“Hundreds of activists in the 1970s left behind families, friends, jobs, and their identities in order to disappear into the underground.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Stephen Dillon. Dillon is Assistant Professor of Critical Race and Queer Studies in the School of Critical Social Inquiry at Hampshire College. His book is Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Stephen Dillon: Fugitive Life has much to offer readers concerned, confused, or horrified by the current moment—a moment that can sometimes feel disorientatingly new even as it is terrifyingly old. The bookexplores the expansive world created by underground, fugitive activists in the 1970s. In response to police repression in the form of incarceration, sabotage, and assassination, and in order to deploy illegal tactics, hundreds of activists in the 1970s left behind families, friends, jobs, and their identities in order to disappear into a vast network of safe houses, under-the-table jobs, and transportation networks called the underground. From fugitivity they bombed, robbed, organized, and wrote their way into what they hoped would be a more livable world. In particular, Fugitive Life examines how fugitive activists theorized and challenged the founding of a new form of racialized state power based on the rule of the prison and market. The book analyzes the communiqués, literature, films, memoirs, prison writing, and poetry of underground and imprisoned women activists in the 1970s United States to provide an analysis of the centrality of gender and sexuality to this new mode of racialized state power. It also tries to point the way out, to something else, another way of organizing life.
“Angela Davis and Michel Foucault argued that fascism was working through police and prisons and had infiltrated our thoughts and desires.”
The book offers us histories of resistance, ways of life, and modes of knowing that have been forcefully forgotten, repressed, or erased. As even mainstream, establishment commentators warn and worry about the rise of fascism in the U.S. and around the world, Fugitive Life explores the tactics of activists who also worried about the return of fascism in the 1970s. Only twenty-five years after World War II, there was much concern by leftists in the U.S. and Europe about the reemergence of fascism. Groups like the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction refused to be “good Germans” complicit with mass murder in Vietnam, the violence of capitalism, and the terror of prisons. Similarly, Angela Davis and Michel Foucault argued that fascism was working through police and prisons and had infiltrated our thoughts and desires. They argued that a new formation of fascism required new ways of knowing, being, and fighting. The commodification of revolution and the non-profitization of activism over the last forty years have limited our tactics and goals. Fugitive Life seeks to remind us of what’s possible if we refuse to settle for the thinkable, conventional, and probable.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope activists, organizers, and anyone hoping to alter the shape of the world take away three things from Fugitive Life. These concern knowledge, tactics, and goals.
First, Fugitive Life asks the reader to reimagine how we conceive of violence. What forms of violence are named and theorized and what forms of violence are so banal they are unnamed or unthought within liberal and leftist modes of knowing? How do spectacles of racialized state terror draw our rage, horror, and grief away from the violence that makes the everyday possible? For example, the Trump regime’s caging of infants and children deserves every ounce of our unrestrained revulsion, loathing, and animosity. Yet, we also want to make sure not to forget that the caging, selling, rape, theft, murder, and exploitation of young people act as some of the foundations of the United States itself—from the formations of slavery, settler-colonialism, and imperialism, to the sites of the family, the factory, the field, and on and on. The use of sanctions by the U.S. and U.N. over the mid-1990s killed 500,000 Iraqi children (Madeline Albright famously told Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes that “We think the price is worth it.”) We have seen this recently with the systemic sexual assault of young athletes, the caging of black youth in solitary confinement, the deregulation of child labor laws, the infant mortality rate in the United States, and the suicide rates of queer and trans youth. We must not let the spectacle draw our attention away from the mundane. At the same time, we must also refuse a politics that assumes it is acceptable and tolerable for adults to be subject to caging, assault, abandonment, or disposability. Fugitive Life examines how activists theorized and challenged this mundane, unseen violence. Itasks us to see what often goes unseen or unthought.
“As the breadth of state violence exceeds our imaginations, how are our responses similarly contained and restrained?”
Second, Fugitive Life chronicles forms of activism that sought to answer the question we are confronted with today: what is the appropriate response to the theft and caging of a child? Or for activists in the book, how does one respond to the forced sterilization of two black girls? When do letter writing, voting, and policy become unthinkable and unbearable as modes of action? As the breadth of state violence exceeds our imaginations, how are our responses similarly contained and restrained by the racial state?
Third, Fugitive Lifeoutlines activisms (or rather struggle aslife) that did not settle for the soft embrace of reforms—a smaller war, a larger cage, a dollar more an hour, less poison in the water. Instead, the book outlines a politics that aims for what we really want and lets the rest follow as it may. Our dreams shape the world we will have and if we dream of marriage and minimum wage and transgender cops and families caged together that’s what our future will be. Fugitive Life demands something else.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
One of the groups the book chronicles, “The George Jackson Bridge,” declared in a communique written in 1977 that, “If people want a better society, they can start by becoming active feminists, anti-racists, and anti-imperialists.” I’m drawn to this statement because, like the Combahee River Collective Statement, it calls for a politics that is disobedient to the limitations, discipline, and loyalty called for by many strains of leftist politics such as black nationalism, feminism, and Marxism. So many formations of leftist politics strive for purity and perfection in a way that can mirror the discipline, control, and fascism we all want to end. The George Jackson Bridge called for a politics that was open to being altered—a politics open to what it couldn’t imagine today but might tomorrow. The brigade show a way to be gentle with each other and absolutely ruthless with the systems that perpetuate murder, starvation, torture, exploitation, sexual assault, war, and on and on. I hope we all can learn to find that balance.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
One of the minor arguments of the book is that black feminists, queer fugitives, and insurgent feminists offer us some of the most incisive theorizes of race, gender, sexuality, capitalism and incarceration—theories now often advanced in the academy divorced from this genealogy. Nine of the ten most cited people in the Humanities are white men with PhD’s. I hope the book sheds a little light on movement thinkers and imprisoned intellectuals we all should be engaging, but who have been ignored or dismissed by the perpetuation of a normative regime of racialized and gendered knowledge within scholarship (and leftist culture and popular culture).
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Whatever new worlds we imagine will be necessarily limited by the systems of thought that we currently live within—systems of thought that we don’t want to exist in a new world. What that means is that a new world is not a new world—it’s the ongoing process of making a new world together. A process for which there is no end. Whenever we arrive, we will need to start again. One of the great myths of the Twentieth century was the dream for a revolutionary break between past, present, and future. Fugitive Life urges us to keep running especiallywhen we think we’re free.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
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