04 Jul Episode 24: Highlighting Alternative Media — The Moral Limits of Dunking on Thomas Friedman
Citations Needed | January 24, 2018 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for joining us everyone this week. You can follow us of course on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook at Citations Needed and of course you can always support the show via Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. You can find us through that platform, any help is obviously appreciated. The support we’ve gotten so far has been amazing and we can’t thank you all enough for helping us get this off the ground and keeping it going as you have. You know, it’s amazing Adam, we’ve been doing this for like six months now. Can you believe it?
Adam: I know, we’re getting old.
Nima: Yeah, it’s incredible.
Adam: Our content’s fresh. We’re old. That’s the Citations Needed promise.
Nima: (Laughs) Exactly. That’s our new tagline. But in addition with the New Year, we’re also going to be expanding our Citations Needed team a little bit. So, in addition to our amazing producer Florence Barrau-Adams and our production consultant Josh Kross, we’re thinking of expanding the team to be able to go a little deeper on these topics, do a little more research and certainly help through Patreon will make that possible.
Adam: In addition, we’re also going to be soon having transcripts for the shows. Ideally down the road we’ll be backlogging the old ones as well. We had a request from some disability activists to do that. We want to make that happen as soon as we can. And I want to thank people for bringing that up and for asking us about it. We want to be responsive to those requests.
Nima: Speaking of being responsive to our listeners and to the feedback that we tend to get, this is going to be a Very Special Episode of Citations Needed – one where, rather than criticizing and scolding the media for fucking up all the time and for pushing shitty narratives and destructive stereotypes, we are going to do something a little, a little different this week.
Adam: Yeah, we had a lot of feedback. Without naming names I want to read off some of the feedback we got. I’ve had this criticism brought up a lot. One listener on Facebook basically said that perhaps instead of, because we did an episode on diversity in the media and he said this, he said he agreed that it was important that we did diversity in the media, but it’s also important that we not try to necessarily populate bourgeois media with diversity and that and then in there, but we also need to build alternate systems and alternative media, which of course is something that I sort of generally agree with and then I think the very next day we had a comment from one of our listeners who said that the more that they listened to quote “doom and gloom” episodes “I don’t want to feel defeated in my activism. I’d really appreciate that even the hardest episode you guys could talk about ways to be helpful and proactive.” And this is something thought that we’ve gotten a lot on social media. That they love the show, but it depresses people.
Nima: Right? And this is something that we’ve talked about, you and I together and how we even kind of wind up ending shows being like, ‘Well that was really, that was really heavy.’ And then we’re like, ‘Thanks everybody! Goodnight’
Adam: Yeah and response to that personally, and I don’t know your, I don’t know your thoughts on this Nima or Florence, but my thought has always been when people say, you know, ‘Why don’t you compliment more or be more positive?’ I say, ‘Well, I’m a professional media critic. Not a media complimenter.’ And that’s a little glib, I think, and I think that’s sort of what we’re getting at. We’re like, I really thought about it, about hiding behind this mask of being a media critic as sort of something that prevents me from trying to be positive or to highlight people that are actually moving the needle and doing good work.
Nima: It’s kind of like the Jon Stewart, ‘I’m just a comedian.’ Totally, totally.
Adam: Yeah. It seemed really weak sauce to not sort of also assume that that in this position, as small as this position is that we have, that we do have a kind of obligation to not just be mindlessly nihilistic and I never want to give anyone the impression that that’s the approach we take in the show. So I think we wanted to do something unique in the show to get to the point of it, which is we’re going to try to highlight alternative media in those that are working to move the needle independent of corporate media. Um, these are alternative media and independent media outlets. So we’re going to talk to two of those today.
Nima: First, we will be speaking with Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media, an Indigenous Environmental Network project.
Jade Begay: When we talk about the challenges we have with progressive or liberal media, we are talking about these reporters and journalists who in this day and age are, you know, writing for social media. They’re writing for a quick read. And so often these stories tend to be surface level. They tend to sometimes not be vetted. They don’t go directly to the people that need to be heard the most or the community.
Nima: And later in the show will be speaking with Jay Donahue of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization building a movement to abolish the prison industrial complex and publisher of The Abolitionist, a national publication dedicated to the strategy and practice of prison industrial complex abolition. It is currently available in jails, prisons and detention centers in the US, Canada, and Columbia.
Jay Donahue: I think that that the media is in a lot of ways, well, the mainstream media is in a lot of ways, very complicit with the prison industrial complex and actually benefits from it. They work to both prop up these false ideas that we need prisons, we need policing, we need surveillance in order to keep our cities, our communities safe. And then also benefit from these sort of like outlandish shows like Lockup.
Adam: Obviously today’s episode focuses on alternative media and independent media, trying to build new systems, so I had a really interesting conversation. I did an interview with Open Source radio about two weeks ago, which has its own podcast. And he asked me how do you reform The New York Times? Specifically in the context of them being very pro-war and dropping the ball in the Iraq War. And I kinda turned to him and I was like, you know, to be perfectly honest, and this is going to sound maybe a bit obscene, but like, uh, you know, to say that The New York Times failed in the run-up to the war in Iraq I think is the absolute wrong way of looking at it. They actually succeeded precisely as they’re supposed to, which is one of their primary social functions is to sell war, which they did. Um, it was not a failure. It was a tremendous success. Uh, sort of like how we talk about how the war on drugs is a failure. And of course it’s not, its goal was to put black and brown people in prison.
