Which I did.
Which is how during the last part of the march I was swept up into the black bloc and got the chance to observe their tactics more closely.
Which, when you see them on videos, appear utterly random and based on happenstance, opportunity — and to a certain extent they are. Yet there is also some sophisticated surveillance happening and, to the extent allowed by circumstance, security and coordination. The two spotters, distinguishable either by the red flag or the book held aloft, stayed well apart from the action, and each other. Some targets were obviously chosen by virtue of their being in the path of destruction, like the various bus shelters, advertising kiosks, and ATMs I watched being vandalized. The hand signals used were simple, non-military, expressive. The okay signal, indicated that it was time to move on, damage done. A hand wave towards the action brought more folks into the fray, and a hand wave away moved people out of the area. The various implements of destruction, paint balls, heavy objects resembling bricks for throwing through glass, firecrackers, and flares were kept by folks who stayed far away from the action — when needed they were called for. We finally reached the Place de la Nation, and the black bloc faded into the crowd — hoodies were placed into backpacks, shoes were changed, and they walked off in groups of twos and threes looking like normal Parisian high school kids out on a spring weekend. And not the angry, uncompromising insurrectionary that lurked just beneath the surface of each one.
The FA group arrived at the Place some ten or fifteen minutes after I did, we spoke for a moment or two. I thanked them for inviting me and we made plans to meet and talk the next day. I walked the long way home to the hotel in Montmartre. I was tired, my eyes stung, and I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling that the demo, the violence, the riot were still going on — somewhere. And that very soon I would once again be looking down a row of CRS goons, waiting for a teargas canister to blossom at my feet.
Dispatches from France One: the Forces Behind Events, Autonomism and Anarchism, and What Time Is It?
My decision to travel to Europe was taken lackadaisically. There had been some indications that nation-states on the Continent were being stressed from a number of different directions. First, the movement of upwards of two million refugees from the Middle East, specifically Syria, through the social-democratic European heartland is challenging the legitimacy of both the economic and security structures of numerous states. It should be noted that the dual nature of the stress, on social redistribution schemes and border integrity, indicates that both ideological left and right are being drawn into the legitimacy maelstrom, and that the moment of the challenge, its core, is situated to call into question not just the nation-state or Capital, rather they illuminate the failure of the entire Western liberal hegemon, the whole enchilada. So, I thought, why not? I feel like traveling and writing and the timing seemed somehow, perfect.
In spite of being detained and interrogated by two Homeland Security investigators at JFK, who proved to be far better informed about my trip to Rojava in October, international speaking tours, and what I had for breakfast (that day) than I thought was possible, I was eventually released and allowed to board my flight, though without the obligatory x-ray examination of my baggage. As I hunkered down into my seat on the first leg of the trip to Moscow via Aeroflot I reflected that it will likely be a long time before I return to the United States. I will not miss it.
The first two days in Paris were allotted to rest, visiting a few museums, sitting in cafes, and consuming copious (and potentially lethal) amounts of caffeine and baguette. Finally on Sunday I walked through spring fog and drizzle to the Place de la République to see what was happening with Nuit Debout. In the photos I had seen of the first few days of the occupations the Place (a rectangle of about two acres where a number of thoroughfares converge including Rue du Temple, Boulevard Voltaire, and Boulevard Saint-Martin) had been virtually overrun by thousands of people. On the day I visited there were perhaps a few hundred folks, most sheltered under a dozen or so blue tarps that had been set up at random to accommodate various collectives, Nuit Debout logistics and publicity coordinating groups, and the occasional alphabet soup Marxist Party propaganda committee. On the afternoon I stopped by most of these tents were being used for presentations on a range of topics. These included DIY carpentry, a workshop on capitalism, “commune cause,” and a mini-assembly which appeared to be more about providing a venue for folks to vent than any specific debate or decision-making. At one tent a small YPG flag was set on a tabletop and as I circled outside I noticed that a smallish middle-aged woman was speaking and that questions would be translated for her and her responses were being translated for the listeners. I finally got a view of this presenter — and was not surprised to see that it was Janet Biehl; Murray Bookchin’s companion. I continued walking around for an hour or so, would stop and listen to a presenter and then move on.
Finally, tired of the mist and rain, I made my way to the Fédération Anarchiste (FA) infoshop just off of République. It was, as usual, busy. The FA, a synthesist working class confederation, is one of the more stable anarchist organizations in France. Meaning that while the FA is an excellent point of contact for folks traveling in Europe, it also makes of the FA one of the targets for bullshit sectarian attacks. A sectarianism that in many ways exceeds the petty sniping, character assassination and trolling that the North American anarchist community once reveled in, but now appears to be putting aside.
