April M. Short

This historical anthropologist wants to upend the conventional wisdom about human nature and violence

War and all of its brutality is attention-grabbing and memorable. Recollections of war and conquests tend to stick around and take up the spotlight in historical records. However, a war-centered narrative paints an incomplete picture of human history—and human nature. While there is a popular opinion in the anthropological community that war is an evolutionary, inborn tendency of humans, there is also pushback to that theory. There is a growing argument for a human history that predates war altogether and further points out that war is not innate to human nature, but instead, is a social and cultural development that begins at certain points around the globe.

However, once war takes place, it tends to spread, explains historical anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, who has spent more than 40 years researching the origins of war. Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, notes that war is not the same thing as interpersonal violence or homicide. War implies organized, armed conflict and killing sanctioned by society and carried out by members of one group against members of another group. Ferguson argues that current evidence suggests that war was not always present but began as a result of societal changes—with evidence of war's origins appearing at widely varying timestamps in different locations around the world. He estimates that the earliest signs of war appear between 10,000 B.C., or 12,000 years ago.

"But in some areas of the world you don't see any signs of war develop until much more recently," he says, noting that in both the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains there is no evidence of war until around 2,000 years ago.

Ferguson wrote an article in the Scientific American in 2018 titled, "War Is Not Part of Human Nature," in which he details his take on war. In the article, he summarizes the viewpoints of two anthropological camps, dubbed hawks and doves by late anthropologist Keith Otterbein. The hawks argue that war is an evolved predisposition in humans dating back to when they had a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Doves, meanwhile, argue that war has only emerged in recent millennia, motivated by changing social conditions. In the article Ferguson writes:

"Humans, they argue [doves], have an obvious capacity to engage in warfare, but their brains are not hardwired to identify and kill outsiders involved in collective conflicts. Lethal group attacks, according to these arguments, emerged only when hunter-gatherer societies grew in size and complexity and later with the birth of agriculture. Archaeology, supplemented by observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, allows us to identify the times and, to some degree, the social circumstances that led to the origins and intensification of warfare."

Ferguson has studied the anthropological and archeological records throughout ancient, and sometimes into more modern, human history. He says there is a lack of evidence of war or large-scale violence, in many places around the world throughout various periods of history. He has spent four decades researching and historically contextualizing the various origin points of war around the world. He has also contextualized incidents of group violence in humanity's closest ape cousins, chimpanzees. He argues that war is not innate, evolutionary nor inevitable behavior for humans.

Ferguson spoke with Local Peace Economy correspondent April M. Short about his findings and theories surrounding war and human history.

April M. Short: The big questions are: have humans always gone to war, or is there a point of origin for war? And, is war innate to the human species (or maybe just men)? Is there an evolved predisposition to war or is it a social, learned behavior that emerged with particular organizations in societies?

Brian Ferguson: There is a great deal of interest regarding this in anthropology in particular, and in archeology, and political science as well. It's been a very active field and they are many different issues that are involved [here] that are connected to each other.

To mention one issue about whether war has always been with us, there is the related question of how war was affected by the expansion of colonial systems. In particular, related to Western Europe, but other [colonial systems] as well. I maintain that colonial expansion generally led to more intensive warfare than a lot of the fighting that we've seen around the world in the past few hundred years, from the Age of Exploration onward. This is not a reflection of human nature but a reflection of circumstances, or the contextual situation.

But, even before the beginnings of colonialism, war was quite common around the world. War leaves a number of different signs, which is indicative of violence in the archeological records, the most important of which are skeletal trauma and settlement data of different sorts. There are other indicators as well, but if you have a lot of information on those two things, then if war is present, it will show up.

AMS: Another, related question is whether there is evidence of a clear starting point for war?

BF: Everybody wants to know when war began. It's difficult to give an answer that will satisfy people because you have to ask where you're talking about. Evidence for war appears at different times in different locations. And, once war began, sometimes it went away for a while, though that was not the case most times. Oftentimes war would spread, and it would change over time as political systems changed. It's a very complicated field.

But the question people really want to know the answer to is [whether] war [is] human nature? And in one sense, the answer is definitely yes, because humans make war, we're capable of making war, it's one of the things humans do. But I think the more meaningful question that people are trying to get at is: is there something that has evolved in human beings, or maybe just in men, that makes them inclined to try to kill—or at least to act with extreme fear to—people outside their own group. Is it a natural human tendency or predisposition to kill outsiders? That is what has been argued by a lot of people. [cognitive psychologist and science author] Steven Pinker is one, there are many others.

Other people have argued something a little different than that, which is: maybe there isn't any inborn tendency to want to kill outsiders, but war will happen naturally unless you have some kind of system in place to stop it. That's sort of what Thomas Hobbes was talking about in Leviathan, right? He didn't know about genes and this was before [Charles Darwin's theory of evolution]. He wasn't saying people had an "evolved" predisposition to kill outsiders. He just said that people pursuing their own interests, without some kind of larger civil society, will naturally turn to violence to further their own interests, and that will lead to war. And what that means is war is a natural condition of human society. So, is [war] part of human nature or is it the nature of humans in society?

The bottom line is, in one view, humans have always made war since they've been humans. But what I have been arguing for some time now is that if you look around the world, in the archeological records, the earlier remains don't have evidence of war.

Now, when we go very far back—say 30,000 years or more—there is almost nothing to indicate the humans were even there. Maybe you have a stone tool or something, but you can't say based on evidence whether there was war or not. But, when you come closer to the present and you look at the material evidence, you do not find evidence of war for some time.

What you find is a global pattern. At different times in different places around the world, if you go from the earliest archeological evidence [and move] forward, there will come a time when evidence of war will start to appear. Those changes occur without a dramatic increase in archeological recovery. It's not like we're starting to get good [evidence in] archeology, [or] good data, and only now are we starting to see [signs of] war. We had all of it but there weren't any signs of war. Then signs of war started to appear.

A colleague of mine, Doug Fry, works in this area and has been making a bigger point about this, and it's a very good point. We've been accumulating a number of cases from the archeologists who work in particular areas, and archeologists themselves aren't interested in the question of when war began, they're just digging their own digs. They're generally not interested in making global comparisons like I am. But we find that when archeologists provide summaries of the evidence of interpersonal violence of a deadly nature, more and more of them are showing that war has a starting point.

AMS: You mentioned this is the pattern everywhere you look, is it the global pattern?

BF: In the Americas alone, which I've been working on lately, [the pattern of evidence of war emerging during a given time in the records] includes the Andean region, it includes the Oaxaca region in Mexico, it includes the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, Northwest Alaska, the Eastern Woodlands, the Great Plains. I'm not sure whether you can say the same for Western California, because Western California is unusual for having a lot of violence that goes back very far, so I'm not sure whether you can say there's clearly a time before you have evidence of war there. But it's the case in all these other places. I also looked at the patterns in Europe and the Near East where you see the same thing: you don't have any evidence of war, and then war shows up.

One more note on this: it's often said that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so if you don't find evidence of war, that doesn't mean war [didn't happen] there. For any particular case, any particular [archaeological] dig, that is absolutely true. But if you are talking about a larger region with multiple excavations, that is not a scientific statement, because it cannot be challenged, it cannot be falsified. If you're saying: "Even if you don't find evidence of war, war probably [still happened] there," how do you disprove that? But if I'm saying that in these different areas you're not going to find any evidence of war before certain periods of time, because no war took place there, that's easy to disprove. You just find the evidence.

It's a little tiring to me to have the phrase repeated, "just because you don't find the evidence doesn't mean it isn't there," because the pattern of seeing [war] start-up is so clear in so many places. It's time to consider the possibility that, really, war wasn't there at all before a certain point.

AMS: Why do you think the popular theory has been that war is innate to humans, or we've always had war?

BF: That's a great question, and it's a difficult question to answer. If I'm talking about whether there are signs of war in Europe in a particular year, I can talk about that in terms of evidence. But when you get to the question of why people tend [to lean] toward either the theory that "people are innately belligerent" or "people are innately good," (which is often suggested to be the Rousseau versus Hobbes point of view), some of it is individual variation in opinions. But I also think when you look at the prevalence of these ideas, they're time specific.

Back in the late 19th-century when Darwin's work was new, there was a real emphasis on this struggle for survival. There was a racial part to it too, which was the idea that some races are superior to others, and the struggle and fight [between the races leads to] the superior ones conquering the inferior ones. That whole Social Darwinist ideology was very common, and it fed into other theories back then, which were a bleak view of humanity. Freud was very bleak. Early psychologists were very bleak and would talk about humans having instincts, and one of the big instincts was the instinct of pugnacity. Pugnacity is a word we don't use much anymore, but pugnacity was said to be the instinct in which people just wanted to fight. So, if you wanted to know why wars exist, it was because we had the instinct for pugnacity.

World War I provoked a kind of revulsion against war. There was a change in how people looked at things. There was a 1915 study that was really revelatory, titled, "The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation." It looked at a number of different societies around the world (in what today would be a very crude method). It said that the simplest societies may have some war, but they had less war than more developed societies. It began to seem like war wasn't part of human nature, it was part of developing larger-scale, hierarchical societies. It came with that political evolution.

