“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”
-Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s no secret that we, the people who walk around on this big, floating rock, make an incalculable number of choices in our daily lives. Most of these choices seem ordinary, and life goes on. In recent times, however, our choices as socially conscious people have noticeably higher stakes than ever before. The responsibility of our choices as people and activists is significantly more tangible.
What, then, are we to do if we want to better our situations and our neighbors’ situations? How do we begin to address the issues that affect our communities, let alone to dismantle the structures that oppress us all around the world?
Perhaps the best answer is building strong community through organizations that fight for power in our neighborhoods and workplaces, both in the United States and worldwide. This issue of the Genesee River Rebellion seeks to showcase a number of organizations in the Rochester area that are actively working to make our community a safer and freer place for everyone.
We do plenty of shit-talking. With this issue we want to share some of those things that keep us inspired to continue fighting for a better world. There are so many great things happening in our city that need your support. Here are a few we chose to highlight!
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee
The US is prone to thinking of itself as number one. We think of ourselves as providing the best health care, the best education, the best technology – even when all the evidence seems to the contrary. We are unquestionably number one when it comes to prisons. Despite being home to just one twentieth of the world population, our prisons hold one quarter of the world’s prisoners. Over 2.2 million Americans’ home address is a jail or prison. Millions more are under correctional supervision in the form of probation or parole.
The majority of these people that go through our prison system are immigrants, black people, and the poor that have committed nonviolent crimes. While in prison, they are forced to work for little to no pay while living in toxic conditions. Their exploitation does little if anything to alter the outcome of incarceration, and therefore primarily serves to gain profits for the prison industrial complex and private companies.
Because prisons have been unable to reform or rehabilitate prisoners, because they do not address the economic and social causes of crime, and most of all because prison is slavery, the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC) is committed to abolishing prisons altogether. IWOC is a committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and engages in building a union for, and solidarity with, prisoner-workers who are or have been incarcerated. Our goal is to shine light on modern-day slavery, and to uplift the voices of workers who have been trapped by the United States’ racist police-state into a cycle of slavery.
Under a Trump presidency, prison abolition is more critical than ever. Samantha, a transwoman in an Upstate NY prison, believes more people will be incarcerated. Prisons will expand even further and things will get harder for those on the inside. Tyler, a gay man incarcerated in Texas, agrees. He thinks things may well get worse for people like himself, with less chances for early release or parole, fewer programs, and more overcrowding. According to him, there will be little if any enforcement of the few laws that protect the rights of people behind bars as budgets are cut and resources diminish.
Indeed, Trump’s executive order regarding immigration and his racist-since-Nixon commitment to “law and order” indicate that prisons will expand, and the conditions in those prisons will further deteriorate. To begin with, Trump’s promise to deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants will increase the number of immigrants detained in ICE detention facilities for indefinite periods of time.
Additionally, Trump has made clear that he favors privatization, and on the day of his election private prison stocks soared. Private prisons create incentives to arrest more people and hold them for longer, because they are paid on a per-prisoner basis. Further, private prisons maximize profit by spending less on resources like decent food and sanitation, meaning that conditions for inmates in those facilities are often even worse than the shitty conditions of publicly owned state and federal prisons.
Furthermore, Trump is also dedicated to revamping the so-called “war on drugs”, and singing the praises of broken windows policing practices like stop and frisk. Where Obama and his administration were interested in at least slowing the expansion of our massive prisoner population, Trump seems poised to set back the clock to Bill Clinton’s administration in the 90’s by criminalizing and locking up even more people.
Based on his rhetoric about crime in inner cities, combined with his selection of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, support for privatization, and commitment to mass deportations, it seems reasonable to assume that not only will the prison population grow, it will grow even more disproportionately black and brown.
Because of the labor conditions in prisons, a larger prison population also means a larger population living in slavery in the United States. Inmates work in a wide range of industries including agriculture, assembly, manufacturing, producing items for the military, and call centers. Most inmates work jobs that operate the prison itself, such as kitchen staff or porters.
In exchange for their toil, inmates are compensated with just $0.40 to $1.15 an hour; and in states like Texas and Georgia, they are not compensated at all. When an inmate can’t make enough to pay for price-gouged commissary items like phone-calls to family, or sanitary products, or fees just to speak to a medical professional, it’s easy to imagine how an already terrible situation can quickly escalate to an abjectly cruel one.