One of the anarchists, Lou, that I had met on my way home from Rojava was there and he and I settled into the back of the infoshop and talked a little about the renewed social contestation in France. First off, he said, no one saw this coming. The French anarchist community had pretty much given up hope on any significant social contestation for decades to come. The proposal of the Loi du Travail and its effective unleashing of employers to hire, fire and discipline, essentially at will, was less an attempt to revivify the French economy than it was a direct challenge to workers and their protection under law. The large reformist trade unions, like the CGT, missed their cue completely, and the attendant riots were essentially the coming together of three distinct groups, high school students, the anarchists and the autonomists. The first two are pretty obvious; the autonomists are a new quantity (for us) and require some discussion. This amorphous group first formed around the journal Tiqqun and the subsequent Invisible Committee. The autonomists then, like the nihilist communists, reject any descriptions of the society that they envision bringing into being. In many ways the autonomists are the logical extension of the Situationist International and while Marx isn’t mentioned in as explicit a fashion as the SI claimed him as their own, their use of the dialectic, and some aspects of Marxist teleology is apparent. This has not diminished their militancy, and they have refined street contestation and tactics into a virtual art. They have also sought to organize those sectors of society largely ignored by both unionists and anarchists, including high school students. They have also proven themselves to be savvy at the placement of their ideas within mainstream media outlets. This has had the effect of placing their critique within the larger framework of French political discourse, regardless of how radical it appears. It has also placed them beyond the narrow confines of the emergency laws instituted after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the ISIL bombing campaign. As an example the prosecution of the Tarnac 9 (the same group of folks who wrote The Coming Insurrection) never occurred, and probably never will. The acceptance (or at least acknowledgement) of the ideas of the autonomists among mainstream academics and theorists has removed them from the category of social villain that the anarchists and jihadis now inhabit almost exclusively. The formation and growth of autonomist organizations has also been rapid, and they have been fiercely competitive for members with larger more established organizations. As an example the French student union UNEF has had its membership raided by the autonomist high school organization MILI.
Finally, the autonomists are clear in distancing themselves from anarchism and the anarchists; in spite of some theoretical confluence, especially their critique of the dominant society and their understanding of insurrection. Which resembles some historical anarchist critiques (Stirner) and to a lesser degree recent anti-civilization theory.
The autonomists, the anarchists, and the high school students responded decisively to the proposed Loi du Travail, staging a number of ad hoc demonstrations. In the end, however, the filming of a student being beaten by the police galvanized the protestors and finally brought the unions, and everyone else, into the fray. Tensions have risen dramatically since then, the legislation itself became law when the Chamber of Deputies employed a little used legal caveat that ended debate and allowed the legislative cowards to vote by not voting. Demonstrations have been ongoing, and Lou invited me to the next big manif, on Thursday, May 26th. I jumped at the chance and we made plans to meet prior to the march.
(In the ensuing three days between meeting Lou and the manif the reformist union CGT struck at all eight oil refineries in France, and has also attempted to block entry to several of the nation’s nuclear power plants. Supplies of oil and gas have begun to dwindle, and as the CGT is the primary union for most of the transportation sector, their ability to pressure both the government and corporations into repealing the legislation will increase algorithmically.)
The next few weeks may prove decisive not only for the Loi du Travail, but for significant sectors of the economy, the political classes, and the population generally. The stress that the Syrian refugees are bringing to bear on European society seems to be matched, if not exceeded by, economic stagnation, emerging political authoritarianism, and what appears to be a restive, increasingly alienated citizenry. So the timing of the European trip was not bad. And timing, as we all know, is everything
(São Paulo, Brazil) The orange halogen glow of the lamps in the courtyard at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC) makes the air seem denser and more humid than it really is. I had been asked by an anarchist group (Nu-Sol) to present on my experiences in Rojava and was about halfway through the evening…
“So the YPG has a 45 day training protocol…” Then a series of deafening, wrenching explosions tore through the courtyard like thunder. I stopped for an instant, regrouped and continued.
“Jeeezus…” I said, “I felt safer in Rojava than in the US; I guess I can add Brazil to that list.” As my friend completed the translation of the sentence there was a ripple of laughter and I returned to business.
It was supposed to be easy. A few weeks in Brazil, some presentations, some beach, and then back to the US. And right up to the talk in Salvador that’s the way it had gone.
Then on Sunday, March 13th, a friend and I had decided to stroll down to the beach. As we walked we were passed by one or two folks decked out in yellow and green shirts. Then a few more. And a few more. I turned to my friend and asked, “What the fuck?”
“A soccer game maybe. No, a protest against Dilma and the government. That’s what this is.”
When we turned the corner onto the beach area the entire street was a waving sea of yellow, green and blue, the colors of the Brazilian flag. Many people carried homemade signs denouncing the government and corruption. Sure enough, a protest demanding that Lula, the previous President of Brazil, be sent to jail for corruption and that Dilma, the current President of Brazil, be impeached. We picked our way through the rolling waves of yellow and green shirts, my friend translating the signs and the chants, then whispering the English into my ear. Finally I went into journalist mode and started asking questions. I spoke to two older looking gentlemen who each carried signs denouncing corruption. The men, both in their 70s, were a dentist and a filmmaker respectively. The message from each was exactly the same and simple, Lula is a crook, so is Dilma. They must both leave public life.
The current tale of political upheaval in Brazil is of Byzantine complexity. It includes a centre-left party (The Worker’s Party, PT) that was once respected (or feared), and it’s slow slide into corruption and decay. Recently criminal investigations and judicial proceedings were initiated against Lula for taking kickbacks while running the country’s lucrative oil concession, Petrobras. At the same time Dilma, the once popular female President, has had her hands full with charges of bribery in the legislature, payoffs to move legislation forward, and an incoming bill for impeachment that has a better than average chance of approval. Issues of race and class are also prominent as the PT has traditionally been the party of the poor, of black folks, and, as the name implies, of workers. The opposition is made up of electoral parties and large media firms that seek to represent the rich, the finance sector, and they have proven to be social media savvy, and increasingly bold. Finally over the past year, the economic situatiuon in Brazil has become sufficiently grim that the media refer to it as “The Crisis.” And to add one last ingredient to this already volatile mix — memories of the decades of dictatorship (1964 – 1980), the repression and military rule, simmer darkly in the minds of Brasilieros, old and young.