Time went on and in the 1960s there developed a very strong intellectual argument for war being innate. There were several writers who were key in [the development of] this [argument]. One was an Austrian ethologist (ethologists are people who study animal behavior) named Konrad Lorenz. He was on the German side during World War II. He was of the view that if you play a martial tune, men will drop everything and go off to war. He wrote the book On Aggression that was very influential.

Then there was Raymond Dart, an Australian paleobiologist (though they didn't use that word at the time) who found early skulls and remains, and was convinced that in every skull he found he saw evidence of a violent death and cannibalism. Dart's work was picked up by a very gifted writer, Robert Ardrey, who wrote several books, including African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, which were part of his Nature of a Man series. That was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." If you've ever seen the beginning of that film, these proto-apes had something changed in their minds by black obelisks from outer space, and they start killing each other, and that's the beginning of human creativity. That's what Ardrey basically believed to be the truth about humans, and he popularized it.

And then, there was the famous book, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Golding came up with this idea that people were just real pieces of work. All of these concepts were part of the popular culture in the 1960s, and it was very influential. It became the accepted wisdom that that's the way people are.

The Vietnam War made a big difference. Anthropologists had not really been interested much in the study of war before Vietnam. The Vietnam War went on for a long time, and demonstrations against it were very big on college campuses, which is where anthropologists are. I was a draft-age student back then and that's really when the anthropology of war as a field first developed. It grew from there and different perspectives developed. Some of them held that war has always been with us, some said it was a biological instinct, some argued that war was a cultural product, and a relatively late development. Margaret Mead [cultural anthropologist] was one of those, who said "Warfare is Only an Invention, Not a Biological Necessity." And I think she was right. Since then, this argument has continued on in a more scholarly way, with people producing evidence. Now we've been doing that for a couple of decades and we've got a lot of evidence.

AMS: You mention in your Scientific American article that the people who argue that war is innate often use the example of chimpanzees being warlike. They point to the common ancestor shared between chimpanzees and humans to argue humans are innately warlike. You have spent two decades analyzing all of the recorded incidents of violence relating to chimps, and you have written a book on the topic, which is soon to be published. In your book, you theorize that chimpanzees are not, in fact, warlike but that their incidents of violence can be attributed to cultural and social contexts, largely involving human interference. Can you share a bit about your work on chimpanzees?

BF: I'm not a primatologist. I've never worked with chimpanzees. I'm a historical researcher, so I read the observations by other scholars, and I contextualize those observations. I did that with war, and I've done it with chimpanzees.

Back in 1996, a book came out called Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. It painted a really grim view of human nature, as evolved to kill strangers. And the argument was that chimpanzees do this… not because they're hungry or they're in some kind of immediate contest over resources. It's just: they're programmed biologically, by evolution, to do it. And the argument was that, then, so are humans because chimpanzees and humans got it from their common ancestors anywhere from six to 13 million years ago.

I started [going through all the literature] in the late 1990s, and now the book is finished. I've called it Chimpanzees,"War,"and History. And you'll note I put quotes around "war." For the book, I went through every site [where chimpanzee group violence took place]. What I found was that while people would say their [warlike] behavior of looking for outsiders or strangers and killing them is normal chimpanzee behavior, it's really rare. If you talk about a war as being sequential killings of members of another group, then there are only two chimpanzee wars that take place in a span of about nine years. I mention this in the Scientific American article:

"My work disputes the claim that chimpanzee males have an innate tendency to kill outsiders, arguing instead that their most extreme violence can be tied to specific circumstances that result from disruption of their lives by contact with humans. Making that case has required my going through every reported chimpanzee killing. From this, a simple point can be made. Critical examination of a recent compilation of killings from 18 chimpanzee research sites—together amounting to 426 years of field observations—reveals that of 27 observed or inferred intergroup killings of adults and adolescents, 15 come from just two highly conflicted situations, which occurred at two sites in 1974–1977 and 2002–2006, respectively.
The two situations amount to nine years of observation, tallying a kill rate of 1.67 annually for those years. The remaining 417 years of observation average just 0.03 annually. The question is whether the outlier cases are better explained as evolved, adaptive behavior or as a result of human disruption. And whereas some evolutionary biologists propose that killings are explained as attempts to diminish the number of males in rival groups, those same data show that subtracting internal from external killings of males produces a reduction of outside males of only one every 47 years, fewer than once in a chimpanzee's lifetime."

The gist of my argument is that evidence shows deadly intergroup violence is not a normal, evolved behavior pattern of chimpanzees, but a situational response to a local history of human disturbance. That is what the book demonstrates.

AMS: I've read that bonobos share just as much DNA with humans as chimpanzees and are not warlike or violent—in fact, they're practically nonviolent. Do you look at bonobos in your book?

BF: Yes. My book has 10 parts and part eight [is about] bonobos. Bonobos are a fascinating comparison. They're as related to humans as chimpanzees are. We have, however, never seen a bonobo kill another bonobo (although one killing of an infant is suspected, but very possibly didn't happen). Another thing that's different about bonobos is that they have on occasion accepted outside adult males into their groups. Now, chimpanzees have accepted adolescent males to their groups, and they've also temporarily tolerated stranger adult males in their groups, so it's kind of a fine point, but it is a qualitative distinction between [chimps and bonobos].

The saying was chimps are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus. Chimpanzees are partial to violence, aggressive and totally male-dominated; and bonobos are, as the story goes, female-dominated and not as hostile, not as aggressive… I wouldn't say bonobos are matriarchal, instead, I would say their society is gender-balanced—which is very different from chimpanzees.

And this takes us back to the question of inborn predispositions because if chimpanzees are born to kill, and if the bonobos don't kill, is that because somehow [bonobos] evolved out of the killing mode? Are they biologically evolved so that they don't kill?

Other than the two extreme behaviors I mentioned, accepting outside males into their groups and killing, almost everything a chimpanzee has been seen doing, a bonobo has been seen doing. There's a lot of overlap in what they do. It's kind of a difference in frequencies rather than cut and dry differences.

… Bonobos don't have the things that I think make chimpanzees fight, which is a scarcity of resources connected to human impact. Bonobos haven't had that. And at the same time, they have something that goes against fighting, which is a social organization that's very different from chimpanzees. I don't think this is a result of instincts or inborn predisposition.

I spend a lot of time in the book laying out the fact that a young male chimpanzee grows up in an adult world where males dominate females, and females don't spend a lot of time with other females. Males spend a lot of time hanging out with other males, so they've got a sort of boy club there, and this leads them to engage in status competition that's male-on-male. Very often a group of two or three males together will kind of rise in the social hierarchy by hanging together and attacking any other males as a duo or trio, and that's how they beat the alpha. And [being an] alpha has a lot of advantages.

For chimpanzees but not bonobos, the second hypothesis in my book is that the unusually aggressive, high-status males may, in some circumstances, engage in what I call 'display killing' of helpless individuals, even infants within their own group, in order to intimidate status adversaries.

But bonobos have a tendency of females to bond (which may have to do with the genito-genital rubbing that females engage in, although that's not entirely clear), and they will attack a male who is too aggressive. If a male wants to rise up in the status hierarchy of bonobos [they need to be less aggressive]… because the society structure is [based on] a bisexual ladder. For a male to rise in the status hierarchy, what they do is they stick close to their mothers. The best ally for a bonobo male in getting access to feeding, getting access to mating and going up in the status hierarchy means being close to a high-status female. The status game is played with mothers, not brothers. That's how a bonobo male takes care of his own business. It means that they're attached to females and very often not attached at all to other males.

AMS: For me, just as a layperson coming into this, learning that we are just as related to bonobos as chimps undermines the idea that human warlike tendency is due to the common ancestor with chimpanzees. It's interesting to consider how much social structures may be influencing behaviors, for humans as well as other apes.

BF: It's a big area of research now, and field research has changed for a number of different reasons. One thing that's happened in primate field research, and in laboratories too, is that work in non-intrusive studies that look at hormone levels and genetics has expanded. [Researchers] can get their samples by placing tarps under trees and waiting for chimpanzees to pee in the morning. And then they can collect data on the hormone levels and genes.

There is interest right now in the biology of these primates, and the argument in biology has been that chimpanzees and bonobos really are biologically different— genetically, hormonally and behaviorally. It's a really interesting area that I find complicated because of the nature of these biological studies and the nature-nurture interaction. The idea that biology and environment combine and influence the development of any organism and these changes may be epigenetic and may have to do with the birth environment. The main action of epigenetics, [the study of heritable changes in gene expression] is based on what happens in early life, though epigenetics works throughout life and may be transmitted through generations, too.

The way I put my argument at one point [in my book] is: what if they were switched at birth? If an infant chimpanzee was put in with bonobos and vice versa, what would they grow up to be like? Would a chimpanzee raised among bonobos grow up to act like a chimpanzee with all the aggressive notions, male bonding and all that stuff? I argue that they would follow the local customs [of the bonobos], they would do what they saw others around them doing. Then along came epigenetics, and as it was applied to chimpanzees, it seemed to fit perfectly that the early childhood and the social experience of a chimpanzee and a bonobo at birth is very different.

AMS: To bring it back full circle to humans, how do you argue this idea of nature vs. nurture, epigenetics and socialization, might come into play anthropologically, and in relation to war?

BF: The implication, or lesson here, for humans is that humans are flexible. I think chimpanzees are very flexible, I don't think that they have innate patterns to do things like fight with each other. I think it's acquired in chimpanzees and bonobos. And I think that that goes for human beings too. And humans go a lot farther than that in the complexity of culture.

