scott crow is a co-founder of the Common Ground Collective which provided grassroots solidarity and mutual aid after Hurricane Katrina. An anarchist activist, author and public speaker, he travels regularly to share his views. The second edition of his book about Common Ground, Black Flags and Windmills is due out soon. It’s one of multiple book-length projects in the works.
Both scott & I call Austin home, so I invited him out for coffee and conversation on a recent break from an unusually chilly Central Texas winter.
Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: There’s always been activism happening but the last few years it seems there’s been more activity, more people in the streets, more stuff happening. Do you agree?
scott crow: Yeah, but what happens is there are times of rupture, where things kind of jump off. And then times of lulls, in-between times. Look at it like a sine wave where it rises and falls. So the twenty plus years I’ve been doing activism, I’ve been engaged with community organizing, I’ve been engaged in national struggles, international struggles, I’ve seen a lot of ruptures and falls. When I came back in really seriously was in the alternative globalization movement, the post-Seattle stuff. When that kicked off it was huge huge huge. We could get 10,000 people to a demonstration internationally with the summit hopping that was going on.
After September 11 it sort of died down. But then the wars kicked off. And I don’t mean the War On the Poor or the War On Women, but the international wars. And in that you saw another rupture where thousands of people were in the streets.
And then it kind of leveled off and then we were struck with some pretty serious disasters. One was the man made and natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina. That actually drew a lot of people to it, which was another form of a rupture. Because then people came to the Gulf Coast by the hundreds of thousands, literally,
Then there was a lull, but then we come to the next disaster which was the economic collapse of 2008. All of these things have been brewing since the millennium as capitalism’s been in crisis and then finally Occupy comes. And it’s just a natural progression of all this. So that was just the latest rupture to happen.
It’s always interesting to watch — the way I actually look at it is like an ocean, like waves coming to the shore. Is this too long?
FDL: No, No! Go on!
SC: So like the waves are out here and there’s the lulls and highs and then they just finally crash into the shore. All the waves aren’t coming at the same time but they are definitely crashing on that shore. Then they kind of recede back.
Then what I like to see is what happen in the lulls, in between the ruptures right — what comes out of it? So when the rupture happens there’s thousands — I just want to be clear I’m not saying ‘the Rapture!’
SC: The tensions are the highest and when the people are the most. We saw in the Occupy movements, it was incredibly beautiful, internationally but definitely in the states, all across the country. But then it starts to recede and we see who’s left and what projects come out of it. Because that helps build for the next level.
I think that what came out of Occupy and the Occupy movements was a really beautiful rupture because you’d already seen the largest influence of anarchy and anarchist ideas in the modern times since the time of Emma Goldman and the IWW and people back then. We’re in an anarchist renaissance. So when people came into Occupy, they came in with these horizontal organizing ideas, the ideas of participatory democracy, the ideas of direct action, without even thinking about it.
And that’s forty years of organizing for a lot of people in the United States but for me that’s twenty years of organizing — not that I was a part of all of it, but seeing it come to fruition –
FDL: You and all your allies.
SC: Absolutely. I’m not taking credit for it in any way!
One reason I wanted to chat with scott crow was his experience with Common Ground Collective in New Orleans. In recent years, we’ve seen similar collectives spring out of the activist networks formed by Occupy Wall Street — projects like Occupy Sandy. Late last year, alongside key Common Ground Collective organizer Lisa Fithian and many others, I organized Austin Common Ground Relief to respond to a record-breaking flood on Halloween. As the group’s dispatcher, I relied on the networks and skills formed during Occupy Austin.
Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: You mentioned projects that appear during lulls. I see Occupy Sandy, or the Common Ground Relief work we did here recently and all that ties into what you were doing at Common Ground Collective.
scott crow: Right.
FDL: Mutual aid is good for its own sake, but how do we connect that politically? We don’t want to turn anyone off. We don’t want to politicize our aid but our aid is political. How do we make that connection? What happens next after an Occupy Sandy?
SC: I think it only is what it is. You can only ‘politicize’ it as much as you can. I think what’s really important is the culture we create internally within our political movements and social movements and also the way we engage outwardly with other people — though it’s more permeable than that. We’re not trying to convert people to anarchy or to communism or whatever it is — although communists did try to convert people just like religious wingnuts. Really what we do is you just make it make sense to people.