Nima: Exactly. It is achieving exactly what it set out to do.
Adam: Right. Or the war in Iraq. We say, oh, Iraq was a failure. It’s like, no. The point of Iraq was to get rid of threats to US hegemony and US power in the region. That did precisely that, the aftermath is sort of, you know, it’d be nice if it wasn’t a shit show, but they don’t really care. And so that kind of leads to a radical conclusion, which is that we don’t really need The New York Times or The Washington Post or these kind of establishment legacy media or CNN or corporate media, that if they ended tomorrow, would we be any less informed? Maybe slightly, but we would also be less misinformed.
Adam; Um, and I think the question is less how do we reform institutions like The New York Times or CNN, which I think is kind of a Pollyannish question. I think it’s, how do we build alternate systems? How do we build alternate media systems to replace them in the event that they, whatever, you know, there’s some conditions where they don’t necessarily exist or they can kind of move them out. Now because of the way our system works in the capital system, the funding model is, is sort of built into the system.
Adam: But instead of just saying, ‘Oh, well, of course, you know, the, the capitalism makes alternative media possible.’ Uh, we wanted to sort of highlight that people are working against these tremendous forces and actually building alternate media.
Nima: Absolutely. I was struck by a recent poll that was released by Gallup and the Knight Foundation. It’s their survey on trust in the media and democracy looking at the past year, at 2017, and perhaps very unsurprising, the poll found that trust in the media in the United States at least, um, has been steadily eroding and that majorities of Americans believe it’s now harder to be well informed, let alone determine kind of what news is accurate, is real. You know, it’s kind of like fall out fake news stuff. But that has real implications on people believing what they’re reading. One of the findings was that more than 8 in 10 American adults believe the news media is critical or very important to what they deem ‘our democracy’. And yet they don’t have trust in it. You know, 58 percent to 38 percent of Americans say it’s now harder rather than easier to be informed today due to the ubiquity of information available, which seems like a very strange way of viewing the media. It’s like that sort of idea is there’s too much out there as opposed to there’s not enough. You know, I think that’s a very striking finding.
Adam: And to be clear, it’s a trend that began before the whole fake news thing.
Nima: Yes, exactly. If you don’t know who to trust, you don’t want to see too much. You just want to see the same old big names, which I think is incredibly dangerous. Um, you know, meanwhile 66 percent of Americans say that most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Back in 1984, only 42 percent held this particular view. So, I mean, we’re really seeing this dearth of trust in media.
Adam: One thing I think is notable here is that there’s this common hand wringing that the Ezra Kleins will do or NPR does. We’re like, we’re all getting fragmented and polarized. Yeah, it’s been around for 20, 25 years. Um, and there’s some empirical evidence to show that people have become more radical, but I think, I think people are responding to radical times, you know, rampant inequality, the erosion of trust within institutional media, erosion of distrust in the government. The fact that we have a cartoon orange Nazi as president people are seeking alternatives because the sort of normal bespectacled conveyors of conventional wisdom have lost all credibility. It’s not the other way around. I don’t think that they’re losing credibility because of some moral failing on part of the readers or the listeners. I think that they are responding to a system that has lost credibility in the wake of you know permanent war and the financial crisis and all these sorts of things that we were told were good are now bad. I think that, you know, people are going to fill that void and that void’s going to be filled by either gross, right-wing Breitbart-esque media. Or it’s going to be filled by people representing marginalized communities and working class people. And ideally it’s better to sort of try to find ways of doing that and using social media, which has flattened some of these barriers, for all its faults I think it actually has, then it is to try to necessarily reform or browbeat The New York Times or CNN into being better corporate citizens.
Nima: Yeah, no, exactly. And it’s also not a matter of necessarily only what is commonly referred to as like diversifying newsrooms. It’s not just, ‘Oh, you know, hire a more Benetton looking workforce to do the same old shit.’ It’s actually building these alternative models, these systems that then work in collaboration with one another across issues and across communities.
Adam: Yeah, all things being equal we’ve talked about it before you definitely would rather have a diverse newsroom than a non-diverse room of course.
Nima: Obviously, yes. But that’s not the only box that needs to be checked.
Adam: Yeah, that’s not the only solution. I think the way, again, we talked about this in the episode on BDS and colonization where it’s the, the slogan is don’t diversify de-colonize. Um, and I think the people we’re talking to today and the others we’ll talk to in the future are doing, are more about de-colonizing than they are about diversifying.
Nima: Absolutely. So let’s get rolling. Our first guest is Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media and we will be speaking to her in just a moment.
Nima: We are joined now by Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media, an Indigenous Environmental Network project. She is a filmmaker, media strategist and currently the sustainability and justice communications fellow at Resource Media. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jade.
Jade Begay: Hi, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So can you tell us a little bit about what Indigenous Rising Media does and what its activities have been over the past couple of years in general and what barriers ya’ll have seen since ya’ll began?