After returning to the hotel I sat and wrote some notes and then it occurred to me — I asked my traveling companion, “Did you see any black folks in the demonstration?”
She thought a moment and replied, “One or two.”
On March 18th after my return to São Paulo I attended the next installment of the ongoing political melodrama, a protest by supporters of Lula, Dilma, and the PT. By now the discourse had become more shrill, including a small occupation by anti-Dilma forces of a sidewalk on the Avenida Paulista, the main thoroughfare in that behemoth of urban sprawl. Anti-PT forces were also sporting signs with a hand print that included a missing finger, a clear reference to Lula, who as an auto worker had had his little finger sheared off in an industrial accident. A number of folks I had met had decided to check out the demo and so we went. The Avenida Paulista was the site for this demo and prior to the arrival of the PT faithful the police had cleared out the anti-Dilma occupiers in order to avoid an inevitable collision. My first impression was one of the overwhelming force that the Military Police had assembled to keep the demonstrators in check. As I stepped out of the subway I saw two immense armored vehicles painted in grey and dark blue camouflage, with rocket launchers for tear gas and concussion grenades parked in the center of the Avenida. One of my hosts turned to me, pointed at the vehicles and said, “Those they bought from Israel. They were initially designed for the rioting in Gaza and elsewhere.”
Huge crowds again, most dressed in the red of the PT, some communists and socialists, perhaps as many as 100,000 attended the Sao Paulo demo, and there were dozens of other pro-Lula gatherings across the country. As we walked through the crowd my companions saw a number of other area anarchists, and a group of anarcho-communists waving a huge black and red flag. This prompted me to ask, “Are the anarchists here supporting Dilma and Lula?”
“Yes and no. At this time the issue is not pro- or anti-Dilma, it’s a coup. That’s why many anarchists are here.”
As it turned out that’s the reason that a number of other people were also there. I spoke to one gentleman, a salesman, who replied to my question as to why he was at the rally with one word, “1964.” The year that the military seized power.
There was a sense of urgency at this demonstration absent at the anti-PT rally, and part of the discourse, present in the signs and speeches, demanded the maintenance of democracy and democratic structures. My final impression was the impressive size of the demo and how different it felt from similar gatherings I had attended in the US. The Brasilieros were certain, clear in their attendance and proud of their views. In the US, there is a certain sense of anxiety and from some participants also shame at events like this. As if having the freedom to speak was sufficient and actually exercising that right was some kind of weakness or insult to their communities.
As I concluded my talk at PUC and packed my laptop into my bag several students entered the courtyard. Speaking rapidly they seemed frightened, unsure. I asked someone to translate and was told that there had been a scuffle between pro- and anti- PT forces. Evidently the students of the faculties of Law, Economics, and Business Administration had rented a large truck with loudspeakers, parked it in front of PUC and commenced to conduct a rally in support of jailing Lula and impeaching Dilma. This brought out the (mostly) lefty student body who then proceeded to harass and torment their peers. In the final scuffle the left students had demanded to have access to the mic so they could present their case. More pushing on both sides and the truck was driven off. Then the Military Police moved in shooting concussion grenades and tear gas, including firing one tear gas canister into the third floor window of a classroom building.
By the time I had walked out to the street the remaining group of left wing students were listening to impromptu speeches from folks who climbed onto a set of stairs. Most of what was said was less about the actual issues, and addressed more generally fascism, and warned of a possible coup. In the morning a few news feeds had video of the action and one was truly unique. It showed the Business, Law and Economics students denouncing the possibility of a left-wing coup and revolution. They chanted the exact same words that I heard on the Avenida Paulista just a few days earlier, “No to the coup!”
As a final observation, it’s incredible how much of the discourse and dialogue of the anti-Lula crowd was grounded in the language of the Left. As if the Brazilian elites, bereft of any real political ideas, had settled on parroting the word “corruption” in place of a real programme. It seemed they were following several steps behind the PT and its allies. I never conjecture. In this instance though it seems that the political tension in Brazilian society is leading to some sort of denouement, a potential collision. The outcome of which, whether played out in the chambers of the judiciary, or in the streets, no one can guess.
(Salvador, State of Bahia, Brazil) I sit and look out from my hotel room at the lurid spectacle of civilization decomposing in front of my eyes. I had some time between presentations about my experiences in Rojava and decided to spend a few days of R & R on the beach in the city of Salvador. The hotel is virtually empty and, save a few inmates on the first and seventh floor and the staff, I seem to be here alone. It’s hot and the smell of ocean and city mixing on lazy afternoons seems to reflect the mélange of tropical juices and liquor that define the beverage choices at this hotel.
The hotel has a swimming pool, set off the beach by several hundred yards. A typical quadrangle affair painted light blue, with beach chairs set in mathematic precision around the edge. A flourish of palm, grass and umbrella completes the tableau. Tourists inhabit the scene. Primarily folks from the Brazilian middle and upper middle class, they include a few young families and older couples — either retired or in that state of metamorphosis from gainfully employed to aging obsolescence.
