Book Review: Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind

February’s Friends of PM Press package arrived today. In celebration and to keep myself motivated to power through the amazing books, I’ve sat down and finally type up my response to Victoria Law and China Martens’ Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind. I read the whole book back in November and have been mulling over it since.

I was initially super excited about the book since the full title is Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities. It’s a collection of 51 short pieces by a range of activists divided up into seven chapters with titles like “What’s Gender, Race, and Class Got to Do with It?” and “Don’t Leave Anyone Behind.” There a few essays that stood out as actually focusing on concrete actions and suggestions, but the majority were too focused on individual experiences and written in an autobiographical narrative style to be to my liking and felt more like reading a zine than a handbook on organizing.

Of the zine-style pieces, the overwhelming tone was that non-parents need to do all the child- and family- friendly organizing. The main desire was really good childcare at events and meetings. I live in NYC, which definitely sharpened my response. Space is hard to get, especially accessible space, and there is so much more work than organizer hours. While organizers everywhere have a tendency to over-extend themselves, it’s more acute here. I’m a lot more willing to redirect time and energy to a specific area if I know that I count on the people who are raising the issue working with me as a partner instead of dropping it at my feel with what amounts to a “you’re a bad comrade if you don’t do all this work for me with any cooperation on my part.” Surviving as an activist is hard even if one doesn’t have children, which the entitled tone of many of the pieces forget. Over and over, the authors writing as parents implied that there was no legitimate reason for objecting to how they or their children behaved in activists spaces in ways that felt self-centered at best but more often than not downright ableist. My main snark was that while I don’t want to leave my friends behind, I would like to leave some of those jerk-faces behind. As a whole, the book felt more like a collection of slightly grumpy rants about negative experiences as parents in radical spaces than an overview of how we can build stronger, more inclusive communities that have space for children and people with children.

There were a few pieces that stood out as exceptional. Rozalinda Borcila’s La Casita is Ours! A Conversation with Children in Struggle (pp 34-44) does an amazing job of illustrating how children can be active participants in a political struggle and includes a list of seven big take away lessons.  Organizing within an Anarcha-Feminst Childrearing Collective, by CRAP! Collective (Child Rearing Against Patriarchy), (pp111-115), provides clear suggestions on how to organize a family/ child block for a march in a responsible way. Babyproofing for Punks, by Clayton Dewey, (pp 133-135) is a great guide both for houses and less-finished convergence spaces that acknowledges that “perfect” isn’t always attainable and problematizes the idea of a “safe space.” Stacy Milbern’s two and a half page Accessibility (pp 205-207) is a short almost-check list of some accessibility features for events or spaces and shows how so much of the features that have been brought up previously in the book are not just applicable for children and parents.

The tension between Amariah Love/ Kelli’s Childcare Collective of Atlanta’s Radical Childcare Start-Up Notes (pp144-151) and Jennifer Silverman’s Equal Access: Community Childcare for Special Needs (pp180-183) best summarize my frustration with many of the expectations implicit in other writings. Much of my family, both chosen and biological, are educators who work with children professionally. They are seriously skilled in what they do. Being a teacher, childcare provider, or nanny is a vocation. Some of them have multiple high level degrees. Some of them are voraciously self-taught. All of them are amazing and dedicated. And all of them work in a field that is severely undervalued by capitalist society. I can’t in good conscience ask them to provide more of their undercompensated, underacknolwedged labor for free and I won’t lie to my community and myself that some random person can provide the quality childcare that the parents in this book are asking for. Given the centrality of gender and class in this book, why has this tension been left largely unaddressed? Why isn’t there more meaty mention of how undervalued caring is as a whole and tying that together?

I wouldn’t reread this book, though I might go back to a few of the pieces for reference. I don’t read autobiographic zines because I almost never enjoy them. Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind may be a good compilation of that style of writing, but it’s not the concrete guide that the subtitle implies. The book does a noteworthy job on including a wide range of perspectives and fearlessly putting forward race and class as absolutely central to understanding parenthood in our communities. There are writings by women, trans*/ gender non-conforming folk and men, both as parents and non-parent activists. Queerness and explicitly queer spaces are integrated into the book. The one demographic type hole I noticed is that most of the writings are about recent organizing. A lot of the people involved in the women’s peace/ anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s are and were parents. Childcare collectives have been sprouting up since the 1960’s. I would have liked to get some sense of the historical arch of how we make movements accessible to children and parents. It isn’t liked radicals only started having kids in the past few years. I was also somewhat surprised that there weren’t any pieces written from a grandparent’s perspective. I have no doubt that this book is a decent starting place for young activists from white, middle-class backgrounds who have done most or all of their organizing in the context of college, but if this is the best guide on making movements and communities welcoming to children and parents out there, we’re all in trouble.

In the spirit of Reading Rainbow (“don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself”): (the website for the book).