Jade Begay: Yeah, so Indigenous Rising Media is a media project of the Indigenous Environmental Network and although very related and connected, their work is different. The Indigenous Environmental Network is just that. It’s a network of many indigenous led campaigns, projects, organizations, and uh, we work to give capacity and support and resources to these various campaigns or projects or tribal groups throughout the country. And Indigenous Rising Media was born out of the need, you know, as we work with these communities, as we build movements together, as we build projects together, Indigenous Rising came out of the need to share the stories and not have to depend on progressive media or mainstream media to tell our story. So Indigenous Rising serves as a platform for grassroots indigenous voices. Um, and we do focus on social and environmental issues and specifically looking at these, all these issues from an indigenous rights perspective.
Adam: I notice you mentioned progressive media. I guess I’m curious, um, what limitations are, what, what problems you’ve experienced with kind of nominally progressive or liberal or even left-wing media? Um, you don’t have to name names necessarily, although you’re welcome to, that maybe don’t necessarily do the kinds of things that a group like Indigenous Rising Media will do.
Jade Begay: You know, the, the advantage of having Indigenous Rising Media be born out of IEN, the Indigenous Environmental Network, is that it’s founded out of 20 years of on the ground relationship building, community based organizing, so when we talk about the challenges we have with progressive or liberal media, we are talking about these reporters and journalists who in this day and age are, you know, writing for social media, they’re writing for a quick read and so often these stories tend to be surface level. They tend to sometimes not be vetted. They don’t go directly to the people that need to be heard the most or the community. And so with Indigenous Rising, we have that advantage. We know who the leaders on the ground are, who the community members are, we have trust with them and we really value that and having relationship and building trust in our storytelling process. That’s what comes to mind. Yeah when we’re talking about some of the challenges with these outlets.
Nima: Part of the operating feature of Indigenous Rising is that it is steeped in what is called the prophecies and teachings of indigenous communities. Can you just talk about how that informs your work?
Jade Begay: Yeah, of course. When we talk about these prophecies and cosmology and indigenous principles or values informing our work, we’re talking about coming from a place of honoring and recognizing different indigenous values and principals. Um, we come from this, this place, and we want to honor all of these things in our storytelling because it’s what is missed most in the mainstream narrative, I believe. And it’s actually like the foundation to why we are leading these movements. Why we’re, you know, if you look at Standing Rock, like Standing Rock is a movement that was born out of prophecy and out of a cosmology. And that’s a really challenging thing to get across in an article, in a video. But we’re trying because that’s the foundation of a lot of our fights, our resistances you could say. When we talk about indigenous sovereignty and indigenous rights we’re demanding our rights, our sovereignty to protect these cosmologies, to protect our sacred places on our culture. So we need to include those stories, include those myths and that mythology into our storytelling because it’s at the root of who we are.
Adam: So your resistance is obviously informed by that culture and that culture is, is oftentimes ignored entirely. You mentioned Standing Rock. It seems like the problem with a lot of indigenous activism, environmental activism, is the same problem with a lot of activism, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or prison abolitionists where until there’s some dramatic event or a form of violence, no one really seems to care about it. And Standing Rock was a sort of example of that where people didn’t really care until they started sticking the, you know, fire hoses and dogs on people. What are some of the problems that you find frustrating? Do you think there’s kind of a parachute journalism aspect to it that you guys try to fight back against? Or do you kind of understand why people react that way?
Jade Begay: Yeah, I mean I think we, we all understand why the media reacts that way, that, you know, media is very sensational and these are moments to be sensationalized and we do resist that. We do push back on media and, and even organizations you show up when it’s sort of the flare moments. Um, and one way we talk about this idea is by using the term ‘extractive storytelling.’ Coming into a community, like you said, when, when it’s a hot moment and then, and then leaving and never showing up again and not really trying to make relationships on the ground. Maybe not even getting the full picture. You know, I think that’s something we definitely saw with Standing Rock was just journalists were going to any person that they could talk to you. And I understand that the leadership structure there was um, complicated, but there were some very vetted and important spokespeople to go to. Um, and sometimes people just picked up the gossip around camp. So yeah, we definitely pushed back on this, this parachute kind of journalism or um, activism. Even the ways that we address this issue is by informing our communities. And by informing our people, you know, like be protective of your stories and then hold them with integrity and ask for that follow-up, like ask for, you know, how is this series on whatever going to continue to, um, is it going to be continued to be shared? Really, really informing our communities about distribution and ways that they can create longer lasting relationships with these outlets and um, and then it goes vice versa outlets and different media groups really need to have a better understanding of creating healthier relationships with the communities they’re reporting on and getting stories from.
Nima: Yeah. So something we talk about a lot is a, as you mentioned, almost like a symbiotic relationship between the subjects of media and who’s doing the writing of media. And it goes both ways. I mean, you know, some of these narratives like that the land and the earth is some resource to be extracted from and exploited is obviously anathema to how a group like Indigenous Rising thinks about Mother Earth or you know, Grandmother Earth. Like how do you see those narratives being crafted in the mainstream? And then by alternative sources and where do those meet?
Jade Begay: I think a good example of how mainstream media looks at a certain issue versus how we would talk about an issue, Indigenous Rising and some of the people we partner with, is last November, we were in Bonn, Germany. We were covering the COP23, the conference of the parties. It’s the UN climate negotiations. And for the most part, the mainstream media was really focused on this narrative led by Jerry Brown and many other governors were leading, um, We’re Still In campaign. It was their response to Trump having no US administration present.