SC: When you go to help someone and you name it mutual aid, people see that in real life and real time. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to do it. There is no conversion.
“It’s the idea of attraction, not the idea of conversion.” That actually comes out of Alcoholics Anonymous, I didn’t make that up. The aid work is something which just emerges sort of by accident out of all these projects. Like at Common Ground Collective in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we were able to pull from the alternative globalization movement: street medics, indy media, and Food Not Bombs and all these things which had been going on.
FDL: These were networks built through activism that then were pulled in for aid.
SC: We didn’t consciously say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this for aid!’ Now we’re starting to see that this has become a newer model, another point of intersection against the crisis of capitalism.
Make it as political as possible without drawing fake lines: like “we’re anarchist and you’re not.” Or, “this is radical and you’re not.” And also just being honest about who we are. I don’t want to convert anyone.
FDL: But you’re honest about where you’re coming from.
SC: Absolutely! I told people I was an anarchist from the beginning in New Orleans. And these are people, in some communities, who had hardly ever seen white people. I’m literally serious about that. They’d say “I’ve barely seen white people except on TV. You’re an anarchist, what is that? And why are you here?”
Now they’ll tell you, “The anarchists came. No one else showed up, but the anarchists came.” I’m sure your experience with Austin Common Ground was maybe not as extreme, but similar.
FDL: Sure, I had some people who took me aside who were like “I get what you guys are doing here.” We didn’t avoid talking about our politics, people knew we were organizers but it was never about that, obviously. It was about “here’s a meal.”
FDL: During some of the later events in December, people told me, “We will remember you and what you did.”
SC: It’s also about connecting things. So when you’re gutting somebody’s house, you can come in like a service organization and say, “Yeah, we’re going to gut your house. Then we’re going to go on to do something else.” That’s the charity model. But if you come in with the solidarity model, it’s like, “We’re doing this because we want you to get back on your feet, because we want you to build your own community power the way you see fit.” It’s a different way to approach it.
FDL: We’ve been able to pass the work off to the new Onion Creek Park Neighborhood Alliance, which we helped them form.
SC: That’s what I’m talking about! These things happen all the time, and I don’t care if we name them as anarchy or not. It’s not a brand. There’s no gain in it. It’s just a point of reference, at least to me.
FDL: I feel the same way about Occupy. Some people want to fly that banner and it’s really powerful to them, and other people don’t want anything to do with it. At the end of the day, I don’t care as long as they’re doing something.
SC: Right, right.
One important tool which defines modern activism is the use of social media for organizing and building solidarity. While social media does little unless paired with “meatspace” direct action, it can be a powerful tool for motivating people, reporting on live events, and building intersectionality. When arrests first occurred at Occupy Austin, we heard from activists in Egypt who had staged an impromptu protest at the US Embassy.
Between times of “rupture,” social media becomes even more crucial for strengthening solidarity and relating about core issues. This can be seen in recent, vital discussions on Twitter over race, feminism, and the meaning and origins of Occupy. Likewise, more people are using social media and the Internet to educate themselves about politics and current events. To close our conversation, I asked scott crow how he thought social media was changing our political conversations.
Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: The word ‘anarchy’ or ‘socialism’ used to be these hot button words that could be used to turn people off. You used those words and people’s minds closed down. The mainstream media and the politicians use this constantly. “Obama’s a socialist!” But it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. People are less likely to believe you. Why do you think that’s happening?
Scott crow: Because people are smart. And they can see that it’s propaganda. Even if they don’t have a ‘political analysis’ they can see that it’s total bullshit. And — can I say bullshit?
FDL: Yeah. You’re not going on the radio!
SC: I think you’re totally right. The thing is — with words like that — I can’t speak to socialism because it did get such a bad rap. But anarchy was always assumed to be chaos and bombthrowing. Because anarchy is the largest set of ideas in ascension in social justice movements — nationally, in the US, Canada, Mexico, even Europe — more than Communism (big C Communism). The New York Times and CNN, they can’t ignore it anymore. Sure, anarchists are out in the streets in black bloc throwing tear gas canisters back when they get shot at them, but they are also at the front lines of disaster relief, they’re at the front lines of occupying and reclaiming spaces that should be the commons — you can’t deny that. You can’t knock it off to a fringe element and people can see that clearly. We’re in an anarchist renaissance — there’s more anarchist literature produced in the last 14 years than there had been in the previous 50 or 60 years in the United States and even internationally.