The denizens of the pool lead an amphibious life. Much of their time is spent reclining in beach chairs, reading from either books or pads, and adjusting ill-fitting swim wear. Most are lighter skinned Brazilians, indicating some wealth and enfranchisement into the dominant culture. Young moms and dads watch their respective broods, occasionally issuing warnings about the depth of the pool, the intensity of the sun, the heat of the concrete, and the constant refrain, voiced in Portuguese, Spanish and German of “Don’t run, you’ll slip and fall.” The youngsters heed nothing and constantly swim in the deep end, wipe off sunblock, burn their feet on the steaming concrete and race like demons around the pool. The old folks sun like lizards and when they feel the urge move slowly towards the pool, entering the water slowly using a set of concrete stairs. Once in the water they stand around the edges, they wade, their arms moving in graceful semicircles in the crystal chlorinated water. One night I watched as four or five folks stood in a watery circle talking and laughing, very much like a conversation at a party or reception. The social space only slightly skewed as a result of the movement of water and bodies. At one end of the pool, a view can be had of the beach as it stretches off to the north. Usually at least one, sometimes several, swimmers can be seen standing in the north corner of the swimming pool looking off towards the beach and the curling surf. And what they see likely attracts and repels them in the same instant, because in that scene of crashing sand and sea other actors can be viewed, homeless black kids as they play and churn in the restless sea.
I had tried to get to the ocean and beach one afternoon but was informed by the hotel security guys that it wasn’t safe. Specifically that the kids who used the beach were from the favela and they might be a problem for hotel guests. Evidently the security folks considered us prey for the predators who swam and lazed on the other side of the hotel’s barriers. Truths sometimes peek out from behind ridiculous situations. This, apparently, is one of those times.
The young people stand in the ocean, talk, laugh and compete to see who can body surf a wave for the longest time.
Unbound by credit cards, the daily slavery of the wage, the petty aggravations of Capital and nation-state, the black kids play and kick soccer balls on a sun-blanched beach.
Sunday, December 6th, 7pm, Santa Cruz SubRosa Infoshop, 703 Pacific Ave Monday, December 7th, 7pm, Monterey Old Capitol Books, 559 Tyler St Tuesday, December 8th, 7pm, Cupertino De Anza College, Campus Center, Conference Room A&B, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd. $3 parking permit required for campus parking. Saturday, December 12th, 7pm, Oakland OMNI Commons, 4799 Shattuck Ave Sunday, December 13th, San Francisco Station 40, 16th Street 4040 B (Near Mission Street). Note, Station 40 is up two flights of stairs. Sponsored by: Modern Slavery, FireWorks, Ruins of Capital Distro, Industrial Workers of the World/Solidarity Network San Jose, Direct Action Monterey Network (DAMN), SubRosa Infoshop, OMNI Commons, and Station 40.
Interview with Paul Z. Simons on Stories from Rojava on revolution, daily life & hope
Paul Z. Simons, also known as El Errante, is interviewed by rydra on his recent trip to Rojava. Paul tells stories of his trip, relays discussions he had with people in Rojava in the YPG, YPJ, taxi drivers, translators and more. Paul describes the situation in Rojava as a “post-leftist revolution in a pre-leftist society.” Paul also tells us how he got into the country, how others can, and why he feels that what is going on there is important to anarchists all around the world.
0:00 Paul talks about being a post-left anarchist and interacting with actual humans instead of just theory
3:30 logistics of how he made contacts and got into Rojava
7:30 border crossing and “press passes”
9:30 discussion of western media and the accuracy of the news coming out of Rojava. More discussion of how geography and autonomous structures look. How do the cantons relate to each other?
13:50 rydra asks Paul to explain the role of the US, Turkey, Syria, and Russia in Rojava.
17:00 Rojava power structure broken down with a cake analogy. How do communes function there?
20:00 TEV-DEM: who are they and how are they working in the communes
23:00 discussion of daily life, what it looks like in the villages and the cities.
26:00 ideology? “they are aware that they are in the midst of a revolution.” “Would the US government accept a passport from an anti-government.” Personal stories.
29:30 Paul runs into the legislative minister for Kobani and discuses their role.
31:20 visiting with YPG, and what life looks like for the militia, and the differences between their militia and an army
34:00 discussion of gender and the YPG. YPJ, and a cultural shift?
37:00 impression of what is going on, tastes, smells, sights. What is going on socially? The idea of death to Gilgamesh, and Rojava as a different way for humans to live.
42:00 A bit of analysis on anarchism and the common comment that “it can never work.” Paul on hope.
43:20 rydra edits a super smooth transition into a revolutionary YPG song
45:20 returning to the idea of hope(hiccups) and what it means to be a human being in Rojava completely surrounded by giant power structures and multiple governments.
47:30 Paul discusses what a revolution is like, getting out of our heads, and the feeling that “revolution grabs you by the heart.”
51:00 Where do Ocalan and the PKK fit into all of this. Is there concern over this and how is power playing out?
55:30 Being a post-leftist, cussing, and “a post-leftist revolution in a
pre-leftist country.” Never heard talk of working class and being
58:40 lessons learned from his trip, coming back to America and the Bay Area.
