As street confrontations continue to escalate between self-appointed guardians of American Fascism and various anti-fascist factions, PM Press released author scott crow’s collection Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense. Drawn from an interview by Luther Blissett that initially centered on community self-defense, the conversation rapidly sprawled to touch on other topics. Given Crow’s three decades of experience in activism and organizing, the result is rich. What follows are excerpts that address key aspects of crow’s work: anarchist ideas, community, decentralized political organizing, and self-defense.
On Movements & Communities
Luther Blissett: You seem to have specific ways or meanings for the terms movement and community within a political context. Your use seems to be different from how other activists use the terms. Could you define what you mean by these terms for me?
crow: I don’t like to use the singular word movement at all – I will say social or political movements. This is not parsing words. There isn’t one “movement,” and I want to be really clear about that. There’s multiple overlapping movements with varying goals, tactics, means and ends that are happening like waves coming to a shore with no one person, group or party in control. The waves all hit the shorelines, but they’re coming at different times with different intensities and effects in a constant motions. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Also, the other term community – there is no community, there’s multiple overlapping communities. I try to be more specific by using the term communities. For example; Louisiana or the city of New Orleans can be seen as a broader community But then you break that down in hyper local ways like geography, ethinicity, interests, religion, poltics, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. etc. You begin to see that there are multiple overlapping and autonomous communities that all could be in one area. All of these overlapping or autnomous communities may look the same at the surface but they have different interests, motivations and orientations.
So when I map it like that in my head it makes it easier, because from an social or poltical organizers view then you figure out who you want to talk to. Who are the players, who has or doesn’t have power, who are the problematic people or groups? If we are in landscapes outside of our own-or hell within in them and start to ask these questions, it lays the foundation for how we will approach our engagements. I borrow from the Zapatistas, which is the idea “to lead by asking or lead by obeying,” by delving deeper into groups, movements and communities. And if I don’t see them as one homogeneous community, like “here’s a black community” (because they’re not), then I can talk to different people and ask them what they need to get by or to build their social or political power. And that begins a whole different set of questions, engagements and actions from that. I’m not even pontificating, that’s just the way I see things.
On Anarchy & Organising in Communities
Our conversation progressed, and scott elaborated on some of the challenges and factors of organizing as an anarchist in a variety of communities.
The postmodern world that we live in today, we’re definitely seeing anarchist ideas ascend more broadly than they ever have- possibly more than the turn of the 20th century. I think that there’s a resonance in those ideas, but I think there’s also a tension and challenges in following traditional ‘activist organizing model’s, and traditional ‘Marxist revolutionary’ models. In the past we thought that these models were the asnwers. – 1-2-3 steps to revolution, or 1-2-3 steps to this protest – they failed largely then and are not working now.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve seen these models- in many forms and many names- fail since I first got my feet wet. Most of them were short-sighted then, and still are now. But now we know better and can find out- but culturally activism is still the same-stuck in mid 20th century models that are largely irrelevant or at the least ineffective overall. Not that I had the answers then or now, but I have known for a long time that we need to develop other dynamc and living models rooted in individual and collective liberatory foundations and that’s what I’ve been thinking about since really seriously for the last 12–14 years since the disasters of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina.
We need to work with people outside of our experiences and lives if people truly want autonomy and liberation- especially those who have been more affected or devestated by the impacts of Power whatever it is. That said, we need to be careful in two tension- one is to assume we know the answers to all the prblems and on the flipside always default to marginalized communites for leadership. There is a subtle tension in those two sides that both have truths and challenges. Leading by asking or obeying doesn’t mean to do it blindly with no nuance or that critical thinking goes out the door.
I’ll give you an example that we, as the Common Ground Collective, ran into all through the Louisiana coast after Hurricane Katrina. Most of the white activists that would come into the region, and see largely a ‘black community’ without any nuance or subtlety and according to activist tradition we must listen to ‘the black community!’ Which was so disrespectful, one dimensional and short-sighted ways to see or engage with these diverse black, brown, Asian or indigenous communities.
Because actually in one small georgraphic area for example, you could have these preachers over here who are a certain form of power; or these black revolutionaries with their own kind of power; and at the same time you could have sex workers that often have no power in most situations. All of those people have some semblance of agreement in things, some semblance of similar histories – being black and poor in one of the worse states in the country, in one of the worst cities – but their experiences , desires and access to power are different and they often want different outcomes.
The black revolutionaries who want self determination want something different than the powerbrokers of the churches, who may be tied more to traditional electoral politics, and trying to make sure that they maintain what they have in that. We have to approach all communities with a nuanced approach to this, if you don’t suss it out. Otherwise we liberally begin to follow whoever is there and says they are the leader(s), and it’s problematic for everyone- those left out of the equation and those who are blindly following. It always goes bad. We ran into that problem not just in Common Ground, but I’ve run into this all my life because activsts have always worked in those kinds of modes by default.
But again, if I’m working in communities outside of my own, of course I want to come in and ask them what they need and how they can do it. I’m not going to tell them that I know better, but also if they are inviting me in I’m going to share my experiences and skill sets. If we don’t or we tie oursleves back then we are doing a disservice to everyone involved.
If they ask I will say ‘I think we could try these things.’ Have you guys thought about this? Or like, what if we do these things – because I do have experience. You know, some 20-year-old kid who’s been marginalized all their life may have a lot of life experience at that point- I know and respect that, but they don’t by default know how to organize for collective power. They may begin to learn how to organize because they’re against whatever they are facing, but it’s going to take them years of experience and mistakes to figure out what to do. So for me or anyone to come into a group and say ‘I have no experience to share’ is dishonest, and unhelpful just as if we come in and tell them how it is! That tension between the two approaches conceptually is real and nuanced and never discussed in activist circles.
Scott crow is an international speaker, author and storyteller. For almost three decades he has engaged his varied life as a political organizer and educator, coop business founder and co-owner, filmmaker, and musician who is a proponent of the ideas and practices of anarchism.
He is the author of the critically acclaimed books Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective (PM Press), Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed self Defense (PM Press) and Emergency Hearts, Molotov Dreams: A scott crow Reader (GTK Press). He’s a contributor to the books Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press), The Black Bloc Papers (LBC), Witness to Betrayal (AK Press /Emergency Hearts) and What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race and the State of the Nation(South End Press). His forthcoming books are : Paper Tigers: My dangerous years under FBI surveillance 1999-2010 (AK Press) and Standing on the Edge: Towards A Politics of Possibilities (PM Press).
He has appeared frequently in international media as subject and commentator as well as many political documentaries. He was the co-producer of the documentary film Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation (PM Press). He was targeted for surveillance by the FBI as an alleged domestic terrorist threat for a decade for poltical activities without charges being brought. The New York Times characterized him as “anarchist, veteran organizer and an aficionado of civil disobedience”, the FBI noted in a memo “…crow is a puppet master involved in direct action. “ and NPR’s This American Life called him “a living legend among anarchists”. He can be found at www.scottcrow.org