A lot of people will say that chimpanzees and bonobos also have cultures, they will use the word culture for these great apes. I think what chimpanzees and bonobos have is clearly learned traditions. They learn things to do, things that others in their group do. I don't think that's the same thing as culture, because culture involves a symbolic and linguistic medium to exist. And that culture exists in our thoughts and our language and our speech. That's how you learn it. That's how you communicate it. That's how it's passed on.

Human culture has cumulative development—and it needs language and symbols for this. You learn what one generation did, then you can do something on top of that. Everything we have in this world goes back to thousands and thousands of innovations, all of which have been based on the innovations that came before. Chimpanzees do not have cumulative innovations.

For war, I think the difference plays out in that humans do not have inborn predispositions. Some anthropologists will argue that humans have an inborn predisposition to not kill other human beings, that they're born against doing that, and they have to unlearn that [in order to be violent]. That's an optimistic way of thinking about human beings, and it certainly goes against the idea that people are natural-born killers. I hope it's true, but I'm not convinced. I think that could just as easily be a result of the way that we're socialized in our own societies.

What I'm saying is that, at a minimum, we don't have a predisposition either way. We're certainly not predisposed to kill. We're not predisposed to be xenophobic. Ethnocentric is a little different because ethnocentric simply means at the basic level, that the way you were brought up is the way you think things should be done. Every culture teaches every new infant. Everybody thinks: "My way is the right way to do things." But going beyond that, to the concepts that other people are inferior, or dangerous enough to be killed—that's certainly not part of human nature. When we look at tribal people, when the Europeans first showed up, the initial response typically was to look at these strange people with curiosity. It's not a natural reaction of fear, not this kind of tribal hostility that everybody always talks about, which is a lot of bunk.

The lesson is that humans have a great deal of plasticity. And we can be molded in different ways. We can be molded to be Nazis, or we can be molded to be passivists. Thinking that it is something that comes from the genes, that it's evolved and that's the way we are, is not going to help you understand what's going on, and it's going to confuse you.

At the end of my book, I summarize all the work I've done over the years on war. For the past few years, I've been talking about human nature and war. Before that, the big question for me was not, "Is it human nature to make war?" but, "How do you explain the wars that actually happened in tribal societies, and in modern society?" The book isn't just about debunking theories about chimpanzees, it's about: If you have this idea of culture that I just described, it leads you to ask a lot of other questions that are a lot more interesting, and probably more meaningful in terms of understanding why real wars happened and why people really get killed.

There's an article I wrote in 2006 called Tribal, Ethnic and Global Wars, where I summarize my approach to wars that are going on around the world, based on what I know about tribal warfare. In it, I try to show how it is that wars have happened, and the relationship between practical self-interest and the symbolic values people have in a society. That, to me, is where the action is, and it explains what the cause of war is: it's practical, and it's also symbolic.

AMS: In this current moment in human history, where we have much more globalized and ongoing warfare than our ancient ancestors—and a more globalized world culture in general, is there hope for a future that's not so war-inclined?

BF: Is there hope? Yes, absolutely. If you look at the long history of the world as I do as an anthropologist, you see that we've gone from having thousands of independent societies on this planet, which at first I don't think were making war. Over time war developed in more places around the world and spread. Since then, over time we've had a consolidation of societies. There are fewer independent societies in the world today—and you've got to be independent to go off and make war. I've been using Europe as an example now for over 20 years. You would have never expected Europe to come together into the community that it is now [looking at where it] was heading toward [in the past]. The war between Germany and France and England and other parts of Europe was world history for quite a long time. Europe is just one thread, but it's a strong example of how things have changed.

I wrote an article in 1988 called How Can Anthropologists Promote Peace?, and one of the things I said was that as an anthropologist, you can say that there are other possible worlds out there. The things that we can't imagine to be possible now could become true. And in this article that came out in '88, I said that one thing we can say with certainty is that at some point the militarized East-West frontier in Europe will cease to exist. It was hard to imagine that happening then. But the next year [after the article], it went away. So, we don't know. There's no general direction toward peace, but I think an important part of it is for people to mobilize themselves, for people to promote peace, for peace to be of value.

It's important for people to see that a world without war is a realistic possibility. Maybe not now, but a world without war is something we can aspire to realistically, and work toward. If you think that's something that can never happen, well that fatalism is one of the main props that is keeping war going. It's good to break out of that mindset.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A breakthrough agreement in Philadelphia could become a template to curb the housing crisis

Months of protests led by homeless residents over the lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia have led the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to agree to cede 50 vacant homes to a public land trust. The land trust will be managed by Philadelphia Housing Action, which is a nonprofit formed by homeless encampment organizers. The agreement is largely "unprecedented" and marks the first time a transfer of power and property ownership rights of this scope—from the city and PHA to protesters occupying an encampment—has taken place in the United States.

The new land trust designates 50 "properties for use as low-income housing, defined as $25,000 and below, and they would be controlled [and managed] by local committees," PhillyVoice reports.

Philadelphia is dotted with empty, abandoned houses that have sat vacant for years, and in some cases decades, explains protest organizer Nadera Hood. Meanwhile, at least 5,700 Philadelphia residents are homeless. Many of the city's homeless residents are working families with children who find themselves unable to afford the city's increasing rents, Hood says. The city and PHA have been breaking up homeless encampments that have been called "untenable" by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other leaders in the city. However, for many residents, the encampments offer the only living space that feels safe, as overcrowded shelters have led to COVID outbreaks and deaths of homeless residents living in shelters.

Talking about the agreement to cede homes to the public land trust, Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for the City of Philadelphia, says, "The agreement was the result of a lot of long discussions since June with the protest camp leaders about the need for affordable housing for the lowest-income Philadelphians, a concern that the mayor has long shared."

Dunn notes that while many of the logistical details surrounding the transition of the land trust properties are still being worked out, camp leaders, the city and PHA are working together to identify vacant houses that are in the public inventory, "to convey to the community land trust, which they will rehabilitate to make habitable. The land trust will identify its own resources [to carry out] these repairs."

Dunn says the protest camp residents' cause is "right and proper, and their needs are valid."

"We hope this agreement could serve as a model for the many U.S. cities whose residents struggle to find affordable housing," he says.

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington, D.C., which has held consultations with encampment organizers, explains the significance of this agreement in a Philadelphia Inquirer article by Alfred Lubrano and Oona Goodin-Smith. "We haven't seen a protest encampment like this one that's led to this kind of result," Tars says in the article. "I'm going to tell advocates and other city mayors about how this is a different way, a better way, to deal with people experiencing homelessness."

The Demand for Housing

The protest effort in Philadelphia led by homeless residents successfully transformed itself into a nonprofit organization and a public land trust, and won an unparalleled housing agreement with the city that puts ownership and management into the hands of encampment residents.

Across the United States, there has been an increase in people experiencing homelessness due to the COVID pandemic, and homeless residents have been among the most heavily impacted by the virus. Philadelphia is no exception, and crowding in shelters, often following encampment evictions, has led to a spread of the virus among homeless residents. In May, after the PHA broke up and evicted an encampment outside of the Convention Center, a man who had been evicted from the encampment died from COVID after catching it in a shelter where there was an outbreak of the disease that infected more than three dozen people.

Hood, a leading organizer for the group Occupy PHA, says the death of the resident in the shelter prompted action among homeless residents and existing activist groups in the city.

"The encampment was evicted just as the COVID shelter-in-place orders came," Hood says. "People were moved to the shelter, and there was an outbreak, someone from the encampment died, and that was part of what organized and rallied people."

In March, moms with children, and some other houseless residents, occupied and began living in several vacant Philadelphia homes, inspired, in part, by similar occupations in Los Angeles, Oakland and elsewhere during the coronavirus outbreak.

"All of the people who moved in and have been living in these vacated homes are working people, they're people with families, who can't afford rent in the city," Hood says.

Hood says the racial uprising across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 catalyzed the various existing homelessness activist camps to join forces and inspired enthusiasm among encampment residents who were previously intimidated or fearful of taking action.

"All of our groups had been doing a lot of work around land disposition, gentrification and property rights and ownership in the city," Hood says. "Occupy PHA, which is my group, was fighting the housing authority's role in gentrifying neighborhoods and over-policing; Black and Brown Workers Cooperative was fighting against councilmanic prerogative (which basically gives council members full authority over what can and can't be [done] in a neighborhood, and is mostly used for them to build relationships with developers)," Hood says. "[Black and Brown Workers Cooperative] also focused on land reclamation efforts. For example, they built a little mini-shelter out of corrugated plastic for a homeless person who slept on church steps; they reopened and took over a park that was gated up by new people who moved into the neighborhood. And then the Workers Revolutionary Collective was doing various kinds of outreach with the homeless population."

Following the encampment evictions in January, the groups began to meet and collaborate more frequently. Ultimately, they decided to organize themselves into a collective called the Philadelphia Housing Action to protest the city's handling of housing allocation, and pressure the city and PHA to rethink their response to the housing crisis. This led to the parkway protest—an encampment was set up at Benjamin Franklin Parkway to protest and draw attention to the issues of homelessness and the housing crisis in Philadelphia. This eventually prompted the recent deal with the city, after months of occupation by hundreds of homeless residents, and organized protest actions.