If prisons were an effective way of addressing crime in our communities, there would be no need for our exploding prison population. With so many behind bars, we should have eliminated crime by now. Prisons, instead, have become a big business that makes a profit through slavery.
Abolition contends that prisons are not the answer. It imagines an alternative that starts with addressing the root causes of harm to the community – like poverty and lack of education – and says that community-based solutions will be more effective than simply locking people away. Like the abolitionists of the antebellum era, 21st century abolitionists envision a society and an economy that doesn’t depend on slave labor to survive.
Our comrades in the Fight for 15 and a Union movement fight against worker exploitation outside of prison, and our comrades in the Black Lives Matter movement fight brutal police which put people in prison. IWOC stands with them by organizing resistance inside prisons to fight the same state which oppresses us all. We connect directly with people behind the wall through regular correspondence. Our firm belief is that it is through them that we stand the best chance of abolishing the carceral state and moving towards true liberation for all.
The energy generated in response to Trump’s win presents us with an opportunity to educate and bring new people into our efforts. If we can capture this energy, a new world without prisons is possible.
To join us in destroying slavery once and for all, please join our local IWOC chapter on the first and third Thursdays of each month at the Flying Squirrel Community Space at 285 Clarissa St. in Rochester, NY.
Remember back in 2008 when years of massively corrupt banking practices finally imploded the world economy? One of the major results of that moment was an unprecedented foreclosure and eviction crisis, something that Rochester didn’t escape.
Over the course of only a few years, hundreds of thousands of houses across the United States went into foreclosure. While many homeowners were evicted by the banks that now claimed ownership of their homes, there were also many tenants evicted simply renting from a landlord that ended up in foreclosure.
As that crisis hit, many groups throughout the nation popped up calling for an end to the evictions and for housing to be an acknowledged human right. In Rochester, Take Back the Land was the key group helping to organize those facing eviction to stay in their homes. They’ve led multiple blockades against evictions, gained national attention for the struggle, and halted many evictions.
In the last few months, they’ve begun proposing an exciting new venture in the fight to make housing a human right – a citywide Tenants Union! Think about it. A body of people that can collectively force shady landlords into respecting the dignity of their tenants. An organization that can actually help us negotiate rent prices, rather than be stuck with ever increasing “market-rate” rents. A group that can wipe that smug hipster look off that slumlord-fuck Lyjah Wilton’s face.
In addition to the inspiring work that Take Back the Land has already done, they’re helping propel Rochester’s movements forward by their proposal for a citywide Tenants Union. With tens of thousands of tenants across the county, it’s amazing that an organization doesn’t exist already that helps offensively assert the interests of these people.
This is a great organizational style that can help do some amazing things in the short-term. Tenants Unions can prevent unjust evictions, reduce absurd rent, win back stolen security deposits, ensure reasonably well-kept apartments, and much more.
But a Tenants Union is more than that. It also has the long-term ability to change the exploitative dynamic between landlord and tenant. It gives working class and poor people some control over a major part of their life. It provides a clear path forward to housing being a real human right. It’s a way of building the new world in the shell of the old.
As anarchists, we look forward to the day when there are no longer landlords, but instead organizations like Tenants Unions democratically controlling the housing stock of our city and world. We don’t simply want to stand up against the vampires that suck wealth out of our communities, we want to end the exploitation as a whole. Tenants Unions offer that possibility. So go get involved.
Fight for $15 and a Union
“I am involved in the Fight for $15 and a Union because living in poverty has been an ongoing thing in my family. Generation after generation has had to struggle even when we are hard workers. I have a 5 month old now; one of my jobs as her mother is to ensure she has a fantastic future filled with every opportunity she could ever possibly want, and the Fight for $15 is a great start for that.”
Alexsandra’s story is a common one among the nearly 3.8 million people working in fast food in the US. She’s a Puerto Rican working mother who’s been working in low-wage fast food and retail in Rochester for years. Like her, a large proportion of fast food workers are of color, are women, and are parents raising families working full time or overtime. Yet, these workers still struggle to afford rent, food, basic healthcare, school supplies, and accumulate any significant savings.
Stephen Easterbrook, the CEO of McDonalds, “earns” nearly $8 million a year just for collecting profits and mastubating into french fry containers. Meanwhile, thousands of his employees have no healthcare benefits, retirement plans, paid sick leave, or even consistent work hours. It’s a jarring consequence of capitalism that must be challenged.