1:00:25 “I’ve made my decision, I’m here to help others make theirs.” The idea of an anarchist home.
1:04:00 things for people to do?
“Mr. Errante … did you visit Syria?” The US Border Patrol officer stares at me through the bulletproof plastic that separates us. He shifts in his seat. The man wants an answer.
“Me? Syria? No. No way … too dangerous,” I say. Praying the lie doesn’t show on my face. I’m in Dublin, at US Pre-clearance, almost back to the States and now, it seems, I may have some explaining to do.
He scoops up my passport and customs declaration in his right hand and says, “Come this way Mr. Errante. We’re going to search your luggage.” For the first time, during the entire trip, that sickening feeling of real fear rises inside me.
Two days earlier — Paris. A singular morning, fresh sun and breeze, the kind of daybreak that only the Mother of the Revolutions can serve for breakfast. I walk through Père Lachaise Cemetery my head and shoulders hunched forward. I know this old boneyard like a good friend, and there’s one memorial that calls me now. The Mur des Fédérés (the Wall of the Federals). A place on the enclosing wall of the old cemetery where several hundred Communards were taken to be slaughtered by the forces of law and order. The memorial comes into view, a simple plaque on a wall of stone. Nothing more. I pull a YPG flag from my bag and drape it over the memorial. I take a photo. A German man and his daughter walk around the corner. I ask him to take a photo of me and the wall and the flag. As he preps, my hand once again rises, almost unconsciously in the V salute and he snaps a few photos. I am not done. There are two more photos to be taken. One photo with the flag draped over Oscar Wilde’s tomb, and one photo at the sculpted bronze cap that seals Nestor Makhno’s ashes into the Columbarium. Taking the final picture I notice an odd thing, did the likeness of Makhno smile a bit when I placed the YPG flag? Or is it me?
The Border Patrol officer walks me to a holding room in the Pre-Clearance area. I am told to sit on a row of benches. As I sit I see that I am facing a wall of waist high one-way mirrors. In the reflection I can see several officers directly behind me looking at my passport and paper work. They talk quietly and nod.
My mind begins to play smuggler’s games. I go through all the potential contraband in my bags, numerous YPG/J flags, buttons, and patches. A book called Stateless Democracy, TEV-DEM flags, HPC flags and an HPC emblazoned brown uniform vest including two Velcro pockets that exactly fit a Kalashnikov banana clip for 7.62mm X 39 mm bullets. Additionally, several pro-YPG/J, TEV-DEM magazines in scary Daesh-looking Arabic and latinized Kurmanji. Welp, enough there for a few hours of interrogation, maybe even a day or two of detention. One of the Border Patrol officers calls me to his window. I stand, turn, and walk with measured steps to where he motioned me.
After the stroll through Père Lachaise I hail a taxi and head to the hotel. The taxi driver swerves through the Place de la République on our way back to the Left Bank when it catches my eye. A flag; the yellow/red/green flag of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, then two, and then three of them. Finally I see a huge YPG pennant, yellow with red star, as it lazes and hops in the mid-afternoon swirl. I yell at the taxi driver to stop and pay the fare frantically. I hop into traffic on the Rue du Temple and quickly read the sign over the bandstand, “International March against Daesh, For Kobane, For Humanity.”
Whooomp, there it is, it’s November 1st — International Kobane Day, and one more time, I am enmeshed in the Revolution.
I walk through the crowd, smelling the food, seeing the colors, transported back to Kobane and Cizere by the sound of spoken Kurmanji, and the feeling of rebirth, of making a new world. There is a tent where representatives of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Turkish, HDP) sit, drink tea, and converse. I walk over and introduce myself. I show them some of my photos and posts about Rojava. They speak together, then someone is sent to find a translator fluent in Turkish, French, Kurmanji, and English. After what might be my last glass of Kurdish style tea for a very long time, the translator arrives and we begin to talk about how HDP integrates activities with events in Rojava. As the conversation runs I once again feel it. The openness, the excitement, the lack of fear, the infectious hope in everything these folks do and believe. The. Damned. Hope.
The Border Patrol officer eyeballs me up and down and asks if I have any cigarettes in my bag. I grin and say, ”Yup, 15 packs of Gitanes and Gauloises, can’t buy’em in the US anymore, y’know.”
A slight smile crosses his face and he asks about money, gold, anything else I might try to be getting across the border. I answer that I have a few Euros, a few dollars — maybe a total of $100 altogether. No gold, no cheese, nada. He tells me to have a seat while they x-ray my bag. I return to my seat. Only one thought crosses my mind now, did the YPG/J use any paint on those flags that might show up on an x-ray? Oh well, what the hell. I’ll find out soon enough.
As I leave the rally one last sign catches my eye, white on black, and bold, cutting statements in French — demanding victory for the YPG. Well, it’s the folks from the Fédération Anarchiste (FA), come to voice an opinion. I saunter over and introduce myself, they know me a bit, I know them a bit. I am invited back to their infoshop just off the Place de la République. I sit for a while, tell them what I’d seen in Rojava. They ask questions. I have some answers — not many. I walk around their space, buy a few posters, thank them and leave. Now, a short night’s sleep, a long day’s flight, and home.