Hood notes that the agreement between protesters and the city does not skip over existing housing waiting lists by giving homes to people from the encampment protests. The homes under consideration that will become part of the public land trust are properties that would have been allocated to private buyers.

"The houses that we were putting people in and demanding that [PHA] give us would not have housed a family on the waiting list; they would have been sold to a developer and been a part of the process of gentrifying our neighborhood," Hood says.

Hood notes that across the country, there are resistance movements forming around housing and land allocation, and says it's up to every person to advocate for affordable housing options.

"It's really everybody's duty," Hood says. "People need to preserve affordable housing and low-income housing. We have to try to find innovative uses for the land. We have to acquire land and homes and build things that are more community-based and not reliant on the administration, or on government funding or [other such] things. I would like to see a national coalition form, to demand [allocation of] land from the government, to be able to preserve affordability, and the culture and values of the neighborhoods."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Californians came together to deal with wildfires during the pandemic

It was no fluke that the entire western U.S. was choked by wildfires and blanketed by smoke this past summer. The global climate disaster promises worsening fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters. The rate of these disasters has doubled over the last 20 years, and this rapid increase is caused by humans, according to the top climate researchers around the world. On October 12, the United Nations warned that the Earth will become "an uninhabitable hell" for millions of people if world leaders continue to fail to take drastic actions necessary to curb the climate crisis.

In a report released in 2020, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction calculated that at least 7,348 major disasters had occurred between 2000 and 2019. The report, titled "Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview of the Last 20 Years," estimates that these disasters cost 1.23 million people their lives, impacted 4.2 billion people, and cost about $2.97 trillion in "economic losses worldwide."

In an effort to mitigate increasing climate impacts, many cities in the U.S. are implementing climate emergency preparedness plans. And at a micro-level, individuals around the nation are working to mobilize their neighborhoods to prepare for increasing climate impacts. In the surf-meets-redwoods city of Santa Cruz, California, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, a coalition of neighbors came together mid-pandemic to mitigate the potential impacts of foreboding disasters. The neighbors were prompted by the efforts of one woman, Nora Shalen*, a small business owner who became increasingly concerned by the research reports coming out about climate change. Her neighborhood formed an emergency preparedness network to offer mutual aid and a plan for resiliency when faced with increasing challenges in the future.

As it happened, the network was formed just in time, before the devastation struck the Santa Cruz region. While much of the West Coast has experienced historic wildfire impacts this year, the blaze in Santa Cruz, dubbed the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires, caused some of the worst damage to date. As James Ross Gardner wrote in a September 28 New Yorker article, "of the more than seven thousand five hundred structures damaged or destroyed by California wildfires so far this year, C.Z.U. burned a fifth of them."

And, Gardner further reports, "Climate change undoubtedly played a role, scientists affirm. The fires this summer resulted from a confluence of factors, including a severe drought that California began experiencing in 2012 and this year's unprecedented heat waves, in August and early September, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California wildfire expert, said, adding that, together, these factors produced 'a condition in California where our fuels are basically drier than they've ever been. … Then we get this slightly unprecedented lightning storm' with thousands of strikes 'within thirty-six hours.'"

In Santa Cruz, the smoke grew so thick over the city that daytime passed for night. Residents were ordered to evacuate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and local aid workers and volunteers rushed to piece together emergency shelters that would allow for social distancing.

Shalen, a Santa Cruz resident of 17 years, recalls having to turn on the headlights of her car to see in the middle of the afternoon. She says having the emergency resilience group helped the neighborhood to navigate weeks on end of unbreathable air, darkness and encroaching fires.

"One piece of feedback people kept giving me was that before we started doing this they were feeling really anxious and alone about the pandemic, about what's happening in the country," she says. "They realized once they started participating [in the emergency preparedness effort] that they were feeling a sense of well-being, feeling connected, feeling empowered."

How to Start

While Shalen had no community organizing experience and wasn't sure how the idea would be met by her neighbors—many of whom she had never spoken with before—she decided to take action. She began by distributing flyers in the neighborhood and inviting people interested in the project to email her. She says it's important to note that she, along with her husband, framed the initial outreach as an invitation to people to enter into a mutual aid agreement and bring their best selves to the project.

"All this happened organically, as people just wanted to find a sense of purpose," Shalen says. "I didn't really know these people and it was a lot to ask of strangers, so my husband and I wrote this email introducing the idea of mutual aid. This turned out to be very important, it's what distinguishes what we're doing from other neighborhoods," she says. "We explained that mutual aid is based on an ethic of mutuality, care and resourcefulness, and attending to the most vulnerable. I really wanted to start off with a certain mindset rather than saying, 'This is scary.' It was about introducing the idea with an expectation of agency and capability in the face of disruption."

In the email, she linked to an article predicting that the 2020 fire season would be worse than the previous year and explained that because the pandemic was already impacting the city and county emergency budgets, in a widespread emergency, those emergency services were likely to be overwhelmed and residents faced the possibility of having to be their own first responders.

"I mentioned [in the email] that if we approach these preparedness exercises [prior to an emergency], we will make a giant leap in our ability to respond or to have a resilient outcome; and if we choose to go it alone, we will all be weakened," she says. "If [we recognize] that we are each other's immune system, and we prepare, it will strengthen each of us individually and make us all more resilient. I also said that if we have a clear plan, it helps our chances of being able to think clearly and calmly as a group."

Then, a small coalition of interested neighbors began to hold meetings online, then in socially distanced ways outside. The group quickly grew into a structured one, with each person working together to come up with a plan to tackle any given emergency and assist neighbors in need. While not every household was interested or able to participate, those involved took stock of what resources and skills they collectively had to offer by filling out shared Google Document questionnaires. They shared specifics about their professional skills, adjunct skills, medications and/or special needs during a given emergency. The group discovered that the few blocks of residents who had responded to the survey had all the requisite qualifications needed to form an emergency preparedness team: they ranged from doctors, nurses and EMT workers willing to become emergency medics, to mental health professionals, firefighters and many others who offered a range of additional skills. From there on, they began to form teams based on specific skill sets.

In an initial Zoom call, they reviewed their basic emergency prep plan, agreed on an emergency meeting place, and one family offered their home as a care shelter for seniors and/or families with small children that might be vulnerable during a disaster. Another person offered their home as a place for anyone experiencing emotional or physical trauma.

"If you can have some basic clarity, [decide on] practical steps and roles, it makes a big difference," Shalen says. "We all know where to meet and have a place where we can go if we're injured. If you're elderly, you have a place to go where you will not be alone and there will be someone to help you."

Among the group's many Google Documents is a personal preparation sheet, which includes a checklist of items to include in an emergency grab-and-go bag, how to prepare for fires or an earthquake, how to prepare for a three-day emergency or a month-long emergency, and so on.

Shalen says that because the Santa Cruz neighbors prepared themselves for a number of potentially dangerous scenarios—from earthquakes to water shortages—prior to the fires, the group was able to mitigate feelings of panic or helplessness when the fires hit. Her hope is that their neighborhood collaboration can serve as a replicable model for how any community in any part of the country might become better prepared.

Mapping the Neighborhood

One of the resources the Santa Cruz group used is a program offered by the Emergency Management Division of the state of Washington called Map Your Neighborhood (MYN). This program offers step-by-step guidance to improve emergency preparedness in small neighborhood communities. According to the MYN website, the idea is "to improve disaster readiness at the neighborhood level, 15-20 homes or a defined area that you can canvas in 1 hour."

The group also looked to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs, and two members completed an online CERT training through the University of Utah, followed by a COVID-compliant in-person CERT training in Santa Cruz.

Richard Roullard, one of the members who completed the training, says CERT has been a key resource. "Much of what we were trying to create [in our neighborhood] already exists," he says.

Once the group had formed and agreed to participate, Shalen sent each member a bright yellow folder including the MYN program's nine crucial steps to take immediately following a disaster. The folders also included an emergency contact list the neighbors had filled out online and a map of the street, as well as a laminated sign to indicate whether anyone needed assistance with one side reading "HELP" and the opposite side that said "OKAY," which the MYN program recommends placing on the front door or in a window visible from the street during an emergency.

The neighbors also masked up to meet in person and walk around the neighborhood, physically mapping out the locations of potentially dangerous utilities, like gas and water mains, electrical lines, etc., in their surrounding blocks, as recommended by MYN.

"We all put on our masks, and we brought our folders, we showed up at our meeting place and then we went from house to house and carefully marked and took note of where the gas and water turn-offs were," Shalen says. "What was really amazing is that everybody had a blast. People were talking to each other, everybody was getting to know each other. And in the end, we put a portable speaker at the center of the street and we had a little dance party and raffle to celebrate."

Next, the group formed action teams within the larger group.

"Everybody was so energized by the in-person MYN event that during the next Zoom call we started thinking about our different skill sets," she adds. "It turns out, we have two retired surgical nurses, a firefighter and a paramedic [along the street]. There are several neighbors with wilderness survival skills training… We have people who know CPR or have emergency first responder training."

The group created an emergency medical responders' team, an emergency radio communications team, and a team dedicated to going door-to-door to check on seniors, differently abled individuals, or those with little kids. Several neighbors with professional water resources expertise became dedicated to a water resilience information team. One member created a Google Drive folder dedicated to water, which includes a dynamic FAQ where neighbors can post questions for the member to respond to.