Friends of PM Press, February 2013 Edition

Today I got:

  • Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. By Staughton Lynd.
  • Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection. Edited by Jay Kinney.
  • Edge City. By Sin Soracco.
  • A History of Pan-African Revolt. By C.L.R. James. Introduction by Robin D. G. Kelley. (Reprint of the 1969 expanded edition with new introduction).

Friends of PM Press is a great way to provide reliable, sustaining support for independent press. I’ve also found it to the perfect kick in the pants to get me to read meaty, engaging political books. At as low as $25 a month, you get a whole bunch of books.

Jail Support for OWS Arrestees

Reprinted from National Lawyers Guild New York City News, Fall 2012. Available at:

“Jail support” is an umbrella term referring to various services activists provide for each other when arrested. Most of the time is means having people waiting with food, cigarettes, a friendly face, and basic medical assistance. It is a way that we take care of each other so we can come back again to make our voices heard.

I started attending protests in New York City a decade ago like many others, to oppose globalization from above,to stop unprovoked acts of war by the United States, and angry that the Republican party chose to hold their convention in NYC to further capitalize on the city and nation’s trauma. While the motivations for all of the rallies and marches were ongoing, the events themselves were finite in length, conceived and planned for that day. We went to pre-protest skill-shares, formed affinity groups, had phone check-ins with people off-site in case we all got arrested or separated, and always brought markers for writing the NLG’s phone number on our arms. Just as older activists shared this knowledge with us, we passed it along to new activists. At this time, the majority of jail support was organized by activist street medics, not legal activists.

Occupy Wall Street was different than any of that. It was spontaneous and rapid compared to anything I had experienced, with the planning and build-up taking months instead of years. People who had never been politically active heard about it and showed up without basic orientation to street activism and without people they already knew and trusted. These experiential differences combined with the nature of occupation as a tactic lead to radically different jail support needs than anything I had ever heard about, let alone experienced.

Initially, jail support shared the general spontaneity of OWS. There was a table for the legal working group in Zuccotti and jail support happened largely through word of mouth. People had effectively self-organized to meet most basic needs, like kitchen, sanitation, medical, and comfort, but jail support was always a scramble and we will never know just how many people were released without support early on. While waiting for arrestees to be released from the 7th Precinct in early October, Erick Setterlund and I sat down and started putting together a plan for a different way of responding to arrests. The three basic ideas that we started with were: remote coordination and dispatch using a Google Voice number that could be easily transferred between coordinators, premade bins of supplies with instructions so that anyone could step up to do jail support, and no meetings other than for specific, immediate planning. The goal was to make it as easy as possible to do jail support for the first time and to lower the threshold for participation. The remote coordination phone line also served as way that we could walk new people through the jail support processes and respond easily wherever and whenever the calls started coming in.

Our model diverged radically from how street medics tend to run jail support. When we found out about arrests, we sent out texts and tweets looking for volunteers, lined up coverage, stayed in contact until everyone was released, and passed legal information back to the NLG-NYC chapter office. As our relationship with the guild grew and we realized that that there was a serious lack of legal literacy, we started started seeing ourselves as activists working in resistance to the dehumanizing systems of the police state. Many people helped, but a core group of about a dozen amazing people spent an astronomical number of hours through bad weather and late into the night waiting for the release of arrestees.

Neither Erick nor I thought that we would still be coordinating jail support for OWS seven months later. Actions did not slow down significantly until the mid-winter, at which point the issue of planning for May Day already loomed large. OWS kept moving and shifting, setting up durable presences in Union Square, at Federal Hall, and outside Trinity Wall Street. Again, jail support found itself in a situation where the system needed to shift. The core jail support team went on strike, telling activists that they needed to learn and use the skills and legal knowledge we had been teaching. As we prepare for the one-year anniversary of the start of OWS, the jail support line is back up and running and we are again rethinking how to build a system that meets the needs of the movement.

As with any major projects, there were ups, downs, and notable events somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, we did really well and knew exactly where every arrestee was. Other times, there was confusion and people were released without support. Fundamentally, jail support is trying to work with a system that does not want to work with us. The NYPD learned about what we do and tried to frustrate the support and solidarity the community was offering by transferring arrestees multiple times, giving out false information on arrestee location, stonewalling lawyers and family members looking to confirm the presence of arrestees at precincts, and directly threatening, sometimes arresting, people on jail support. We also began seeing increasing usage of questioning for investigations, malicious use of psych holds, and a continued refusal to provide access to medical care for many hours or sometimes at all. These are not new behaviors for the NYPD. Many of us came from relative privilege regarding police interactions. Through jail support we saw the real impact of the NYPD’s practices.

We will need jail support as long as we have a judicial system based on a punitive model, and policing is a major means of social control of communities of color, Muslim communities, and political activists. I look forward to seeing the new ways that activists, the guild, and target communities are working together to take on a system that was not built in the public interest.