That’s why Alexsandra and hundreds of thousands of fast food workers all over the country are uniting in the Fight for $15 and a Union: to demand the living wage their work deserves, power, and therefore respect in their workplaces, and an end to the degradation of their families’ livelihoods for generations to come.
Metro Justice began organizing the Fight for $15 and a Union in Rochester in 2014. Three years later, fast food workers have gone on five strikes and lead numerous marches and rallies, all with the solidarity of hundreds of Metro Justice members and community allies like Rochester Black Rose. The most inspiring aspect of this movement? Workers are winning!
Governor Cuomo’s desperate attempts to be politically significant aside, it was the direct action of fast food workers that won an incremental minimum wage raise to $15 an hour by 2021. In response to this victory, Jill Tobin, a volunteer organizer with Metro Justice’s Fight for 15 Community Solidarity Committee, says “The most inspiring thing about the Fight for $15 is that it has worked. Workers risk harassment from their bosses, they risk being fired illegally, they risk judgement from their communities. They are brave enough to stand up anyways. Ultimately their courage and sacrifice won hundreds of thousands of folks a living wage. What that says to me is that the sweat and blood it takes to organize a movement is worth it.”
More recently, waves of protests and a scathing media campaign lead by Hardee’s workers, and joined by other fast food workers, caused Andy Puzder to take a well-deserved walk of shame far away from the labor secretary cabinet seat.
These victories make it clear that in the midst of a political system that cannot be trusted to represent the interest of the masses, popular movements are the most effective force to achieve social and economic justice. Currently, Trump is intent on eroding nearly all social, environmental, and labor protections one sociopathic tweet at a time, with legislative aid from his demonic lair of bumbling cabinet appointments.
The Trump administration is not going to back down. We as workers and a community should make it clearer everyday that neither are we. Workers need a living wage now, not in 2021, and workers need meaningful unions.
The Fight for $15 and a Union, both in Rochester and on a national level, is not only organizing fast food workers, but also building bridges between other low-wage worker movements and racial justice movements. While there are nearly 3.8 million workers in fast food, there are millions more working for poverty wages in other industries who also deserve better. In that spirit, The Low Wage Worker Table in Rochester brings fast food workers at Metro Justice together with dairy farm workers, taxi drivers at Workers United, the Rochester Worker Center, and UR adjuncts at SEIU Local 200 to organize in solidarity.
On April 4, Metro Justice and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists led a march and town hall where hundreds of people said that racial justice is economic justice. On May 1, the Low Wage Worker Table in Rochester hosted a festival of resistance in which local artists, educators, and social justice organizations came together to explore the intersections of labor and cultural heritage in order to model a better future.
“If low wage workers earning poverty wages, just scraping by every month, can amass a movement strong enough to win, then none of us have an excuse to not join them,” remarked Tobin. When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? We stand up, we fight back, and then we win.
Metro Justice is a progressive organization in Rochester that’s involved in a lot of important fights. Rochester Black Rose has joined or supported several MJ campaigns, particularly the Fight for $15. Whether you’re looking for the biggest group of progressives in town, or just the most tenacious one – Metro Justice is where you should start.
It started in 1965, as Friends of FIGHT. FIGHT was a black freedom organization formed after the uprising in Rochester. Metro Justice has since led and participated in many struggles over the years from anti-segregation work, to Latin America solidarity, sweatshop-free campaigns, stopping nuclear power, and opposing war.
“Metro Justice is an organization of individuals coming from a diverse array of political experiences and perspectives. Members have joined from a variety of political, economic and social backgrounds and have sought different levels of participation within the organization. There is no specific ‘guiding ideological framework,’ nor do we have allegiance to a specific political party or tendency.” – Metro Justice Theory of Change Document
Metro Justice is funded by membership dues, not by foundations or the government. Hang around Metro Justice folks, and it shouldn’t be too long until you hear a story about one or another politician threatening to cut off their funding for bothering them on issues, only to find out that they’re from Metro Justice and the politician can’t do shit.
Metro Justice is a democratic organization. That democracy starts with the annual membership meeting. Members are in charge of approving the organization’s budget, and determining long-term strategy. All members have an equal voice in debates and an equal vote. The membership also elects the Council that governs the organization year-round. Denise Young is currently President of that Council.