Adam: Oh yeah. I remember that. Yeah.
Jade Begay: Yeah. And it was, and he was being so celebrated by the media, the mainstream media and all the while they’re missing these really, really, really important issues with this We’re Still In campaign. Though We’re Still In campaign, it looks nice and pretty on the surface, but when you look into it, it’s all about carbon markets and carbon markets put indigenous communities, especially in the Amazon, at great, great danger. And it’s actually not quite a solution. Um, it’s a way to buy yourself out of solving climate change cap and trade and the carbon market system. So, you know, we were coming from that angle. We were coming from the angle of like, hold up everybody, um, We’re Still In, is not a campaign with real solutions. These, all these people who are getting on these podium saying, you know, they’re taking bold climate action, corporations like Walmart and states like California, you know, they’re not really committing to much and here’s what’s at risk when we believe their story.
Nima: And I should also point out that the We Are Still In Pavilion in Bonn, Germany was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Hewlett Foundation and Tom Steyer’s Next Gen America. So the idea that this is some kind of grassroots-sy representative of the people is somewhat different. Obviously every campaign, every movement needs funding. But it’s an interesting thing that this anti-Trump coalition started up and immediately got all this serious big, big moneyed backing. It just is another hint at who’s actually behind this stuff and, and whose voices are still not being heard.
Jade Begay: We struggled really hard getting our, our story into the mainstream and breaking into that, we pitched different outlets like The Guardian and we have relationships with some other progressive outlet so that wasn’t as hard, but we do want to break into that mainstream. We do want to change that narrative. But it’s really hard cause these outlets will get their story in at the beginning of these conferences and then that’s it. They’re done.
Jade Begay: You know, they’re not willing to change it up or retract something that’s maybe goes against what they said before or like have a discussion. Instead its a very closed off process and that’s exactly why we have our own platform.
Nima: I think a perfect example of what you were just talking about Jade is, you know, looking at, there’s a Reuters article from November 2017 that touts the We Are Still In campaign with the headline, “Anti Trump US coalition tells UN climate talks: ‘We Are Still In.’” Its bold and anti-Trump and pro-environmental and what you’re saying is obviously that’s such a convenient way of staying in the conversation while doing nothing and seeming like there’s this bold resistance action and yet the real voices that are needed, the real action that needs to be taken is still being completely left out.
Jade Begay: Exactly. Yep.
Adam: The Guardian’s global development vertical, which includes a lot of environmental stuff is I think a hundred percent funded by Bill Gates and so they have very conflicted um, conflict of interest problems. Their vis-à-vis not taking this kind of corporate, sort of neo liberal line on environmental issues. This is a sort of episode about being prescriptive and trying to help people out who may be considering starting their own alternative or independent media. Is there any sort of general advice or any kind of pitfalls you can you can tell about starting one’s own media company? I know you guys have been pretty successful, especially in social media by the way, some really impressive numbers there. Is there any kind of advice you could give people who are listening to this who maybe want to start their own outlets?
Jade Begay: Yeah, so my advice would be to connect with like-minded people. It’s so invaluable to have coffee or, um, Skype date with somebody who has done this before and to chat with them. So connecting with those people one on one, I’m definitely available. I can be a resource for people. Um IRM, Indigenous Rising Media, are a really small team and we made it work and we’ve had the Indigenous Environmental Network team to really help us in launching and in getting a really strong audience. So maybe that’s something people can also do is, are there organizations, are there people on the ground say your outlet is climate, um, well, what organizations, what people can you connect with that can, you can support each other, you know, you can uplift their work and provide them with some capacity while they help amplify your new project, things like that. So yeah, strategic partnerships, um, keeping up with the times, so to speak. We’ve really harnessed a lot of attention and support from doing live streams. Obviously that was like such a critical tool in Standing Rock and continues to be, um, throughout different resistance work. Um, so honing in like what are your best tools and keeping them consistent. Also, what are people liking right now? Like I think one of the more popular things out there is really flashy, cool Instagram stories and, and yeah, just, you know, stick with what’s working and stick with what people are giving their attention to.
Nima: Alternative media does such a great job with pushing the boundaries of new tools and tech. Um, they’re kind of at the forefront of that I think a lot. And they fly under the radar because obviously they’re not the ones getting the attention and then it’s like The New York Times will have a new vertical on something with these flashy graphics because they have all this money and everyone’s like, ‘oh, that’s awesome.’ But alternative outlets have been doing that already and just not getting the same kind of attention. So there is this idea of groups like yours and others that have their finger on the polls have the voice of the people in a much different way and they just need to be heard more. They need to be paid attention to more.
Jade Begay: Yeah. I just got back from a planning meeting with the Allied Media Conference and that conference is a huge resource that anyone creating a digital zine or a radio project or a podcast or anything that falls under the multimedia art form, um, definitely get to the Allied Media Conference. Um so much good expertise and resources in that community.
Nima: Indeed. And if anyone is curious, the next conference is coming up June 14th to 17th, 2018 and it’s in Detroit.
Jade Begay: Yes.
Nima: So that’s the Allied Media Conference. Obviously we will link to that in our show notes.
Jade Begay: And Indigenous Rising Media is leading an indigenous media track there, so stay tuned for that.