Another group, made up of trauma survivors and mental health experts, formed as an emotional resilience team dedicated to helping those experiencing a fight-flight-freeze trauma response or other mental health impacts during a given emergency. Shalen, who joined the emotional resilience team, says it's been critical to offer this kind of support throughout the fires and pandemic.

"The emotional resilience team is what distinguishes our group from other neighborhood disaster approaches that focus on known impacts of natural disasters and are often motivated by fear," Shalen says. "Our approach is more proactive. The emotional resilience team has emotional first aid tools for emergencies, but we also have practices for strengthening trauma resilience in advance of an emergency. My hope is that this will create the conditions for our street being an island of sanity and stability as things unravel in unpredictable ways following the election."

Plan in Action

Not long after the emotional resilience group was formed, the skies darkened, the air outside became unhealthy to breathe and emergency evacuation orders began to take effect as the wildfires began to threaten Santa Cruz. While Shalen's neighborhood is located closer to the ocean, and most of the fire devastation happened up in the forested hills, she says she and her neighbors were aware of the fires that had spread to destroy entire towns in Northern California recently so they were on alert. She adds that rather than panicking or adopting an "every house for themselves" attitude, Shalen's neighborhood put their plans into place.

"It was really good that we had a system in place," she says. "We all had roles. We had clarity about a lot of things, and mostly we had the trust and communication, and that was what we relied on the most."

The team assigned to check on neighbors who were elderly and/or differently abled began to go door-to-door every day. Neighbors stayed in communication and took advantage of the support system.

"We knew who the vulnerable people were," Shalen says. "We went to their doors and asked 'Are you doing okay? Can we do anything for you? Do you have any concerns?' A lot of the seniors really just wanted to talk because they felt alone, [since] they don't go online as often or stay in constant communication in the same way."

Since the fires, more neighbors have joined the resilience group.

"We had a resilient response and it actually made us feel closer," she says. "What's really nice is I now have some very good friends on the street, which was kind of a happy accident… it's been deepening the trust among us, and there's a lot of appreciation. All of us are so glad we had this in place."

She adds that looking toward the future, with the election and the uncertainty that lies ahead, she is especially glad the resiliency group is in place.

"I'm glad we started with the mindset of collaboration, care for the vulnerable, and coming to it with our best self and a sense of inner resourcefulness and agency," she says. "I think what lies ahead is going to come down to your capacity for self-regulation. And I think we really do need each other. Even if it's just a few neighbors, our capacity to endure what lies ahead will be much more enhanced if we have a foundational mindset that we are in this together. It creates a better chance of group and individual emotional resilience. It helps our capacity to remain clear, calm, connected, flexible, compassionate and collaborative. It ensures a much more resilient response to whatever comes at us—whether it's social unrest or even violence, or overlapping things that we can't anticipate."

*Name has been changed to protect their identity.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How artists have been on the front lines of political resistance for the past 50 years

"There's no us versus them—there's just us. Everybody in the world is us."

Shepard Fairey's voice rings out over a haunting Damned Anthem cover of the Muse song "Uprising," as images of recent protests in the U.S. flash across the screen at the beginning of the trailer for a new feature-length documentary, "The Art of Protest." It is a montage of the scenes that have come to define American protests: police lined up in riot gear, a car that was dented after it sped toward a crowd, a woman with a bloodied face, men shouting and carrying Confederate flags, people cheering as a statue is torn down, climate activists carrying a large model of the Earth, a structure on fire and law enforcement aiming pepper spray and water cannons at people from behind shields and tanks.

The film, released for free to the public online in October via the Rolling Stone website, is executive produced and distributed by Zero Cool films. The project was created by the anarchist artist collective Indecline and "Saving Banksy" director Colin Day. Indecline is responsible for many notorious art pieces, including the famed statues of a naked Donald Trump that popped up in cities across the country overnight prior to the 2016 election.

The film moves through a series of interviews with resistance artists from around the world, coupled with B-roll images of protests and art projects in the making. Its interview subjects range from Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova; to Jello Biafra, former Dead Kennedys frontman (and so many other punk rock artists that the filmmakers plan to convert unused footage into a short documentary dedicated to punk); to Black Panther Party's artist Emory Douglas; to gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman; to transgender porn star Buck Angel, and many more. Colin Day estimates the film team has interviewed at least 40 people.

A filmmaker and founding member of Indecline who spoke with the Independent Media Institute anonymously says it was important to the film's creators to include a range of artists—not just the big names.

"We've got people you wouldn't expect to hear from, from different corners of the art world," he says. "[There are] some people who you've maybe never heard of, like Jodie Herrera, an incredible artist out of [northern] New Mexico. I think she's just as good if not better than a lot of the artists that we have in the documentary who are household names."

He said the film offers a "timestamp of this moment," in the lead-up to the critical upcoming election on November 3, and he also hopes it will remain relevant into the future.

"Hopefully, it can serve a double purpose and 15 years from now, you can still put this thing on and listen to Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave] or Noodles [of The Offspring] or someone from Indecline talk about why it's important to use your privileges to go creatively fight for people who don't have those privileges or don't have a voice or a platform or the means to do these things."

Day, the film's director, says "The Art of Protest" is the film he and his co-creators at Indecline wanted to watch: a film that could offer insights from artist-activists around the world, across decades, and provide inspiration—even some "how-to guidance"—to the next generation of resistance artists.

"It started with us wishing that [a] movie [like this] existed, so we decided to make it," he says. The film, he continued, is "really about freedom. We feel like that's what's at stake: the freedom not to be brutalized by law enforcement with no repercussions. Because it's looking more and more like that's just a normal thing that can happen to anybody, a 70-year-old man, women, kids, it's a whole spectrum now. We don't want to see that become normalized."

Day says while the team had been working on the film for over a year, interest from artists became "electric" following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

"It was almost like a lightning bolt… people wanted to do something," he says. "In the movie, you'll hear a bunch of people talk about using their art to activate people. And that's [one of our goals for the film]… to touch people on a sort of firmware level where they're not even thinking about it, but when they see something like an anti-masker doing something racist in a 7-Eleven, they won't just ignore it. They won't just walk away. They'll have the courage to stand up for what's right."

He says that while he was making the film, hearing from Oakland-based Emory Douglas who created well-known artwork for the Black Panther movement throughout the '60s and '70s was particularly poignant for him.

"The Black Panthers' reputation was run through the mud by the press at the time, and the FBI [targeting the group], and the disinformation that was occurring, but they did a lot of good, a lot of social programs and good work for their communities—which were just being left to fend for themselves," Day says. "I feel [Emory Douglas] should be a household name."

Day adds that he finds Douglas' work inspirational and resonant today, as the current movement toward racial reckoning parallels with protests during the civil rights era. He points to the moment in the 1968 Olympics when Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists upon accepting their medals during the national anthem to "protest the treatment of Black Americans," as a parallel with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the anthem in 2016, before his team's preseason games, to "protest racial and social injustice."

The filmmaker from Indecline says it was key for the film team to release the project prior to the 2020 election.

"The term 'resistance art' has become a household term, and in the last four years, it's been in your face more than it has in any other time I've been around—definitely since the '70s," he says. "The idea is to put this thing out and have it serve as a call to action."

Indecline began in the Bush administration years as a group of disenchanted "punk skater kids" in Los Angeles for whom street art and punk rock were outlets to protest the general direction the country seemed to be going. It has since grown into a collective that includes artists from a range of mediums and backgrounds across the country. While not solely focused on Indecline, "The Art of Protest" does include many projects of the collective in its decades of bringing resistance art to the public.

"It's hard to explain to somebody who doesn't know who we are, what it is we do, because one week we might write a play and the other week we might be scaling down the side of a building, painting it," says the Indecline member. "We [work with] performance artists, poets, teachers and all kinds of people."

Day says he hopes the film will inspire young and upcoming artist-activists and adds that for him, art provides a way to address the many traumatic realities of the world without losing himself in the trauma. In the same way, he says while the film gets into the difficult territories of protest artists, addressing things like oppression, racism, misogyny and fascism, it also shows the joy and the light that are inherent to art and activism.

"We want it to be positive. There are some intense parts, but we wanted to also show resistance art as fun and welcoming, and something people would want to do. We have artists talking about how art has been good therapy for them, self-help even, and why it's good to be having fun and enjoying yourself when you're fighting against the powers that be," he says. "If we could get an army of people out there creating art, mission accomplished."

In addition to the new film, Indecline recently announced an upcoming exhibit in Las Vegas focused on drawing attention to mass shootings in America, which repurposes 600 decommissioned guns into a sculpture titled " On Second Thought." The piece is a takeoff on the iconic Auguste Rodin sculpture "The Thinker," and went on display on October 1, which is the anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Day notes that the film licenses two songs from the English band Idles, which has an album called "Joy as an Act of Resistance."

"For me, that became a mantra this whole last year [2020], because every day it's like a damage report, you feel like you're taking blows," he says. "But when I see that album [by Idles] and I hear those words… it is kind of true that just having fun, that in itself is a form of resistance nowadays. Not letting them destroy you emotionally or psychologically, that's a win."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How activists across the US are using street art to protest Trump

"Defund the wall—fund our future." This is the message painted in giant yellow letters as a street mural that fills the entire block's worth of asphalt in front of the federal courthouse in Laredo, Texas.