In 2017, the membership adopted a new Strategic Plan. In it, MJ clarifies its current thinking on some basic political questions and then lays out what needs doing. Black Rose supports the Strategic Plan, and we look forward to building social movements alongside our Metro Justice allies.
MJ’s plan is based on a class struggle organizing model that challenges white supremacy. Given that Rochester still ranks among the poorest cities in the US, the following excerpt is particularly noteworthy: “Poverty and all its resulting consequences are the product of wealth inequality and exploitation. They are not accidents or failures of our economic system, they are the natural consequence…. Poor and working class people should understand and assert their own interests, which are usually in direct contradiction to those of the elite, wealthy, and politically powerful.”
In keeping with the legacy of Friends of FIGHT, MJ believes in challenging white supremacy: “History has demonstrated time and again that the heaviest blows of crises fall upon communities of color. And the leadership of persons of color in building fightbacks and progressive initiatives has been a source of inspiration and emulation. While the leadership of communities of color in defeating white supremacy is critical, white people – particularly the white working class – must recognize both their responsibility and self-interest in combating white supremacy and institutionalized racism.”
Another key to MJ’s strategy is to organize around what it calls the “Revolutionary Edge of Reform.” That means using each fight to setup the next one and undermining the power of the elites over time while building our own. “Because we don’t simply fight for the sake of immediate victories, but for the purposes of building power of our own organizations, we engage in the legislative arena with hesitation.” Metro Justice does not endorse political candidates.
Besides the Fight for $15, MJ is fighting on several fronts. The Metro Justice Education Committee’s work combatting the school-to-prison pipeline continues to impress. MJ Healthcare is leading the fight to win Medicare for All across NYS. When ICE was trying to kidnap a family from Geneseo, Metro Justice mobilized to stop them. MJ also has a Climate Change Committee, and an Elder Justice Committee.
If you’re still kinda new, or not sure where to go or what to do with your political energy – check out Metro Justice. You can join online for as little as $5/month.
Black Rose Anarchist Federation
In an effort to avoid humble-bragging about ourselves, we’ll just come right out and say it: Black Rose is pretty damn cool!
Despite being the coolest, there are a lot of unfortunate misconceptions and misunderstandings about what we do and what we’re about. So let’s clear it up.
The Black Rose Anarchist Federation is a nationwide organization that proudly stands by our political, social, economic views of anarchism. We are an ideological organization, meaning much of our focus is holding and developing a deeply thought-out worldview and the strategies about how we can get to that world.
In the era of Trump, having organizations with big ideas is important. When we talk about resistance to Trump, what does that resistance look like? What exactly about Trump and his agenda are we resisting? Are we simply resisting Trump, or does it go beyond him? If we could wave a magic wand and change everything, how would we change it?
This is all especially important given the shifting sands of ideology underneath all of us now. There are what seem like new ideologies emerging and the stances you would often expect from the mainstream political parties seem to shift just as quickly as everything else.
To actually start deconstructing the dominant ideologies at play in the United States is going to be critical, but difficult work. Our country has such a long history of being opposed to expressed ideology. Having a clear ideology is equated with dogmatism and fanaticism.
We’re supposed to look at the world without any ideology or framework of thinking. We’re supposed to be “neutral.” Most opinions are issue-by-issue instead of based on any long-term outlook. In fact, we are dogmatically anti-ideology. This has serious consequences because the dominant ideologies of those in power often pass themselves off as “common sense.”
Without a real understanding of those ideologies already at play, we risk getting manipulated by them. For instance, real life fascists are running around the country organizing rallies for “free speech.” Fascism is ideologically against free speech. But the far right has discovered that they can manipulate an ideologically inconsistent liberal population into supporting the growth of their hateful movement by crying foul.
For this and many other reasons, the Black Rose Anarchist Federation works to develop a clear outlook on the world around us to share with the growing resistance movement. In confusing and rapidly changing times, it’s easy to get led astray if you don’t know where you’re going in the first place.
With this role in mind, Black Rose can help a growing resistance avoid becoming just a series of reaction protests to whatever stupid-ass thing the Trump administration does or says today. Instead, we can focus on building a world where the ignorance, racism, and misogyny of the Trump agenda have no place. We can do more than resist. We can win.