The Border Patrol officer calls me to his window. I am now frustrated and angry and hope I can hold my tongue. He looks me up and down one last time and says, “Mr. Errante, you can proceed. Your bags will be put back on the plane. Sorry for any inconvenience.”
“No inconvenience at all, really,” I respond. And with that final lie I leave Preclearance, feeling very much, sodomized.
At the San Francisco airport I debark the plane and walk slowly toward the bag claim. It’s taken me 26 hours to travel what should have taken 13. My back and legs ache and my head feels like a tree is growing in it. As I round the final corner my compañera appears up ahead. She smiles and we walk quickly to each other. I touch her hand, it is cool and warm, it feels like love. We embrace, I smell her hair, and I whisper, “I made it.”
“Home,” is all she replies. The sound of her voice — dusky, low, familiar — tells me the rest.
There is a small cemetery on the side of the 712 highway as it crawls its way westward out of Kobane. There are roughly 100 graves there, they are well-kept, some sprout plastic flowers, and small mementos can be seen that have been placed atop others. The cemetery is marked by a sign and a large poster of the martyrs buried there. This poster, however, is markedly different than most YPG/J martyr remembrances; this one includes pictures of old folks, newlyweds, teenagers and the very young. For this cemetery is dedicated solely to those who lost their lives during the massacre of June 25, 2015. On that night some 100 Daesh, disguised as Asayîş, infiltrated the Turkish border, exploded several car bombs and then began to systematically massacre anyone they could lay their hands on. An estimated 233 civilians were killed over the ensuing three days, including two of the driver’s uncles. Which is how I found this place; he had asked for a moment to stop by and tend the graves. I told him of course and asked if he came to the cemetery often.
“Every week,” was his response.
I finally found and met Aram Qamishlo, the HPC Director for Qamishili. The HPC compound where he works sits right behind the YPG barracks described in Dispatch Five. The HPC headquarters is yet another enclosed compound, a former storage area for the moribund Chemins de Fer Syriens railway system. According to Aram, the idea of formal defense units directly responsible to, and for the defense of, the communes had long been part of TEV-DEM discussions. The policy to further decentralize militia and security responsibilities with the concomitant devolution of power into the communes being the overarching priority. Significantly however, Aram states that the final push for the HPC came not from above, but from the communes. Prior to the HPC, each commune had implemented some level of security force, comprised of their own members and responsible to the commune council. This proved insufficient so the Qamishli communes requested that the Cizere Executive Council designate a name for the units, provide weapons training, a uniform, and outline specific duties for the militia. In March of 2015, and as a result of the relative stability of the region, the first units of the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (HPC, Self Defense Forces) began training and deploying in Cizere Canton, specifically Qamishli.
The driver, Mohammed the translator, and me wander among the graves. There are others here too, family, friends. They tend the graves of their loved ones. Hands, earth, sadness. One or two small boys play at tag while their parents clean the dry mounds of paper and rubbish. The graves are a sphinx. All of the headstones are in Arabic, which I can’t read. Even the dates are undecipherable. I continue walking, grave to grave, row to row, then one catches my eye. The dates and name are in Latinized script. This person was named Nujiyan Gever and s/he was born on October 14, 2014 and died on July 2, 2015. I count the months in my head quickly — a baby. Nine months old. Mohammed reaches out and takes my arm as I crouch to my knees. In my mind the simple phrase — a baby, Nujiyan Gever, nine months old — repeats over and over. I begin to feel unwell.
The HPC, like the YPG/J has developed innovative protocols for recruitment, training, and deployment. Some facts…
1) Each commune elects two persons to participate in the HPC. In practice there are far more volunteers for the HPC than it could possibly train and supply.
2) HPC recruit training lasts 17 days.
3) TEV-DEM and YPG/J take equal responsibility for training the HPC volunteers. The militias train on weapons and tactics and TEV-DEM train on the ideas of Democratic Confederalism. Both are considered essential for the HPC recruit to accomplish the mission of self defense.
4) As an example of HPC density, the city of Qamishli has a population of about 230,000 and an HPC contingent of 500.
5) Kobane, after the massacre, set out to arm and train HPC volunteers as quickly as possible. Due to the damage of the siege and lack of resources the HPC implementation had lagged behind other priorities. No more. In discussion with my TEV-DEM contact, Mr. Shaif was certain that they would have a full contingent for the city by mid-November of 2015.
As Aram and I sit and chat I ask what he sees as the most important work the HPC will do. He begins slowly, “In Marxism the people were always betrayed by the party, by the army, and what was left was dictatorship, war. In our system the arming of the people, through the YPG, through the Asayîş, through the HPC, guarantees that this will not happen. The HPC are one more guarantee for the success of the Revolution. So when we say protect the people we mean not just against Daesh, but anyone.”
I am floored by his statement and say,” You know your history, Durruti and Bakunin.”
He smiles and that was just enough.
The driver is finishing tending to his uncle’s graves. Mohammed and I stand by the minivan. I smoke and watch the families as they walk through the cemetery. The driver rises and walks towards us. I want to tell him I’m sorry, express sympathy, say something.
”I hope this never happens again,” is all I can manage. He is silent. We climb back in the minivan drive and he kicks over the engine. The three of us look off at the graves of the old, the young, the newlyweds. The minivan then groans onto the 712, and is gone.