Adam: Do you want to plug your social media before we go and where people can find your work?
Jade Begay: Yeah, of course. You can find us on Facebook at Indigenous Rising Media. Um, our website in indigenousrising.org and we can also be found on Instagram @IndigenousRising.
Nima: That is awesome. Thank you so much Jade Begay of Indigenous Rising Media, an Indigenous Environmental Network project. It has been so great to talk to you and hopefully we can speak with you again and certainly raise up your own work and get some more eyes and ears on it.
Jade Begay: Yeah, thanks so much for having us on. Really appreciate it.
Adam: That was good. I’ve actually been following Indigenous Rising on social media for, I guess about a year and a half now and they’re really savvy with it. If anyone is interested in trying to promote left-wing media in a kind of way that is not gimmicky or corporate, but is also just really effective I definitely think you should follow them and learn from them.
Nima: Yes, absolutely. They are a vital resource and everyone listening should start following and sharing their work. We are going to be joined next by Jay Donahue of Critical Resistance. Critical Resistance is a really impressive project and one of the things that they do, what we’re going to be talking to Jay about is the publication The Abolitionist, which is a periodic newspaper that gets distributed primarily within prisons and to prisoners. We’re going to be joined by Jay in just a sec, stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jay Donahue of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization building a movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. It also publishes The Abolitionist. Welcome to Citations Needed Jay.
Jay Donahue: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So on this episode we’re trying to highlight people who’ve done alternate or independent media and some of the ups and downs and lessons that people who are listening can learn. The Abolitionist newspaper, um, if I’m not mistaken, it circulates, there’s 3,500 circulation number, 2,500 of which is in prisons. Can you talk to us about how you went about creating this paper and what the sort of general editorial ethos is of the paper?
Jay Donahue: Sure. The distribution of the paper is actually over 5,000 folks in prisons, jails and detention centers at this point.
Jay Donahue: Really great and Critical Resistance, um, has been around since, as an organization, a formal organization since 2003 and before that, since 1998 and somewhere in the mid 2000s, let’s say, we realized that we were communicating very regularly with people inside prisons and jails and um, were sending lots of resources and also wanting to do more organizing with people, um, which is a difficult thing to organize with folks inside, barring going and visiting on a regular basis. And so the organization decided to develop this communication tool and we call it The Abolitionist. So it’s a newspaper and it’s in English and Spanish. And this current issue that will be coming out now is Issue 28. We attempt to put out three issues per year. Um, so it’s, uh, a not quite quarterly paper. It is, in terms of the ethos I guess, as you called it, a themed paper. Um, it wasn’t always that way, but we, we pick a theme. So this current theme for Issue 28 is combating fascism.
Adam: Good theme. We’re big fans of themes here at Citations Needed.
Nima: Fitting. (Laughs) Timely.
Jay Donahue: (Laughs) Um, well I guess we developed the theme concept just because it made it easier to actually do the work of organizing with and collaborating with prisoners on articles, um, if we had something more focused to work on. One of the challenges that we experience, um, with the paper is just simply around communications. So as you might imagine prison is an extremely repressive environment, um, and people’s mail is surveilled both incoming and outgoing mail.
Jay Donahue: Um, and so the main way that we have of communicating with people is through the mail. So that makes it very difficult. And then, you know, the, the paper is a political education tool, that’s its kind of primary focus is to kind of get political ideas to prisoners, to share ideas around organizing, to get people to then share the paper and do their own organizing using The Abolitionist as a tool on the inside. Um, and so when we’re talking about political ideas, we’re talking about resisting the prison industrial complex, resisting the state. And these are not ideas that the prison system wants to have inside, wants prisoners to be talking about, wants prisoners to be circulating, um or organizing around, um, and so oftentimes well not as often as you might expect, but the paper does get rejected. And so, you know, a lot of times some of these rejections are for completely arbitrary reasons, for example, arbitrary, but then not so arbitrary and at the same time.
Jay Donahue: So for example, um, I don’t know if you remember this, but in 2011 and then in 2013, there were a couple of historic prisoner led hunger strikes, um, protesting the conditions of solitary confinement in California. And one of the pieces that we put out in the paper, which we use as a tool to help or as a vehicle so that prisoners could you use that to help them in their organizing. Um, one of the things that we put out was the call to end hostilities, which was a piece that was written in collaboration, there were five representatives who were helping to organize the hunger strikes who were based up in Pelican Bay State Prison. And they drafted this letter and wanted to get it circulated amongst as many people as possible in California prisons. And so we put that in The Abolitionist, um, and many of those papers, that was actually probably the biggest mailing, where we had the most rejections, and I point this out because I think it’s our orientation at Critical Resistance that papers are refused based on the fact that the prison industrial complex and prisons, they pit prisoners against each other and use violence. They themselves incite violence between prisoners to increase, in order to be able to increase the repression and control of people inside prison and by extension their families and communities outside prison. And so it’s not really an accident that prisons would not want prisoners to read something that called for prisoners to unite. And that’s what the call to end hostilities was doing. And really it was a vehicle to build prisoner power and self-determination, which is exactly the opposite of what prisons set out to do in the first place.
Nima: So The Abolitionist is a volunteer run paper and as it is noted, is guided by consensus. Can you tell us a little bit about how that works, how actually the publication operation works?