Laredo is a city of about 260,000 residents that sits along the north bank of the Rio Grande. The river marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and early efforts to move forward on the Trump administration's proposed border wall project have already begun to negatively impact life for residents of the city, many of whom have relatives and friends who live just across the border in Mexico.

Melissa Cigarroa has lived in Laredo since 1993 and is board president of the Rio Grande International Study Center, which seeks to preserve the river's water and its surrounding environment. Cigarroa was present at the protest in front of the federal courthouse where the street mural was painted and says she has also been involved with several other local protests against the border wall. Concerned about the prevalence of misinformation on the border wall situation (much of which comes from President Trump), she strives to make sure her community is aware of the facts.

"It's just an idea of standing up for what's right," Cigarroa says. "The wall is a lie. It's based on a lie. It won't solve the problems that they say it will solve. The whole promotion of it is this gross, capricious promise that was just a [campaign] line—and then a bunch of racist people started promoting it. It's just so deeply disturbing."

On July 14, the U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report detailing the shortcomings of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in its analysis and acquisition process of the southern border for the "Wall Acquisition Program."

Cigarroa says the wall project threatens the health of the Rio Grande's ecosystems and greenery—and could significantly worsen flooding that is already an issue in the region. Removing trees and plant life surrounding the river, as is the proposed plan, also threatens the health of the river's drinking water, which is the city's only drinking water source, and doing so could lead to increased pollution.

A lawsuit filed by landowners in Zapata County—where Laredo is located—on July 6 claims that the wall project is also racist. The lawsuit has been filed against President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the CBP. Cigarroa, a Laredo landowner in neighboring Webb County, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit's complaint against the border wall is 51 pages long and alleges that the project is rooted in little more than racism and politics. It cites the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to due process and equal protection to any person in the United States. And, it quotes the president's own comments as evidence against the project's legality.

The lawsuit's introduction alleges that the DHS and the CBP under President Trump's direction "are engaged in a full-on assault against the people who reside in Zapata County and Webb County, Texas.… The people of Zapata County and Webb County, who are overwhelmingly Mexican American, are the targets of an animus that demonizes immigrants, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people who live on the border."

The South Texas lawsuit is one among a number of lawsuits that have been filed against the wall, including a lawsuit filed by 19 U.S. states in March, and another filed by the ACLU, Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition asking the Supreme Court to block construction of the border wall. An appeals court ruled against the continued construction of the wall on October 10.

Laredo residents have been largely opposed to the wall project from the beginning, as has the Laredo City Council, which voted in favor of the "Defund the Wall" mural on July 27.

City residents organized by a coalition of anti-border wall groups, including LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), painted the enormous street mural across Victoria Street on August 15. A newly formed group that is part of the coalition, Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall, did maintenance on the mural on September 12, derailing a "Trump Train" car rally (which Cigarroa says was made up mostly of out-of-towners who came to Laredo to drive over the mural). Residents of the city have been organizing against the border wall for months. The street mural was a way for residents, many of whom have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to collaborate while remaining socially distanced.

The Trump administration's border wall will cost Americans dearly—and those costs reach far beyond the hefty $5 billion price tag the project carries. The beginning stages of the border wall are already proving to cause serious environmental and cultural damage for U.S. communities. Laura Parker's article in National Geographic in 2019 outlined six potential environmental threats of the border wall. Work crews in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, for instance, have been destroying protected Saguaro cactus plants that are sacred to the Indigenous cultures of the region. It is a felony offense to cut down the cacti, which can live for more than 200 years, but the work crews have barreled through protected zones nonetheless. As the New York Times reported in February, Native American leaders in the area say the fast-tracked border wall project poses a range of environmental and archaeological threats.

In Laredo, residents are concerned not only over the racist motivations of the wall project but also about the threat the wall poses to the Rio Grande, their only drinking water source, as well as the beloved local wildlife trail systems and parks that run along the river.

Cigarroa says the current plans for the wall project include removing all vegetation surrounding the river for the length of half a football field to create a security enforcement zone. She is concerned that the river's ecosystems—already among the top ten most endangered rivers in the world—will become further polluted if the wall construction is allowed to continue, and since the river is her community's only drinking water source, that is a serious concern for humans as well as the river's plant and animal ecosystems. She also says the community would lose some of its most cherished outdoor spaces. And on top of that, she says, the wall would damage the local culture.

"Putting a wall in does a couple of things," she says. "Physically, it destroys the land, and you lose access to that land… Then there's [the fact that] we have this deep connection with Mexico because our heritage is Mexican. My grandmothers came over through the river and then married Tejanos who had been here since before the United States was the United States. [The wall is] a symbol of racism and hate against our ancestry—and so many Laredo families have a deep connection to Mexico… our identity is a bicultural bilingual identity, and it would be a slap in the face and an insult to all of that."

The Outpouring of Anti-Trump Artwork

The street mural in Laredo is far from alone when it comes to public art that stands against Trump and his administration's many degrading actions. Art has always been a tool of political activists, and the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired some particularly memorable works of public art.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a mural on the side of a restaurant in Lithuania showing Trump kissing Russian President Vladimir Putin went viral. Around the same time, a mural painted on the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting Trump with a ball-gag wedged in his mouth and the words "!RAPE TRUMP!" became a tourist attraction. Who could forget the day in 2016 when numerous naked Trump statues, sculpted by the horror artist Ginger, appeared overnight in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle for the project known as "The Emperor Has No Balls."

Both the Tijuana mural and the naked Trump sculptures were executed by the anonymous political activism artist collective Indecline. The group is also responsible for transforming a Trump Tower luxury hotel suite into a prison cell for the president, complete with live rats, in 2018, as the Russia investigation—which the U.S. Justice Department never fully examined—was ongoing.

Indecline, which began as a group of "punk kids" in Southern California looking for an outlet during the Bush administration years, has grown into a national collective of artists whose work makes headlines around the world regularly—especially since the Trump statues project.

"The best thing to do, for us, has always been to find a way to therapeutically make the best of these situations through activist art," said a founder of Indecline who spoke anonymously with the Independent Media Institute.

The idea behind Indecline, he says, is to use art to shock people into paying attention to the things they care about, but often feel too depressing to look at.

"This has been around forever… Since the first time some asshole came in and pulled some oppressive move on a community, resistance art has been there," he says. "Activist art or street art has ways of reaching people at an emotional level that more traditional forms of protest can't."

Indecline's mission, per se, is to get people into a dialogue around the hard things to look at and invite them to look from new angles.

"We break so many laws in the quest to create our art, and that in and of itself has always been a touchpoint for us with the general public," he says. "[We're asking people to think about] why they care more about the billboard that we put a sticker on to address school shootings, rather than the school shootings themselves… When people are choosing property over people, for us that [indicates] a clear need to readjust, recalibrate your moral compass."

The need to break laws in the name of civil disobedience and public awareness is a running theme throughout Indecline's new 40-minute documentary "The Art of Protest," which is distributed by Zero Cool films and premiered on the Rolling Stone website. Elisabeth Garber-Paul, who previewed the film in detail for Rolling Stone, writes:

"Indecline teamed up with Saving Banksy director Colin M. Day to turn that footage—as well as footage of their numerous installations since, from prison rooms fabricated in Trump hotels to walking a pack of leashed MAGA supporters—to illustrate the importance of art and satire in the movement for social change."

Rather than continuing to focus their efforts primarily in places that already have fairly progressive populations, Indecline is working to bring more art projects to places like the South, where they expect most Americans will not offer them as warm a reception as they've received in places like New York and the West Coast.

"We're trying to think of how we can go to Arkansas, for example, and do something that really wakes that community up," he says. The goal, he says, is not just for the sake of shocking people but rather "to try to engage with the small pockets in that community that wished they had a platform or some resources to make more noise in their community—rather than feeling like they're going to get shot for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to Walmart."

He says even if Trump loses to Biden in the upcoming election, there will be just as much need for community activism and public art: "A lot of things that we have to look at in the wake of a Trump presidency were always around beforehand—even though he's exacerbated them," he says.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A strike by Portland strippers has grown into a nationwide movement

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted around the world following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, protesters in Portland, Oregon, carried signs with messages like "No Justice, No Booty," and "We Won't Perform Without Reform." The Stripper Strike is centered on exposing racially biased labor practices and calling for the equitable treatment of Black and other non-white dancers within sex-forward Portland's many strip clubs. The localized strike has since grown into a nationwide labor movement for racial justice, as well as better treatment overall of dancers in strip clubs around the country. Black dancers are leading the charge, mobilizing the nascent labor movement—and dismantling stereotypes and taboos along the way.

The problematic strip club environments that Black and other non-white dancers of color have put up with for years, according to the movement, include a range of loosely cloaked racial biases like disallowing hip-hop music or claiming a venue is a so-called "rock and roll club" going for a certain aesthetic that in effect alienates Black or other non-white dancers. Then there are more overt policies, like clubs that primarily hire white dancers, pay them more and give them the best time slots. These and other trends have been widespread throughout the strip club industry and until recent months received little pushback, largely for fear of retaliation among dancers. The Stripper Strike in Portland, however, drew widespread media attention to the issue.