(Note: In my drive from Semelka at the border to Amuda all the checkpoints were Asayîş, by my return some week or so later three of the checkpoints were run by men and women wearing the brown vest of the HPC. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not. My guess is the HPC will have a very important role as the Revolution matures and expands. In one stroke TEV-DEM may have addressed an issue that has plagued anarchist insurrections since the Paris Commune, how to maintain power, in the form of a militia, at the block and neighborhood level. Time will tell…)
YPG dimeşe, erd û ezman diheje
(YPG marches, earth and heavens tremble)
“Wait….what….we’re lost?” Mohammed the translator nods and I turn to the driver. He shrugs. I had headed out in Qamishli to do an interview about the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (HPC, Self Defense Forces), the new citizens’ militia formations in Rojava. The driver — per every other taxi driver on earth — knew a short cut that would get us there on time, guaranteed. Problem was he knew where we were, but couldn’t find the address of the HPC. So as we sat on a corner deciding what to do, I noticed several yellow YPG flags floating over an old fence. The driver pointed and shrugged, indicating maybe they know. Couldn’t hurt.
The Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG, People’s Defense Units) and the Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê (YPJ, Women’s Defense Units) are the armed backbone of the Revolution. The YPG, formed in 2004 (YPJ in 2012), is no army. It is a militia, a people armed, in the best sense of the word.
YPG/J Organization (Unit Name and Size)
1) Team, 6 – 10 fighters.
2) Suite, 2 Teams, 12 – 20 fighters.
3) Block (Kurmanji—garug), 2 suites, 24 – 40 fighters.
4) Company, 2 Blocks, 48 – 80 fighters.
5) Estimated Total YPG/J Census, 50,000 fighters
6) There are no officers. When engaged in operations, the fighters choose (by vote or consensus) Team/Suite/Block/Company Leaders. When idle, there is no leadership structure at any level, save Regional Commands. Commanders are chosen (vote or consensus) for regions and Cantons (Kobane, Qamishli) and can only serve six months in any given commando. They are then replaced. There is no re-election.
We all hop out of the taxi and approach the YPG outpost through a tangle of tank traps, concrete barriers and mud. The fighters at the gate are older than most I’ve met before, with graying beards, dark, tanned skin, and wrinkles. First thought, these guys look tough, real tough. We shake hands and when they find out I’m an American, one goes to tell the Commander. He returns with a tall well-built balding man, with clear grey eyes. We shake hands and he introduces himself. He is the Commander of the Qamishli Cizere Canton T.S. Cemal (Martyr Cemal) commando with approximately 400 fighters (4 Companies). He invites us in for coffee or tea, and to meet the fighters. What the hell. I’m late for my interview, it’s chilly — a coffee would be nice, I want to meet the fighters; and I like this man.
The YPG/J have developed some unique protocols regarding training, deployment, and morale. Some more facts…
1) Training for a YPG/J fighter lasts 45 days.
2) After training, the fighter is asked where and what type of duty s/he would like to do. They can opt for front-line service, tactical reserves, Turkish border patrol, internal checkpoints, or logistics and communication. The choice of duty, where to serve, and how long to serve, is solely the individual fighter’s.
3) Leave in the YPG/J varies with commando and combat situation. When idle, single men, and most YPJ fighters (who are usually unmarried) go on leave 4 days a month. Married men serve one week, and week off. When engaged in battle, leave is still offered to the fighters, but is rarely taken. One Kobane Commander joked that the seige lasted only a month because the married fighters realized that the more Daesh they killed, the sooner they would see their wives and children.
4) Food, clothing and shelter are provided to all YPG fighters, they also receive compensation amounting to about $100/month — for odds and ends, cigarettes, candy, amusement, travel, what have you. This seems small by US standards, but in Rojava it can go a long way. I pay about one dollar for a pack of Gauloises Blondes, and a kilo (2.2 pounds) of candy will set you back $0.75.
The Commander and I talk as we set off to the barracks. He tells me the men are rested, ready to fight, though the area has been quiet for months. The commando deploys, on a revolving basis, 15 fighters per week to the front. He has only one new recruit, a boy of 16, who left Aleppo and crossed Daesh lines to join the YPG. Breakfast is over and the fighters are lounging near the barracks. They see the Commander and me moving towards them and a few start walking over, then more follow. I introduce myself through Mohammed, they seem surprised that an American would visit; one or two look down, boots shuffle in the mud. I move closer and start shaking hands, I look in their eyes, I mumble thank you in English. The fighters nod, they smile, they get it. One or two say in Kurmanji, “You are welcome.”
I ask if I can take some pictures, the Commander maneuvers the fighters onto the tarmac to a spot in front of a large YPG flag snapping in the wind. A few photos, and as we walk off for coffee several of the less shy militiamen grab my arm and ask for individual or group photos. I stand with the men, arms on each other’s shoulders, we smile at the camera. In that moment one word flashes into my mind like summer lightning; a Spanish word, from a different insurrection and a different time, Hermanos.
A table is brought out and several cups of steaming, brackish Turkish coffee are set. Mohammed, the taxi driver, the Commander and I sit and drink while the fighters stand and look on. I ask some questions. Most are from Cizere, many from the city of Qamishli. They tell me that their fight isn’t just for the Kurds, but for the whole world. And not just to defeat Daesh, but to win a Revolution. They want me to understand this. That it is important. I tell them I do understand. I tell them I believe it also.