Jay Donahue: Sure. So in terms of consensus, Critical Resistance actually as an organization overall, uh, we use consensus decision making as our mode of operation. So on all levels from the national level deciding things about our budget to a chapter level and down to a work group level. So The Abolitionist is a national work group of Critical Resistance. We have members in the work group who are from different chapters and then like myself, some people who are based in non-chapter cities who are national members and so we make decisions we consent to things like what themes are we going to have for the papers for the year? What articles are going to be part of those different issues down to the level of whether or not we want to go with an outside designer for the paper. Um, and we use consensus because at the same time that we’re working for abolition, that we’re trying to tear down prison walls, trying to end the violence of policing, we’re also trying to think about a different world that we want to live in. Different systems that we can build to kind of replace the systems that only prop up and hold up the prison industrial complex and other systems like it. And so consensus is a way for us to practice that in our everyday lives, our every day decision making where everybody’s voices are recognized, everybody’s decision making powers are upheld and it doesn’t mean that everybody always agrees with each other, but it does mean that we come to a decision that everybody can move forward with and, you know, so that might seem kind of onerous for small, very small decisions, but it’s important to kind of stretch our brains and make our brains practice that so that we can use it for when it really counts for the really big things.
Nima: Can you tell us a little bit about how actually The Abolitionist acts as an effective organizing tool within and also outside prison walls?
Jay Donahue: Yes. Prisoners have very little access to political information. Um, specifically kind of left radical political information. Um, that’s kind of highly censored. So, um, The Abolitionist is one way to be able to get some of that information and to get new ideas represented and we really kind of center around, as I was saying, not just tearing down and fighting but also what are we building instead? And so some of the articles will center around different strategies that people can employ in their everyday lives, even inside prisons to sort of think about or start to generate the world that we want to live in. And then, you know, we have this subscription base of around just over 5,000 folks, but we know that the paper is shared much more broadly than that. So people are using the paper to be able to connect with other people in prison. This space where people are told you you’re only supposed to be there for number one, you should not, you know, you shouldn’t be talking or organizing with other people. So it’s kind of like this vehicle or pathway to be able to just talk with other people about ideas. And in and of itself that is an act of resistance because prison is such a repressive environment. Um, on the outside, we kind of use it in a similar way. I wouldn’t, while there are certain challenges in terms of organizing with people on the inside, I think that we organize with people on the outside in very similar kinds of ways. So we take the paper to tabling events that we do. Um, we have a smaller subscription base of people on the outside, but we also use it in a way to like both with people on the inside and people on the outside of soliciting articles.
Nima: Jay, can you just explain what a tabling event is?
Jay Donahue: Um, so it would be a, for instance, an event that we would go to that was put on by another organization or like a book fair or some other public event where we literally sit behind a table and have our information about our organization. We might sell t-shirts or tote bags or any other kind of merchandise that we have that the proceeds of which benefit the organization. But it’s really an opportunity to get in front of the public and be able to talk about abolition with folks that we might not normally reach.
Adam: And what percent of the content would you say is prisoner created?
Jay Donahue: We aim for 30 to 60 percent. And it definitely depends on the issue whether or not we can get that many articles submitted on time given the lengthy process.
Jay Donahue: The solicitation and article writing process is very collaborative. Um, especially with people on the inside. There’s a lot of kind of back and forth and editing and soliciting of ideas.
Adam: And all that goes through mail?
Jay Donahue: Yes, it all goes through the mail. So, um, but we also are working with people on the outside who are either former prisoners, who have been effected by the violence of policing, who are family members. And so I’d say overall we definitely are hitting that 30 to 60 percent mark with folks who are impacted by the PIC [prison industrial complex] overall.
Adam: Can you give a synopsis of what abolitionism is? It’s a very foreign concept to most people. It seems very radical to most people. Can you use this opportunity to sort of tell people what the ideology and values behind abolitionism vis-à-vis the prison system is and why you think it’s the position that needs to be trumpeted?
Jay Donahue: Sure. Yeah, so abolition kind of in a nutshell is ending our reliance on prisons, policing and surveillance as solutions to political, economic and social problems. Today, as we know, our government and our, I guess more general society rely pretty heavily on those systems to kind of solve issues that they see as or that we see are the larger society sees as problems that need to be solved. Like for instance, violence or you know, some of the big things that come up often are like interpersonal harm, like murder or sexual violence, etcetera. And you know, what we can see now is that despite the fact that we have more people in prison than any other nation in the world per capita, that we have more, you know, we have cops in every city, that we’re not necessarily dealing directly with any of those issues. And those issues aren’t exacerbated because the violence that the prison industrial complex kind of foments, only serves to further entrench the issues that we’re actually trying to deal with.
Adam: So the sort of general mainstream narrative around prison is twofold. It’s either completely ignored or taken out of sight unless there’s some kind of uprising right? Similar problem with a lot of groups in the left, unless there’s violence, nobody cares or not even violence, just things being lit on fire, which of course is not violence. And then you have the sort of exploitative shows on MSNBC that everyone’s familiar with that, um, Rachel Maddow once called Lockup, um, she said it was like having an ATM machine in the MSNBC lobby. Um, it actually was their biggest cash cow for years for like, I think 15 years and that’s a show that’s based on basically free prison labor. Um, which is why I found it deeply cynical that MSNBC ignored the, uh, the prison strikes that occurred a year and a half ago. Um, can you talk about A) how you guys deal with those sorts of misconceptions and kind of exploitative perceptions of prison and what you think publications like yours can do to sort of combat that? Obviously your paper’s not really marketed to kind of bourgeois liberals, but do you think that it can sort of help give a voice to these people that isn’t just reality TV?