Anarchy went underground. People stopped talking about it. They started to hide in other organizations. It reemerged in the 60′s but still at the fringes. But now there’s a huge body of work — more books have come out, more articles are written now. And the Interwebs help with that because it is an open platform to talk about things, because if you’re in Idaho or you’re in Texas or you’re in New York, you can be connected and hear people share ideas.
FDL: That leads into the intersectionality that’s happening. That’s not a new concept obviously but the Internet seems to promote it. In my view, when Occupy worked was when it was its most intersectional. That’s also when there was the most pushback against it from the media, from people who just wanted it to be the Democratic answer to the Tea Party.
SC: But that tension’s always there. There’s always groups trying to pilfer off of you, trying to suck like vampires. The labor unions, the Democrats, they’re always trying to do that. There’s a long history of that. Used to be Communists who’d try to control it.
FDL: But intersectionality seems like a key to growing any kind of movement right now.
SC: Absolutely. That’s the thing that attracted me to anarchy originally. I came to it late in my life. I came to it in my late twenties … but anarchy was one of the only political philosophies that seemed to embrace intersectionality and connecting the struggles. That it was important what was happening in prisons, in the environment, with animals, rape culture, what happened outwardly but also inwardly — how do we treat each other? While a lot of movements are about converting people to their party, their line, their nonprofit.
You bring up a point that needs to be reiterated. I think the Interwebs is very conducive to that. It’s almost like a cacophony — where you can see something about animal liberation and then something about prisons right below it in your news feed. And you say, ‘Oh yeah, those are both important.’
FDL: And on the ground, doing the work it can seem really obvious. How is Palestine linked to Capitalism? Because Capitalism props that occupation up. But then it becomes time to regurgitate that into a sound bite and that’s where it starts to break down.
I’m a journalist, so maybe I shouldn’t say this, but maybe that’s not so necessary. We don’t always have to make our messages packageable for the media.
SC: And I think the Interwebs opens up a space for that. I’ve done interviews recently — it used to be you just got the quote, you got the sound bite, but I’ve done interviews now that are 10 or 15 or 20,000 words. I really like that kind of news because I want to digest news. I’m not saying everything has to be belabored, it’s fine to have a Top Ten Reasons to Do Something.
FDL: The listicle.
SC: Yeah, the ‘listicle,’ thank you. But I do like that I can find really in depth articles now that maybe appeared only rarely before in Rolling Stone or Esquire.
FDL: There’s no print limit. We can have these long conversations.
FDL: Tell me about what you’re working on now.
SC: My first book, Black Flags & Windmills, is going to be reissued in a second edition in August this year on the ninth anniversary of Katrina and the founding of Common Ground Collective. It’ll be revised and expanded, so I fixed the things I didn’t like the first time and I’ve added a lot more content so I’ve added about 150 pages. That’ll be reissued from PM Press.
I’m also working on two other books right now. One of them is an anthology I’m editing and contributing to called Setting Sights, which is about the theory and practice of armed self-defense. It’s not a call for arms but just the thinking about it, the historical precedence, showing why we might do it. It’s a collection of essays from people who might have engaged in it or what people think about it.
And the third book I’m working on, which won’t see the light of day until 2015, is a book called Standing On the Edge Of Potential, which is about the politics of possibility. How we might move our movements from a politics of opposition to a politics of possibility. How instead of trying to correct the past, we try to create futures that are the futures we want and all the ways we might do that.
That’s what I’m working on, then I’m meeting with good folks like yourselves and having good conversations in between.
Not that exciting is it? Used to be I’m going down to this lockdown or this action, I’m not doing that anymore.
FDL: You’re tired of going to jail?
SC: Jail I don’t even mind, at all. Actually I like jail, I organize in jail. It has to be something.
FDL: It’s got to be a big moment.