The Stripper Strike and the ongoing movement it has inspired expose and seek to tackle the uncomfortable realities that, until recently, were only discussed among dancers in the dressing room or on closed social media threads, says Cat Hollis. Hollis is a Portland-based Black dancer and founder of the Haymarket Pole Collective, which is the central organizing force behind the Stripper Strike. The collective, which is made up of local dancers, advocates for "proactive policy and equitable treatment for Black and Indigenous workers by facilitating restorative justice in the adult entertainment industry." Haymarket Pole Collective seeks to protect the labor rights of dancers who belong to marginalized groups, including dancers who are people of color, queer, and/or differently-abled.

Hollis says fighting vocally to protect those who are most at risk of harm gives the whole industry of dancers a leg up. As reported in detail by Iman Sultan at ZORA, the Stripper Strike's demands include safer working conditions, fair wages, and protection from sexual assault. Sultan writes:

"Even though strippers are the main entertainers at strip clubs, most of them are independent contractors, who pay stage fees to perform. As a result, they are not guaranteed safety, fixed wages, health care, or recourse for the sexual harassment, stalking, and rape they experience on the job. And for Black women, the risks of sex work are magnified by racism."

In the U.S., Portland has the most strip clubs per capita, and it carries a sex-positive, sexually liberated reputation. However, as the Stripper Strike and efforts of the Haymarket Pole Collective have revealed in recent months, many of Portland's clubs have had injurious racial biases, racially discriminatory policies and a lack of racial and cultural sensitivity training.

The Haymarket Pole Collective has been gradually implementing cultural sensitivity training, led by dancers of color, throughout local clubs willing to comply with the strike's demands. Hollis says she has been in regular online meetings with organizing dancers and collectives that have emerged around the country in solidarity and with similar intentions for their local industries. The groups are collectively working to streamline the cultural sensitivity training processes.

Independent Media Institute (IMI)'s April M. Short spoke with Hollis about the Stripper Strike, its impacts on the strip club industry and the long-term goals and plans of the larger movement for dancers' rights.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

April M. Short: Thanks for speaking with me—I know you've been busy taking interviews and getting the word out about all that you are doing. I'm hoping to hear from you about your future plans and long-term visions. Also, what has already come out of the Stripper Strike, what hasn't come out of it; what has changed?

Cat Hollis: I like to say stripper strike is a verb, right? And the noun behind stripper strike is Haymarket Pole Collective, at least for this particular strike [in Portland]. What has been really cool, as we've grown and continued to incite action, is we are finding these other autonomous collectives of dancers across the country and we're collaborating with them on a larger action.

A big part of me [wondered], "Are there other people doing this work? Are we overlapping with people who have been working hard for years?" What I realized is that, although there are a lot of autonomous dancer collectives, there are very few Black-led or Black-trans-Indigenous-centered collectives.

I was having a meeting with a bunch of different dancers from all over the country, and even though many of the dancers were people of color, it was Haymarket Pole's mission that brought up the need to highlight the struggles of Indigenous, trans and Black folks. It was really cool just to meet with this group… and they were asking whether we were ready to do a collaborative effort. I was like, I am, and you need to put it in writing that you're trying to protect these vulnerable communities within our communities. And they said, "Of course, of course."

But I feel like that "of course" is what has left these communities behind. We assume that these rights are inalienable. And if power wasn't real [then inclusion would be a matter] "of course," but power is real. It was great to lend a voice and lend weight to the voices of people who are in this community and are marginalized, on top of being sex workers. So that felt really good.

AMS: I think that's kind of a landmark of the era that we're in. People are realizing that in order for anything to shift, we have to say the thing rather than just assume it's implied.

CH: Yeah. And some of what I've learned through this process is that a lack of active language preventing discrimination is inherently discriminatory. And that's on a federal level.

There are so many rights that were fought for already, in the past, that aren't being fulfilled in the present. One of my favorite discoveries was that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that if there is not active language preventing future discrimination—so not responsive, but proactive language protecting those most vulnerable people—that is inherently discriminatory. It's just so important, as a bottom line, that we start off by including in our language.

… I've been talking a lot about fostering consent culture, and I think that a way that [people], especially white women, can more easily understand why these things are important is if you think about consent culture. Consent is FRIES. It's freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. A sex worker can still be raped if her consent was not fully informed or enthusiastic or specific, right? And that's if you're about to have a sexual encounter. The same thing goes if you want to touch a pregnant person's belly or a Black woman's hair.

In a similar way, I think it's important that we as allies get consent from the communities that we are assisting. We should look for enthusiastic and specific and informed and reversible consent. Do they want our help? What do they need? I think that the people who are in those communities have the best vision for what their ideal outcomes are. It's important to be putting them in leadership positions and in a place where they can advocate for their own, where they're the ones leading the charge, and they're the ones determining the opportunities.

One thing that I keep on thinking about is how people are like, "Oh, I can't believe that dancers are doing this." And I'm like, "Okay, but if you really see us as the lowest of the low, how are we able to do this work and vocalize for our rights, and yet you're still struggling with the idea?"

I've been saying that we're done teaching people how to jump over hurdles that have been there for years. People have been telling communities, "Hey, you're just not jumping high enough. We get that the hurdles are there, but let's teach you how to jump higher." And it's like, no, man—let's move these hurdles out of the way. As we go along, we're finding these systemic problems and hitting the glass ceiling, so to speak. And we have decided that every time that we find a glass ceiling, we break it so that it's not there for other people.

I think that it's so important to have people define where they want those hurdles lifted from. Because I think that it goes back as far as [white European colonists] giving blankets to the Native Americans [that gave them smallpox], for example. Intent and outcome are often completely different, and a lot of our intents are unknowingly harmful to these communities. The blankets are bad examples of that, because it was often fully cognizant [that the blankets could spread smallpox], but, you know.

AMS: I saw this meme or Instagram post that I think maybe you shared, about a similar idea: being given a "seat at the table." It said something like, "We don't want to sit at your table; we'd prefer a different table."

CH: Yeah, and we've always had a table and the idea that you're like, "Hey, let's build a little table next to ours." We're like, "Oh no, we have a table." And you [say], "No, no, no, no, no—our food is really good." And we're like, "I'm telling you that you've been hitting the fork out of my hand for 500 years." And then people are still [saying]: "I don't understand, is our table no good?" And we're like, "Well, you poisoned me at that table like six times before. Why would I want to sit there?"

There is a banquet of opportunities available that people of color have been trying to build for years. And it's been torn down over and over again in a variety of ways. I think that it's really important to think about that when we help these communities—we're not determining their outcomes; we're expanding their opportunity to choose their own outcomes.

Not all people are the same, and they don't all want the same opportunities.

AMS: Going off of that a bit, I wanted to hear about the cultural sensitivity trainings you've been putting together, led by dancers.

CH: Yes, so we're providing the trainings for clubs to do cultural sensitivity training with staff. And we've recently facilitated sex workers in learning to impart those trainings.

I, for example, have a really hard time—I upset white people a lot because I'll say things like "white people suck." And then someone's like, "What about me?" I'm like, "Oh, I mean, yeah, you're fine."

AMS: Right, some people take it personally rather than looking at the meaning or context.

CH: And the people who don't take it personally are already on their path to anti-racist action. So, how do we approach the people who do not understand and come from a place of confusion? And confusion leads to anger…

I'm having to learn to say things like: "Yeah, Greg, all lives do matter, but what we were trying to do was this and this…" You know? These are skills that I feel I'm learning. We have the wisdom to impart the path to justice in our communities; we just need to make sure that people have the skills to listen and to hear [when they lead these trainings]. Because these are our rights—it's not a game and it's not an option.

AMS: Can you tell me more about where you are in the process of cultural sensitivity trainings for club staff, and how it's been going?

CH: We have been actively training. We are fiscally sponsored through the YWCA of Greater Portland, which means we are a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit]. They have been doing the trainings for clubs. We have three clubs that are scheduled and in the process of doing these trainings on interrupting racism, how to approach a situation that is racially charged.

Originally the clubs were saying, "We don't need it because we're not racist." Well, when Dominique Dunn, a Black man, was shot outside of a strip club in Portland [in July] by a white dude, I think that brought to light the idea that it doesn't matter that your bartender or hiring manager or staff are racist; in this current political climate we are all, whether we like it or not, going to be dealing with escalating tensions surrounding race. No matter what your view on the progressive nature of Black liberation is, we can all see the benefit of reducing conflict in our communities. Learning how to approach the problems is really important.

AMS: Returning to something you touched on before—has there been significant pushback or difficulty getting through to people during trainings, and/or is there anything new or unexpected coming back to you from the larger community?

CH: Well, a part of what slowed down the street action was that COVID-19 cases were going up, but really what it helped us do is sit back and ask ourselves: are we able to provide the things that we are asking of these clubs? And we've been learning how to do that. For instance, we're asking these clubs to do these trainings, so we're taking the trainings. We're asking clubs to have nondiscrimination policies. Well, we're now forming our own 501(c)(3), so how does a model policy look? We're working with a committee of dancers who are at one of the clubs to help develop a model policy for folks.

One of the surprising things for me is that I feel like a lot of dancers are very hesitant to participate in asking for compliance with state law because of their lack of agency in their places of work. And, how do we expedite justice for those groups of people? I think the big change that we've seen is an educational standard of independent contractors asking to understand what their contract means and what their rights are.