Jay Donahue: I think that The Abolitionist kind of does that in a few ways. So, a) it solicits, we solicit articles and artwork from prisoners themselves, so we invite them, we prop up and lift up the voices of people who are inside to be able to tell their own stories, to be able to tell their own realities, to say, ‘hey, we’re the experts here, this is what’s really happening on the inside.’ Another way is, is to kind of lay bare what is actually happening, why prisons actually exist. And I think that that the media is in a lot of ways well, the mainstream media is in a lot of ways very complicit with the prison industrial complex and actually benefits from it. They work to both prop up these false ideas that we need prisons, we need policing, we need surveillance in order to keep our cities, our communities safe and then also benefit from these sort of like outlandish shows like Lockup. Um, but that, those ideas are the very ideas that abolition attempts to turn on its head. That policing prisons and surveillance keep us safe. Um, and so some of the ways that we try to organize against that as is this idea of like, what can we build instead? What can we change? Those systems become completely obsolete, that they’re just not systems that people turn to. Um, so I think, and I think that our communities are, the people who are really ready for that. I think that people are, as much as folks like to say, ‘Oh, you’re just big dreamers as abolitionists.’ Abolition can be very a practical tool that people use in their everyday lives.
Nima: Do you find that there’s resistance from those outside prison or outside of a community that understands what prisoners go through, their families, their communities obviously, and that outside of that are their own stereotypes and prejudices that you wind up hitting up against as barriers? And how do you see The Abolitionist overcoming that?
Jay Donahue: We do get a lot of pushback. I mean, we actually have quite a bit of, um, internal organizational political education or, or training around, um, how do we talk to folks about abolition? How do we, how do we address some of these big questions that people naturally come up with? We’re so reliant and the prison industrial complex as a tool is so, the use of that is so ingrained from day one. What do you do when you’re in trouble as a little kid? You’re told you call the cops. Um, its the first response to everything, um, that there’s a lot of work to be done to sort of dismantle that. Um, and so a lot of it has to be, you know, as any organizing is, I don’t think it’s really different than any other organizing on the left is it has to be kind of both direct but also listening to people. Listening to what their experiences are, listening to how they perceive things. And working off that conversation to think about, um, you know, maybe they had an experience with the, with the cops. What was that like? What kinds of ideas can they connect with most directly that are in the toolbox of our ideas?
Adam: What have you personally learned from prisoners, people incarcerated, either currently or ex, about how to build a publication and what kind of, you know, general prescriptive advice would you give people considering starting their own publication or podcast or media outlet?
Jay Donahue: Sure. First of all, I’d say that prisoners and people inside have just a tremendous amount to teach us and I think that, you know, I’m really proud and honored to be part of this organization that counts prisoners amongst our fellow organizers, and this is despite the fact that the state literally tries to disappear people inside prisons that they’re constantly kind of under this crushing boot of the repressive forces of the prison industrial complex. And despite all that, prisoners find a way to organize, find a way to gain power. So like the prisoners who were part of the hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 and the majority of them are in solitary confinement. And so that means that you’re not allowed to actually communicate with other prisoners directly. You don’t have time on the yard with other folks, but yet they found a way to organize over 30,000 people in the state of California were on hunger strike at one point. So that’s pretty amazing. And, and, and I think takes some serious organizing skills to pull off. And in terms of other advice for folks I think that sounds kind of cliché, but I think thinking outside the box. So like we send The Abolitionist, as I said, to more than 5,000 people. The printing of it, the mailing of it, this is a pretty large expense for Critical Resistance and we’re just a small organization. Um, and so we rely on other forms of grassroots funding, whether that’s doing a specific fundraising campaign for the paper, asking people to support the paper even if they aren’t going to subscribe, asking people to donate directly, um, at these tabling events, even if it’s one or two dollars. And I think also not, not succumbing to the pressure of the system. So when we were talking earlier about particular issues and particular themes that prisons will reject because of particular things that are mentioned in the paper, um, to not be discouraged by that and not to sort of cater to the prisons, but also always to remember like who is our audience, who are we accountable to? And that is people who are inside. Um, and so if the paper gets rejected today, try sending it again. Maybe somebody different will be working in the mailroom and it’ll get inside. Um, so every time the state or the system develops or thinks of a new strategy, then we have to develop a counter strategy. And also remembering, you know, for any media outlet that is struggling around some of these really big picture issues, to remember that this is a protracted struggle. And just as the connected fight against capitalism for instance, is a protracted struggle, we have to really be committed and to commit for the long haul while recognizing that this fight is a fight that might not be won in our lifetime. And we have to be okay with that.
Adam: I think that’s a good note to go out on. I do want you to plug your website or donation or anything you want to plug before you go.
Jay Donahue: Sure. So you can visit criticalresistance.org and if you’d like to donate to The Abolitionist or to the organization more broadly, you can just click on the donate button and you can also read more about our work and read back issues of The Abolitionist from that site.