The cups are drained, time to go. I rise and thank the Commander again. He thanks me, and walks off to his duties. I begin shaking hands with the militiamen, saying thank you to each one, holding eye contact. Now, I need them to understand. The fighters form a line as I move so I can spend a moment of time with each of them. As I pass down the row it feels like a chunk of steel has settled in my heart. The first older soldier we met has been by my side the entire time. He follows us to the taxi. I extend a hand and to show our mutual respect, we kiss each other on the right cheek, the left cheek and then the left shoulder.
Back in the car I start thinking about the HCP interview up ahead, and then my eye catches the yellow YPG flag, still dancing in the morning breeze. There is a popular song in Arabic which include the lyrics, “God save the YPG; they protect the people; Arab, Kurd and Christian are brothers, they protect the land and grow hope.” And I think to myself: yes. Protect this militia of individuals who fight with their whole heart, who are fearless, who are kind, who grow hope, and who I have known for a short time as brothers. May their desires, for peace, for freedom, to be with their families and friends, become reality.
I looked at the taxi driver motioning forward with my hand and said, “So?”
He fired off some rapid Kurmanji to Mohammed who translated,” He said you forgot to ask about the HPC address…”
“The blood of martyrs never touches the ground.”
So I had been kicking around Kobane for a day or two and had made some good contacts in the media center and also the YPG. One afternoon the translator and I had stopped by to see what the YPG were up to; it was quiet, mostly. Then a commander came walking through talking rapidly and pointing. I looked at the translator and he said that the YPG are helping to escort the bodies of 18 YPG/J fighters from Kobane Canton to Cizere Canton for final burial. There was some kind of ceremony that was supposed to happen too. So we saddled up the Hyundai minivan and followed the racing YPG cars to wherever it was they were going.
We landed at a building with an enclosed courtyard near Kobane’s sook. It looked like it must have been a sports club, likely volleyball as it had changing rooms and a volleyball court sized enclosed area (As soccer is to Brazilians, so volleyball is to the Kurds, an obsession, a crazed, fan-driven juggernaut). The building had been expropriated and given to the Institute for the Families of the Martyrs, a revolutionary institution to provide support for folks who lost people in the fighting, and to keep the memories of the martyrs alive. Not that the latter task needs much energy, the photos of martyrs are ubiquitous. They are hung in shop windows, on poles, on the walls of offices, in magazines, in Asayis and YPG outposts, in town squares, in schools; in fact, basically, everywhere. And these posters and what they represent resonate deeply with the Kurds. What is interesting in all this is the anonymous nature of the Martyrs, there aren’t just one or two, or even dozens, there are literally thousands. Sure, some stand out, like Arwin Mirkhan, a young PYJ fighter who with her team was leading the final assault on Mishtehnur hill above Kobane. They were separated from the main assault body and shot up piece meal by Daesh (terrorists) fighters. With all her comrades dead or gravely wounded she resolved not to be taken alive and sold into slavery or beheaded. In the chaos of the final seconds of her life Arwin Mirkhan doused herself with a Molotov cocktail and lit a match.
At the center a hundred people or so have gathered, women sit in one room and men in the other waiting for the arrival of the Cizere delegation to accept the bodies of the dead. It is quiet, my TEV-DEM contact, Mr. Shaif is there and he thanks me for attending. We wait, we talk, we drink tea. An old bus, with windows missing is eased into the courtyard, we wait some more. Finally the Cizere contingent arrives, older men and women, some TEV-DEM, some of the parents and family of the martyrs, some private folks. They are led into an open room and the certificates for burial and death are passed ceremoniously to them. They accept. There are no tears.
The Kobane and Cizere contingent board the bus, I wheedle a seat for the translator and me. We drive to the Martyrs cemetery, some words are spoken by people representing Kobane thanking Cizere and the sacrifice that the fighters made for the freedom of Kobane. The Cizere contingent affirms their support and commitment to Kobane and the Revolution. The occasion is brief, solemn. More than one mother of a fallen fighter is in the audience, yet it is quiet. There are no tears.
We are now late and the old bus blasts like a rocket back through the dusty streets. The area around the Institute is alive with activity as cars carrying the flag draped coffins of the fallen pass by the gate and people look on from the surrounding streets. I dash around the corner to see what’s happening at the gate to the center. The women have come out of the institute compound and stand chanting on the streets, fingers raised in the V for victory salute. The individual cars carrying the heroes pass the saluting crowd, driven by YPG soldiers who return the V salute. The women chant in both Arabic and Kurmanji, occasionally making the zazi, the uniquely regional feminine ululation, which can be heard piercing the still heavy air.
I look on and without thinking I raise my hand in a V salute, but remain silent. There is no longer seeing or hearing this scene, only feeling it. My throat tightens and I find myself hating and loving in the same moment. Loving these young fighters who died for freedom, real freedom; and hating the fact of their deaths, too young, too brave, too many, and those who killed them — Daesh scum. If I could have killed every Daesh fighter in that moment, I would have. Every. Last. One. I reel in my emotions and look over to the gathered women on my right. Their faces are a blur of sadness, gratitude, and determination. I realize that this wasn’t about the Siege of Kobane, it was about the next, inevitable battle. It was about those who will die, as much as those who have. And there are no tears. Except my own.