Some of the pushback I feel is from a lack of communication, which is inherently the problem. At our first rally, for example, the venues said they did not get our demands. And it's like, "How?"

I think that the real issue that has come up in this is that these strip club owners and managers are trying to say that they did not know. And the question is, how was one dancer at 2 a.m. ever supposed to receive aid for issues surrounding the workplace, surrounding discrimination, clients, and things like that if it took 9,000 of us to get through to clubs? If it doesn't matter that we have 300 people standing outside of clubs with signs, we delivered the demands, we've emailed the demands, we've mailed the demands, and yet somehow [club management] still doesn't know? So the real question is: if you really don't know, isn't that an issue?

AMS: Right, at this point how could they possibly not know?

CH: Yeah. And if you don't hear us now, how did you ever expect things to be going so perfectly before this? If you really didn't hear us, maybe there's a lot more you didn't hear.

What I've been surprised by is the openness of some of the managers to improve their places of business. I've actually been really surprised by the support, and it has been lovely to see the support. That was something I was not expecting.

The other thing I was not expecting is that, even with pro bono legal services, even with extensive opportunities for training, there's still a level of fear in our community of retaliation. I think that that is something we need to remove because if someone is afraid to say no, how is their yes enthusiastic?

AMS: I was going to ask you about that potential fear of retaliation because in any line of work standing up to the boss is hard, no matter who you are—and then [there are] the added layers that dancers face, and people of color on top of that.

CH: Right. And, also just to admit that there's improvement that's possible. We like to think that we [in Portland] are the best because we have the most clubs and we have a lot of opportunities, but the question is, is that enough?… At the beginning, people were like, "At least you can wear tennis shoes." Or the attitude was, at least we can do these certain things. And I'm like, it's not really enough. Do you feel that extending your own privileges is going to remove something from you? Do you feel that by arguing for your indemnity rights somehow you were going to forego the caveats you have?

AMS: Could you talk a bit about the bigger picture of why sex workers' rights and strippers' rights are relevant and important in the larger BLM movement, and overall in society?

CH: I think the important thing that people can realize from any sort of a vulnerable community raising an issue is that marginalized communities are part of our communities. They're just on the fringes. If we have hardships or problems come into our communities, the first people to see them are those people on the edges. And it means that these things are coming for us.

People were really freaking out about [protesters] on the street getting nabbed and thrown into unmarked vehicles. And this is something that immigrant and Native and Black communities have been experiencing for centuries. In resolving harm for our marginalized communities, we can uplift the community as a whole. Black folks are a marginalized community, and within that community we do have even more vulnerable communities. Differently-abled people, trans people, sex workers are all vulnerable; harm is potentially exponential [for them]. We can also determine that if the harm is potentially exponential, the benefit is potentially exponential if we reduce harm for these communities. If we can reduce harm for them, we can see how quickly we can effect change for the larger community. It's too bad that often people don't realize until it's too late, or they're coming to help after a community is in crisis. What this movement is really bringing to light is the need to proactively address these issues before they cause crisis, before they cause harm.

For instance, we don't have support services, so when COVID-19 hit, these vulnerable communities were exponentially more likely to experience harm. So, if we can improve our health care system, if we can improve our social services system, if we can uplift communities and get people therapy and social services they need, we can reduce harm so that when a community is in crisis there's a lot less to deal with.

One of the important terms that I've heard within Black Lives Matter is all Black lives matter. We cannot forget our trans family and we cannot forget our differently-abled family and our Indigenous families. Because those are the people who walk the margins. And like we were talking about before, we've been trying to get a seat at the table for them, and at a certain point why don't we just protect them where they are?

AMS: On the Haymarket Pole Collective website there's a line that says: "Our existence has always been counter-culture, profiting off the male-gaze and relying on mutual aid. In an effort to alleviate the systematic pressures of the status quo, we now join hands, click heels, and dance together as a unified front." I would love to hear a little bit about that counterculture, and the mutual aid in particular. How and what are the ways in which the community has had to, and continues to, support one another from the inside? And why has that been necessary?

CH: I think that one of the ways that we are extremely proud of our culture is that the human body has been monetized in many ways through labor. I recently had an interaction with [my mother] where she said to me: "I just don't understand how I'm supposed to deal with you selling your body."

And I was like, wow, is that counterculture? Because in a capitalist system, we are all selling our bodies at some point, whether we are breaking our backs in an Amazon warehouse or sucking dick on the corner. There's survival sex work, right, where people are doing labor for survival, but there's survival [in] so many types of work.

[This movement] is about reclaiming the means of production. We're seizing the means of production in that our butts run these clubs. And as far as the world's oldest profession goes, I don't understand why people think it's going anywhere. If we can look at how to address the problems that are presented by patriarchal culture and by capitalist culture—because basically, if something doesn't work within the systems that exist, they throw it out—so if we can look at the systems that they've thrown out, we can see how to dismantle that system. We want to be the wrench in the gears of that system. And so, if we've been determined to be a wrench, then by all means let's get ourselves in the gears.

Especially in regard to mutual aid, I think Tennessee Williams said it best: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Sex workers have been crowdfunding their rent $20 at a time way before GoFundMe. I think that we have a lot of unique skills that can help benefit our communities, and because we have been left out of discussions, we have not been able to help solve problems that affect everyone, including us. So we're using that rub, using that friction, to create heat and spark some change for all labor. We're done with trickle down and we decided to trickle up.

AMS: Could you share the challenges many strippers and sex workers face accessing basic social services like unemployment?

CH: [Dancers] cannot apply for [unemployment] because, for the most part, we're independent contractors. [Another] part of the problem is a lot of dancers have trouble providing documentation of their work. For instance, if I'm trying to apply for government relief as an independent contractor, I have to have a copy of my contract, and most clubs will not give you a copy of your contract. So then, when I am calling this club to try to confirm my contract with them for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), [since] I've been working on the strike, now they're saying that I never worked there.

It's an issue that strippers have faced for a long time: we signed this contract, we don't get a copy. It turns out the contract was only for three months, and then two years later after working breakneck shifts every single day, there's a raid. They find a condom in your purse. And the club says, actually, she doesn't have a contract. You're like, what? I signed a contract. And that was three years ago, and they're like, yeah, that contract fell out.

Also, for instance, when I was renting a house in Minneapolis, I would say that I was a waitress. Otherwise, they wouldn't rent to me. It is actually illegal to discriminate in housing because of your job—my job was completely legal, but that's what I had to say. So, you know, at a certain point there just comes a problem of anonymity.

AMS: And all of this is part of what the Haymarket Collective is working to change, yes?

CH: Yeah, and one of the demands that we're encouraging other economist collectives to include is that we would like clubs to start doing their due diligence as far as documentation [is concerned]. If you're going to terminate these contracts, then you should give them a reason in writing. Because for some reason, all of the Black dancers get fired for their attitude… And so the question becomes how do you seek retaliation for discrimination when there's no documentation?

Regulation is a slippery slope. We figure if it's coming either way, we would like to be part of defining what those regulations look like, because right now they're not serving us, they're serving these club owners who make millions of dollars a year off of our stage fees. And the thing is, these clubs don't run without us. At a certain point we do need to seize the means of pro-butt-tion, as I like to call it, and to say that without our butts, you make no money. And then there are no drink sales, and there are no stage fees.

Even though we don't necessarily have the right to retaliate like a lot of employees do, we do have the right to contract where we please. If a club does not have proactive language in their discrimination policy, those issues are going to trickle up to white dancers, to cis dancers. Ending these discriminations is super important to protecting us as a class.

AMS: I wanted to hear just a little more about efforts mobilizing nationally. You said you met with a group of different dancers from around the country. There's a national Stripper Strike. How do you see this movement growing and building into the future?

CH: I've been calling it a biogenesis, which is a scientific term for simultaneous beginnings to life. Currently, in our scientific display, we say there was a one-celled organism and it split into two, and then it developed into a plant, then a fish, and then it crawled up onto the land. And what science has shown is that a lot of times when the conditions for life are right, it will begin in many different places at once. I truly feel that the conditions for change are right. There are so many collectives that either started on their own completely separate and we're now just finding each other, or there are collectives that are seeing the actions being taken by their co-butt-workers, and seeing their power, and reclaiming their power.

It's just been absolutely beautiful to see those groups collaborate. We may not have the same laws or the same practices at our clubs, but a lot of the problems are the same. So, we can talk about which techniques are working, which aren't, and what we're asking for. We have a list of demands from four or five different states. There is now a Haymarket chapter in Chicago that started from our national meetings that happen on Sundays.

It cheers me up all the time when I look at the rage and empowerment and demand for better that is happening. We've been asking for this for so long. Dancers have been asked for a long time to fix their clubs, and the real thing is we don't have to fix our clubs. We just don't have to contract at clubs that are shitty. I think the solidarity has been really effective.

AMS: Yes, and like you were saying, it seems to be a moment right now of evolutions happening all over the place spontaneously, together.

CH: Yeah. Because the conditions are right, but it's not a coincidence or an accident. It is the sound of the wrench in the gears. We've all been thrown in, and now we're saying, well, actually fuck this machine. Let's rage against it. This isn't what we want… I think it really is a biogenesis. The conditions are right, and the other thing is they're not unique. The things happening [here in Portland] are things that have been happening all over the country.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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