Nima: Fantastic. Communication and information is so vital to organizing and solidarity. Um, which is why it’s such a danger to those in power. It’s no surprise that Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, was banned in many prisons. Something that was, I think recently reversed after a lot of advocacy and activism, at least in New Jersey in some prisons.
Jay Donahue: Yes.
Nima: Obviously the Texas Criminal Justice Department, bans something like 10,000 books, makes those impossible for prisoners to read. Whether it’s The Color Purple or even A Charlie Brown Christmas — can’t read in prison. However, Mein Kampf, you can. It is essential that papers like The Abolitionist get in, that they enhance organizing and that they help this kind of culture of solidarity. So Jay Donahue, of Critical Resistance, thank you so much for joining us this week on Citations Needed.
Adam: Thank you so much.
Jay Donahue: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, you know, his prescriptive advice about like, not forfeiting in the face of these forces is kind of, it sounds corny, but we don’t have a lot of working class heroes in our media. We don’t highlight activists really in a romantic way. Like we really ought to.
Nima: Like we should yeah, absolutely.
Adam: Um, when you meet them and you talk to them, and it’s very humbling because, you know, again, wait, I snark on Twitter all day. Um, you know, I try to do what I can to help whatever, the left as it were, but people don’t see the kind of scores and hundreds and thousands of people that wake up every day to try to move the needle against these forces against capitalism, against environmental destruction.
Adam: I mean name it. Um, yeah, they’re faceless. They’re not Twitter micro celebrities. I don’t know. It’s sort of like, uh, it’s humbling and it’s also very, I don’t want to say inspiring because I also don’t want to reduce people to sort of self-help books, but there is something I think when people get cynical, which is, which was the sort of instigation of the show, right? That people thought that we were becoming cynical or that we were promoting cynicism. And that’s kind of the last thing I know that you and I and Florence want to do that this kind of stuff is the antidote to that in many ways. Or at least, you know, observing it, looking at it and seeing the people who fight these tremendous forces every day. Um, seemingly insurmountable forces. I mean there’s a popular cliché that we live in a society that we can more easily envision the end of the world and we can envision the end of capitalism. And I think that’s like a really interesting way of putting it.
Adam: We sort of cannot even imagine what these, what these alternate systems are, what a better society would look like. I think it does breed cynicism, but of course cynicism is exactly what they want.
Nima: That’s what props up power, right? The idea that there is no way out or that there is no way to challenge this stuff and to speak with people like Jade and Jay as well, you know, really lets us remember that there are people doing this kind of work day in and day out. I mean from creating alternative media to actually putting their bodies on the line, getting arrested, not to, as you said, do the whole like ‘it’s so inspiring,’ but it is really inspiring when there are people willing to take those risks to make sure they get information into prisons, make sure they get different narratives. Talking about native and indigenous people in our media, people willing to stand up to the NYPD, to police departments all over the country to ICE to the military, etcetera. I mean, these are really inspiring and important things to discuss and I feel like, you know, Adam and I talk about a lot of what’s wrong and so it’s actually been really nice to do this kind of very special episode of Citations Needed.
Adam: It’s been super nice, you know, it wasn’t just because the reason why I think some of that feedback kind of got under my skin and I think you’ve got under your skin too, is that it was kind of something we talked about before and that we don’t want to contribute to irony poisoning.
Adam: I mean obviously we deal in irony a lot. I deal in irony a lot. I think irony is it’s just the sort of modern nomenclature to not speak in irony would be like to not speak in English, but I, I definitely think there’s a massive difference between living with irony and living ironically. Um, and I definitely never want to do the latter. And I do want to also, a slight production note, you know, one of the questions that came up when we had this idea for the show is how do you choose which group to highlight, you know, there’s dozens of really great groups, um, and we hope to get to all of them eventually.
Nima: Indigenous rights and prison industrial complex abolition we felt were two good ways to start. Obviously there are endless issues, endless topics to eventually discuss platforms to kind of promote and people to speak with.
Adam: Right. And definitely, uh, let us know, you know, in the comments section or on Twitter what independent or alternative media you think is important to highlight. Now, obviously if it’s sort of big enough, right, then we don’t need to highlight that, but I think the, uh, definitely let us know what organizations are good. We’ll try to do another one of these episodes fairly soon. I don’t know what frequency it will be, but hopefully it’ll be somewhat frequent.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. It’ll be a recurring special episode. So stay tuned.
Adam: And for those of you who tuned in to hear me dunk and rant and to hear Nima cuss at things, I think someone even said that on Twitter that they want to hear Nima cuss at things. [chuckles] Sorry. Sorry, we were not ironic today.
Nima: Yeah. Yeah. You just have to fucking wait for next fucking time.
Adam: We’ll be back to our old forms soon of dunking on Thomas Friedman and such.
Nima: But today was not that day! Today was the positive day!
Adam: We are anti irony poisoning day. Uh, it’s good for the soul. I liked it. I thought it was a very, very good episode. But, then again, I’m bias.
Nima: So thank you everyone, of course, for listening to this very special episode of Citations Needed. You can find us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook, Citations Needed. Help us out on Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Thank you. Especially of course, always to our critical level supporters. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our theme song is by Grandaddy. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thanks again for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 24, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.